Friday, October 27, 2006

All about Summerfest

In the future, we'll be recruiting festival-goers from leading festivals to serve as ambassadors to Festival Preview by providing content about the event. Here's an example: a great roundup about Summerfest, Milwaukee's annual musical blowout, submitted by Chris Ellis. Thanks, Chris.

Summerfest runs for 11 days, noon to midnight, around the Fourth of July in downtown Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The permanent festival grounds cover an area of about 5 city blocks by 2 blocks on the shore of Lake Michigan. There are seven ground stages for musical acts and the Marcus Amphitheater for headliners. Many food and beverage vendors line the main walks through the festival grounds. In addition to the musical offerings, there’s a play area and a kids’ stage, a Sports Zone, street performers and magicians, exhibits of classic guitars, and the SkyGlider, a gondola ride to loft you over the crowd from one end of the festival grounds to the other. The festival has a fireworks display on opening night. The City of Milwaukee has its fireworks display on July 3, with ground zero in Veterans Park immediately north of the festival grounds.

Milwaukee has an excellent shuttle bus system arranged for transportation to and from the festival grounds. Park-and-rides are located around the city. Last year, it cost $6 to ride the bus to the main gate of Summerfest. The return trip is free, so at midnight, when the festival grounds close and all the money has been extracted from your wallet, you can hop on a shuttle bus for a ride back to your car. Parking for private vehicles downtown is tight, and will cost at least $10 if you can find a space.

Daily admission is $15, but some discounts are available – check the website or the Milwaukee Sentinel newspaper for promotions. The admission fee is your ticket to all the ground stages, which are general admission. For the headliner acts at the Marcus, expect to pay typical Ticketmaster charges. Admission to Summerfest is free if you have a ticket to the Marcus for that night. There are beer vendors everywhere -- $4 to $5 for a beer. There is a wide variety of food offerings, but you are in Wisconsin – expect lots of fried food, lots of meat and cheese.

The crowd will vary from 60,000 people on a light day to 110,000 on a Friday or Saturday. The Marcus seats 24,000, with a roof over about 2/3 of the seats. The ground stages have bleacher seats and picnic tables for 500-2,000 people. Only two of the ground stages have roofs, and rain is always a possibility. Daytime temperatures can range from hot and humid to cool and pleasant. After dark, the temperature can rapidly cool, so take a jacket or sweatshirt.

Even though most of the adults at Summerfest are professional beer drinkers, it’s a happy, casual, relaxed, tattoo-laden crowd. The biggest problems caused by over-consumption of alcohol are: (1) drunk drivers leaving the festival; (2) throwing up on the bus ride home; (3) loud talking and laughter during musical performances; and (4) friendly drunks get in the way when you are trying to walk through the festival grounds.

Each ground stage has four to six musical acts scheduled each day. Usually the best musical groups are scheduled for 8 or 10 PM shows. Frequently there will be collisions – more than one “must-see” act performing at the same time, at opposite ends of the festival grounds. For popular acts, the ground stages will be packed with people – get there early if you want a good seat. Often the crowd will be on its feet, or up on the bleachers and picnic tables, for the duration of the show.

Here are some of the musical acts I have heard during the past three Summerfests: The Allman Brothers, Gov’t Mule, Derek Trucks Band, The Dead, Willie Nelson, Galactic, Los Lobos, Reverend Raven and His Chain-smoking Altar Boys, Lucinda Williams, Hank Williams, Jr., Rusted Root, Little Feat, Michael McDonald, Steely Dan, Ratdog, String Cheese Incident, Crosby, Stills, and Nash, Elvis Costello and Alan Toussiant, Ray Davies, Marcia Ball, Dark Star Orchestra, The Bel-Airs, Joan Jett, Jonny Lang, Frankie Perez and the Highway Saints, John Hiatt, Sonny Landreth, Lynyrd Skynyrd, moe., Wilco, Daryl Stuerner, John Fogerty, John Mellencamp, Michelle Shocked, Robert Randolph, Umphree’s McGee, Eileen Ivers, and Those Darn Accordions. Most of the bands that play Summerfest can be classified as rock, blues, or country, with a few world music and hip-hop acts thrown into the mix.

Downtown Milwaukee has hotels, restaurants, and museums nearby. Of special note is the Art Museum, a few blocks north of the festival grounds. It’s a beautiful building, with a wonderful permanent collection and touring exhibits. Miller Park is not far away, and is a great baseball stadium.

Milwaukee has been hosting Summerfest for 35 years now, and it’s the best street party I’ve ever attended. Thick crowds in the evening on the weekend can be a hassle, so pick the acts you want to see and get to those stages early. Bring lots of money – especially if you are buying rounds of beer for friends. Use the shuttle bus system, but try to sit or stand near the front of the bus on the way home. The Amtrak station is within walking distance of the festival. There is no camping allowed on the festival grounds, although limited camping is allowed in Veterans Park prior to the July 3 fireworks display. Marcus headliners will be announced gradually, starting in the spring. Popular acts will sell out quickly. If a Marcus show does not sell out, sometimes they will hand out free tickets early on the afternoon of that show.

If you like to drink beer and listen to good rock, blues, and country, this is the party for you!


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