Summer festivals can be hit-or-miss affairs, a combination of great and not-so-great acts all commanding stage time. While there's always the prospect of unexpected discoveries, more so than at conventional club or arena shows, there's also the risk of unprecedented tedium. Even so, a brilliant headlining performance can move even the most sundazed (or otherwise impaired) attendee from exhaustion to exhilaration.
This summer's season figures to be no exception, although three area events stand out as particularly good bets. And two of them are happening right here.
Our Top 3 festivals
The first comes this very weekend with the debut of the MeadowGrass Music Festival (May 23-24, meadowgrass.org) at the La Foret Conference and Retreat Center. In addition to its idyllic setting — a big old meadow surrounded by acres of pines — the festival features an impressive lineup of local and national acts.
Magnolia Electric Co. and Peter Rowan's Free Mexican Airforce are Saturday and Sunday's respective headliners, while local talents include Sons and Brothers and the Haunted Windchimes. (Note: You can find an interview with Magnolia Electric Co.'s Jason Molina on p. 63.)
The other local fest you'll be cursing yourself for missing is the Blues Under the Bridge Festival (July 24-25, bluesunderthebridge.com). Unlike last year's event, which kind of stretched the definition of "festival" by being held on two days with a month-long break in between, this year's actually takes place on two consecutive days.
Friday night's headliner, Kim Wilson's Fabulous Thunderbirds, will please those tough enough to revere '80s blues (did they even have blues in the '80s?), but the real stunner will be Saturday night's festival closer, Bettye LaVette. The Detroit soul singer was 16 when she had her first national hit (1962's "My Man — He's a Lovin' Man"), but the real revelation for many of us was her performance at the Kennedy Center this past December.
LaVette's unlikely and utterly stunning rendition of "Love Reign O'er Me" (yep, the Who song) was the stuff that comebacks are made of, and she shouldn't be allowed to get out from under the bridge without singing it. In January, she also performed during Barack Obama's Inaugural Celebration at the Lincoln Memorial, but it was a duet with Jon Bon Jovi, so you know how that goes.
OK, the third summer festival we're hard-sellin' here is not in Colorado Springs and it's just barely in the summer. Now in its third year, the Monolith Festival (Sept. 12-13, monolithfestival.com) has, as we go to press, announced only a handful of acts, including Method Man and Redman, Starfucker, Girl Talk, Frightened Rabbit and the Walkmen. But last year's festival featured dozens of fairly cutting-edge acts on multiple stages — like a condensed South by Southwest Festival, minus the record industry weasels texting each other for lunch-meets. Plus, it's at Red Rocks, a setting that made the Silversun Pickups' opening-night set last year nothing less than awe-inspiring. Kind of like U2, but without the flag.
Rock, rap 'n ranch
And then there's everything else, which is actually quite a lot. If your tastes run toward mainstream rock and pop, the Mile High Music Festival (July 18-19, milehighmusicfestival.com) at Dick's Sporting Goods Park in Commerce City will get you swaying back and forth with your cellphone raised high. The Tool reunion is just, well, strange, but the rest of the lineup isn't: Widespread Panic will play both nights, which should give it just enough time to get through a whole song. The Fray will play the hometown heroes, and Matisyahu will serve up pop-reggae confections that are thoroughly enjoyable so long as you don't notice how much they all sound like old Police songs. And there's plenty more: Ben Harper, 3OH!3 Gov't Mule, G. Love & Special Sauce, and odd-man-out Buddy Guy. Oh yeah, and Incubus. Gotta see Incubus.
Meanwhile, we're hearing that this new "rap" music may end up being the next big thing, so now's the time to check out Rock the Bells (Aug. 6, guerillaunion.com) at Red Rocks. Nas, Damian Marley, RZA 'n GZA, Big Boi, Busta Rhymes, Talib Kweli and K'Naan are all on board, but it's the "very special guests TBA" who could put this year's hip-hop fest over the top. Ice Cube has just been added to the tour's Los Angeles date, and the Roots are on other parts of the tour. But again, those two are still just possibilities.
Bluegrass purists may have some qualms with this year's Telluride Bluegrass Festival (June 18-21, bluegrass.com/telluride), but the rest of us should be fine with it. Year XXXVI initially seems normal enough with Emmylou Harris, Yonder Mountain String Band, Railroad Earth, Crooked Still and Peter Rowan, but then the going gets strange with appearances by Elvis Costello and David Byrne. Also not exactly bluegrass, but remarkably talented, are Australia's Kasey Chambers & Shane Nicholson. But no Incubus, dagnabbit!
Farther out there
As for way out-of-town showdowns, this year's Lollapalooza (Aug. 7-9, lollapalooza.com) lineup in Chicago is pretty stellar with the aforementioned reformed Tool, Jane's Addiction (surprise), Lou Reed, Kings of Leon, TV on the Radio, Snoop Dogg, Neko Case, Silversun Pickups, Animal Collective, Fleet Foxes, Kaiser Chiefs, Peter Bjorn and John, Bat for Lashes, the Constantines, the Beastie Boys and plenty more. Plus you'll find the likes of Deadmau5, Simian Mobile Disco and the Glitch Mob in "Perry's tent." Why it's named after Katy Perry, I have no idea.
If you're looking for great artists performing their seminal albums entirely and in sequence — and who isn't? — the first-day lineup for All Tomorrow's Parties (Sept. 11-13, atpfestival.com) in New York's Catskills is just shy of godlike. Must-sees include Suicide, the still-unsurpassed forefathers of electroclash, performing their self-titled debut album; the Feelies playing their brilliant Crazy Rhythms; the Drones crooning their cheerful Wait Long by the River and the Bodies of Your Enemies Will Float By; plus more long-playing re-creations by the Jesus Lizard, Iron & Wine and Dirty Three. Weekend highlights include the Flaming Lips, Boredoms, Animal Collective and Boss Hog. And since the whole thing is named after a Velvet Underground song, you know it has to be cool.
And yes, there's more, of course, which is why they invented the whole Interweb thing. You can go "online" to check out Arkansas' Wakarusa (wakarusa.com), Tennessee's Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival (bonnaroo.com), New Mexico's Taos Solar Music Festival (solarmusicfest.com), the Austin City Limits Music Festival (aclfestival.com), and Colorado's own RockyGrass (bluegrass.com/rockygrass) and NedFest (nedfest.com).
Got other favorites? Send us your list and we'll post them online. And be sure to keep following our regular music and calendar sections to find out what's happening every week. Because you never know when Incubus will be coming to town.