In A-side/B-side, two Milwaukee Record writers tackle important city issues in an informal, crosstalk style. Insults are hurled, feelings are hurt, and everyone learns something in the end. Maybe.
Tyler Maas: Love it or hate it, Summerfest is here to stay. For 40-some summers now, Milwaukee’s “City Of Festivals” moniker has been significantly padded by the emergence of the Big Gig™. The once-modest 1970s undertaking is now the self-proclaimed “World’s Largest Music Festival,” with hundreds of renowned national and international acts coming to the lakefront to play 10 stages—11 if you count that weird drum circle area at the edge of the festival grounds—for 11 days every June and July. Along with the talented performers (and O.A.R.), come throngs of tourists to eat Saz’s and drunkenly dance atop bleachers and (when not at the grounds) imbibe in our fair city’s elaborately food-stuffed Bloody Marys and frequent little-known haunts like The Safe House and Coyote Ugly.
As I’m sure you can attest in your 18 years in town (to my five), Matt, Summerfest is a double-edged sword for locals each year. On one hand, the massive festival eliminates the option to park anywhere between Walker’s Point and Brady Street; almost every other venue in town punts its booking and grits its teeth as the majority of Milwaukee “Smile[s] On” instead; and taxi (or taxi-like) services are no longer viable ways to get around. Conversely, you can’t deny the amount of revenue Summerfest brings into the city—even though the majority of that goes to Summerfest, MillerCoors, and hotel chains—and on the entertainment side of things, the event manages to book a myriad of world class artists from a vast cross-section of genres.
This year is no different. In fact, the lineup (at least the 20-percent portion we know so far) looks to be among the more solid and versatile artist assemblages Summerfest has trotted out in recent memory—from Marcus Amphitheater headliners like Outkast and Lady Gaga, all the way to impressive grounds stage pre-10 p.m. bookings like a noon set by Brother Ali, and New Order playing at 8 p.m. In fact, this could wind up being the best year of booking in recent memory. I’ll elaborate later, but first, I’m interested to learn your thoughts on Summerfest, Matt, as well as your opinion of this year’s lineup.
Matt Wild: Here’s the thing about the Big Gig: just when you think Summerfest backlash is all the rage, along comes the backlash to the backlash, and then, 10 minutes later, the backlash to that backlash. Is it okay to gripe about the lineup in the morning, or are we all in agreement that it’s perfectly fine by the afternoon? But here’s the other thing about Summerfest: none of the conjecture and hand wringing matters, because people will always show up to this thing in droves, just as long as there are a few big headliners at night and plenty of cover bands playing Santana’s “Smooth” throughout the afternoon. It’s the same thing every year.
Still, this year does seem different. In a spot-on piece for the Shepherd Express, our pal Evan Rytlewski theorizes that Summerfest has entered its “post-Boomer era.” He points to the relative glut of youthful draws in the 2014 lineup—Bruno Mars, Lady Gaga, Outkast, Neon Trees, Fall Out Boy, many more—and the relative dearth of reliable oldies acts that once dominated the prime slots—your Tom Pettys, your Beach Boys, etc. Evan goes on to suggest that this is a conscious effort on the part of Summerfest, and a “near-total reversal” of its game plan since Don Smiley took over as CEO in 2005. (In 2006, Smiley told OnMilwaukee that Summerfest was “trying to walk the fine line of having the right number of people spending the right amount of money”—code for “NO MORE KIDS.”)
At the risk of starting a heated cross-publication battle with Evan, I’m going to agree with him. Based on the Marcus Amphitheater acts alone, this is the most youthful lineup in recent history. From my perspective, Summerfest seems to be aligning itself with the other huge summer festivals the kids go bananas for these days: Coachella, Lollapalooza, Bonnaroo, Sasquatch, and approximately 8,000 more. That’s a huge sea change for the Big Gig. I’ve always stuck up for Summerfest by noting it does a reasonably good job of being everything to everybody, but this year seems to be catering more toward the plastic-sunglasses-wearing 20-somethings who stormed the gates during last year’s Imagine Dragons/Pretty Lights fiasco. I think that move might cause some headaches in the near future (assuming Summerfest sticks with it), though it seems like the only way to keep the fest fresh and relevant in the years to come. So good job, Summerfest!
