Summerfest opening day
Decider goes looking for big fun at The Big Gig
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Summerfest is a hot ticket—hot like a potato that’s been slow-cooked in the deepest, darkest depths of hell. As I walked a mile from my car to the Summerfest grounds—making a trek Thursday to the festival’s opening day, like the good Milwaukeean I am—I was approached by approximately 57 people who wanted to sell me tickets. Summerfest is so big, people buy tickets just to sell them at face value three blocks from the gate.
Like most locals, I have mixed feelings about The Big Gig. The lineups are normally underwhelming, the grounds are largely nondescript and ugly, and the food is overpriced and lukewarm—and, yes, please, I’ll have seconds. For a festival that people spend a lot of time bitching about, Summerfest sure drew a buttload of folks on opening day. The throngs struggling to get through the front gate spilled out into the street—about two-dozen rows of sweat-soaked people deep. I decided to cut it over to the entrance on the southern end of the grounds by Marcus Amphitheater, where I was met by a gaggle of leathery blondes lining up for the Bon Jovi concert. One blonde very generously shared her surgically enhanced body parts with fellow concertgoers via a tank-top that offered slightly more coverage than two strands of dental floss. I’m willing to bet she has a vibrator at home named Richie. Any takers?
After purchasing a Water Street Honey Lager Light, I headed over to the Briggs & Stratton Big Backyard stage to see Appleton’s Cory Chisel And The Wandering Sons.
After some initial struggles acclimating to the overbearingly large stage, Chisel and his able four-piece band—highlighted by the golden-haired female “son” Adriel Harris—pulled it together and delivered a quiet, lovely set, which previewed several songs from his forthcoming major-label, full-length debut helmed by The Shins and The White Stripes producer Joe Chiccarelli.
What was this? I’ve already had three beers? I headed out looking for something a little louder and caught the end of a blistering set by Meat Puppets at the U.S. Cellular Connection Stage. I had hoped to hear “Lake Of Fire,” which I tabbed as a likely set closer, but I found out later that the ’80s underground legends ripped off a fantastic take of the song right before I got there. Meat Puppets instead closed with “Backwater” off of 1994’s Too High To Die—a decent song the band played fantastically. After all the terrible things the Kirkwood brothers have been through in the past 15 years—memorably documented in this A.V. Club interview—seeing them play so well was joyously heartwarming and easily the best thing about Summerfest’s opening night.
I wish I could say the same about U.S. Cellular headliner Matthew Sweet, a personal favorite who made a series of terrific power-pop records in the ’90s, including 1991’s epochal Girlfriend. But recent years have not been kind to Sweet, who looked at least 100 pounds overweight and in desperate need of a shower and a shave. Not that it would matter if he could still bring the goods, but he was clearly winded from trying to keep up with his back catalog. I would have thought it impossible for a song as pretty as “I’ve Been Waiting” to ever depress me, but hearing Sweet maul one of his best songs sent me scurrying from the stage.
In contrast, the normally hyper-depressive Conor Oberst proved that he’s on his way to becoming his generation’s Tom Petty during a pleasingly raucous set of country-rock tunes backed by The Mystic Valley Band. Oberst dedicated his set to the memory of Michael Jackson, even though most audience members probably learned about Thriller from older siblings or even (gulp) their parents. Still, Oberst didn’t dwell too much on tragedy; instead, he delivered a surprisingly beer-friendly set not all that removed from the straightforward roots rock of Summerfest faves BoDeans. (Incredibly, I mean that as a compliment.)
At the end of the night, and after four too many beers, I made the Summerfest equivalent of a booty call: I headed over to the M&I Classic Rock Stage to catch the end of Loverboy’s set. I wouldn’t seek out a Loverboy concert under normal circumstances, but that’s the beauty of Summerfest—it provides ample opportunity to see bands you’d only want to see after marinating in alcohol for several hours. Sure enough, when I walked up to the stage, Loverboy was playing “Workin’ For The Weekend.” Does Loverboy have any other songs, or does it just play “Workin’ For The Weekend” over and over for 80 minutes? At any rate, the weekend had already begun for all us Summerfest attendees. So play it again, Loverboy. Play it again.