Is there anything better than summer in Milwaukee? No, no there is not. For four months out of the year, Milwaukee becomes a warm and joyous 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.
MKE Punk Fest 5
Entering its fifth year, MKE Punk Fest will bring close to 40 acts to Club Anything. If the name leads you to think the talent is confined to Milwaukee, think again. Performers from Illinois, California, Florida, Ontario, Georgia, and numerous Wisconsin cities will appear at the underutilized Walker’s Point establishment. If the name leads you to think the talent is confined to the punk rock persuasion, think again AGAIN, because a diverse grouping of acts including the WhiskeyBelles, Rocket Poloma, and comedians Tyler Menz and Greg Bach will appear as part of this three-day affair.
Milwaukee Taco Fest
Last year’s inaugural festival devoted to the beloved food was the taco the town. Okay, so maybe it was marginally successful and this was just an elaborate excuse to make that pun. No matter, Milwaukee Taco Fest is back beneath the Horny Goat Hideaway tent and better than ever. For between $13.65 and $22.09 after fees, you can sample high-end tacos from such authentic Mexican food purveyors as Shaker’s Cigar Bar and Horny Goat Hideaway. Attendees can also enjoy a hot pepper eating contest, lucha libre wrestling, a chihuahua beauty pageant, and live mariachi music. No word on whether MilwaukeeCasa shirts will be available.
Tuesdays, June 2-September 1
Chill On The Hill
It’s amazing that Chill On The Hill has only been around for 10 years. The concept of the mid-week Bay View occurrence is so simple: laying out on a blanket and imbibing food and beverages brought from home (or purchased from a series of vendors on site) whilst enjoying a diverse bevy of homegrown talent. While the lineup isn’t out yet (it’s due any day), we’re sure there’s something for most every taste under the Humboldt Park amphitheater at least one Tuesday this summer.
Thursdays, June 4-August 27
Musica Del Lago
Now in its 11th year, Colectivo’s Musica Del Lago series—co-presented by the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies at UW-Milwaukee—brings some of the city’s best Latin acts to the coffee empire’s lakefront home. The Carlos Adames Group opens the series June 4, while La Chazz closes things out August 20. (August 27 is a rain date.) Milwaukee’s go-to summer festival band De La Buena, meanwhile, plays July 16. Music begins at 7 p.m.
Thursdays, June 4-September 3
Jazz In The Park
What would summer in Milwaukee be without Jazz In The Park? Love it or avoid it, this free music series has been bringing bodies to Cathedral Square Park since 1991, and has been inspiring those bodies to creatively get around the “no carry-ins” policy since 2009. Christopher’s Project and Bill Bonifas & The Legends Of Milwaukee Jazz open and close the 2015 season, respectively, though we’re most pumped for Steely Dan tribute act Steely Dane on August 13.
Bay View Gallery Night/Jazz Fest
For the second year running, the organizers of Bay View Gallery Night are making their summer installment two fests for the price of one. (That price, incidentally, is free.) Joining forces with Milwaukee Jazz Vision, BVGN will feature over 40 neighborhood businesses hosting oodles of artists and musicians. Highlights include the always-excellent Maker Market in the parking lot of the Bay View Colectivo, music from groups like 4th Street Elevator and Three. Stacks. Eliot, and an after-party at Frank’s Power Plant.
The Okka Disk record label was founded in 1994 by future Sugar Maple and Palm Tavern co-owner Bruno Johnson. Since then, the label has become a respected player in the world of improvised and free jazz music, releasing nearly 100 albums from artists around the world. The annual Okka Fest—now in its seventh year—brings dozens of those artists to a handful of Bay View venues, including, of course, Sugar Maple and Palm Tavern. This year features 17 sets from names like Joe McPhee, Peter Evans, Helen Gillet, and Ingebrigt Håker Flaten. A free, multi-venue music walk highlights the Saturday lineup.
