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Top 10 Summer Music Festivals

by Ryan Thomas
fact checked by Alex Hanton

The mainstream music industry doesn’t often smile upon the independent music community. The radio does very little to support steadfast musical idealists, and seems to have little tolerance for actual instruments. Additionally, there’s always some coked-up record company executive dropping some pretentious line like “instruments are obsolete” or claiming an entire genre of music is “dead” in order to rally favor for the ever-regressing, superficially-minded direction of the industry. Lines are drawn (and occasionally snorted) and now we live in a time where the Jack Daniels-and-glitter-soaked likes of Ke$ha can live in a mansion after having only one album to brag about, while a million touring musicians die in the back of a piss-stained VW Bus, from exhaustion and rejection-poisoning. The grassroots approach is really all that’s available to anyone without sex appeal, an image to exploit. We all know any decent pair of breasts can fair well in the arms of a reputable producer doing all the songwriting and actual legwork. As such, a huge bastion for indy musicians lies, in addition to spending months touring the country, in the summer festival enterprise. Securing a gig at any one of the majors is a surefire way to become visible to a sea of receptive fans, the likeliest to appreciate talent and integrity immediately upon seeing it. After all, a festival is as much a chance to experience more than one favorite act at a single ticket price, as it is a chance to be enlightened, and in more ways than one. Here are the top ten summer music festivals:



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This Seattle, Washington, music and arts festival is another festival chock full of niche acts, some slightly more known than others, while carrying on its shoulders show-making headliners: last year saw Bob Dylan, Weezer, Rise Against, Courtney Love’s Hole (yuck), and the Decemberists, as the proverbial cream of the crop (yes, Bob Dylan… and Hole) to give an idea for how mixed, maybe even ambivalently so, the line-up can be. There isn’t really the kind of consistency that the others secure, but for a good sampling of whatever-the-hell, Bumbershoot is a decent outlet for seeing your favorite third-rate acts (though not enough that you should sacrifice all of your festival dollars here). Taking place September 3-5, it really does amount to the dregs of the festival season.




South by Southwest, taking place in Austin Texas, has a Costco mentality: it’s more in the way of quantity than it is quality. And while a few big names stick out, it seems every subordinate tier features a life-threatening mob of bands, almost a small town population’s worth, clamoring for attention. As such, injuries are commonplace. Over 1,300 largely unknown acts were scheduled this year between March 11th and the 20th (and you thought three days was a lot), but the headliners ranged from Duran Duran, Bright Eyes, and Queens of the Stone Age to Wu-Tang Clan and Cee Lo Green. Jack White, who always finds a way to top his own minimalistic tendencies, even stopped by and gave a surprise parking lot performance outside of his portable record store. Also, what’s neat about this particular festival is that it appeals to music as well as film, where a festival of its own exists; Arcade Fire’s Spike Jones directed short was a notable exhibition in that it had a little of both.




No Joke, this festival takes place at the Gorge Amphitheater…in George, Washington. Taking place Memorial Day weekend, this Bigfoot-themed festival is appropriately named: it’s leading acts carry quite the footprint, this year including the likes of Foo Fighters, Death Cab for Cutie (both out of the woods with new albums), Modest Mouse, Wilco, the Decemberists, Bright Eyes, Cold War Kids, Wolf Parade and Deerhunter, amongst a great many others (others that also heavily populate the festival circuit). What’s most relieving is that none of the headliners are rappers or self-interested pop singers, which is what really ups this venue’s indy cred and respectability as a safehouse for all the weary road warriors.


Newport Folk


This festival is most frequently associated with Bob Dylan’s decision to go electric (which didn’t go very well at the time). Now it carries on a tradition of prominently displaying the best concurrent examples of popular and indy folk music. Already past its 50th anniversary, essential and fresh voices alike have graced the stage, including Pete Seeger, Arlo Guthrie, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, Johnny Cash, The Decemberists, Fleet Foxes, the Avette Brothers and Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes. This has got to be the mellowest of all the festivals, making up in subtlety what it lacks in overblown performances and high flying histrionics. It takes place July 30 and 31 this year.



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This was the genesis for all the rest, at least as far as the festival mentality goes: three days of nothing but ingestion: musical, chemical and spiritual. World peace existed soundly and briefly in a vacuum on a farm, where upon which a full society of hippies embraced in the community of song, dance and “mental expansion.” While decadence ran amok, life and death took place on a muddy field, where everything was natural and nothing else seemed necessary. This was also the place where Hendrix blew minds with an acid soaked rendition of the Star Spangled Banner, Carlos Santana cringed as he played warped solos on a hallucination-manifested snake, and the sunny weather was matched by the shiniest of the decade’s folk, R&B, blues and acid rock acts, including Jefferson Airplane, the Mamas and the Papas, the Band, Crosby Stills Nash and Young, and Creedence Clearwater Revival. Ever since, festivals have been packing bills to the brim and bringing together unseemly genres and people.


