[NOTE: I’m only mentioning fests I have at least some sort of credible info about; thus, the Midwestern focus will be readily apparent. For info on New Orleans and surrounding area fests (as well as extensive Bonnaroo and Jazz Fest coverage in the coming months), check out my buddy Wesley’s blog.]
COACHELLA: INDIO, CA, APRIL 15-17
Pros: The music. Almost without fail, Coachella lands the best lineup these days, and since this fest has been a hipster hub since its inception (1999, three years before the first Bonnaroo), it has become the standard that other festivals now strive to emulate in terms of variety and quantity of buzzworthy artists. Sure, Kings Of Leon are headlining one night this year, but the top-shelf acts hugely outweigh the excuses to try and nap. Plus, it’s in sunny California, and there’s a good chance you’ll catch a glimpse of your favorite celebrity! Also, being in April, Coachella can be a bit of a prelude to the madness of summer.
Cons: Aside from the likelihood that it’ll be hot even in April in the desert, this festival is notorious for being an oversold, tough-to-navigate clusterfuck. Having never been to it, I can’t speak from experience, though. Also, Coachella doesn’t provide enough camping space for all ticketholders, so you could end up having to camp a significant distance from the fest or staying at a hotel.
Verdict: Seems like a risk worth taking, particularly if travel isn’t an issue. I certainly plan on going some day.
SUMMER CAMP: CHILLICOTHE, IL, MAY 27-29
Pros: If there’s one fest that has stayed true to its original spirit, this has to be the one. Moe. and Umphrey’s McGee get three shows each and the bill is filled with jambands and their cohorts every year, a miniature version of the original Bonnaroo. The atmosphere, accordingly, is extremely laid back and unsupervised, and since you don’t camp near vehicles it’s just a very peaceful overall fest with a guarantee of some great improvisational rock and roll, among other things. Plus, it’s early, so hopefully not too hot out yet, but plenty of shady camping spots if you get there early.
Cons: You will have to haul your gear quite a distance from your vehicle to your campsite, so wagons or some such conveyance are a necessity. Also, the big one: YOU CAN’T BRING ALCOHOL IN. Not even cans of beer, folks, which is an epic fail for a camping festival but they show no signs of budging on this rule. Late night sets are problematic, as they are held in a small shed and there are ten times as many people wanting to get in as are allowed in, so buy your extra tix to those as soon as they go on sale!
Verdict: Overall it’s a welcome respite from the hectic atmosphere of most summer festivals, so if you don’t mind buying all your beer inside and love hippie music, you should hit this one.
WAKARUSA: OZARK, AK, JUNE 2-5
Pros: Every single person I’ve talked to who has gone has had the time of his or her life. Plus, only fest I know of so far that features Buckethead this year!
Cons: The heat? Oh, and EOTO.
Verdict: One of these years it will work out. Sure seems like a good idea.
BONNAROO: MANCHESTER, TN, JUNE 9-12
Pros: My number one priority is always artist lineup, and ‘roo has made the transition from jamband central to peak diversity quite well. There’s no chance that Buffalo Springfield, Eminem, Widespread Panic, The Decemberists and Opeth will share a bill anywhere else. Also, no festival has hosted more awesome surprise collaborations or indisputably legendary performances than the ‘roo, now in its tenth year. Yes, Coachella has been around longer, but this is where the modern festival culture started, and you owe it to yourself to walk under the giant Bonnaroo arch at some point, if only to get a little historical perspective.
Cons: The heat. Good God, the heat. Unless you can RV it, prepare to be exhausted by Sunday because you can’t sleep past six and you’ll be lucky to go to bed before three or risk missing the late-night sets that are usually highlights of the whole festival. Plus, if it’s not the mud, it’s the dust; prepare to be filthy no matter what. And if you arrive at an unfortunate time, you could find yourself camping a good 30-minute walk from the music.
Verdict: I haven’t been here since 2006, so I can’t say how much the atmosphere has changed, but the clash of cultures was already apparent five years ago even though the lineup was still relatively hippie-friendly. Also apparent was the huge increase in the commerciality of the whole thing. And yet, it was my best overall ‘roo experience, and I doubt any festival performance will ever touch the best ones I’ve witnessed at ‘roo. But with the less climatically oppressive, more convenient, more affordable fests that have sprung up in Bonnaroo’s wake, it would take an astounding lineup and possibly an RV to get me back to Tennessee.
