In the Days of Festival Seating

U.S. Cellular Arena in Milwaukee is an old barn of a place, built in 1950 as the Milwaukee Arena, home to the Milwaukee Bucks of the NBA during their 1970s glory days, now used for college basketball by UW-Milwaukee and back-tier sports like indoor soccer, wrestling, and roller derby—and still, the occasional rock or country concert. In one of those serendipitous, found-on-the-way-to-something -else Internet moments, I recently discovered a list of concerts presented at the Arena over the years.

The biggest band ever to appear was the Beatles, who played there on their first big North American tour, in September 1964. Two years later, the Beach Boys played there, and they would return in 1973 and 1978. On November 1, 1968, the Doors headlined the Arena. Led Zeppelin played two shows, one on August 31, 1970, and a second on July 10, 1973.

(Zeppelin’s 1970 show was the second time the band played Milwaukee in about a year. They had been on the bill for the fabled Midwest Rock Festival in July 1969. Their 1973 show came about three weeks before the New York City shows that were filmed for The Song Remains the Same.)

Elvis Presley played three times, in 1972, 1974, and in 1977, less than four months before his death. The June 14, 1972, Elvis show was part of a magnificent summer of shows at the Arena: Jethro Tull on June 6, Emerson Lake & Palmer on August 11, Yes on September 24. Also appearing at the Arena in 1972: the Moody Blues, on October 28, the same week “Nights in White Satin” was atop the charts.

Opening for Yes at the Arena in 1972 was a new band called the Eagles, whose second single, “Witchy Woman,” was just out that September. It seems a rather odd pairing now—one of the world’s most prominent prog-rock bands, about to embark on the spaciest phase of its career, with a largely unknown band of country rockers whose fame would swiftly eclipse theirs. But 70s concert bills were often that democratic. For example, during their 1973 appearance, the Beach Boys were supported by New Riders of the Purple Sage. (The current Van Halen/Kool and the Gang bill is a throwback to this kind of thing, albeit an extreme one, even by 70s standards.)

When Fleetwood Mac played the Arena in 1971, on a bill with Frank Zappa and Rory Gallagher, it was as a blues band in transition. In August 1975, they were months away from becoming superstars; when they returned in July 1976, they were.

Some bills, given what we know now about the careers of the bands involved, make us wish we’d been there. Like the night of December 11, 1974, when Deep Purple headlined, supported by Elf, fronted by Ronnie James Dio, and an English band on its way up, the Electric Light Orchestra. On November 2, 1981, ELO appeared again, with Hall and Oates. (ELO appears on the list first, but I suspect that by 1981, they were the openers.) Or April 7, 1975, Bachman-Turner Overdrive headlined with Thin Lizzy and Bob Seger, which is about as hard-rockin’ a bill as the 70s could provide.

Bruce Springsteen has a long history with Milwaukee, going back to a famous night at the Uptown Theater in October 1975. After a bomb threat, the theater was cleared, but patrons were readmitted at midnight, and the show that followed remains part of Milwaukee lore to this day. Springsteen played the Arena (known as the MECCA by then) in 1977 and twice in 1978, once in June and again in November. (He also played the Dane County Coliseum here in Madison twice in 1978, the day before the June Milwaukee show and the day after the one in November.) Springsteen returned in October 1980.

One of the most notable bills of the 1980s was the date on the Who’s farewell tour in December 1982. Another show famed in Milwaukee lore, the “ledge show” came about after Milwaukee DJ Tim the Rock & Roll Animal camped out on ledge outside his station’s 21st floor studios in hopes of convincing the band to play. (Read more about it here.) Genesis played three shows between 1980 and 1983, and Phil Collins played a solo gig in 1983 as well. Talking Heads played in 1984, and so did Tina Turner (on September 14; she returned for a second show one year later, to the day). Other 1984 headliners included the Police, the Scorpions, Billy Squier, and Iron Maiden.

With the opening of the Bradley Center in 1988, the Arena was no longer the main indoor venue in Milwaukee, although it continued to host a few shows. You can review the whole list of Milwaukee Arena shows here. Wisconsin types amongst the readership, let us know if you went to any of ’em.

One response

  1. In your reference to ELO appearing in Milwaukee in 1981, your intuition fails you. Hall and Oates opened for ELO on Nov. 2, 1981. I was at that show.

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