For the last two years, our friend (and fine, we can call him a colleague now) Mark Flehmer takes part in all eleven days of “The World’s Largest Music Festival.” As Mark will chronicle in his recap below, and the interview that follows, this is as harrowing of a feat as it appears to be. Mark becomes a shell of his former self by the end of it, and I ended up spending so much time with Festival Mark, I began talking like him by Day 3. “Festival Mark” is a true Milwaukee Hero…
The rain was pouring down. I looked at him and he looked back at me. I shook my head and he quickly put his shirt back on.
There was about 20 minutes to go before the Passion Pit concert at the Miller Lite Oasis and keeping yourself entertained was a vital part of staying warm, even if it was only a mental trick. This guy decided the downpour provided the perfect opportunity to show off his six pack to the ladies who had nowhere else to go. Prior to the shirt removal, he clearly thought they would instantly become his adoring fans.
I call this Summerfest courage: an unstudied subsection of the human psyche that comes out 11 nights a year at the Henry Maier Festival Grounds.
The usual charades were in full swing, with ‘festers nearly bringing down tents while getting kicked off the grounds, as other onlookers proclaimed their desire for creating a booze filled snow cone. Going into another 11-Night Gauntlet, I knew that one thing would remain constant – the tomfoolery that has made Summerfest so notorious. That’s something that will never change. What does change however, is the uniqueness of each night, every one offering something a little bit different than the last.
After wringing out my shirt and making sure my belongings weren’t water logged, our Passion Pit crew dwindled down to myself and one other member of my ‘fester crew. Despite being cold and wet, we craved more and did the mandatory ear scan of the grounds to see if there was any music left to be heard. Luckily for us there was, and the US Cellular stage at the North End of the grounds was calling our name.
Upon arrival we instantly connected with the back end of the crowd tapping around the pavement to Michael Franti & Spearhead. Back home I never throw on Franti, but “More Franti!” impulsively rang from my mouth with each song jazzing me up just a little bit more.
Like a couple school kids on the playground, we saw beach balls getting launched around the crowd and quickly ventured closer to the stage. Through the bleachers I lost track of my compatriot and hopped up to stand on the first opening I saw. As the show winded down, Franti gathered his crew in front of the stage and put on “Imagine” by John Lennon over the loud speakers, encouraging everyone to throw their arms around the shoulders of their friends. To me, this was Summerfest Gold, and while I independently swayed to the music, a married couple scooted closer and brought me into their grasp. They explained that, “nobody should have to listen to this song alone.”
It occurred to me that they likely thought I was an incredibly lonely person who was in desperate need of a friend. I considered stuttering over my words while explaining that I really did have people that want to hang out with me, but instead, I just extended my cup to theirs and continued to rock in unison with the Franti diehards. I quickly scurried away as the music cut to avoid any further questioning of my apparent vagabond state.
When exchanging texts with friends during this 11 Night Escapade I was often faced with the question of “Who did you see tonight?” Simply responding with, “Passion Pit” only tells half of the story; every night of every year presents a new opportunity for an especially Summerfest memory:
Sure, one night I went to the Amphitheater to see the Alabama Shakes but what stood out to me was the asinine crowd gathering 2 stages deep to see Nelly.
Yeah, I went to see Weird Al Yankovich, a national treasure, but what blew me away was his cross-generational timelessness. So many children were in attendance as their parents insisted this was going to be worth their time.
Naturally, I went to see the Gin Blossoms to relive the 90s, only to realize nobody goes to their shows anymore because they blow.
Of course, I went to see Gabriel Sanchez and Prince Experience and gladly looked on as middle aged mommas rocked out like the recently deceased icon had risen from the dead.
Regrettably, I spent a night bouncing back and forth between O.A.R. and The Commodores all while making sure my friend’s girlfriend didn’t convince us to attend TimeFlies.
Summerfest is going to continue to flare up at the end of June every summer, and people need to look past its obvious cold sores. Beneath each bump and what appears to be a dreaded daily lineup is a unique Summerfest manifestation waiting to be discovered. I ask everyone out there to find that inner Summerfest courage and if anyone shakes their head at you, simply remove yourself from their vision and keep on keepin’ on.
Mark’s words are never enough, so we needed to get an “outsider’s perspective” on Mark’s feat. Like last year, Mark sat down with his friend Paul, who wanted to get to the bottom of this. Paul, who has attended Summerfest “maybe four times in the last six years,” has his beefs with “Festival Mark” and his mission, as well as with us at Needle & Thread (he sent me a very long-winded and scathing e-mail, unsolicited).
