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Summerfest 2005 concert recap
Summerfest is best
by: John Paulsen

Paulsen Home / Music Home / Entertainment Channel / Entertainment Web Guide

Founded in 1968, Milwaukee’s Summerfest is marketed as the world’s largest music festival. Growing up outside Milwaukee, the fest was an annual tradition for many years. Now that I live in California, my attendance has been somewhat sporadic, and it’s been a few years since my last visit. Here’s a blow-by-blow account of my trip:

6/30 – The fest is set up with several grounds stages, which are accessible to those that pay $12 at the gate, while the bigger acts play the Marcus Ampitheater. So, for the opening day of the fest, my wife (Amy) and I secured a pair of tickets to the John Mellencamp / John Fogerty show at the Ampitheater. Before the show, we went to the Potawatomi Classic Rock Stage to catch some of the set from the oddly-yet-informatively-named Animotion-A Tribute to Rush, but the stage was running late, so when we arrived all we saw were a few roadies setting up while Bob Seger’s “Turn The Page” was playing over the loudspeakers. We found a couple of empty seats at a picnic table (most of the stages are set up with twenty or thirty rows of non-rising bleacher seats in front of the stage with picnic tables behind them).

Since I was officially “working,” Amy headed off to buy us a couple of beers. (Actually, she offers to get the beer even if I’m not reviewing the show as she knows how much I hate standing in line and dealing with food service personnel – she’s a great woman.) I could hear the ample crowd – probably there early to secure spots for that night’s venerable headliner, the Doobie Brothers – singing along with Seger’s tune. Looking around, one lady in front of me caught my eye. She was middle aged, decked out in a black t-shirt and jeans, and was actually able to light a cigarette (and sing passionately) during the line “you smoke the day’s last cigarette / remembering what she said.” I don’t know if this was planned or just a happy accident, but I was impressed nonetheless.

Behind me was an interesting pair of ladies, who (I hope) were in their thirties. One was a size 2, tan and was showing off her athletic body in a belly shirt and too short shorts. From this point on I will refer to her as Tiny. Her friend, Not Tiny, wasn’t so fit, but was unfortunately dressed in a similar manner. The pair was surrounded by several guys, all of whom seemed to be mainly interested in getting into Tiny’s shorts. I will call them the Jackals. Amy returned with the beer and Animotion-A Tribute to Rush started up. I noticed that the roadies I saw earlier were actually members of the band, and it made me wonder – how big do you have to be to get your first roadie?

Putting that question aside, Animotion opened (I think) with “Freewill,” which was well received by the crowd. Behind us, Tiny was standing on the table and, since her shorts were so short, I could see her underwear (pink), which means that my wife and I probably got further with her than any of the Jackals were ultimately able to. Not Tiny was missing. After the song, Tiny curiously proclaimed to the Jackals that the band sounded better than the real thing – none of the Jackals protested and were likely encouraged by this strange statement. The band then moved into a long, unfamiliar song (at least to this writer, whose Rush collection consists solely of a greatest hits album), which made me wonder – why wouldn’t a tribute band start their show with two hits? During this opus, Not Tiny returned and said that the band sucked and Tiny curiously shifted her position and agreed. Then the band played “The Trees,” which I liked but Amy didn’t. During this song, Tiny, Not Tiny and the Jackals departed, presumably to wreak havoc at some other locale. Animotion was the best Rush tribute band that I’ve seen, but that’s not saying much (it’s not saying anything, actually). For what it’s worth, the singer sounded like Geddy Lee and the drummer didn’t suck, so the pieces seem to be in place.

Anyway, it was getting to be that time, so we headed for the Ampitheater to catch the Mellencamp / Fogerty show, which was set to start at 7. I’ve already reviewed this show, so I’ll just mention a couple of interesting scenes: 1) A dad returning from the concession stand with a beer for himself and a non-alcoholic Sharp’s for his barely-teenage son. Judging by the son’s reaction, this was the first time that this had happened and, as he took a sip, I could see another true Milwaukeean was born. 2) Two drunk guys in their mid-twenties were in front of us – one accompanied by a drunk girlfriend and the other with a very pregnant wife (who was, understandably, both sober and annoyed). The two guys were singing – to each other, mind you – the “Hurts So Good” lyric “sink your teeth right through my bones, baby!” I was going to let them know that singing that lyric to one another made them look quite gay – not meant as an insult, just an observation – but I wisely kept this observation to myself. I sure felt sorry for the pregnant wife, though.

