Another Summerfest: 11 Days, 
11 Stages, Over 800 Acts, and Nearly 900,000 of Your Closest Friends

While it is true that Summerfest provides the scrim for music’s exploding stars on the market today, they also supply an array of additional features and talent. Local music paramour, in a variety of endowment, also help to create an enchanting and enduring live music experience in this blue-ribbon festival setting.

On some days, “Festers” are sure to enjoy Patrick Cudahy’s bacon eating contest. The winner even receives a year’s supply of bacon, courtesy of Patrick Cudahy.

On other days, Dean’s Milk & Ice Cream supplies ice cream for Children’s Fest Day with local television station TMJ4 and Sentry Foods. Everyone wins.

This year in 2015, the festival’s attendance was down 9.3 percent, as the fest drew only 772,652. The Big Gig blamed the downturn on some big headaches. A three-day Milwaukee County Transit bus drivers strike was one, also nearby major road construction and chilly temperatures rocked the fest’s boat.

Husband and wife musicians Kristen Urban and Bunny General of The Urbanites experience that it's cooler by the lake

Husband and wife musicians Kristen Urban and Bunny General of The Urbanites experience that it’s cooler by the lake

On a positive note, an additional 23,000 fans attended the Rolling Stones’ Summerfest kickoff event held on June 23, the day before the actual festival started, and this helped bolster the bottom line.

Buddy Guy joined the Rolling Stones onstage at Summerfest

Buddy Guy joined the Rolling Stones onstage at Summerfest

The origins of the fest are as follows: In the 1960s, then Mayor, the late Henry Maier, had a vision of Summerfest after his visit to Oktoberfest, held in Munich, Germany. In 1968 the fest debuted at 35 separate locations at a variety of schools and parks, while bands were driven around from spot to spot.

By the ’70s it was moved to a lakefront park now sporting the late great Mayor Maier’s name. Today’s stages are deluxe and state-of-the-art, whereas the original stages consisted of wooden platforms raised on concrete blocks. The BMO-Harris Stage, for example, is the newest and largest stage and is 70 feet wide and 40 feet deep.

The many side stages are not counted in the 11-stage figure, and are built the week prior by mostly novices who must build to endure winds that may exceed 45 mph and heavy rains or excessive heat or cold. This year, one night, the temps dropped into the ’50s.

The countless acts seen performing on the side stages help bring the band stats up to over 800 acts.

Several artists are accountable for birthing many of these side stages, including the Tiki–Hut, The Rebel Stage, The Renegade Stage, The Ground Floor Stage and the (now defunct) Refugee Stage. These stages have one thing in common, they all garner nearly a million impressions, and their managers mostly try to raise capitol and bring in outside sponsors.

Jon Paris performs at the Harley-Davidson Roadhouse Stage

Jon Paris performs at the Harley-Davidson Roadhouse Stage. Photo by Rich Zimmerman

Johnny on Washday is credited for starting the side stage phenom found peppering the lake front path experience. Other artists, such as Coventry Jones and Bibi Adell, too have been instrumental in birthing stages.

Stage manager Tommy Vega supports his Tiki-Hut and stage with merchandising. Bibi Adell is the go-to person to start discussions about sponsorship and stage ownership. Rumors have surfaced that she is now in cahoots with Sherry Gordy Presents in Vegas trying to connect the musical dots.

Artist and Stage Manager at The Renegade Stage Coventry Jones restrings his guitar in between performances

Artist and Stage Manager at The Renegade Stage Coventry Jones restrings his guitar in between performances

This year, Coventry Jones is releasing his 6th album and is vying for a Grammy nomination. Johnny on Washday has returned after a 6-year hiatus due to experiencing Fatherhood for the first time. But like any tight-knit community that is well run and has a pecking order, Washday’s spot was held for him to return and he did just this year.

Descriptively, the Tiki-Hut might be a stage where the artists Mother’s still possibly comb their hair, with clean, crisp talent playing folk and soft melodies by singer-songwriters. It has an amazing tie-dye merchandise booth attached, and is comfortable to hang around.

The Rebel is made up of raging orphans and their punk and metal music friends, and they sell sweatshirts, don Irish kilts, and for fun have been seen tossing empty kegs of beer, Milwaukee style. Somewhere in the middle is The Renegade Stage, which is made up of Generation Y and X-ers and their music may lean towards rock, jazz, soul, rockabilly and bluegrass, as well as unsung Baby Boomers in progressive and punk modals.

Sheila E. Photo by Rich Zimmerman

Sheila E. Photo by Rich Zimmerman

The fest boasts that it is about live music, great food and cold beer, and that it is a party perched on the picturesque Lake Michigan, a wonderful place to shop, and that it has interactive entertainment available for the whole family. It’s all true.

Summerfest is located in Milwaukee, Wis., and considered to be “The World’s Largest Music Festival” according to Guinness World Records, and will celebrate its 50th Anniversary in 2017. For more on the annual event, visit summerfest.com.

Calvin Brown Jr. Band

Calvin Brown Jr. Band

Barbara Meyer-Spidell coming at ya from Summerfest

Barbara Meyer-Spidell coming at ya from Summerfest


About the Author

Barbara Meyer-Spidell is a multimedia performing and recording artist, project manager, music historian and documentarian.

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