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Meet: Milwaukee -- Part Two
Wonders never cease in Milwaukee, especially when Summerfest brings the city vibrantly and unforgettably to life.
By Matt Wilson
As a travel destination, Milwaukee offers up many unexpected delights. Last week, we explored the Potawatomi Casino and discovered the city's Discovery World, an innovative attraction dedicated to promoting education about and appreciation for the region's precious natural resources. While finishing off at The Lakefront Brewery, a beer-lover's paradise, was the perfect way to bid the day good night, I still hadn't seen all that this city has on tap. Join me as we continue our exploration of this fine city and make our way through Summerfest, the Milwaukee music festival that holds the honorable distinction of being the largest in the world.
DINING AT YAFFA LOUNGE
After a long day exploring the city I was hungry and though the Lakefront Brewery has plenty of beer to quench your thirst, there was precious little food at hand. Fortunately, I didn't have to go searching for a terrific meal as my friends had prearranged dinner at the Yaffa Lounge. I arrived at the Yaffa Lounge around sunset via taxi, after a quick stop back at my hotel. Yaffa is located on the River Walk at Wells Street and the windows face out onto the river, creating a nice atmosphere especially in the early evening. You could, in theory, pull your boat right up to the adjacent dock and stop in for cocktails and tapas. The dining room is small and cozy, richly decorated and dominated by a massive mirror which makes the place seem quite a bit larger than it actually is. I was hungry from my travels and hunger is the best spice for any food so when I tell you that the food at Yaffa Lounge is fantastic you must take that with a grain of salt. In truth, it's probably no better than any other Mediterranean restaurant, where the cooks are competent and the recipes time-tested. But personally, I had a magical experience at Yaffa. I had bacon-wrapped, cheese-stuffed dates, smoked artichoke babaganoush, perfect falafels and sautŽed skate served with sundried tomato mascarpone gnocchi, artichoke hearts and olives. I ate so much that I actually had no room for dessert and could only look on mildly jealous as my friends inhaled one delicacy after the other. Yaffa Lounge, 106 W Wells St., Milwaukee, WI 53203, Tel: 414-223-0101.
Fireworks explode over the city of Milwaukee. A crowd of thousands packs the open areas along the waterfront, huddled against the chilly night air. With each starburst, a collective gasp or appreciative roar rolls along the city streets to where the stragglers are running for a better view. I am one of those. Late as usual and carrying 30 pounds of camera gear. Fortunately, I am used to running with 30 pounds of independently moving toddler on my back so the fixed weight of the camera gear is inconsequential. After dinner, a fellow photographer, Alexander Freshenko, and I decided to walk to the bridge of the Art Museum for what we hoped would be an excellent view of the inaugural Summerfest opening fireworks. Now I wish we had taken the bus with the others. A loud crack echoes down the city canyons, now oddly quiet and deserted since everyone else in the area is watching the show. We arrive on the bridge and edge our way forward. Immediately I realize that the better view would have been behind the sublime profile of the museum itself. But we are trapped now, as much by the timing of the display as by the crowd itself. We would never get off the bridge in time. So we press on in. And here, in this cheerful mass of humanity, I sense again how different Milwaukee is from other cities. People are just friendly. No one complains as we move through the crowd. Only smiles greet us as we set up our camera gear. Smiles and laughter all around. I feel comfortable and safe here in a way that I do not always feel ... even in Seattle, where I live.
Breakfast was terrific. Or so I was told since I missed it by a wide margin. I caught the group as the bus pulled away from the entrance without even a cup of coffee in my system. And here was real dilemma for me: how to feign genuine interest in the Summerfest behind-the-scenes tour that I was now on, when all I really cared about was mainlining some caffeine. Summerfest, the world's largest music festival, was opening to the general public that afternoon but the morning was all about last minute prep and band set-up, so the grounds were empty when we arrived. Our guide, a veteran Summerfest event coordinator named Kristi, had a pack of golf carts waiting to shuttle us around the grounds. Golf carts were necessary due the sheer size of the grounds. Summerfest plays itself out at the Henry Maier Festival grounds on 11 stages situated on over 75 lakefront acres. Within that large but limited space, approximately 867,000 people coalesce from June 30 to July 10 to hear over 525 bands play late into the night. And all this takes place in what is arguably one of the more drunken cities in the US ... making Summerfest, in my opinion, one of the minor wonders of the world. Imagine containing so much musically energized, inebriated human energy in a fairly limited volume of space and time, while simultaneously channeling that energy in such a way as to create a fantastically enjoyable experience. It's remarkable and I have to say I am deeply impressed by the people who put this together. According to Kristi, the entire festival takes almost a year to prepare for. Whether it's booking the bands or managing the books, the full-time staff responsible for this event works tirelessly year round to bring it all together. And they must love what they do because only love, or rather love and money, could pull this off.
