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Live music, and celebrating life together, was healing.
But no one needed to say a thing. You could feel it every day at the country's largest music festival.
Sure, some musicians played for sparse audiences, but most of them just seemed thrilled to play music again for any audience. And some of Summerfest's biggest names — including Dave Chappelle, Chris Stapleton and Guns N' Roses — played for packed, passionate crowds, as if the COVID-19 pandemic never happened.
Of course, it did happen, and it's still happening. Summerfest officials had hoped, given the growing vaccination rates in the spring, life would be "normal" again by September. But the festival returned just as COVID cases reached their highest levels since January, prompting officials to require proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test for entry, a policy that was inevitably lauded by some, and rejected by others.
Between COVID and the September dates (when school was back in session and summer vacations are over), it was likely the lowest turnout in decades.
Here are some highlights (and a few lowlights) of Summerfest 2021.
A growing number of musicians over the past few years have addressed mental health in their music, reducing the stigma in the process. But I don't recall a star as huge as Miley Cyrus discussing their anxieties in real time on stage. That's what she did at Summerfest, when she confessed to a full house that she thought she was about to have a panic attack. "I think by being honest, that makes me less afraid," she said. "I'm getting used to being back on stage, but there's nowhere else that I'd rather be." And she showed it. Empowered by her supportive fans and guided by her immense talent, Cyrus' Summerfest show transformed, as she called it at the night's end, into "the greatest concert in the world."
Best musical milestone
When I think back to Summerfest 2021, I’ll remember wearing my mask and the September dates and the safety protocols. But from a musical experience, I’ll always remember it as the place where alt-rock duo Twenty One Pilots — performing their first concert in 622 days, and their first concert ever as a six-piece — put on their boldest concert of their lives, which, given their history for electrifying live shows, is really saying something.
Not since The Rolling Stones in 2015 has Summerfest had a stronger kickoff than the Hella Mega Tour. Between Wisconsin-raised rocker KennyHoopla, Weezer, Fall Out Boy and especially Green Day, that four-hour show (intermissions excluded) was a potent reminder that a killer rock concert is one of life's greatest pleasures.
Our writers' favorite shows
Music writer Cal Roach says ZZ Top's show has stuck with him. "It was such a heavy emotional release in honor of Dusty Hill, but it was also a reminder that ZZ Top's particular sound is virtually ageless," he said.
Music writer Damon Joy was wowed by Charlie Wilson. "While Wilson's performance had all the trappings of a Las Vegas show, complete with dancers and clothing changes, nothing mattered but his voice," he wrote in his review. "And his voice was as buttery as it was 50 years ago."
Music writer Catherine Jozwik loved the infectious energy of Bleachers, the pop rock project of A-list producer Jack Antonoff.
Music writer Erik Ernst was impressed by Jimmie Allen. "The county star from Delaware made his case for many headlining returns in a set that dazzled with showmanship, lovable personality and a dizzying range of musical talent only teased at on his country pop records," Ernst said.
Music writer Jon M. Gilbertson praised The Weather Station, led by Tamara Lindeman. "With a voice as strong as that of Tori Amos but as direct as that of Bobbie Gentry, she wrapped introspection in allure," he wrote in his review.
I have never seen a guitarist live, nor do I ever expect to see a guitarist live, who is as incredible as @Slash is. Look out for my review of @gunsnroses @Summerfest @journalsentinel pic.twitter.com/uOKR9fUbf1
— Piet Levy (@pietlevy) September 19, 2021
Most impressive musician
About 800 acts, with several thousand musicians, play Summerfest every year. Each year, the country's largest music festival always hosts some of the country's (and the world's) finest musicians. But after seeing Guns N' Roses for a second time at Summerfest this year, I am confident I have never seen a guitarist more dazzling than Slash, and am confident that I'll never seen a better guitarist live in my lifetime.
