Summerfest Brings The Biggest And The Best

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

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Milwaukee Summerfest, the world’s largest music festival, boasts 11 stages and over 1,000 performances from over 800 local and national bands. Nearly 900,000 people show up over its 11 day run this June 26 – 30 and July 2 – 7 in Milwaukee, WI. Of all these statistics, though, the most impressive is that one man makes it all happen.

Bob Babisch has been Summerfest’s Entertainment Director since 1978, a huge chunk of the event’s 46-year running time. Babisch slowly built up the infrastructure during his tenure, overseeing the construction of the new facilities and amphitheatres that accommodate Summerfest’s ever-growing popularity.

“We spent the last five or six years remodelling the grounds; we’d tear a facility down and build a new one. This year we’re taking a break and it’s all about the music. We have one of the best line-ups we’ve had in years. Everything from Alice Cooper to LL Cool J. We’re hitting all the genres.”

There is something for everyone at Summerfest:  Indie darlings MGMT and Yeasayer, classic favorites like The Go-Gos and The Meat Puppets, beatmasters Talib Kweli and Diplo and festival legends like Tom Petty and REO Speedwagon are only a fraction of the national acts coming through the Henry Maier Fairgrounds.

“Along with being a musician I’m a huge music fan as well,” says Joel Cummins, keyboardist for festival performers Umphrey’s McGee. “The cool thing about Summerfest is it’s an opportunity for us to see some music too. Trying to find a new band you haven’t discovered yet and getting to see them live — that’s a lot of fun for me.”

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Summerfest is also ingrained in the fabric of the Milwaukee community, hosting the best local/regional bands and serving portion-controlled delicacies from the city’s forty best restaurants. Mindful of the community’s budget, there are numerous ways to get free or discounted admission onto the grounds.

“Other places get so expensive,” says Babisch. “It’s that ‘Show me what you got’ vibe. We throw a party here. It’s just a good time.”

Perennial favorites O.A.R. have played Summerfest “ten times or so,” showing it’s not just the music fans who keep coming back. Frontman Marc Roberge has counted Milwaukee as a favorite destination since his college days and always looks forward to his times in the park.

 Though one year saw the band and their crew wrecking five Harley Davidson mini-bikes on the festival’s back roads, Roberge says it’s Summerfest’s spirit that’s truly memorable.

“We’re expecting a wild crowd and they bring one every year. It’s developed into something we depend on and enjoy. It would be hard to list everything I love  — the tradition of it has been ingrained in our DNA.”

Babisch is proud to announce a few additions this year to the Summerfest experience, including the return of standup comedy legend Lewis Black, a 17-year veteran. There’s a lagoon stocked with paddle boats and a sky diving exhibition for those breaks in between favorite acts. Most importantly, there’s the inevitable surprises that come with hosting so many top-notch performers in such a storied festival.

Babisch’s favorite memory of the festival is when Pearl Jam broke a strike against TicketMaster for two dates dates at Summerfest’s Marcus Amphitheatre. At least, that’s the favorite memory he is able to share.

“There’s been a lot of crazy things I can’t talk about because the entertainers are still alive. There’s been moments of brilliance here.”

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