As I amble along the empty Summerfest walkway beside the rocky shoreline to buy a crisp wheat ale for half-price at the nearly deserted Lakefront Brewery stand, I think to myself, this is pretty cool. The beer lines are empty. The passenger-less Skyglider is cruising peacefully over the nearby customer-less jewelry and clothing tents. Music drifts over and I see plenty of sunny seats open right in front of the day’s opening bands.
Yeah, I could get used to this.
Normally, the streets of Milwaukee would be blazing hot and bustling during Summerfest, with festers filling the bars, restaurants, buses, parks and the lakefront.
But this year, due to worries over COVID, Summerfest was moved to three weekends in September. So, when I came in for my annual Summerfest visit, it was odd to walk down quieter streets, and see school children running on playgrounds and downtown businessfolk in suits and ties running to lunch.
At the grounds of the world’s largest music festival, where I visited the second weekend, it was splendid to have milder temperatures, smaller crowds and some 4 o’clock shows with bands I actually heard of, like Soul Asylum, Third World and Toad the Wet Sprocket. And crowds did show up for those 4 p.m. shows.
Heck, even the Klement’s Sausage and Beer Garden had all its comfortable lounge chairs filled with senior citizens at 2:30 p.m. for Sigmund Snopek, whom I remember seeing in the early days of Summerfest as a kid. I wondered if I should have brought an AARP card for a discount. The brat saleslady told me I had just missed the $1 brats, but beers remained half-price until 6 p.m.
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So, I took advantage of the half-price Throwback Thursday beer special, which brought the price down to less than $5. While I could still find cheaper beer at a happy hour outside the gate, this at least saved some walking.
The short beer lines were a definite plus. But each night, as the crowds arrived for shows like Chris Stapleton and Sheryl Crow, the Goo Goo Dolls, O.A.R, Lindsey Sterling and Wilco, the lines for beer grew tremendously long. It’s known that Summerfest couldn’t get enough people to work, which explained why so many beer tents had just one beer line working instead of the usual half-dozen or so at each tent. It wasn’t uncommon to see 20 or more people lined up for an overpriced beer ($9.75 for a 16-ounce can of Leinenkugel’s Oktoberfest? Seriously?).
The music at all those shows was fantastic, as expected. Many of the musicians mentioned how great it was to be back on the road and performing in front of live audiences. At the Kesha concert on my last night, I did find myself boxed in with a very young crowd along the edge of a beer stand and noticed that the crowd was so thick, many people didn’t even notice that the bartender was available to sell a beer. Of course, most of the fans were 14 years old and probably wondering who this old dude was wearing a mask next to them.
After that – ahem – interesting show, and absorbing the kaleidoscope of sights and sounds of Summerfest for three days, I came to a few conclusions:
* I’m waiting until next year’s Throwback Thursday with its half-price beer before standing in any more Summerfest beer lines.
* The three-weekend format is OK, although I may miss those early Tuesday afternoons when I’d have the place to myself. Maybe next year, I’ll again have early Thursday afternoons to myself since the fest is keeping the new schedule.
* Who can argue with good 4 p.m. shows?
* Summerfest needs to pay bartenders more. Think of how much money Summerfest lost with people waiting in lines for beer instead of drinking beer. And while we’re at it, let’s have half-price beers every day from noon to 6 p.m.
* The musical magic of Summerfest was still intact. I could see the bands I wanted to right up close. Jade Bird was my must-see, and, masking up, I walked right over into the front row as she took the stage. At Manchester Orchestra, another one on my list, I could have pushed my way to the front, but decided to lay back so I could keep my mask off away from the crowd. I also listened to bands I never heard of and was blown away, TORRES, Tank and the Bangas and the Madison band, Armchair Boogie, come to mind.
* The noise bleed between stages seems even more ridiculous when pounding bass is coming out of the speakers at a stage where the crowd is as thin as an aging rockers’ hair, while the band at the next stage over is having a hard time following their own beat because of all the racket. This was especially noticeable at the Miller Lite Oasis, when Wilco was trying to get through their set. “Hey, can you turn it down a little,” said an exasperated Jeff Tweedy, motioning toward the new Generac Power Stage.
* I may have to limit myself to one weekend again. I’m not sure I’d want to hang around Milwaukee in-between weekends with only visits to Conejitos for tacos, Kopp’s for frozen custard and Bradford Beach for people watching and margaritas to keep me busy. OK, actually, that doesn’t sound too bad.
* I’m looking forward to Summerfest moving back to the middle of summer, so I can sweat to my favorite bands without having to think about what will await me back in the classroom the next day. They’ve already announced that Justin Bieber will headline Summerfest next June. Hurray! (For the return to the June-July schedule, not for Justin Bieber.)
* And lastly, let’s move September weather to June and July. Better beer drinking weather anyway. And if I don’t have to worry about my real job because it’s summer vacay, sign me up for a bartending shift, too.
Kris Kodrich, a Milwaukee native and a journalism professor at Colorado State University, has been attending Summerfest since he was a little kid with his family at that very first one in 1968.