Summerfest has been rocking Milwaukee for 40 years. The old-timers tell stories about the early Summerfest events back in the '60s and '70s where the grass would be pounded to mud from all the dancing and the old wooden bleachers would rock and wobble with each over-amped song. It was more wild back then. Freer, maybe. The youth and the artists were running it and the powers that be were trying to keep it contained. Some of that spirit still lingers. But to be honest, this is a major production and even The Harley-Davidson stage feels slightly corporate. A little too clean and safe? Burning Man, this is not. Still, there are benefits to aging with grace and Summerfest, once an event for the youth, is now clearly an event for everyone. All ages, interests and incomes are welcome and looked after at Summerfest. It's about as inclusive as you can get. There's a kid zone, even a kid day. There's a youth stage sponsored by US Cellular. There's even a country music stage. Corporate sponsorships and marketing gimmicks are everywhere as are the endless opportunities to buy some piece of Summerfest memorabilia. It's a musical theme park and for the price of admission, around $15, it is hard to imagine an event with more live music of different genres and styles.
In addition to booking classic rock bands, Summerfest features a variety of techno, hip-hop, jam, R&B and indie bands in the lineup with performances by Talib Kweli, Moby, Pete Yorn, Keller Williams and Death Cab for Cutie. New and local bands are also sought out through companies like Sonic Bids, which allows a band to electronically submit their press kit through the Internet. According to Bob Babisch, VP of Entertainment, this service alone racked up 1,500 submissions, from which they booked forty-five.
THE HOT IQs
A warm zephyr mingles with music and sunshine, setting smiles on each and every face I see. It's Friday afternoon and the Summerfest grounds are relatively empty and easy- going, filled with families and students. The staff is full of energy like a pack of greyhounds lined up for a race. They are eager to say hello. Instantly ready to assist. Almost hopeful that you need something. They have been gearing up for this event for weeks and today is the day they've been waiting for.
Toward lakefront, an indie rock band is grinding out teen angst at the Cellular One stage. A sparse crowd fills the rows of benches with the mostly young clustered up front and the mostly old and curious in pockets out back. A very young trio rules the stage and I am captivated for a few moments, not by their music, but by their energy. Cellular One has set up a text messaging billboard enabling the audience to participate in the overall experience by either adding a message to the board or voting for their favorite band. While it seemed a bit clunky here I do expect to see more of this technology expanding into other venues soon. The band was the Hot IQs.
From there I wandered down the main artery of the festival and found myself staring up at the Sky Glider. And then staring down from it. The Sky Glider is a great way to take in the festival. I could see the Art Museum in the distance and the glittering lake alongside the shore. All of the music stages rolled below me, the music from each surrounding my little sky car and then merging with the next. I could look down into the crowds, dancing, drinking, playing in the fountains, singing along with the music. It was a fantastic way to both see and experience the festival and it enabled me to quickly target my next destination.
As you might imagine, the day tends to blur after a while. Relaxing in the sun and watching the crowd leads to colorful martinis which leads to music and food and more music. As I wandered from one venue to the next, I found myself in a sort of hedonistic wish-fulfillment spiral. Quench one thirst and another arises. Quench that one and move on. Jazz, rock, country, it's all there, on many stages. Each venue has some characteristic that tends to dominate both the musical styles and the crowds. The Harley-Davidson Stage is fun and somewhat rowdy. Beer, rock and roll and dancing are almost guaranteed to be on the schedule at almost any time of day here. The Briggs and Stratton stage tends towards the Blues. And the Miller stage tends towards the middle of the road with bands running the gamut from Miller Rhythm and Blues to O.A.R. And the Miller stage is also the heart of the festival. It's centrally located and can accommodate over 10,000 people. If you need to get a heads-up on the crowd, you can try for VIP status and grab a seat at the Miller Oasis. Other stages include the Potawatomi stage for Jazz, the Country Music stage for country music, the Zippo stage for emerging artists, a kid's stage and the Marcus Amphitheater for headliners.
DAUGHTRY AT THE MARCUS AMPHITEATER
By far, the largest venue is the Marcus Amphitheater, a 23,000-seat venue with spectacular views of Lake Michigan and the Milwaukee skyline. This is where the headliners play and sooner or later you end up here. This year the main bands included Daughtry, Bon Jovi, Roger Waters, Tool and Ludacris among others. You need a separate ticket for these shows though there is some free seating on the lawn section. If you are short on cash, there are admissions promotions every day. To participate, you need to find out what the promotion is in advance and come prepared. It can be anything from a can of food for the food bank to a can of Coke. Only a few spaces are given away so come early and prepared.
Lucky me, I had the opportunity to see Def Leppard with Foreigner and Styx. Think you're feeling old? You should see these guys. They ARE old. Now, when I was a kid, I listened to all these bands. I had a special affection for Def Leppard's Pyromania album, which resulted in my father having to purchase some new speakers. But I never thought I would actually see them play live. After all, they got old and my musical tastes matured thanks to terrific television like American Idol. But if Keith Richards can still rock, Madonna can still make grown men blush and Roger Waters can still make me feel like a child with a fever, well then it should have come as no surprise to me that Def Leppard can still start a hell of a fire. Sure, they were kind of tough and lean like old jerky but they were having a ball and so was the crowd. Walking out of the show I had to wonder, what does it mean to be old these days? Will I be having that much fun when I'm 65? I certainly hope so.