.@zacbrownband filled out their encore with a bunch of brief covers, but this one naturally killed in Wisconsin: House of Pain’s “Jump Around” with Jimmy De Martini rapping the verses. Review & @ebonycox13 pics @journalsentinel pic.twitter.com/w9ozg2c8lb
— Piet Levy (@pietlevy) September 11, 2021
Cyrus slayed every cover she did, but we're going to spread the love and give this one to the Zac Brown Band. Down two members and scaling back its patented extensive jams during the set, the band had a great finish with a medley of seven huge songs — including Metallica's "Enter Sandman," Ritchie Valen's "La Bamba" and Camp Randall anthem "Jump Around" — with a different member of the band handling vocals for each song.
Most unexpected cover
No one who bought a ticket to Dave Chappelle expected his bodyguard would sing Boyz II Men's "It's So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday," including probably the bodyguard and Chappelle himself. But during his off-the-cuff set, Chappelle put his bodyguard on the spot, and he nailed it — but made sure to put his "don't mess with me" face back on after the show when Chappelle met with fans.
— Piet Levy (@pietlevy) September 9, 2021
It was a lot of fun seeing Miley Cyrus and Wiz Khalifa perform "23" together, but we'll hand this one to Kelsea Ballerini joining the Jonas Brothers for "Close" — especially since Ballerini shared footage at Summerfest from a video diary from when she was 14 praising the band.
Best dance moves
Well, you probably couldn't really call Dave Matthews dance moves good, but they were pretty entertaining. During a cover of "Sledgehammer," he looked like a marionette being manhandled by a 6-year-old, and during a drum solo, his strut across the stage on his tiptoes looked like Pee-wee Herman dancing to "Tequila."
Best surprise addition
With more late dropouts from the Summerfest lineup than ever before (in some cases, COVID was the cause), the talent-buying team did a tremendous job filling the gaps. Guster replaced Indigo Girls, Wiz Khalifa covered for The Kid Laroi, and the fest arguably improved on the Pixies with the Flaming Lips.
Some opening acts were also added at American Family Insurance Amphitheater performances with little to no warning, including "Chappelle's Show" star (and Chappelle opener) Donnell Rawlings. And then there was Chance The Rapper, who brought out fellow seminal Chicago rapper G Herbo as a surprise guest, making this special show (his only full set of 2021) all the better.
— Piet Levy (@pietlevy) September 17, 2021
Wildest stage crashers
It’s not uncommon for bands at Summerfest to invite a fan to party on stage — Green Day did it this year. But one fan wasn’t enough for Megan Thee Stallion — who invited a dozen ladies to twerk with her (and in one case, underneath her) during “Do It On the Tip,” and then let 20 other fans join her for “Big Booty.” Smartphones went flying from the pit to the stage so fans could snatch pics, one lady did a full backflip into some splits, and Megan made sure everyone got a hug and selfie.
Everyone at Chappelle's show got a Chappelle-branded face mask (yep, like the one he wore courtside for Bucks finals games). Slash and Guns N' Roses' Duff McKagan tossed out guitar picks, while Luke Bryan and Dylan Scott threw out cans of beer (and Bryan gave one lady a margarita filled to the brim). And Wiz Khalifa didn't bogart his thick blunt when he made a cameo for Cyrus' set, handing the joint to a fan in the crowd.
RELATED: Milwaukee's Summerfest announced its 2022 dates, will repeat three weekends format
Best bonus because of a Summerfest booking
Before she tore up the Summerfest stage, Megan Thee Stallion went looking for ghosts at Milwaukee’s allegedly haunted Pfister Hotel, resulting in a hilarious video posted on her Instagram and Twitter accounts that’s a cross between “The Blair Witch Project” and “Scooby-Doo,” seasoned with Megan’s signature sass.
Polo G has a hit song called “Rapstar.” But he’s got a long, long way to go if he actually wants to be a rap star, if his listless opening set for Megan Thee Stallion — where he rapped over recorded verses with complete emotional detachment — is any indication.
Gilbertson said Vince Neil of Mötley Crüe was easily the worst performer he saw, where Neil "inadvertently clarified that those songs didn’t rely upon stellar vocals," he wrote in his review.
