30 Years of Waterfest!

waterfest_lineupBY Jane Spietz

WHAT: Waterfest Summer Concert Series 30th Anniversary

WHERE: Leach Amphitheater, Oshkosh WI

WHEN, COST & INFO: 920-303-2265 ext. 22

The Oshkosh area’s favorite summer concert series, Waterfest, is one of the biggest draws to our Event City. Waterfest has showcased an incredibly wide variety of musical acts over the years, from talented local bands just starting out to the likes of such icons as Alice Cooper. The event had its humble beginnings at the Fox Valley Technical College campus, but the beautiful, spacious Leach Amphitheater overlooking the Fox River is now its permanent home. Waterfest offers music fans quality entertainment at a fraction of the price of admission at other venues, not to mention a great time.

With its 30th anniversary upon us, this is Waterfest’s year to really shine! And what better way to kick things off than to connect with the event’s longtime President, Mr. Waterfest himself, Mike Dempsey.

Jane Spietz: Mike, what does it mean to you personally that Waterfest is turning 30 this year?

Mike Dempsey: We take it one season at a time. Producing these events is gutsy.

It probably means we have been as lucky as we have been responsible. To remain relevant to our fans, donors, sponsors and volunteers in an evolving social and competitive environment, is a test. It means we have listened to them and effectively communicated and delivered on our promise. Durability is big.

JS: You held a well-attended Waterfest XXX warm-up event at Becket’s on April 2 which featured some favorite Waterfest acts as well as an exhibit of Don Stolley’s historic Waterfest photos. That surely must have generated a great deal of excitement about the coming season.

MD: Don’s photo archive is a treasure. It was moving to witness what was a small sample of our history. Becket’s came through with a great sampling of tapas, and Tin Men as well as Paul Sanchez always delight! Fun spring fever night indeed.

JS: How did you first become involved?

MD: Waterfest started in 1986 as a Free Weekend Music Festival. Then, as now, we celebrate our quality of life here in the greater Fox Valley area by renewing our awareness of our most distinguishable natural resource, our waterways. That noble purpose remains to this day. The Oshkosh Chamber and City Fathers established the event and managed it for three years through a ‘professional’ events company. 

In 1989, being active in both the Chamber and the Oshkosh Jaycees, the Chamber came to Chuck Hertel and I to see if we could help make the event more economically sustainable as well as help it evolve. The Jaycees had a reputation for producing a number of successful festivals and special events. We worked with the Jaycees for a few years, keeping Waterfest as a weekend event, while moving it from the FVTC Campus to Riverside Park. We had big ambitions including shows at the newly renovated Grand Opera House and Oshkosh Convention Center, as well as 4-5 other stages in tents and outside. We experimented with comedy-polka-skateboard exhibitions, water ski shows, laser light shows, children’s stages and more. We had a carnival for a few years as well. The weekend nature was high- risk and volunteer-sapping.

In 1992, Chuck and I went back to the Chamber meeting with John Casper and Rob Kleman with the idea of establishing a Thursday night concert series. At the time, there were no beer gardens or outside dining. No Riverwalk. The concept was fairly new, especially going upscale with it. As a concert series, we could diversify weather risk, spread our volunteers out over the summer keeping their weekends free, do the same with our fans and look for routing dates that touring artists needed to cover their expenses. We made the move to organizing a not-for- profit entity dedicated to underwriting and producing Waterfest and partnered with the Chamber to assist.

It worked. The momentum created during the next 10 years helped act as a catalyst to further develop Riverside Park and make the vision of an Amphitheater become a reality. Waterfest, above all else, has always been a vehicle for economic development. To bring people together from near and far. To place them in a like-minded place. To get conversations going. It has been highly rewarding personally and for the community. Our team, donors, volunteers, sponsors, vendors and fans all understand this and share the pride we have in moving our community forward.  

We stay with it because the purpose remains relevant. To create an awareness and sense of pride in the potential and the possibilities of our community, and have a lot of fun, too! Can I get you a cheese curd? 

JS: Are you at all surprised that Waterfest continues to be such a big draw considering the influx of other regional venues that have popped up over the years?  

MD: Waterfest is proud to have played a meaningful role in the re-emergence of a very rich Fox Valley live music scene. The club venues are back, with new and expanded outdoor dining and beer gardens. Community concert series and venues for them are becoming part of the fabric of most of our area communities. Where once they may have been discouraged, they now are more often a quality of life feature attracting people to revitalized downtowns. It is great. We love it. It is on us to deliver a best in class value. We look forward to the challenge of earning our “Wisconsin’s Best Community Concert Series” promise every year. 

JS: Share some of your fondest memories of Waterfests over the years.

