If Summerfest were an archetype, it would be your drunk uncle in a cut-off t-shirt, smoking a cigar, playing air guitar, trying to get everyone to like him.

This year he turned 50 and instead of throwing a special birthday party, he just let it be another year.

Another year of bands, beers and bacchanalia.

There’s no getting around the disappointment I felt when I read the Summerfest 50 lineup. But then I realized I was comparing it to festivals like Lollapalooza, Osheaga, Bonnaroo, Governors Ball, Pitchfork, and Eaux Claires, which is completely unfair.

Those festivals are like a hip graduate student who pays for an Apple Music subscription so they can listen to new music.

But here’s the thing about your drunk uncle: he’s actually a genius and invented a time machine.

My first night at The Big Gig — Sunday, July 2 — I saw a guy in a clean, crisp, white Cash Money Records t-shirt, as if he had just bought it at a Juvenile concert, in 1998.

The same night I caught up with high school friends while the aging Steve Miller Band performed for the largest crowd on the grounds.

And the most buzzed about young indie band — Car Seat Headrest — was being drowned out by Ludacris, who is better known these days for his acting than his rapping.



The Lakefront abides

I was at the gates when they opened at noon on opening day. Despite some drizzle, 300 or so eager souls were queued up at the main gates. The lines butted up against Hunger Task Force trucks, dutifully collecting food and cash donations in exchange for admission.

A quick survey of the grounds yielded not much had changed, save for the new corporate branding, new merch store, and a “360 virtual reality art experience” where the KNE New Music Stage (RIP) used to be.

I was skeptical of this “immersive experience,” not just because it replaced the beloved local stage, but because it was being billed as having “blown minds at Coachella and Burning Man.”

Cool as it may be, this did not strike me as the Summerfest spirit.

Your drunk uncle doesn’t want to lay on a carpet and watch art come to life while EDM plays. He wants to chug a beer, chow a curd and rock!


Peter Frampton

A slice of Humble Pie

My first night at Summerfest was a testament to the power of The World’s Largest Music Festival™. I had headliner problems.

Do I see a classic rock act (Steve Miller Band), a classic hip-hop artist (Ludacris), an international act (Ziggy Marley), or a hot indie band (Car Seat Headrest)?

I ended up catching a little bit of each and stumbling on another classic rock band I had forgot was performing. As I walked up to the Uline Warehouse stage I quoted — in my head to myself — John Cusack’s character from High Fidelity.

“Is that Peter-f*cking-Frampton?”

Indeed it was Frampton. And he was awesome.

For his encore, Frampton played a Humble Pie song. This was perfect considering he was a member of Humble Pie during the infamous Summerfest riot of 1973. Back then the main stage was actually located at the north end, where Frampton and his band were playing.


I’ve been going to Summerfest for as long as I’ve been making memories. There are far too many to recount. The most recent may be the sweetest though, as it was an absolute joy watching my girlfriend’s kids experience their first Big Gig on July 4.

Nothing on my second night at Summerfest could top the mile-wide grin on our 5-year-old’s face as she ascended on the Skyglider.

However, jumping on a picnic table for our friend WebsterX, cheering on the Milwaukee Bucks Rim Rockers, singing along to Alessia Cara, and dancing together at the silent disco were also pretty magical.

My third night at Summerfest revealed the dark underbelly of the fest. I was being “mom’s cool boyfriend” and brought our 12-year-old to see the rapper KYLE.

In hindsight, this may have been a poor choice.

KYLE was the most popular hip-hop artist under 25 playing Summerfest. As such, it was the place to be for teens and young adults.

We were safe on a platform crowd-watching, but below us was a sea of kids sneak drinking, doing drugs, making out, trying to find their friends, talking shit, and causing drama.



Of course, the one moment I went to the bathroom a fight broke out next to the little guy and I got a distressed phone call. When I ran back he was unharmed but shook up. We left before KYLE — aka SUPERDUPERKYLE— could do his big single, “iSpy,”arguably the only reason most of those kids (and KYLE) were there.

Summerfest poster boy

My fourth night at the Big Gig was the pinnacle. Sure, the Rolling Stones and Paul McCartney have played the fest in recent years, but for my money, Tom Petty is the Summerfest poster boy.

I grew up on Petty & the Heartbreakers and had the pleasure of seeing them in 2006. It was an epic show. There’s just something about that band and Milwaukee — we are the perfect match. 

My girl and I received tickets for the 40th Anniversary Tour as Christmas gifts and had been looking forward to the show all year. It did not take long for me to pull out my air guitar.

The show was fantastic, with the only downside being how claustrophobic it was on the bleachers at such a fully sold-out affair.


Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers

While most Trump supporters in the crowd may have tried to ignore it, the inclusive visuals during Petty’s “American Girl” finale — including women of color, lesbians, a mixed-race couple, working women and a transgender person — were a welcome touch to what could have been a jingoistic moment.

Emblematic finale

The day after Petty, my family and I went on a camping trip outside of Wisconsin Dells. Sure enough, Summerfest was still going strong when we got back.

Nobody goes on a bender like your drunk uncle!

Over at the BMO Harris Pavilion, indie-pop icons The Shins, consisting of only one original member and on a contractually obligated tour, were a fitting final act to my Summerfest 50 experience.

This was a band I should’ve seen back in 2005 at First Avenue in Minneapolis when I was a college student. Their popularity has waned over the past decade and I don’t love the recent records.

But there I was overlooking Lake Michigan, drinking an overpriced beer with a high school buddy watching James Mercer play the role of the aging rock star.

While he appeared to be going through the motions for most of the set, the “Sleeping Lessons” finale — which broke into Petty’s “American Girl” at one point — roused something in Mercer that reminded us why we gather in front of speakers to sing and shout with abandon.

He might not be the most creative or sophisticated person you know, and you can fault him for trying to appeal to everyone, but you can always count on your drunk uncle to throw a damn good party.


KYLE crowd

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