The Best Summer Music Festivals
Nothing beats a great live show, especially when you’re enjoying it under the sun or the stars. Presenting the 15 best outdoor music festivals in North America. Because summer is the time to play the field.
The Roots Picnic
Grey Fox Bluegrass
Mulberry Mountain Harvest
Jazz Aspen Snowmass
George, Washington, May 23-25
Hot Ticket: Sasquatch!: Blind PilotThese soulful Portland, Oregon, folk-rockers have toured the West Coast for two summerson their bikes, hauling an upright bass, guitars, a mountain dulcimer, and a vibraphone. After 3,200 miles, 50-plus gigs, 54 flats, and two stolen rides, they’ll now tour the world. The new challenge? Taking the bus.
Perched on a cliff on the Columbia River, 2.5 hours from Seattle and 4.5 from Portland, the Gorge Amphitheatre is Pollstar‘s perennial best outdoor venue. This year, the rock/alternative festival will also have a comedy tent, starring the People’s Republic of Komedy, that morphs into a dance party late at night for you and 25,000 friends.
Don’t Miss Jane’s Addiction, Doves, Fleet Foxes, the
Intermission Climb soaring basalt walls at Frenchman Coulee, outside Vantage (climbingwashington.com).
Crash As with all the festivals listed hereunless otherwise notedyour lodging should be a tent on the festival grounds. (Fees may apply.)
Also This Weekend Strawberry Music Festival, Yosemite, California.
The Roots Picnic
Philadelphia, June 6
The second annual Picnic is the hip-hop celebration of the summer, curated by the Roots in their hometown. The 6,000-strong block party at Penns Landing, on the Delaware River, is a rare chance to see these acts in the open air.
Don’t Miss TV on the Radio, Santigold, and what could be the musical event of the year: Public Enemy, with the Roots and the Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra, performing 1988’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. $48; rootspicnic.com.
Intermission Take a 44-mile round-trip spin from the Schuylkill River Trail out to Valley Forge National Historic Park, where Washington and his troops spent the winter of 1778 (rentals, $30 per day; breakawaybikes.com).
Crash The art deco Loews Hotel, across from the bustling Reading Market, is a mile from the Festival Pier (doubles from $169; loewshotels.com).
Manchester, Tennessee, June 11-14
Artists Choice“Playing with Edgar Meyer at Bonnaroo in 2008, in the blazing heat, when the rains came down and destroyed the stage and sound system but we kept playing… Something magical was going on.”
Yes, this seven-year-old, 80,000-spectator festival is a headbanging, sweaty mess, but it belongs on your “do once before I die” list. Thirteen stages’ worth of great music booms across rolling farmland 60 miles south of Nashville. Check out the Silent Disco, where a DJ pumps music into your headphones and hundreds of people dance in silence.
Don’t Miss Bruce Springsteen, the Beastie Boys, Andrew Bird, MGMT, the
Intermission Bring your road bike and hook up with the wooded 444-mile Natchez Trace Parkway for a ride among the salt licks of verdant central Tennessee (nps.gov/natr).
Telluride, Colorado, June 18-21
What started as a small bluegrass fest 36 years ago has morphed into what may be the season’s best party, with a settingan amphitheater planted beneath a cirque of fourteenersthat’s without equal. The vibe is no longer just bluegrass; it’s more like a rock concert in the mountains, with some 10,000 fans per day.
Don’t Miss The Punch Brothers; Three Girls and Their Buddy (Emmylou Harris, Patty Griffin, Shawn Colvin, and Buddy Miller), and headliners David Byrne and Elvis Costello, whose backing country band includes fiddle virtuoso Stuart Duncan. Tip: The best shows often take place after hours, in the NightGrass series at bars like Fly Me to the Moon Saloon (from $15; bluegrass.com). Four days, $185; bluegrass.com.
Intermission Take your mountain bike and ride Mill Creek, a six-mile singletrack loop just outside of town.
Portland, Oregon, July 2-5
With more than 100,000 attendees, this benefit for the Oregon Food Bank is the largest blues fest west of the Mississippi. With 100-plus performances on four stages on the grassy banks of the Willamette River, it’s by far the best bang for your buck.
Don’t Miss Headliner Etta James, the R&B funkiness of Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, and the Zydeco Swamp Romp stage, where you can booty-shake to Creole blues all day long. $10plus two cans of foodper day; waterfrontbluesfest.com.
