Words: The First Night Of Summerfest

Photography by Steven Robinson @StevenRobinsonPhoto

Photography by Steven Robinson

The First Night of Summerfest
By Adam Krueger

June 27th, 2018 in Milwaukee was a beautiful mess.  It was the first day of Summerfest, a full moon, and the president of the United States was in town.  “It was a mad-house,” a good friend told me leaning out of the Brat House shuttle-bus.  He went on to explain the cops were largely rookies that were made to take the worst beats, according to those he knew personally, and most were clueless to what was going on as it took forty-five minutes to drive two blocks with street after street blocked off, prompting drivers to do circles all around downtown and by the lake, trying to move forward. And the drivers and passengers alike were heated. Fifty-five of the fifty-six passengers my friend had on the shuttle that night frothed seething hatred for the man that was at least in-part responsible for the mess that not only America, but the streets of Milwaukee were in on that hot summer night.  Cars were honking, people were yelling obscenities at one another, and it was very clear to me nobody learned anything form Do the Right Thing when temperatures rise and political and racial conflicts are boiling over across the country.

But inside the park was different.  People all over the country are here of every background.  Kids run through the fountains screaming.  Small girls with sound diminishing headphones danced around without a worry of their dresses.  The smell of barbeque permeated through the hazy summer skies as smoke colluded into clouds that would dissolve into the dusk of the looming evening.  By the Harley Davidson Stage 88.9’s own DJ Bizzon was about to go on as before my eyes and ears the country that I was in grew into a state sound of drum and bass like a certain Pulitzer Prize winner rapped about last year. Everyone was smiling and laughing. The smell of cigars, vaporizers, and blunts accented everything. The crowd swayed, danced, and rocked themselves together.   Everyone is elated when he takes the stage but curiosity and nostalgia take me elsewhere.  I see the aging punk rockers, if we can be liberal with the term, drinking what should be cheap beer with a grin on their faces as they bob their head to Lucky Boys Confusion and sing along happily to some sad and angry songs. Teenagers are there, too, along with what I’m assuming are dads who borrowed their son or daughter’s CD back in 2004 and just wanted to rock out for a night.  Kids I taught in high school were there as I tried to not be seen by them because I’ve had a long day and nobody is paying me to be nice to teenagers at the moment, so I move on.

At quarter to ten the fireworks are going off and the crowd is in a moment utterly absorbed and infatuated with seas of onomatopoeias rising and falling into mostly an inspiring background.  I’m told the best place to watch it was on the roof of one of the shuttle buses.  I go from one end to another to watch the gleeful kids riding the air lift over the park, I smell the grills and they smell like everything you want to eat on a night like this.  I hear everything from rap, to electronic, to country, rock, funk, and of course even a Peruvian flute band. And everyone everywhere save one or two young girls who clearly had a few too many sitting down and eating nachos with their friends around them.  Small but enthralled and ecstatic groups of older men and women danced to The Cougars’ energetic country and rock.  Women screamed for Kane Brown as the country star strutted across the stage.  Lukas Nelson and the Promise of the Real serenaded an entire room full of an older, happy, relaxed crowd that was one of the few that night not enjoying the whole show through their phones.  They lived in the moment and loved every lick of Lukas Nelson’s old school brand of rock, folk, and soul.  Since 2015 they have been Neil Young’s regular backing band as of this writing and that’s probably all you really need to know.  They put on a damn good show.

In what seemed to be the biggest show of the night on the free stages inside the park, the rapper and self-proclaimed rock star Lil Uzi Vert poured his heart out to a euphoric, young, and diverse crowd packed shoulder to shoulder at the Harley Davidson Roadhouse Stage.  People everywhere were dancing, grinding, singing, and even moshing together through the night as the rapper danced back and forth across a stage bare-chested with his dreadlocks swaying to his rhythms.  Smoke poured out over the crowd along with echoes to lyrics that exercised a much needed catharsis from everything wrong with the world that existed beyond a country consisting of drum and bass as everyone from everywhere sang with feeling together the chorus along to “XO Tour Llif3”: “All my friends are dead.” 

And maybe someday soon we’ll live in a country where that really truly matters and the most disenfranchised amongst us won’t have to convince anyone that their lives matter.  But on one the hottest, craziest, angriest, and happiest nights of the year, it did matter for everyone there singing together.