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T-Pain Drew an Alarmingly Packed Crowd at Summerfest's Uline Warehouse

Jul. 6, 2017
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Sometimes you've got to trust your gut, and my gut was unequivocal about this one: Don't go in there. Actually, it wasn't just my gut. Fan after fan forced their way out of the narrow, bottlenecked passageway to Summerfest's Uline Warehouse stage Wednesday night echoing the same refrain: “Do not go in there.” “Don't to do it,” one guy warned me as I tried to work my way in about 15 minutes before T-Pain's set, “It's bad, bro.” It was too crowded to even move, he said. Others (way too many others) complained it was too hot to breathe. People were pushing each other, fighting their way out of the chaos as just as many other fans tried to squeeze their way in. Several cried. “Horrible,” fan after fan said. I asked more than half a dozen on their way out if they thought it was safe in there. To a person they said no.

In the end, the show went on without major incident, so maybe Summerfest, despite its very outnumbered grounds control crew, had things under control all along—after all, last night wasn't the first ridiculously overcrowded show the festival has hosted, and it certainly won't be the last. Maybe the danger was all an illusion, and all those panicked kids squeezing their way out of the horde were overreacting, along with the onlookers who were voicing their concerns to the police. Plenty of others were enjoying themselves. For every kid who fought their way out of the gauntlet looking pale, wide-eyed and shell-shocked, there were more who seemed to see the humor in it. They'd emerge laughing or squeezing their friends' hands, wearing exhilarated smiles on their faces, like they'd just survived a rollercoaster ride. One person's terrifying is another person's fun.

Look, even under the best of circumstances, music festivals usually feel a bit dicey. Most are overcrowded with pushy, sweaty people, spilling beer, stepping on toes and primed for fights. They're stressful. But this wasn't that. This was a situation. The problem, it seemed, was with the layout of the Uline Warehouse, the most constricted of Summerfest's major stages. It's essentially a cattle pen, sealed off by bleachers, leaving only one shared entrance and exit, with nowhere for spillover crowds to stand. Fans grumbled about T-Pain being booked on one of the festival's smallest stages while the Miller Lite Oasis was headlined by a newbie rapper with a fraction of the hits or name recognition, an industry plant named KYLE. He drew a respectable crowd of his own, but one nowhere as full as this.

The early-arrivers who'd staked out spots for T-Pain on the bleachers, safely above the frenzy on the ground, may not have noticed anything alarming at all about the setup. All they saw was what sounded like an exciting show. Did T-Pain have a band? From my vantage, at least 60 feet away from where I'd need to be to even catch a glimpse of the stage, it sounded like he did, and if so, they sounded good. T-Pain dug deep into his bag of hits, with early favorites “I'm 'n Luv (Wit a Stripper),” “Buy U a Drank (Shawty Snappin')” and “Bartender” going over best, though even the songs that killed his commercial and creative momentum, like the insipid Lily Allen collaboration “5 O'Clock” and the bawdy “Booty Wurk,” absolutely slayed, to judge from the cheers.

The singer hit on all his big features—Kanye West's “Good Life,” Lil Wayne's “Got Money,” Flo Rida's “Low,” Maino's “All The Above” and DJ Khaled's “All I Do Is Win”—but the biggest cheer of the night came when he rhymed “mansion” with “Wisconsin” on “Can't Believe It,” a line that would've deserved the cheer even if we hadn't happened to live in that particular state. At his peak, T-Pain was always much more clever than he was given credit for. Auto-Tune made him a phenomenon, but he would have been a star even without it.

Really, though, it's hard to review a show I couldn't actually see, let alone one I spent the entirety of frightened for the safety of the audience. That things worked out probably speaks to the character of a crowd that, despite the occasional dustup, mostly seemed to be looking out for each other. But when you confine that many people into that small of a space, especially one that people can't easily leave, and you're asking for problems. In recent years Summerfest has done an admirable job updating and revamping some of its stages, in part to address its congestion problems. The festival should probably consider reconfiguring the Uline Warehouse next.


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