What better way to (officially) kick off Milwaukee’s festival season than PrideFest Milwaukee, scheduled to take over Henry Maier Festival Park June 5-7? Not only is the LGBT celebration the first summer festival of the season to set up shop on the lakefront, it’s one of the best. Ani DiFranco and En Vogue (!) will headline the Saturday and Sunday lineup of the three-day fest, respectively, and will be joined by Betty Who, Crystal Bowersox, David Hernandez, Ty Herndon, GGOOLLDD, Ian And The Dream, and nearly 100 more local, regional, and national acts.
Saturdays, June 6- August 29
Bay View Art In The Park
Every Saturday between the beginning of June and the end of August, close to 70 Milwaukee area painters, jewelers, ceramic artists, photographers, and more will showcase and sell their work at Bay View’s Zillman Park. Browse some locally-made renderings whilst enjoying smoothies, sliders, printmaking, and singer-songwriters.
Beer Barons’ World Of Beer Festival
Entering its 12th year, Beer Barons’ World Of Beer Festival has so much dad-pop on hand, it has to stretch to Menomonee Falls to fit it all in. This year’s festivities at the Schwabenhof Pavilion feature literally hundreds of craft brews on hand from some microbrew heavy hitters like Goose Island, New Holland, Lagunitas, and Founder’s, as well as established in-state outfits like Central Waters, 3 Sheeps, New Glarus, Brenner Brewing, and our buddies at Ale Asylum.
Milwaukee Highland Games/Scottish Fest
If you plan on attending only one summer festival featuring a hammer throw and a shitload of sheepdogs, why not make it the annual Milwaukee Highland Games? The celebration of all things Scottish returns to Wauwatosa’s Hart Park for a full day of food, music, demonstrations, feats of strength, and plenty of bagpipes.
Wednesdays, June 10-August 26
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. (In this case, Pere Marquette Park.) The lineup for this year’s free music series includes some reliable standbys like De La Buena (June 24) and 5 Card Studs (August 5), as well as Painted Caves (June 10) and Trapper Schoepp (July 15). Music begins at 6:30 p.m.
Utech Records Music Festival
There’s nothing radio-friendly about the sounds emanating from Utech Records. The local label—founded by Keith Utech in 2005—specializes in experimental music, avant garde soundscapes, and straight-up noise. If you’re in the right mood, though, it can be immensely rewarding stuff, especially live. This year’s third annual Utech Records Music Festival will give you an opportunity to take it all in as a dozen artists from across the country descend on Anodyne Walker’s Point, Rushmor Records, and Cactus Club.
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, perogies, more polka, fireworks, somehow more polka, and beer with some type of cherry syrup in it for a slight up-charge.
Summer in Milwaukee is a lot of things, but pleasant-smelling it isn’t, what with all the sweat and garbage cans teeming with plastic Miller Lite cups. Add to that stinky list Braise’s annual Garlic Fest, which returns for its fourth year in 2015. Enjoy garlic-rific food from 15 Walker’s Point restaurants, garlic-themed games for kids, live music, beer, Bloody Marys, art, and complementary Altoids. (Not really on that last one, but c’mon, Braise, you should totally do that.)
Locust Street Festival Of Music And Art
Returning for its 39th (!) 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. The musical lineup has yet to be officially announced, but we do know that WebsterX, Platinum Boys, NO/NO, Midnight Reruns, Rio Turbo, Holy Shit!, and Power Wagon will by playing the Riverwest Public House stage.
Lakefront Festival Of Art
Milwaukee Art Museum’s Lakefront Festival of Art has never been the city’s edgiest summer festival—no beer runs or zany street performers here!—though this year’s musical lineup is remarkably solid. Group Of The Altos and GGOOLLDD cap off Friday night, Whips headline Saturday night, and Dead Horses highlight Sunday afternoon. Per Milwaukee summer festival regulations, there’s plenty of beer, wine, and food to go along with that music, as well as the work of over 175 regional artists.
