The Milwaukee calendar can be split into two sections: the bullshit part that everyone hates (a.k.a. winter), and festival season. Yes, for four months out of the year, Milwaukee is a joyous, wonderful place stocked with an improbable number of summer festivals, street parties, and general outdoor-drinking mayhem. Looking for a guide to this year’s fun? Look no further.
Tuesdays, June 3-August 26
Chill On The Hill
Humboldt Park may not have a beer garden (yet…hopefully), but the slope beside its amphitheater will be a beer garden of sorts for the 10th straight summer, as Chill On The Hill finds the three Bs—blankets, BYOB, and bands—convening at the Bay View park every Tuesday from June through the end of August. That last B is supplied by a myriad of Milwaukee musicians, highlighted by Extra Crispy Brass Band, De La Buena, The Whiskeybelles, and Paul Cebar Tomorrow Sound.
Thursdays, June 5-September 4
Jazz In The Park
What would summer in Milwaukee be without Jazz In The Park? Well, Cathedral Square would be a lot less crowded on Thursdays, and Reverend Raven And The Chain Smoking Altar Boys would be out a yearly gig, that’s for sure. Love it or avoid it, this free music series has been bringing bodies to downtown Milwaukee since 1991, and has been inspiring those bodies to creatively get around the “no carry-ins” policy since 2009. Milwaukee/Chicago salsa act Nabori, reggae torchbearer King Solomon, and the always affable 5 Card Studs highlight this year’s lineup.
Bay View Gallery Night/Jazz Fest
Just to prove that Milwaukee isn’t messing around when it comes to summer festivals, the organizers of Bay View Gallery Night decided to make their 2014 installment two fests for the price of one. (That price, incidentally, is free.) Joining forces with Milwaukee Jazz Vision, BVGN will feature over 50 neighborhood businesses hosting more than 200 artists and musicians. Among the highlights are an art and craft fair curated by Cortney Heimerl, music from De La Buena at Club Garibaldi, an an exhibition at the historic Beulah Brinton House. Oh, and you can enjoy the plethora of attractions via the inaugural Rollout Tour de Art bike ride.
Even with the advent of the inaugural Taco Fest this May 31, PrideFest has long signaled the true beginning of Milwaukee’s festival season. Despite Wisconsin being embarrassingly behind every other state it touches in terms of gay rights and marriage equality, PrideFest has managed more than 25 years. The four stages will host discussions, drag shows, and performances by the likes of Macy Gray, Sandra Bernhard, Lisa Lampanelli, Big Freedia, and—our favorite Holly Square, sorry Whoopi!—Bruce Vilanch.
Locust Street Festival of Music and Art
Returning for its 38th (!) year, the annual Locust Street shindig is one of the best street fests of the year, celebrating all that is good, right, and drum circle-y in Riverwest. The ever-popular 1.8-mile Beer Run kicks things off at 11:30 a.m., followed by eight hours of music, food, drinks, crafts, and stellar people-watching. Whips, Kane Place Record Club, The Fatty Acids, Animals In Human Attire, and, yes, Sigmund Snopek are just a few of the acts lined up for 2014.
Wednesdays, June 11-August 27
When marketing people talk about “activating space,” they’re basically describing what events like River Rhythms do every year: make something happen in an area that doesn’t usually see a lot of action. The lineup for this year’s free music series at Pere Marquette Park is relatively standard summer-festival stuff (5 Card Studs, Sam Llanas, Vic And Gab, among others), but the chance to enjoy some music along the Milwaukee River shouldn’t be passed up. Music starts at 6:30 p.m., and stops when U2 Zoo says it stops.
Milwaukee has the fourth-largest Polish population in the U.S., so it’s no surprise that the annual Polish Fest bills itself as America’s largest. With that being said, it’s one of the more unassuming cultural fests to take over the Henry Maier Festival grounds in summer, which, when you consider the insanity that grips the lakefront three months out of the year, is a good thing. Traditional Polish cuisine and culture are the order of the day, along with polka, more polka, and fireworks the night of the 14th.
Lakefront Festival of Art
Milwaukee Art Museum’s Lakefront Festival of Art may be best suited to visiting relatives and pack-n-play-packing families—no beer runs or zany street performers here!—but there’s no beating the feeling of checking out the work of over 180 artists in the shadow of the mighty Calatrava. Per Milwaukee summer festival regulations, there’s plenty of beer, wine, and food to go along with that art. Plus, the musical lineup ain’t too shabby: Painted Caves, The Calamity Janes, and, yes, Vic And Gab highlight this year’s schedule.
