Time to pack up the van and put the Violent Femmes' "Blister in the Sun" on the stereo. Summer officially arrives this weekend—as marked not by some silly old solstice but the arrival of Coachella, the first music festival on the calendar each year. So wait until school is out to hit the festival circuit, if you will, but if you tarry, you'll miss out on a whole lot of mega-indie rock, country, jazz, jam bands, and second-degree burns.
Here's our guide to the biggest and best summer music festivals—some of which do actually take place in the summer—and who to look for among the fine print on those souvenir posters, as well as the headliners. (Warning: A couple of these fests involve passage by sea or air, not auto. And a couple may involve staying up all night to wait for Kanye.)
Indio, Calif., April 15-17
The big guns: No boomer superstars in sight this year. Kings of Leon are the kings of Friday night. Arcade Fire, the impossible-to-follow highlight of Coachella 2007, have graduated to headliner status this year, with a set that tops off the bill Saturday night. On Sunday, Coachella 2006 alumnus Kanye West closes the show—and attendees are already praying he doesn't pull a Bonnaroo on them and stay in his trailer till dawn.
Trainwreck watch: Speaking of artists who've been known to keep a crowd waiting, Ms. Lauryn Hill (the "Ms." is part of her official billing these days) is scheduled to go on at 6 p.m. Friday. Her recent comeback shows have been described as erratic in terms of content as well as timing, but tight festival schedules don't allow much room for rambling. Will she pull it together in time to kill the Coachella kids with her song?
Reunions of the year: Big Audio Dynamite has reconvened after 20 years. The London Suede are back in action for the first American gig since their reunion. And Death From Above 1979 have come together for the first time since... no, not 1979, but in five years, anyway. Wire have been back making new music and touring for a while, but they still have the buzz-worthiness of a fresher reunion.
Be afraid, but be early: Odd Future, aka OFWGKTA (aka Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All), will surely have one of the most incendiary sets of the weekend. The very young rap collective that one critic at SXSW called "terrifyingly exciting" are sure to have their tent packed beyond the gills Friday afternoon.
The rest: B-listed main-stagers include Cee Lo Green, the Black Keys, Animal Collective, Mumford & Sons, Erykah Badu, the Strokes, Duran Duran, and Wiz Khalifa. Bigger names on the side stages include PJ Harvey, Robyn, the National, the Kills, and Cage the Elephant. A best bet: Scala & the Kolacny Brothers, the girls' choir that brought you that spooky cover of "Creep."
THE BIG 4
Indio, Calif., April 23
The big guns: Metallica, Slayer, Megadeth, and Anthrax. Last year, they briefly toured Europe together, but this is the first time the fantastic four of metal have shared the bill on these shores. Just think how they'll get you in the mood for Easter service the following morning.
The rest: There is no "rest"—either for the wicked, or as in "rest of the festival," at this metal-palooza. The name does not lie: It's just these four bands taking over the Empire Polo Club, with the side stages and tents getting a brief rest between Coachella the previous weekend and Stagecoach the following.
Indio, Calif., April 30-May 1
The big guns: Kenny Chesney is one of the few guys who can still sell out stadiums, but he usually does it on the east coast. You can bet he'll have the same drawing power at a two-day country fest that also includes arena favorites Carrie Underwood and Rascal Flatts as co-headliners. Young bucks Chris Young, Easton Corbin, and Josh Turner add to the main stage firepower.
The veterans: Stagecoach always books some older-timers. The undisputed queen of country, Loretta Lynn, tops that list this year, with Wanda Jackson, Mel Tillis, and the just-country-enough Leon Russell also appearing.
The alt-country-bluegrass festival-within-a-festival: Most attendees never leave the main stage area... which leaves more alternative-minded festivalgoers plenty of elbow room as they traverse what is practically an entirely different festival on the side stages and in the tents. Rest assured that you'll face very little competition from Chesney fans as you catch the alt-country of Rodney Crowell, k.d. lang, and the Secret Sisters or bluegrass from Ricky Skaggs, Jerry Douglas, and Rhonda Vincent.
