In A-side/B-side, two Milwaukee Record writers tackle various city issues in an informal, crosstalk style. Insults are hurled, feelings are hurt, and everyone learns something in the end. Maybe.
Matt Wild: Well, Lauren, we’re a week away from Summerfest, a.k.a. the “World’s Largest Music/Cover Band/Tribute Band/Picnic Table Dancing/Tom Petty Festival.” And it’s not just any Summerfest this year—it’s the 50th edition of Summerfest! That’s half a century of all of the above, plus that time George Carlin got dragged off stage for saying “shit” or whatever. Buckle up, Milwaukee, because from June 28-July 2, and July 4-July, here we go again.
There’s another time-honored Summerfest tradition, too: dissecting, discussing, and likely pissing and moaning about the lineup. Is the schedule too stocked with classic rock and legacy bands? Too many of those newfangled hip-hop-indie-EDM acts no one over 30 has heard about? When will the ’90s finally die? Who, exactly, is Summerfest really for? Can the Big Gig count itself among massive national festivals like Coachella and Bonnaroo, or is it more akin to a state fair that happens to land “Weird Al” every few years? What’s up with Taped Music and David Seebach’s Wonders of Magic?
But before we tackle those questions, I’m interested to hear your general take on Summerfest, Lauren. As a 21-year-old Milwaukeean, how does the Big Gig figure into your show- and festival-going life? Do you feel it’s relatively in tune with your age and musical tastes, or do you feel it’s more for folks who, oh, I dunno, are turning 40 at the end of the year? (An aside: I’m turning 40 at the end of the year.)
Lauren Keene: Well, let me start off by saying this: I hate music festivals. I might be in the minority for my age group here, but what’s the fun in standing outside all day watching a bunch of bands you probably don’t even like, sweating in places you’ve never sweat before, and spending $9 on a slice of arugula-topped artisan pizza to see a popular (albeit decent) headliner…a headliner that is probably playing at every other major festival? Meh. They’re just not for me. (Being a Milwaukee show-goer has spoiled me, but that’s a topic for another article.)
That being said, I can handle multiple days of Summerfest because Summerfest is far from a “traditional” music festival. It doesn’t tend to fit into a generic festival mold like Coachella, Bonnaroo, etc. Summerfest’s lineups are non-traditional, too…almost to the point where there are few to no bands that are supposed to appeal to people like me.
The amphitheater headliners are EXTREMELY disappointing this year. To be fair, it’s hard to compete with headliners of summer’s past. 2016 brought Paul McCartney (and, uh, Weezer, I guess. They did play one track off of Pinkerton!). I don’t think the 2015 headliners will ever be topped. Summerfest brought Neil Young, the Rolling Stones, Stevie Wonder, and Kendrick Lamar to Milwaukee for one single festival. Holy shit, 2015’s lineup was so good. Even 2014 came in hot with Lady Gaga, Bruno Mars, and Outkast.
This year, Summerfest is bringing Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson. Oh yeah, and Paul Simon. Those headliners are all pretty cool. They booked Tom fucking Petty for two fucking nights. Who likes Tom Petty that much? I hate Tom Petty! Red Hot Chili Peppers? I’d literally compare them to Nickelback because of how awful they are. Other notable disappointments include P!nk and The Chainsmokers. Come on.
The headliner that most of my friends are most excited about (but none can actually afford to attend) is Future/Big Sean/Migos. This is easily the festival’s “hippest” billing, even though these musicians have played Milwaukee regularly in the past. Is it really that great of a catch? Eh. Maybe. Migos are the black Beatles, after all.
This leads me to my next question: What does Summerfest think young people actually like? (And by young, I mean people who aren’t in high school and have moved beyond their FM 102/1 listening years.) Do they think we like indie “flavor of the month” bands like The Neighborhood and Walk The Moon? We don’t. Do they think we like post-modern one-hit-wonders like Andy Grammer and DNCE? We definitely don’t. What about bands that play every single year, like Andrew McMahon and Girl Talk? Well, we don’t like those, either.
