For its 50th edition, Summerfest treated music history nerds to a mini museum located inside the festival grounds. The Summerfest 50 historical exhibit is jam-packed with fun facts about the festival’s longtime run and the countless musicians who have made their way to the Big Gig.
Purveyors of one of Summerfest’s most insane shows ever, Huey Lewis And The News are naturally featured in the exhibit. Fans of a certain age may remember the band’s unforgettable 1984 concert—the one where approximately 30,000 people showed up for a gig that had a maximum capacity of 15,000. People were watching the show from the Hoan Bridge and jumping into the nearby lagoon to catch a glimpse of Huey performing his recently released hits. It was after that infamous shit show that Summerfest organizers decided to erect a venue with seats that require tickets.
Huey and the gang have played the festival three times since that ill-fated day, and returned for their fifth headlining Friday night at the BMO Harris Pavilion. Nearly every seat in the venue was full of fans eager to see what tricks Lewis had hiding up his sleeve.
The audience was captivated instantly as Lewis sauntered onstage with a harmonica in hand. The band opened with “The Heart Of Rock & Roll,” the first track off the band’s most famed release, Sports. It was the perfect choice to start with, foreshadowing the rest of the show’s energetic set.
“It’s so nice to be back in Milwaukee…the scene of many of our youthful indiscretions,” Lewis smirked. His voice may have aged a little more than some of his contemporaries’, but it is still as soulful as ever; even when he couldn’t quite hit the highest notes, his effort was admirable. His dance moves were goofy and awkward, yet very endearing. He poked fun at both the crowd and himself in between songs, showcasing a wry wit that kept the audience engaged in between songs.
Lewis’ chemistry with The News was unmatchable, and he made a point throughout the entire show to make sure that each band member had their turn in the spotlight. Hits like “If This Is It” and “I Want A New Drug” sent the crowd in a frenzy and gave the band opportunities to freestyle during the songs’ bridges. The guitar solos were sharp and the sax riffs were smooth as the band jammed seamlessly together.
Lewis has an amount of charisma that many artists can only dream of, and at age 67 he can out-perform musicians one-third his age. He has perfected the art of working the stage, hardly remaining stationary as he interacts with crowd members at every angle. It’s clear that he loves what he does, even performing songs as ridiculous as “Hip To Be Square” with great sincerity. Friday night, the audience followed his every move, and for good reason; at the end of “Your Love Is Killing Me,” he faked his own death as he choked and fell to the floor.
When he asked how many audience members had seen him before, at least 75 percent of attendees wooed in response. “I compliment you on your musical taste,” he joked. If anyone can make dad humor work during a rock and roll show, it’s Mr. Huey Lewis.
Halfway through the show, Lewis took a few minutes to introduce his hardworking backing band. He explained that they’ve been performing together for quite some time, mentioning that he and his keyboardist have been playing together since they were in seventh grade. It only makes sense that they mesh ever so perfectly.
As the show progressed, the set’s variety did not disappoint. The band played their pop songs, their rock songs, and even slowed the show down a bit with a few a cappella covers that gave fans a rare opportunity to hear Lewis’ voice in its purest, most powerful form. He encouraged the audience to sing along, noting that they seemed to be in a “participatory mood—I know, that’s a big word for a rock singer.” Most crowd members didn’t know the covers’ lyrics, but many opted to clap along with great enthusiasm instead.
Lewis struggled to hit the highest notes on “Heart And Soul,” but the crowd was unbothered as they sang the “OHHHHH”s and “WOAAAAH”s in the song’s irresistible chorus. It may not have been his strongest performance of the night, but it’s extremely difficult to screw up a song that infectious. Regardless of his minor vocal flubs, the audience continued to rage. When Huey commanded the crowd to put their hands together, nearly everyone obeyed.
As soon as Lewis left the stage, many crowd members quickly grabbed their cell phones and used them as flashlights, begging the band for an encore. Lewis happily obliged and reappeared on stage with a towel in hand as he caught a gift from a front row fan…and threw it right back.
“Power Of Love” was naturally the encore’s standout track. Made famous by Back To The Future, the track gets heavy radio rotation to this day and remains an eternal fan favorite. “Stuck With You” mellowed out the ravenous audience as Lewis prepared to send them off, and “Workin’ For A Livin'” was the set’s clincher.
Crowd members left with big smiles on their faces, reminiscent of Summerfest’s iconic red logo that hasn’t really changed since that fateful night in 1984. Huey Lewis And The News haven’t changed much, either—33 years later, they’re still able to dazzle Summerfest attendees with their high-octane, memorable concerts. Their performance Friday night was easily one of the best shows of Summerfest 50, and fortunately, nobody ended up in the water this time around.
But hey, there’s always next year, right?