Soft, sandy beaches, award-winning chefs and world-class concerts at 1970s prices: Milwaukee was not what I was expecting. My scant knowledge of the city was derived from Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley, and I didn’t even see one ringer for the Fonz.
This cozy enclave of 600,000, snugged onto the western shore of Lake Michigan, is host to five free beaches where you can swim, play volleyball, picnic and sunbathe — 10 minutes from a sparkling downtown complete with riverwalk and an historical section filled with trendy restaurants and boutiques.
It’s also the home of 39-year-old Summerfest, the world’s largest music festival. Held early in July, it lasts 11 days, has 12 stages and showcases more than 1,000 acts — everything from classic rock, to shout-it-out-loud gospel, to world beat. Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, Pearl Jam, Elvis Costello, Paul Simon, Nickelback, Blue Oyster Cult, Digital Underground, Everclear and Pink were just a few of the acts on the bill this year. And the price? An all-day ticket was $15. For $30 extra, you got access to a headlining show at the Marcus Amphitheatre.
White kids with dreadlocks, stringy pony-tailed oldsters, and fresh-faced university students (all dripping in tie-dye) were swaying and singing as I made my way to my seat in the 23,000-seat amphitheater. That night’s line up was Grateful Dead alumni Bob Muir & Ratdog, and Cheese String Incident.
The air was blue with sweet-smelling smoke, and the band was rolling on a sonic wave. Rob Muir’s grey-bearded face loomed large on the overhead video screen. He was dressed in shorts and sandals. I nodded to the beat, inhaled the pungent fumes and closed my eyes. What year was this, anyway? I never was a huge Grateful Dead fan but a friend had invited me and the music was hypnotic. I felt like I was part of an ecstatic tent revival meeting.
Miller Beer, not the mythical Shotz of Laverne and Shirley fame, was flowing everywhere. The only remaining macro brewery in the city (at one time there were 10, including Pabst and Schlitz), Miller was Summerfest’s main sponsor and people were quaffing it like they’d just come in from the desert.
No beer for me, though. The blue haze of the concert had put me in the mood for something munchable. Cruising by kiosks, I saw butter burgers (beef patties slathered in butter), brats and eggplant sandwiches. No sign of a Pepsi milkshake (Laverne’s fave), but there was something even better, frozen egg custard. The cool, creamy dessert went down like a dream. Jerry Garcia would have loved it.