Outdoor rock festivals are bigger and better than ever

by Chris Riemenschneider

Star Tribune (Minneapolis) (MCT)

18 April 2008


It looked as if the demand for giant outdoor rock festivals went up in flames (literally) with Woodstock `99, the fest that notoriously became known as three days of overflowing porta-potties, overpriced pizza and oversold campgrounds.

Behemoth rock festivals, however, quickly bounced back. There are more of them than ever nationwide now, from big-kahuna events such as Coachella and Bonnaroo to terrific copycats like Austin City Limits and Chicago’s revamp of Lollapalooza.

Several ambitious new rockathons are entering the landscape this summer, including All Points West in New Jersey and Outside Lands in San Francisco.

“The festivals themselves have gotten better and better, and fans have responded favorably,” said Charles Attal, co-founder of C3 Presents, which books Lollapalooza and Austin City Limits. Ticket sales for both were up this year, even before the lineups were announced, he said.

For a lot of 20- and 30-something fans, these outdoor events have become anchors to plan vacations around (and blow their savings on).

“It’s about the whole experience as much as it is the music,” said Kevin Jewitt, 31, a data analyst from Minneapolis who figures he spent about $1,000 to travel to Indio, Calif., for last year’s Coachella festival.

Tickets to Coachella start at $90 for a one-day pass and reach up to $269 for three days, comparable to most fests. Despite the cost, Jewitt not only plans to hit Coachella again this year, but also Lollapalooza.

“I think a lot of people go to (a festival) just to say they’ve done it,” he said, “and they wind up having so much fun they do it again and again while they still can, before they have families or too many other demands.”

Lollapalooza, in particular, has become a big draw for Midwestern fans because of its Chicago location. Originally a traveling, multi-band concert like the Warped Tour, the event went out of business for several years before it was recast as a three-day destination in 2005. It now draws about 60,000 attendees per day.

“The atmosphere was great,” raved Drew Bryan, 21, a St. John’s University student from Eden Prairie, Minn., who attended Lolla last year and loved being “able to see tons of awesome bands and hang out with people who are all looking to have a good time.”

Bryan was able to shave his Lolla costs to about $400 by crashing at a friend’s house and taking the train into town. However, the trend at most major festivals is to actually go more high-end. For hefty prices, organizers are offering fans ways around the two big deterrents at these fests: enormous crowds and unpredictable weather (either sweltering heat or sheets of rain).

Bonnaroo, for instance, sells VIP packages for two people for $1,170, which includes upgraded showers, food buffets and bleacher seats for the music. Coachella now offers $700-$4,000 “premium camping” packages complete with airbeds and air-conditioned tents.

“The range of our clientele is expanding, and we want our events to be just as great an experience for the people who want a little more,” said Attal, whose Lollapalooza notoriously offered private “cabanas” for 30 to 40 people for $32,500. “The extras are there if you want them, but if not, they don’t drive up any other costs,” he said.

Even before the buzz of a U.S. economic recession, there was talk that the festival market might soon reach overload. Attal’s company put off its inaugural Vineland festival in New Jersey until next year because Coachella organizer Golden Voice planned All Points West around the same time and place this year.

“We won’t know until the end of this year if the market is starting to oversaturate,” Attal said, “but we’re still planning to go full steam ahead.”

Whether or not the demand for festivals fades, there’s an abundance of festivals this summer. Here’s a rundown of what to expect at the biggest ones to know if they’re right for you.

April 25-27

Where: Indio, Calif. (near Palm Springs).

Who’s playing: Roger Waters, Portishead, Jack Johnson, Kraftwerk, the Verve, the Raconteurs, Death Cab for Cutie, Love & Rockets, Justice, M.I.A., My Morning Jacket, Fatboy Slim.

Who it’s for: Fans of indie rock, electronic and British music. Coachella tries to be the edgiest/trendiest of the U.S. megafests, but with Waters and Johnson headlining, it’s trying to sell tickets, too. Its penchant for reunion gigs (Kraftwerk, the Verve) also suits nostalgic fans.

What it’s like: Scenic and spacious, the setting is a would-be oasis (actually, overfertilized polo fields) amid the California desert, with the San Jacinto Mountains as backdrop. This is the one fest very careful about crowd control, cleanup and comfort. There are two big stages, plus a few dance tents and smaller stages.

Accommodations: On-site camping and (new this year) premium camping. Lots of hotels are nearby, and in-and-out access is fairly easy.

Info: www.coachella.com.

New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival
April 27-30 and May 1-4

Who’s playing: Stevie Wonder, Billy Joel, Al Green, Raconteurs, O.A.R., Sheryl Crow, Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, the Roots, Elvis Costello, Dirty Dozen, Dr. John, the Bad Plus.

Who it’s for: Rock fans who dig into the roots, and/or people who simply like to party New Orleans-style (full bellies, sweaty pits).

What it’s like: The eight Jazz Fest stages (four under tents) are neatly laid out around the horse track at the NOLA fairgrounds, and they’re booked by genre: blues, gospel, jazz, zydeco, etc. The food stands are as big a draw as the stages. Party ends by 7 p.m., but then moves to the clubs.

Accommodations: Hotels only, and they fill up fast (especially post-Katrina).

Info: www.nojazzfest.com.

June 12-15

Where: Manchester, Tenn.

Who’s playing: Metallica, Pearl Jam, Kanye West, Jack Johnson, Willie Nelson, Cat Power, Phil Lesh & Friends, My Morning Jacket and, lo and behold, the Raconteurs.

Who it’s for: Basically, anyone with a Rolling Stone subscription who also likes to camp and doesn’t mind crowds (with 80,000 people daily, it’s usually tops among U.S. fests). Fans of Southern/Americana styles and jam bands get a better fix here than at the others.

What it’s like: Set on fertile, tree-lined ranchland south of Nashville, Bonnaroo has the most out-there, middle-of-nowhere site of the big fests. Throw in its psychedelic decor and an occasional rainstorm, and you probably have the nearest thing to the (original) Woodstock experience.

Accommodations: Mostly camping. Hotels are 10 to 30 miles away and not easy to get to (unless you get a pricey VIP package with shuttle).

Info: www.bonnaroo.com.

Aug. 1-3

Where: Grant Park in downtown Chicago.

Who’s playing: Radiohead, Kanye West, Wilco, Rage Against the Machine, Nine Inch Nails, Gnarls Barkley and ... the Raconteurs

Who it’s for: Rock hipsters who prefer downtown hotels to campgrounds.

What it’s like: Imagine Coachella dropped in the middle of Chicago, with the city skyline replacing the mountains. If Lake Michigan’s breeze doesn’t keep things cool enough, you can duck into the Art Institute or Field Museum a few blocks away to get out of the sun.

Accommodations: Hotels only. On-site parking is pricey, so look for spots close to Grant Park or near a train.

Info: www.lollapalooza.com.

Austin City Limits
Sept. 26-28

Where: Austin, Texas.

Who’s playing: Lineup TBA, but can we count on the Raconteurs?

Who’s it for: Lovers of Austin’s Texan-bohemian charm or late-planners who missed the other big fests.

What’s it like: Held in Zilker Park across Town Lake from downtown, it offers a nice mish-mash of Coachella, Bonnaroo and Jazz Fest, with some country and roots-music acts rounding out alterna-rockers and jam bands. And like Jazz Fest, the food stands are deliciously local.

Accommodations: Hotels only, many within walking distance.

Info: www.aclfestival.com.

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