Imagine Dragons an explosive start to Summerfest at American Family Insurance Amphitheater

Piet Levy
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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This time, there was a lot more elbow room for Imagine Dragons.

You may recall five years ago, when the band played Summerfest's Miller Lite Oasis stage — the same summer its song "Radioactive" exploded — the band drew one of the largest crowds ever to Maier Festival Park. It was so packed that between 5,000 and 7,000 people were let in through the turnstiles without paying. 

For the Big Gig's opening night Wednesday, the alt-rock band played in the much more suitable American Family Insurance Amphitheater — although the band performed as if it were the biggest stadium on the planet. 

Imagine Dragons performs at the American Family Insurance Amphitheater.

At times, it either fell too short of its ambitions or appeared to be trying too hard. At one point, Daniel Platzman geared up to play a drum solo that fell far short of grandeur. The band also found itself returning to the same applause-baiting gimmicks — like four-way drum jams for "Start Over" and "I Don't Know Why" — that they lost some impact on the extra go-arounds. 

And the band's anthemic songs are already dramatic enough. Frontman Dan Reynolds' sermon about not living in a box, and his finger-wagging about the greed of man ahead of "Gold," were definitely too much.

And while Imagine Dragons' massive hits are designed for massive reach — with a bit of hip-hop here, some sweeping folk there and, always, anthemic choruses — there's no denying the band's sincerity.

That was especially apparent when Reynolds opened up during "Demons" about being diagnosed with depression, telling fans they are not broken, and that seeing a therapist doesn't make them weak — important words in the wake of so many high-profile suicides this year. 

He brought that same conviction to each of the night's 20 songs, from the Queen-kissed "Yesterday" to bruising set-closer "Believer."

And in an interesting turn of events, the band actually stripped away the Mumford & Sons shtick from "I Bet My Life" for a stripped-back performance on a second stage in the audience — and proved the song could be just as powerful without the gimmicks. (Although the jacked, shirtless Reynolds did get the crowd amped up by running through the aisles.) 

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Wayne Sermon also emerged as the band's secret weapon, from a lovely classical piano intro for "Shots" to a fiery guitar solo finale for "I'll Make It Up to You." The band also lucked into one of the night's most dramatic moments — when the Big Bang fireworks began at the same moment Reynolds sang "I'm bursting like the Fourth of July" during "Rise Up." 

"We'll be back here year after year as long as you have us," Reynolds told the crowd at one point. The ecstatic fans that filled the amphitheater Wednesday probably wouldn't have any objections to that. 

But don't be surprised if a time comes when even the 23,000-person-capacity Summerfest amphitheater isn't a big enough venue for Imagine Dragons. 

Grace VanderWaal opens for Imagine Dragons at the American Family Insurance Amphitheater.

At 14 years old, opener Grace VanderWaal is one of the youngest performers at Summerfest this year. She's also one of the most talented, bringing a honeyed, slightly frayed rasp to assured pop songs like the ukulele-sweetened "I Don't Know My Name," and completely immersing herself in the sentiment of "Best Friend," a Rex Orange County cover about a boy pining for a girl, before letting loose during the song's climax, dancing like the kid that she still is. 

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1. "Radioactive"
2. "It's Time"
3. "Whatever It Takes"
4. "Yesterday"
5. "Walking the Wire"
6. "Next to Me"
7. "Shots"
8. "I'll Make It Up To You"
9. "Start Over"
10. "Rise Up"
11. "Gold"
12. "I Don't Know Why"
13. "Mouth of the River"
14. "Born To Be Yours"
15. "Amsterdam"
16. "I Bet My Life"
17. "Demons"
18. "Thunder"
19. "On Top of the World"
20. "Believer"

More from Summerfest 

  • Read reviews, see photos and get need to know info at
  • Send us your best Summerfest videos to
  • Imagine Dragons and Grace VanderWaal's Summerfest performances will stream online Thursday. For more information, visit


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