For fans of live music, there is no better time of year than summer. The combination of fresh air and live music is undeniable. You can sing to the heavens and dance under the stars. From Kenosha to Eau Claire, music festivals pop up like wild iris plants all over the state.
In Milwaukee, it feels as if there’s a street festival or concert in the park every week. This is fortuitous, considering the state’s largest city is in desperate need of changing its tavern laws to allow for more all-ages venues. Until that happens, summer festival season will continue to be the primary avenue for underage music lovers to experience local and national talent.
Sorting through the loaded slate of summer music festivals/series can be a challenge, so I’ve compiled this guide to help navigate all your options.
This guide is broken down into five categories: summer series, street festivals,new festivals, weekend festivals, and miscellaneous. There are lots of great one-off concerts taking place throughout the summer, but this guide sticks to the multi-act and multi-day brand of live music events.
I've also inserted quotes from five musicians talking about five different festivals: Josh Evert (The Fatty Acids), WebsterX, Chris Rosenau (Collection of Colonies of Bees, Volcano Choir), Sean Raasch (Twin Brother), and Eddie Chapman (Gauss).
(NOTE: this guide omits Pridefest, which is covered in the latest issue of WiG, and Summerfest, which will be covered in the next issue of WiG.)
(OTHER NOTE: click the bold, underlined text to visit the festival/series' website/Facebook page.)
The most common type of summer music series is the concert in the park. In Milwaukee, live music is a great way to experience the city’s award-winning parks system.
Though the popular Thursday night Cathedral Square gathering has been criticized in recent years for not featuring enough of its namesake, Jazz in the Park is putting the “jazz” back in the park this summer. Lineup highlights include Legends of Milwaukee Jazz (June 22), Fresh Faces of Milwaukee Jazz featuring Foreign Goods and Roxi Copland (August 17), and Streetlife with Warren Wiegratz and Vivo (August 31).
Beginning in 1938, the Washington Park Bandshell was home to the “Music Under the Stars” series, which ran until the early 1990s. In the midst of its 126th year, Milwaukee’s great unsung west side park is slowly making a comeback. Over the last few years the county has spent nearly a million dollars to repair the bandshell and stage. Washington Park Wednesdays includes a community aspect (such as clean water or agriculture activities), with live music and beer from Brenner Brewing. Lineup highlights include "Old School Milwaukee" (Cigarette Break, DJ Bizzon, MC Adam Carr, July 12), "Water, Water Everywhere!" (Dramatic Lovers, Mark Waldoch, July 19), "Farm to Park" (New Age Narcissism, August 9). The season finale (August 30) will include an ensemble of more than twenty musicians ("The Diaspora Orchestra" featuring Foreign Goods) presenting sounds from all over the African diaspora, produced by 88Nine Radio Milwaukee’s Tarik Moody.
Down in Bay View, Humboldt Park’s Chill on the Hill has been going strong for more than a decade. An array of food vendors and bands entertain about 2,000 people each Tuesday. The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra returns to Chill on June 20. Other lineup highlights include D’Amato with Bay View High School and Parkside Drum Lines (June 6), Devil Met Contention, Cow Ponies with Bruce Dean (July 25), and De La Buena with Sara and Kenny (August 29).
Nestled in the heart of what has become the “Bay View of the suburbs,” Tosa Tonight boasts a similar series as Chill on the Hill, but in Hart Park. The main difference is that Tosa Tonight attracts primarily national acts. Lineup highlights include New Orleans’ Rebirth Brass Band with O.W.’s Exalters (June 21), California new wave band The Motels with Hayward Williams (July 12), and local indie rocker Trapper Schoepp with Mike Mangione (August 30).
Over in downtown Milwaukee, River Rhythms returns to Pere Marquette Park. Opening night (June 14) will feature a pre-party and happy hour at the Milwaukee County Historical Society that includes free admission to their Summerfest 50th Anniversary exhibit, plus Willy Porter and Carmen Nickerson playing outside. Other lineup highlights include Chicken Wire Empire (July 12), King Solomon (July 19), and Five Card Studs (August 30).
On the East Side, Lake Park hosts Musical Mondays starting in July, with various gypsy, world music and brass ensemble bands.
Select Wednesday evenings outside The North End apartment complex on the border of Milwaukee’s downtown and East Side will see the Denim Park Concert Series. Lineup highlights include Vitrolum Republic (June 7), Más Soul (June 28), and Mortgage Freeman (July 12).