Intermission End your trip with a half-day Class IV rafting trip on the Middle White Salmon ($60; whitesalmonriver.com).
Crash The swank Heathman Hotel, whose chef is James Beard winner Phillippe Boulot (doubles from $230; portland.heathmanhotel.com).
Also This Weekend High Sierra Festival, Quincy, California.
Rothbury, Michigan, July 2-5
Three hours northwest of Detroit, the country’s greenest festival is powered by biofuels, features a Think Tank climate-change symposium, and is nestled in the woods near Lake Michigan. Of some 40,000 fans, 3,500 rise with the sun for early-morning yoga.
Don’t Miss Bob Dylan, the Dead, Brett Dennen, Cold War Kids, andcould you get more patriotic?a possible July 4 appearance by Willie Nelson. Four days, $250; rothburyfestival.com.
Intermission Catch smallmouth bass or trout on the Muskegon (two people, $350 per day; streamsideguideservices.com).
Also This Weekend 80/35, Des Moines, Iowa.
Louisville, Kentucky, July 10-12
Hot Ticket: Forecastle: The Black KeysIn 1964, it was Mick, Keith, et al. with England’s Newest Hit Makers. Four decades later, Akron, Ohio, spat out Dan and Patrick. The connection? White boys take rock to the bluesfreshly, brilliantly, dangerously.
Equal parts activism, arts, and music, this progressive three-day extravaganza on downtown Louisville’s Riverfront draws 65 bands, numerous environmental nonprofits, and 20,000 fans. After-hours river raves take place on the steamboat Belle of Louisville.
Don’t Miss The Black Keys, the New Mastersounds, and Appalachian folk rockers the Avett Brothers. Three days, $100; forecastlefestival.com.
Intermission Hike underground for hours in the limestone Mammoth Cave National Park (guided tour, $48; nps.gov/maca).
Crash Camp five miles away at American Turners Campgrounds, with alcohol sales and a shuttle ($50 for the weekend; forecastlefestival.com).
Vancouver Island MusicFest
Courtenay, British Columbia, July 10-12
Artists Choice“At Primavera Sound, in Barcelona last year, we came on at 4:30 A.M. During our last song, the crowd advanced the stage like a wave off the Mediterranean, and next thing we knew there were a hundred people on stage with us.”
KEYBOARDS, Holy Fuck (PLAYING AT SEATTLE’S BUMBERSHOOT FESTIVAL, SEPTEMBER 6)
Camp on the leafy banks of the Tsolum River at this intimate festival of folk and world music, which draws about 9,000 people and is nearly zero-wasteeven the plates and cutlery are compostable.
Don’t Miss Folk icon Arlo Guthrie, Celtic-pop fiddlers Enter the Haggis, and Edgar Meyer, one of the funkiest upright bass players working today. Three days, $119; islandmusicfest.com.
Intermission Gravity fans will want to try the world-class downhill mountain biking at Mount Washington Alpine Resort (lift tickets, $30; rentals, $89 per day; mountwashington.ca/summer).
Grey Fox Bluegrass
Oak Hill, New York, July 16-19
Twenty-five thousand bluegrass fans converge on a 200-acre farm in the Catskills for this festival, which is about staying up all night at campground jams. The main acts are great, but for many they’re the sideshow.
Don’t Miss Crooked Still, whose driving, cello-heavy acoustic music makes ‘grass and rock fans alike want to dance. In the campgrounds, seek out the all-night jam led by the Grillbillies, a group of top amateur players who earnestly rock outfits like grass skirts and leis. Four days, $155; greyfoxbluegrass.com.
Intermission A 15-minute drive south and a 3.5-mile hike lead to the summit of Windham High Peak, which offers a view of five states.
Also This Weekend Mile High Music Festival, Denver.
Antigonish, Nova Scotia, July 17-19
It could be musical Eden: 2,500 attendees on a bluff overlooking the emerald hills of nearby Cape Breton (Neil Young’s summer haunt). It’s “the way Woodstock used to be,” says Jonas Colter, the organic farmer who runs this ten-year-old festival showcasing up-and-coming experimental, hip-hop, bluegrass, and world acts.
