Rolling Stone magazine is in the midst of an extensive survey of America’s musical landscape. The multi-part Venues that Rock series, based on the opinions of panels of agents, musicians, managers and more, already has taken a look at the best rock clubs and big rooms, with the lists of the best amphitheaters, dance clubs and arenas/stadiums set for publication over the next few months.
Venues that Rock, though, seems to have missed the hottest category of musical real estate. The most significant concert action these days takes place at festivals, and the festivals tend to be staged in urban parks and parking lots, in rural fields and at the base of mountains.
The music-festival age began, not coincidentally, with the rise of rock ’n’ roll. The Monterey Pop Festival, held in 1967 in the Monterey County Fairgrounds in Central California, was the first rock festival and also started the tradition of major musical moments taking place at festivals: Monterey featured the first American performances by The Who and Jimi Hendrix. The next year saw the introduction of Milwaukee’s Summerfest, held in Henry Maier Park along Lake Michigan; it would become the first music festival to be held annually. Given the lineup in its inaugural year, it’s mildly surprising that Summerfest endured and that the festival concept caught on — headliners included Bob Hope and Up With People.
The following year, of course, the music-fest concept entered the wide public consciousness, thanks to Woodstock, which was not technically in Woodstock, nor was it a festival. Max Yasgur’s 600-acre dairy farm in upstate New York was near Bethel, some 65 miles from the village of Woodstock, and the event was billed as the Woodstock Music and Art Fair: An Aquarian Exposition of Peace & Music. The three-day event, kicked off by Richie Havens and capped by performances from Jimi Hendrix, Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Who and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, drew a crowd half a million strong. The sight of hippies wearing nothing but mud and lines of cars miles long was widely covered by the press.
The festival express might have come to a halt with the disastrous Altamont Speedway Free Festival, held Dec. 9, 1969, on a motorsports track in Northern California. With the murder of a fan near the front of the stage, extensive property damage and financial shenanigans, Altamont represented the darkest sides of the festival experience and of rock music generally. (On the positive side, it seems to have brought about the end of the idea of holding festivals in the colder, darker months.) But just a few months later, in the city considered the birthplace of American music, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival took root, in Congo Square, a part of Louis Armstrong Park and not far from the French Quarter. The first Jazzfest, as it has become known, incorporated jazz, gospel, funk and rock, and it established the concept of the multi-stage festival that could bring together fans of all different styles of music. For decades, it stood as America’s primary music festival, with few rivals, and drew as many as 650,000 people to the New Orleans Fairgrounds and Racetrack, where it relocated in the early ’70s.
A narrower concept of the music gathering came into being when the Telluride Bluegrass Festival held its first event, in a tiny, picturesque mountain town, in 1974.
Rocking through the ’90s
Little stirred in the festival world till Perry Farrell, the oddball and visionary singer of Jane’s Addiction, created Lollapalooza in 1991. Created as a way for Jane’s Addiction to say farewell, Lollapalooza introduced a new concept: the touring festival, with numerous bands barnstorming from city to city. While Lollapalooza played to fans of hard rock and rap, another traveling festival, the H.O.R.D.E. tour, started in 1992, reaching out to the jam-band devotees.
The Aspen area got in on the action early. Jazz Aspen Snowmass, founded in 1991, began as a small, jazz-oriented event but expanded into rock with the Labor Day Festival. It was held at the Snowmass ski area in 1995 but quickly relocated to the bottom of Snowmass Village.
1999 was like late ’69/early 1970 all over again, with the forces of evil and good battling it out. Woodstock ’99, held on an Air Force base that doubled as a Superfund site, attempted to resurrect the spirit of the original Woodstock. Instead, it mirrored Altamont in its violence and ominous mood and was quickly dubbed “the day the music died.” But a few months later, at the Empire Polo Club in the desert east of Los Angeles, the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival had its first outing. Financial struggles put a temporary halt to Coachella, but it returned in 2001, shifting to early spring in an attempt to avoid the heat.
