Two major summer festivals around the Midwest are in the books. Summerfest wrapped up with a pop-country bang thanks to Sugarland, and Dave Matthews Band brought its brand-spanking-new Caravan tour to Chicago for the second of four stops.
Both festivals had a lot to offer and both were great successes. There can be only one winner, however, in the festival smackdown to end all festival smackdowns, Summerfest vs. Caravan. The festivals are judged on 10 equally weighted criteria: food, beer, parking, restrooms, security, music, venue, location, people-watching and value. Any draws will be counted as a win for both festivals.
Summerfest continually offers new vendors, and almost all of the vendors serve up at least a couple options that could be considered great. Caravan, on the other hand, had more limited options but everything looked really great. The mustard-fried catfish was particularly exceptional and Connie's deep-dish pizza was better than I expected from festival pizza.
Summerfest brought way more options to the table, though, and variety is the spice of life. Assuming quality and price are draws – which they are – variety is what sets Summerfest apart.
Every DMB concert I've been to serves Anheuser-Busch products. Summerfest serves MillerCoors-distributed products including Leinenkugel. Caravan tries to make a comeback in the beer category by offering Dos Equis, but this is one of the easiest categories to judge.
Summerfest has a multitude of parking options around the grounds, from street parking to public parking garages and the infamous "Lot P." Those options can be expensive, and in the case of street parking, difficult to find. Caravan provided secure parking for 30,000 cars in a rough, unpaved field, and while tailgating was officially prohibited, the DMB faithful were undeterred and parking officials were gracious enough to allow it anyways. Oh yeah, and Caravan parking was free.
This is almost the opposite of the parking situation. Summerfest is $15 to get in, maximum. If you're paying attention, you can get in for free (or at a steep discount) almost every day. Summerfest admission only gets out of hand if you're looking to see a headliner at the Marcus Amphitheater. Even then, Summerfest general admission is included. Caravan was $85 for a one-day pass and $195 (plus a laundry list of fees) for a three-day pass. Sure, Caravan includes the headliner and free parking, which makes up some of the difference, but it's just not enough.
Caravan offered free filtered water stations for those that brought their own bottle, but the stations were too limited and lines could take over an hour to get through. What Caravan gives in parking and water, it takes back in upfront costs.
An undoubtedly important subject considering how long people are at these festivals at a given time, Caravan had only Porta-Johns, but they had enough of them that the lines were never outrageous. While the lines at Summerfest can get lengthy, they're rarely unreasonable, and they have permanent fixtures. That's a big plus.
Summerfest has a security team that is effective but inflexible. Many of them are part-time, or college students looking for a few extra bucks. They do their best, but have been known to enjoy their position of power, so to speak. Conversely, Caravan organized security through the surrounding neighborhood and parking fields with the Chicago Transit Authority and hired a full-time security team to police the festival grounds. 3S Security, as a group, was a great security team. Understanding the atmosphere of the venue, they were firm but fair and would make frequent water runs for those camping out at the front of the main South Works stage all day.
Obviously music is the most subjective category to judge. Summerfest truly offers something for everyone while Caravan focuses much more on one specific audience, the jam-band fan.
Milwaukee resident and UWM student Rob Schroder summed up the Caravan-goer's music choices best.
"Summerfest obviously has more variety," said Schroder. "That's awesome if you're into that, which I'm obviously not."
Caravan definitely has a niche, and they played to it better than any festival I can remember. The Flaming Lips did an amazing rendition of Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon" that included lead singer Wayne Coyne crowd-surfing in an inflatable bubble. While The Flaming Lips also played at Summerfest, their "Dark Side" tribute must be seen in person.
Admittedly, I'm a major Dave Matthews Band fan, but I hold their performances to a different standard than any other band I see. Friday's set was strong, particularly when the band played "Joyride" for the first time since the summer of 2006, but I felt like I had heard that show many times before. It was solid but unremarkable for a band I consider the epitome of the live performance.
Saturday night was a performance for couples with a lot of love songs and jazzy jams. It was understandable considering the oppressive heat and a number of the band members having played multiple shows that day. Lead guitarist Tim Reynolds was on his third show of the day, having played with his trio, TR3, to open the festival for the day and also performed a fantastic acoustic set with Dave Matthews in the afternoon.
Sunday, however, was the best concert I've ever been to. The band, as a whole, hasn't rocked harder in the eight shows I've seen and they reached into the "way-back" machine to please the diehards in attendance. The show ended with a rip-roaring cover of Sly and The Family Stone's "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)" and included the strongest, funkiest jam of the entire festival. Thanks to YouTube user rtponder for sharing the video below with us. The video contains the final verse of the song and the final jam. Fast forward to 3:00 for the jam, but I strongly recommend watching the entirety of the video. Disclaimer: There's a moment of strong language near the 3:55 mark.
