The saying goes: “Always buy the concert tickets.” Every Summerfest there are a handful of performers who, in the back of your mind you think, “This might be the last chance for me to see this person/band.” A few years back I was thinking that Kris Kristofferson is 80 and probably won’t be doing a lot more touring, so I was glad to get to see him. (And I’m equally glad that he’s still drawing breath.) But, back in 1995, I didn’t know that attending my first ever Grateful Dead show would also end up being the last Dead show ever.
Then, there are the performers who you figure will always be around—there’s no urgency because you think you can always catch them “next time.” But, Prince for example, caught everyone off-guard. Only 57 when he died, he certainly seemed like someone who’d outlive Keith Richards, who at 74 has been busting rock ‘n’ roll death pools for decades. While it had been a more than a decade since Prince last performed at Summerfest, he had always seemed like a dark horse possibility, perhaps a mainstage headliner opening or closing night, not unlike when The Rolling Stones opened the fest a day early in 2015.
Even the “Farewell Tour” gambit seems played out. That one has bitten me more times than I can remember. Most notably, I got burned by The Who, who in 1996 staged a four-night stand in 1996 performing “Quadrophenia” for the “last time” at Madison Square Garden. It just so happened I was already going to be in NYC that week, so it seemed foolish not to go. I paid a tidy sum for a single ticket and attended what ended up being a terrific show. But, I felt cheated when The Who ended up bringing “Quadrophenia” to Chicago a year later on two separate tour legs. I should’ve remembered that The Who also did a “Farewell Tour” back in 1982.
Then there’s Tom Petty. As a somewhat recent Milwaukee transplant (I moved here in 2013) I’d had never been to Summerfest before seeing Tom Petty there in the summer of 2013. In fact, that summer, with all the bustle of moving here from Chicago, I only squeezed in a few big outdoor shows: Paul McCartney at Miller Park, Cheap Trick at Waukesha County Fair and Petty at Summerfest. While not the annual event it used to be in the beginning of this century, a Petty Summerfest gig was still a must-see event, even if his ubiquity at the Big Gig made it seem like you could skip a year.
After playing at Summerfest in 2013, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers would skip the next three summers here. So, when they decided that the 2017 tour would likely be the last, it was a no-brainer for my wife and me to buy tickets for that 2017 Summerfest appearance. Though it was billed as a “last hurrah” as far as a full-fledged tour was concerned, I got the feeling that he’d probably come back for Summerfest shows occasionally, not unlike in 2003 and 2006, when Petty’s only shows were here in Milwaukee.
Last summer’s July 5 show was special, a gorgeous summer evening. The best seat in the house is always near the sound board, so sitting directly behind the sound board was a good start. Being able to peek over the sound engineer’s shoulder and see the set list was fun, even if it did remove the element of surprise a bit. Throughout the show, Tom looked like he was having the time of his life, despite performing the show countless times before. He couldn’t know that this would be his penultimate Milwaukee show, but like any good performer, he gave it his all.
Anyone with a catalog as dense as Petty’s couldn’t possibly play every song you wanted to hear, but the Heartbreakers certainly hit the highlights and left you wishing that the band had another few hours to chip away at the songs not on the 19-song set list. All told, it was a magical evening. Commiserating afterward with our friends who’d also been to that show, I didn’t encounter a soul who was disappointed.
Always buy the concert tickets.