Summer vacation: Day 9; Summerfest: Night 2

Today we soaked in the Third Ward for another day and capped it with another evening at Summerfest. Only this time we brought Phoebe along to get her first taste of Summerfest.

When we set out on this vacation, we figured we may take her for a couple hours one of these days. Then, when we strolled past the grounds yesterday, her curiosity got the best of her, and Kates and I started to explain to her the virtues of the great summer festival. The deal was sealed.

We were on a deadline to pass through the gates before 4 p.m. to get the afternoon discount -- aka half-price admission -- but got caught up in a charming paper store with its vintage postcards, greeting cards and stationary of all varieties. Then Kates wanted to check out a furniture store while I kept Phoebe occupied on the building’s front stoop. … With 10 minutes to spare, I dropped off our purchases at the apartment and booked it the three blocks to the Summerfest grounds for tickets. I think I arrived at the ticket counter at 3:57. And I ended up not only getting the discount for Kates and I, but they let us take Phoebe for free, even though admission for children 3 and up is 3 bucks.

The first things fest-goers come to inside the center gate is a set of fountains designed as a place for children to play. Phoebe led us straight to them, and after a few moments of trepidation, she slowly waded in. Pretty soon she was getting soaked and having the time of her life.

After Phoebe got a fresh change of clothes, we were off to the Summerfest playground -- arguably the largest and most extensive Phoebe’s ever encountered; although the children‘s area at the zoo Tuesday was pretty complex, too. Always daring, she navigated it with flying colors. She climbed ladders with ease, traveled staircases up to tall slides, and slid down long, winding covered ones. ‘Round and ‘round she went.

Then there was the case of the pole. She approached it from the ground and didn’t know what to make of it at first. She thought it was intended for climbing upward until a boy came upon it from above, hopped on and slid down. That sent Phoebe running to the platform to try it for herself. With me spotting her, the first four or five times she lunged for the pole and grabbed it with both hands, leaving it to me to lift her feet and wrap them around the pole. Then I’d support her behind as she glided down the pole.

As it always happened, she soon wanted to try it without my help. Again, she lunged for the pole and grabbed it with her hands. As she held on and prepared to jump, it was like that first time you try diving into a pool. You stand on the edge of the diving board -- in the dive position, knees bent and arms outstretched over your head with the palms together -- for what seems like an eternity, building up the courage to take the leap. That was Phoebe, holding on to the pole.

Just as I reached to help her feet again, she jumped and landed with her legs around the pole. She’d done it, and I guided her the rest of the way down the pole. … When she touched the ground, I burst out laughing and looked at Kates who was sitting on a bench along the sideline. I caught her smiling, shaking her head and patting the center of her chest. Unforgettable.

Watching Phoebe on that playground today was like noticing subtle hints of her adolescence and the weight of peer pressure all around her. I already mentioned the daring part. At another point, she came to the top of a staircase just as another little girl stepped to a slide and began swinging dangerously on a chin-high bar above the slide. When the girl ran away, Phoebe stepped to the bar and copied her. … Then there was the 5-year-old who befriended Phoebe as she was crossing a bridge. This girl was like the child version of an alternative chick, bandanna on her head and running freely. Not that I don’t admire the individualism of so-called alternative kids -- I admire that trait greatly. But the way Phoebe began following her and mimicking her, if this girl had offered Phoebe drugs, she would have downed them like candy.

The joys of raising a daughter.
* * *

After her playground adventures, Phoebe insisted on trying the sky glider that travels over and across the length of the Summerfest grounds. So Kates accompanied her on that ride, while I walked the grounds and met them on the other side. I was worried about whether Phoebe would get scared once the glider went up; Kates said she did well until about the halfway point -- the peak of the glider’s height -- when she said, “I wanna get down.”

For supper, I went German with a chicken cordon bleu sandwich and German potato salad from Mader’s. Kates got the fish and chips from John Hawks Pub. We got Phoebe a gourmet pretzel filled with apple filling and cinnamon, which is probably the healthiest thing she’s eaten since we arrived in Milwaukee.

I, of course, capped it with a large Mountain Dew, though it took me a couple stops to get one. Scattered throughout the grounds every year are these beer barrels that are just large enough for an adult to sit inside, while being surrounded by plastic cups and a soda tap. I hit up three of them before I found one that hadn’t run out of a set of this year’s souvenir Summerfest cups. When I inquired at the third one, a kid inside pointed to another station and told me -- like an undercover man explaining a top secret information -- “I think they still have some at that one over there.”

By 6, Parachute had taken the stage at the new and improved Big Backyard stage, and they were first on my list of artists to see tonight. While Kates was ready to take Phoebe back to the apartment, I encouraged her to walk to the stage with me and take in a bit of the music. We navigated the sea of people, and I imagine it must have been quite an experience for Phoebe riding in her stroller, low to the ground, through such a typically huge Summerfest crowd. … As soon as we pulled up to the stage, Phoebe was out of her stroller and dancing with Kates.