If I’m being completely honest, the grounds stage headliners I am looking forward to the most are T-Pain and Huey Lewis And The News. I don’t know if these artists could be any more different…which might be one of Summerfest’s strengths. The lineup might be weak, but hey, at least it’s diverse! I guess!
Matt: Tell me how you really feel, Lauren.
But seriously. I agree that this year’s lineup is a bit of a disappointment, even if you disregard the anticipation of the big “50.” To me, though, that says something about the surprising quality of recent lineups. Summerfest began to shake its “moldy oldies and Pat McCurdy” reputation sometime around the turn of the decade, probably when it booked Kanye West in 2011. Since then, we’ve seen everyone from, as you said, the Rolling Stones and Kendrick Lamar to Paul McCartney and Lady Gaga. Shit, remember the year Hall & Oates played? And when Bob Mould did Sugar’s Copper Blue front to back? Those were pretty great, too.
As for your question about Summerfest and young people, I can only say this: unlike (relatively) niche festivals like Bonnaroo or Pitchfork, Summerfest is in the unenviable position of trying to be everything to everyone. That’s impossible, of course, but I’ve always felt it does an admirable job of trying. And I’m kind of glad it’s not a “hip” festival, and that it’s still stuffed with afternoon cover bands and random appearances by the Spin Doctors. Making your posters look like Coachella’s won’t change that.
So, looking at the 2017 amphitheater and ground stage headliners, I can say I’m only legitimately excited to see…um, geez, The Shins? (Their new album is really good!) And that’s on the last night of the fest. Sure, there are plenty of “I’ll check them out if I happen to be there” acts—Car Seat Headrest, Girl Talk, Tegan & Sara, Huey Lewis—but yeah, it’s kind of an off year. (I’ll stick up for Tom Petty, only because he perfectly exemplifies the kind of safe, agreeable Baby Boomer booking that Summerfest excels at. Plus, dude has enough hits and deep cuts to fill three separate shows. And come on, “Refugee” rules.)
You mentioned you weren’t much of a music festival fan, Lauren, and that your go-to acts this year are T-Pain and Huey Lewis (I’m imagining a duet as we speak). But are there at least any off-the-beaten path things that endear you to Summerfest? The Sky Gliders? The food? The Rebel Stage? That weird smell of sweat, beer, cigars, and roasted nuts?
Lauren: Summerfest keeps me coming back every year because it’s unpretentious. Even though the lineup is often times not remotely comparable to the lineups of niche festivals, I can eat (overpriced) cheese curds and (adequately priced) pizza cones while sitting on a picnic table far away from the mobs that hang out near the front of the stages. Also, patrons can get in for free basically every day if they’re smart about it. It’s accessible…which, again, has its pros and cons. (Pro: I can get in for free. Con: So can thousands and thousands of other people.)
Another thing that Summerfest has that other music festivals do not is lots of places to hide if you get overwhelmed by the crowds. The tiny stages near the lake and the weird arcade thing that replaced the KNE New Music Stage (R.I.P., you will never be forgotten) provide an oasis for those who just want to hang out and not be involved in the hustle and bustle of the main strip. There’s room to chill at the World’s Largest Music Festival. And with the amount of cover bands on the bill, you can probably still enjoy live music while you’re trying to relax.
Summerfest is kind of the antithesis to a stereotypical festival, and that’s what I love about it. The diversity of the lineup, the low/nonexistent cost of admission, and the countless transportation methods create a festival environment that is welcoming to everyone. Summerfest attracts people from all walks of life who aren’t there for fashion, aesthetics, or the cool pictures they can post on Instagram. They’re there for the music, and I’m there for the music, too.
Matt: I’m with you all the way. Pizza cones, cheap admission, room to move, and music. Like a wise man once kind of said, that’s the power of Summerfest.