Personally, my favorite Milwaukee summer music series is the Vista King Concert Cruise. There’s nothing quite like the experience of live music on the waters of Lake Michigan with the city illuminated in the distance. Lineup highlights include Whiskey of the Damned (June 23), BLAX’s hip-hop cruise (July 1), The Exotics (July 14), Midwest Death Rattle (July 29), and Soul Low (August 4).
In Madison, Live on King Street! outside of the Majestic Theatre brings in notable national acts for free street performances on select Friday nights. Last year at Live on King Street! my girlfriend and I saw Wisconsin darlings GGOOLLDD open for the incredible Nashville/London duo The Kills. This year’s lineup includes Dark Star Orchestra (June 23), Brother Ali (July 28), Shakey Graves (August 4, with Madison’s Seasaw opening), and The New Pornographers (August 18).
Madison also has the Thursday night Sunset Series presented by Isthmus newspaper, taking place at the East Side Club on Lake Monona. Lineup highlights include Lolo (Jackson, TN) with Abby Jeanne (June 22), Angelica Garcia (July 13, from Richmond, VA), and from Paris, France, Octave Lissner (July 27, with Driveway Thriftdwellers).
Delafield’s SummerStage in Lapham Park hosts theater, music, and family friendly performances all season long. The music lineup includes a chamber series as well as popular country/Americana band The WhiskeyBelles (August 19), plus Devil in the Outhouse (July 15), and Reverend Raven (September 16).
Brown Deer’s Village Park hosts a Friday evening summer series called Community VIBES! that includes The Christopher Project (June 21), Generation Z (July 19), and Paper Holland (August 2).
Door County’s Peninsula Music Festival will present nine symphonic concerts at the Door Community Auditorium from August 1-19.
In Appleton, the lead up to the fifth Mile of Music begins with their Concerts in the Courtyard series featuring national and international bands. Lineup includes Air Traffic Controller (June 7), JAKUBI (June 14), Sarah Shook & The Disarmers (June 28), plus more artists to be announced.
Neighborhood street festivals are the bread of butter of summer. Local merchants and craft makers, food and drink vendors, live music, face painting, dogs and cats, even reptiles join in on the day-long celebrations.
Locust Street Festival of Music and Art was originally thrown to celebrate a 1970s Common Council vote to preserve the narrow thoroughfare from becoming a four-lane boulevard, which maintained the Riverwest neighborhood’s tight-knit community vibe. On Sunday, June 11, that spirit will spread from Holton to Humboldt for the 41st year. There will be 36 bands playing on seven stages (one inside Linneman’s Riverwest Inn). Lineup highlights include Rocket Paloma, Paper Holland, Faux Fiction, Dogs in Ecstacy, Zed Kenzo, Calliope, and (ORB).
JOSH EVERT (vocals/keys, The Fatty Acids)
Locust Street has always been a pretty serious band holiday for The Fatty Acids. We have been known to refer to it as "Halloween 2" because Halloween is Derek's favorite holiday and the festival ranks at a close second. When combinations of us lived at Kribber's Tiny Kingdom (band house on Weil St.) we would invite friends over and sit on the front porch and drink brass monkeys and watch the beer run. From this central location, we could easily navigate around the neighborhood, and make our way to the Linneman's stage to play when the time is nigh. The festival is also a celebration of grassroots organization and power; it started as a protest against tearing down the businesses on Locust St. to make it four lanes. Can you imagine a Riverwest without Linneman's, Public House, or Woodland Pattern? That's a dark scenario. Who's inviting us over this year?
Riverwest’s other major neighborhood festival, Center Street Daze, will take place on Saturday, August 5. The lineup has not yet been announced, but with beloved new(ish) bars/restaurants Company Brewing and High Dive contributing, plus veteran establishments like the Uptowner and the Jazz Gallery Center of the Arts, this street fest is sure to be a highlight of summer in Milwaukee.
Finding parking for Brady Street Festival (Saturday, July 29) on Milwaukee’s Lower East Side can be a bit of a headache, which is compounded by the explosion of condos in that part of town. Despite being surrounded by sterile housing complexes, the counterculture enclave of yesteryear maintains a modicum of charm. Lineup highlights include Myles Coyne Band, Siren, Shoot Down the Moon, Listening Party, Negative/Positive, NO/NO, and No No Yeah Okay.
