I have been to many Summerfests (and Italian and German Fests for that matter). I have seen lots of music down by the waterfront. When I was going to school in Milwaukee we would go for an afternoon. It was a thing we kind of took for granted there. I didn’t see a lot of bands that were there that I didn’t know that now I wish I had, but hey, I was a college kid more interested in hanging with friends and having some beers than waiting an hour for a band I didn’t know.
Violent Femmes played there a bunch and I never saw them. Sigh. Anyway…
When I moved away from Milwaukee, we would go and make a day of it if the acts lined up right and I remember seeing Paul Schafer and Buddy Guy and John Mayal.
In later years I saw Nine Inch Nails there.
One of the most memorable Summerfests for me though was the Fest in 2006.
Max and I went. He was into Blue Oyster Cult at the time and he loved “Godzilla” and they were playing a late night stage. Elvis Costello was playing too. So we decided to take the drive and share the day and the music.
As it turned out it was a memorable one.
The drive was uneventful and parking was amazingly easy and we were seeing music within a few minutes of getting there. I don’t recall who we saw first, but it was good. Max was digging it and things were going well. We hung around and watched for a while, then wandered off to get some food. With food in hand we found ourselves a short wait from an upcoming show by (please forgive me) either Cat People, or Cat Power… I can’t recall, but they were from outside the U.S. and they hit the stage and they were perfect for Max and I, not too heavy but fun and groovy. We finished our food and got comfortable on picnic table seats a few rows from the front.
That’s when it happened. The power went out.
The Cat Power/Cat People show went silent and the roar and rumble of Summerfest was silenced. We thought at first it was just isolated to the stage we were in front of, but it was the whole park.
So what do you do at a music festival when there is no music?
There was a display of music instruments at the far end of the park, near the Marcus Amphitheater. We made our way down there to check it out. There was a trailer that had about 20 guitars in it hanging from wall hooks. You could take them down and play with them. Of course, with no power, there was no sound. After the trailer we walked to a tent that had a bunch of instruments set up for trying out. There were guitars and bass and keyboards and of course they were all silent. Without power they were nothing.
As it turns out however, there was a drum kit set up in the middle of the tent.
There were all kinds of people standing around, not knowing what to do with no power, when one guy wandered over to the drum set, coaxed by his buddy, and sat down. He grabbed the sticks that were there and tentatively hit the bass drum pedal. That blap sound that was emitted and reverberated out into the crowd standing nearby was like a virus. Everyone slowly turned and looked to see what was going on. At that moment, the guy at the drum kit tore loose with a flail of arms and hair and made those drums his own for a couple minutes. He was good, and the crowd tightened around the drum kit. He smashed the drums and cymbals for all that he was worth in those few short minutes and wowed everyone there. It was so cool.
When he finished he stood up and replaced the sticks and bowed to the spontaneous applause that erupted. Then his buddy took the seat and tried to outdo him with faster fills and runs and some crazy hand over hand tom work. The crowd loved it and he got a huge round of applause.
Then another guy emerged from the crowd and stepped up and did his couple minutes.
What followed was about an hour of drum solos by random folks from the crowd. It was one of the coolest experiences I have had at Summerfest, and it wasn’t even a band.
Not too long after that, the power came back on. So did the music.
We worked our way into the crowd at the stage where Elvis Costello was going to play next. The band playing was not bad, but I was stoked for Elvis. When the band finished Max and I made out way to the front. We got to the very front row. We waited about 45 minutes for the show to start, but when it did we were in a perfect spot.
It was Elvis and Allen Toussaint. I loved it. Elvis did songs I knew and some I didn’t, but it was all great. Even Max dug it. The vibe was awesome and the music was fantastic. Elvis was in fine form and it was awesome to see this chameleon of sound up close and personal. I have loved him through all the phases… bop, pop, country, sad bastard, and now this Cajun flavored piano driven stuff. The horn section was right in front of us and the trombone player was on fire. It was the first time I really looked at a trombone as an instrument capable of making a hard groove, but it I loved all the solos. It was a show I will never forget and the first show that Max and I saw together.
Next up was Blue Oyster Cult.
They were on a big stage and didn’t go on till late. We got a spot in the bleachers and waited. I was as excited to see them as Max was. I love old BOC. I wanted to hear “Godzilla” and “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper”.
BOC hit the stage and the first thing I noticed was that the vocals were terrible! The sound was very strained and sad. I didn’t even recognize the first song. The next song was not any better. It was so not good. I did recognize barely the next song. They were running around on stage but we were too far away to even be mollified by the stage antics.
Max was like, uh, this is BOC?
We waited through about 6 or 7 songs and it was getting late and I was worried that even when they did play the songs we were waiting for, they wouldn’t be any good. At about 11:45 I called it. We were not waiting anymore. I guessed that one or both of the songs we wanted to hear were going to be in the encore, and it wasn’t worth sitting through the show up to that point.
We turned away from BOC. The most disappointing show I have ever seen. Sigh.
We headed to the parking lot and managed to get home safe. I cleansed my palate over the next few days by listening to old BOC and reminding myself how good they used to be. Maybe that night was an off night, who knows.
The rest of the Fest at least was amazing, with and without power.