Coachella accelerated quickly in the early years on A-list headliners such as Radiohead and the Beastie Boys but also special attractions such as the reunions of Jane’s Addiction, the Pixies and Iggy Pop & the Stooges.
Festivating hit its stride in 2002, when the four-day Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival was introduced on a farm in central Tennessee. Bonnaroo went big from the outset, tapping the biggest acts from the jam world — Widespread Panic, Trey Anastasio, String Cheese Incident — and sold out with minimal advertising. In the wake of Bonnaroo came an explosion of events: Mountain Jam, thrown in part by guitarist Warren Haynes, in upstate New York; the Hangout Festival in Gulf Shores, Ala., the first major festival held on a beach; Michigan’s Electric Forest Festival, which caters to fans of electronic music; and the Outside Lands Music Festival, staged in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, where the Grateful Dead occasionally played free concerts nearly five decades ago.
The festival scene might seem entirely saturated, with every region of the country home to festivals huge and small, broadly themed and narrowly focused. But festivals continue to pop up in small towns, on rural farmland on an island in New York City. And if you want to see a reunion of your favorite Seattle grunge act, a jam featuring a rapper and a jam-band guitarist or a hologram appearance by Tupac, odds are it will happen at a festival.
It’s festivating season
In the high country, the festivating season is set to hit. Here’s what to keep your eye and ear on.
• Snowmass Mammoth Festival, today and Saturday, Snowmass Village (125 miles from Summit County via Interstate 70): A newbie — sort of. The Mammoth Festival takes the place of the 10-year-old Chili Pepper & Brew Festival, but in a new location (the soccer fields at the bottom of Snowmass Village) and with a new music focus (mostly indie rock). The promoter, Steve Gumble, is also sort of new — this is his first venture in the Roaring Fork Valley, but he has run Telluride Blues & Brews for 20 years. Headliners include “Return to the Dark Side of the Moon,” a tribute to the classic Pink Floyd album featuring top funk players; electro-rockers Awolnation; the local debut by Welsh band the Joy Formidable; and up-and-coming Colorado act You, Me & Apollo. And there is still chili and beer in abundance.
• SummerJam, today, Fiddler’s Green, Englewood (75.3 miles): A day out for the kids. SummerJam features hitmakers Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, Wale, 2 Chainz and J. Cole.
• Sonic Bloom, Thursday through June 16, Georgetown (28.2 miles): Held in a cottonwood grove in tiny Georgetown, Sonic Bloom is a mini-Burning Man, with an emphasis on cutting-edge expression, visual art and loads of electronic sounds.
• Palisade Bluegrass & Roots Festival, June 14 through 16, Palisade (161 miles): This five-year-old festival, run by Aspenite Josh Behrman, boasts an exceptional small-town setting in Riverbend Park, along the Colorado River. Musically, the spotlight is on young, rootsy talents, including this year singer-songwriter Justin Townes Earle, the punk-meets-old-time trio the Devil Makes Three and the modern folk band Joy Kills Sorrow.
• Telluride Bluegrass Festival, June 20 through 23, Telluride Town Park (291 miles): Among the oldest and most history-laden festivals, Telluride Bluegrass celebrates its 40th anniversary with appearances by Mumford & Sons, Jackson Browne and String Cheese Incident. And it wouldn’t be Telluride without the core of regulars: master pickers Sam Bush, Bela Fleck, Edgar Meyer and Jerry Douglas. The setting, with views of Bridal Veil Falls and the town of Telluride itself, is incomparable.
• CountryJam, June 20 through 23, Mack (192 miles): This 22-year-old festival, on a field 20 miles west of Grand Junction, features Kid Rock, Rascal Flatts, Montgomery Gentry and many more.
• Jazz Aspen Snowmass June Festival, June 21 through 23, Benedict Music Tent (125 miles via I-70): The June Festival gets a twist, turning from its usual jazz and pop to solid rock. Jackson Browne, the bluesy duo of Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite, and the soulful Tedeschi Trucks Band headline, making for a lineup that could pass for Jazz Aspen’s more rock-oriented Labor Day Festival.
