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Pack your bags: Our top festival picks in America are worth the trip

Words: Dan Hyman
Photography: Roger Ho, Austin City Limits

We pinpointed the places we think are a cut above the rest. From a fit-for-foodies festival to another that’s always finding the next breaking act, here are our picks for America’s best music festivals.

Best Food: Austin City Limits

1. When attending a music festival in 2017, you’d best go hungry. Nearly every big-tent fest is now offering up killer cuisine, but none do it better than Austin City Limits. Held annually in Zilker Park over two consecutive three-day weekends in October, ACL is a foodie’s paradise. “There’s an ever-growing foodie craze,” says the fest’s vendor operations manager, Kevin Noonan, “and we’re happy to bring that into the festival circuit.”  

Drawn almost exclusively from a local pool of restaurants — including iconic spots like Trudy’s and the Salt Lick — every food vendor onsite at ACL has a brick-and-mortar store, food truck or a major presence in the local farmers’ market scene. And the food includes more than just Tex-Mex and BBQ; at ACL, you can throw back organic lemonade and local grass-fed burgers in equal measure. According to Noonan, the application process for vendors is very competitive.

“We don’t want people to have to leave the festival grounds to get a taste of the best Austin cuisine,” he says. “We want the vendors that the locals from Austin are proud to see represented. It’s exciting to be able to showcase all these types of cuisines at ACL.”

October 6-8 and 13-15, Austin, Texas   

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Best Location: The Hangout Festival 

2. Let’s face it: Not every gathering can be the Hangout Festival. Why? It’s the most undeniably ideal setting for a music festival anywhere. Straddling the Alabama-Florida border, this annual beach throwdown (headlined this year by Mumford & Sons, Twenty One Pilots, Frank Ocean and Chance the Rapper) is a massive music festival doubling as a vacation in paradise. “The beach is the real headliner,” says fest director Sean O’Connell. “There’s no denying it.” 

To that end, everything is designed to complement this spectacular backdrop, but it’s the small touches that make Hangout’s location so ideal: Fans can watch their favorite performers from pools located inside the fest, make use of private beach clubs or even head to Camp Hangout, complete with Slip ’N Slides and water-gun fights. “Everybody is having these pure moments of joy,” O’Connell says, “because there’s not a lot of a distraction.” 

The average fest attendee turns Hangout into a true getaway by staying at a beachside hotel or condo and sipping drinks poolside before heading to the festival grounds. “You’re literally on vacation,” O’Connell says. “You throw on your shorts and your bathing suit and you just go down the street and you’re at a music festival. It’s a real reprieve.”

May 19-21, Gulf Shores, Alabama 

hangout festival

You can’t get any closer to the beach at the Hangout Festival in Gulf Shores, Alabama. 

© Oliver Walker

Best Community: The Newport Folk Festival 

3. Craving a music festival where the community is the top priority? At the Newport Folk Festival, everyone is on a mission to generate tolerance and good vibes. The longest-running musical festival in the US — “Ten years older than Woodstock,” as producer Jay Sweet notes proudly — Newport Folk is renowned for creating an environment where the artists and fans are equally at home. For the artists, that means taking chances on stage with other performers and mingling with the fans as well. “I’ve never seen more artists get off the stage and come into the audience than at Newport,” Sweet says, recalling Patti Smith casually strolling through the crowd after her performance. “There’s a sense of family and collaboration. It’s about being immediate and present.”  

Some of the most historic bands have played Newport Folk — from Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan to Led Zeppelin — but the lineup isn’t what brings the crowds. Newport sells out every year before the lineup is even announced, Sweet explains, because there’s no fourth wall between the artist and the audience. “Newport’s motto is ‘Let’s Bring it to the People,’” he says. “And that has been the guiding force for every decision we make.”

July 28-30, Newport, Rhode Island 

newport, alabama shakes

Brittany Howard of Alabama Shakes performs at Newport Folk.