Summer Soulstice Music Festival
Some Milwaukeeans may see the East Side as the drunk, sandal-wearing doofus to Bay View and Riverwest’s agreeably bearded cool kid, but the neighborhood still knows how to throw a party. On the day of the summer solstice (the longest day of the year!), from 10 a.m. until midnight, the area surrounding North Ave. and Farwell Ave. will be once again stuffed with three stages of music (lineup to be announced), food trucks, dodgeball courts, skateboard ramps, and a shit-ton of people doing damage to their skin (sunscreen, people) and livers.
June 25-29, July 1-6
Nearing its mid-40s, The Big Gig™ has entered the age where it gets into what all those youngsters are listening to these days. It suits it well. This year’s lineup could be the best in recent memory, with Outkast, Usher, Lady Gaga, Ludacris, The Head And The Heart, and The Hold Steady offsetting frequent Fest fodder like Joan Jett, O.A.R., and Girl Talk. Add in some Pizza-Cones, snap dancing moms, and about 691 more bands, and it’s a recipe for 11 days of fun on the lakefront.
Burnhearts/Pabst Street Party
Now entering its seventh year, Bay View beer bastion Burnhearts Bar temporarily underscores its unfuckwithable selection of draft and cask brews one day a year to, instead, celebrate PBR with its annual Pabst Street Party. This year, the broke-beer mainstay flows like water on Potter Avenue, as vendors like Classic Slice and Goodkind serve up local cuisine, and Sylvan Esso, GGOOLLDD, Head On Electric, Collections Of Colonies Of Bees, and Brothers By Choice provide high quality pairing to the crappy beer of honor.
The French Immersion School that is Bastille Days returns for its 33rd year in 2014, with all the food, drink, revelers, and 43-foot Eiffel Towers Milwaukee has come to expect. The wonderfully bonkers Storm The Bastille 5k run/walk caps off night one of this always-enjoyable fest, while four stages of music in and around Cathedral Square provide the rest of the entertainment. As far as the lineup goes, let’s just say that if you catch only one show from 5 Card Studs and Vic And Gab this summer, this should be the one.
South Shore Frolics
The next time somebody holds their nose to the heavens whilst proudly saying they’ve lived in Bay View for almost 10 years (“be-FORE it was cool”), tell them they have nothing on South Shore Frolics. The three-day lakeside affair turns 65 this summer, and shows no signs of slowing down. There’s a fish fry Friday night, a parade Saturday morning, a car show Sunday, and fireworks every night. You’ll be glad to know that event proceeds go to supporting the community, not paying DJ Pauly D.
Festa is the crown jewel of Milwaukee cultural fests, and for good reason: the food is top-notch, the bocce tournament rules, the mass at the Marcus Amphitheater is a sight to behold, and the fireworks are among the best of the summer. Nah, scratch that—they’re the best of the summer. Of special note in the music department is Festa mainstay Dick Contino, an oft-shirtless accordion player who still gets it done at 84 years old.
Milwaukee Firkin Beer Fest
If all Milwaukee festivals share one thing in common, it’s the presence of beer. However, with the exceptions of such undertakings as Milwaukee Brewfest (July 26) and Firkin Beer Fest, none make beer the centerpiece of the celebration. Firkin highlights the best in craft brewing with dozens of (primary in-state) beers tapped in Cathedral Square Park. From hoppy heavy hitters like Goose Island, local little guys like Brenner Brewing and Stonefly, and established regional operations like Lakefront and New Glarus, there’s something for anybody looking for a break from Miller Lite and Bud Lime-a-Rita.
You may cringe at out-of-town generalizations that Milwaukeeans mainline beer and bratwursts while jamming out to polka, but that stereotype isn’t entirely without reference points. Our city’s Germanic contingent is undeniable, as the city was a major landing point for German immigrants in the late 1800s. German Fest, or “Milwaukee’s original haus party,” gives locals a chance to celebrate German-style, with Volksmusik, a sheepshead tournament, a home brewing challenge, a dachshund derby, and yes, brats and beer too.
Brady Street Festival
If you missed Summer Solstice Festival, and seek a strikingly similar event (with less emphasis on Earth’s tilt) a few blocks away and a little over a month later, head to Brady Street Festival. The nine-block parcel of shops, restaurants, bars, and juggling emporiums will play host to various local food/beverage and retail vendors, a BMX stunt crew, and three stages worth of local music. The question isn’t whether U2 tribute band U2 Zoo is playing, it’s what stage will U2 Zoo headline.
