I declared a long time ago that I wouldn’t ever go to Summerfest just to go – to be one of those people who attends the Big Gig strictly for socializing or downing $5 beers. For me, there always had to be at least one band to suck me in during the 11 days that defines the Milwaukee summer.
This year, try as I might, I couldn’t find that “must not miss” show.
On opening night Thursday, I planned on seeing my all-time favorite band, the Violent Femmes. But the show started at 11 p.m. on a “school night,” and I’ve seen the trio probably 20 times. Add in the fact that it’s now pretty evident that they hate each others’ guts – and I realized a few hours before show time, that I was, in fact, planning to go to Summerfest just to go to Summerfest. So I punted and stayed home.
Which brings us to Friday night. My wife, who claims she has better taste in music than I do – and in some cases, she’s right – was jazzed to see Shiny Toy Guns and Silversun Pickups. Around the office, people told me that the band before, Headlights, was another worth seeing.
So I decided that going to Summerfest, even tepidly, beat not going to Summerfest. Maybe I could expand my horizons a bit. So I went.
Walking in the gate, it felt like putting on a old shoe. The annual traditions came flooding back. Instinctively, I made a beeline for the corn stand. Then the mozzarella sticks at Saz’s. Then I stopped over at the Miller Lite Oasis, to say howdy to Brian Miller (sound board story with him runs on Monday). Then I grabbed a quick beer and went straight to the U.S. Cellular Stage to find the perfect seat for the evening’s musical entertainment.
Along the way, we ran into about eight people we knew – I set the line at 5.5 acquaintances, so the “over” won the gentlemen’s bet between my better half and myself.
Once seated, it felt like every other Summerfest for as long as I could remember, with a few minor changes. I enjoyed the text message gimmick, though none of my quips ever made it onto the big board. The biggest difference was my utter indifference to the bands preparing to take the stage. Never before had I spent four hours on an uncomfortable bleacher seat waiting for a band with whom I was not familiar with a single song.
I did enjoy Headlights. They reminded me a bit of the Breeders. The next band cancelled unexpectedly, leaving Milwaukee’s own Codebreaker to fill in. It wasn’t a great venue for this electronica act, and it showed. Finally, Silversun Pickups took the stage at 10 p.m. They smacked of the Smashing Pumpkins, and held my attention for several songs, though I’ve never been one to sit through a concert where I wasn’t familiar with a band’s body of work. In a nutshell, I wasn’t blow away, but it certainly beat a sharp stick in the eye.
Like many things in life, the evening reminded me of a “Simpsons” episode, in which Homer tells a rotting sub sandwich, “Oh, I could never stay mad a you.” In other words, even when I went to Summerfest just to stop feeling bad about not going to Summerfest, I had a good time.
It’ll hardly rank as a “best ever” moment, but being part of a defining Milwaukee experience has value unto its own. I plan on returning on Monday and Thursday, at the least, and I expect to be a little wistful when the Big Gig wraps up next Sunday.
This is the stuff that we live for in Milwaukee, and I’ll be damned if I ever miss a year for any reason like “the bands didn’t inspire me.” Good, bad or ugly, Summerfest is Milwaukee. Which means I’ll be there with a big smile on my face each and every season – at best, rocking out to my favorite bands; at worst, enjoying the spectacle simply for what it means to the city I love.
Andy is the president, publisher and founder of OnMilwaukee. He returned to Milwaukee in 1996 after living on the East Coast for nine years, where he wrote for The Dallas Morning News Washington Bureau and worked in the White House Office of Communications. He was also Associate Editor of The GW Hatchet, his college newspaper at The George Washington University.
Before launching OnMilwaukee.com in 1998 at age 23, he worked in public relations for two Milwaukee firms, most of the time daydreaming about starting his own publication.
Hobbies include running when he finds the time, fixing the rust on his '75 MGB, mowing the lawn at his cottage in the Northwoods, and making an annual pilgrimage to Phoenix for Brewers Spring Training.