So much Fun

I'm laying in a Third Ward apartment in Milwaukee. The Harleys are roaring by on the streets below. My ears are ringing. And the excitement of the day is keeping me from falling asleep any time soon.

I've been lucky to have a lot of great birthdays in my lifetime. But today may hold up as one of the best.

Say it with me: Dreams came true tonight.

As always, I'll start with some background ...

Kates and I got a late start on planning our vacations this year after all the excitement of the spring died down. We didn’t come to a consensus until just a couple weeks ago that the week of July 4 would be our best window – between softball games, summer school, visitors to our house, vacation bible school at our church and my work responsibilities.

All along – the spring ritual that it is – I was tracking Summerfest’s lineup announcements. Rare as it is, this year’s lineup left me unimpressed. There were more bands this year than in past years with which I had little familiarity. Several bands on the docket this year I’ve seen multiple times – Barenaked Ladies and OAR to name two – and had little interest in seeing again. … Except for two: The Go-Gos are playing July 3 and Guster is playing July 4. I've seen both previously, but would love to see them again.

Then there was toniiiiiiight. Fun at the Marcus Amphitheater. I was bummed I had to miss them at Summerfest last year, having a sense they were on the verge of going big. Sure enough, they did and most nights I heard one of their songs on the radio – or watched them on the Grammys – I was left thinking, What if. …

Kates and I discussed trying to work the Fun show into our summer vacation plans. But it was so late in the game I figured we had little chance at getting good seats. I had a number of responsibilities at the university that, I figured, would make it tough for me to leave. And I had played up the experience so much in my head that I had begun to doubt I’d even enjoy the show.

We decided to forego Fun and begin our vacation June 28.

Until …

I received a text from Orrin Tuesday afternoon …
Kelli got two free tickets to Fun this Thursday night at the Marcus Amphitheater. They’re yours if you want them!
Oh. My.

The gears in my brain started churning. How can we make this work?

With plans to start our vacation and be away from work Friday, I’d already begun working ahead. But finishing my projects an extra day earlier, not to mention getting excused from Thursday’s university board meeting, was going to make it tough.

Tuesday evening, I finished a draft of my news release for the board meeting. Wednesday, I finished a couple items I needed to write for the president and my cover story for our alumni magazine. At around 8:30 Wednesday night, I emailed all of the documents to my boss for her to review and then dialed her number to explain the situation and request starting my vacation leave a day early. Almost simultaneously, Orrin called Kates to confirm the tickets were ours and talk details.

We were gonna make it work.

So Kates and I got the girls to bed and went to work packing for our trip. We made it to bed about 1:30 a.m. Thursday.

Five hours later, we were awake again. I badly needed to mow our lawn because rain prevented me from doing it earlier this week, and it would have been past our knees had I left it until we return in nine days. So I woke the neighbors and mowed our lawn, while Kates finished packing our suitcases inside.

At 9 a.m. we were on the road, and, oh, what a trip it was. We couldn’t have asked for a better drive with two kids under 5. We made no stops until a rest area in Iowa for lunch and bathroom breaks around 11:30 a.m. Another stop for gas and caffeine around 2:30. And on to Wisconsin. …

Our only hiccup occurred around the I-88 interchange in Illinois, which we missed, causing us to spend a good 45 minutes trying to turn around and get back on track because the Illinois tollway system holds motorists hostage and allows only limited exits or stops. Before driving through Illinois make darn sure you’ve made your food and bathroom breaks and you know your route.

Faye slept for most of the drive, and when she wasn’t asleep she was peering over at her big sister in wonder. Phoebe watched movies and played on her LeapPad before we spent the afternoon hours making song requests for Kates to play on the iPod. We must have listened to Phoebe's favorites “Home,” “Some Nights” and “Good Time” – we declared “It's always a good time” as the motto of our trip – a few times each.

We made one more quick restroom stop beyond the Wisconsin border and arrived at our destination – Kelli’s and Orrin’s apartment in Milwaukee’s Third Ward – about 6:50 p.m. We made it. Orrin and the grandparents were waiting at the curb to meet us as I pulled up to the unloading zone. …

Then I got another gift. We had planned to unload our things and then I’d search for some parking – knowing it wouldn’t be easy in downtown Milwaukee, during Summerfest. But before I could turn the car off, Orrin saw something and said, “Um, you might want to keep the car on for another minute.” I followed Orrin’s finger pointing to the car behind me, which was leaving its parking spot.

Divine intervention.

I put the car in reverse and backed up about 10 feet into a free parking space. From there, we unloaded our belongings and headed upstairs to the apartment. We ate leftover pizza for supper, left the kids with the grandparents and walked the two blocks to the Summerfest grounds.

The night was perfect.

* * *

We were easily amused by the ticket takers, bartenders and others who told us to “Have fun.” … We did have Fun.

We entered the Marcus Amphitheater and found our seats while the second of the opening bands, Walk the Moon, wrapped up its set. Family of the Year played before them. I hadn’t heard of either band, nor did I care to hear from them tonight. We waited patiently as they finished. During the break, Orrin and I headed to the VIP section – a perk that came with our tickets – for a round of beverages.

