15 Under-the-Radar Music Festivals Worth Considering
Coachella? Bonnaroo? Governors Ball? Thanks, but no thanks
The death of the music festival is a story critics love to tell.
And while certain monster operations continue to outgrow themselves and look all too similar, music experiences still remain that are, well … the complete opposite.
To wit: 15 globe-spanning festivals you’ve (probably) never heard of, from immersive high-desert campouts to tropical-island shindigs to a two-day sensory spectacle curated by David Lynch.
Plus: a handful of bigger, long-running festivals that still deserve your consideration.
Because if you must, you might as well do it right.
Big Ears Festival
When: March 22 – 25
What: Hailed by many as one the most forward-thinking music gatherings in the country, the genre-defying Big Ears Festival has earned plaudits for testing boundaries. Whether it’s showcasing avant-garde jazz, experimental rock or everything in between, Big Ears aims to expand musical horizons.
Highlights: Medeski, Martin and Wood, Jason Moran, Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Jaga Jazzists, Lightning Bolt, a performance of Alice Coltrane’s “ecstatic music” by the Sai Anantam Ashram Singers
When: June 30 – July 1
What: The “King of Bad Taste” John Waters returns to emcee another edition of Burger Boogaloo, the annual music fest from Southern California’s Burger Records. The fest programs a range of lo-fi rock ‘n’ roll acts that appeal to old and new fans alike.
Highlights: Devo, The Damned, Le Shok, The Mummies, Traditional Fools
Festival of Disruption
When: May 19 – 20
What: Still buzzing from Showtime’s Twin Peaks reboot, filmmaker and surrealist master David Lynch brings his multi-disciplinary festival to Brooklyn for the first time following two years in Los Angeles, with proceeds benefiting the David Lynch Foundation. In addition to Lynch curating the music lineup, expect an art exhibit showcasing works by Lynch, photographer William Eggleston and more.
Highlights: Angel Olsen, Flying Lotus, Jim James of My Morning Jacket, a Blue Velvet film screening with actress Isabella Rossellini, meditation experiences featuring Brian Eno’s Reflection
Riot Fest & Carnival
When: September 14 – 16
What: For a city that hosts a gaggle of festivals throughout the summer (Lollapalooza and Pitchfork included), Chicago’s Riot Fest has grown to become punk rock’s premier music fest, routinely landing must-see reunions and exclusive headliners year after year. Add in quirky gimmicks like last year’s Riot Feast pop-up restaurant, and it’s anyone’s guess what 2018 will bring.
Travelers’ Rest Fest
When: June 30 – July 1
What: The Decemberists, a band whose reputation as worthy festival organizers may soon exceed their indie-folk fame, return to frontman Colin Meloy’s hometown in Montana to curate a two-day assemblage of alt-rock artists and a few surprises.
Highlights: Jeff Tweedy, Whitney, Tune-Yards, Mavis Staples, Parquet Courts
When: May 11 – 13
What: Since its inception in 2014, this exclusive (applying to attend does not guarantee a ticket) three-day festival in Arcosanti, an artist colony located an hour north of Phoenix, blends a diverse mix of artists with art installations, workshops, film screenings, guided stargazing and the option to camp in the high Arizona desert. The fest, curated by L.A. trio Hundred Waters, has grown from a DIY event to one of the most close-knit music experiences in the country.
Highlights: Chance the Rapper, Fleet Foxes, Beach House, Courtney Barnett, Blood Orange, Julie Byrne
Treefort Music Fest
When: March 21 – 25
What: That Treefort, now entering its seventh year, takes place in seemingly-nowhere Boise is actually the festival’s greatest strength. Held in intimate venues across downtown, the five-day festival also goes beyond music to include community-focused programming in comedy, film and food.
Highlights: Andrew W.K., Pussy Riot, Princess Nokia, George Clinton & Parliament-Funkadelic, Thunderpussy, Kweku Collins
When: April 12 – 15
What: A collaborative music and visual arts fest from contemporary arts foundation Ballroom Marfa and Brooklyn-based music label Mexican Summer that utilizes the sights, sounds and unusual venues across the beautiful art oasis of Marfa, Texas.
Highlights: Jessica Pratt, Ryley Walker, Circuit Des Yeux, Conan and Ade Mockasin, Wire, “musicians in residence” Bradford Cox (of Deerhunter and Atlas Sound) and Cate Le Bon
Punk Rock Bowling & Music Festival
Las Vegas, NV
When: June 30 – July 1
What: A four-day Las Vegas music fest at the crossroads where punk rock meets a strong interest in — what else? — bowling. The anything-goes event turns 20 this year, and remains one of the only festivals in the world that also offers attendees the opportunity to compete in an amateur bowling tournament. This being Vegas, there’s also a Texas Hold ‘Em poker tournament, punk rock karaoke and a bevvy of impressive side shows.
Highlights: Rise Against, Against Me!, The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, NOFX, At The Drive-In, L7, GBH, Hot Water Music
Happy Valley, OR
When: August 3 – 5
What: Founded in 1998, Pickathon might be the biggest little music festival you’ve never heard of, hosted on Pendarvis Farm in Happy Valley, Oregon. The weekend blends wooded camping, emerging and headlining acts, and various health and wellness activities for a family-friendly festival.
Highlights: Broken Social Scene, Shakey Graves, Phosphorescent, Michael Nau, Jamila Woods, Built to Spill
When: June 2
What: The iconic hip-hop group returns to its hometown of Philadelphia for the 11th installment of its day-long concert, this year hosted by Dave Chapelle. Beyond music, the festival will host a podcast stage with live tapings of Questlove’s weekly podcast, Questlove Supreme, and others.
Highlights: The Roots jam session with surprise guests, Lil Uzi Vert, BadBadNotGood, Dirty Projectors, Brandy, a Live Mixtape session with J. Period and the Roots’ Black Thought featuring Fabolous and Jadakiss
When: June 15 – 24
What: Lately, artist-curated festivals have been all the rage in the the U.S., but London’s Meltdown Festival was on the artist-led tip long before others began reaping the benefits of diversity. Following in the footsteps of David Bowie, Patti Smith, Lee “Scratch” Perry and Ornette Coleman, The Cure frontman Robert Smith is hand-picking the music lineup for the festival’s 25th anniversary, taking place at Southbank Centre venues across 10 days.
Highlights: Nine Inch Nails, The Psychedelic Furs, Placebo, My Bloody Valentine, Mogwai, The Notwist
When: August 10 – 11
What: Now in its second year, this festival — a curated effort between the National’s Aaron and Bryce Dessner, gypsy brewery Mikeller’s Mikkel Borg Bergsø and visionary chef Claus Meyer — brings the world’s most exciting music, food and drink together for two days.
Highlights: Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Brockhampton, Kevin Morby, Kamasi Washington, Big Thief, Arcade Fire
Mad Cool Festival
When: July 12 – 14
What: Perhaps the biggest festival on this list, the third installment of this three-day festival offers a diverse, massive lineup across seven stages in Madrid. If anything, the festival is the perfect jumping off point for a Spanish summer getaway.
Highlights: Tame Impala, Depeche Mode, MGMT, Sampha, Alice in Chains, Jack White, Japandroids, Underworld
When: December 2018
What: This little-known remote desert island festival has been kicking since 2014, long before last year’s Fyre Fest fiasco. Unlike that doomed bacchanal, Your Paradise actually delivers on its promise, offering an all-inclusive resort experience on the South Pacific island with a myriad of seaside activities. Oh, and also music on the side.
Main photo: Roots Picnic