One fateful summer day in Cudahy, some of the premier punk and hardcore bands based in Wisconsin and elsewhere in the Central Standard Time zone will converge upon The Metal Grill to partake in the inaugural Dummerfest. The single-day festival—which was organized by Direct Hit! frontman Nick Woods—will bring about a dozen punk, pop-punk, and hardcore acts to the Cudahy club for a 12-hour all-ages undertaking billed as “The Dummer Alternative.” 88 Fingers Louie, Masked Intruder, Juiceboxxx, In Defence, Tenement, Pears, Get Rad, Lipstick Homicide, Midnight Reruns, Big Zit, Meatwave, and Direct Hit! will partake in the first of hopefully many iterations of this new festival, which (full disclosure) Milwaukee Record is proud to sponsor.
Summer Soulstice Music Festival
For 15 years, the East Side’s annual Summer Soulstice Music Festival has celebrated the first day of summer with music, food, drinks, general North Avenue revelry, and that one guy who always shows up to the thing carrying a giant lizard. Sure, 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. Canopies, Soul Low, New Age Narcissism, GGOOLLDD, Cavewives, and Tigernite highlight the stellar musical lineup.
Wisconsin Beer Lovers Festival
If you’re looking to mix summer festivals, beer, food, and shopping—all in a shopping mall/town square hybrid—then the Wisconsin Beer Lovers Festival is for you. More than 40 Wisconsin breweries will be pouring more than 100 samples to be paired with local food and cheeses this year at the Bayshore Town Center. Poking around the Board Game Barrister while nursing an afternoon buzz isn’t part of the fest, though we highly recommend it.
Wednesdays, June 24-August 5
Family-friendly fun may be the name of the game for this free concert series on Lake Park’s Summer Stage, but the music isn’t all Raffi-esque. Chicago’s Cash Box Kings (July 22) and Milwaukee’s Extra Crispy Brass Band (July 29) will play alongside more kiddie fare like Ms. Jen And The Jellyfish (June 24) and Fox And Branch (August 5). Music begins at 6:30 p.m.
June 24-28, June 30-July 5
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 Fest unofficially kicks off with The Rolling Stones, and follows with a lineup that’s equal parts awesome (Stevie Wonder, Santigold, Sylvan Esso, Flaming Lips), random (DJ Paris Hilton, “Weird Al,” Smashmouth), aged (Kansas, Doobie Brothers, Pat Benatar), and local (Field Report, Maritime, Direct Hit!, Canopies). Add in some Pizza-Cones, snap dancing moms, pre-recorded music, and about 685 more bands, and it’s a recipe for 11 days of fun on the lakefront.
Burnhearts/Pabst Street Party
Each summer of Burnhearts’ existence, the Bay View beer bastion has simultaneously celebrated summer and one of the most iconic (formerly) Milwaukee-made beers with the annual Burnhearts/Pabst Street Party. The seventh such block party was the biggest and best one yet, as Sylvan Esso, GGOOLLDD, Collections Of Colonies Of Bees, and more took the stage at the corner of Logan and Potter avenues last June. Though that one will be tough to top, the bar has rounded up an eclectic cast of local talent to supply the musical accompaniment for the eighth annual Burnhearts/Pabst Street Party, while simultaneously taking on the first Saturday of Summerfest. This year’s entertainment includes De La Buena, Klassik, Platinum Boys, Light Music, and Nightgown.
Mondays, July 6-August 31
Along with Wonderful Wednesdays, the Summer Stage in Lake Park plays host to Musical Mondays for the bulk of summer. The beginning-of-the-week series’ 18th season opens with the Milwaukee Mandolin Orchestra on July 6, and closes with the Aaron-Hetzel Quartet August 31. Music begins at 6:30 p.m.
Bastille Days has been a Milwaukee cultural mainstay since the early ’80s. In the last 33 years, the weekend-long festival has grown to feature a 5k run, top-tier local music, wine tasting, and delectable foodstuffs, all under the shadow of a 43-foot Eiffel Tower replica.
South Shore Frolics
A spry 66 years young, the Bay View-based celebration is back with more of the same, but sometimes that’s a good thing. Amid the usual onslaught of classic cars, nightly fireworks, a Friday fish fry and a Saturday parade, South Shore Drive will be endearingly tacky with the musical accompaniment brought by an array of cover bands.
