When more than 100,000 motorcycle riders descended on Milwaukee for Harley-Davidson’s 105th Anniversary Celebration, the lakefront festival offered plenty of action for the sunburned, do-ragged masses – from stuntmen tearing around the “Sphere of Fear” to merch booths selling “Harley-Davidson: Helping Ugly People Having Sex for 105 Years” patches.
There was also music, with 14 stages and more than 50 bands rolled into a lineup that suggested a state fair on steroids: from Foghat and Blue Öyster Cult to psyched Harley owner Kid Rock, who headlined opening night. Hanging on his bus with Monster Garage host Jesse James, Rock favorably compared playing for bikers to “wearing a fitted shirt.” “This might be a good crowd for ‘Cadillac Pussy,’ ” he added – and, indeed, “Cadillac Pussy” appeared during Rock’s high-horsepower set, which also included his Detroit medley (snippets of Bob Seger, Ted Nugent, the Temptations and Eminem) and his smash “All Summer Long.”
During Friday night’s Foo Fighters gig, Dave Grohl, who admitted he was nursing a giant hangover, committed a major sin by cracking open a Coors in Miller Town. But he delivered the best stage banter: “This is the first time I’ve seen a fat white dude show me his tits.”
The evening before ZZ Top‘s set, guitarist Billy Gibbons took song requests from some fans he met at his hotel. “The girls were the most vocal,” Gibbons says. “They said, ‘We’re the minority in the middle of all these motorcycles. Play “Planet of Women”!'” True to their promise, ZZ Top relearned the 1985 tune before the show and broke it out amid classic cuts like “Legs” and “I’m Bad, I’m Nationwide.”
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But the artist who went the furthest to please the bikers was Bruce Springsteen, whose Saturday-night set closed out the E Street Band’s Magic tour, which began way back in October 2007. Springsteen repeatedly ran into the audience to shake hands, shouted out to “Harley-Davidson motorcycle enthusiasts” and served up a bunch of road-themed fan favorites near the end, including “Glory Days,” “Born to Run” and “Thunder Road.” As the concert approached the three-hour mark, Springsteen asked guitarist Steven Van Zandt whether it was “quittin’ time.” It wasn’t: Springsteen played for another half-hour, closing the night – and the tour – with a supercharged version of “Born to Be Wild.”
While the Black Crowes, Buddy Guy and Daughtry also drew big crowds, weirder entertainment was available on the side stages. Bikers who weren’t interested in a presentation on preventing helmet hair could catch Eighties funksters Cameo – who got hundreds dancing unself-consciously to “Word Up!” After the set, codpiece-wearing singer Larry Blackmon recalled his own days as a Harley owner. “I used to ride with Mickey Rourke in Miami,” he said. “Crazy guy.”
This story is from the October 2, 2008 issue of Rolling Stone.