Salon's guide to summer music festivals

Radiohead! Kanye! My Bloody Valentine! Dylan! Here's what to catch -- and what to skip -- on the festival circuit this summer.

Published June 5, 2008 10:42AM (EDT)

"Peace, love, and music" was the rallying cry of 400,000 hippies who converged on Yasgur's farm in Bethel, N.Y., nearly two generations ago. Despite the overdosing and overcrowding (not to mention that odd moment when Pete Townshend smashed Abbie Hoffman over the head with his guitar), it remains the holy grail of summer music festivals. So great is our continued reverence for Woodstock that there is now a museum dedicated to its memory.

While this summer's festivals and tours aren't likely to make Woodstock-size footprints on pop-culture history, they may well reveal as much about youth culture as their forerunner did. Spanning such genres as punk, country, world music, folk and hip-hop, the 2008 lineup is nothing if not diverse, reflecting the broad and eclectic tastes of young music fans for whom a new favorite band is never more than a mouse-click away.

Technology is changing the game for promoters, too. Some festivals are communicating with ticket holders via text message, both at the event and beforehand, to announce secret shows, run contests and share schedule updates. The booking process has also evolved. Kevin Lyman, who created and continues to run the Vans Warped Tour, has found that artists who seemed obscure when he booked them often amass a sizable, Internet-based following by the time the tour kicks off. But because blog buzz can instantly rocket a band to the kind of fame that once required years of courting A&R reps and touring tirelessly to build up a fan base, it's also increased the pressure to find the next big thing and discard the last one. Now, promoters must be able to judge the staying power of the acts they choose, knowing that a band that's popular in the winter, when booking decisions are made, may be passé by summer. "Sometimes the buzz on the Internet is so big that it dies out by the time the festival hits," says Pitchfork Music Festival organizer Mike Reed. "Certain acts are pitched to us that would have made sense at the time, but that we didn't think had a shelf life until July."

This summer, as well as banking on bands' staying power, festival organizers must also contend with the recent economic downturn. And though conventional wisdom holds that entertainment and other luxury industries are the first to take a hit during a recession, promoters claim that ticket sales are as robust as ever. Over six weeks before the festival, Pitchfork has sold out of three-day passes, and fans of My Bloody Valentine snapped up the first round of All Tomorrowís Parties tickets (which bear the hefty price tag of $225) mere hours after they went on sale.

"My personal theory is that when people don't have the money to go on vacation, they start looking around at home," says Laura Connelly, program manager for the KCRW World Festival, an idea that many promoters share. Chang Weisberg, who organizes Rock the Bells, believes that consumers are now buying concert tickets with money they would once have spent on CDs. "You can't download the interaction between musician and fan," he points out.

That may be why these events are just as exciting now as they were 40 years ago. All of the digital downloads and webcasts in the world can't match the power of a great live show, whether it's Woodstock or Bumbershoot. So with summer just beginning, we present Salon's 2008 guide to summer music festivals. Rather than trying to create an exhaustive list, we've explored some of the year's biggest and best events, in enough depth to help you decide where to spend your economic stimulus payment.

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All Points West

Aug. 8-10

Liberty State Park, Jersey City, N.J.

Big names: Radiohead (8/8 and 8/9), Jack Johnson (8/10)

Don't miss: All Points West is stacked with bands known for turning out exemplary live performances. If you're into mind expansion, check out the experimental psychedelia of Animal Collective; the band tends to perform unrecorded material, so you may hear songs that won't see release for another year or two. At the pop end of the spectrum is Canadian supergroup the New Pornographers, which combines the talents of A.C. Newman, Neko Case and Destroyer's Dan Bejar. And for those of you seeking nothing more than sweaty fun in the August heat, look out for mash-up maven Girl Talk and manic Brazilian dance-pop outfit CSS.

Bathroom break: Unless coffee shop crooners are your thing, it's probably safe to skip the Starbucks-approved singer/songwriter Sia.

Survival tips: Only those who purchase a $30 carpool pass will have access to on-site parking, and APW will only sell the permit along with four festival tickets. No outside food or beverages are allowed, so be prepared to overspend on food that's been sitting in the sun all day.

Special features: Kids under 5 get in free.

If you can't make it: Radiohead will be playing a slew of North American dates throughout August.

Prices: Three-day pass: $258; single-day ticket: $89

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June 12-15

Manchester, Tenn.

Big names: Pearl Jam, Metallica, Kanye West, Robert Plant & Alison Krauss, the Allman Brothers Band, Willie Nelson, Sigur Rós

Don't miss: In true Bonnaroo form, this year's festival is chock-full of crusty old rockers, but it's the non-sandal-wearing part of the lineup that looks most promising. Solomon Burke's gorgeous, '60s soul chops helped define the sound that would eventually give birth to both modern R&B and rock 'n' roll. His rare festival appearance will be a perfect prelude for a night of contemporary funk. Ozomatli move crowds with their signature blend of salsa, funk and hip-hop-tinged jazz, and Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings deliver the kind of airtight, ice-hot soul set that even a detoxed Amy Winehouse can't match.

