11 days. 11 stages. 800+ bands. Summerfest can be intimidating when you look at it that way. There’s no way you’ll ever be able to see everything, and you fear that you’ll miss something great because you chose to go the wrong day or skipped a set because you don’t know the band already. It’s a crazy festival, but you can have a good time if you just take it easy. They program this festival so that there’s something for everyone. At any given time there are multiple bands playing, you just have to give it a shot.
This year I was only able to get up to Milwaukee for one day. Luckily Gary Clark jr was headlining a stage that day, so I was excited to road trip it up to the fest and walk around the grounds for a while. Even without listening to music, I could have fun just walking the promenade, smelling all the food and watching the people mill around from one stage to the next. I had Blue Moon ice cream for the first time in about 15 years! That alone was worth the trip.
It was surprisingly cold for a late June day when we went, but it seemed like attendance was right around the same as I remembered it from a couple years ago. We set up came at the Briggs & Stratton Big Backyard stage for Esperanza Spalding’s set around 6:30, and by 7:15 the area was almost completely full.
Emily’s D+ Evolution is the name of Spalding’s current stage show, and it’s a pretty interesting spectacle. She plays multiple characters throughout the set, including a bartender and a bellhop. The music is an experimental hybrid of jazz and pop, which should be somewhat familiar to anyone who’s heard her previous music. She ended her time with a beautiful version of “Unconditional Love” that won over any resisting souls in the audience.
Gary Clark jr was playing over on the Harley Davidson stage just a short walk from Spalding’s stage. I first saw him at a festival last year in Toronto, and he is absolutely magnificent. He’s one of the few artists keeping the blues alive for the next generation. His guitar is on fire from the first note of his set to the last and his backup band keeps up with him every step of the way. Spalding’s set was more of a performance piece, so she didn’t talk to the audience. Clark would just rather let his music do the talking for him, and it speaks volumes.
Every hint of heartbreak and hard times is palpable in Clark’s playing. He makes his guitar sing with joy and cry with sorrow with equal competence, and he can tear through the crowd with a blistering solo at the drop of a hat. He’s an electric performer more than worth your time and money. If you haven’t had a chance to see him yet, rectify that as soon as you can.
I wish I had more time there in Milwaukee. Sadly with my work schedule I’m never able to go as much as I’d like. Maybe next year I’ll request a full 2 weeks off from my job and go AirBnB a house in Milwaukee so I can try to see all 800+ bands! But probably not.
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