The Summerfest grounds and Cathedral Square Park are nice, but sometimes you need to blow off some steam, burnout-style, at the Milwaukee Mile. This year, the venerable racetrack will once again play host to blazingly-fast IndyCar action, live music, vintage machines, and driver autograph sessions.
Picture what you love most about German Fest and Polish Fest, then add better food and the perplexing presence of U2Zoo. Toss in some of the best fireworks of the summer and BOOM! Festa Italiana!
Milwaukee Firkin Beer Fest
Already a place where beer is celebrated and enjoyed all year long, the summer season also finds Milwaukee holding specific celebrations for the region’s preferred beverage. Beyond having a name that lends itself to iffy substitution for the word “fucking,” Firkin Beer Fest also features unlimited samples from more than 150 local and national craft breweries and over 40 cask ales, as well as food and live music in Cathedral Square Park. It should be pretty firkin fun. Oops! Typo. It should be pretty fucking fun.
Rhythm Lab Radio 10th Anniversary Micro-Fest
For the past 10 years, DJ Tarik Moody has hosted the eclectic Rhythm Lab Radio program, first on Twin Cities station The Current and these days on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee. To celebrate those 10 years, Moody has put together a “Micro-Fest” at the 88Nine studios, featuring performances from Peanut Butter Wolf, Natalie Prass, and Taylor McFerrin. Local acts are expected to be announced soon.
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 Milwaukee 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 at Henry Maier Festival Park, with Volksmusik, a sheepshead tournament, a home brewing challenge, a dachshund derby, and yes, brats and beer.
Brady Street Festival
If you missed the Summer Solstice Music 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 four stages worth of local music.
For going on six years, Milwaukee Brewfest has offered hopheads an opportunity to enjoy unlimited samples from more than 300 craft breweries over the course of four hours. Though the beverage selection hasn’t been announced yet, it’s sure to be worth the (actually pretty reasonable) price of admission. Have we mentioned the lakefront beer bash at the Old Coast Guard Pavilion offers unlimited beer?
Milwaukee Air & Water Show
Looking for a weekend to get out of town and enjoy some fresh, country air free of screaming aircraft buzzing over your apartment every 10 minutes? This is your chance! Don’t get us wrong: we love mach-speed machines capable of death and awe as much as the next website, but we tend to check out when they scare the shit out of our cats for a week leading up to this lakefront air-and-water blowout. Better the borrow a pet carrier and hit the road for a few days.
Vans Warped Tour
More than half of Warped Tour’s 20 summer-long jaunts have made stops in Milwaukee, usually at Henry Maier Festival Park…and one particularly ramshackle attempt at The Rave in the early 2000s. This summer is no different, as Milwaukee and the Marcus Amphitheater will play host to Warped Tour on July 28, one of the roving festival’s 42 stops. Last month, Warped Tour announced what could very well be considered its worst lineup in its 20-year history. How bad is it? Beyond novelty rapper Riff Raff and Kosha Dillz, along with semi-reputable acts like Senses Fail, Silversteen, Motion City Soundtrack, Matchbook Romance, and H20 (the last three and Kosha Dillz aren’t performing in Milwaukee, by the way) serving as default dynasty acts, the makeup of Warped Tour of today would be utterly unrecognizable if set beside lineups issued even five years ago.
July 30-August 2
After a great inaugural year in direct defiance of Summerfest, Breadking Collective’s second annual Breadfest expanded to 49 (primarily local) acts taking to nine Riverwest stages over the course of four days. The affordable DIY fest will assuredly keep growing and improving in year three. Organizer Myles Coyne has yet to unveil the lineup, but expect an eclectic mix of Milwaukee’s best and most diverse acts.
Center Street Daze
In 2014, stung by 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. The new date paid off, and what was once a bittersweet end-of-the-season blowout became a dog-days-of-summer celebration. The musical lineup for 2015 has yet to be announced, though, like Locust Street fest, you can count on it being especially Riverwest-y.