My little knowledge of Parachute comes from hearing their songs on the radio, where I’ve likened them to Matchbox Twenty. Their live performance tonight, however, reminded me more of Augustana. Either way, I liked what I heard.

The crowd was comprised mostly of teenage girls who swayed as they mouthed the lyrics of “Kiss Me Softly,” and they watched admiringly as the band members played on.

For me “She is Love” and “Something To Believe In” -- two of their most widely known songs -- were the standouts during their hour-plus set.

The band also delivered a worthy cover of Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down.” 

And when Parachute left the stage, their fans departed the benches and the Michelle Branch fans moved up. I seized a spot on a sixth-row bench, at the left side of the stage.

* * *

I remember vividly the first time I heard Michelle Branch on the radio early in the summer of 2001. I was interning for a newspaper in Independence, Mo., that summer and living in my college roommate's basement in Kansas City. Along with the 10-month old German Shepherd we foolishly adopted the previously fall, but that’s a whole different story.

The way I remember it, “Everywhere,” along with Lifehouse’s “Hanging By a Moment,” was one of the songs of the summer. They were the kind of songs that you could not turn on a radio without hearing a half dozen times a day. I was struck by Branch's lyrics and edgy sound then, and I've been a fan of hers ever since, especially enjoying her output as one half of the country duo known as The Wreckers.

I had long wanted to see her perform live and missed a chance to see her at Summerfest a few years ago. And yet, at the same time, I’ve sensed she’s better in the studio than she is live. Tonight, I got my wish to see her live -- and, sadly, she proved my theory.

She played a good mix of hits from her solo studio albums and her time in The Wreckers. She also threw in “The Game of Love,” one of her hits with Santana. … But she battled pitch issues throughout her set and never really varied from the bars of the original recordings.

Her banter between songs was charming and sweet. Backed by two guitarists and a beatbox rather than a drummer, she called the setup her “recession band.” And later she mused about riding on a tour bus with boys -- referring to her summer tour mates in Parachute and Goo Goo Dolls -- who don’t leave the toilet seat down. She also declared that she and Parachute would be forming a Tom Petty cover band before the end of their tour and told a story about the time she saw Tom Petty puffing on an electronic cigarette backstage.

Her show lasted an hour. It was about what I expected and nothing more. And then it was over. My wish to see her fulfilled.

Here’s the setlist:

Everywhere” (Summerfest performance)
Loud Music
Goodbye to You
Sooner or Later
Desperately” (Summerfest performance)
“For Dear Life”
The Game of Love
Leave the Pieces
Are You Happy Now?”
All You Wanted

* * *

Before Michelle Branch strummed her last note I had jumped off my bench and was heading toward the side of the stage to meet up with some old friends from K-Town. It was a thrill to see them all, if only for a few minutes, until each of us parted ways to see a different show. Rachel and Joe went to see Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings. Kevin went to Dropkick Murphys. Laura went to Leon Russell.

And I headed across the grounds to see the Goo Goo Dolls at the Miller Lite Oasis.

Like Wednesday night, I didn’t expect to get as close to the stage as I would have liked. Nor did I care all that much, since I saw a great Goo Goo Dolls show a just three short months ago.

But I didn’t expect to find the enormous crowd I ran into at the stage area. I worked my way through the crowd, along the left side of the stage. Then I worked my way through the crowd along the right side of the stage. Then I worked my way back to the picnic tables -- the equivalent in distance from the stage to the nose bleed section in an arena. I ended up standing next to a picnic table in the last row of tables surrounding the stage area, just inside the grounds’ main traffic way, settling on the fact that it might be my best chance to catch any of the show.

I have never, in all my years of attending Summerfest, seen a crowd so large at one stage. And for the Goo Goo Dolls!? Who knew they could draw such a crowd!? ... I figure tonight’s crowd could have packed three times the small college arena where I saw them play in April.

As I stood and waited for the show to begin, I overheard one older man and his wife, who were sitting at the picnic table, explaining to a pack of girls that they arrived at 7:30 and the place already was packed; the picnic table was the best seat they could find. (It's worth adding the wife revealed she had never been to Summerfest. Talk about being thrown into the fire. Between the shoulder-to-shoulder crowd, pushy teenie-boppers and the revelation that, once the show starts, people stand on whatever they can to catch a glimpse of the stage -- man, the look on that woman’s face was priceless.)

Another man near me said, “I didn’t know the Goo Goo Dolls had this many fans -- worldwide.”

By the time the Goo Goo Dolls took the stage, I had made up my mind that I wasn’t staying for more than a few songs. I couldn’t see the stage and instead could only watch the video screen mounted to the right of the stage. If they played the exact set I heard in April, I could count down the songs, and I’d plan to leave after they performed “Slide.”

And that’s exactly what happened. “Sweetest Lie.” “Big Machine.” And then “Slide.”

It took me two more songs just to get through the crowd. When I finally reached an opening I turned back and caught this shot. The picture doesn’t even do the scene justice.

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