Like I mentioned in the preview article, anyone can dig deep for one shot at 11 straight days at Summerfest. True Summerfest heroes do this for multiple years in a row. No longer am I counting the days attended in a row, but instead the amount of years that I have attended every day.
What performance were you pleasantly surprised by?
The Roots and the Ecuadorian flute band. The Roots because subconsciously I have been affiliating them too closely with Jimmy Fallon and their performance reminded me how talented they truly are. The Ecuadorian flute band because these guys are starting to get some swagger and are pushing the limits of their sound. I see a ground stage 2 PM show in their future.
Which anticipated performance disappointed you the most?
This is hard because my expectations were already low to begin with but I would have to say the Gin Blossoms. The fact that that they were one of the 3 bands [on my personal schedule that] I was least looking forward to seeing and they were still able to disappoint me speaks volumes.
How many times did you see someone too young or too old to be as drunks as they were?
Honestly, every time I changed my field of vision.
Will you camp on the Hoan next year?
It’s always been a Summerfest dream for them to shut down the Hoan Bridge for the 11 days and use it as campground. A rope ladder would get people down onto “viewing nets” suspended above the stage for optimum partying and concert enjoyment. Still looking for a contractor to draw up the blue prints.
What would a Mark Flehmer-fronted band do to make their Summerfest performance legendary?
What I’m still waiting to see from a Summerfest performance is a top to bottom shared stage experience. What I envision is taking everyone that has played on the Briggs and Stratton Big Backyard stage starting, starting with the Noon show, and bringing them on the stage for one final encore song. I would also talk mad smack about the other stages and whatever other artists are playing at them.
What’s your favorite stage and why?
Loaded question. The old man in me says the Uhline Warehouse because it provides me the quickest exit from the grounds. The young buck in me says the Miller Lite Oasis because that place is hyped no matter who they put on stage. They literally could have a dog barking into a microphone and kids would be declaring it the hottest show they’ve seen all summer.
What do those close to you think about 22 for 22 (with a Dr. Dog show slipped in) ?
Honestly I don’t think one person has ever said “This is a good idea Mark” or “Hey, what your doing sounds awesome”
The last Saturday of the Fest one of my favorite bands, Dr. Dog, was playing in Chicago so I hustled down to catch it before scurrying back up to Milwaukee. At the show I met up with a good friend of mine who expected me to look like I just got done leaving the trenches of World War II. Most people close to me just assume I’m a shell of myself during this time period.
You have to choose 1: Not see a concert for a year or not see your niece for a year, what’s your choice?
Right now I’m trying to think of when I started to retain memories. Currently my niece is 2. I don’t really remember anything I did when I was 2 or 3 so I’m thinking I would choose live music. This is a whole different question to me when she turns 4.
During non-Summerfest hours do you miss it? How do you keep sanity?
“Miss” isn’t the right word for it but there is definitely a longing. I did find myself trying to get down there as soon as possible after working. I’ve developed this strange Summerfest specifc FOMO. Biggest factor in my sanity was not skimping on iced coffees whenever I craved them and pumping the window air conditioner full blast to the point where I woke up shivering. Extending my life like a battery in the freezer.
What changed this year from last?
Biggest change this year is the period when my adrenaline wore off. I’d say by night 3 the original buzz of the impending challenge was gone. That held steady until at least night 8 last year. I knew this was going to a pivotal point in journey.
What did you try to do new this year?
Going into this year I had hopes of trying to stay on the Skyglider for 6 hours straight. I contacted Summerfest with interest in setting this as a Guinness Book World Record but after I explained to them what I had in mind they stopped responding. I’ll campaign for this again next year.
Has Summerfest negatively affected your life at all?
Negative in the regards to what it does to my body. By night 9 I was convinced I had gained 20 pounds during the process. I also reached the point where I started congratulating myself every time I had a glass of water as if it was the healthiest thing I did all day.
When does the madness end?
As of now I’m locking myself in for one more year and then will likely hang up the boots. They are making a big deal of the 50th Anniversary and I have a feeling if I stayed home any nights my mind would be distracted by the potential mysteries of Summerfest that I would be missing out on.
There you have it, another 11 days in the books (6 for yours truly). To be honest, as I found myself working on the final night of Summerfest rolled around on Sunday, I realized I was going to miss it. I ragged on this year’s lineup as not being as “indie-centric” as last year’s, but every night I went I had a great time, whether it was singing to Passion Pit in the rain or catching a wrestling Battle Royale with friends while a wrestler’s ass literally hung out of his spandex briefs.
We’ll see you next year, Summerfest, as your debauchery hits the landmark age of 50.
(Oh, and be on the lookout for mine and Mark’s Eaux Claires Festival Recap coming in August)