ELECTRIC FOREST: ROTHBURY, MI JUNE 30-JULY 3
Pros: You can wax nostalgic about the perfection that was the Rothbury Festival, held on these same grounds in ’08 and ’09 before inexplicably vanishing. Also, there actually are a few good electronic and third-tier jambands playing here.
Cons: You’ll be hard pressed to avoid hearing String Cheese Incident or one of its offshoots playing music the whole damn weekend. You’ll find it impossible to forget that legendary performances by Trey, STS9, Disco Biscuits and Primus, among others, went down just three years ago on these same stages, and there will be nothing remotely as good this time. Every third campsite will belong to a drug dealer, and the wookfumes will be unlike anything your senses have previously experienced. The cherry on top: REO Speedwagon. God, I hope every artist at this festival samples or covers REO at some point, wouldn’t that be HILARIOUS?? REOTO CHEESEWAGON, ANYONE?
Verdict: I think you get the picture.
PITCHFORK: CHICAGO, JULY 15-17
Pros: You get what you pay for: the A-list of indie buzz bands, reunions of indie legends, most likely a ton of great music, and by far the most affordable ticket for the caliber of talent ($110 this year). There is shade available. You can set up a blanket in a choice spot with a view of both main stages and never have to move if you don’t want to. There’s always plenty of parking (IN CHICAGO????), and a rail stop right at Union Park, so it’s conveniently accessible even though you’ll have to find a hotel or a couch to crash on. Plus, one of my favorite aspects: the record fair!
Cons: Mostly, just that it used to be better: better beer (that could change this year; please, no more doomed Heineken prototypes!!), better food, not so crowded, big bottles of Water-Plus for a buck. But also, that low ticket price reflects the ineptitude of the sound guys and gals at this fest. There’s always at least one stage that just can’t get the levels right and at least one power outage in the middle of a set. Compounding the issue: a lot of indie bands aren’t equipped for a big stage in front of an open field, so you’re liable to be disappointed by some really great bands who just aren’t used to being outdoors.
LOLLAPALOOZA: CHICAGO, AUGUST 5-7
Pros: For whatever reason, Lolla seems to bring out great performances in great artists. They always bring in a few resurging legends who often blow away the buzz bands. Be prepared for the bizarre unannounced cameo appearance by some famous musician or other; Perry’s got a lot of friends. A great variety of music, food and beer and plenty of cheap tea and water, plus the Chicago skyline surrounding you; it keeps us coming back.
Cons: It’s a hike between ends of the grounds, so good luck catching consecutive sets on opposite ends. Your best bet is to plan only one or two north-south swings per day, if that. It’s usually hot as hell and only two small stages provide any shade, and be prepared for one end of the grounds to reek the whole weekend if there’s been any rain. You can’t camp, so you have to factor in a hotel unless you can stay with friends, but luckily you can get decent deals for hotels only blocks away if you plan ahead, so if you appreciate comfortable sleeping and showering this is really a pro. Lastly, the festival has gotten way more mainstream since its 90s touring days, with too many 90s has-beens and Top-40 acts for my tastes, and they’ve expanded the grounds to allow more people in, but that just creates bigger traffic jams at the most popular sets.
Verdict: The original underground aesthetic of the fest may be completely gone, but this is still a great place to discover new bands and revisit old ones. As long as you don’t mind shelling out for the hotel, you will probably find this one to be worth your festival dollars.
LANGERADO: SUNRISE, FL, OCTOBER 8-9
Pros: This one sat out the past two seasons but has suddenly returned for 2011. October is a great time to visit Florida, and while we won’t know the lineup until June, anticipate something comparable to Wakarusa with a more indie-rock-friendly contingent. If you want to rush blindly in, you can grab an early-bird ticket starting today (March 9th) for only $75.
Cons: Unless you live in Florida…well, it’s in Florida, which makes a two-day festival hardly worth the travel for most people. Judging by its low ticket price, its brief duration and its return to Markham Park (from the much larger and more prestigious Big Cypress Reservation, where it was held in ‘09), there won’t be a ton of big-name acts; not necessarily a bad thing, but still.Verdict: I haven’t been to this either, but it would take an unbeatable lineup and many other stars aligning, methinks. In its heyday, Langerado gave Bonnaroo a run for its money, at least on paper. If you’re in the neighborhood, why not?