For those bemoaning the lack of local music at Summerfest, the East Side’s Summer Soulstice Music Festival brings some of the best Milwaukee musicians to North Avenue the Saturday (June 24) before The Big Gig. This year’s lineup highlights include WebsterX, The Fatty Acids, Lex Allen, Whips, B~Free, Painted Caves, Luxi, and Vincent VanGREAT.
WEBSTERX (rapper, New Age Narcissism)
Summer Soulstice screams my farthest crowd dive to date. The one and only year I played the festival was with New Age Narcissism in 2015 headlining the East Stage. To be back this year headlining that same stage, but this time as WebsterX off of the steam of my debut "Daymares" means farther crowd dives for sure, like, I gotta top that last one. What I'm most excited for overall is the potential opportunity to toss endless slices of Ian's Pizza into the crowd, like who am I to be selfish with my pizza? Coming off of my best show production/performance in Milwaukee to date at Turner Hall means you only got two more chances to catch me playing in Milwaukee this summer, Soulstice and Summerfest, so don't tweak!
Bay View has two major street festivals that take place each summer. The 10th annual Burnhearts/Pabst Street Party (Saturday, July 1) will include Static Eyes, AUTOMatic, Rx Drugs, Collections of Colonies of Bees, Queen Hilma, Joseph Huber, plus DJ Why Be. Bay View Bash (Saturday, September 16) will feature three stages, though the lineup has yet to be announced.
Three street festivals will take place in Milwaukee’s historic African-American neighborhood this summer: Juneteenth (Monday, June 19) celebrates liberation from slavery on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, Garfield Jazz and Blues Festival (Saturday, July 15) celebrates its 20th year with multiple stages of music, food and vendors, and Bronzeville Cultural and Arts Festival (Saturday, August 12) will cap off Bronzeville Week.
In Madison, Shake the Lake (Saturday, June 24) will feature two stages and be co-headlined by The Record Company — a Grammy-nominated blues rock band with Wisconsin roots — and LA band Saint Motel. There will also be a country stage featuring Parmalee, Russell Dickerson, Trent Harmon and Seth Ennis.
In Kenosha, the Harbor Park Jazz, Rhythm and Blues Festival (Saturday, August 19) will feature Euge Groove and benefit the Mary Lou & Arthur F. Mahone Foundation.
Milwaukee is adding (at least) five new festivals to an already overwhelming roster this summer, though not all are meant to be annual events.
Kicking off tonight at Quarters Rock ‘N’ Roll Palace in Milwaukee’s Riverwest neighborhood is the three-day Croc by Croc West (June 1-3). The upstart festival is being put on by experimental label Big Croc Records and CoolHunting production company. Lineup highlights include Liquid City Motors, Teenage Woman, The Fatty Acids, Andi Action, Apollo Vermouth, River Rats and Max Holiday.
Bay View’s new Bumstead Provisions and Crafty Cow will celebrate their first summer in business with a block party on Thursday, June 7. Bumstead Block Party is being billed as an Eaux Claires send-off, with tickets to the out-of-town festival being raffled off, plus sets from Eaux Claires band Collection of Colonies of Bees, EC favorite Mark Waldoch, as well as Klassik, Surgeons in Heat and Eagle trace.
With a new brewery opening in Milwaukee almost every other week, it’s hard to imagine they’ll all stay in business. But never underestimate our thirst for beer. Some of the new operations are actually expanding. Such is the case with Good City Brewing Co., who will celebrate their one year anniversary on Saturday, June 17, outside their East Side location. The music lineup for Good City Fest includes The Quilz, Twin Brother, Sat. Nite Duets, Platinum Boys, Klassik, and Fever Marlene.
SEAN RAASCH (vocals/guitar, Twin Brother)
Twin Brother has never really been a festival type of band. I really think we are moving in that high energy direction so it'll be fun to see how it goes. I'm also looking forward to sharing a bill with new faces. I've never had the honor of playing with these groups before. Good City beer is great and I'm hoping this fest helps to put Farwell and the East Side back on the map! I'd love to see more music in different areas of Milwaukee to help generate new fans.
88Nine Radio Milwaukee will celebrate its 10th year on the airwaves with a block party on Saturday, June 24. It will feature Milwaukee favorites Abby Jeanne, D'Amato, Reyna, plus Chicago's Noname, and Philly's Strand of Oak. Local folk rockers Field Report will also debut their new record live at the 88Nine Block Party.
