For me, the return of Milwaukee’s Summerfest each year brings with it the thrill to see favorite bands jiving out the hits for the cost of a few overpriced beers.
After more than a half-century of attending the world’s largest music festival, I always try to soak in the first day, when everything has that new-car feel, and leave knowing that life is going to be OK – that despite whatever social and political divisions society is facing, music will bond tens of thousands of people of all races, faith, ages and personalities to partake in a bit of summer happiness over each of the 11 days on the city’s lakefront.
Alas, the pandemic will have none of that this year.
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Oh, I woke up Wednesday knowing full well that Summerfest 2020, dammit, had been canceled. So instead of basking in my summer routine of a sticky, steamy, sweaty summer day in the city, I found myself 1,000 miles away, home in Colorado. Why make the road trip from the Rocky Mountains to my native Milwaukee if I can’t see my favorite bands at the Miller Lite Oasis or Harley-Davidson Roadhouse, or discover some talented but weird local bands at the Rebel stage or the Tiki Hut stage?
I was determined to still honor the day – even if the “Big Gig” was canceled. So, I roused my two daughters, Kalia and Bianka, who at ages 19 and 15, have had years of Summerfest adventures thanks to their dear old dad. I asked, “What’s the best café in Fort Collins that can compare with the lakefront Colectivo in Milwaukee we normally would be at today, preparing for the opening day of Summerfest?” They agreed that it would be The Alley Cat, which doesn’t have views of Lake Michigan but instead offers a view of a nice alley.
So, I dug out my “Smile On” Summerfest t-shirt from 2007 and my Summerfest smile baseball cap from 2010, and we headed out into the pandemic, with our face masks and sanitizer. I had to loosen the Summerfest cap to make way for my pandemic mountain of hair, reminiscent of my hair back in 1977 when I went to go see Judas Priest at Summerfest with a high school buddy. On our way to the coffee shop, Peter Gabriel came on the radio with “In Your Eyes,” and I proudly told my kids, “I saw him a couple of times at Summerfest.” They rolled their eyes, as they’ve been hearing me make similar proclamations of musicians I’ve seen at Summerfest their entire lifetimes.
That’s just the way it is. I’ve been going to Summerfest since the very first one. My mom took me and my siblings to what was the start of Summerfest in 1968. And I’ve made just about every one since – I missed only two years when I was traveling outside of the country. Conservatively, I’ve seen at least 2,000 bands over the years. And I almost always get in free (through free tickets, promotions, etc.) so I’ve probably saved $50,000, assuming there’s at least a dozen or so bands each year that I would otherwise have paid money to see at other venues.
Put simply, I love Summerfest. The music. The crowds. The sudden thunderstorms. The sweltering heat. The chilly lake breezes. The chance encounters. The memories.
After the Alley Cat, I ditched the kids, and decided to take my dog Koko to our favorite mountain park, about a half-hour away. I packed a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a banana and we were off. If I didn’t have Summerfest, I at least wanted to do something fun.
Driving off in my car, I listened as KBCO Radio was in the middle of 29 songs in a row. And I quickly heard Third Eye Blind’s “Semi-Charmed Life,” Death Cab for Cutie’s “Northern Lights,” and, as it turned noontime in Milwaukee (when Summerfest would have been opening), the Head and the Heart’s “Missed Connection.” All bands I’ve seen at Summerfest. Profoundly good timing for a Colorado radio station. Still, Koko was unimpressed when I kept muttering, “I’ve seen them at Summerfest,” for nearly every band that played on the radio during our drive.
Later, as Koko and I walked along the rushing Big Thompson River, I pondered what lesson I could take from this – not just the lost Summerfest, but this whole stinkin’ pandemic. I’ve wondered where the past 100 days have gone. Time has no meaning. The day before, I was opening mail that has been piling up since March. I filled out car registrations for expiring license plates that went unnoticed. I saw my taxes that haven’t been done. I noticed the stack of reminders from the federal government to fill out the census form.
And these past few months have been particularly troubling on the family front. My brother and his wife have been struggling with their troubled son. An uncle in Nicaragua, Tío José, has been battling cancer. My Uncle Bob, who was married to my godmother for 56 years, died recently at age 77, with the memorial Mass set for this Friday in Milwaukee. And just today, while we were in the Alley Cat, I got a call that said another uncle, Tío Pedro, had died in Nicaragua that morning from COVID-19.
I’m not sure of how this relates to Summerfest. Except that my life has revolved around Summerfest for so many years, that I now realize that no matter what is going on, whether it involves work, friends, relationships or family, whether it involves happiness or sadness, whether it involves struggle or achievement, Summerfest has been there.
Last year, two of my best friends and I arranged to meet at the Klement’s Sausage and Beer Garden to toast our friend, Mike, who died a few months earlier. Over the years, Summerfest has always been a time to reflect upon the year that has passed. Thankfully, most years the good outweighs the bad.
This year, I wanted desperately to be able to toast this whole coronavirus thing goodbye. What a crazy, messed-up year. Unfortunately, that Summerfest toast is going to have to wait.
Milwaukee native Kris Kodrich has been attending Summerfest since his mom dragged him to the very first one in 1968 as an innocent, musically disinclined child. Now a journalism professor at Colorado State University, Kris continues to make the annual trek to Summerfest, measuring his life progressions with bands and beer.