FESTIVAL RECAP: Eleven Days of Summerfest… Yes, All Eleven.

Summerfest is over. Breathe in that sigh of relief, fellow Milwaukeeans… the city streets belong to you again. After eleven days of live music, log-jammed and closed city roads, expensive transportation, and over-priced festival beverages, we can now collectively relax and look ahead to next year’s turmoil.

But with this turmoil and frustration comes the joy of live music, people watching, and yes, over-priced festival beverages.

Mark-F-SummerfestSomehow, we were able to coax a friend to experiencing all eleven days of the festival, and even more impressive: remembering enough of it. His name is Mark Flehmer, and he is the madman seen in the photo to the right, taken while he was standing in the second row of the Sylvan Esso show on the tenth night. Notice his confidence, his glow, and his inquisitive demeanor? This was ten nights in, and Mark was still going strong… whether it was a false sense of accomplishment or the actual insanity he possessed at this moment, we may never know.

Below, you will find Mark’s recap of what he saw and heard, and the rollercoaster of emotions he was put through. There’s also an “interview” which may or may not have taken place, we’re still not convinced this wasn’t a conversation Mark is having with the voices in his head at this point. Oh, and please don’t hold his opinions on SmashMouth against us, we’re fully convinced that Summerfest held him captive for eleven days, and he was starting to experience Summerfest Stockholm Syndrome.

Without further ado, here’s Mark’s recap, along with a few editors notes to give this recap some grounded opinions from someone who only stepped foot in the grounds six days.

I have a feeling we’re going to regret this…

I had gone to Summerfest once in the past 3 years. During my last visit, I saw 15-year-olds doing blow at a 5PM Yeasayer concert, scantily clad high school girls beg me to buy them booze outside of Imagine Dragons, and grown adults topple over each other as Pat Benatar belted “Love is a Battlfield”. As attendees barreled through the gates at what happened to be the most attended day in Summerfest history, I broke into a bit of a panic and asked myself, “What is this nightmare?!?!”

Having recently returned to Milwaukee, I developed a passionate intrigue towards the beast that is Summerfest. I wanted to look at this nightmare dead in the eyes and see if there was a sliver lining. “Yes its cool but it sucks” is often the vibe you’ll get from locals while discussing the world’s largest music festival. Everyone living in fear to bash on it completely, while clearly afraid to love it madly.

I arrived on night one with the fearless ambition of a 16-year-old driving home on a warm summer night after receiving a hand-job from an older girl in a hammock. Only to quickly realize I was entering an alternate reality: The grounds represent a self-evolving campus of all things booze, food and jams. Considering these are the three things I spend the majority of my income on, one could propose that this was a living wet dream. Add Lake Michigan to the East of me, my favorite body of water, and you might have me thinking Heaven’s Door was just behind Saz’s Grill Station.

Well if Saz’s Grill Station was Heaven’s Door, then Lucifer didn’t fall as far as I thought. Within the first ten minutes of arriving, “Hurricane Summerfest” was in full force, and the complex ingredients that make it special started to surface. All within the first 10 minutes….before the sun ever set.

  • Chaos around a girl being arrested led to fisticuffs and untrained Summerfest security were quickly reminded of the endless nights ahead
  • A girl dropped her cell phone and the screen shattered while she tried to navigate the crowds with every sense but sight
  • “Uhhh, yeah I summer in Milwaukee,” proclaimed a kid as he bragged to his friends about the sick new Florida fake ID he acquired just for the occasion
  • A girl sobbed into her phone making the nearby water fountain a bit depressing. Only until someone screamed “dude that’s your brother” to a girl backing her booty up into a very willing gentleman.
  • We were pegged as the perfect crew by a high school male as people that would be willing to buy him booze.

Given the sheer size of the venue and the fact that these events occurred within a small segment of the park, I had to think bizarro versions of all these occurrences were happening simultaneously. This fact was surprisingly calming.

As the days rolled on I would occasionally find myself gazing over the diverse demographics of Festers covering everything from preteens getting hyped over selfie-sticks to 50-year-old co-workers complaining about their wives and rubber-necking like shamless giraffes. These two subsets amongst a plethora of others made me realize that the world’s largest music festival represents so much more than music. It represents generations of people looking for an escape from life as they know it, at a place where there is a little something for everyone.

What other festival caters to every genre of music? Where else can you stumble across Luda talking about his hoes in different area codes just stages away from Kansas serenading onlookers with “Dust in the Wind”? Is there another event where you can Neil at the altar of Young, just a hundred yards away from where Paris Hilton made bleep-bleep noises on her laptop?! This is the everyman festival. This is where humanity collides.

