Over the weekend, I spent four great days in Memphis, Tenn., in part to take in the 2014 Beale Street Music Festival. I had a great time in the city, but it reinforced just how special Summerfest is as a music event.
On a cultural level, Milwaukee can't match Memphis in a few ways. We can't match the history of the blues, soul and rock and roll that Sun City and Stax Records have. The National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Hotel, where Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered, is moving. There is nothing like Graceland.
And of course, there isn't anything like Memphis barbecue here.
But when it comes to festivals, the Beale Street event made me (once again) realize how good we have it here in Milwaukee at Summerfest.
General admission tickets are three to four times cheaper at the Big Gig. While there are no secondary stages that require special ticketing, like the BMO Harris Pavilion and the Marcus Amphitheater, the grounds were small and contained three "big" stages with only one additional "blues" stage.
Like Summerfest, the organizers at Beale Street booked a diverse lineup, ranging from Snoop Lion to Kid Rock to Patti LaBelle to Pretty Lights to Anthrax and a group called The String Cheese Incident.
But, the event was contained to the evening and into the late night (though I did appreciate the ability to stay real late with some acts opening up after midnight on Friday and Saturday). A friend we traveled with remembered her first trip to Beale Street when it rained for three days, which got messy on the grass-covered grounds. So, having a paved surface to walk around here is an underrated amenity.
While the food was good (and there were several vegetarian options), someone who's been to Summerfest for eight years gets kind of spoiled with all of the food stands on the grounds, not to mention bathrooms that aren't portable.
One thing that did stand out was the lack of violence in the crowd. Not a year goes by that I haven't seen at least one nasty fistfight (or worse) at Summerfest, and no such tempers flared in Memphis.
Even post-festival on Beale Street, which is closed off to vehicles, people got along fabulously as they were allowed to spill out of the bars with their cocktails (now, your ID was checked to get onto the street and you were wanded). It was a great, incredibly diverse, scene of people milling around and enjoying the warm weather and cold beverages: it was like a hulked out Water Street.
The downtown area around Beale Street could be a good example for some in Milwaukee to look at. It cost us $10 to park in one of the many garages just a few blocks from the festival, and then the $2 (round trip, if needed) streetcar was incredibly convenient to use once the legs got tired. The arena where the Memphis Grizzlies play was around the corner from the fun of Beale Street.
It was a great experience all around. I not only recommend going to experience it all yourself, but I'd go back and do it again. That said, it'll also throw into sharper focus how good we have it here on the lakefront during those 11 days in the summer.
Jim Owczarski is an award-winning sports journalist and comes to Milwaukee by way of the Chicago Sun-Times Media Network.
A three-year Wisconsin resident who has considered Milwaukee a second home for the better part of seven years, he brings to the market experience covering nearly all major and college sports.
To this point in his career, he has been awarded six national Associated Press Sports Editors awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, breaking news and projects. He is also a four-time nominee for the prestigious Peter J. Lisagor Awards for Exemplary Journalism, presented by the Chicago Headline Club, and is a two-time winner for Best Sports Story. He has also won numerous other Illinois Press Association, Illinois Associated Press and Northern Illinois Newspaper Association awards.
Jim's career started in earnest as a North Central College (Naperville, Ill.) senior in 2002 when he received a Richter Fellowship to cover the Chicago White Sox in spring training. He was hired by the Naperville Sun in 2003 and moved on to the Aurora Beacon News in 2007 before joining OnMilwaukee.com.
In that time, he has covered the events, news and personalities that make up the PGA Tour, LPGA Tour, Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Hockey League, NCAA football, baseball and men's and women's basketball as well as boxing, mixed martial arts and various U.S. Olympic teams.
Golf aficionados who venture into Illinois have also read Jim in GOLF Chicago Magazine as well as the Chicago District Golfer and Illinois Golfer magazines.