As strange as it sounds, I think one of my favorite aspects of Summerfest is just how not on the pulse of popular music it can be. There are a lot of moving parts involved with trying to book something for everyone over the duration of a massive music festival that runs more than a week each summer. Besides wanting to—if not needing to, in order to recoup costs—book established mega stars for the Amphitheater, general likeability and availability seem to be the main priorities when it comes to filling the ground stage lineups.

You’re far more likely to catch a potential up-and-comer a few years away from breaking out or enjoy a performance by a somewhat noted act that’s either between album cycles or well past their prime than you are to see a relevant act on the grounds whose making waves that particular year. Now nearing my 15th anniversary as a Milwaukeean, I’ve grown to accept Summerfest not being a bastion for music’s “it” acts. In fact, I’ve actually come to like that about “The Big Gig.” The few times in recent memory when Summerfest has backed into a free stage booking who was in the midst of blowing up, it was downright chaotic. As a survivor of that Imagine Dragons Miller Lite Oasis experience and someone who stayed home the time Lizzo graced the Harley-Davidson Roadhouse with her rising stardom, I say give me an afternoon set with time-tested classics from Eve 6 or the guy from Live over those shows any day.

Eve 6 at Summerfest in 2021.

I say all this because, even though that’s how I feel at this point in my life, it took me a while to love and accept Summerfest for what it is. I used to lament my favorite musical acts of the moment bypassing Henry Maier Festival Park in favor of Eaux Claires, Riot Fest, Lollapalooza, Pitchfork, and even the Minnesota State Fair. However, a combination of me now being a goddamn 39-year-old dork who no longer even tries to keep up with what’s cool and, more so, Summerfest experiences like the one you’re finally going to read about soon after this long-ass intro have helped me be at peace with what Summerfest is, was, and will probably always be.

When I saw Alkaline Trio at Summerfest in 2003, they were about six weeks removed from releasing Good Mourning, an album I went to buy on its release day during one of the last lunch hours of my senior year in high school. At that time, Alkaline Trio was my favorite band in the world and—though it took a little convincing with Good Mourning—I had yet to be let down by them. I piled into a van with some friends and made the 100-mile trek to a city I had barely spent any time in before that. Approximately half their set was populated with spanking new material, with the other half composed of songs off releases from their previous five years of existence. It ruled…but you might notice that isn’t the show mentioned in the headline.

After that 2003 outing, my musical tastes changed a little and Alkaline Trio’s sound changed as well. They seemed to retain their popularity with an ever-replenishing audience of young listeners. Meanwhile, I felt less enthused with and more alienated by each new release. In 2009, I was thrown off the Alk3 train following a particularly bad show at The Rave (I mean, look at that set list). So when the band was tapped to headline the U.S. Cellular Stage—which is now known as “UScellular Connection Stage” and was reconstructed to face away from the lake—on July 9, 2011, I was less-than-optimistic. I can say that with absolute certainty because, as I was surprised to find when researching this very article, I essentially wrote as much when I was a freelance music writer for Milwaukee Magazine in 2011. Here’s what I wrote (please forgive the “2002” instead of “2003” error):

“A teenage me would’ve torn my regrettable Pacific Sunwear novelty T-shirt off in excitement of an Alkaline Trio show at Summerfest. I should know; I basically did so when the band was festing in 2002. Of course, that was at the end of the band’s run of great albums (if not a few years after). But call me nostalgic, I’ll be on hand to see what’s left of one of the most formative bands in my life while praying they play a set heavy in material from Goddamnit, Maybe I’ll Catch Fire and B-sides from s/t.”