MD: Tiny Tim doing a full forward roll while playing his blue electric ukulele. He actually was a closet rocker. Eric Burdon pulling a muscle water skiing behind Jon St. John’s boat on Lake Winnebago before the concert. Wayne Toupes telling Rob Kleman, “You saved the show, that other whiskey makes me burp!” after he fetched him some Crown Royal. Rick Nielsen and Bun E. Carlos sitting in with The Wandering Sons unannounced, having a ball as an opening act. Alice Cooper golfing at the Oshkosh Country club in the cutest lime green outfit. The BoDeans offering to make up a rained out concert without pay. The BoDeans filming the song “Good Work.” It took all afternoon and was followed by a wild live concert inside the Convention Center. One very hot day the timer for the auto sprinklers was set twelve hours off, causing them to go on to the surprise and delight of the fans on the grass. Ben Orr of the Cars completing his next to last live show with the help of on stage oxygen. He was in the final days of battling pancreatic cancer. He was going out in style dressed-to-kill in a black bolero with a beautiful girl on his arm and a jumbo martini in one hand. Then, with the pull off a cigarette, a full downing of the martini, a big hit of oxygen and a kiss, Ben went out and sang “Drive.” Chills. 

JS: How do you plan to celebrate the 30th anniversary?

MD: We are celebrating 30X30, or 30 bands on our 30th, by offering Waterfest fans $100 Season Passes – a $240 value – that gets the holder into all 10 shows at any time and includes access to the Reserved Patio on the three Premium Nights. Fifteen $10 Discount Pass Packs – a $150 value – are also available to mix and match with your friends and family. We have three Community Nights where early birds can get in for just $6! U.S. Veterans and kids under 12 are always free. And for opening night, teachers are free with school ID. It has never been better to be a fan of Waterfest!

JS: What other artists are lined up to entertain us?

MD: The Fray is a true stadium act with a monster international following. Andy Grammar, who is white hot right now. American Authors and Matt McAndrew (The Voice) are on the three way bill with Andy. The Summer Tour Concert with Smash Mouth, Toad The Wet Sprocket and Tonic is another big night. For the educated and trusting fan, we are blessed to introduce Lake Street Dive, Jakub from Australia and The Glorious Sons from Canada. Cory Chisel’s Soul Obscure is rumored to pack something ultra-special as he teams up with Lake Street Dive. Then there is Todd Rundgren’s Global Tour which is getting stunning reviews from the club circuit spring tour. Chestnuts include Atlanta’s Cigar Store Indians with a legendary foot-stomping dance friendly alt-country/rockabilly/swing set; Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real will be fresh off the Neil Young tour; Miles Nielsen and The Rusted Hearts join forces with the return of The Bo Deans; Rusted Root is always a party. Then is Hair Ball! And the sensational stage antics of Here Come the Mummies. You can’t make them all unless you make opening night on June 18 for our Summer Solstice Party starring Pablo Cruise and Paul Sanchez. Other fan favorites include Copper Box, Road Trip, Traveling Suitcase, Salsa Manzoni, The Presidents, Rob Anthony, Kyle Megan and The Monsoons and Sly Joe and The Smooth Operators. Madison’s Steez also appears.

JS: How do you balance the requests of Waterfest fans who yearn for newer acts or acts that have never appeared at the Leach, versus those folks who demand the return of the popular favorites?

MD: We listen and we respond. We try to look at every recommendation and give it a reality check based on costs, availability, schedule and so on. As with most years, in 2015 we balanced new acts with those returning from more than 1 year ago and acts returning from last season, in equal thirds. We also have three Premium Shows and have invested 50% more in artist fees overall for our 30th Celebration. Admission is a steal. The Leach Amphitheater is best in class. Food and beverage selection and prices are fair. Where else can you go in, buy a heavily subsidized admission, leave to a local bar and come back? Pretty cool! Now about that weather…

JS: The Leach Amphitheater is such a fantastic venue for Waterfest and other events that are held there. Are there any updates that we need to be aware of for 2015? 

MD: The Riverwalk is humming. Come early and tailgate or walk it. Fun times. The parking lot has been totally resurfaced!  It is looking great!

JS: What would you like to see take shape at Waterfest in the future?

MD: We must have continued fan support for the Premium Shows. Bring your friends. The more we do, the more we can offer. We had great response from them last year and we double downed this year. Come on out! Celebrate 30! Double down!

JS: Any final words of wisdom?

MD: Take advantage of the Season Pass. The three Premium Show Reserved Patio Access covers the cost alone! Always trust that the show will go on. We have had less than five rain outs in 30 years! Come on down! Keep an extra layer in the car. With reentry allowed, you can always fetch a jacket. Thank the volunteers! It takes 7,500 volunteer hours to make it happen for you! Thank those sponsors and donors. They underwrite $10-15 of each admission! Be nice, have fun, rock on!

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