From August 2-5, roughly a dozen Milwaukee (or Milwaukee-adjacent) artists will make the 100-mile trek north on US 41—or I-43, if they want to take the scenic route—to partake in the fifth annual Mile Of Music festival in downtown Appleton. Despite the distance, Milwaukee acts will account for 43 of the event’s approximately 900 shows that will be taking place over the course of the four-day, 200-act, 57-venue event.
Even without the local connection, Mile 5 is definitely worth the drive. And the massive, entirely free Fox Cities festival isn’t the only out-of-town event that residents of the “City Of Festivals” should consider leaving town to attend. From the perennially star-studded Eaux Claires and Blue Ox festivals in western Wisconsin to the nostalgic bookings at “The World’s Largest Bratwurst Festival” in Madison, here are 11 more non-Milwaukee festivals that are worth the trip.
Blue Ox Music Festival
Justin Vernon’s mysterious, achingly heartfelt (cue Bon Iver music) Eaux Claires gets plenty of well-deserved attention, but another Eau Claire-based music event has become a trusted summer mainstay, too. Blue Ox focuses almost exclusively on bluegrass, folk, and country music, making it a can’t-miss for fans of the genres—and for fans of knowing who’s going to be playing the thing (see below). Blue Ox is co-hosted by the Bischel Family (of Country Jam USA fame) and Twin Cities group Pert Near Sandstone; Margo Price, Horseshoes & Hand Grenades, Buffalo Gospel, and many more set up shop in Whispering Pines Campground for the fourth-annual shindig in 2018.
Every Memorial Day weekend (“rain or shine!”) since 1983, bands, vendors, and hungry festival-goers have congregated in Madison to celebrate Wisconsin’s favorite tubed meat. Calling itself “The World’s Largest Bratwurst Festival,” Brat Fest is a four-day festival that doubles as a fundraiser. Through the years, the non-profit affair has raised close to $2 million for charities. Adding to the combination of Johnsonville brats, beer, and purported “family fun” is a variety of free live music. We can’t tell if acts like Brat Fest regular Aaron Lewis, Winger, and Stryper were novelty bookings or were intentional in 2018, but it’s tough to pass up the chance to watch those nostalgic acts or the un-ironically awesome likes of Gin Blossoms and Dead Horses with a brat in hand.
Country USA (and Country Thunder Wisconsin, Country Jam USA)
Since 1996, Oshkosh—a place most famous for its annual airshow, military vehicle manufacturing, and making baby jeans—has also been a city synonymous with country music. Late each June, Country USA brings some of the genre’s best names to a plot of Highway 41-adjacent land on the Wisconsin city’s southern edge. Through the years, the sizable soiree has booked the biggest country commodities (including Taylor Swift before her turn to pop music). Keith Urban and Jason Aldean performed at the five full day—yes, there’s on-site camping!—festival in 2018. If country music is your thing, this is the vanguard of Wisconsin fests. However, if you’re still hankering for more country music, Country Thunder Wisconsin in Twin Lakes (held July 18-21 in 2018) and the partially overlapping Country Jam USA in Eau Claire (held July 19-21 in 2018) can help scratch that itch.
Most music festivals measure growth by record-breaking attendance numbers and high-profile acts; Justin Vernon and Aaron Dessner’s annual Eaux Claires festival in Eau Claire (natch) has decidedly different ideas about growth. Past lineups have featured big names like Chance The Rapper, Paul Simon, and Vernon’s own Bon Iver, but the 2018 installment (the fest’s fourth) winnowed things down to a tight-knit universe of musicians more interested in spontaneity and collaboration. Also new this year was the bold move of keeping that universe of musicians a (kinda-sorta) secret until opening day. “Eaux Claires was never meant to be fully understood or easily delineated,” read the fest’s website in 2018. “It’s not about the bands, it’s about the collection of art and artists reacting with the collection of you. We’re less interested in telling you what it is than you making it what it becomes.”
