Summerfest is an annual music festival held in a permanent, seventy-five acre Festival Park along the beautiful shoreline of Lake Michigan in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The festival runs for eleven days, on eleven stages, with performances from more than 800 acts with over a 1,000 performances. Since the 1970s, it’s run from late June through early July. Summerfest attracts between eight and nine hundred thousand people each year, making it “The World’s Largest Music Festival,” a title that’s been certified by Guinness World Records since 1999.
My first experience at Summerfest was in 1971. Though memories of these things sometimes fade, I located newspaper clippings published at that time to corroborate my recollection. Among other things I recall, it was a very wet experience.
Admission to the festival grounds was a dollar fifty at the gate or an even dollar if you bought a mail order ticket in advance. There were no additional postage or handling charges. Just mail a buck with a SASE. Postage was eight cents back then. A savings of just thirty-four cents, once you subtract the cost for two stamps, wasn’t even enough incentive for a college kid to plan ahead. Besides, my summer job at the local cheese factory kept me in enough pocket money to enjoy an occasional concert spontaneously.
This event was on a Sunday, the final day of the festival. Early on, it had been promoted as a “Surprise Rock Spectacular.” The acts were revealed just two weeks before the show. They were John Sebastian, recently gone solo from the Luvin’ Spoonful; Poco, founded by some former Buffalo Springfield members; and Mountain, four loud, hard rockers led by behemoth guitar shredder, Leslie West. A band named Tayles, from Madison, Wisconsin, and Mylon, a southern gospel-rock group were the opening acts.
Fifty thousand music fans were gathering at the Lakefront Amphitheater stage when my date and I arrived late Sunday afternoon. It had been raining intermittently all day, leaving a sparkling sheen on every exposed surface.
Like today, Summerfest was sponsored primarily by Milwaukee’s famous breweries. Miller High Life and Pabst Blue Ribbon are perhaps the only originals still around. Unlike today, festival beer was served up in glass bottles. A new minimum drinking age of eighteen had been enacted recently, so there was plenty of bottled beer consumption, resulting in plenty of empty bottles.
One newspaper account had listed John Sebastian as the concert headliner, clearly an error as we’d suspected and confirmed by handbills posted on the festival grounds. Mountain would be the main attraction. We missed Mylon who, I learned recently, was managed by Felix Pappalardi of Mountain, the concert headliners. We arrived instead near the end of Tayles’ set.
I’d really been looking forward to hearing Poco and hoped the concert wouldn’t be affected by the rain which had started up again. After a lengthy delay, Poco came out on stage, tuned up a bit, and began playing.
After just two songs, Hurry Up and Hear That Music, frontman Richie Furay tersely announced that Rusty Young, their pedal steel guitarist, had been hit by a beer bottle. To my great disappointment, Poco abruptly left the stage as loud booing and buckets of rain began to pour forth.
When the rain eventually eased up, a soggy audience cheered as John Sebastian, acoustic guitar in hand, strolled out to a microphone and announced, “I’ll play for ya. Jus’ don’t throw no bottles at me.” He played an entire set and two encores without incident. Memorable songs included Younger Girl, Darlin’ Be Home Soon and Red-Eye Express. Sometimes all it takes to tame an otherwise unruly concert crowd is politely asking not to be a beer-bottle target.
Finally, as rain continued to fall, Mountain took the stage. Leslie West, Felix Pappalardi, Corky Laing, and Steve Knight simply blew us away. If any bottles were thrown toward the stage during Mountain’s set, the high decibel sound waves might’ve stopped them in flight. I could still hear Nantucket Sleighride, Mississippi Queen, and For Yasgur’s Farm ringing in my ears on the long drive home after the show. It helped me forget about how wet and cold we were.
In four decades of semi-regular Summerfest attendance since then, I’ve heard such notable artists as Roy Orbison, the Moody Blues, Robin Trower, Linda Ronstadt, Kansas, Michael Franti, the Freddy Jones Band, Green Children and many others, including jazz, folk and blues musicians from all over the world. There were rising stars and those at the end of long careers. I saw comedian Billy Crystal perform there early in his career, and heard Linda Ronstadt announce to the Milwaukee crowd, “It’s so great to be here in Indiana!” We were quick to correct her geography. My wife saw comedian George Carlin arrested by Milwaukee police for performing his Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television routine.
The biggest stars continue to perform at Summerfest in what’s now a 25,000-seat amphitheater at one end of the festival grounds for which tickets are sold at much higher prices than Summerfest’s nominal gate cost. And though it’s no longer just a buck fifty for general admission, Summerfest remains one of the best bargains for live music around, still hosting hundreds of musical acts on eleven different stages, over eleven consecutive days.
On my July 2, 2018 radio show, Life Out of Tunes on Asheville FM, I’ll be spinning songs from that first Summerfest experience and from other artists I’ve heard at the festival over the years.