Survival tips: Carpool to the festival and you might win a VIP upgrade. Don't have anyone to carpool with? Join the Bonnaroo Community and find like-minded festival-goers using the Ridefinder.

Special features: This year's Bonnaroo offers stand-up comedy, a kids tent, and yoga classes, where something called "Spiritual Gangster Yoga" will be available to "rock yogis from all walks of life with its Hip Hop Power." If you understand what that means, we're sure you'll enjoy it.

Prices: Four-day pass: $209.50 and up (includes camping and parking)

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Aug. 30-Sept. 1

Seattle Center, Seattle

Big names: Beck, Stone Temple Pilots, All-American Rejects, Lucinda Williams

Don't miss: If you love Lucinda Williams, meet Neko Case. Her country-tinged ballads are refreshing and intoxicating, like a mint julep on a 90-degree Alabama night. Saul Williams' peerless lyrics fuse underground hip-hop with spoken-word poetry, and singer/songwriter/producer John Vanderslice's recent meditations on post-9/11 life are as insightful as they are melodic. But no one starts a party like the bespectacled, electronic phenomenon that is Baltimore's favorite son Dan Deacon.

Bathroom break: Paramore's derivative, emo melodramatics are likely to bore anyone over 18. And let's face it: Jakob Dylan has never really contributed much to music besides his father's quirky good looks and a passable cover of David Bowie's "Heroes."

Survival tips: With over 20 stages, attendees who don't schedule in advance may become overwhelmed.

Special features: The lineup at Seattle Center's enormous campus includes three comedy stages, North America's largest short-film festival, and a Literary Arts program that boasts appearances by Adrian Tomine, William Gibson and Daniel Clowes, in addition to theater, dance, visual arts and children's programming.

VIP perks: Admission to Bumbershoot's programs is on first-come, first-served basis, so standard pass-holders aren't guaranteed seats to any given performance. A Gold Pass promises seats to main-stage shows, as well as access to an air-conditioned VIP lounge, while a Platinum Pass buys all that, plus a reserved spot at any of the festival's many indoor venues.

Prices: Three-day pass: $80 before 8/16 or $100 after; Gold Pass $195; Platinum Pass $395; single-day ticket: $35 before 8/16 or $40 after


Aug. 1-3

Grant Park, Chicago

Big names: Radiohead, Rage Against the Machine, Kanye West, Nine Inch Nails, Wilco, Cat Power

Don't miss: The Kansas duo Mates of States combine nontraditional song structures and spirited synth-pop riffs to sparkling effect, and Seattle alt-rock duo the Gutter Twins are known for their great live show. Of the better known bands, Gnarls Barkley and Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks are unlikely to disappoint. Two promising upstart acts -- Black Kids and the Ting Tings -- will likely draw legions of blog-reading believers.

Survival tips:: "The site's very, very big -- 3/4 of a mile," says promoter Lisa Hickey. "Wear comfortable shoes, and plan in advance."

Special features: Lollapalooza features environmentally friendly programs including "Greenstreet," an on-site greening "museum" sponsored by Whole Foods, where festival-goers can learn about products' environmental footprint and buy food, clothes and other goods from various Whole Foods-approved green vendors. It beats bad acid.

VIP perks: In addition to VIP passes, which include prime seating, food and alcohol, and "mini-spa treatments," Lollapalooza kicks up the luxury with "private cabanas" for parties of 20 to 100 people. If you can shell out the $1,250-$1,500 per person, you'll get your own lounge, a private viewing platform at the main stage and your own personal bar staff. Of course, for that kind of money, you can also just take all your friends to Puerto Rico.

Prices: Three-day passes: $190; Lollalounge VIP pass: $850. Private cabanas: $1,250 per person for prime section; $1,500 per person for premier section.

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Virgin Festival

Aug. 9-10

Pimlico Race Course, Baltimore

Big names: Foo Fighters, Kanye West, Nine Inch Nails, Stone Temple Pilots, Wilco, Bob Dylan

Don't miss: This is another one of those dizzyingly eclectic mega-festivals that aims to please every member of a household. Your indie rock little brother can crush on British soul chanteuse Duffy while you engage in a little Balkanized rabble-rousing with gypsy-punks Gogol Bordello. You and bro can rendezvous with your parents later at the Wilco show. Ditch the family altogether on Sunday, when Black Rebel Motorcycle Club stages its West-Coast brand of high-octane, psychedelic garage rock and Iggy and the Stooges kiss Charm City goodnight with their legendary, frenzied rock show.

