While Summerfest turns 51 this year, the Big Gig seems to be courting a younger fanbase with its freshest line-up in more than a decade.
The lineup may change from year-to-year, but the one constant at the city’s premier summer music festival lies in its mass appeal: At Summerfest, there’s always something for everybody. Even if live music just isn’t your thing, you can spend a pleasant afternoon at Summerfest enjoying the lakefront path while relishing the greasy decadence of Saz’s legendary combo platter and downing a cold Miller Lite or a root beer from one of the signature barrel stands. It might not have precisely what you want, but there’s typically some aspect of the eleven-day festival you will enjoy.
It’s kind of like popping into a corner store. Say you need toothpaste; there are like three options there, tops. Sure, it’s not an overwhelming selection, but you get what you need. Summerfest also works that way. Like a specific rapper? Well, there are three rappers performing throughout the festival’s run. But want toothpaste (rap music) and house-squeezed orange juice (psychedelic funk)? You may need to make two stops.
But even though the scope of Summerfest is wide, the majority target audience for the past decade (at least) has skewed towards older generations, with good reason. The fest has been cautious and judicious in its reliance on safer, perhaps less expensive acts. Just five years ago, one of the first acts to play the Big Gig was the Milwaukee cover band Boomer Nation — sounds reliable. That year the amphitheater headliners consisted of The Eagles, Rush, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, and John Mayer — all solid bets.
However, over the last few years and especially this one, the festival seems to be undergoing a sea change. The lineup seems targeted toward a younger festival-goer. For me, a 31-year-old music fan who’s spent more than a decade in Milwaukee, this is the best lineup Summerfest has put together in my time. Among an impressive assortment of amphitheater headliners, there are more women being represented (Halsey, Charli XCX, Grace Vanderwaal, Bebe Rexha, Bonnie Ratt, Régine Chassagne of Arcade Fire) and there are two separate nights of hip hop: The Weeknd with Big Boi (July 7) and J. Cole (July 3). Some years this doesn’t happen.
These big headlining concerts only represent a small cross section of the changes at this year’s Summerfest. The real meat can always be found in the side stage headliners, which are definitely punching above their weight this year. Names like Janelle Monae, Kesha, Pixies, The Flaming Lips, Grizzly Bear, Chromeo and Benjamin Booker will all be performing sets — it’s not an overly extensive list, but it’s a more relevant, must-see list of concerts than in the past. The highlights from five years ago, for comparison, were Yeah Yeah Yeahs and MGMT.
The festival seems to want to gain ground outside the state. It’s safe to say Summerfest dominates the entertainment media in Milwaukee — it’s not easy finding an outlet that’s unimpressed by the annual line-up reveal. So how about an outside source? The Chicago-based entertainment website Consequence of Sound posted both about the 2013 line-up and the 2018 one. In its 2013 post, the site mentions 23 out of the more than 700 bands playing the festival. This year the site mentioned more than 60 artists. The festival poster even looks like something more along the lines of a young, hip festival like Coachella or Lollapalooza than what Summerfest has been pitched as in the past. It’s as if the corner store has replaced all the toothpaste containers with vape pens.
But while the festival seems to be trending younger, it will never compete with those big name music festivals, nor should it even try. One of the best aspects of Summerfest is the inclusive the environment it inhabits. It’s a place where teachers awkwardly pass students on their way to different, separately entertaining shows. It’s a place where there’s no shame in eating a pizza cone on your way to a turkey leg and eating a turkey leg on your way to some Reuben rolls.
It’s a place where everyone should be able to feel welcome and have some fun.