New Orleans, Louisiana, April 29-May 1 and May 5-8
The big guns: Bon Jovi, Jimmy Buffett, Kid Rock, and Arcade Fire are among the top draws in New Orleans this year. How jazzy is that? Not very? Well, how about the Strokes, Robert Plant, Wilco, and Willie Nelson? No? Well, you have to look toward the lower two-thirds of the bill for this two-weekend fest to live up to its name. But if just one Jon Bon Jovi fan gets turned on to Allen Toussaint, then... well, okay, that'll never happen.
The rest: John Mellencamp, Jeff Beck, Tom Jones, Wyclef Jean, Jamey Johnson, Jason Mraz, Fantasia, and Lucinda Williams add to the eclecticism. How often do you get to see Kenny G and the Decemberists on the same poster?
The actual New Orleans and/or jazzy artists: The Neville Brothers will hold down the local fort, naturally, along with Irma Thomas, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Terence Blanchard, Maceo Parker, and Dr. John with Dave Bartholomew.
The Gorge, Washington, May 27-30
The big guns: Foo Fighters have the biggest feet among Bigfeet here. After that, the headliners are acts who might be in the second tier at a festival like Coachella, Bonnaroo, or even Washington's later-in-summer Bumbershoot—but that's just the way this humbler festival likes it. Look for Death Cab for Cutie, Wilco, Modest Mouse, the Decemberists, Iron & Wine, and Flaming Lips.
The rest: Cute-couple-of-the-moment Jenny & Johnny will charm the pants off local beasts, along with the equally winsome Best Coast, memoirist Bob Mould, the still-reunited Guided by Voices, soul woman Sharon Jones, and Deerhunter, who will hopefully not be slaying any local yeti.
Manchester, Tenn., June 9-12
The big guns: Objectively speaking, this is the one to beat, if you have anything resembling varied tastes. By now, surely you know Bonnaroo is not just for hackeysack players anymore. If you didn't, Eminem's placement at the top of the bill ought to get the message across. Lil Wayne and Wiz Khalifa, too. Among the acts that skew a little closer to the old-school Bonnaroo wheelhouse: Widespread Panic, My Morning Jacket, Robert Plant, Alison Krauss, the Black Keys, Primus, and String Cheese Incident.
Reunion of the year: As of this writing, Bonnaroo's still the only festival to claim the reunited Buffalo Springfield, with Neil Young, Stephen Stills, and Richie Furay. Considering how much tickets for that tour are going for in non-festival venues, you could consider this gig worth the price of admission.
The rest: It's not the Tennessee humidity, it's the heat—of a proudly eclectic bill that includes Florence + the Machine, Mumford & Sons, Big Boi, Bootsy Collins, Girl Talk, Scissor Sisters, Mavis Staples, Bela Fleck, NOFX, Gregg Allman, and Sleigh Bells.
CMA MUSIC FESTIVAL
Nashville, June 9-12
The big guns: Formerly known—in a long distant but fondly remembered era—as Fan Fair, country's biggest annual gathering is anchored by four successive stadium shows. Better to ask which country stars aren't on the lineup. This is the only music festival that gets filmed for a prime-time network special every year. Those playing LP Field this year include Brad Paisley, the Zac Brown Band, Sheryl Crow, Reba, Rascal Flatts, Miranda Lambert, Keith Urban, Lady Antebellum, Trace Adkins, Blake Shelton, Darius Rucker, Sara Evans, Jason Aldean, and Martina McBride.
The rest: The daytime concerts across the river from the stadium at Riverside Park have a much more relaxed vibe, if you don't mind the starpower not being as heavy. But those acts haven't been announced yet.
Pilton, England, June 22-26
The big guns: We're talking really big, as in three acts you probably won't see playing any U.S. festival this year. U2, Coldplay, and Beyonce will each headline a night on the "pyramid stage."
The rest: Acts announced so far for the lower portions of the bill include such diverse attractions as Janelle Monae, Big Boi, Primal Scream, Fleet Foxes, and... B.B. King. Could there be a reprise of Rattle and Hum's Bono/B.B. duet?
DAVE MATTHEWS BAND CARAVAN
Atlantic City, NJ, June 24-26
Chicago, July 8-10
other locations yet to be announced in August, September
The big guns: DMB. As you surmised. Matthews can book stadiums on his own, but this year he's curating a 30-act touring festival that's booked into two eastern cities so far with the promise of more to come. Festival-goers are promised a full (and probably almost entirely different) set by the headliner on each of the three nights they settle into each city.
