Each year, thousands of people from all over the Midwest flock to the Henry Maier Festival Park for the start of Milwaukee’s own “Mid-Summer Classic.” Traditionally, Summerfest has kicked off its 11-day music/beer/entertainment spectacular with the Big Bang, an extravagant fireworks display to ring in the festivities on the Lake Michigan shoreline. However, this year, the World’s Largest Music Festival started off with a different kind of bang followed by a whimper.
At around 3PM on the festival’s opening day, an explosion on one of the ground’s electrical poles left the entire park (and some parts of Milwaukee) without a single volt of power. For three and a half hours, “Summerfest Unplugged” ensued, and thousands of attendees were left baking in the hot sun with no electricity and no music for their ears. With the music stopped, and evening headliners Tom Petty and Pearl Jam unable to come out for sound-check, many feared a first-day disaster, and a lame start to the week ahead.
However, in true Milwaukee fashion, it was quickly realized that beer does not run on electricity, and the throngs in attendance patiently kept the party going. Wisconsin Energies was quickly dispatched to the problem, and just before 7p.m., power was restored to the festival grounds, and an acoustic evening with Tom Petty and Pearl Jam was averted.
With the power outage behind them, fans were once again able to meander the 75 acres of stages and vendors to enjoy the wide variety of bands and entertainers offered. A diversity of live acts has always been one of Summerfest’s biggest attractions, and this year was no different, with the myriad of headliners including the aforementioned Petty/Pearl Jam duo, Paul Simon, Nine Inch Nails, Steely Dan, Ratdog, and The String Cheese Incident.
Though the headlining acts at the 23,000 seat Marcus Amphitheater are booked at standard concert prices, it is the “free” stages where one can get the most bang for their $15 admission. Ten stages are spread over the grounds, with countless shops and vendors in between. When you walk away from one stage and the music begins to fade, another one soon begins to creep in. Often times, you are faced with something similar to the “Bonnaroo Paradox”- the sheer impossibility of seeing every minute of every show. Most would agree, though, it’s a good problem to have.
However, there were no decisions to be made on July 3rd as My Morning Jacket took the stage on an evening that saw one of the week’s weaker lineups, bolstered only by Rusted Root and an extremely aged Alice Cooper. The current kings of reverb rock took full advantage of the extra attention at their stage, and delivered a phenomenal 2-hour set that featured a heavy bite from their 2005 album Z as well as live staples “One Big Holiday” and “At Dawn.”
July 5th saw a few more jam-happy bands, with Particle, Yonder Mountain String Band, and Mickey Hart and Friends rounding out a pleasantly cool Wednesday afternoon. Following a performance by the Wood Brothers, avant-garde jazz cats John Medeski and Billy Martin teamed back up with the “W” of Medeski Martin and Wood for a groove-heavy set at the Harley-Davidson Roadhouse Stage to kick off the evening’s festivities.
If you wandered not too far from the MMW show, one would start to notice the growing crowds at the Miller Lite Oasis already lining up for the evening’s most anticipated act – alt/country giant Wilco. The group turned out an incredible show littered with fan-favorites such as “Handshake Drugs,” “Jesus, Etc.,” and “ I am Trying to Break Your Heart.” Jeff Tweedy, who was obviously impressed (and maybe a little intimidated) by the turnout of fans, mentioned that the standing room-only crowd was “bigger than he was normally comfortable with,” but that it “inspired him to be a better frontman.”
Thursday night brought a marathon headlining-act to the Marcus Amphitheater, with String Cheese Incident, Ratdog, and Keller Williams sharing the bill.
It was apparent that many fans decided to skip out of work a little early to catch Keller’s 5PM opening spot, and those who did were fortunate enough to see Bob Weir invited out for a duet of “Monkey and Engineer” and “Cassidy.” Ratdog then took the stage, opening with the epic “Terrapin Station,” and stretching “Bird Song” throughout the 2-hour set. Staying true to the theme of classic covers, Weir and Co. also offered up a heavy, electric version of Dylan’s folk classic “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall,” as well as a powerful version of “Dear Prudence.”
It was not the end of Dylan covers or collaborations for the evening, however, as Bob Weir, Ratdog bassist Robin Sylvester, and Keller Williams joined the String Cheese Incident during their set for a rousing rendition of “Mighty Quinn.” Cheese then finished off the evening with some very extended jamming, highlighted by a funky “Pack It In” and an epic 23-minute “Rollover” to end the set.
Counting Crows headlined the final evening, capping off another outstanding week of music and entertainment. The sun was out and in full force, and visitors and fans alike were sweating out Summerfest’s last hours. But with the weekly attendance again approaching the one million mark, it was clear that neither heat nor massive power outage would put a damper on the good times in summer-drenched Milwaukee.