The OnMilwaukee.com Summer Festivals Guide is presented by Pick 'n Save, Where Wisconsin Saves on Groceries. Pick 'n Save is Wisconsin proud, and excited to help promote and feed the great Milwaukee summer that includes festivals and fun nearly every day. Click to save here!
It’s true. I hate Summerfest. Now that it’s over for the year, I feel I can say that, and I can try to explain why.
I mean, I love the idea of Summerfest, sure. For example, when people learn I am from Milwaukee and ask why ("What the heck is there in Milwaukee?" they want to know), Summerfest is right up there on my list of brags about this town.
"It’s the world’s largest music festival!" I exclaim. "This year, we had the Rolling Stones and Ed Sheeran and 600 reasonably good American bands, too!" Where else on the planet can a person see everyone from Neil Young and Kendrick Lamar to Comedy Sportz and Mike Mangione in the same place? You can’t. There’s just nothing else like it on the planet.
This never fails to impress people, the idea that you can pay 15 bucks (or zero bucks with cans of food or whatever) and see a bazillion different bands every day – many of them famous or talented or both – plus access to food, games, comedy, so so much beer and more. Here, in Milwaukee. That’s pretty amazing.
I’ve even been to Summerfest a number of times myself since moving here because it is, in fact, mind-blowingly awesome to go and sit – or, rather, stand; if you’ve been there you know what I mean – and hear four bands in a row that I love while eating funnel cake after funnel cake. I wouldn’t necessarily call that my idea of heaven, but it’s pretty close.
But I didn’t go this year. Or last year. Or for quite a few years before that. I actually wracked my brain all week before writing this column to try to remember when the last time I went was, and I think it was 2007, when I in fact did sit – well, stand – through four acts in a row on one stage: local legend John Sieger, Ryan Bingham, Old 97s and Son Volt (I do not remember how many funnel cakes I ate, though).
The rise of social media since then makes it easier for me to experience Summerfest vicariously through my friends. My Facebook feed the other night seemed to be equal parts Weird Al and Avett Brothers, which was an odd combination – and also uniquely Summerfest.
That vicariousness lets me avoid the things about Summerfest that make me hate it. Now, I know I am about to slip into my full "old man yells at cloud" mode here, but I feel like I have a reasonable case to make, so bear with me please.
The big thing for me is that, in my experience, people don’t go to Summerfest to listen to music. Yes, they go to hear music, but the Summerfest grounds are not exactly designed as a listening room, where the craft of music-making and songwriting is the focus of the experience. And while Paris Hilton playing DJ or Sammy Hagar doing whatever he does nowadays hardly qualifies as "craft," every year there’s a handful of acts or more I would like to go and pay attention to but can’t.
Summerfest makes it very easy to have a good time, and I don’t begrudge the people there enjoying the heck out of the Big Gig. I know they are having a good time from all the wooing and screaming in my ear, spilling beer on me and shoving in between me and my wife on the bleachers even though we had these seats for two hours and had to put up with Mrs. Fun first, oh my god make it stop.
Summerfest just doesn’t make it easy to pay attention, to watch and enjoy musicians at the top of their game making great music.
Luckily, Milwaukee is full of venues completely unlike Summerfest where a person like me can go and sit – yes! sit! – and listen. For example, last night I sat Anodyne Coffee in Walker’s Point where Milwaukee singer-songwriter Peter Mulvey joined three of his friends for an in-the-round songwriters’ show. There was no funnel cakes, but there was also no screaming, no shoving and no masses of sweaty people there to party rather than appreciate the craft on display.
You can get the same experience all over Milwaukee the other 354 non-Summerfest days a year too, from big names at The Pabst Theatre to local talent at farmers markets, from Shank Hall to Bremen Cafe. As much as I use Summerfest to brag on Milwaukee, the truth is that this place is a great town for people who love to listen good music just as much as it is home to the world’s largest music festival. If your experience of music in Milwaukee is limited to Summerfest, you’re missing out on what makes Milwaukee truly exceptional.
Am I telling you not to go to Summerfest? Of course not! Go for it; you and your friends can keep jostling and drinking and screaming and standing on the bleachers, and you’re welcome to enjoy it all you want without me. But bring me back a funnel cake, if you can, because I’ll be getting my music fix somewhere else.