11 days, 11 stages and even some prog bands

by Michael Popke

Milwaukee’s Summerfest — billed as “the world’s largest music festival” — begins this week, and I must say I’m excited. I first attended this marathon event, held on the shores of Lake Michigan, in 1981 with my father. I was 13. We heard (but did not really see) George Thorogood and The Delaware Destroyers on the original (now demolished) Main Stage, and somewhere I still have a Thorogood button that Dad bought at a merch table, which I wore on my jean jacket for a long time.

The Summerfest grounds have undergone some major transformations since then, and so have I. The number of stages has expanded to 11, and more than 800 artists are expected to perform over 11 days. Even though I no longer live in the Milwaukee area, I still try to make the Summerfest pilgrimage at least once every year — and I will be doing so multiple times over the next week and a half.

Plenty of progressive bands — or at least bands with progressive tendencies — can be found on the Summerfest bill this year. (OK, less than a couple dozen in a field of 800 is not “plenty,” but it’s still more than I recall in past years.) Yes, Uriah Heep and The Moody Blues all will headline the M&I Classic Rock Stage, while local acts such as multi-instrumentalist Sig Snopek (who has recorded or performed with the odd triumvirate of Tom Paxton, the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra and the Violent Femmes) and Secret Society of Starfish (below right, featuring veteran players from previous Milwaukee-area prog-metal bands) each have coveted slots — Snopek warms up for The Moodies and Secret Society of Starfish opens for Yes.

If you can’t afford tickets to see Marcus Amphitheater headliners Rush on July 3, there’s always Animation: A Tribute to Rush, which will power through two sets earlier that day on a smaller stage. And another tribute band, Think Floyd USA, will perform what has come to be recognized as “The American Pink Floyd Show” on June 25 at the Classic Rock Stage. Meanwhile, progressive jam bands Sound Tribe Sector 9 (June 29) and Umphrey’s McGee (July 3) will make headlining appearances at the Miller Lite Oasis, while fringe outfits like Collections of Colonies of Bees (June 24) and Canyons of Static (June 26) will have an opportunity to reach broader audiences. If you dig deep enough into the Summerfest schedule, you’ll probably find some more progressively inclined artists who deserve your attention.

I know Summerfest is not NEARfest or ProgPower USA — and people aren’t going to travel hundreds or thousands of miles to see Rush when that band is already touring the country, or to check out a previously unheard-of band from tiny West Bend, Wis. And would I love to see Spock’s Beard, Evergrey, Symphony X, The Flower Kings and Steve Hackett on some of the side stages? You bet! Summerfest consistently takes chances on artists with even less name recognition among the general public, so why not? But you take what you can get. And I’m going to get myself to Summerfest…

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