© Brian Lima

Best Mood: Bonnaroo

4. Bonnaroo stands as one of the largest festivals on the planet, most notoriously known for its good times. But the annual 80,000-attendee blowout in Manchester, Tennessee, is also the most fan-friendly, laid-back event with the most relaxing vibes. “It’s all about creating an atmosphere of self-care and chilling out,” says the festival’s sustainability coordinator, Laura Sohn. To that end, ’Roo is dedicated to giving its attendees every opportunity to kick back. From 10 campground pods that feature interactive art projects to barns with human foosball, the mellow mood is omnipresent on the Farm. “Whether someone has been once or 15 times they jump right into that spirit,” says Sohn. “It’s really special.” And whether you’re in the Grove area full of hammocks and chill lighting or participating in one the massive yoga classes onsite, you can be sure everyone there will be abiding by the unofficial Bonnaroovian Code. 

“It’s very basic but it’s how we expect people to act on the Farm,” Sohn says of the fan-driven rules of engagement that include mantras like “Play as a Team” and “Radiate Positivity.” “Above all,” Sohn says, “it’s very important to us to make sure people are having a good experience the whole time they’re there.” Mission accomplished.

June 8-11, Manchester, Tennessee 

Chance The Rapper performs onstage at Silent Disco during Day 4 of the 2016 Bonnaroo Arts And Music Festival.

© Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic

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Best Design: Electric Forest

5. Electric Forest operates by a simple but profound mantra: Every part of the festival is a cultural art piece. “We’re creating a constantly evolving dream environment,” says founder Jeremy Stein of the psychedelic visual mind trip in central Michigan that is Electric Forest. “It’s like a painting that everyone’s been working on for a long time.” The music at Electric Forest is always top-notch (this year’s headliners include the String Cheese Incident, Bassnectar and Odesza), but it’s the mind-blowing stage designs that are, as Stein says, “the centerpieces” of the festival. These designs change every year, from art deco and Asian-inspired to massive LED walls and diamond chandeliers. 

Lighting and sound are also a top priority for fest organizers: Stein says he and his team views each stage — from the Ranch Arena main stage to the more recently added Jubilee stage — as both day and nighttime performance spaces. “The versatility is very important,” he says. Best of all, Electric Forest goes to great lengths to work in tandem with the artists to create an ideal environment to perform. “We try to find a middle ground for everyone involved,” Stein says. “That’s the extra mile that not every fest takes.”

June 22-25 and June 29-July 2, Rothbury, Michigan 

electric forest

Electric Forest Festival

© Bennet Sell-Kline

Best Booking: Lollapalooza 

6. When your music fest is one of the world’s most iconic, there’s pressure to deliver the goods each year. For Huston Powell, who has been booking the musical acts for Lollapalooza every year since 2005, it’s a challenge he relishes. “We fret over every spot on the lineup grid,” he says. “It doesn’t always work, but when it does it feels great.” Powell is being humble: For more than two decades Lollapalooza has consistently delivered some of the best lineups of any festival. Some of the biggest acts on the planet — from Radiohead and Eminem to the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Jack White — have all played the fest in recent years, but Lolla is also a breeding ground for up-and-coming acts. “We’re always trying to stay on top of music trends and provide an eclectic mix of acts,” Powell says. “We want it to be a showcase of interesting hot music of the times.” 

Booking nearly a year ahead, one of Powell’s principal challenges is predicting what will be hot the following summer. “We have a lot of tools at our disposal,” he says of a trusted network of tastemakers who help him discover acts like Lady Gaga, Twenty One Pilots and Ellie Goulding, all of whom appeared at Lolla years before breaking big. Above all, Powell says his job is to honor the festival’s rich tradition. “We’re very cognizant of the history of Lollapalooza,” he says. “It’s truly been an evolutionary process.”

August 3-6, Chicago 

miike snow

Miike Snow perfoms at Lollapalooza.

© Maclay Heriot

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