Lots of cool things happened in 1998. I moved to Milwaukee to take a morning radio gig at the country station in town and got to experience my very first Summerfest. Don’t get me wrong…I’d been to lots of music festivals, tons of outdoor concerts and stadium shows but nothing prepared me for what I was about to see.
Walking through the south gates, it was sensory overload! Music, people, food …all around me. The main walkway through the grounds was loaded with vendors, beer stands and at that time, there was still carnival rides! I couldn’t make up my mind where to start. So, I headed into the nearest pavilion and found myself in a crowd of party people swaying to the tunes coming from the stage. It was a killer blues rock band halfway through their set and everyone around me was jamming to it. That was the first of half dozen bands I listened to that night on various stages throughout the Henry Maier Festival grounds. Every format of music was represented from classic rock, alternative, jazz, country, folk and more. Local bands, up and coming acts and music legends appear on free stages throughout this 11-day run, so it’s not unusual to see Alice Cooper, Phil Vassar and Cat Empire playing at the same time (and I did!). The fact that all of this is happening on the shores of Lake Michigan makes it truly exceptional. Over the next few days, I was in and out of the park looking forward to the main event on the 4th of July weekend. At the peak of her popularity, Shania Twain was headlining the Marcus Amphitheater and I was tapped to handle stage announcements for the show. The largest performance stage on the grounds, the amphitheater (now called the American Family Insurance Amphitheater) hosts the biggest touring acts of the year. Shania was playing to a sold-out crowd ready to party that night. I remember it was hot and humid, but from the stage I felt a breeze off the lake and the energy from this audience. Looking amazing as always, Shania hit the stage playing a non-stop set full of her biggest hits complimented by a stellar light show. But the most dramatic light show happened after the concert with 4th of July fireworks exploding over the lake. It is one of those scenes burned into the memory part of my brain forever…it was incredible.
So…. that was my first Summerfest! I’ve attended lots and lots of them since then…I’ve been lucky enough to introduce dozens of bands on stages all over the grounds. My annual ritual includes a stop at Jo Jos Martini bar, eating at Saz’s and riding the Sky Glider. Retail junkies like me find unique t-shirts and jewelry too. But the essence of Summerfest is the music. The enormity of this event is hard to describe. People like me will share stories about Summerfest, but you won’t really understand it until you’ve walked through the gates. It’s the Super Bowl of music festivals, unlike anything else anywhere else and should be on any music lovers bucket list!