Bathroom break: Skip Stone Temple Pilots and Moby, unless you have some affinity for self-important fashion victims reliving the '90s. Also steer clear of Taking Back Sunday, that perfect storm of angst, anger and hair gel.

Survival tips: Even though Virgin bans all outside food and drink from the site, you are allowed two factory-sealed bottles of water per person. So pack up the water, and save your money for overpriced beer.

Special features: In a gambling mood? Go bet on a horse at the on-site Pimlico race course. And of course, because this is Baltimore -- home of John Waters and Frank Zappa -- there are bound to be freaks galore! The festival Web site promises "stilt walkers, fire eaters, guitar bots and trapeze artists who dangle from motorcycles."

VIP perks: VIPs have access to exclusive viewing areas, an air-conditioned "Chill" lounge, free refreshments, "real restrooms" (an item that doesn't bode well for general-admission plebes), goody bags and a shuttle service. But if it's liquor you're looking for, don't expect much: Your $450 only buys a "welcome cocktail" when you arrive and a Sunday-morning Bloody Mary.

If you can't make it: Get your passport in order and head up north to check out similar lineups at Virgin festival dates in Toronto and Calgary.

Prices: Two-day pass: $175; VIP: $450. Single-day general admission: $97.50; VIP: $250


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Rock the Bells

July 19-Aug. 30

10 dates in major cities

Big names: A Tribe Called Quest, Nas, Mos Def, De La Soul, Rakim, Method Man & Redman, Raekwon & Ghostface (except at the Chicago show, which they are missing for the Pitchfork Festival)

Don't miss: There are not a lot of acts worth missing at this granddaddy of hip-hop festivals. The big draw is South Central alt-rappers Pharcyde, who reunited specifically for Rock the Bells. Reunions seem to be the name of the game, with A Tribe Called Quest and most of Wu Tang Clan taking the stage.

Bathroom break: Though they sometimes throw a mean party, De La Soul are inconsistent performers, and the Cool Kids are a high-concept flash in the pan.

Survival tips: If you plan on hitting the Jones Beach date, be forewarned -- the site is alcohol-free, which means it's probably not the best time to throw down for VIP passes (hardly a bargain without free booze).

Milieu: Though festival organizer Chang Weisberg describes the Rock the Bells crowd as "politically conscious" and "revolutionary," he thinks this year's inclusion of Mos Def, De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest will have an aphrodisiac effect on the scene. "This year, it's going to be lots of ladies, waving their hands in the air and just getting down," says Weisberg. "It's the party year for Rock the Bells."

VIP perks: On top of the normal VIP amenities, Rock the Bells' VIP pass offers various free stuff like a backpack, a microSD memory card, and, according to Weisberg, "a chance to party with A Tribe Called Quest."

If you can't make it: Check out Paid Dues. Same vibe, same promoter, and almost the same lineup (add Blackalicious and GZA, subtract Tribe and the rest of Wu Tang).

Prices: Tickets: $32.50-$125 (varies by seat/venue); VIP: $140-$250



All Tomorrow's Parties New York

Sept. 19-21

Kutshers Country Club, Monticello, N.Y.

Big names: My Bloody Valentine, Yo La Tengo, Dinosaur Jr., Built to Spill

Don't miss: ATP NY's clear draw is My Bloody Valentine -- the British shoegaze icons are visiting the U.S. for the first time in 16 years in anticipation of their first new album since 1991's classic "Loveless." But the rest of the lineup is fantastic, too. Psychedelia is well represented here, in bands as spare and droney as Wooden Shjips and as bracing and symphonic as Mogwai. Also making a rare appearance is Harmonia, a '70s krautrock supergroup made up of members of Neu! and Cluster.

Survival tips: Unless you're local to the Catskills, you'll need to find somewhere to stay during the festival. Spots at Kutshers have sold out, but ATP is happy to book you a three- or four-person room at the nearby Raleigh Hotel. If $150 extra per person doesn't thrill you, there are plenty of campgrounds in the area.

Special features: ATP NY includes Don't Look Back, an evening dedicated to bands playing their classic albums in their entirety. Built to Spill has signed on to play "Perfect From Now On," Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore will perform "Psychic Hearts," Tortoise is doing "Millions Now Living Will Never Die," and the Meat Puppets will be reliving "Meat Puppets II."

If you can't make it: You can still catch My Bloody Valentine at a few more dates in New York, Santa Monica, Calif., or San Francisco this fall. But act fast -- the Chicago performance is already sold out, as is one of two New York shows.

Prices: Three-day pass: $225 plus optional accommodations

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Pitchfork Music Festival

July 18-20

Union Park, Chicago

Big names: Public Enemy, Jarvis Cocker (of Pulp), Dinosaur Jr., Animal Collective and Spoon

Don't miss: The Pitchfork lineup is unusually strong this year, boasting performances by the holy trinity of new-school, static-worshiping punk acts: Jay Reatard, No Age, and Times New Viking. Dirty Projectors' layered vocals and lush but lo-fi instrumentals are gorgeous on record -- and positively sublime in the flesh. Be sure to catch some time-tested bands, too: Spiritualized often travel with a full string section in tow.

