It’s 78 miles to Summerfest.
I ‘ve got a full tank of gas — which I paid heftily for, thank you very much; half a can of Mountain Dew, and I forgot my damn sunglasses
There’s a silly little ritual in Wisconsin. It started some 33 years ago and, despite my age and assumedly growing wisdom, I still follow tradition. It’s an intoxicating orgy of sweaty bodies, bottomless beers and rock n’ roll on the rocky shores of Lake Michigan that we call Summerfest, and I decided to take a little trip, after a several-year hiatus, to revisit my roots and see if it was still the raucous festival it used to be. Oh, how I remember the youth I spent meandering the paved streets of the Summerfest grounds, gorging on free food slipped through back doors of food tents by less-than-loyal employees; sucking on beers and fat cigars purchased from none-the-wiser beer tent employees; eventually settling down in the beer-soaked, grassy field of the Marcus Ampitheater to a live performance by D’Angelo, The Violent Femmes, Weezer, Paul Simon, or, better yet, The Bangles. With that grossly romanticized image in mind, I kissed MadTown goodbye, hopped in my ride and put it in high gear to the magnificent Milwaukee lakefront on Lake Michigan.
6:20 I wave goodbye to the all-too-familiar blacktop of I-94 and hop off at the poorly marked Summerfest exit. Without the windy noises of a 90 mph sports car whipping at my face, I roll down the windows and breath in the fresh, yeast-filled air. Did I say 90 mph? I meant 65. The faint sounds of rock music being jammed out and beer being guzzled grow nearer, and I swear I can hear someone yell “Yeehah” in the distance. The exponentially growing number of people whom I pass without shirts on tells me I’m closing on my destination.
6:23 The first signs I pass read: “$15 — All day,” but my Summerfest expertise tells me to pass them up. The closer you park on the way in, the deeper you’re stuck in the ruckuss that ensues afterwards. I roll for about eight blocks where you can usually find cheap spots for around $5 a day.
6:28 Maybe things have changed, but it takes nearly ten minutes to find anything for under a Hamilton and by now I’m getting anxious. I pull into a lot that advertises at $8 and offer the gentleman with the flag $7 — a fair enough deal considering the day is more than half way over. He counteroffers $9 and we settle at the advertised $8. I’m still lost on that one.
6:35 Summerfest gates. I proudly wave my media pass — the first time I’ve ever paid anything less than an arm and a leg to get in — and breathe in the smell of summer. Corn on the cob, rotisserie chicken and various other primitive-smelling meats dominate the early evening scents and I make my first stop at a money machine so that I, too, might get to suck on some of these tasty treats.
6:39 ATM machine. One line has formed in front of two adjoined money machines, and I join at the back. As I approach, a gentleman steps up next to me and, upon the next opening at a machine, he jumps ahead of me. I kindly excuse myself, but back down when he turns to reveal a mullet, full beard and a shirt that invites “eat me.” A minute later I pay two dollars to receive twenty of my own. Seems odd, but I move along.
6:45 Bakra Bata’ at a small stage set up along the lakefront. I nose my way into a small crowd and enjoy the small reggae band for a few minutes, but decide to move along when they get to the obligatory stoner-band cover of “Pass the Dutchie.”
6:50 Briggs & Stratton Big Backyard. A curiously rambunctious and highly-intoxicated crowd (for a Sunday, at least) has gathered for “3 Beers ’til Dubuque” and I can tell there’s something in the air tonight.
6:55 Marcus Ampitheater. Utter devastation. A billboard sign tells me no more hand stamps are available for Bon Jovi and my dreams of getting filthy in the muddy grass seats while over-forty couples rock out to “Living on a Prayer” are squashed. Out of curiosity, I try to find a scalper. For $30, I could have lived out that fantasy, but I lower my head and pass on the offer. Instead, I’m lured to an enormous carnival ride called “The Inverter,” but again am turned off by the steep price: $20 a ride. No kidding. The thought of riding for five minutes and then puking for the next ten holds about as much appeal as Eve 6, Bon Jovi’s opening act, and I again pass.
7:15 I stroll by “the rocks,” an infamous hangout for Milwaukee teens who would presumably rather pay $10 to hang out on the lakeshore all day and pay $5 for a soda than hang out at home for free and enjoy all the free food mom bought. I stop for no more than a minute before I’m peddled countless drugs that I’m not sure even exist.
7:20 I begin what seems like a simple quest for a cup of water. You would think I was in Europe, where any seasoned traveler knows it is next to impossible to get a cup of water, let alone one with ice. Three vendors refuse my request before I finally pay the price of an equally-sized soda.