In Milwaukee’s trendy Third Ward neighborhood, the popular new Asian-inspired restaurant DanDan will team up with Boone & Crockett and Pabst for The Little Gig on Sunday, June 25. The music lineup includes Midnight Reruns, Maiden Milwaukee, Dana Coppafeel, Dramatic Lovers, Whips, and DJs Why Be and Chris Schulist.
While the recurring series and street festivals are mostly free admission, Wisconsin’s weekend festivals are generally big ticket events. All of these take place outside of Milwaukee and some include camping options.
In its third year, the Eaux Claires Arts & Music Festival (co-founded by internationally beloved Eau Claire native Justin Vernon of Bon Iver) has become a sensation for indie music lovers. Considered an "anti-festival" by some, Eaux Claires stands out because of its spirit of collaboration, discovery and togetherness, which is lacking from most major festivals. The festival also does a nice job incorporating installation, visual, dance, sound, and literary arts. Eaux Claires takes place Friday, June 16, and Saturday, June 17. Various “Prex Claires” events will also take over downtown Eau Claire on Thursday, June 15. Lineup highlights include Chance the Rapper, Paul Simon, Feist, Wilco, and Sylvan Esso.
CHRIS ROSENAU (guitar, Collection of Colonies of Bees and Volcano Choir)
Eaux Claires is a special festival. I have performed at EXC in some iteration every year, and it keeps getting better and better. Here’s the thing with EXC: everything is considered, from both attendees’ and artists’ perspectives. Justin and Aaron and Michael have been part of some festivals that the promoter's primary objective didn't have much to do with attendees or artists. They have taken these shortcomings and addressed them at EXC. That, on top of the fact that they really go out of their way to foster unique collaborations between different performers, as well as videographers and artists, makes it something I really look forward to every year.
Eau Claire will host two other major festivals this summer, beginning with Blue Ox Music Festival (June 8-10). This bluegrass, roots, and Americana festival will feature Wisconsin bands Horseshoes and Hand Grenades, Dead Horses, plus Drive-By Truckers, Punch Brothers, and Greensky Bluegrass. The weekend of July 20-22, Country Jam USA takes over Foster Farms. Lineup highlights include Dierks Bentley, Miranda Lambert, Luke Bryan, and Locash.
Country fans will have a tough choice to make, as the Country Thunder Music Festival hits Twin Lakes the same weekend (July 20-23) as Country Jam USA. That one includes country heavyweights like Keith Urban, Jason Aldean, Big & Rich, Thomas Rhett, and Billy Currington.
One month earlier, country fans can get their kicks at Country Fest (June 20-22) in Cadott, which includes Blake Shelton, Eric Church, and Alabama. Cadott is also home to Rock Fest, which takes place July 13-15. That lineup includes Slayer, Anthrax, Avenged Sevenfold, Rob Zombie, Megadeth, Insane Clown Posse, Korn, Ratt, and Lita Ford.
The same weekend as Rock Fest, country fans can venture up north to Rhinelander for the 40th Anniversary Hodag Country Festival (July 14-16). The lineup includes Neal McCoy, Little Big Town, Billy Currington, and Frankie Ballard.
Electronic music and hip-hop fans will gather in Somerset the weekend of August 11-13 for Summer Set Music & Camping Festival. Lineup highlights include Run the Jewels, Zedd, Post Malone, Griz, Zeds Dead, and Die Antwoord.
A little known Wisconsin music history fact is that Port Washington was the home to one of the state’s earliest and most formidable record labels — Paramount Records. It was founded in 1917 by the Wisconsin Chair Company and released albums by Ma Rainey and Blind Lemon Jefferson. The weekend of September 1-3, Paramount Music Fest will celebrate the label’s centennial at Coal Dock Park. Performers include Billy Branch, Corky Siegel, Eddy Clearwater, Shemekia Copeland, and John Primer.
Wauwatosa’s HartFest returns to Hart Park June 16-17, with music headliners The Now and The LoveMonkeys, plus Pat McCurdy, The Playlist and Wauwatosa School of Music. Later in the summer Tosafest (September 8-9) will feature three stages of music, including Laura Peterson Duo, The WhiskeyBelles, Boney Fingers, King Solomon, and Sam Llanas.
