Festival Season Sampler

Written by Craig Outhier Category: Travel Issue: March 2014
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In my former life as a childless spendthrift, I had a pretty messy festival habit. Rock festivals, food festivals, craft beer festivals, counterculture art confabs in the Nevada desert – I did them all, from California to North Carolina. And on a reporter's salary, no less. Thank you, Chase Visa.

But debt is wisdom, in this case. As we spring into spring, festivals big and small are hatching all over the Southwest and nearby environs. So I've thumb-nailed a handy five-month calendar of events for PHOENIX magazine readers, drawing on my hard-bitten festival wisdom.

Disclaimer: The festival "scene" isn't for everyone, particularly folks who like their entertainment, food and drink in modest, reasonable portions. Modesty and reasonability are antithetical to the festival philosophy. To generously paraphrase Baudelaire: "You must always be drunk... Wine, yoga or rock 'n' roll, as you wish. But be drunk."

My memories of Mardi Gras in New Orleans in 2005 are admittedly pretty hazy. Flashes, really. I remember wandering through the Quarter, trading beads and cigarettes for brief acts of bodily exposure, as is the sacred custom. At one point or another, I stepped in a rain-clogged gutter. Mud up to my knee. Breaking a French door. Whiskey. Beignets. Sleep. Yes, it was a fine time. Less a festival than a multi-day group bender with a few floats and parades that seem to come and go while most people are sleeping off the previous night in their hotel rooms, New Orleans Mardi Gras is a glorious hot mess. It falls on March 4 this year, but the bon temps start the previous weekend (February 29-March 2). It should be on your bucket list if you're not in AA.

The other national-profile festival in March is South by Southwest (March 7-16, sxsw.com) in Austin, Texas. Founded in 1987, SXSW is actually a small galaxy of events rolled into one: a music festival, a film festival and an "interactive" trade show and conference where thousands of self-styled social media gurus convene to Tweet each other's praises. If the social media stuff sounds like medieval torture to you, know that the music festival portion of SXSW is one of the country's best-regarded indie music events, with roughly 2,200 sanctioned acts playing in venues throughout Austin.

CLOSER TO HOME: Ne-Yo, Patti LaBelle, Smokey Robinson and the Isley Brothers headline the Arizona Jazz Festival (March 7-9, arizonajazzfestival.com) at the Arizona Grand Resort & Spa in Phoenix.

Las Cruces Country Music Festival in Las Cruces, N.M.

The U.S. music mega-festival season symbolically begins with the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival (April 11-13 and April 18-20, coachella.com) in Indio, Calif. Staged on a vast polo field about three hours by car from Phoenix, this 15-year-old indie music event pioneered the model for the modern, talent-swollen, multi-stage indie rock festival. Coachella always strikes an appealing balance between old and new: Recent heritage headliners have included Paul McCartney, Roger Waters and Prince, while modern breakthrough artists have included Arcade Fire (who headline this year), MGMT and Phoenix. Country music fest Stagecoach (April 25-27, stagecoachfestival.com) is like Coachella's boot-scootin' cousin – it has the same promoter as Coachella and takes place on the same polo field a week after the mothership departs. 2014 acts include Eric Church, Jason Aldean and Luke Bryan.

If you skipped the Big Easy's Mardi Gras, maybe New Orleans Jazz Fest & Heritage Festival will toot your trombone (April 24-May 4, nojazzfest.com). Once strictly jazz- and blues-oriented, the festival has broadened its palette over the years to include classic rockers (Eric Clapton), pop sirens (Christina Aguilera), indie darlings (Arcade Fire) and stoner jam bands (Phish). Also in late April is the Las Cruces Country Music Festival (April 24-27, lccountryfest.com) in southern New Mexico. A funky town of 100,000 about an hour north of El Paso, Las Cruces sits in a scenic valley filled with arroyos and cotton fields, and makes an intriguing spring road trip option. 2014 headliners include the Charlie Daniels Band, Bri Bagwell and Cassadee Pope.

CLOSER TO HOME: Arizona's own Country Thunder (April 10-13, countrythunder.com) is a lot closer for Valley residents than its mid-summer sister event in Twin Lakes, Wisconsin (July 24-27). Confirmed 2014 Arizona acts include Thompson Square, Melissa Lambert and The Band Perry.

