It’s a sizable task to explain the pleasantly overwhelming experience of Milwaukee’s Summerfest to an audience who possibly has never been, and—realistically—may not plan to, especially in the midst of such a festival-heavy era in music. How does it stack up to Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza, Coachella, or the myriad of music festivals dotting your calendar each year?
Summerfest claims to be “the world’s largest music festival,” and with more than 10 stages boasting live music all day long for 11 days, this may be close to the truth. This past weekend I returned to my hometown for the second weekend of this year’s festival, and left with a renewed appreciation for the event.
Growing up as a kid who never really had the means to get out of my immediate vicinity to experience other festivals, I was raised on Summerfest. I felt pretty lucky to have become a devotee of the “Big Gig” at a young age, as it seemed like a pretty good primer for music exploration outside of my parents’ CD collection.
Since my earliest Summerfest excursions, both my life and the festival have changed considerably, but my ritual has remained largely the same. I still take a highlighter to the lineup and devise a schedule with my concert-going friends weeks in advance. Satisfyingly, this process has yet to get old. Here’s why:
I get to watch “niche” bands evolve and grow. Summerfest provides a sort of launch pad for up-and-coming bands through efforts like their Emerging Artist series. As an example, Walk the Moon was featured as a contender for this title in 2011; this year, they returned as headliners.
I get to watch legendary musicians who inspire me acquire a new generation of fans. Some of my fondest and most formative musical memories happened at Summerfest: seeing the likes of Elvis Costello, Stevie Wonder, and Bob Dylan with my family. This year, I saw young families on their way to catch musicians like Neil Young, Buddy Guy, and even the Rolling Stones.
I get to watch some of my favorite local bands share stages with national and international performers. As a longtime fan, friend, and supporter of many bands across the Midwest, it fills me with pride that their work is valued and showcased in a world-class lineup.
I get to expand my own horizons. Each year, I become more appreciative of every genre, performance, and musician that come together to make Summerfest “the world’s largest music festival.” I also take note of how small that world can be. As I bumped into musical friends from all over the country during this year’s Summerfest, I realized that my own definition of “home” is spreading to encompass all of the local music scenes that I know and love.
How does Summerfest stack up to all the other festivals dotting your calendar? Honestly, I’m not confident that I can provide an unbiased answer. All I can tell you is it’s managed to secure that little musical spot in my Milwaukeean heart for at least one more year, even as I’ve firmly and happily taken root in the Twin Cities.