Matinee performances: The Matthews Band won't be spending their days holed up in a trailer: Fans can look forward to individual daytime sets by band members Carter Beauford, Stefan Lessard, and Matthews himself with perennial partner Tim Reynolds. Hope their dressing rooms are stocked with Red Bull.
The rest: The lineup looks a little like Bonnaroo Mobile, and that's not a bad thing. You get similar enough acts like David Gray, Ray LaMontagne, Amos Lee, and O.A.R., but also more left-field choices like Kid Cudi, Emmylou Harris, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Drive-by Truckers, and a Flaming Lips performance of Dark Side of the Moon.
Milwaukee, June 29-July 3 and July 5-10
The big guns: Milwaukee's 11-stage, 11-day festival draws the biggest annual attendance of any festival. If it doesn't have the national rep or media cachet that other fests do, maybe that's because it doesn't cater to alterna-kids or any other hip/specialty crowd, instead being headlined by primarily mainstream commercial blockbusters—like, at this 40th annual edition: Katy Perry, Sugarland, Kid Rock, Kanye West, Toby Keith, Def Leppard, Hall & Oates, Meat Loaf, Jason Aldean, and Peter Gabriel.
The rest: With 11 stages to fill, they don't ignore the little guys. Alejandro Escovedo, the Jayhawks, Amos Lee, and Raphael Saadiq are among those booked, though most of the non-superstar acts haven't been announced.
Chicago, July 15-17
The big guns: This doesn't have quite the commercial firepower of Lollapalooza, which hits Chicago just a few weeks later. But you won't find the indie kids objecting when the nightly headliners have the cred of Animal Collective, Fleet Foxes, and TV on the Radio.
The rest: The lower regions of the lineup will be most familiar to—surprise!—Pitchfork readers, though there are some more familiar names like Neko Case, Guided by Voices, Deerhunter, and the rappers of the moment, OFWGKTA.
Chicago, August 5-7
The big guns: Who'll be bringing 'em in to Grant Park this August? We won't know for sure till the lineup is officially announced April 26. That hasn't stopped a usually reliable source, Chicago Tribune music critic Greg Kot, from going on record as saying that Eminem, Foo Fighters, and Muse will be among the headliners.
San Francisco, Aug. 12-14
The big guns: If you need your Phish phix this summer, San Francisco is the place to be, as the band is scheduled for two full sets. Also on the SF A-list are a lot of usual suspects being seen elsewhere on the festival circuit this summer, including Arcade Fire, Muse, the Black Keys, Erykah Badu, Big Audio Dynamite, and the Decemberists... and some names that don't show up as often, like California boy John Fogerty.
READING & LEEDS FESTIVAL (UK)
Reading and Leeds, England, Aug. 26-28
The big guns: This venerable two-city British festival hews toward a fairly orthodox alt-rock standard, with headliners My Chemical Romance, the Strokes, and Pulp... along with Muse doing their 2001 album Origin of Symmetry in its entirety.
The rest: They do seem to like their Yanks over there, with a bill rounded out so far largely by the American-rock likes of Taking Back Sunday, Jimmy Eat World, Thirty Seconds to Mars, Rise Against, the Offspring, and Jane's Addiction.
Seattle, Sept. 3-5
The lineup isn't due till "late spring," according to the festival website—which encourages speculation with a "You Pick 'Em: Predict Bumbershoot 2011" page. We know the festival takes place Labor Day, but that guessing game seems a little too labor-intensive.
AUSTIN CITY LIMITS
Austin, Sept. 16-18
"Badges? We don't need no stinking badges." This Austin festival is free from the tiered entitlement of the spring SXSW gathering in the same city, with venues decidedly on the more spacious side. The lineup won't be announced till late spring, but last year's ACL fest included acts as diverse as the Eagles and Sonic Youth.
no dates yet
Is it even happening? Sources claiming inside knowledge have said that deals are being negotiated with potential acts, but some fans are worried that it's getting too late in the year to pull off the enormity of a touring festival without headliners and venues already locked into place. We'll have to wait and see whether some version of Sabbath rises fro the grave yet again, or whether Sharon Osbourne is too consumed with The Talk to talk business with metal bands.