For bikers, this past weekend's Harley-Davidson Festival was a big deal: Organizers expected more than 100,000 Harley riders and guests to descend on Milwaukee to celebrate the 105th birthday of the H-D motorcycle. Many rode to Milwaukee from all around North America; some came from as far away as New Zealand. For four days, the city was packed with comedians, merch booths, bike stunts, beer and loads of rock & roll. (Click here for photos!)
"Good evening Harley-Davidson enthusiasts," Bruce Springsteen said just before nine Saturday night. More than 180 minutes later, he was still onstage, closing out six months of steady touring and, for all intents and purposes, the fest. (There are only a handful of gigs Sunday.) Despite all the time on the road, Springsteen showed zero signs of fatigue. He bounced around the stage, sweated like Kevin Garnett, rolled around on his back and took numerous trips into the crowd to shake hands and let fans sing into his mike.
Most of the best-known, crowd-pleasing songs came near the end of the show, including "Glory Days," "Born to Run" and "Rosalita." Preceding those show-stoppers was a load of steady rocking, several cuts that pushed past the 10-minute mark thanks to extended solos and crowd sing-alongs, one bar-band classic ("Wooly Bully," which came after Bruce picked up a sign out of the crowd requesting said bar-band classic) and "Livin' in the Future," which Springsteen introduced with a short speech that railed against "rendition and illegal wiretapping." That drew a few isolated boos, but the response Saturday was overwhelmingly positive. If "Born to Run" wasn't biker-appropriate enough, Springsteen also broke out "4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)," a song that mentions Harleys — not that he even needed to play to the crowd like that. They were with him for all three-plus hours.
Friday night's Foo Fighters headlining gig proceeded roughly as expected — lots of intense, supercharged bashing, lots Dave Grohl chewing gum and delivering throat-shredding screams — except for one thing: solos. Roughly the half the songs had extended guitar breaks. The violinist got a long solo, as did drummer Taylor Hawkins and the auxiliary percussionist — on triangle, no less. Much of the set focused on darkly rocking material from the Foo's Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace. Grohl, who admitted he was nursing a giant hangover, committed a venial sin: He was drinking Coors, a no-no in Miller Town. (A few people booed him for it.) But he delivered the best stage banter: "The is the first time I've seen a fat white dude show me his tits."
Though the Foos were the bigger draw, ZZ Top got a larger share of Harley riders. Billy F. Gibbons took song requests, including "Planet of Women," an oldie the band had to re-learn before Friday's gig. Their highly likable blues-rock set indeed included "Planet of Women," plus some more familiar oldies: "Jesus Just Left Chicago," "Legs," "I'm Bad, I'm Nationwide" and a set-closing "Jailhouse Rock" jam.
When Rolling Stone talked to him before his show on the fest's first day, Kid Rock, a Harley owner himself, told me he might tweak his set list to make it more biker-appropriate. He may have done just that: The gig was light on rapping and included the Detroit rock medley — snippets of Seger, Nugent, the Temptations and Eminem — he thought the Harley folks would like. Rock was flanked flanked by a big incarnation of the Twisted Brown Trucker band, which featured two guitarists, a drummer, a bassist, a percussionist, a sax player, a DJ and two female backup singers. The band ran kind of like a Harley — noisily and powerfully — as Rock, dressed in what looked like a custom jogging suit, ran through much of his most recent album, the very blue-collar-friendly Rock N Roll Jesus: Among others, there was the sweet, Skynyrd-quoting reminiscence (and current hit) "All Summer Long" and the sleazetastic title track. After announcing, "It's time for a little honky-tonkin' " Rock also turned in "Half Your Age," a country song that seems to be about getting a new girl after his marriage to Pam Anderson failed (chorus: "She's half your age and twice as hot"). Only this time, his drummer, Stephanie Eulinberg, stepped from behind the kit to deliver a tweaked chorus that got a giant cheer: "He's half your age, with twice the cock."
In leather pants and a skimpy bikini top, Joan Jett came out earlier in the afternoon firing with two of her best known songs: "Bad Reputation" and "Cherry Bomb." After a mid-set lull that featured largely newer, less-known material, Jett broke out the familiar cuts that got the crowd up: the fist-pump-able "I Love Rock N' Roll," the arm-waveable "Crimson and Clover." But it was two less-expected cuts that seemed especially Harley Fest-appropriate: Punky covers of "Everyday People" and "Love Is All Around," the theme from the midwest-set Mary Tyler Moore Show.