(Old Settler’s Music Festival, Photo: Arthur VanRooy)
Long lines, corporate sponsors, mile long walks to the stage, and huge crowds filled with first timers who can’t handle their drugs. These are what come to mind when I think about festivals like Coachella, Bonnaroo and Austin City Limits. Those of us who have been there done that tend to look for something beyond that experience when it comes to music festivals. Personally, I’d rather see 5 acts I’ve never heard of in a comfortable setting than 120 acts in a field where you have to stand so far back that you might as well be couch touring. Luckily, the massive festivals aren’t the only option. Throughout the country there are loads of smaller festivals that offer up a far more fulfilling experience. Even if you still like going to the bigger events, it’s worth your time to check out some of the smaller stuff. That’s why we decided to highlight ten music festivals you may want to seek out. In the first part of this list we focused on festivals happening in early to late spring. Later on we will spotlight summer and fall, because there are truly that many. Obviously there are plenty of fests that we didn’t include here and are probably just as great as these picks, so feel free to spotlight your own favorite fests in the comments section.
Another name for this article could have been “Here’s Why You Need to be in New Orleans this Spring” because the Big Easy truly is the place to be. Can you really go wrong with a festival that takes place in New Orleans and brings together smoked meats and killer bands? As if that’s not enough incentive to get your ass to NOLA, proceeds for this fest go towards helping pediatric brain cancer, so you can check good deed off your list while you’re rocking out to groups like the Drive-By Truckers with a belly full of barbecue. This year’s lineup may also be the best yet with a mix of jam bands, local NOLA acts, and talented rockers like J Roddy Walston, Strand of Oaks, and the Truckers.
McDowell Mountain Music Festival won’t overindulge you with late night dance parties, a tent city or multi-stage hustling to get in on all the action. With one main stage and a small local stage, the festival wins with its accessibility (located in downtown Phoenix’s Margaret Hance Park) and its jam roots charm. Instead of feeling isolated from the real world, at MMMF one can actually leave the festival and walk to the many amenities of Roosevelt Row to have a drink and barely miss two songs. Originally begun as a festival that attracted the biggest names in the jam world including Gov’t Mule, Ratdog and The Black Crowes, this festival has aged well and has now incorporated a diverse lineup over three days that attracts fans of the jam world, DJ/EDM sector and more of a modern/indie twist. With reasonable ticket prices ($55 a day) and about some of the coziest surroundings you can possibly ask for in a big city, MMMF only misses the mark on its limited camping options. But with the city light rail running right near-by and thousands of hotel rooms within walking distance, MMMF ain’t no Bonnaroo and it’s suited perfectly to keep your sanity.
Based on the lineup, which includes indie heavyweights TV on the Radio, Trampled By Turtles, and Josh Ritter among many others, Treefort isn’t exactly small, but just like Mission Creek it seems to be sort of a scaled down version of SXSW. In addition to the music taking place across venues around Boise, there’s a film fest, comedy, and even a portion devoted to the local tech culture. Like SXSW set out to do originally, Treefort celebrates the local cultural scene and highlights what’s cool about the city. At this point it looks like the festival hasn’t grown bigger than its britches and is a manageable experience devoid of douche bags and marketing companies infiltrating every crevice of the event. Boise has always carried a reputation as a hip town with a vibrant indie rock scene, and Treefort looks like a damn good reason to explore it.
I can’t think of any reason to ever set foot in Iowa, but this festival actually seems like a good one. From the looks of things Mission Creek seems to be formatted in a slightly similar vein as South By Southwest. The difference is that it seems to be a low key and laid back event as opposed to the sprawling mass of chaos that is SXSW. Various venues across this small city of less than 100,000 people showcase art, food, film, literature, comedy, and a music lineup that puts more established acts alongside local and up-and-coming ones. The schedule looks easy to navigate and it actually seems like you can get into the events without having to stand in massive lines while being harassed by brands sucking the soul out of the whole thing. Also worth noting is that festival passes start at only $125, which is crazy cheap compared to just about everything other festival.
