Revisit 30 unforgettable Bradley Center concerts before the Milwaukee arena's demolition

Piet Levy
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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The first rock show review at the Bradley Center in 1988 wasn't too kind.

"With all those potted ferns in the lobby, the place feels more like a dentist's office than a headbanger's house of pleasure," Milwaukee Journal music critic Thor Christensen wrote in his Van Halen review.

But across 30 years, several of the biggest acts in rock — and music — history played "the place": the Rolling Stones, U2, Paul McCartney, Tina Turner, Taylor Swift, Dr. Dre, Prince, Frank Sinatra, and on and on. The arena, constructed for $91 million (a gift from Jane Bradley Pettit to the city), hosted more than 300 concerts in its history. Now, just one more show remains — Bon Jovi on April 29 — before demolition begins this summer.

By September, a new $524 million arena next door will open its doors. With its top-of-the-line amenities, it has already lined up shows with Elton John, Justin Timberlake, Eagles, Foo Fighters, Metallica and more.

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Before a new chapter in Milwaukee's major concert history begins, here's a look back at 30 of the most memorable concerts that took place at the Bradley Center.

The BMO Harris Bradley Center hosted more than 300 concerts in its 30-year history, including such superstars as (from top left corner) Elton John, Taylor Swift, Tina Turner and U2.

1. Amy Grant (Oct. 27, 1988): The Christian artist was the first to perform a concert at the Bradley 26 days after the arena opened its doors. "A bubbly Amy Grant inaugurated the Bradley Center as a concert venue better than any bottle of champagne could have," wrote Jon F. Eiche for the Milwaukee Sentinel. About 7,400 people attended.

2. Bon Jovi (April 1, 1989): Bon Jovi headlined the Bradley Center's first sold-out concert. "Few performers — rock or otherwise — work harder to please a crowd than Bon Jovi and his merry gang," Christensen wrote. "Bounding and leaping throughout the stage throughout the evening, the group had the physical stamina of marathon runners." 

3. Janet Jackson (July 27, 1990): Jackson's "Rhythm Nation World Tour" remains one of the biggest debut tours ever, with 2 million people buying a ticket, including nearly 16,000 people in Milwaukee. "Mainly, she delivered her video-image in full glory; a vibrant dancer/singer able to meld up-beat music with a bombastic stage presence to great effect," Eugene Kane wrote in his review for the Milwaukee Journal. 

4. Gloria Estefan (Aug. 16, 1991): A few days before a scheduled Milwaukee show, Estefan's bus was hit by a semitrailer truck during a snowstorm in Pennsylvania; her spine was fractured, and she underwent several months of physical therapy. Her Bradley show the following year was a "triumph over great personal obstacles," Dave Luhrssen wrote in his Milwaukee Journal review. "Estefan's nimble dancing and strutting on the upbeat numbers belied any fears of physical impairment." 

5. Metallica (Nov. 5, 1991): Milwaukee-based headphone manufacturer Koss handed out 12,000 pairs of rubber earplugs for Metallica's Bradley Center gig, coming three months after the band's blockbuster self-titled album, the biggest of its career. 

Frank Sinatra played his first and final Bradley Center concert on Nov. 5, 1992. Shirley MacLaine was the opening act for "Old Blue Eyes."

6. Frank Sinatra (Nov. 5, 1992): Ol' Blue Eyes' lone Bradley show (with Shirley MacLaine opening) wasn't his finest hour; he had to use a teleprompter at that point of his career, and seemingly missed a few cues. But it offered Milwaukee fans one last chance to see the legend live and to hear his immortal songs. "The show is a great memory that will last forever, just like Sinatra," Mike Morgan wrote in a letter to the Journal Sentinel after Sinatra passed in 1998.

7. The Eagles (April 10, 1995): The Eagles "Hell Freezes Over Tour," coming 14 years after a nasty break-up, broke records for the highest concert ticket prices ever in Wisconsin when it stopped at Alpine Valley in 1994. Nevertheless, demand was so great the band returned to the Bradley the following spring. "The songs have lost none of their luster," Dave Tianen wrote in his Journal Sentinel review. 

8. KISS (Aug. 10, 1996): KISS returned to its classic make-up and costumes for the first time in 13 years, bringing a "munitions display to rival Omaha Beach," Tianen wrote, and Ace Frehley and Peter Criss returning to the fold.