Jozwik was let down by Psychedelic Furs, who started a half-hour later than planned and still struggled through technical issues, losing some audience interest in the process.
Roach was irritated with country duo Thompson Square, mostly because the sound from their stage intruded on good performances at two adjacent smaller stages.
And Joy was disappointed by DJ Diesel, aka Shaquille O'Neal. A DJ himself, Joy suggested O'Neal's set was a "push-button situation," with members of the NBA legend's entourage sometimes pushing buttons for him.
Ernst was disappointed that “too many talented groups (were) playing in front of embarrassingly small crowds when they deserved more,” during those 4 p.m. shows. Hopefully, daytime headliners can attract larger crowds in the summer months. (A half-off drink promotion Sept. 9 definitely helped.)
Most nerve-wracking cough
Surging COVID cases across the country cast a pretty large cloud over the Summerfest frivolity. So when Luke Bryan continually coughed during his Summerfest set, he couldn't pretend it wasn't happening. "It's not COVID, I promise," he nervously proclaimed, saying he had a cold he couldn't shake. (Bryan actually had COVID-19 this spring.) Bryan's declaration didn't dampen the energy from the crowd, although it was undeniable that such a typically unflappable performer was significantly struggling.
Greek-Australian rapper and “Astronaut In The Ocean” hitmaker Masked Wolf thought he was so slick pronouncing Giannis Antetokounmpo correctly — until a "Bucks in six!" chant from a fan just left him confused. He also tried to give his set an energy boost with confetti cannons, twice, with a gentle breeze blowing the confetti and streamers back toward the stage both times, keeping them out of the small crowd’s reach.
Best change to the format
I know people are annoyed that Summerfest has abandoned its 11-day format for three, three-day weekends. I am not one of those people, rather enjoying the breaks during the festival this year. And the format gave Summerfest more wiggle room in their talent budget to book more noted 4 and 6 p.m. acts, for nearly every stage and every day. Those time slots included some of this year's finest performers, like Cam, Tai Verdes, Poi Dog Pondering and Blanco Brown.
Best change to the grounds
The American Family Insurance Amphitheater's $51.3 million renovation is splendid, with upgrades concertgoers will instantly recognize (the attractive terraces, the bold lyrics making up its decor) and likely overlook (more aisles and cupholders, finally!). The best part is the greater accessibility, from more ADA-compliant seats to an elevator, and the higher roof means we'll see more stadium-exclusive shows in the future, like the Hella Mega Tour that would have skipped over Summerfest otherwise. (In that case, COVID actually worked to Summerfest's benefit, with the tour adding Milwaukee to make up for a canceled Canada date.)
While the amphitheater is a vast improvement in most ways, it's not when it comes to food service. It was especially problematic for the Hella Mega Tour, which started at 5:30 p.m. Only two of the vendors in the amphitheater actually served sandwiches, which of course had Hella Mega lines, while food vendors on the top levels only sold pretzels, nachos and popcorn (although you wouldn't have known until you were close enough to the cashier to read the menu). Summerfest seems to be learning from this: For Dave Matthews Band, they let a food truck park inside the gates. That should become a regular option.
Best part about a September Summerfest
The weather. After frying through many sweltering sets over the years, festgoers had consistently cooler temps this time out.
Worst part of a September Summerfest
More bugs. I saw a few fans dodging bees during Toad The Wet Sprocket's show, and both Luke Bryan and Fall Out Boy’s Pete Wentz swallowed bugs during their amphitheater sets. It was another reason I was grateful to be wearing a mask, although a gnat still managed to sneak into my N95 mask and end up in my mouth.
Harshest celeb review of our reviews
After Joy panned O'Neal's Summerfest performance, Shaq himself responded on Instagram, and, well, he wasn't too pleased. "Don't be mad cuz no one knows who you are," O'Neal wrote. "The crowd was rocking and so were you I saw you. … Who cares what you say I don't."
This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Summerfest 2021: Best and worst moments, from Miley Cyrus to Shaq