I’ll get to my picks in a minute, Tyler, but I wonder what you think about this year’s young-ish appeal. Is it a good idea? Is it bound to backfire when grandparents can’t find the Doobie Brothers in the lineup anymore? And who are you looking forward to seeing this year?
Tyler: I agree this year’s lineup trends younger than usual, especially at the Marcus Amphitheater. Still, I’d say there’s plenty to tide over mom and pop virtually every day of the festival. Don’t believe me? Check out these blasts from the past: REO Speedwagon, .38 Special, Bonnie Raitt, Cheap Trick, Kool And The Gang, Melissa Ethridge, The Yardbirds, Kansas, John Hiatt, Michael McDonald, George Thorogood & The Destroyers, and Rick Springfield. And those are just the ones we know about! No doubt, a few sonic softballs will be lobbed into 4 and 6 o’clock slots once the entire lineup is unveiled in the coming weeks.
To be honest, most of the acts we probably feel are suitable for a younger crowd are actually dynasty acts as well—just a couple decades removed from Joan Jett status. To us guys in our late 20s and mid-30s, Ludacris seems like a youthful get, but high school students likely know him as that dude from the Fast & Furious movies. Similarly, performers I’m most excited to see—Brand New, Rise Against, Nas, The Hold Steady, Tegan And Sara, Atmosphere, Arctic Monkeys, and Yonder Mountain String Band—are all appealing to our demo…you know, the one that doesn’t entirely know what Moon Taxi, Jake Miller, Wild Cub, and San Fermin are.
I don’t feel the lineup skews young or old enough to backfire. Instead, I think the reason this year’s Summerfest seems stronger than years past is because it’s a reflection of the event finally scattering ample artistic representation for every age group. Also, after K-Nation absolutely shit the bed its first time handling the local stage last year, the early bookings of that festival oasis (a favorite of mine) seem better—though we’ll have to see how the pre-headliner schedule looks before I can say for sure. In all, maybe 20 of the 120-plus bands announced so far appeal to me, but I’d wager that nearly everybody has at least 20 performances they’d like to see. For a festival as massive, widespread, and stylistically unspecific as Summerfest, that percentage is pretty damn good.
Combine the music with fatty foods, cold beer, and unparalleled people watching and we have ourselves a good time on the lakefront—yes, with ample chance for annoyances, too. Do you have any other concerns, my fellow not-young and not-old pal? And please, tell us some acts you plan to check out.
Matt: Concerns? Not really. For all the hype the Imagine Dragons/Pretty Lights “riot” of 2013 received, it seemed like an unexpected fluke—two acts that had recently become hugely popular playing at the same time—and not something we’ll see again soon. And even though Summerfest kind of shrugged its shoulders at the mostly social-media-fueled “controversy,” it handled it about as well as could be expected.
Now for my picks. Strangely, even though I’ll concede that this year’s lineup is exceptionally strong, I’m personally underwhelmed. Sure, I’ll check out New Order, Girl Talk, Best Coast, and The Hold Steady, but that’s about all the announced headliners I’m excited about. (I agree that the local stage is a great place to hang out throughout the day, and I suspect I’ll be there a lot this year.) That’s probably because, as you said, I’m in that not-young-and-not-old bracket, but that’s the nature of Summerfest: demographic shift or no demographic shift, it still casts an insanely wide net, which means no one will ever be completely happy. So enjoy the acts you like, Milwaukee, and let others enjoy the acts you couldn’t give less of a shit about. Is this year’s Summerfest lineup any good? Does it ever really matter? Bring on the Sky Gliders, the roasted nuts, and the Pre-Recorded Music!