Ready for the worst and cautiously optimistic for something better than that 2009 outing, I made my way to the U.S. Cellular Stage that afternoon, passing a band that sort of sound like The Get Up Kids—that I later found out was actually The Get Up Kids—on my way to claim a good spot at the bleachers. If memory serves, my sister and I snagged a spot somewhere near the right side of the stage, about midway in the rows of metal seating-turned-risers when the headliner took the stage at 10 p.m. As anticipated, a relatively new song started things off as “In Vein,” the second single from the 2008’s major label debut Agony & Irony, seemed to set the tone for what I thought might be another performance devoid of beloved old material that was the soundtrack to my teen years. Then I heard it…

The opening number was immediately followed by the distinct snare punch and coarse guitar licks I instantly recognized as part of “Snake Oil Tanker.” I never expected to hear that 82-second salvo from 2000’s s/t compilation at all, let alone as the second song in a Summerfest set. With that out there, it became apparent that here at this one-off festival gig taking place 18 months after the release of This Addiction and long before the band would track songs for My Shame Is True, pretty much anything was fair game to be played.

From there, the band seemed to take a Scorsese-like approach with its set list. “Fine Without You” from the One Man Army split and later on Remains appeared to be “one for them.” That was chased by sound-defining fan favorite “Cooking Wine” (a.k.a. “one for us” purists), and so on. Tolerating “Hating Every Minute”—a song I actually really like now, but wasn’t huge on at the time—and “Old School Reasons” was easy when it was instantly followed up with the potent one-two punch of “I Lied My Face Off” and “Trouble Breathing.” In fact, the some killer, some filler arrangement left time for a bathroom break, beer retrieval, and gave my voice a break from screaming along to songs I had loved for over a decade of my then-26 years on earth.

After alternating eras for the first half of the 20-song set, the latter half was overwhelmingly stacked with material from Goddamnit, s/t, Maybe I’ll Catch Fire, and From Here To Infirmary. The prayers I had mentioned in my snarky MilMag preview had been answered! My sister, who absorbed lyrics via osmosis by listening to Alkaline Trio during countless car rides when we were teenagers, sang along and seemed elated as well. This wasn’t just better than expected, this performance by a band that was nine years removed from their last album I truly enjoyed and not currently touring in support of any specific record was actually pretty incredible. Through the miracle that is Summerfest’s trend-averse booking, a jaded, judgemental, and admittedly immature guy who reluctantly went to see a band he used to like because “it might not suck” had an incredibly fun, joyous, and fest-affirming experience I still think about roughly 13 years later.

Knowing that’s possible, will you catch me at another Eve 6 afternoon show at Summerfest today and might you find me singing along with “Swing, Swing” when The All-American Rejects take the stage on Friday night? To quote an Alkaline Trio song: “Hell Yes.” Summerfest isn’t just a low-risk chance to see a potentially great show from an act you’ve maybe written off, it’s a no-risk opportunity to possibly experience a show that could stick with you for years to come. Even if it doesn’t, at least you got to see it while eating a Saz’s Sampler Platter or a Major Goolsby’s burger or something. And that also ain’t half bad if you ask me.


In Vein
Snake Oil Tanker
Fine Without You
Cooking Wine
Hating Every Minute
Old School Reasons
I Lied My Face Off
Trouble Breathing
Olde English 800
Nose Over Tail
My Friend Peter
Goodbye Forever
Private Eye
Mr. Chainsaw


Want more Milwaukee Record? Subscribe to our free weekly newsletter and/or support us on Patreon.


Hey! Here’s the 2024 Summerfest lineup!

Record Recommended: Summerfest Weekend 1

A guide to Milwaukee acts playing Summerfest

Take me back to Summerfest 1991: Club MTV (Bel Biv DeVoe, C+C Music Factory, Color Me Badd, more)

Take me back to Summerfest 2001: Prince at the Marcus Amphitheater

Take me back to Summerfest 2017: Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers at Summerfest amphitheater

Take me back to Summerfest 1995: Hootie & The Blowfish at Marcus Amphitheater

Take me back to Summerfest 1992: Bobcat Goldthwait at the Comedy Stage

Take me back to Summerfest 1984: “Weird Al” Yankovic at the Rock Stage

Take me back to Summerfest 1990: Depeche Mode at Marcus Amphitheater

About The Author

Avatar photo
Co-Founder and Editor

Before co-founding Milwaukee Record, Tyler Maas wrote for virtually every Milwaukee publication (except Wassup! Magazine). He lives in Bay View and enjoys both stuff and things.