To say that Summerfest has been an influential part of my growing up in Milwaukee would be an understatement. Over the course of the last fourteen or so years, I’ve stood on many a bleacher with my friends, walked numerous laps around the Summerfest grounds, and can safely say that I must have consumed my body weight in Saz’s sampler platters as well. I have made tons of visits to Summerfest since I was a little kid, and while I have dozens of shows that could be in the running for my favorite, one of the fondest memories was my first Summerfest headlining show, Sum 41 at the Harley Davidson Roadhouse in 2003. I was twelve years old.
While I don’t know if there really is a definitive age that kids get into music, I’d like to think that I found punk rock, and subsequently MTV’s version of pop punk, at an earlier age than most. There was a transformative year that toys and games made way for albums from NOFX, Rancid, and The Distillers on my Christmas list, and bands like Blink 182 and Sum 41 dominated the morning music video blocks that MTV would air that following summer. Needless to say, when the Summerfest lineup showed that Deryck, Stevo, Cone, and Dave would be supporting their “Does This Look Infected?” album at the Harley-Davidson Roadhouse, a healthy amount of parental begging was in order, but I needed to be at that concert. The 10:00 pm time slot almost assured that this was a no-go for someone my age, but luckily, my older cousin Chris was willing to chaperone. In retrospect, I probably still owe him for that one.
To be honest, I can’t actually tell you much about the events leading up to entering the Harley-Davidson Roadhouse area. I remember walking the grounds in awe at the amount of people that were together in one place, as I had normally been to the festival earlier in the day with my family and sparser crowds. Years and years of Summerfest experiences have made anything else before the show a blur, and seeing literally hundreds of Summerfest shows have created enough memories to cloud almost everything pre-Sum 41 from that night. However, I will never forget the scene of what ended up being my first punk show. I do recall seeing a then-emerging band called Alkaline Trio opening up for Sum 41, and that someone in the crowd, much to the chagrin of security and fans alike, had climbed a light pole to get a better view of the show. He was quickly escorted down, but I had to wonder, “what was I getting into here?”
The sun had set completely, giving me my first taste of the energy on the grounds when the sun goes down at The Big Gig. We stood in a sea of kids, most older than me, and a healthy number of parents as well. Clearly, my cousin wasn’t the only chaperone, which to me, was a bit of a sigh of relief. I eagerly awaited the night’s headliner, while trying to look as cool as a twelve year old in a Sum 41 shirt from Hot Topic could (give me a break, I was new to this). Once the band took the stage, a wave of adolescent screams overpowered the sound system. For the next hour or so, everything that I had seen on TV and the internet was suddenly real for the first time; crowdsurfers, mosh pits, and the energy of a live concert was all actually happening in front of my eyes. I grinned from ear to ear watching a mob of kids jumping up and down in rhythm to songs like “Still Waiting,” “In Too Deep,” and the band’s breakout hit, “Fat Lip.” I also learned a few new words, but that’s a story for another day. I was hooked. Not just on Sum 41, but on live music in general, and definitely on Summerfest.
Summerfest 50 will be (at least) my fifteenth consecutive festival, as I haven’t missed a year since that fateful Sum 41 show. Over the years, the festival has introduced me to music of all genres, and more importantly, provided me with some of my first glimpses into the Milwaukee music scene, which I now cover daily at Breaking And Entering. There have since been many, many more, and arguably better shows over all of those years, but you never forget your first real Summerfest experience. I actually caught Sum 41’s set in the Marcus Ampitheater at the Milwaukee stop of the 2016 Vans Warped Tour, and hearing the band, much less seeing them live, still brings back memories of that first show. Summerfest brought me my first taste of live music, and who knows where I would be today without that initial, influential night.