Bathroom break: Though Vampire Weekend has pretty much dominated the music press this year, their live performances are famously lackluster and amateurish.

Survival tips: "We're probably the easiest festival to get to via public transportation," says Mike Reed, the event's founder and promoter, noting that Union Park is close to a train stop, two bus lines and two highways.

Special features: The first evening of the festival will be devoted to Don't Look Back, organized in cooperation with All Tomorrow's Parties. Artists performing entire albums here will include Public Enemy (doing "It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back"), Sebadoh ("Bubble and Scrape"), and Mission of Burma ("Vs.").

Milieu: Reed describes Pitchfork as a "boutique event" whose core audience comprises "a lot of late 20s folks in their offices, trolling Web sites to find out about new music," but acknowledges that there will be a strong, college-aged hipster contingent, too.

If you can't make it: There are a lot of similar, if smaller-scale, festivals taking place throughout the summer. We recommend Whartscape, Baltimore's intimate, four-day extravaganza, and the Village Voice's free rock show by the (Coney Island) seashore, Siren Music Festival.

Prices: Three-day pass: $65 (sold out); Friday: $30; Sat & Sun: $50

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Vans Warped Tour

June 20-Aug. 17

About 50 dates nationwide

Big names: Paramore, Against Me!, Gym Class Heroes, All-American Rejects

Don't miss: Kevin Lyman, Warped Tour's creator, calls this year's lineup "one of our most diverse ever." And he's right. Straying from the skate-punk that comprises Warped's core will yield some great selections, including underground MC MURS, giddy Sonic Youth protégés Be Your Own Pet, grind-core experimentalists Dillinger Escape Plan, and the all-girl, Japanese ska outfit Oreskaband. If you must indulge your love of pop-punk, stick with time-tested veterans like Pennywise, the Vandals, and Bouncing Souls.

Bathroom break: There are a lot of bland, similar-sounding bands on this bill, but Angels and Airwaves get our vote.

Survival tips: Show up early, because you won't know in advance when the bands you want to see will be playing. "I don't write the schedule till the morning of the show," says Lyman. That means there are no official headliners, with popular and obscure bands alternating throughout the day, in an attempt to ensure that festival-goers check out all the artists Warped has to offer.

Special features: Warped has always included a strong activist element, and this year is no different. The tour is running a program called Earth Echoes, which finds creative ways to exercise the conservationist credo "reduce, reuse, recycle." They'll also be partnering with Declare Yourself to register voters and conducting on-site skin cancer screenings.

Milieu: Although the Warped Tour draws a lot of teenagers, Lyman says that in the past few years older punk fans are coming back to acquaint themselves with new music.

Prices: Tickets: around $30, exact price varies by venue

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KCRW World Festival

June 22-Sept. 21 (six Sundays throughout the summer)

Hollywood Bowl, Los Angeles

Big names: Feist, Gnarls Barkley, Gilberto Gil, Bebel Gilberto, UB40, Beres Hammond, Barrington Levy

Don't miss: For 10 years, the KCRW festival at the Hollywood Bowl has combined popular and lesser-known artists from around the world. This year we're most excited about the pairing of freak-folk wunderkind Devendra Banhart and Gilberto Gil, Brazil's legendary singer-songwriter (and the country's minister of culture!). Also check out Gnarls Barkley sharing a bill with the Senegalese Afro-Cuban superstar Youssou N'Dour and Seattle-based noise-rockers Deerhoof.

Bathroom break: In the cluttered field of American summer festivals, KCRW stands out with a program that is interesting, diverse and thoughtfully composed. That said, UB40 are likely to be schmaltz city. Run for cover.

Survival tips:: "Come early. Bring a picnic. Bring some wine," says festival program manager Laura Connelly. She also suggests that visitors take the city bus, as the 3,000 parking spots on site fill up fast. Because the Hollywood Bowl is a county venue, neighborhood curfews shut it down at 10:30 on Sundays, so plan something in the city if you want to make it a late night.

Milieu: Think of KCRW attendees as the more adventurous cousins of the NPR crowd. Connelly calls them "well-educated and fun with eclectic tastes."

Special features: VIP passes be damned. The perks at KCRW go to the Hollywood Bowl season ticket holders, or "subscription members." If you have a subscription, you can skip the lines, buy souvenirs at a discount and get the best seats in the house, where, according to Connelly, "everyone knows their neighbors."

Prices: Single-day tickets: $10-$96

By Charly Wilder

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By Judy Berman

Judy Berman is a writer and editor in Brooklyn. She is a regular contributor to Salon's Broadsheet.

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