MILWAUKEE — In a different life, far removed from responsibility, the end of June and the beginning of July was magical.
In my first two trips to Summerfest in the early 1980s, there were shows at the main stage by Chicago and the Beach Boys.
The Marcus Amphitheater didn’t exist and the best “seating” consisted of rows of flat bleachers that filled in quickly as we raced across the top to get close to the stage, its back to Lake Michigan.
This was when guys like Buddy Rich and B.B. King would play the Miller Jazz Oasis, beers were $1 and Barry’s Truckers would play cover tunes from the 1950s and ’60s on the Pabst Blue Ribbon stage multiple times during the Fest’s 11-day run.
So it was an odd feeling when I returned to the festival grounds last week during the start of its 45th annual run.
I don’t think I missed a Summerfest from 1981 to 1997. Many of those years the trip from Watertown, and later Madison, would occur four or five times each summer to catch acts like John Cougar Mellencamp, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Eddie Money, Peter Frampton, the BoDeans and dozens of other bands I can’t recall. We also ate our share of Saz’s barbecue and mozzarella marinara; Chicago-style hot dogs from Martino’s and tried, but never succeeded at getting a hole in one on a floating green.
My first visit since 1999 was short, I was by myself and had no intention of drinking a $5 beer or dancing on a picnic table. After all, it was noon when the gates opened Wednesday and I only had a few hours to take in the scene before heading home for my 11-year-old daughter’s softball game.
There’s also mortgage payments, a 14-year-old headed to college in four years, my wife, Mary, and a boat in the shop with a major repair bill on the way.
But for some, the party continues. Almost 1 million people flock to the festival grounds to hear 700 bands each year.
Wally Savard attended his first Summerfest in 1981 when he saw James Taylor. He’s now 59 and has only missed attending one or two years since. When I spoke with him just before the gates opened, he was wearing a 10-year-old Summerfest T-shirt.
“This is my favorite day of the year,” said Savard, who took the day off from his job as an actuary with Northwestern Mutual Insurance. “I’m going to retire this year, so it will be easier to come down next year.”
For the most part, Summerfest is still the same but with better and more restrooms, a cleaner look and feel and an audience that continues to ignore its age. However, it could stand to lose the Sensodyne Dental Health Spa and its team of hygienists, Wal-Mart auditioning people for a commercial and former Green Bay Packers great Paul Hornung, who was hawking his autographed book, “Lombardi and Me.” When I was there, few people approached. The 76-year-old Hall of Fame player charging $40 truly looked out of place.
But the Sky Glider still gives riders an aerial tour of the 75-acre grounds, Saz’s and Martino’s are still popular, the sun is still hot and even some of the bands are the same.
Chicago and the Beach Boys will both play Sunday — the Beach Boys in the 23,000-seat Marcus Amphitheater constructed in 1987 and Chicago on the new BMO Harris Pavilion stage along with Milwaukee favorite Streetlife with Warren Wiegratz.
Dave Sharp, 42, has been attending Summerfest for 23 years. But this year was the first time he was working the event. Unemployed but looking for a sales and marketing job, he poured taps of Leinenkugel beer at the Leinie Lodge but recalled some of his favorite shows.
“Nine Inch Nails, Rob Zombie, Judas Priest, I can’t keep track,” Sharp said.
Summerfest is also about experiencing new music. And I stumbled upon a terrific act that just happens to be from Wisconsin.
Donoma is led by Stephanie Vogt whose powerful voice is backed by five other band mates not afraid to let it rip. The alternative rock band, based in the Kenosha, won a battle of the bands competition at McAuliffe’s Pub in Racine to get a spot on the U.S. Cellular stage. They play again Friday on the smaller Refugee Stage designed for newer artists.
“These guys are one of the most eclectic bands in Wisconsin,” said J.J. McAuliffe, who was on hand to see Wednesday’s 12:30 p.m. show. Playing at Summerfest is “just a huge step for them. A great thing to have on (their) resume.”
Vogt, 23, is multi-talented playing keyboards, guitar, tambourine and flute. Her father, Bob Vogt, is the band’s manager.
Stephanie Vogt said during a break between sets that their inaugural appearance at the Big Gig was just another step in the evolution of the 4-year-old band. She was also pumped about being on the same stage that Southern California punk band Social Distortion played a few years earlier.
“This is just exciting,” Vogt said. “We practice every day. We’re not in it as a hobby.”
I’m not sure when I’ll return to the Fest. It won’t be this year. We’ll be at a Brewers game on Wednesday using the portable grill my daughter bought me for Father’s Day. There’s her softball game on Thursday night and my son’s playoff game at West Madison Little League on Saturday.
Maybe next year.
Barry Adams covers regional news for the State Journal and misses attending Summerfest.