9. Prince (Dec. 17, 1997):  "When Prince is on stage, the ridiculous egotism and absurd posturing are overshadowed, if not obliterated," Tianen wrote in his review of his lone Bradley show — although back in '97, Prince was technically going by "The Artist Formerly Known As Prince." 

10. Tina Turner (May 24, 2000): Turner's "Twenty Four Seven Tour" was billed as her final run behind her last studio album, and while the now 78-year-old legend did another tour in 2008, she has yet to return to Milwaukee. "She's still got a voice that can blister paint," Tianen wrote in his ecstatic review. Her opening act: Lionel Richie.

After releasing "2001" in 1999, his second, highly-anticipated solo album, hip-hop legend Dr. Dre (formerly of N.W.A.) hit the road for the "Up in Smoke Tour." It stopped at the Bradley Center on July 9, 2000 — competing with the final night of Summerfest.

11. Dr. Dre (July 9, 2000): It was "arguably the greatest rap lineup to visit Milwaukee in a single evening," Gemma Tarlach wrote for the Journal Sentinel. No argument about it: the hip-hop legend's "Up in Smoke" stop featured former N.W.A. partner Ice Cube, Snoop Dogg, and a fast-rising rapper named Eminem. "That (Eminem) could be considered little more than a footnote at Sunday's show is a testament to the caliber of both the evening's talent and its production," Tarlach wrote. Shockingly, the Bradley was barely half-full. Also shocking: Eminem would be back at the Bradley four months later ... to open for Limp Bizkit.

12. Paul McCartney (Sept. 21, 2002): The Beatle kicked off the fall leg of his "Back in the USA" tour with a sold-out Bradley Center show, his first at the arena and his first in Milwaukee in nine years. "Sir Paul himself, at 60, is an advertisement for the preservative powers of veggies and rock 'n' roll," Tianen wrote of the three-hour concert. 

13. Elton John and Billy Joel (April 8, 2003): John headlined the Bradley Center three times, and Joel twice, before they joined forces for a 3½-hour, hits-filled Bradley performance. The piano men performed a few songs together, and Joel even did an Irish jig on John's piano during "The Bitch is Back." John also dedicated "I Want Love" to Corrie Fulwiler, a Waukesha woman who co-founded Richard's Place, a local facility that cares for people with AIDS.

14. Dixie Chicks (June 5, 2003): Natalie Maines' criticism of President George W. Bush in March 2003 famously generated major backlash, but her country trio the Dixie Chicks still managed to sell out the Bradley three months later. 

15. Justin Timberlake and Cristina Aguilera (Sept. 1, 2003): Timberlake played his first and latest solo show in Milwaukee behind debut solo album "Justified." "Timberlake seems more polished and confident than in his 'NSync days," Tianen wrote.  He was harsher on co-headliner Aguilera, calling her "a rich source of unconscious self-parody."

16. Usher with Kanye West (Sept. 12, 2004): Usher appeared at the Bradley five months after releasing "Confessions," the second-highest-selling album of the 2000s, with a superstar in the making, Kanye West, as his opening act, who together performed "Confessions, Pt. 2."

17. Simon & Garfunkel (June 25, 2004): Paul Simon and Simon Garfunkel ended a decade-long rift for the "Old Friends" tour in 2003, although by the time they stopped at the Bradley, tensions may have been rising again. "It's hard to have a really great time with two men who aren't," Tianen wrote in his review. Their mood lifted, though, when idols the Everly Brothers took the stage to harmonize through "Bye Bye Love."

18. Rolling Stones (Sept. 8, 2005): The Stones released "A Bigger Bang," their first studio album in eight years, on Sept. 6, 2005. Two days later, the band was at the Bradley. "The Rolling Stones remain a rock ’n’ roll behemoth long after logic and the calendar should have dictated otherwise," Tianen wrote, praising Keith Richards for making "decay cool," and likening a dancing Mick Jagger to the "devil's own hooker." 

19. U2 (Sept. 25, 2005): Just 17 days after the Stones "A Bigger Bang Tour," the second-highest grossing tour of all time, came to the Bradley, one of the other all-time top-grossing tours stopped at the arena. U2's "Vertigo Tour" hit Milwaukee 29 years to the day that Bono, The Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr. met. The band included two songs from its debut album in the two-hour show, where the "Edge's guitar rarely sounded more immediate and complex," Tarlach wrote.

