SUMMERFEST IS BACK when it belongs – in June and July. But were the crowds back too after 2021’s low attendance rates? Summerfest doesn’t provide official attendance ratings at this point in the event, but we sent a reporter with years of Big Gig experience under his belt to get a feel for how it compared to last year’s September dates as well as the many years before.
Summerfest brought in a crowd this past weekend. Don’t get me wrong. Henry Maier Festival Park wasn’t packed to the levels that became standard before the pandemic that forced the cancelation of the festival in 2020 and the shift in dates and scheduling format last year.
But there were signs of a return to normalcy.
I attended my first Summerfest years ago. So long ago, in fact, that the first major show I saw there was by Midwest roots rocker John Mellencamp, who was at the height of his popularity and still using “Cougar” as a middle name, of sorts, a moniker he would drop a few years later.
I’ve experienced the festival grounds so crowded that I’d see friends standing no more than 50 feet away on the main walkway and have no way to get to them without literally fighting my way through the masses. I’ve witnessed stages so packed that it was next to impossible to find a worthwhile vantage spot unless you staked out one hours ahead of time.
I’m not sure anyone is longing for the days when crowds in excess of 100,000 people would cram onto the grounds – I know I’m not – but last year didn’t feel much like Summerfest. I hosted a few friends from various parts of the country, two of whom attended Summerfest for the first time. Opening night attracted so few people to the park that it felt deserted and a bit surreal. Cool temperatures on one of the nights made it downright unpleasant if you didn’t come prepared with a jacket. We enjoyed ourselves, for sure, but it certainly was a far different Summerfest experience than I had come to know.
But those were challenging days for Summerfest and Milwaukee, in general. COVID-19 was still causing considerable concern. Unlike last year, festivalgoers aren’t required to provide proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test, which made passing through the entrance gates much less of a hassle this time around.
On Thursday night, sizable crowds formed around some stages but the main walkways on the grounds saw light pedestrian traffic and the all-important beer stands had, in most cases, short lines if any at all.
Especially noticeable was the sparse crowd that attended the performance by Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit at the BMO Harris Pavilion. Isbell, a top singer/songwriter with an extremely loyal following, and his tight band put on their usual top-notch performance despite a sea of empty seats, even in the lower reserved section.
Seemingly unfazed by the situation, Isbell, who also played in Milwaukee in December, told those in attendance that he was thankful for the return of Summerfest and appeared content just to be playing music outdoors on the grounds’ most scenic stage.
Anthrax drew a fairly large crowd at the Generac Power Stage and fans packed around the US Cellular Connection stage for Barenaked Ladies and the Uline Warehouse Stage for Modest Mouse, all of which took place late in the night.
Spectacular weather greeted patrons on Thursday and Friday, with cooler, overcast weather on Saturday mixed with some rain, although dry conditions prevailed for the late-night stage headlining performances. Friday night saw noticeably larger attendance on the grounds compared with opening night, even though American Family Insurance Amphitheater headliner Justin Bieber had to cancel his sold-out performance due to health issues.
The Generac stage drew a large nighttime crowd for The Breeders and stage headliner The Violent Femmes, arguably the most well-known Milwaukee band ever. Even after four decades, the Femmes’ music was as fresh as ever and the crowd, a mix that ranged from baby boomers to teens, stood on bleachers and picnic tables while dancing and singing along for the wildly energetic set.
A daylong glam and heavy metal lineup at the Uline Warehouse stage that featured performances by Quiet Riot, Lita Ford, Warrant and Skid Row, drew throngs of fans.
Saturday night saw crowds similar to Friday, but far from overwhelming.
A stirring performance on the Johnson Controls World Sound Stage by The Record Company drew a sizable audience that packed the covered venue. The blues-rock trio is fronted by Chris Vos, who grew up on a farm in Burlington. Vos spoke of his Southeastern Wisconsin roots during the show.
A sparse group gathered at the Generac Power Stage for Israeli singer and songwriter Noga Erez’s show. Nonetheless, Erez interacted with fans and spoke of the long distance she had traveled to perform at Summerfest.
Native Milwaukeean Steve Miller and his band played for a second consecutive night at the BMO Harris Pavilion on Saturday. The latter gig came about due to a last-minute cancelation by Heart frontwoman Ann Wilson due to COVID-19 issues with her band and crew, a sign that the pandemic is still causing of havoc. Summerfest staff made their way through the back section of the venue to dole out free reserved-seat tickets to fill vacant seats in the lower area close to the stage.
The Briggs & Stratton Big Backyard stage offered a baby boomer-focused lineup that featured Max Weinberg’s Jukebox, a talented cover band fronted by Bruce Springsteen’s long-time drummer. Stage headliner Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes, who like Springsteen has deep New Jersey roots, performed before an enthusiastic but small crowd.
A much larger crowd jammed the Miller Lite Oasis stage for young country singer Zach Bryan and the main grounds had periods of heavier pedestrian traffic before and after the triple-bill amphitheater show that featured Lil Wayne, Wiz Khalifa and Wu-Tang Clan.
Although Summerfest returned to its mid-summer time frame, the festival is still maintaining the scheduling format it adopted last year, running Thursday through Saturday over three successive weekends for a total of nine-days of music, food and drink.
Prior to the pandemic, Summerfest was carried out for 11 mostly consecutive days (the festival took a reset day on the Monday of its run in recent years). Summerfest officials have said that they will study attendance and other analytics following this year’s festival to determine whether the three-weekend format will become permanent and another “new normal” in a world that has experienced so much change over the past two years.
Despite some lingering uncertainty, when Violent Femmes lead singer Gordon Gano’s angst-filled voice wailed the lyrics of “Kiss Off,” accompanied by Brian Ritchie’s masterfully intense bass guitar playing and drummer John Sparrow pounding away with a set of brushes on a drum kit that included a Weber grill, the ghosts of Summerfest past seemed to awaken and the crowd, which had been whipped into a musical frenzy, roared its undying approval.
Summerfest returns on Thursday.