This annual event serves as the David to the Goliath that is Jazz Fest. Talk to New Orleans locals during Jazz Fest and one thing you’ll hear across the board is, “man, next year you should really come for French Quarter Fest!” Sort of like a Jazz Fest for locals, FQF stretches only one weekend and features an always impressive lineup of the finest musical talent in Louisiana. Fans of funk, blues, and brass bands will have a blast at this one. Not to mention, it goes down smack dab in the middle of the French Quarter and is FREE! Jazz Fest certainly has its place, but New Orleans has loads of free or cheap small festivals throughout the year, and French Quarter Fest is the king of them all. As of now this year’s lineup hasn’t been announced, but expect it to drop very soon.
If you’re like me you may think of Florida as a backward state where having all your teeth is a luxury and a real party involves a hit of crystal meth and about twenty Bud Lights. Remarkably though, Florida is actually home to some of the best music festivals. Sure, everyone’s heard of the series of fests at the Spirit of Suwannee Park and the uber jammy Aura has been growing every year, but one that may be off your radar is Stringbreak. This intimate festy hosts a lineup of bluegrass, folk, Americana and all sorts of other bands you’ve probably never heard of but will totally dig. Also, small festivals like this tend to be the most conducive to meeting tons of happy, welcoming people and making new friends.
Not to say this small festival outside Austin doesn’t always present a fantastic lineup, because they do, but Old Settler’s is special for a number of other reasons besides the lineup. For starters, it goes down about 20 minutes outside of Austin in the lush, gorgeous Texas Hill Country on a site owned by the famous Salt Lick BBQ. The crowd is friendly and easygoing, and usually the weather is perfect. And the festival itself is only part of the experience too. Each night when the music ends around midnight festi-goers take part in a group march across the road to the campsite where loads of talented pickers of all types fill the crisp Texas air with group jams. Old Settler’s is one of those idyllic festival experiences that will leave a smile on your face for weeks after it ends.
This festival has grown every year since starting as a one-day event held during South By Southwest in 2008, and for good reason. The organizers work with Austin’s own psych rock kings The Black Angels – who more or less curate the festival – to bring in the best in reverb-drenched weirdness. Their mission to book extremely niche acts alongside legends who may never play live anymore attracts all kinds of strange people from Austin and around the world. It’s worth going for the people watching alone, and in order to even know a fraction of the acts on the lineup you have to be fairly music savvy. Carson Creek Ranch is about a ten-minute drive from downtown Austin and the festival area is small and easy to navigate, consisting of just three stages. Those are may not want to drive back into town at the end of the night have the option to camp out right on-site. While the festival is growing every year and has just rebranded itself as Levitation, it still carries that delightfully weird vibe that put Austin on the map and is increasingly hard to find anywhere else in the city.
I really don’t know much about this festival, but considering it’s called Moonshiner’s Ball and goes down and Kentucky, I can only imagine it’s a good ol’ rowdy time. The lineup is mostly smaller acts, but the festival describes it as “3 days of moonshine-soaked indie rock, Americana, and bluegrass,” which sounds just fine to me. The site itself hosts other festivals throughout the year and looks like a lush Southern wonderland with creeks flowing through and plenty of comfy camp spots. The best part is that a weekend pass only costs $60!
Grab your bowler hat and head on out to Bean Blossom, Indiana because it’s time to celebrate one of bluegrass music’s most creative performers. This festival actually touts itself as “The Most Laid Back Festival In America,” and how can you really argue with a claim like that? John Hartford’s music influenced not just bluegrass players, but folkies, rockers and hippies alike, and the festival lineup reflects that. This year it’s made up of bluegrass groups like Hot Rize and Split Lip Rayfield who, like Hartford, never let the traditions of the genre hold them back. There are also plenty of jam-tastic acts and folk groups, which attracts a nice demographic of hippies and chilled out older folks who are down to party. In the end, how can a festival that goes down at a park named after Bill Monroe in a town called Bean Blossom not be awesome?