7:25 Eddie Butts Band at the Miller Oasis. A miserable rendition of Destiny’s Child’s “Independent Woman” by the old Milwaukee rock band reminds me that these early hours of the evening are inhabited mostly by local acts covering any song that they think they might be able to play off as original. Not an empty picnic table in sight, and I begin to think they have this crowd fooled.
7:40 Bob Schneider at the Harley Davidson Roadhouse. Finally, the first original song I’ve heard all night — a surefire sign that the big boys are finally out. The keyboard-heavy jam band is enough to keep my attention for a few minutes. Barely. For $3, a piece of alligator meat on a stick barely whets my appetite and I opt to balance as many scoops of ice cream as I can on a waffle cone for dessert. I opt not to ponder what part of the alligator I ate.
8:12 EIEIO at the Leinie Lodge. If the geriatric crowd wasn’t enough to scare me away, the name EIEIO should have been. A song about something “…on a blue mountaintop” sends me packing.
8:30 Hyundai Comedy Pavilion. Possibly the highlight of the evening, I enjoy a brief moment to myself with my friend Miller, Lite that is, before taking in an hour of standup. After a quick interview with the headliner, I sit back down for a few minutes of Pat McCurdy, Madison’s live-in Jimmy Buffet of comedy. I share a laugh with the opening act backstage about how odd it is that anybody listens to, watches or enjoys McCurdy, let alone pays to see him. I don’t mention that I feel the same way towards him.
10:20 I embark on the final leg of my journey, a whirlwind tour of all six of the big stages and their respective headliner bands. If the first part of the day was a disappointment, there’s no way that six big-name bands could fail to make up for it — or could they?
10:25 Union Underground at the Mountain Dew Rock Stage. If Marilyn Manson and Henry Rollins were to give birth to a litter of web-toed, albino infants, they still couldn’t reach the fear factor of the dark and heavy Union Underground. Lead singer Bryan Scott asks the crowd: “Are you ready Milwaukee?” I’m clearly not, so I slip out in quivering fear.
10:35 R&B Cadets at the Leinie Lodge. Here it hits me that the Summerfest lineup may be a little weaker at the tail-end of the week. Duh. Onstage, the Cadets reminisce about their roots and provide a lengthy prologue to their next song, reminiscent of Bill Murray’s lounge singer character on “Saturday Night Live” — only they’re dead serious. Dangerously intoxicated rednecks perched on shaky picnic tables eventually sway to the Bonny Raitt-esque tunes and I decide it’s time to leave.
10:40 Bobby Rush at the Potawatomi Bingo Stage. For a second, I swear I’ve stepped through a time warp. Rush struts around stage with his curly, black Rick James mullet dripping a combination of sweat and jerry curl juice across those lucky to get close enough. In white Hammer pants and a leopard print, silk shirt, Rush shakes his booty with his fly-girls. Only the fact that all the fly-girls are at least 45 leads me to believe that I did not, in fact, time warp. Rush has just been around that long.
10:45 As I brave the growing crowds, I venture towards the Miller Oasis, where John Popper’s harmonica can be heard wailing across the festival grounds. Before I can get too close, I’m hit with a serious wave of recently-released Bon Jovi fans and I duck off towards the lakefront and a little-known shortcut. Crowd growing stronger.
11:00 My shortcut leads only to an even larger group of raving Bon Jovi apostles and it’s 15 minutes before I finally reach the Miller Oasis. While I can barely see past the million-plus raving high schoolers between myself and the band, it appears as if John Popper has shed in excess of 200 pounds. As the band starts into a song that wasn’t on “Four” and, presumably, nobody has ever heard, I survey the crowd for a better spot. No dice. The underage crowd, the rowdiest by nature, is too preoccupied with their illegally purchased beer and cigars to care about the music and I walk again.
10:52 Vertical Horizon at the Harley Davidson Roadhouse. Before I can even give the band a chance, lead singer Matt Scannell thanks the unresponsive crowd for their kindness and generosity before introducing “a song off our new album.” Any time an act introduces a song as such, it’s a surefire sign that it’s about to suck, so I leave quickly.
11:00 The Wallflowers at the Briggs and Stratton Big Backyard. Granted, putting the entire fate of the evening on the broad shoulders of Bob Dylan’s little boy’s band is unfair, but The Wallflowers predictably do little to salvage my evening. Without playing a popular song in the three songs I’m around for, I bid the band and the crowd farewell.
Final Count: Eleven bands; three fly-girls; zero original, recognizable songs; and more tank tops, bare backs, mullets, hacky-sacks, jean shorts, Zubaz pants and bikinied, old woman than should be allowed in any one place at any time — ever.