Milwaukee Comedy Festival
The Milwaukee Comedy Festival has been a late-summer fixture in the city since, to be perfectly honest, before Milwaukee even had a viable comedy scene worth celebrating. A decade after what was jokingly referred to as “the first annual” (since a second wasn’t expected to occur) and the incalculable growth and development of local stand-up, festival founder, co-producer, and Milwaukee Comedy godsend Matt Kemple is preparing his biggest and best Fest yet in honor of its 10th year. Dozens of stand-up comics, improvisers, and sketch troupes will perform in the Milwaukee Comedy Festival between August 6 and August 9. The four-day fest—mostly concentrated at Next Act Theater—will culminate with the biggest name that’s ever performed in the event’s 10-year run, as veteran alt-comic Brian Posehn will bring the festival home with an August 9 show at Turner Hall.
Wisconsin State Fair
You have to give the Wisconsin State Fair credit for its self-awareness. One doesn’t schlep out to ’Stallis every August to catch cutting-edge bands, eat organic small plate cuisine, and witness especially evocative performance art. People go to the fair to eat cream puffs or random shit with an irresponsible amount of bacon on it, catch performers they faintly recall from a bygone era, and compete in livestock, textile, and horticultural contests. This year’s musical accompaniment features Salt-N-Pepa, Boston, Kenny Rogers, and the “Under The Sun Tour” with Better Than Ezra, Sugar Ray, Uncle Kracker, and Eve 6. By the time you reach the end of this blurb, you’ll have made your mind up whether or not you’ll attend.
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 milling about Henry Maier Festival Park 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 Red Hot Chilli Pipers…again.
Authentic (and delicious) Indian food, authentic (and colorful) Indian costumes, and authentic (and terrific) Indian music dominate this mid-summer celebration in Bay View’s Humboldt Park. Will there also be some Bollywood-inspired dancing? You better believe it.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel A La Carte
What do you get when you combine the Milwaukee County Zoo, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, food from more than two dozen local restaurants, and the musical stylings of Dan + Shay, Jana Kramer, War (!), and Sam Llanas? The annual Milwaukee Journal Sentinel A La Carte, that’s what. Finally, your chance to hear “Low Rider” while watching monkeys quietly groom themselves has arrived.
Absent from last year’s Milwaukee summer festival season, the touring and ever-popular Lebowski Fest is back. And thorough. Watch the classic Coen brothers classic for the umpteenth time and down some White Russians at Cathedral Square Park on the 21st, then throw a couple of rocks and down even more White Russians at JB’s On 41 on the 22nd. Just don’t try to reschedule the bowling game for religious reasons—you might fool the fucks in the league office, but you don’t fool Jesus.
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 lakefront 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.
Want to see the Summerfest grounds go to the dogs this year? Perhaps you want to check out a fest that’s most decidedly the cat’s meow? Our maybe you’re that lizard guy from Summer Soulstice, and you just want an excuse to take that damn thing out one last time. Whatever the case, the obviously pet-friendly Petfest is for you. Doggie obstacle courses, dock diving, groom rooms, and adoption services highlight this furry function. There’s live music, too, though shockingly not from local rockers Dogs In Ecstasy.
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 Summerfest 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.
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…
Country In The City
Wisconsin is lousy with country music festivals—Country Jam, Country USA, Country Thunder USA, Country Thunder Jam USA USA—but none have ever boot-scooted their way to downtown Milwaukee. That changes this year when the Pabst Theater group and the East Town Association bring the inaugural Country In The City fest to Cathedral Square Park. Performances from Kelsea Ballerini, Michael Ray, and Bella Cain have already been announced, with more on the way.
Bidding adieu to summer can be tough, especially considering the season lasts all of three months. Happily, Alverno Presents’ annual Global Union fest makes the end of the season go down a lot easier. For the past decade, the world-music fest has set up shop in Bay View’s Humboldt Park and thrown Milwaukee a diverse and dance-happy (and free!) goodbye party to summer. The musical lineup for 2015 won’t be announced until June, but expect big things for this 10th-anniversary blowout.