Hodag Country Festival
The world may have Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster, but Rhinelander, Wisconsin has the hodag. And boy oh boy, does the northwoods city love its mythical part-lizard, part-dinosaur beast. “The Home of the Hodag” features an oversized fiberglass sculpture of the cryptozoological wonder outside its camber of commerce, and it lends the critter’s name to its annual Hodag Country Festival. The fest has been bringing country musicians both big (Garth Brooks, Reba McEntire, and Toby Keith) and small to Rhinelander since 1978; the hodag itself, meanwhile, has been terrorizing and fascinating locals since 1893.
Lifest calls itself “A Party With A Purpose.” No matter what that purpose might be to you, the Oshkosh-based Christian music festival is one of the largest of its kind. In its 20-year (and counting) run, Lifest has brought some of the holiest heavy-hitters in this ultra-specific genre to Oshkosh’s Sunnyview Expo Center the second week of every July. Yeah, the lineup is usually packed with Christian rock mainstays like Toby Mac, Skillet, and Casting Crowns, but crossover acts like Switchfoot, Five Iron Frenzy, and MxPx have played past iterations of the festival, too. Whether you’re there for the enlightenment or the entertainment, Lifest is a long-running fixture that, based on the $750,000 permenant stage they installed in 2018, looks to have eternal life in Oshkosh.
Madison New Music Festival
If rock, country, and Christian music aren’t your jams, then perhaps you need a dose of some classical music—or, better yet, some new classical music. The Madison New Music Festival (founded by Madison native composer Zachary Green) swims against the summer fest currents by offering a weekend teeming with classical music from our lifetimes. New works by living composers, new music created in Wisconsin, and underplayed music from the last handful of decades all get a spotlight. The fest’s third annual installment is set for August 10-12, and will feature programs on “the sounds of the ’60s and beyond,” “spirituality, morality, and reflection,” and Julius Eastman’s 1973 piece “Stay On It.”
Is rock dead? Are guitars uncool? Would you dare ask such stupid questions at Somerset, Wisconsin’s annual Northern Invasion? The answers to those stupid questions are: no; no; and hell no. In 2018, Tool, Alice In Chains, Avenged Sevenfold, A Perfect Circle, and fucking Andrew W.K. were just some of the hard-rock heavy hitters keeping rock alive at the Somerset Amphitheater. To paraphrase Mr. W.K.: Northern Invasion makes life worth living. Northern Invasion is worth living for.
What holds true for Northern Invasion holds true for Rock USA. Want the biggest names in rock and metal blowing the roof off of Oshkosh? You’ve got it. The fest’s 2018 lineup (its eighth) featured Godsmack, Rob Zombie, Shinedown, Marilyn Manson, Stone Temple Pilots, Sum 41, and more. “Midwest crowds are the best,” Shinedown drummer Barry Kerch told the Oshkosh Northwestern. “And let’s be honest, Wisconsinites definitely drink a lot of beer!” ‘Nuff said.
Steel Bridge Songfest
In 2005, musician/songwriter Pat MacDonald and his sister, historic preservationist Christie Weber, decided to throw a 75th anniversary celebration for the Michigan Street Bridge in the Door County hub of Sturgeon Bay. Jackson Browne agreed to play the party—then about 30 more musical projects hopped aboard and Steel Bridge Songfest was born. Now with 14 years under its belt (the 2018 installment was June 14-18), the birthday party for the “Gateway to Northern Door County” has changed to become a collaborative songwriting effort called “The Construction Zone,” which culminates with a pub crawl and a four-day festival at various Sturgeon Bay haunts. This year’s Steel Bridge featured Brett Newski, Jack Tell, Liv Mueller, Rocket Paloma, Zach Pietrini, Billy Dreamer, and dozens of other acts. Music aside, it’s in Door County in the summer, which is tough to beat.
Tall Tales Music Festival
For the last five summers, Nashville singer-songwriter Erin Rae has made the pilgrimage to Burlington to curate Tall Tales Music Festival. The date of the weekend-long event has bounced between June, July, and August since its inception, but one thing that hasn’t changed is the musical quality Rae brings to Tony Romo’s hometown each summer. The 6th annual Tall Tales, to take place in the small city’s downtown August 10-11, is no different. Rae will be joined by Field Report, Lilly Hiatt, and more over the course of the weekend. Come for the music, stay for the chocolate. And no, there’s no coat factory there. We learned that the hard way.