Milwaukee may not be at the top of your bucket list, but perhaps it should be. Summerfest’s 49th year offered a spectacular array of bands at an expansive venue perched on the beautiful shore of Lake Michigan. This enormous festival felt like the Worlds Fair of music– 800 bands on 11 large stages and a separately-ticketed amphitheater, small pockets of musicians tucked into spots all over the grounds and several acts roaming the grounds, so at any moment you might have a front row spot for another special performance. Musician sightings were plentiful too, and I think that says something about a fest that the artists want to experience for themselves.
The Summerfest entry fee is incredibly affordable, and gets you a full day and evening of music; you may exit and re-enter as long as it is by 7pm. The headlining shows at the separately-ticketed Marcus Amphitheater included Paul McCartney, Chris Stapleton & Alabama Shakes, Blink 182, Sting and Peter Gabriel, to name a few. Perhaps on the other end of the spectrum would be the Emerging Artists Stage, where you may get a peek at tomorrow’s stadium-fillers. (The now wildly popular Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats performed on this stage in the past.) This year I caught a terrific Americana band out of Irvine California, the Brevet, and will be watching to see their star rise.
Also of note was Velocity, performing on the Miller Lite Oasis Stage with the gorgeous Sharon Garrison up front, belting out tunes both solo and in collaboration with Jesse Wienberg, the owner of one sweet handlebar mustache. It was early in the day so the crowd was not as big as this talent warranted, but we that were there were very appreciative of their funky, soulful groove.
The music is the draw, but there is much more to see and do and eat. Summerfest’s size alone sets it apart from most festivals, but the food really raises the bar. With the fest supported by many giant corporate sponsors you feel the presence, but no so much that it’s overwhelming. Yes, they do have beer and cheese—this is Milwaukee—but local treats like bacon-wrapped prime rib bites with dressing and mini donuts were worth the trip alone, and the festival had ample handicap-accessible spaces to enjoy meals while continuing to catch music or an incredible view of the impressive scenery and breeze off the water.
This summer the well-oiled machine that Executive Director Bob Babisch has assembled pulled the 49th year off with aplomb, and they’re undoubtedly already hard at work on the exciting golden jubilee celebration scheduled for next year. Plan early, and if you can spend some time adventuring around Milwaukee, you won’t be sorry: it was clean, safe and had several historic neighborhoods that offer everything from fine, farm-to-table dining, wonderful music venues, lots of walkable itineraries and some of the very best dive bars ever, crawling with incredibly friendly people. Milwaukee, who knew I would love you so much?
Read Ali’s interview with Summerfest’s Talent Buyer, Bob Babisch, HERE.