A Sum­mer­fest veteran re­flects on al­most 50 years of great con­certs, beers and get-in-free coupons.

He’s been to nearly ev­ery Sum­mer­fest, and, feel­ing a lit­tle me­lan­choly, he’s back for an­other

Milwaukee Magazine - - Content - By Kris Ko­drich

AF­TER NEARLY FIVE DECADES OF Sum­mer­fest­ing, I won­der if it’s time to move on with my life.

I was there at the very first Sum­mer­fest – a hodge­podge col­lec­tion of tents, games, ven­dors and music scat­tered at sites across the city – at age 8 with my fam­ily in 1968. Since then, I’ve watched it grow into the world’s largest music fes­ti­val.

These days, most of my Mil­wau­kee friends go for the beer, the food, the chance en­coun­ters with old pals. Oh, I like all that, too. But for me, it’s all about the music.

I’ve seen thou­sands of mu­si­cians there, from the enor­mous – think Rolling Stones, San­tana, Zac Brown, Jimmy Buf­fett, Gwen Ste­fani, Eric Clap­ton – to lo­cal fa­vorites like the iconic Bodeans.

At age 13, I re­mem­ber be­ing blown away by the wild scene at the Steve Miller con­cert at the old Main Stage – the beer and drugs were flow­ing all around me as I wan­dered through the crazed crowd groov­ing to the Mil­wau­kee na­tive singing “I’m a joker, I’m a smoker, I’m a mid­night toker.” The years pile up with me­mories – the an­tics of Mid­night Oil’s lead singer Peter Garrett leap­ing and climb­ing all over the stage and au­di­ence, John Mayer join­ing Buddy Guy un­ex­pect­edly on a small stage in the rain, and my two lit­tle girls jump­ing ex­cit­edly to Katy Perry per­form­ing hit af­ter hit amid gi­ant lol­lipops.

I’m not so en­am­ored that I can’t see the fes­ti­val’s flaws. The noise bleed be­tween stages is atro­cious – the thun­der­ing bass of Paris Hilton’s DJ set in 2015 over­pow­er­ing the real music of the New Pornog­ra­phers was par­tic­u­larly an­noy­ing. The drunken may­hem nearly ev­ery night to­ward mid­night gets older ev­ery year. My sis­ter calls it “Bum­mer­fest,“while my brother com­plains, “The beer is too ex­pen­sive.”

Sure, you can ar­gue that $8 for a Miller verges on price-goug­ing, but by my cal­cu­la­tions, it’s a great deal: I save at least $2,000 a year by at­tend­ing Sum­mer­fest be­cause I’ll see dozens of bands that charge $30, $70 or $100 for shows out in Colorado, where I live now. Like many fru­gal Mil­wau­keeans, I also know all the tricks to get in free nearly ev­ery day – bring­ing in Good­will re­ceipts, canned goods, news­pa­per coupons. In fact, I al­ready col­lected enough free tick­ets for this year’s 50th at a give­away last year. The first few days of Sum­mer­fest are al­ways the best – the grounds are fresh and clean, the beer is crisp and re­fresh­ing, the crowds look young and en­thu­si­as­tic. As the days progress, I no­tice the tram­pled flow­ers, the beer-stained con­crete, the Mil­wau­keeans who look like they’ve been com­ing to Sum­mer­fest for half-a-cen­tury. Oh, wait; that’s me.

In­stead of build­ing to a crescendo, the fi­nal night of each year’s fest is al­ways a bit de­press­ing. Last year, I couldn’t con­vince my kids to at­tend an­other day, so I found my­self alone on a bench watch­ing Ryan Adams per­form on the dis­tant Har­ley-David­son Road­house stage. Adams sang, “I can’t see/ Some dark­ness on the rise/ I’ll be wait­ing here/ ’Til the end of time,” while I con­tem­plated my life, mea­sured in Sum­mer­fest years and beers.

When I told my daugh­ter Bianka about that lonesome bench on the last night of Sum­mer­fest, she just looked at me piti­fully and said, “That’s so sad.” I de­cided then that my sum­mers would no longer be ar­ranged around the Sum­mer­fest sched­ule. Well, af­ter this 50th cel­e­bra­tion, any­way. I al­ready have my tick­ets.

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