I'm feeling a bit younger as I leave the Marcus Amphitheater so I decide to check out a youthful scene. I'd been told that the Country Music channel, a subsidiary of MTV, was going to be filming a band at the Country Music stage that night and that the band was pretty good. Since I had an all access pass, I figured I had a decent shot at the press pit. That in turn ought to get my face on MTV at least briefly, which I thought, would be a sort of amusing way to end the evening. The band was called Sugarland and though I'd never heard of them and am not really a fan of country music, it seemed like a good time.
So I pressed through the crowds, flashing my handy-dandy press pass and after employing some subtle Jedi mind trickery, I found myself standing at the foot of the stage with a host of VIPs, hand-selected cuties and the MTV film crew. There were thousands of people behind me and though I was protected by a steel barrier and some very large guards, I could feel the weight of all those people pressing down on me. There is book by a man named Rupert Sheldrake called The Sense of Being Stared At. Sheldrake is a physicist at Oxford and he has a fairly non-mainstream theory about how the universe functions. His theory describes a universe in which the sense of being stared at is a real and measurable phenomenon, not just an illusion. They have actually run tests on subjects to determine how often someone can tell if someone is or is not staring at them. So here I am, standing at the foot of this incredible country music diva with over 5,000 people behind me, their eyes glued to the back of my head and it feels like I'm standing in deep water. I feel at moments both pushed and pulled towards the stage as if there is a current swirling around me. I can only imagine what she must have been feeling but from the look on her face, I'd say it felt pretty good. And just in case there is any doubt, take my word for it ... Sugarland is sweet.
YOUR SUMMERFEST CHECKLIST
1 Don't bring video gear, etc.
2 If you can walk to the grounds, do so. Trying to find parking right by the Summerfest grounds is ridiculous. Park a couple miles away and walk.
3 If you really want to see a band on the free stages, get there well before they begin. Otherwise, deal with the fact that you may not see them and might not get the best earshot.
4 Get tickets beforehand to save time and money.
5 Go early and enjoy the day. It's less crowded and unruly around lunchtime. Plus, there are some great local and emerging bands to hear in the afternoon and at this time you'll actually get a bleacher seat to watch the show semi-comfortably.
6 At night, be prepared to deal with large crowds and possibly rude, inebriated festival-goers.
THE SAFE HOUSE: MILAWUKEE'S COLD WAR RELIC
I am post-Sugarland. The crowd is flowing away from the lights and music and out into the cool Milwaukee night. Streams of people are coalescing into rivers and they are flooding the city streets around the Summerfest grounds. I managed to find a few friends in all the post-show chaos and now the Art Museum lights our way as we navigate away from the festival and towards the city proper. There is no chance of going back to the hotel. I need to wind down. I need to collect my thoughts. I need a safe house.
I have a card in my pocket with directions to a well-known secret location called the Safe House and we are using it to guide us through the crowds. Eventually, we turn down a dark alley where a small crowd has gathered outside a non-descript doorway. A lonely light flickers overhead. A rat hugs the wall of an old brick building further on and disappears behind a trash bin. The door opens and a svelte young woman beckons us in. Just us. The door closes. Inside is a small room about the size of a walk-in closet. There are a couple of chairs and a desk with an odd-looking contraption that may or may not have been stolen from the set of Brazil. A man looks up from his scribbling and asks us with a doubtful sneer for the password which of course I do not have. Without the password, you cannot enter. Well, unless of course, you are willing to entertain the man and his companion for a while. Which you must do. Eventually a hidden door opens in the wall and we are ushered down a dimly lit hallway into a crowded bar. Hanging on the walls is every single piece of Cold War-era spy kitsch you can think of. And many you can't. The place is enormous and labyrinthine. There are hidden rooms. One-way mirrors. Trick phone boxes. Hidden escapes. There's a fantastic magician bartender and much, much more. It's fun and cozy and a great place to end the day. Don't tell anyone, but your Safe House in Milwaukee is located behind the stately office of International Exports Ltd. Safe House, 779 N. Front Street, Milwaukee, WI 53202, downtown, in the shadow of Milwaukee's City Hall, near the intersection of north Water and east Wells Street. Ph: (414) 271-2007.
Remaking yourself when faced with new challenges takes courage regardless of age. This is as difficult for the individual as it is for the society and the city. Milwaukee has seen tremendous changes over the years and certainly more are on the horizon.
And yet there is longing for a lost and vibrant past here. These people are creating a fun and vibrant community with an eye towards the future and a respect for the past. It is a fun city with great food plenty of ale, friendly people and plenty to do.
To really do Summerfest and enjoy the city you need three days minimum. You can explore the small city neighborhoods. Sail on a tall ship. See the museums of art and discovery. You can visit the Villa Terrace and walk through the great park. Walk the rivers from old town to the Third Ward. Rent a boat and cruise the rivers and lakefront. And you can see the festival. Had I the time and resources I would have taken a boat from Chicago to Milwaukee and moored it at rented loft in the Third Ward for the entire two weeks of Summerfest. Maybe next year.
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