July 31-August 3
After an impressive inaugural Breadfest that saw 21 acts playing four venues over two days last year (in the middle of Summerfest!), Myles Coyne and his Breadking collective cronies decided to bring the other fest back again. Though not taking on The Big Gig again, the second annual Breadfest is taking other ambitious leaps, extending the event by two days, hosting a block party, and having more bands at more venues. Just some of the mass of Milwaukee talent to perform includes Old Earth, Migo, Soul Low, The Fatty Acids, and Antler House.
July 31-August 10
Wisconsin State Fair
Where does one begin with the Wisconsin State Fair? Certainly not with the food, because if you ingest any of the delightfully horrifying deep-fried foodstuffs before noon, you’ll be in a coma before the second round of pig races. All jokes aside, the State Fair is one of the most unabashedly entertaining fests of the year, and should be enjoyed as un-ironically as possible. Stuff your face with cream puffs! Ride that giant slide! Feel impossibly ancient when an oldies touring show featuring Everclear, Soul Asylum, Eve 6, and Spacehog jostle for attention alongside State Fair regulars like Peter Frampton and those two guys from The Turtles! More cream puffs!
Center Street Daze
After a few years of lousy late-summer/early-fall weather, the organizers of Center Street Daze decided to move their fest up to early August. That’s good news, since this Riverwest-centric party is always a nice compliment to the earlier Locust Street fest. The musical lineup for 2014 has yet to be announced, but that doesn’t mean you should forget about ol’ Center Street—especially with Rockerbox moving shop to Road America this year.
Milwaukee Comedy Festival
Milwaukee Comedy Festival bucks the trend of the majority of the other undertakings listed, as it takes place indoors, offers ample seating and affordably-priced beverages, and—unless an improviser breaks into spontaneous song—no music. With the local comedy scene entering its renaissance (seriously, check it out already), the now-nine-year-old comedy festival has long touted some of the best performers in local stand-up and improv, but has also culled comics from all corners of the country (and Canada) in recent years.
Arab World Festival
After being on hiatus in 2011 and 2013, then cancelling last year’s affair because it overlapped with Ramadan holy observances, Arab World Festival is back. The celebration of 22 Arab countries will offer a vibrant marketplace of clothing and handmade accessories, traditional food, camel rides, art exhibits, an Arabic-themed film festival, and even rentable hookahs. What’s the sanitation situation between hookah rentals? It’s probably up to code. Anyway, welcome back, Arab World Festival.
Milwaukee Irish Fest
If the blur of whisky, corned beef, green beer, and “Blow me, I’m Irish” novelty shirts enjoyed every mid-March isn’t enough Irish heritage for you, Irish Fest strives to extend the celebration into August—without leaning on all the broad/borderline offensive generalizations of St. Paddy’s. Instead, attendees can imbibe in popular Irish fare and enjoy a heft of Irish and Celtic music from more than 65 acts (both North American and European), which thankfully includes Scotland’s own Red Hot Chilli Pipers. Whisky, beer, and corned beef will all make cameos as well.
The Mexican Fiesta has called Henry Maier Festival Park home almost as long as Summerfest has. Starting on the south side in 1973, the fiesta moved to the Maier grounds in 1977. The longstanding event is rooted in pillars of community, education, Mexican heritage, and cultural advancement. That’s cool and all, but we’re all about the delicious food and the jalapeño-eating contest. Watching it, of course, not competing.
Indian Summer Festival
There’s no better way to wind down the summer and prepare for the impending fall than by checking out the final cultural fest on the Henry Maier Festival Grounds, Indian Summer Festival. Nationally recognized musicians, traditional dancers, hands-on demonstrations, and oodles of arts and crafts highlight this fest, along with festival-mandated fireworks.
Rock The Green
Rock The Green’s mission is to promote sustainability and other green issues, and what better way to do so than by throwing a huge outdoor concert in Veteran’s Park? But seriously, folks: Rock The Green promotes itself as a “near-zero waste” fest, with plenty of local musicians, national musicians, and informative pamphlets to go around. After a 2012 that found Imagine Dragons and, um, Third Eye Blind performing, Rock The Green sat out 2013 and let nature take its course. The lineup for 2014 has yet to be announced, so let’s just say its Collective Soul or something.
Bay View Bash
Bay View Bash is a bittersweet affair. The bitterness is brought by the stinging realization that festival season is over and yet another awful winter is on the way. We’re all going to die and there’s nothing anybody can do about it, OHMYGOD! The sweetness comes with the fun festival finale that’s taken root in the heart of Kinnickinnic Avenue. By this point in the summer, you’ve likely seen many of the acts taking the three stages. But have you seen them while eating an elephant ear? Yes, you say? Oh…