Winner: Caravan, thanks to Sunday's DMB performance.
Caravan was the first event held at the Lakeside location since the U.S. Steel plant that used to occupy the area closed in 1992. The site remained a vacant eyesore for the better part of 20 years and when Jam Productions teamed up with Live Nation and Dave Matthews Band to select a site, they chose to renovate and recycle the U.S. Steel site. Being the first event held at the site, there were some growing pains for Caravan. Parking was about a 20-minute walk from the festival gate, I counted three picnic tables throughout the entire festival grounds, and shade was at a premium on the oppressively hot weekend.
Summerfest, on the other hand, has a 43-year head start on Caravan and a permanent fixture on Milwaukee's lakeshore. There's nothing else like it, and they keep making it better every year. Summerfest takes this round definitively, but rest assured that if Caravan continues after this year, ground will be made up.
Summerfest: picturesque views of Milwaukee almost any direction you look. A spot so close to Lake Michigan that it's almost never "too hot." The biggest perk of Summerfest's location is the easy highway access that makes coming and going a breeze.
Caravan: A newly renovated vacant lot with no easy way to get there and a drive through a sketchy neighborhood from any direction you're coming. The grounds themselves ended up in a dust storm thanks to the foot traffic from the thousands of attendees.
Another tough category to judge. The two festivals cater to vastly different groups, for the most part. Both festivals have some of the best people watching you could ask for, though. This one is too close to call.
With a score of 7-4, Summerfest takes the victory in the inaugural Summer Music Festival Smackdown. Objectively, Summerfest is almost impossible to beat. Its effective permanence in the Milwaukee landscape gives it an advantage over almost any festival.
Subjectively, however, with performances like the ones Caravan offered up, from The Flaming Lips, Ben Folds and four shows (including the Dave and Tim acoustic set) from Dave Matthews, you'll find me at Caravan every time. Given a few years to work the kinks out, I expect future Smackdowns to be considerably closer competitions.
Thankfully, there's room in the summer to enjoy both festivals.
Caravan was undeniably leaps and bounds better than Summerfest ever has been or ever will be. Summerfest continues to draw amateurs that urinate in their empty cups and toss them on the ground after their eaten up corn cobs and used up dinner plates as they all jam together uncomfortably en masse. I can't tell you the number of times I step in gum at Summerfest and kick cups around covering my feet in beer and sometimes even the likes of pasta sauce. Ive also been in situations on the bleachers (not opportune nor safe to balance on to watch any show whilst standing) and the paths between turn into a littered trip zone of under agers begging the 20 somethings to get them more beer as their girlfriends vomit) where I have been doused with spilled beer and burned by cigarettes some of which has been done most intentionally. Now needless to say, I navigated some serious moon rocks at the Caravan and left extremely dirty (from naturally occurring circumstances I must add) but not once did I have issue with a disrespectful raucous crowd or peoples reckless littering. Everyone at Summerfest is out for themselves; everyone at the Caravan is in it together.
As far as the beer comment I would have to attest that the Caravans selection of wine, beer and champagne gave Summerfest a huge run for its money; obviously this guy never found that gem area where they served well over 30 craft beers and wine via the ticket system inclusive of the ability to get 3oz samples before you buy and please note this selection is not even including the Dos, Bud Lime, Bud Light and Budweiser available in both cans or tap to your preference.
Finally youre not even comparing apples to apples here since Summerfest has permanent grounds and the Caravan was a self-sufficient city that sprung up for a mere 3 days.
Youre review = Epic Fail
Great review! I went to both and had a great time. The four main detractions from Caravan were 1) Price! Ticket was expensive and Chi is expensive! 2) Venue was dirty, dry, and odd. 3) Unless you drove, getting there and back was a major undertaking. 4) IT WAS IN THE GHETTO! And I mean the serious houses-are-boarded-up-neighbors-look-scared-of-us kind of ghetto. The police coptors overhead were a nice touch!
However, the lineups were amazing and you got over it once you were in there! Each day had a major stand-out act besides Dave. Friday: OAR. Saturday: Umphrey's McGee (heard Kid Cudi was great too). Sunday: Flaming Lips. Dave's best set was for sure Sunday!
If Caravan happens again (or any festival at this venue) and they make some big strides forward with transportation etc., I'll be back!
The 10:00 headliners at SFest this year were great. However, all the earlier acts were obscure or unappealing. There wasn't a single day where I wanted to see more than 1 or 2 bands. Black Keys were the only Marcus band to take note of. Caravan: win!
I didnt go so can't comment, but isn't the Caravan thing just a one time thing this year at 4 different locations? Rumor has it DMB will do one more full tour next year - return to Alpine Valley hopefully - then call it quits. But that rumor has been out there for years.
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