7/1 – For the Tom Petty / Black Crowes concert, we went directly to our seats, so there wasn’t a lot of time for people watching on the general grounds. I was pretty annoyed by the stage setup for the Black Crowes portion of the show – there was a tall stack of boxes (monitors, maybe?) on the corner of the stage that completely blocked my view of Chris Robinson’s microphone. So we moved down to some empty seats closer to the stage. I remembered from previous Ampitheater shows that sometimes they don’t sell seats right next to the stage if they are on an extreme angle. The Black Crowes finished up and when Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers came to the stage, there was a distinctly herb-ish smell in the air. I was somewhat surprised by the makeup of the crowd – there was a nice mix of older and younger fans. There were a couple of boys behind us that looked like they were maybe freshmen in high school. Next to them were a group of college-aged (drunk and/or stoned) girls, and by the end of the night, the girls had grabbed the boys and started dancing with them – the boys looked like they didn’t know what hit them. Man, I wish that had happened to me when I was 15.

7/3 – Steve Winwood was the main reason for our visit this evening, but we headed down early to see a U2 cover band, U2 Zoo. We secured some seats about eight rows back center stage. It was kind of comical when “Bono” first came out. He seemed a little nervous, and really didn’t look anything like the U2 frontman. He tried to speak with Bono’s inflection and when he said, “we come from the North side of Milwaukee,” I couldn’t help but chuckle. But they started playing, and they sounded damn good. They ran through a gauntlet of hits, including “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me,” one of my favorites. As the set wore on (and the crowd became more intoxicated and less self-conscious), a full-fledged rock concert ensued. I’ve only seen one other U2 tribute band, Propaganda (from Southern California), and U2 Zoo blew them away.

After the show, we moved up a few rows and Milwaukee native Greg Koch took the stage. Accompanied by a drummer and a bassist that looked a lot like porn star Ron Jeremy, Koch showed his substantial guitar chops on a few original works along with the Beatles’ “I Want You” and the Johnny Cash tune “Folsom Prison Blues,” mixing in the blistering blues riff from Led Zeppelin’s “Bring It On Home.” He also played a few medleys and effortlessly incorporated one familiar guitar riff after another. The biggest crowd highlight during this set was a guy in the front row – he had a feathered mullet and was wearing a wife beater shirt and jean shorts with the handle of a white plastic comb sticking out of his back pocket. It was absolutely priceless.

Anyway, Steve Winwood came out. After a slow start, my wife and I (along with the entire first few rows) were standing while he performed “Higher Love” and “The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys.” During those tunes we heard several “down in front!” orders behind us. I don’t usually give in to such requests and I certainly wasn’t going to in this case – after such a slow start, Winwood had to feel the love. At one point, Amy turned around and said, “Dude, you’re at a rock show!” I turned around to see a visibly drunk guy say – with his eyes half closed – “sit down so everyone can see!” I was thinking, “Dude, you’re not seeing anything.” Luckily, the next few songs got the entire crowd into it so we didn’t have to endure any more complaints from the cheap seats. Towards the end of the show, this woman – who I guess was kind of a butterface (everything is good but her face) – was “dancing” on the first set of bleachers and suddenly bent over and threw up. She immediately took a swig of her MGD, apologized to those around her and kept dancing. Go Milwaukee!

7/4 – The main event for us on Independence Day was to see comedian Lewis Black (“The Daily Show”) perform at the 21-and-over JoJo’s Martini Lounge (tent), which was a new addition this year. We got there too early, and had to endure the Potawatami Legends Show – A Tribute To Grease. I actually like “Grease,” and I didn’t mind the idea of sitting through the back half of a tribute to get good seats to see Lewis. But after walking in during the cast’s acceptable rendition of “You’re The One That I Want,” and thinking that all I had to endure was a little “We Go Together” before some welcome silence, the group went into a series of lengthy medleys of old ‘50s tunes that had nothing to do with “Grease.” I wandered off towards the bar and left Amy to deal with the headache of saving our seats. Have I mentioned what a great woman she is?

The martini bar was something to behold. There were about a dozen different pre-mixed martini selections, including your basic Cosmopolitan as well as several less common mixes. Oddly, a basic dirty martini wasn’t offered, which made me wonder if the martini bar really deserves its moniker. I selected something that I was told “kind of tasted like a White Russian,” and dropped off Amy’s Cosmo (the ‘50s medleys were still in full swing). I headed outside the tent and called the best man at my wedding (Alan) to see if he had any pity for me (he didn’t). Once I heard the tribute wrapping up I headed back inside. Amy told me that while I was gone this sleazy guy next to us was smiling at her as he took drags off his cigarette, which I found humorous because there is nothing that Amy finds more disgusting than a sleazy guy smoking a cigarette. Lewis Black came out a short while later and put on a good set – it wasn’t his best stuff, but he’s a naturally funny guy and generated a lot of laughs. As he got into more of the political stuff – he seems to be a common sense liberal – and started ripping on Bush (and Kerry), I could sense a little more tension in the room as the conservatives in the tent failed to show any sense of humor about their choice for President. Regardless, I’d recommend Black to any fan of live comedy with an IQ over 100.

