Since the world’s largest outdoor music festival hosted its first show in 1968, Summerfest has had the privilege of introducing fans to unforgettable experiences. The fest began as a moving show across Milwaukee, in 35 locations, and has since grown to a major ticketed event ($18 per day; additional for Marcus Amphitheater shows) at Henry Maier Festival Park, 200 N. Harbor Drive, Milwaukee. But since the fest now spans 11 days—this year’s Summerfest dates are June 29-July 3 and July 5-10, 2016—and includes 11 stages, it’s a nearly impossible task to determine the best shows over the years.
Recently, on Summerfest’s website, the staff made the job easy by revealing its picks for the best Summerfest shows of all time.
Take it from a crew that knows music to the very last note, and has been intimately involved with booking and organizing the shows.
These Are the Best of the Best
1. Depeche Mode (1990)
The early ‘90s were the height of this Brit electronic band’s existence, pumping out songs like “Personal Jesus” and “Policy of Truth.” Brad Bertz remembers being there in the 11th row for its World Violation Tour (to mark the “Violator” album); on the tour’s Milwaukee stop, Depeche Mode was on the stage for 2.5 hours … plus a double encore.
2. Pearl Jam (1995)
This Seattle grunge band with frontman Eddie Vedder was a big deal in the ‘90s—and has been ever since, on tour this summer with two Chicago dates (Aug. 20 and 22)—with hits like “Daughter” and “Dissident.” Sara McGuire was so hot on seeing the Pearl Jam show in 1995—to promote its album “Vitalogy”—that she skipped school in order to stand in line to buy tickets.
3. Paul Simon (1987)
Paul Simon has performed at Summerfest quite a few times (1999 and 2006, most recently). The concert at Summerfest in 1987, as part of the “Graceland” tour, included Simon’s musician friends from South Africa, a musical detail that fan Scott Ziel remembers well. This was also the first year the Marcus Amphitheater was open.
4. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers (2013)
Performing during pouring rainproof that all shows at the Marcus go on, rain or shine—this rock band returned after successful shows in 2006 and 2010. The Smithereens opened. Cory Congemi remembers this as his first time seeing the band live and, as any music fan knows, this is an experience you never forget.
5. The Charlatans (1992)
It’s not every day this English indie-rock band (from Manchester) tours the U.S. In 1992 they graced the stage at Summerfest, early into their career, on the heels of their top-20 single “Weirdo.” Fourteen years ago, Jen Paluso doesn’t think she’ll ever forget this concert.
Lifelong fan Chris Congemi went with his dad and the entire family to this show in 2009 to celebrate his birthday—a double treat given that both bands reunited for the 30-city summer tour. (The two American rock bands also toured together in 2004-2005.)
7. Prince (2001 and 2004)
It’s sad to think that Prince won’t ever perform again due to his untimely death this past spring. But in 2004 he hosted a memorable show at Summerfest, capping off with a “Purple Rain” encore, despite a two-hour delay on the start time.
“I danced until I dropped!” says Gayelin Littell, about one of his shows. She first saw Prince live in 1985, the year of his “Purple Rain” tour.
8. The Eagles
This American rock band—whose founder Glenn Frey died in January of this year—has appeared at the Marcus at Summerfest in 2002 and 2013. Clint Baer recalls how he and his wife ended up with “obstructed-view” tickets to the sold-out show that weren’t that obstructed at all and ended up being behind the soundboard.
9. Buddy Guy (2011)
This American blues legend—ranked 30th in Rolling Stone Magazine’s “100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time”—was a memorable show for Matt Cisz in 2011, who snuck into the front row for a better view (and sound). Then, in 2015, Guy joined the Rolling Stones on stage when they performed at the Marcus during Summerfest, teaming up on “Champagne and Reefer.”