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: If you’ve been concerned about that low rumbling sound coming from the lakefront, Tyler, don’t worry: it’s only Summerfest, the 11-day behemoth scheduled to set up shop in Henry Maier Festival Park June 29-July 3, and July 5-10. Lumbering into its 49th year (!), The Big Gig promises to once again feature hundreds of musical acts, dozens of weird and wonky dining options, plenty of picnic table dancers, and oodles of harrowing people watching opportunities. Oh, and another time-honored tradition: dissecting, critiquing, and possibly bitching about the lineup.
But before we get into that, as well as our picks for #Summerfest2016, I wanted to talk about the general reaction to this year’s lineup. Glancing at the schedule, I can safely say there’s at least one act I wouldn’t mind checking out for every day of the fest. Some days are stronger than others, and some days I’d be kind of pushing it, but I see no reason why I won’t drop by for at least a few hours for all 11 days. And yet I see some folks on social media who decry the lineup as a complete washout. “NOT ONE THING I’M INTERESTED IN,” they all angrily tweet. On the other hand, there are those who are “ABSOLUTELY PUMPED” about this year’s lineup. I can only assume these two types of people rarely hang out at the same parties.
It’s all in the eye of the beholder, of course. It reminds me of how something like the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel can be simultaneously branded a liberal and a conservative rag; or, closer to home, how Milwaukee Record can be accused of writing about the same dozen popular bands and writing about bands no one has ever heard of. What kind of reaction have you seen, Tyler, and how do you feel about this year’s Summerfest lineup?
Tyler Maas: First off, any person who criticizes the way publications cover things is worse than Hitler! Now that we have that straightened out, let’s talk Summerfest.
Of course a vocal minority of people hate the lineup online because 1.) Why would people bother commenting to say “Hey, dece lineup, Big Gig!”? and 2.) With 11 days and 10 stages to fill and roughly a million people to entertain over the course of a week and a half, organizers are tasked with booking something to satisfy every person in attendance. While attempting to wrangle in acts who sate every taste in an increasingly spreading music industry, Summerfest has tasked itself with the impossible and unenviable duty of booking something to satisfy everyone while, at the same time, never fully satisfying anybody. It happens on the local festival level as well, and yeah, with things we (and others) cover online.
To be honest, I eschewed looking at the full Summeriest lineup (and even most of the previously unveiled headliners) until you sent me this, so even if I wanted to, I couldn’t have manufactured any outrage about it. Since giving it a stern once-over, I’m pretty much where you are with your level of excitement. There’s a handful of acts I’m excited to see (Gin Blossoms, Death Cab For Cutie, Cheap Trick, Blink-182, Nelly, Weezer, “Weird Al” Yankovic, among others), some bands I’ll stick around to watch because I’ll already be on the grounds (Ben Folds, The Decemberists, The Wombats, Garbage, Ryan Adams), local commodities I’m anxious to see on a larger stage (Midwest Death Rattle, Tigernite, GGOOLLDD, Living Statues, The Fatty Acids), and stuff I’m not into but will check out for the sheer spectacle of it (Taped Music, thousands of cover bands, Pat McCurdy, the list goes on). In short, the lineup isn’t much better or worse than it’s been in recent years. In fact, it’s quite similar to previous iterations of the Fest.
While combing through the lineup, I came to recognize a staggering number of names from last year, the year before, and the year before that. After a year off, Joan Jett returns, as do Common and Barenaked Ladies following three summers away. O.A.R., Umphrey’s McGee, .38 Special, Billy Idol, The Wailers, The Fray, Richard Marx, and Johnny Wad are back, too. Morris Day And The Time’s time on the festival grounds won’t run out in the near future. And at this point, Rise Against and Matisyahu should probably just consider buying property in the Third Ward, since they’re going to be in Milwaukee every summer until they die. Basically, Summerfest folks do a fine job of bringing in some different names each year, integrating a few local bands du jour into the mix, and padding the schedule with a familiar batch of dependable mid-rung performers to give people with all musical preferences something they won’t mind watching. And if you ask me, that’s fine. I’m not happy about the loss of the KNE New Music Stage in the slightest, but beyond that, Summeriest 2016 seems to be business as usual.
Given the sheer volume of the “World’s Largest Music Festival,” there are going to be some days that are weaker than others. There will be headliners I’ve, quite frankly, never heard of. Eleven days of entertainment will have its flaws, sure, but Summerfest isn’t Pitchfork, Riot Fest, or Bonnaroo, which can cram one astounding act after another into a tight two- or three-day window to satisfy a very specific demographic. It might not have the luster or sheen of an Eaux Claires, but what Summerfest occasionally lacks in coolness it more than makes up for in accessibility. And that’s why it has existed for 49 years and why it pretty much takes over the city for a week and a half of each year. Whether it’s a cover band at noon or Paul fucking McCartney in an amphitheater, you’re invited. You won’t like everything, but even the most ardent anti-Summerfest internet tough guy (or tough girl!) criticizing yet another bad lineup will at the very least consider going at least one day.
You’ve lived in Milwaukee more than a decade longer than I have, Matt. In that time, how have you seen Summerfest grow and change? And has there ever been one particular tremendous or downright shitty lineup during that span? I’m inclined to guess no on both accounts.
Matt: Tracking the quality of Summerfest’s lineup over the years can be tricky. One one hand, I’d say things are far better than they were a decade ago, with a more diverse selection of acts appealing to a more diverse spectrum of music fans. Back in the ’90s and early ’00s, it seemed Summerfest thrived on nothing but aging Boomer bands like REO Speedwagon and Journey. Those sorts of acts still show up on the schedule these days (Styx, Blue Oyster Cult, and more will be on hand in 2016), but they don’t make up the bulk of the lineup like they used to, and they’re often found playing 4 p.m. shows instead of 10 p.m. headlining slots.
On the other hand, maybe Summerfest’s lineup hasn’t really improved all that much in the past decade-plus. Maybe I’ve just gotten older. Like you, I’m excited and/or “excited” to see groups like Gin Blossoms, Death Cab For Cutie, Garbage, The Decemberists, Mike D (!), Ben Folds, and hell, even Chris Isaak. (Ask me sometime about the night I ended up on Chris Isaak’s tour bus, smoking with The Wallflowers, when they played The Rave 8,000 years ago.) My love for “Weird Al” knows no bounds, and I’m still a sucker for the Violent Femmes. But, if I’m honest with myself, almost all the acts I’ve earmarked on my Summerfest schedule are from the ’90s. Could it be that the Death Cabs and Decemberists of today are simply the REO Speedwagons and Journeys of yesteryear? A 19-year-old me groused about the seemingly antiquated Summerfest lineup decades ago; are today’s 19-year-olds doing the same?
Probably, but maybe those questions are pointless: Summerfest is getting up in years, and so is everyone else. Maybe there’s a sweet spot where the Big Gig and one’s taste in music align, leaving folks both younger and older (I can’t imagine many old-school Styx fans getting pumped for, say, Ryan Adams) largely in the cold. Maybe that’s the way things should be. Maybe that’s life. Maybe we should just relax and enjoy the Summerfest ride (and Sky Glider rides) anyway. Maybe we can all just agree on “Weird Al.” Yeah, let’s do that.