• Aspen Music Festival, June 27 through Aug. 18, Aspen (88 miles via Independence Pass): A whole different breed of festival. No camping, little jamming. The 64-year-old event is limited to classical music and spreads out over eight weeks with daily performances of orchestral concerts, chamber music, opera and more. The weekly Sunday-afternoon concert by the Aspen Festival Orchestra is a local ritual.
• The Ride, July 13 and 14, Telluride Town Park (291 miles): In its second year, the Ride features David Byrne & St. Vincent, Rodrigo y Gabriela, Drive-By Truckers, Steve Earle and Big Head Todd and the Monsters.
• Global Dance Festival, July 19 through 21, Red Rocks (61.2 miles): Three days, 25 acts, all from the electronic-dance realm. Acts include Beats Antique, Savoy, Griz and Colorado’s EOTO.
• Carbondale Mountain Fair, July 26 through 28, Sopris Park (99.1 miles): A rarity in the festival world: admission is free for this 42-year-old community bash. The music — by funk band Sister Sparrow & the Dirty Birds, solo act Lipbone Redding, the acoustic Shook Twins and the Cambodian Space Project — plays alongside pie-baking contests and an extensive crafts market.
• Rockygrass, July 26 through 28, Lyons (93.6 miles): RockyGrass, co-founded by bluegrass granddaddy Bill Monroe in 1973, is set on the inviting Planet Bluegrass Ranch, not far from Boulder. This year’s lineup includes the Del McCoury Band, Carolina Chocolate Drops, the Sam Bush Bluegrass Band and Peter Rowan.
• Americanarama, July 31, Fiddler’s Green Amphitheatre, Englewood (82 miles): More a package tour than a festival but with a festival’s worth of music. Bob Dylan headlines, with Wilco, My Morning Jacket and Ryan Bingham on a knockout undercard. Big question: Will Bob join any of the other acts for some memorable performances of Dylan songs?
• Telluride Jazz Celebration, Aug. 2 through 4, Telluride Town Park (291 miles): Telluride Jazz comes from the funky end of the spectrum. Guest of honor is organist Dr. Lonnie Smith; joining him on the bill are guitarist John Scofield, New Orleans band Galactic, Colorado’s Motet and M’shell Ndegeocello, all of whom groove.
• Arise Music Festival, Aug. 14 through 18, Loveland (119 miles): A brand-new festival, Arise is set on Sunrise Ranch in the foothills 65 miles north of Denver. Along with yoga, presentations from spiritualists and activists, there are five stages of music, with acts including Xavier Rudd, Zap Mama and Greensky Bluegrass.
• Rocky Mountain Folks Festival, Aug. 16 through 18, Lyons (93.6 miles): The Planet Bluegrass Ranch welcomes folkies like Patty Griffin and John Prine along with Texas band Seryn and two Colins: Decemberists frontman Colin Meloy and Men at Work’s Colin Hay.
• Jazz Aspen Snowmass Labor Day Festival, Aug. 30 through Sept. 1, Snowmass Town Park (125 miles via I-70): Like its sister June Festival, the Labor Day Fest gets a different look this year. The lineup of Jason Mraz, Keith Urban and Journey leans more toward pop than usual. Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros and Grace Potter & the Nocturnals add the sort of rootsy rock Labor Day typically brings. All of the above, along with Little Big Town and Churchill, are new to the festival.
• Four Corners Folk Festival, Aug. 30 through Sept. 1, Pagosa Springs (226 miles): The 18th annual Four Corners fest, in southwest Colorado, features John Hiatt, Aoife O’Donovan, Elephant Revival and the Wood Brothers.
• Telluride Blues & Brews, Sept. 13 through 15, Telluride Town Park (291 miles): Those still standing after Saturday afternoon’s grand tasting, featuring 50-plus breweries, can wash it down with sets by the Black Crowes, My Morning Jacket frontman Jim James, Melissa Etheridge and the new kid on the blues block, Gary Clark Jr.