As humanity collided on Milwaukee’s shores it was hard to think of a better city for this undertaking. This is a city where people don’t think they are more important than they are, while perfectly hosting a festival that lacks any sort of exclusivity. No matter what person walks through that gate they are there for a reason that goes without question. It could be as simple as blacking out on cocktails while listening to cover bands at Jo Jo’s Martini Lounge or a reason as big as seeing the Rolling Stones for likely the last time. That’s where the beauty is.

One night while I stumbled through the gates on my way back to my apartment I started to picture Summerfest as a potential end of the world. It occurred to me that we really need to turn the grounds into an International Space Station that at any given moment can blast off into orbit, bringing everyone with. Whether starting a new colony on another planet or just surviving until the last of the beer, cheese and fried foods are consumed, this plot of asphalt for 11 days a year is home to one of the most diverse collections of human stereotypes around. As a lover of all the weird stuff that humanity brings to the table I raise my glass to this. I’ll take my spot on the bleachers for 11 more nights as everything else burns to the ground.

Which show were you pleasantly surprised by?  

Kings of Leon @ Summerfest 2015
Kings of Leon @ Summerfest 2015

Lynyrd Skynyrd, which to people not in the know, is a Lynard Skynard tribute band. Those who, like myself, are deeply entrenched in the tribute band circuit, know that anyone can simply bust out bangers like “Sweet Home Alabama” and “Free Bird” to get the crowd going. This crew of Skyn-heads upped the ante with “pregnant” backup singers drinking beer and Summerfest employees written into their routine. As Shakespearean as Skynard can get.

Editor’s Take: Kings of Leon at Marcus Amphitheater. They sounded greater than expected and the setlist was tight, enjoyable, and served up plenty of classic hits as well as newfound favorites.

Which show was the greatest disappointment?

The Lynard Skynard cover band, Lynyrd Skynyrd. They turned the song “Free Bird” into a series of theatrics rather than a tribute to one of the greater anthems of all time. I’ve never seen such arrogance from a tribute band. As you can tell, these 11 nights have impacted me emotionally to the point where I can’t tell the difference between good or bad; right or wrong.

Editor’s Take: Like Mark, we’re going with the bipolar answer, and sticking with Kings of Leon, but based on ticket price alone. We went to great lengths to get our tickets at a price higher than I’ve ever paid for a single show, and were stuck so far back that we had to sneak forward, risking life and limb or at least a major scolding from the Summerfest security.

How many beers do you estimate you drank?

I feel like there should be some sort of quadratic equation for this but if we are totaling beers consumed before/after I would have to say the century-mark was eclipsed. 100-plus. There were a couple of occasions where deep breaths hurt my kidneys.

Editor’s Take: 15, tops.

Who offered you the most support, and in what way?

This was a collective effort by everyone that attended the ‘Fest with me. I was fortunate to only attend one concert by myself, which happened to be Whitesnake: A solo experience with “Here I Go Again” was an important part of my itinerary. The rest of the nights my friends brought me fresh breaths of air and continual rounds of beers. Although I believe some of their intentions were to push me into despair through over-consumption of vices.

Who/what was your biggest obstacle?

My internal dialogue, when I was not at the fest. Once I crossed over into the grounds I quickly fed off of the energy around me, but the “come down” was the worst where time spent in my bed just before falling asleep, and time just after waking up led to some of the deepest self-reflection. My self was always going to be the biggest obstacle.

How soon into your quest did you doubt yourself and your mission, and why? How did you overcome this?

I started to doubt myself before even attending night one. On the night the Rolling Stones played which was the pre-cursor to the official start I was on a boat in the Marina having beers and eavesdropping on the Marcus Amphitheater speakers. I ended up having a good amount of beers and deli cold cuts with anticipation getting the best of me. I had an early morning conference call the next day, and was hungover before the festival even started.


If Summerfest was 14 nights, would you have accomplished your goal? 21? 30?

I was hitting peak “my life is blur” around night 9, to the point that extending it another 3 weeks probably wouldn’t have fazed me that much. As my zombie state would likely heighten by night 23 the lows wouldn’t feel as low and the highs not as high.

…Comatose “‘festing” sounds alright.

Editor’s Take: I’d probably move out of the city.

Did anyone without immediate knowledge of your quest comment on your general appearance or attitude during the 11 days?

A handful of times my co-workers would ask me why I looked like “garbage” or why it seemed like I wasn’t “present”.  I did look like garbage, and I wasn’t present.

What was the best food? What did you consume the most of?

A savvy Summerfest veteran tipped me off to something called Lasagna Sticks which essentially allowed me to enjoy pizza rolls publicly without shame. I ate more fries than anything else as it was the most convenient/cheapest filler when realizing at 9PM I hadn’t eaten anything since two PB&J sandwiches at noon.