Don’t Miss Mishka, Australian didgeridoo master Xavier Rudd, and the concerts in the yurts, especially Gratefully Deadicated Soundsystem, who mix Dead samples with techno beats till around sunrise. Three days, $85; evolvefestival.com.
Intermission Sea-kayak the Northumberland Strait ($50 per day; coastalspiritexpeditions.com).
Also This Month 10,000 Lakes, Detroit Lakes, Minnesota (July 2225).
Chicago, August 7-9
Hot Ticket: Lollapalooza: Arctic MonkeysThe latest saviors of rock and roll, according to the UK press. You can hear the Clash and Libertines in there, but the Monkeys are their own animal: great post-punk rawk with an infectious swagger.
Perry Farrell’s pioneering mobile music festival settled down in Chicago’s lakeside Grant Park in 2005. It’s bigger (some 75,000 fans), but the deep, eclectic lineup is now some 120 bands strong. Check out the Kidzapalooza stage, where headliners often play surprise jam sessions.
Don’t Miss Kings of Leon, Depeche Mode, Tool, and Delta Spirit, a southern-blues-flavored alternative band. Three
Intermission Take a 90-minute train out to Beverly Shores ($7.50; nictd.com) and hike the singing sands of Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore (nps.gov/indu).
Crash The modernist Hard Rock Hotel (where else?), around the corner on Michigan Avenue, hosts after-hours parties in its ballroom (hotel/pass/after-party packages from $775; hardrockhotelchicago.com).
Also This Month All Points West, Jersey City, New Jersey (July 31August 2).
Mulberry Mountain Harvest
Ozark, Arkansas, August 12-15
Artists Choice“The Communikey Festival of Digital Arts, in Boulder, is a new festival that kicks off the season every April. It’s run by an extremely dedicated and fun group of people, with acts like Thomas Fehlmann (a Beirut favorite) and great young bands like D Numbers and No Regular Play.”
KEYBOARDS, Beirut (PLAYING AT MONTREAL JAZZ FESTIVAL, JULY 11)
In the heart of the Ozarks, 70 miles southeast of Fayetteville, 50 acoustic roots and bluegrass bands jam on the grounds of an old blueberry farm at the top of Mulberry Mountain. Expect hardcore newgrass purists among the 5,000 attendees, plus on-site fishing for stocked catfish, perch, and bass.
Don’t Miss Hackensaw Boys, the Duhks, Travelin McCourys, and Hot Buttered Rum (who once played our HQ on their grease-fueled tour). Four days, $109; mulberrymountainmusic.com.
Intermission Just a mile down the road on the Mulberry River, take an eight-mile float through mellow Class III water on a beverage-laden canoe ($56; turnerbend.com).
San Francisco, August 28-30
Artists Choice“Most festivals seem to feature mud and/or dust. That’s why I love Coachella [next April in California’s Mojave Desert]. Large variety of great bands every day, beautiful weather, and it’s the only festival held upon finely manicured polo fields.”
BASS, The National (PLAYING AT PITCHFORK, CHICAGO, JULY 18)
Launched in 2008 by the people who created Bonnaroo, this 60,000-strong celebration of public lands, at Golden Gate Park, offers gorgeous views and top-shelf eats: everything from Hog Island Oyster Company’s freshly shucked specialty to (natch) a wine-sampling area with Napa labels.
Don’t miss Pearl Jam, Modest Mouse, Built to Spill, the National, and Grace Potter & the Nocturnals, fronted by a bluesy rocker who brings to mind both Aretha Franklin and Lucinda Williams. Three days, $225; sfoutsidelands.com.
Intermission Really appreciate those hills on a running tour of Chinatown and other historic sites (two people, $60; sfruntours.com).
Crash The Stanyan Park, a restored Victorian hotel, lies within sight of the park ($139; stanyanpark.com).
Jazz Aspen Snowmass
Snowmass, Colorado, September 4-6
Hot Ticket: Coming Soon: Miles Benjamin Anthony RobinsonOne of the essential acts at Bonnaroo this year will be Bon Iver, the young supertalent who holed up in a north woods cabin to compose his sad but gorgeous debut album. But one of the charms of a great festival is finding a young star like that before he’s a star. Last year at Monolith, on a small indoor stage at Red Rocks, I happened to see Miles Benjamin Anthony Robinson, a Brooklyn-via-Oregon rocker with some serious poetry going on behind his Malkmus-esque guitar licks. He hasn’t appeared on America’s radar, but he will. Until then, try to catch him at some dark, uncrowded club.