20. Faith Hill and Tim McGraw (July 16, 2006): The "Soul2Soul II" tour in 2006 and 2007 is one of the highest-grossing runs in country music history, and while McGraw was the bigger crowdpleaser, his wife Hill had "the most musically compelling and surprising moment of the night," Tianen wrote, with a sparse cover of gospel traditional "It Is Well With My Soul."

Scores of Lady Gaga's "Little Monsters" came to her debut Milwaukee concert with elaborate outfits inspired by the pop star. She played a sold-out Bradley Center on Sept. 2, 2010.

21. Celine Dion (Sept. 29, 2008): "Vocally, she never uses a peashooter if a howitzer will do," Tianen wrote of Dion's Milwaukee show, part of the "Taking Chances" tour, one of the top 20 grossing tours of all time. Yet Tianen suggested "it’s precisely when she goes full throttle that Dion’s audience loves her best."

22. Lady Gaga (Sept. 2, 2010): Gaga mania was at its peak when she played the Bradley, the sold-out arena filled with passionate fans sporting handmade glittery gyroscope head pieces, Beanie Babies necklaces and other Gaga-inspired ensembles. Her own eye-popping setpieces included a giant man-eating piranha and a flaming piano.

23. Taylor Swift (June 8, 2011): About 45 minutes into her sold-out Bradley show, a then 21-year-old Swift picked up one more piece of hardware for her stuffed trophy room, winning the CMT Music Award for Video of the Year for "Mine." "I wish I could be there but I'm hanging out with 15,000 of my closest friends in Milwaukee," she said accepting the award live from the concert.

24. Justin Bieber (Oct. 21, 2012): Bieber proved he was a "genuine talent, not some mere flash-in-the-pan poster boy," Piet Levy wrote in his Journal Sentinel review of Bieber's Bradley debut, part of a fall tour that sold out within an hour. Before the show, he met with Hailey Roser, a 4-year-old Bieber fan from East Troy who was diagnosed with a brain tumor, whose parents successfully campaigned for a meet-and-greet.

25. Miley Cyrus (March 9, 2014): Former Disney Channel star Cyrus extended the shock tactics from her scandalous MTV Video Music Awards seven months prior, twerking while wearing a unitard covered in marijuana leaves and suggestively riding a giant hot dog. She also showed off her musical skills, especially during a stripped-down acoustic set that covered Dolly Parton's "Jolene" and Outkast's "Hey Ya!"

Bruce Springsteen cemented his standing as the most-frequent headliner in the BMO Harris Bradley Center's history with his concert on March 3, 2016. He performed "The River" in its entirety with the E Street Band.

26. Pearl Jam (Oct. 20, 2014): Pearl Jam has only played an album in its entirety three times in its career. One of those times was at the Bradley, where it surprisingly played "Yield" front to back. Cheap Trick's Rick Nielsen showed up to cover the Who's "Baba O'Riley;" Aaron Rodgers was in the audience; and Eddie Vedder filmed a special happy birthday message with the crowd for Tom Petty.

27. Garth Brooks (Sept. 25, 2015): Brooks returned to Wisconsin for the first time in 19 years to play three sold-out Bradley shows for 54,000 people; a farm in Menomonie even created an 11-acre Brooks-themed corn maze for the occasion. With knee drops, stage sprints and crowd-pleasing screams, Brooks wasn't rusty in the slightest that first show; and he even peppered the set with spontaneous deep-cut requests.

28. Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band (March 3, 2016): With eight shows, Springsteen headlined the Bradley more than any other artist, emotionally performing his ambitious 1980 double-album "The River" in its entirety for his final concert there (along with 13 other songs during a 3½-hour show).

29. Guns N' Roses (Nov. 7, 2017): The notoriously dysfunctional hard rock band made up for lost time at the Milwaukee stop of its blockbuster "Not In This Lifetime Tour," with classic lineup members Axl Rose, Duff McKagan, and spotlight-stealing guitar virtuoso Slash. The band's first area appearance in 26 years spanned 33 songs and nearly 3½ hours, from signature songs like "Paradise City" to "Black Hole Sun," in honor of Chris Cornell, who died last year.

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30. Bon Iver (Feb. 17, 2018): About 15,000 people from Canada and more than 40 states congregated at the Bradley for a special one-time-only concert featuring one of Wisconsin's most accomplished acts, Bon Iver, commemorating the 10th anniversary of seminal debut album "For Emma, Forever Ago." The show allowed two Milwaukee bands, Field Report and Collections of Colonies of Bees, the rare opportunity to play a packed arena, which was stunningly silent for much of Bon Iver's set.

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