By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Sep 17, 2021 at 11:58 PM

On Friday night, pop superstar Miley Cyrus took the stage at the American Family Insurance Amphitheater to help put an exclamation point on the first Summerfest in two years.

The festival wraps Saturday night with a main stage performance by Guns ‘N’ Roses.

(PHOTO: Brianna Griepentrog)

The show was Cyrus’ fourth in Milwaukee – the first at a venue other than the now-demolished Bradley Center – and her first since 2014.

At a Summerfest more crowded than I’ve seen so far this year, the one-time “Hannah Montana” star soared through a set that mixed hits from across her 15-year career with a clutch of tunes from her latest record, 2020’s “Plastic Hearts.”

Had I been paying more attention in recent years, I’d have better realized that Cyrus has long since morphed from the sugary pop of “Party in the USA” to rock diva, with a churning hard rocking band providing support.

(PHOTO: Brianna Griepentrog)

Taking cues from giants like Tina Turner and Debbie Harry and The Runaways, Cyrus adds a dose of sheen to their edginess. After a long pause between songs, she reported, “I was just touching up my face” – something one can hardly imagine a Joan Jett ever doing or saying onstage.

Cyrus’ choice of covers at the show read like a business plan for her rocker aspirations: Blondie’s “Heart of Glass,” Janis Joplin’s “Maybe” – her solid rendition of this bluesy gem was a highlight – and Stevie Nicks’ “Edge of Midnight,” which seems a natural choice given the similarities between Nicks’ and Cyrus’ gravelly growls.

Bolstering her rock cred, Cyrus interpolated The Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind” and Sinead O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares to U” into some of her tunes on Friday.

Cyrus was working hard across the roughly 90-minute set, playing tunes like  “WTF Do I Know” and “Gimme What I Want,” from the new record, adding in a cover of Mark Ronson’s “Nothing Breaks Like a Heart,” and dosing the eager crowd with earlier hits like “Can’t Be Tamed,” “We Can’t Stop,” “Malibu” and, of course, “Wrecking Ball” and “Party in the U.S.A.,” which closed out the night.

Miley Cyrus crowd.
(PHOTO: Ty Helbach)

That crowd – which while not likely full capacity, must have been at least fairly close – was on its feet the entire time, often singing along. As you’d expect, that group chant reached its crescendo during “Party in the U.S.A.”

Early on in the set, Cyrus ruminated aloud on the challenges everyone has faced over the past 18 months and admitted that she was as affected by the isolation as anyone. The inability to perform for crowds due to the shutdown, she added, made her carefully consider the timing of the release “Plastic Hearts.”

In fact, a couple songs after there had been a long pause, with the stage lights remaining low for an unusually lengthy stretch, Cyrus explained that she’d felt a panic attack coming on and taken a moment to talk it out with a longtime bandmate.

The singer controlled her anxiety well, it seems, because she appeared comfortable performing and addressing the crowd, which – other than some disappointing loud chatter from rowdier fans while Cyrus was pouring her heart out – made its admiration clear.

Among the many gifts fans tossed onstage was a Hannah Montana T-shirt that Cyrus donned before departing. As she left, she said, "Best concert ever!"

In the end Cyrus put on a solid, high-energy show that gave her audience exactly what it came for and it appeared everyone – Cyrus included – had a blast.

Rapper Wiz Khalifa opened the show after being an 11th hour addition to the bill replacing Australian hip-hopper The Kid LAROI who canceled and nearly concurrently announced a major world tour of his own.

Wiz Khalifa
(PHOTO: Ty Helbach)

The U.S. dates of the tour – which will stop at The Rave in February – reportedly all sold out in under four minutes.

Khalifa played to a huge crowd at the Harley-Davidson Roadhouse (now the Generac Power Stage) at Summerfest in 2011, and returned to Milwaukee once more, in 2014, for the 103.7 KISSmas Bash 2014 at the Eagles Ballroom.

His 40-minute set – peppered with frequent references to how much he loves to smoke herb and get stoned – was rich in dirty beats and thundering bass and, again, the crowd was eagerly along for the ride, singling alone on “Young, Wild & Free” and “See You Again,” with pre-recorded vocals by Charlie Puth.

“There’s so much love in here tonight,” Khalifa mused.

Khalifa, who performed with Cyrus onstage recently at Lollapalooza, returned during the headlining set to duet with Miley on “23.”

Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.

He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.

With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.

He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.

In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.

He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.