Thursday, June 29, 2006

St. Rita, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying About the State of Music Today and Love Summerfest

You'd think, being the musical snob I am, that I hate Summerfest. You'd be wrong.

I love Summerfest.

I used to hate it. I hated it when I was in a band, I hated it when all my friends were in a band, I hated it when I went to Lollapalooza to see a bunch of great up and coming bands. I hated it when I'd go just to get some time in and hear the same freakin' cover bands play "Summer of '69" for the six hundredth freaking time, even though I stood out in the rain to hear Richard Thompson an hour later. Yes, I am a music snob, and I used to hate hate hate Summerfest, because the lineup would be a painfully accurate object lesson in why the state of popular music in America is so freaking sad.

When did I start loving Summerfest again? When I had this glorious epiphany to stop thinking of Summerfest as a "music festival." Because Summerfest is NOT a "music festival." It is, in fact, the worlds biggest and best church festival.

It has everything you want and get at a church festival: rides, bingo, cover bands, tons of food, stuff for the kids to do, crappy toys and souveniers to waste your money on, hooligan teenagers moving about, lots of yelling and screaming, drunks, little kids having a good ol time, and the occassional really excellent band that makes you smile with pride and say "How'd they book them?" Summerfest just does this on a magnanimous scale, so that there's a handful of really excellent bands that make you smile, there's a horde of little kids having fun, there's a plethora of reasonably priced food, and there's a platoon of hoolgans and drunks to watch. I love it. And I started loving it again when I realized this: stop thinking like a music snob and trying to find a true music festival here, because you won't. Musically, its trying to be too many things to too huge a middle of the road audience, and that's a sure recipe for uninspiring dreck.

Summerfest is festival with a lot of music, but its not a "music festival." The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival is a music festival. The Chicago Blues Festival is a music festival. The Reading Festival is a music festival. What do these all have that Summerfest doesn't? An agenda to satify people who are passionate about music, people who live for music, people who demand great music played by musicians who share their passion, instead of listening to that same phoned-in run through of "Everybody's Working For the Weekend." Sure, Summerfest gets big names to play, but really, do they play Summerfest saying to themselves "Wow, I want to play Summerfest because of the prestige of participating in a magnificent festival." Probably not. Its more like "Hey, we're on our summer tour anyway, and we'll be in the midwest in late June, early July, and there's really no point in playing anywhere else in Milwaukee during that time because everybody will be at Summerfest, so yeah, book us for the Leinenkugel stage or (if we're a huge national act) that Marcus Amphetheater thingy and that will be our Milwaukee stop for this summer's tour. Oh, the contract says we can't play Alpine Valley within the next two weeks? Oh well, then we'll do Milwaukee Summerfest this week and we'll get the Chicago audience at that Navy Pier summerfest-trying-to-be thing they do there."

This is opposed to, say, the Monterey Jazz Festival, which any pot-smoking jazzbo worth their de-tuned guitar knows is the place to be if you at all want to be considered with it in the jazz community, and any Jazz lover has on their list to save the money, book a flight and a hotel, and get thee out to the California coast sometime in their life. People outside of Wisconsin or Northern Illinois do not save their money and time to come to Summerfest. They have all these same acts coming through Chicago, Minneapolis, Indianapolis, heck, lots of them will hit the Big Ten college towns like Madison, Champaign, Bloomington, Iowa City, etc. Really, if you live in Cleveland, and you love country music, are you flying out to Milwaukee to see Kenney Chesney? No, you're going to wait and see Chesney at the Cleveland Civic Center. Especially since, if you're into Chesney, you're probably into country and might like to see some other country acts, and the day Chesney is at Summerfest, there aren't really any other country acts playing except for maybe Elvin Bishop (but Bishop's on a different stage while Chesney is on, so you're out of luck.) You MIGHT fly out somewhere where there's some massive country music festival headlinedby Chesney, but backed up by about 20 or 30 bands you may or may not have heard of, but are all country music acts, some of which are obscure but excellent. You'd spend a whole day basking in music you're likely to love. And that's only if you're PASSIONATE about great country music. This is why jazzbos do indeed find a way in their life to hit a jazz festival. Indianapolis has this amazing little jazz festival that isn't necessarily for purists, but it's still excellent. Worth at least a drive to Indy for something other than racing.

The Miller Jazz Oasis at Summerfest (yes, remember when it was actually called that, and it actually lived up to its name?) used to be this great little jazz-festival-within-a-festival like this. I remember spending a day in the front row, hearing great stuff that was capped off by the evening's headliner, Stanley Clarke. Remember when ALL the Summerfest stages had definite themes? You had a rock stage, a country stage, a jazz stage, but now its all mishmash, with no real theme, because god forbid somebody plays something that isn't instantly familiar to the general public, or drive away that same public because five bands in a row were all of a cult genre, like the blues or something. Now the Miller Jazz Oasis is the Miller Lite Oasis. I coulnd't have staged that name change to reflect the format change more perfectly if I tried.

I've heard great bands at Summerfest musically, but again, its these spots of light in a generaly horrid mishmash of cover bands and mainstream dreck designed not to offend anybody. It's music for people for whom music is wallpaper. I remember one time we ran into a fellow music enthusiast who was keeping track of how many times he walked past a stage and heard "Mustang Sally." At 4 pm on the first day of Summerfest last year, he was already up to 5. That's a really sad statistic. He said he hated "Mustang Sally" for this very reason.

But he brightened up when I told him my philosophy: "Stop trying to think of this as a music festival. Pretend you're at St. Rita's. Do it! Close your eyes, click those black patent leather shoes together, and think 'There's no place like mass, there's no place like mass, there's no place like mass.' Now open your eyes. Isn't this the greatest church festival you've ever been to?!?!?!" YES, he cried. Ride, Sally, Ride!

We'll be at Summerfest on July 3. And we'll eat some fried eggplant. And ride the sky glider. And eat some barbequed pork. And eat some of those weird dippin' dots. And play a game of bingo. And people watch. And sit on those rocks by the lake and snicker at the goth kids while reminiscing about our goth years. And frolic in the fountain with our kids. And let 'em stay up late. And watch the fireworks. Oh, and maybe we'll catch Alice Cooper (he did manage to fit Summerfest into his summer tour!) at the Briggs and Stratton Big Backyard (that's formerly the Country) stage.

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