Live Aid/Live 8/Farm Aid


It’s an amazing thing when music can be used for reasons other than self-indulgence, like when a group of musicians decide to join forces to raise money for important causes, whether it be poverty in Ethiopia (Live Aid), supporting the agricultural industry from which we derive physical sustenance (Farm Aid), or to help rid the world of global starvation (Live 8). Leave it to the world’s biggest, multi-generational acts and most globally-conscious minds to make it happen, as with U2, Crosby Stills Nash and Young, Phil Collins, Tom Petty, Willie Nelson and Dave Matthews. Performing across global venues, to form the most holistic collection plate, musicians proved they have the capacity to not be selfish. Such righteous ideals still find grounding today in myriad forms and charity/benefit concerts, as with Arcade Fire and Radiohead for Haiti, and the various artists who release profit-free singles for natural disasters and other seemingly ubiquitous global afflictions. Proof positive that a single artist with a following can be a million times more thoughtful and influential than a crafty team of record producers (their only true concern is that such time and dedication isn’t being spent on creating or promoting the next thing that will put a million dollars in their pockets).



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This is probably the biggest festival on the list, both in terms of bill and popularity. The line-up always seems to resemble the intro credits for a Star Wars movie, or that huge contract Willy Wonka has those ill-fated kids sign with the microscopically-fine print, big names up top in bold print, lesser-knowns tightly squeezed-in below. The reason for this Chicago-based festival’s popularity has mostly to do with its utter eclecticism, and tendency to mesh the most despicably-adored mainstream with high-flying indy titans: for example, last year made room for Lady Gaga and Green Day, as well as Rage Against the Machine, the Strokes, Kings of Leon and Phoenix. While the headliners are seemingly obligated to display the mainstreamers to draw as big a crowd as possible, encouraging an atypical festival audience, there is no slight on indy representation. In fact, everything below the top two lines on the bill are almost exclusively indy, featuring the most appealing samplings possible, regular hits, with the recurring likes of the National, Black Keys, Spoon, the Walkmen, Mumford and Sons, etc. No one can be offended at a line-up like that, especially when you can pick which stage, make your own concert itinerary. This year, it takes place August 5-7.




Another biggie in heavy competition with Lollapalooza, though not really. Festivals really lend themselves into each other, as they simply present the ability for fans to attend the nearest-by one (though the east coast really suffers in this respect). There are some differences, but a lot of the important names are on each. Manchester, Tennessee’s Bonnaroo, however, boasts some names this year which Lollapalooza is lacking, like Arcade Fire, the Strokes, Mumford and Sons, Buffalo Springfield (with Steven Stills and Neil Young), Lil’ Wayne, and whatever non-Led Zeppelin band Robert Plant is making music with. Meanwhile Lollapalooza seems to be hogging, amongst others, Foo Fighters, Coldplay, the White Lies and Cee Lo (though given his bomb of a performance at Coachella, it might be for the best). Bonnaroo is the most hippy-friendly, what with all the drug-friendly activities and asides, and is also a comedy-haven in its own rite; so even the musically-apathetic (or at least less-than-die-hard-consumers) can find equal merriment. This year does seem to offer compelling reasons why it makes sense to attend both (being very separate shows), but for all those 90’s-era white rapper-addicts, Eminem will assuredly appear at both. So prepare for vomit on your sweater already, mom’s spaghetti, as you will likely suffer heat stroke all the while at literally the hottest of the summer festival venues. This festival takes place June 9-12.


Austin City Limits


This festival is an indy safe-haven, and another pit stop for the greatest examples of such. Last year the usual 2nd tiers were in attendance, the ones we love to see every year, regardless if they’re toting a new album or not (the ones who seem to get a little more popular, a little higher on the list, every year they come out). Meanwhile, the Eagles were at the top of the headline, right before Phish, M.I.A., Muse, the Flaming Lips and the Strokes, who were putting their toes in the touring waters again after a half-decade hiatus. Other great reasons to make the pilgrimage to the big state, or else watch the televised coverage on PBS: Temper Trap, the XX, Beach House, Spoon, Vampire Weekend, the National, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes, Band of Horses, Monsters of Folk, Silversun Pickups, Two Door Cinema Club and a bucket of others. Yes, with a consummate bill like that, last year was a good time to lose your festival virginity, and ACL was the place.




Held in Indio, California, this festival is really a spectacle. With impressive multimedia-equipped sets, grand ornamental structures and stage performances, and 3 stages on which a diverse sampling of musicians of varying popularity levels perform simultaneously, Coachella keeps concert-goers’ sensory receptors consistently satisfied, with hardly a static moment in between doses of perpetual amusement. This year was especially rich with stimuli, what with Arcade Fire’s epic strobe beach-ball light show, Empire of the Sun’s sci-fi-interpretative-dance rave, and avant-garde filmmaker David Lynch adding his twisted touches to Interpol’s live YouTube-streamed performance, the likes of which he gave Duran Duran not long prior. Speaking of Duran Duran, they were there, too. As was Kanye West, whose presence contradicted the indy mentality infinitefold. It’s only (slightly) forgiven for the fact that he had to follow the Strokes who, breaking a 5-year hiatus, cranked out a hyper-tight set, rife with material from their latest album. This festival, kicking of the season in late April, would be one of the more accessible festivals, featuring a contentious three day line-up and plenty of music to dance/tweak out to. Bonus points given to 5 Gum for sponsoring a live webcast which covered the concert from start to finish, with the ability to manually switch between the different stages, for those unable to physically make the trek.

fact checked by Alex Hanton