Downtown Manitowoc’s Washington Park will host Metro Jam (June 16-17) with headliners Garland Jeffreys and The Chris Hanson Band.
This next one is being mentioned solely because I saw a (small wooden) billboard for it while driving out to my girlfriend’s parents place in Burlington on Memorial Day, but Wally’s Music Fest (June 2-3) in the small-town of Milton promises lots of 80s rock cover bands, plus Gabriel Sanchez’s The Prince Experience.
Over in Mequon, Gathering on the Green (July 14-15) will feature headliners Daya with special guest Vocalight, Kenny Loggins and Michael McDonald.
Naga-Waukee Park will host the Waukesha BluesFest (August 11-12) under a large tent, with headliners Charlie Musselwhite and Ana Popovic.
The Washington County Fair (July 25-30) in West Bend holds a special place in my heart, as it was the site of my first outdoor concert — Styx, sometime in the early 1990s. This year’s music lineup includes Montgomery Gentry, Ann Wilson of Heart and Dustin Lynch.
In Sturgeon Bay (Door County), there is a festival put on by Citizens for our Bridge that gathers musicians from all over the country to write and perform songs inspired by the Michigan Street Bridge and their community. Steel Bridge Songfest is the only festival of its kind in the country and will take place June 8-11. Tons of musicians will contribute their talents, including Milwaukee's Sugar Ransom &theworkersparty and WORK.
Having traveled to Nashville last year, I now understand what Appleton native (and part-time Nashville resident) Cory Chisel is going for with Mile of Music. The weekend of August 3-6, College Avenue in Appleton will feel like Broadway Avenue in Nashville. But instead of cover bands, “Mile 5” will feature an impressive variety of original bands from all over the world, including Wisconsin favorites Tenement, Whips, and GGOOLLDD. Other lineup highlights include Diane Coffee, San Fermin, Christopher the Conquered, and Fast Romantics.
In conjunction with Bay View Gallery Night, Bay View Jazz Fest will take over 8 venues tomorrow night (June 2). The free series features the Russ Johnson Quartet, the Kevin Hayden Quartet, Lesser Lakes Trio, Argopelter, and more.
Though the main attraction at Lakefront Festival of Art (June 16-18) is the art, there is a music stage outside the Milwaukee Art Museum overlooking Lake Michigan. Lineup highlights include Aleem, Soul Low, Eric Jacobson Quartet, and Gauss.
EDDIE CHAPMAN (guitar/vocals, Gauss)
I like the idea of playing outside in the lake breeze. It'll be a new crowd for us, and a longer set than we're used to. We're always trying to reach outside of our comfort zone, and this is the sort of opportunity that can cement that growth.
Milwaukee’s annual francophile festival Bastille Days (July 13-16) has a bon helping of live music, including Brett Newski, Charles Walker Band, Madison’s Cajun Strangers, and Nineteen Thirteen.
The Vans Warped Tour sets up shop at the Summerfest Grounds on Monday, July 24. It will include performances from Anti-Flag, Attila, Save Ferris, Gwar and many more.
Two hard-rocking local festivals take place in Milwaukee (and a near suburb): Filth Fest 5 (June 15-17) will have an array of punk bands, while Dummerfest (Saturday, June 24) will take over The Metal Grill in Cudahy. The third annual Dummerfest will include Avenues, Typesetter, Off With Their Heads, and Direct Hit!
In addition to the 50th Summerfest, the Henry Maier Festival Park on Milwaukee’s lakefront will host various ethnic festivals featuring great live music all summer long, plus “Jazz Visions on the Lake” (Sunday, August 6).
The main stage at the Wisconsin State Fair (August 3-13) will feature Patti Labelle with En Vouge, Alan Jackson with Lee Ann Womack, Sabrina Carpenter, I Love the 90s (Vanilla Ice, Kid ‘N Play, All-4-One, Tone Loc, Young MC), Pentatonix, The Beach Boys with The Temptations, John Mellencamp, Kip Moore with Maggie Rose, and Retro Futura (The English Beat, Modern English, Men Without Hats, Paul Young and Katrina of Katrina and the Wave, and Howard Jones.)
There you have it. This list is by no means complete, but it should give you a good idea of the many opportunities to experience live music this summer in Wisconsin.
In the words of comedian Howard Kremer, "Have a summah!"