Thursday, July 06, 2006

Top 5: Dear Mr. Fantasy

One of the largest music festivals in the country happens not far from me each year, on the lakefront in Milwaukee. Summerfest, which opened a week ago today, continues through the weekend. If there's an event elsewhere that lasts as long and brings together as many different national acts as the Fest, I've never heard of it. And of course, because this is Wisconsin, there's lots of food involved. Mozzarella sticks from Saz's. Brownies from Hartter's. The salsa of the gods from Gus' Mexican Cantina. Et cetera. And beer. Most visitors swill Miller products, although more discriminating types can pay homage to Milwaukee's microbreweries, too.

There are Summerfest vets who will tell you it ain't as good as it used to be. It doesn't draw in excess of a million visitors like it used to, and in the last couple of years, since the departure of longtime director Bo Black, the quality and quantity of musical acts has dipped a bit. Henry Maier Festival Park itself is not exactly a verdant meadow--yes, it's right on Lake Michigan, but it's almost entirely paved and I-794 runs overhead. Parking ain't easy. Nevertheless, Summerfest remains an indispensable part of summer in Wisconsin. The Mrs. and I have attended every year since 2001, and here's a list of my Top 5 Summerfest performances:

5. Blue Olives, 2003. One of the criticisms leveled at the Fest is in any given year, there are too many cover bands on the bill. But they're a good choice because many Fest attendees are looking for something familiar. We'll let the Blue Olives stand for all the cover bands we've heard over the years, largely because they played Steely Dan's "Bodhissatva."

4. Bryan Lee and Terrance Simien, 2002.
With so many bands on so many stages, the best thing to do on many afternoons is known as "band hopping." Wander the grounds, watch girls, and keep your ears open. That's how we discovered Bryan Lee, a blues guitarist from New Orleans by way of Two Rivers, Wisconsin. We managed to snag a table at the stage where he was playing--steps away from the Sprecher Brewery beer stand--so after he was through, we stuck around for Simien, a zydeco performer we'd never heard, and who nearly burned the place down.

3. Ray Charles, 2002.
I've seen Paul McCartney play live; I saw Bob Marley play live. This might top both of them. Charles went on an hour late and moved pretty slowly, but the fire was still burning.

2. Steve Winwood, 2003.
On a damp and foggy night, on the stage closest to Lake Michigan, Winwood took care of business. He started the show with three straight songs from his then-new album, About Time, and he hardly spoke to the audience. He ignored his long string of solo hits almost entirely, but played "Dear Mr. Fantasy" and "The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys." Then he wrapped the show with an updated version of "Gimme Some Lovin'" and got back on the bus without an encore--which didn't matter because it felt like he'd said it all.

1. Mary Chapin Carpenter, 2001. Our first Summerfest headliner. I hadn't danced at a concert since the Doobie Brothers in 1979, but I was up for "Down at the Twist and Shout."

This list is subject to change, and probably within the next 48 hours. We're going to the Fest tomorrow for Steely Dan. It's our second Dan show--we saw them on the Two Against Nature tour in 2000--but with Donald Fagen promoting a solo album and former member Michael McDonald along on this trip, we're expecting a much different show this time. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has an interesting article on the many inspirations of Steely Dan here.


At 3:20 PM, Anonymous Jeff said...

1. Tina Turner, on a Summerfest side stage, just beginning her comeback. I want to say 1983. At the time, unbelievably, considered an oldies act. Anything but. Smoking. Sizzling. Scorching. Raw, energetic and powerful. Just her, 2 backup singers and a small band.

Maybe the best live show I've seen anywhere, anytime.


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