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Milwaukee: Something's Brewing

On weekends, Art Altenburg arranges gigs by professional polka players at his concertina bar. I arrive on a Thursday night, when anyone who knows how to play a polka can walk in and give it a try.

Altenburg, who's been reporting his age as 81 for quite a few years now, is credited with keeping alive interest in playing the concertina in the United States. He owns 74 of the instruments, some more than 200 years old, and displays most of them in his bar. They look like accordions, but a concertina key plays one note when you pull the instrument out and another when you squeeze it in.

Located in a building finished in 1900, the bar on the old South Side is being considered for placement on the National Register of Historic Places. Altenburg, I learned this week, recently put the bar and the building up for sale. He's hoping to find an owner who will keep the concertina tradition going, but admits, "If someone comes in with the right money, he's got it."

In the meantime -- and hopefully for a long time -- Art's is filled with polka enthusiasts. Some are of the legal drinking age of 21, but the range is large, with the oldest appearing to be Altenburg's contemporaries, or older.

I poop out long before my seventy-ish partner, and after an hour or so of watching and another hour of stepping, I head back downtown and pull up a seat on the grass for a summertime park concert. Thursdays are free jazz nights; Wednesdays, the city hosts a more eclectic mixture of live music, including blues and rock.

Festivals, though, are Milwaukee's stock in trade. They operate year-round in various venues but kick into high gear in summer. Between June 11 and Sept. 18, Milwaukee will host 20 major festivals, including the largest Native American festival in the country and Wisconsin's largest gay pride festival. An annual art festival is a highlight, but most of the events celebrate ethnic heritages. It would be the rare American who'd find his heritage left out of the mix. Festivals are so much a part of the fabric of Milwaukee summers that a huge park is dedicated to their annual arrival.

I happen to stumble into town during Irish Fest (it runs this coming summer Aug.18-21) and discover myself in the midst of what claims to be the largest Irish festival in the world. Musicians and dancers from throughout the United States and Ireland, including top headliners in the Irish world, perform on 16 lakefront stages in the Henry Maier Festival Park.

Dozens of classes in Irish dance, music and lore are held, including several in playing the concertina. I'm by nature more of an observer than a participant, especially when it comes to dancing, so I settle in to watch a hurling contest, and later root for my favorite "wee one" in the red hair and freckles contest.

Over the next months, the billion dollars' worth of projects in the pipeline will begin coming to fruition.

In July, the Milwaukee Public Market will open. The year-round market will feature Wisconsin vendors selling local products, including food and flowers.

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