Editor’s Take: I can’t tell if I’m proud that I consumed no food during my time on the grounds, or if I’m disappointed I missed out on a Saz’s Sampler Platter.

In your opinion, what is the optimum number of nights to attend one Summerfest?

This is a loaded question. Going less than five nights would be a shame. I know for as long as I’m living in Milwaukee, five nights will be my goal. Summerfest thrives on its longevity. It’s the world largest music festival for a reason. 

Editor’s Take: Looking less on number of days/nights, but I’d say the maximum hours would be 12. That seems like a fair middle ground and is probably the most anyone in their right mind could withstand before succumbing to Summerfest Stockholm Syndrome… which we’re hoping Mark recovers from quickly.

Delta Spirit @ Summerfest 2015

What was the single greatest song you heard performed and why?

This is a toss-up and epitomizes the beauty of Summerfest: “King Kunta” by Kendrick Lamar or “All Star” by SmashMouth.

Editor’s Take: Delta Spirit put on an amazing show, which was unfortunately poorly attended. There were still plenty of people in attendance, but it seemed like not enough were on hand to witness a fantastic rendition of The Beatles’ “Don’t Let Me Down” which found members of Deer Tick on stage to assist.

Do you have any suggestions to improve Summerfest for 2016?

Theater performances: A stage where local theaters put on performances of everything from Grease to Les Misérables to Hamlet.

The other idea would be something of a mass karaoke. Use the jumbo screens to scroll lyrics as the sound systems play the instrumentals. Fans can come and go as they please. Maybe rotate a few mics in and out of the crowd.

Editor’s Take: I’ll need a little more time to answer this question.

What act did you miss who you wish you had seen?

I found out a local act named Joseph Huber was a last minute fill in for a 5:30 PM show on July 4th. I had no idea it was going on and was spending my time picking excess bacon off my Major Goolsby’s burger and people watching near one of the entrances. It pains me to think I could have been enjoying one of my favorite local artists as opposed to day-dreaming about myself as a 55-year-old in jean shorts and a ponytail.

Editor’s Take: Kendrick Lamar tickets were a little over-priced, but from what we’ve heard, the show left something to be desired, with Kendrick’s set lasting less than an hour.

Oh also, The Rolling Stones.

What was the most egregious act of public lewdness you saw?

Whenever there is down time in-between concerts, you are pretty much bracing yourself, waiting for something outrageous to happen. I don’t know why I expected to see someone take a dump in the middle of the bleachers. In a way, this thought was me romanticizing Summerfest. This dump never happened and an outlying act of public lewdness never occurred. Maybe my bar was set too high.

What was the funniest arrest you witnessed?

It wasn’t an arrest but just outside of the Santigold concert, a teenage boy was being supervised by some basic medics. He had clearly over-consumed alcohol  and was going on a bit of an emotional roller coaster, often coming to tears. I’d like to think his thoughts which triggered tears were flipping between “Wow I’m way too messed up right now” and “Holy shit, my parents are going to kill me”

How many times did you ride the SkyGlider?

3 times but I was late to the game and didn’t take my first ride until night 7. I fantasized with asking the operators how much it would cost to get a 4 hour pass. This would provide the perfect chance to soak in as many different shows as possible. Add this to “Improvements for 2016”

Did you consider buying a cigar from one of the cigar vendors even once?

I approached it once and the guy set down his sandwich to engage me but I diverted before he had the chance to say anthing as I don’t know anything about cigars.

Sylvan Esso
Sylvan Esso @ Summerfest 2015

Who was the best concert, all things considered?

If we are trying to best capture what Summerfest is all about, the best show was Sheryl Crow. She is in her early 50s but still crushes it on stage. She danced youthfully and sang with years of wisdom. There was a point where a row in front of me a 20 year old was taking selfie snap chats and then two rows back a couple 50 year olds were booing me as I blocked their view by standing up and swaying to “The First Cut is the Deepest”. With a bit of a grin I looked back and realized I was in the middle of a beautiful catastrophe.

Editor’s Take: Each show provided moments of perfection. Local act GGOOLLDD put on a hell of a show to a massive crowd; PHOX’s lead singer performed “Dearly Departed” with Shakey Graves a few days before taking the stage with her band for an amazing set later in the week; Delta Spirit’s shows never disappoint; and Sylvan Esso’s emotional show on our final night was definitely a highlight.

What is your greatest regret?

Not gorging myself on food at least one of the days. There were enough nights where my beer buzz left me incapacitated but I never had the experience of a food coma, which is such an integral part of the Fest experience. I should have ravaged my bowels at least once.

Would you try this again?


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