Milwaukee Summerfest is in the midst of its annual run on the city’s lakefront, now through July 4. Over the course of 11 days each summer, over 800 bands play on 11 different stages, and dozens of restaurants offer everything from hot dogs and pizza to baklava and sauerbraten. And because it’s Milwaukee, there are beer stands everywhere. They sell mostly macrobrew, but there’s just enough intriguing microbrew to keep a beer snob happy. Summerfest is also one of the great people-watching venues in all the world.
Organizers deliberately keep ticket prices relatively low—$15 a day this year, although major headliners playing the 23,000 seat Marcus Amphitheater require a more expensive ticket. Acts playing the Marcus this week include Eric Clapton and Roger Daltrey, Santana and Steve Winwood, Rush, and Carrie Underwood. But any Summerfest veteran will tell you that the real action is on the grounds stages. Music starts on each of them around noontime every day. In recent years, the national headliners play the last slot of the night, 9, 9:30, or even 10:00, although up to a few years ago it wasn’t uncommon for them to play in the early evening, or even the middle of the afternoon. Grounds stage headliners playing this week include Blue Oyster Cult, Cypress Hill, Weird Al Yankovic, Umphrey’s McGee, the Moody Blues, the B-52s, Joan Jett, Yes, Counting Crows, John Hiatt, Levon Helm, Devo, and the Average White Band.
Summerfest began in 1968 as a citywide summer festival with events including symphony concerts, the circus, comedy shows, a stock-car race, a polka festival, and other events held all over Milwaukee. The lakefront area, a former missile base one-fifth the size of the current Summerfest grounds, hosted “Youth Fest,” which brought in local favorites the Robbs for 17 shows in nine days, along with the New Colony Six, Ronnie Dove, Freddy Cannon, the Lemon Pipers, and others. The next year, Youth Fest was headlined by the Bob Seger System and a ton of bubblegum acts: Crazy Elephant, the Ohio Express, the 1910 Fruitgum Company, and Peppermint Rainbow, plus local/regional acts Soup, the Wrest, and Unchained Mynds.
By 1970, most of the other events under the Summerfest umbrella disappeared, and the festival centered on the lakefront and on musical acts. Headliners that year included Chicago, James Brown, Sly and the Family Stone, Rotary Connection and Procol Harum on the same bill, and Bobby Sherman and Andy Kim on the same bill. Jazz acts would be a major presence at Summerfest for over two decades starting in 1970, when the lineup included Cannonball Adderley, Ramsey Lewis, Sarah Vaughan, and Doc Severinsen.
After the jump, Summerfest performers and fans get in trouble with the law, and the festival grows up.
The most famous event in Summerfest’s early history happened in 1972, when comedian George Carlin performed “Seven Words You Can’t Say on Television” and was promptly busted for disorderly conduct. In 1973, a main stage performance by Humble Pie turned into a riot when fans stormed a beer tent and eventually started a number of bonfires. Three hundred arrests resulted—and for the next several years, Summerfest consciously avoided rock bands on the main stage, sticking to pop, R&B, and country performers. A separate rock stage hosted mostly smaller regional acts, and it wasn’t until 1976 that rock bands were scheduled for the main stage again. Elvin Bishop and the Band played that year; the next year, the Steve Miller Band and Firefall shared a bill. The Grateful Dead was scheduled in 1978, but a storm wiped out their performance. The Allman Brothers Band headlined in 1979.
Stages proliferated as the 1980s dawned. By this time, there were venues devoted to country, folk, comedy, and a stage headlined by oldies acts such as the Crystals, the Drifters, the Association, and Roy Orbison. But in this era, the most consistently impressive lineups may have been on the jazz stage. Take 1986 as an example, when the headliners included Herbie Hancock, Buddy Rich, the Yellowjackets, Stanley Clarke, and two artists who were Summerfest regulars for years, Maynard Ferguson and Spyro Gyra. But jazz acts were gradually replaced, and by 1995, only Spyro Gyra remained on the bill.
Although The Mrs., who grew up in Milwaukee, had been to Summerfest several times before we were married, my first Summerfest wasn’t until 2001. We attended the next several years in a row, catching people we wanted to see (Mary Chapin Carpenter, Ray Charles, Steve Winwood, Steely Dan, Pat McCurdy) and serendipitously landing at other shows. That’s part of the Summerfest experience, too—wandering from stage to stage, hoping to catch something special. This year, we won’t be there, but it’s only a temporary absence. We’ll be back, because there’s nothing else like it, not just in Wisconsin, but anywhere in the United States.
Recommended Reading: Tim Morrissey pays tribute to Bob Bodden, a lifelong radio man most of you have never heard of. Bodden ran the stations in Platteville, Wisconsin, where I went to college. Thirty years ago, we young know-it-alls considered him a fossil—only now are we smart enough to realize that he was what we should have aspired to become.