Anyone who’s lived in Milwaukee for a while has heard chatter about Summerfest caring more about beer sales than live music. Whether or not this is a true statement could be argued to exhaustion; however, local musician Eoin McCarthy has a story about how the Big Gig rallied around his music and, eventually, the music of hundreds of others.
In 2007, McCarthy – who is currently the front man of Whiskey of the Damned – was in a band called Poor J and, after a couple of days busking in front of the Summerfest grounds, the group was promised a gig on the Tiki Stage. The band showed up with its equipment, ready to play, and was informed the time slot was accidentally double booked and it was not going to be able to take the stage.
McCarthy and bandmates were surprised at first, even a little bummed, but decided they were going to play Summerfest regardless, so they wandered the grounds until they found open outlets and plugged in. They played for 10 hours. They returned the next day and every day after without anyone suspecting they weren’t hired performers.
On the last day, McCarthy says Vic Thomas, Summerfest’s associate entertainment director, approached the band.
"We had no idea who he was, but when I found out, I thought we were going to jail," says McCarthy. "But he wasn’t pissed, although he did tell us he could have us arrested for trespassing. Instead, he suggested we give him a call the next spring and see what we could work out."
Months later, Thomas and McCarthy had a formal meeting and planned what would later become the Refugee Stage, a completely independent music stage on the Summerfest grounds.
The agreement was that McCarthy could have total control over the entertainment line-up, but the musicians and staff would work as volunteers and Summerfest would not promote the stage, meaning it would not appear in any of the printed materials, nor would it receive amenities like security enforcement or bags of ice, like the other music stages.
The first year, McCarthy met Jim Rice, an entertainment hauler for Summerfest, who later quit his paid job to volunteer at the Refugee Stage. The two became best friends and Rice eventually went on to manage the stage's day-to-day operations and paperwork. Today, Rice handles all aspects of the business side of the music.
After a couple of years, the Refugee Stage – located along the lakefront in the center of the festival grounds, directly to the east of the Harley stage – changed its name to the Rebel Stage.
As with the Refugee Stage, everyone involved with the Rebel Stage, from the performers to the sound engineer to the graphic designer, is a volunteer.
"It’s a community of people helping each other out," says McCarthy. "It’s really incredible. It’s people who want to bring something different to Summerfest, and Summerfest allows it. They more than allow it. They’ve been really great."
In 2015, 82 bands and various non-musical acts performed on the Rebel Stage. McCarthy says he received more than 1,000 applications and he listened to every single applicant before creating the 11-day schedule.
"I can confirm he actually listened to every single word," says Rice. "He's supportive, but selective. Through the stage, we bring in a lot of new talent and a lot of people. This is good for everyone."
The Rebel Stage has numerous themed music days, including ones featuring hip-hop and EDM, metal, Irish punk, singer-songwriter and bands from Kenosha.
"That was just a funny idea to me. Why not have all bands from Kenosha? There are some good ones," says McCarthy.
Rice points out that, whereas other stages at Summerfest have a musical genre niche, the Rebel Stage does not.
"Briggs has predominantly country; BMO is classic rock, but we can cross genres," says Rice. "This is one of the advantages of being completely independent. We don’t have a corporate sponsor telling us what to do."
According to Thomas, Summerfest now has this relationship with five small stages along the lakefront, some of which were inspired by McCarthy and the Rebel Stage. Others include the Renegade Stage, Ground Floor, Tiki Hut and African Drum Jam.
"We’re capped for now; we really don’t have room for more," says Thomas. "But what’s great about these stages is they bring in new voices and give another dimension of music, one that’s more indie, to Summerfest."
McCarthy says at the end of each Summerfest season, Thomas checks in to find out which bands were the best and then considers them for paid gigs the following year. Numerous bands have moved on from the Rebel Stage to larger stages, including Once The Sun, Black Saints, They Never Say No, The Brimleys, Halocene and Whiskey of the Damned.
McCarthy formed Whiskey of the Damned in 2011 as a folk outfit, but the band morphed with new members into what he describes as "Celtic gypsy folk punk."
Today, the band includes McCarthy on guitar, vocals and various other instruments; Andrew David Weber on drums, vocals and other instruments; Matt Schuetz on bass, vocals and drums; Brian Link on accordion and trombone; and Gina Romantini and Marc O’Connelly switching off on fiddle and other instruments.
Whiskey of the Damned tours extensively throughout the country and internationally – about 200 shows a year – and some might say they are more popular beyond Milwaukee than in their hometown.
"Whiskey has played shows all over the world, but that’s not what matters to me," says McCarthy, "What matters is that we continue to make music and, in my case, I get to do the exact thing I came to this country to do and I get to do it with my friends. I’m going to be a 17-year-old punk for the rest of my life."
The band has shared a stage repeatedly with hundreds of bands, including heavy hitters like The Dropkick Murphys, Flogging Molly, Gaelic Storm, The Mahones and Van Morrison.
"I took guitar lessons from Van Morrison when I was 15," says McCarthy. "That’s not as strange-sounding to someone from Ireland."
McCarthy first came to Milwaukee when he was 12 on a visit. His family received United States visas and wanted to explore the country, but weren’t sure where to go. When they learned Milwaukee was nicknamed "Brew City" they knew that was the right destination.
"My old man was like, ‘yep, that’s where we’re going,’" says McCarthy.
McCarthy and his parents loved the city so much they eventually moved to Milwaukee. McCarthy’s father, Finbar, is an Irish folksinger and Milwaukee Irish Fest favorite. McCarthy often plays bass in his father’s band.
"We have a very father-and-son relationship," says McCarthy. "He is a great guy and I love playing his gigs, but when I do, I feel like I am playing so slooooow. But then he comes to one of my gigs and complains it’s too loud, too aggressive – that we’re wrecking people's heads."
Whiskey of the Damned is known for exuding an incredible amount of energy on stage, regardless of whether they are playing in front of 5,000 people or 25.
"They will pack a venue in L.A. and then come back to Milwaukee and play for 30 kids at Quarters. It doesn’t matter: they play the same show for everyone," says Zimmerman. "That band loves music."
Molly Snyder started writing and publishing her work at the age 10, when her community newspaper printed her poem, "The Unicorn.” Since then, she's expanded beyond the subject of mythical creatures and written in many different mediums but, nearest and dearest to her heart, thousands of articles for OnMilwaukee.
Molly is a regular contributor to FOX6 News and numerous radio stations as well as the co-host of "Dandelions: A Podcast For Women.” She's received five Milwaukee Press Club Awards, served as the Pfister Narrator and is the Wisconsin State Fair’s Celebrity Cream Puff Eating Champion of 2019.