To a Lifelong Fan, Summerfest’s New Format Still Rocks

Kris Kodrich has been attending the Big Gig since 1968. He’s using the three-weekend Summerfest to slow down and appreciate Milwaukee.

The sticky, wicked heat still oppresses the soul. The overpriced beer still oppresses my wallet.

But sitting in the lingering sweltering Summerfest sun while grooving on the saxophone-driven jams of Mindi Abair and the Wild Hearts on Day 4 of the 2022 music festival, I realize I’m not wilting in the typical mid-fest doldrums – you know, that creeping malaise that arises after watching dozens of bands over dozens of hours day after day after day in sweltering heat tempered only by that occasional overpriced beer.

I attribute my now surprisingly perky attitude to this year’s three-weekend format – Day 4 was actually Day 1 of the second weekend run.

Woo-hoo! As someone who grew up in Milwaukee and attended the very first festival in 1968 as a little kid with his family and who has been making annual treks to Summerfest ever since, no matter what state I’ve been living in, I get to slow down my annual Milwaukee visit a bit. This year’s format allowed for visiting family and friends at a more relaxed pace, exploring small towns around Wisconsin on off days, walking along the incredible Bradford Beach every morning I can.

Unlike last year when the three-weekend format was tried for the first time not in the heat of summer but in moderately cooler September, this year is a true test of the new format. Last year, many of the traditional ‘festers, including myself, found it impossible to structure their lives around Summerfest, with jobs, travel constraints, children’s school commitments and so on, to contend with.

So, this year, my Wisconsin friends who don’t typically structure their plans and lives around Summerfest have been asking their personal Summerfest expert – me! – whether I like the three-weekend format, which reportedly is under consideration for future Summerfests, pandemic notwithstanding.

I was prepared not to like this new format. After all, I thought I would miss having Tuesday or Wednesday early afternoons to myself on the grounds as often was the case with the 11-day run of the past. I thought I would miss getting my ‘festing done in one extended swoop then moving onto the rest of my summer activities with friends and family back home in Colorado.

But now that I’m in the middle of this new format – last year, I only could manage one weekend with my September schedule; this year, my summer flexibility as an educator allows me to plan around the full Summerfest experience – I am liking it more and more. And that’s not just because there seems to be more beer stands and bartenders this year, so the lines for beer were minimal. Well, except for final minutes of Throwback Thursday’s half-price beers, when droves of sweaty, thirsty and frugal ‘festers, converged on the beer vendors.

For me, showing up for concerts without the Summerfest malaise from days and days of straight-on-through ‘festing is an unexpectedly good feeling. I had spent a couple of days hanging out with friends on the Wolf River near Fremont in between Summerfest weekends, so I approached Day 4 feeling refreshed.

I also managed to work in some other local events, like the Chill on the Hill concerts at Humboldt Park, that I otherwise wouldn’t have been able to attend. I was able to make my usual runs to favorite South Side taco places like Conejitos while also trying some new places like La Casa de Alberto. With the new Summerfest format, I’ve been able to wander favorite Milwaukee neighborhoods like Brady Street, Bay View and Walkers Point. I’ve even checked out the new Third Street Market Hall, which is a nice addition to Downtown, as well as the popular Milwaukee Public Market a few blocks away.

I think I’m now all in on this new format. It did remind me of a trip to the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival a number of years ago. I remember thinking how odd its weekend-only format was because I had grown up with the nonstop Summerfest, weekdays and all.

Yes, times change. I’m sure financially it makes sense to have the higher attendance that weekends bring. It’s also nice that Summerfest also schedules more headliners earlier in the day for us now-old folks, which is something I’ve long been an advocate for. (Early headliners, that is, not growing old. But, as they say, growing old is better than the alternative.)

While this new format does mean an annual three-week trek to Milwaukee if I want to attend all three weekends, I think I can handle it. As I’ve managed to make the case now for 50-plus years, Summerfest isn’t a bad way to listen to an incredibly diverse selection of top-notch music at a bargain price. And, yes, it’s still better than the alternative.

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.