7/7 – Amy was up in Northern Wisconsin visiting family, so I was on my own for the Weezer / Pixies show. After an opening band, the Pixies came out and mowed through a 26-song set. I moved up to some empty seats on the side of the stage and enjoyed the nice view for a while before some jackass security guard asked to see my ticket. Not bothering to show him, I headed back to my seat thinking to myself “I’m sitting down in an empty seat in the third row – who the fuck cares?” There was a Pixies superfan in the front row that also got booted by the same jackass. As the set went on, the superfan ended up in the row behind me and the Pixies must have put on a good set, because the superfan was quite enthusiastic. The set over, I headed out to grab a beer and saw this guy with a BBC microphone interviewing concertgoers. As I was wondering if he was really from the BBC or if it was just a way for him to meet girls, a guy walked up to me and asked me that very question. We conversed for a bit and the guy’s wife walked up and we chatted for a while longer. The lights went off in the venue so I headed back inside. Weezer sounded good but the set list was less than spectacular, so I left the venue somewhat disappointed. I decided to stop by the Harley-Davidson Roadhouse and catch a little of the Death Cab For Cutie set. The stage was immensely crowded, but I was able to get to a decent vantage point a few songs before the band played “The Sound of Settling.”

7/9 – On the spur of the moment, we decided to attend Summerfest one more time to catch the Cardboard Vampyres, a super-group of sorts formed by Jerry Cantrell (Alice In Chains) and Billy Duffy (The Cult). But before that, we had to sit through the offerings of Ginger Jake. While many of the rock fans present seemed to enjoy the set, I’d sum up their music the following way: Ginger Jake = Evanescence + hotter chick + guy screaming – semblance of melody. During the set a very drunk guy (maybe in his 40s) meandered about in front of us and unwisely got up on the bleacher. It wasn’t long before he lost his balance and tumbled backwards into the people next to us. The woman in front of us leaned back and said, “I hope he pisses his pants and wakes up tomorrow and realizes he pissed his pants.” I thought this was an awfully negative (not to mention redundant) attitude so I mentioned to Amy, “Then I hope he cleans himself up and cures cancer.”

The Cardboard Vampyres were a half hour late coming out (annoying) but put on a good show once they decided to start. Throughout the set list, the group dabbled in Alice In Chains (“Would,” “Man In The Box”) and the Cult (“Love Removal Machine,” “Wild Flower”). The rest of the set list consisted of cover songs including Metallica’s “Seek and Destroy,” AC/DC’s “Givin’ the Dog a Bone,” Aerosmith’s “Draw the Line” and even the Beatles’ “Helter Skelter.” The lead singer, Eric Dover (of Slash’s Snakepit), was fairly distracting to watch, but vocally seemed to be able to handle all the tunes. I tried to focus on the guitar work of Cantrell and Duffy, but whoever was working the spotlight wasn’t making my job very easy. I was never a big Alice In Chains fan, but I like the Cult and left the venue reasonably happy with the performance, despite the tardy start time.

So that, in a large nutshell, is my Summerfest experience. For those thinking about visiting Milwaukee for Summerfest, one of the great things about fest is that they have buses running from Park & Rides throughout the area, so parking and drunk driving are less of an issue. Also, this year Summerfest made a point to cater to “older” patrons, and now that I’m 31, I guess that includes me. There was some concern that this would drastically affect turnout, but that apparently wasn’t a problem. Over the last three years, the event has drawn an average of 929,000 visitors – over 84,455 a day. This year, the event drew 901,841 visitors, which was actually up 4% from last year. Revenues were also up, which was the bigger concern for the fest’s management, so this year’s fest was a success. I do hope that next year, there are a few more artists directed at the younger crowd (like Coldplay, the White Stripes and Beck in the Ampitheater) and a few more up and coming bands (like Dogs Die In Hot Cars, Hot Hot Heat, Kings of Leon, Modest Mouse and Rilo Kiley) on the side stages.

Send any questions, comments or wine stories to jpaulsen@bullz-eye.com





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