Fun took the stage shortly after 9. And as the show hummed and thumped along, it far exceeded my expectations. Enough that it might just be the best show I’ve seen.

Here’s an excerpt of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel’s review

A string of hit anthems launched by the massive "We Are Young," two major Grammys for best new artist and song of the year, and now another first Thursday night at the Marcus Amphitheater. Looking out at the near-capacity shed, frontman Nate Ruess announced, "This is the biggest show we've ever played in our whole entire life."

You have to think more blockbusters are lurking down the road — fun. writes and plays fist-pumping anthems made to order for giant amphitheaters. Ruess claims he writes most of his best stuff during middle-of-the-night bathroom breaks. You have to think he's a man of turbulent dreams. These are big bursting tunes, part rock opera and part pure Broadway greasepaint. Ruess talks a lot about the hip-hop influences in the "Some Nights" album but what these ears hear is a whole lot of Queen.

Listen to those clarion horns in "One Foot." Or even better, that bombastic singalong in "Carry On." If the Mormon Tabernacle Choir does a fun. cover album, don't be surprised. And because of deadlines, we didn't even hear the biggest firecracker of all, "We Are Young."

None of this, incidentally, is meant as a put-down. Rarely has a band been as aptly named as fun. A spirit of playfulness pervaded the music. It was there in that toy piano line in "All Alone" and the nursery rhyme cadences of "At Least I'm Not as Sad (As I Used to Be)."

And if that weren't enough to dismiss the suspicions of pretense, there was Ruess himself, a nonstop bantam dynamo who was clearly having a ball. Little wonder that the Marcus crowd was up on its feet and singing along much of the way.
The reviewer says he heard a whole lot of Queen. But I kept thinking Electric Light Orchestra, Supertramp and a little bit of Rolling Stones. Even Ruess’ stage presence resembled pieces of Mick Jagger.

They opened with the pounding “One Foot” and then “At Least I’m Not As Sad” – one of my personal favorites within the Fun catalog. I was thrilled to hear it live – Emily Moore singing the interplay with Ruess’ lead vocals and all.

We’ve been playing all of these songs around our house for the last year, and there were only a couple I didn’t recognize from the first one or two notes. Throughout, I was impressed with how well the group was able to replicate its studio sound on the live stage. The band, the harmonies and Reuss – it all sounded so fantastic.

And those elements were backed up by some stunning visuals both on screen and in the crowd. There were flashing lights. Images flashing on a huge screen behind the band. And confetti explosions.

Each song built on the power and momentum of the one before it, inching closer to the hits everyone came to hear. Every song sounded new and fresh, and I could count every one of them as a highlight of the show. “All Alone,” “Why Am I the One” and “All the Pretty Girls” sounded even better to me live than their album counterparts.

Around the midway point, a familiar trumpet melody began. I looked at Kates and said, “This is a cover! What is this? I can’t think of it!” Then, Reuss broke in, “I saw her today at the reception …”

Another highlight. And an addition to my favorite live covers.

The crowd roared at the sound of the opening drum beats of “We Are Young.” Kates and I grabbed each other’s hand, and the sing-along commenced immediately as a group of stage crew members tossed 16 glow-in-the-dark beach balls – eight from each side of the stage – onto the crowd …

The band capped their set with “Take Your Time (Coming Home).” Near the end of the song, Reuss raced up the aisle just a few feet from us, security guards chasing after him to hold back the crowd. He disappeared for a few moments in the crowd near the top of the amphitheater’s lowest tier. Then, he raced back down, security guards chasing after him again, and jumped back onto the stage with an exasperated look that sort of said, “Whoah, I can’t believe I just did that, but it was really fun!”

The band left the stage – and would you believe some people in the crowd did, too!? Blasphemy.

When the band returned a minute later, cell phone lights began popping on in the crowd. Reuss remarked what a beautiful sight it was and told us to hold on because there was going to be a place for those lights in a few minutes. He paused and then sang the opening lyrics for “Some Nights.”

They segued into “Stars” for the finale. The cell phone lights reappeared and danced above the crowd. I believe it's the coolest thing I've ever experienced at a concert.

We didn’t know until Reuss noted that tonight’s show was the kickoff of their summer tour. He stopped at several points during the show, overcome with the appreciation of the crowd, to take in the awesomeness of the scene.

It did strike us when he gazed on the capacity crowd and proclaimed it “the biggest show we've ever played in our whole entire life." You would think venues like “Saturday Night Live” and their jaw-dropping Grammys performance were bigger.

It doesn’t matter. We were thrilled to be a part of it.

The set list:
1. One Foot
2. At Least I’m Not As Sad (As I Used to Be)
3. All Alone
4. Walking the Dog
5. Why Am I the One
6. All the Pretty Girls
7. It Gets Better
8. Barlights
9. Carry On
10. The Gambler
11. You Can’t Always Get What You Want
12. We Are Young
13. Take Your Time (Coming Home)
14. Some Nights
15. Stars

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