The month of May is replete with Arizona high-country food fests and niche events. Get the jump on Cinco de Mayo at the Flagstaff Fiesta Tequila & Taco Festival (May TBD, pepsiamp.com), a food-and-music bacchanal staged at Flag's Pepsi Amphitheater. Past music acts have included Roger Clyne and the Peacemakers, reggae star Maxi Priest and funk mainstays War. Or drive a little farther north and be the first kid on your block to attend the Kingman Food and Wine Festival (May 17, kingmanwinefestival.com), a 4-year-old event that aims to demonstrate Kingman has more to offer than chicken-fried steak and truck-stop waffles. If you prefer a southbound trip, the Tucson Folk Festival (May 3-4, tkma.org) will bring together more than 100 strumming James Taylor-ites at several stages near the Old Pueblo's Alameda Street. Now in its 29th year, TFF is more than just Woodstock regulars singing about train tramps and Mother Earth – there's a children's show, a musical workshop and a young artists' stage.

CLOSER TO HOME: Presented by SanTan Brewing, the Ameri-Can Canned Craft Beer Festival (May TBD, cannedcraftbeerfest.com) is one of the Valley's last viable outdoor events of the spring before the weather turns.

Festival-goers perfect their poses at Wanderlust, a music/yoga hybrid.JUNE
On a national level, June is likely the busiest month for festivals. It brings Bonnaroo (June 12-15, bonnaroo.com), my favorite big-ticket music fest for its great headliners, nonexistent curfew and well-programmed comedy stage. Be forewarned: Bonnaroo, staged in the sultry heat of Manchester, Tennessee on a massive field of scrub and dust, will require you to get in touch with your inner dirty hippie. In exchange, attendees usually get to enjoy at least one epic on-stage meltdown every year. (Our bet for 2014: Big Boi from Outkast.) June is also the traditional calendar home of Hugh Hefner's Playboy Jazz Festival (June 13, playboyjazzfestival.com) at the Hollywood Bowl; the Telluride Bluegrass Festival (June 19-22, bluegrass.com) in Colorado; and the notorious Electric Daisy Carnival in Las Vegas (June 20-22, electricdaisycarnival.com), where 100,000 energetic young adults gyrate wildly to rhythmic noise that previous generations would associate with malfunctioning washing machines.

June is also a stacked month for food festivals, including the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, Colorado (June 20-22, foodandwine.com), an epicurean pipe dream of food classes, cook-offs and tastings that features culinary stars like Vegas legend Jose Andres (Picasso) and TV plate-to-mouth stuntman Andrew Zimmern.

CLOSER TO HOME: Arizona high country boasts two craft beer events in June: the Mile High Brewfest in Prescott (June TBD, milehighbrewfest.com), benefiting the Boys & Girls Club of Arizona; and Flagstaff's always-outstanding Made in the Shade Beer Festival (June TBD, azbeer.com), benefiting your opportunity to put on a funny hat and get thick on 24 beer tastings. For banjo-heads, the Sedona Bluegrass Festival (July 7-8, sedonabluegrass.com) hunkers down at Los Abrigados Resort and Spa.

We've always maintained that July is a faaaaabulous time to take a vacation from triple-digit Valley heat. Fortunately, the month also holds ample and diverse festival appeal. Art enthusiasts can enthuse to their hearts' content at the Sante Fe International Folk Art Market (July 11-13, folkartmarket.org), one of the world's most copious collections of native and indigenous crafts, from Nigerian batik fabric art to Peruvian filigree earrings. For the more body-focused, Wanderlust – a worldwide series of festivals combining all-day yoga classes and music concerts – will make landfall in Squaw Peak near Lake Tahoe (July 17-20, wanderlustfestival.com).

If downward-facing dog and DJs are simply too much for your brain to handle, there's the more traditional brew-and-music pairing of Mammoth Festival of Beers and Bluesapalooza (July 31 – August 3, mammothbluesbrewsfest.com), a four-day chillfest near Yosemite National Park. Joan Osborne and John Hammond are among the confirmed headliners on the music side; Epic Brewing and Firestone Walker will anchor the beer side.

CLOSER TO HOME: Get thee to Arizona wine country for HarvestFest (July TBD, sonoitavineyards.com), where wine tastings, food pairings and live music will bid you make merry. Held at Sonoita Vineyards in Elgin.


Former East Valley Tribune columnist and current L.A.-based booze writer Dan Dunn ("Living Loaded") names his three favorite Southwest beer fests.
Big Bear Lake Oktoberfest in Big Bear Lake, Calif. (October TBD): "A gorgeous place to get utterly tanked in."
Made in the Shade in Flagstaff (June TBD): "Just a great vibe. I remember one year we went and there was a pile-up on the I-17. Total gridlock. So people started pulling out coolers and playing music. And that was before the fest even started! Talk about a welcome reprieve from the heat." azbeer.com
Great American Beer Festival in Denver, Colo. (October TBD): "It's basically the Nobel Prize of beer. Kind of a zoo, though." greatamericanbeerfestival.com