Coachella. Bonnaroo. Lollapalooza. These are festivals that need no introduction—they routinely net world-famous headliners, earn millions in ticket sales, and, for the few days they run, host enough nomadic music lovers to claim sovereign statehood. But while those mega-fests get all the press, there’s a whole culture of lesser-known festivals with their own unique appeal. The benefits are obvious: smaller crowds, more creative lineups, and the pride that comes with knowing you got there first. From a rhythm and groove desert escape in Joshua Tree to a Brooklyn indie music summit (and a few live album performances, for good measure), there’s plenty to discover off the beaten path. Here’s where to start.
The Indie Deep-DiveNorthside Festival | June 9–12, Brooklyn
A music pass to the Northside Festival (there are tech and art events on offer, too) gets you access to 35 stages over three days, almost all located within the highly walkable neighborhood of Williamsburg. The headliners for 2016 include Kacey Musgraves, Conor Oberst, and Brian Wilson, who will be performing all of Pet Sounds in honor of the landmark album’s 50th anniversary. These larger, open-air shows always have a dreamy, blissed-out vibe, with a relaxed Brooklyn crowd in full-on summer mode. And while the headliners are bound to impress, there are plenty of hidden gems to be discovered in the surrounding clubs, which will be hosting a largely local selection of emerging acts. Catch a hipster bluegrass band, followed by a punk show, and finish off with a late-night dance-pop set. Intersperse with stops at any one of Williamsburg’s countless bars and restaurants, and the whole neighborhood becomes your festival ground. Best of all, unlike New York’s Governors Ball, or the new Panorama festival, you’re not stuck on an island for this event—escape is only a taxicab ride away.
The Southern SamplerForecastle Festival | June 15–17, Louisville, Kentucky
If you seek Southern music, cuisine, and hospitality but can’t handle the journey to Bonnaroo in Manchester, Tennessee, the Forecastle Festival offers a similar vibe in an urban setting. Specifically, that setting is Louisville, home to delicious food, first-rate hotels, and a little-known local specialty they call “bourbon.” The festival itself takes place in the city’s stunning 85-acre Waterfront Park, where artists like the Avett Brothers, the Alabama Shakes, Ryan Adams, Gary Clark Jr., and some 50 other bands will take the stage. A small armada of food trucks will be on hand, along with the best local craft brewers, and there are several chances to imbibe the local spirit: at the Bourbon Lodge (helmed by the same people who run the Kentucky Bourbon Trail) and also at the Gonzo Bar (which commemorates legendary journalist and Kentucky’s favorite son, Dr. Hunter S. Thompson). Whether or not you take a taste, rest assured, you’ll hear a lot more than just bluegrass on this trip.
The Connoisseur's ConventionPitchfork Music Festival | July 15–17, Chicago
When Lollapalooza settled its three-ring circus in Chicago’s Grant Park, it quickly became the fixture on the summer calendar. But it’s not the only game in town. Slightly more manageable in size—and about half the price—is the Pitchfork Music Festival, put on by the same folks behind the influential music review website. One thing you can say about music snobs: They usually have pretty great taste in their chosen field. Pitchfork consistently books a roster of hyper-current, envelope-pushing artists alongside worthy throwback acts. This year the festival features FKA twigs, Sufjan Stevens, Beach House, Carly Rae Jepsen, Broken Social Scene, and Brian Wilson performing Pet Sounds (if you didn’t catch him in Brooklyn, see him here). Another great reason to attend: Pitchfork maintains a cozy relationship with famed Chicago craft brewery Goose Island. They’re the exclusive beer sponsor for the event—a partnership you’ll likely welcome after a long, hot afternoon of midsummer performances.
The Desert Get DownJoshua Tree Music Festival | May 12–15, Joshua Tree, California
There’s a reason Coachella, the fest that launched a million Instagram posts, is so popular. But you may want to consider another close-to-L.A., upbeat concert in the desert, one that’s more of a laid-back affair. Consider Joshua Tree. The magical, mystical park provides a stunning backdrop for funk-heavy beats delivered by an array of global artists. The lineup may lack first-name-only celebs that regularly rotate through the Coachella roster, but the curation is tight and focused primarily on purveyors of groove and rhythm: New Orleans funk, Ukrainian folk rock, East African jazz, raucous blues, and more. Watch the sun drop below the mountains, feel the desert air turn cool, and let the music wash over you—it’s a sensory mix tailor-made for the fan who likes to go the extra mile.
The Next Big ThingShaky Knees Festival | May 13–15, Atlanta
Only four years in existence, and held in Atlanta’s grand Centennial Olympic Park, Shaky Knees has become a force on the festival scene, with more than 75 bands appearing across five stages over three days. But the really important number here is two. Because this is the only place where two extremely different, yet equally classic, albums will be played live in their entirety. On Friday, Jane’s Addiction will perform Ritual de lo Habitual from start to finish, and on Saturday, the great Huey Lewis and the News will take their seminal record Sports for a spin. The festival also boasts acts like Florence + the Machine, My Morning Jacket, the Kills, Bloc Party, Cold War Kids, the Decemberists, and the Eagles of Death Metal at the top of the ranks. But the chance to hear those first bars of two killer openers (Jane’s Addiction’s “Stop,” with its Spanish-spoken PSA, and Lewis’ “Heart of Rock & Roll,” with its thumping heartbeat) is what makes the case for Shaky Knees’ ascendancy.
- Photograph courtesy of Shaky Knees Festival
- Photograph by Chelsea Kornse, courtesy of Forecastle Festival
- Photographs by Brian Bowen Smith, Hazel & Pine, Shawn Brackbill, Dominic Sheldon, Danielle St. Laurent, and Emmanuel Afolabi, courtesy of Pitchfork Music Festival