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Saturday, January 31, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 33.0° F  Overcast
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Bummerfest
It's the quintessential Milwaukee experience
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The drunken girls dancing in the rain manage to keep their cigarettes lit and most of the beer in their cups. This is a unique Milwaukee talent. But even the pros falter after six hours on the Summerfest jobsite.

Mid-flight, one of the blitzed coeds accidentally crushes out her cig on the bare shoulder of a co-partier. "Owwww!" she screams.

The group thinks it's very funny, including the human ashtray, and they all continue splashing and spinning. I look down into the puddles. One dancer is missing a shoe. A fancy high-heeled one, too. It's not clear whether she's discovered this loss. Her head rises up and down above the crowd like a carousel horse when she high-steps/low-steps into the smoky swarm of the Marcus Amphitheatre.

There's a bright, Summerfest line to be found between the beer-buzzed and the blasted. I'm thinking that losing track of a shoe may be that line.

I turn to head to our own seats and nearly fall over a 55-year-old man with a buzz-cut who's squatted down in a combat crouch, squeezing off imaginary shots from his Glock-shaped hand.

"That's RIGHT!" he calls between trigger pulls, peering through the rainfall at his prey. It dawns on me that the wasted, middle-aged marksman and the dancing girl with one high heel are perfect, besotted bookends to the Summerfest demographic.

My friend Dave and I have come with our teenagers to see the John Mayer/Ben Folds show. I figured a $50 ticket would be the levee between the Marcus reserved seat holders and the roiling river of drunks that is the Summerfest grounds. Silly me.

Instead, the scene actually puts me off my own thirst for a cold one. No small feat, considering how much I enjoy, as writer Tom Robbins puts it, frescoing my tonsils with the Bavarian brush.

The rain falls harder just as Ben Folds pounds out the final piano chords of his opening set. The Marcus Amphitheater is a cool venue. Raindrops don't matter to the half of the crowd seated under the theater roof. But we're in the first section of bleachers, with nothing between our sticky flesh and the raindrops except for cheapo, plastic rain ponchos that we're now happy to have brought along.

Like water to a parched cornfield, rain seems to freshen rather than dampen Summerfesters. This translates into action the same way everything else does here. More drinks.

Milwaukeeans will pay for beer the same way SUV owners will pay for gas. Whatever it takes. Brewskis are up to five bucks apiece at Summerfest now. They could be 50 bucks and it wouldn't matter.

The guy in front of us disappears every other song and returns with plastic bottles of Miller Lite that he shares with his drenched girlfriend. I don't know what's more discouraging: the fact that each round takes their focus further from the music, or the fact that they'll pay that much for crappy beer.

John Mayer takes the stage shortly after Folds exits. My 14-year-old, Riley, reaches out and measures the artist's size between the tip of his index finger and thumb. From where we sit, Mayer is less than an inch tall.

He sure sounds good, though. And the camera shots feeding the big video screens allow us to look at his amazing fretwork up close. Mayer comes across as a performer who says to himself, "If I'm gonna be here at all, I may as well play my ass off." And he does.

But the rain pounds down, and it's growing the cornstalks of drunks all around us. Rain does something else at Summerfest, something that adds to the ambiance.

A hard rain creates a half-inch of greasy Summerfest stew beneath your feet. A sludgy swirl of cigarette butts, decomposing Kleenex, beer foam, foot sweat and a dash of puke. Hey! How 'bout some zucchini sticks with marinara?

Mayer jams on, and the rain lets up. We push back our plastic hoods in time to catch the first round of brilliant fireworks over our heads, a site the privileged front sections are denied because of the roof. The Miller Lite couple, suddenly aware that a concert is taking place, stand up on their bleacher bench and completely block our view, even though we're standing, too.

This is where the laws of Summerfest are patently unfair. Drunks win every time. Dave and I know if we tell them to sit down there'll be a fifty-fifty chance we'll get slugged. Since we're in Milwaukee, there's a good chance it's going to be the woman who throws the punch.

So we rock in tempo back and forth in the opposite direction of the Miller Lites. It's tricky because I'm using the word tempo in the loosest way possible.

After the show, we unite with Riley's older sister and her friends and head out beneath an electrical storm that rivals the fireworks. It's 11 p.m. - truly the witching hour at Summerfest. This is when the endless hours of beer consumption transform the party animals into card-carrying werewolves.

I'm leaning hard in the direction of our car, and as I encourage our group to pick up the pace, something catches my eye. It's lying on its side on the steaming pavement next to an overflowing garbage can. One can only guess how its owner is doing right now, but I know for a fact to whom the matching shoe belongs.

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