It’s a jazz fest in name only; you can expect indie rock, hip-hop, funk, and more at this laid-back Labor Day festival. The 29 P.M. schedule means a more sedate crowd of 25,000 and mornings free for tromping through alpine meadows.
Don’t Miss Black Eyed Peas, the Doobie Brothers, and Michael Franti & Spearhead, whose reggae-and-rap-loving frontman does more than anyone to keep the peace-and-love thing alive. Three days, $145; jazzaspen.org.
Intermission Leap off one of Aspen’s double-blacks and soar past fourteeners with Aspen Paragliding ($225; aspenexpeditions.com).
Crash With no camping nearby, check in to the rustic Wildwood Lodge, in the heart of Snowmass ($109; wildwoodlodge.com).
Also This Weekend Chicago Jazz Festival; Bumbershoot, Seattle.
Morrison, Colorado, September 12-13
Closing ArgumentFirst let me say that I understand the sentiment. At the height of the Phish moment, every mountain-town trustafarian too late for the Dead felt liberated to noodle, gobble fungus, and kick off his Birkenstocks. That was greatfor the first decade. But a new breed of musicians with verve and chops to spare is taking the festival scene to an exciting new place (e.g., Canadian old-time-cum-funk band the Duhks, appearing at the Harvest fest). So let Phish nation live it up this summerI’m sure the reunion shows at Fenway Park and Red Rocks will be heartfelt displays of warmth and burrito hawkingand then let’s all move on. You can find me at the real party of the summer: Telluride.
The setting, 103-year-old Red Rocks Amphitheatre, near Denver, is one of the world’s great venues, cradled by 300-foot sandstone towers. Sound quality is incredible, and there really are no crummy seats.
Don’t Miss This year’s lineup was not set at press time, but expect eclectic. Last year included Justice, TV on the Radio, Band of Horses, Vampire Weekend, Foals, and New Zealand’s up-and-coming Veils. Two days, $100; monolithfestival.com.
Intermission Bring your five-weight rod and spend the morning on the Blue River, with its giant rainbow trout (licenses and info, blueriveranglers.com).
Crash Ten miles west in Evergreen, the Highland Haven sits on the banks of Bear Creek and is surrounded by blue spruce and well-earned peace and quiet (doubles from $150; highlandhaven.com).
Etiquette: Laws of the Lawn
Rules for attending outdoor festivals.
CREDIT CARDS are useless. Bring cash and precious materialsextra beer, lots of icefor bartering.
LAWN CHAIRS: If they’re empty, they’re fair game.
Porta-Potties: You’re a grown man. Stand in line.
LODGING: It’s a festival. Bring a tent.
LATE-NIGHT JAMS: At a good event, they can be the best shows of the weekend. Keep a respectful distance. Listen closely. Do not attempt to sing harmony. No spoons.
SUNBLOCK: Yes. MenScience TiO2 SPF 30 ($31; menscience.com)waterproof, which means sweat-proof.
NOODLERS mean no harm. Just steer clear of those helicopter arms.
CROWD COMMENTARY: If you think the scene, venue, andor bands have gone downhill, don’t buy a ticket. Once you’re there, “[Event] has gotten too commercial” = “I am a dick.”
GETTING BACKSTAGE: Unless you’re a 21-year-old blonde, do not attempt.
BEDTIME: Sunrise is good. Pack a thermos of Irish coffee, but go light on the coffee.
WATER: One glass for every beer. You’re in the sun.
BACKPACKER GUITARS: Never!
BLANKETS: If yours is ten by ten feet and there are two of you on it, you’re not entitled to that angry sneer.
HERO WORSHIP: Buying your favorite band’s T-shirt is cool; wearing it while they’re still playing is not.
CROWD SURFING died a sad death in 2003.
HEADGEAR is essential.
BEACH BALLS are not. But let’s face it, we love ’em.
PROXIMITY TO THE STAGE is generally more trouble than it’s worth.
NUDITY is not OK. Except when it is.
PSYCHEDELICS: If you haven’t dabbled since high school, now’s probably not the time to get reacquainted.
FLASKS, on the other hand, are a must. We suggest George Dickel White Label (750 ml, $24; dickel.com).