Cut a rug – or score a nosh – at these weekend-oriented seasonal gatherings.You know the saying, “It’s always happy hour somewhere”? The same could be said for that fleeting, fun-filled time of year known as “festival season.”
Full disclosure: I’m a bit of a festival junkie. There are few things in life that amp me up more than getting together with a few thousand people to engage in a willy-nilly spectacle of consumption, be it music, food or a regulated beverage of some sort.
One of the things I find enticing about festivals is their geo-sensitive quality, i.e. you have to be in the right place at the right time to find them. In the Valley, our festival season is during the cooler so-called “shoulder months” of March and April. For agrarian communities, festival season coincides with harvest, in the fall. For our friends in the antipodes, it’s December-January – their summer.
But for most of the U.S., festival season resides where you most expect to find it: the classic summer months of June, July, August and sometimes May. That includes the Arizona high country and other regional Southwest spots you might be considering for light summer travel. So here are 10 weekender-type festival getaways.
Celebrating its sixth year, this three-day counterculture hoedown has one of the more interesting origin stories on our list. It began as a humble album-release party for the L.A.-based band Hundred Waters, who wanted a novel venue at which to unveil their new record. Their choice: architect Paolo Soleri’s still-inhabited, 1970s-era eco-compound in the Verde Valley desert, which happens to boast an amphitheater with some pretty bitchin’ acoustics.
“Initially, it was just going to be us [performing],” drummer and festival producer Zach Tetreault recalls. “But people loved the idea so much, some of our friends’ [bands] offered to drive out and play, too. And it was such a great time that we did it the next year, too.” And the year after that. And the year after that.
Ultimately, FORM evolved into a ticketed music and cultural festival with multiple stages and 40-plus bands. The 2018 lineup is an indie-rock pipe dream, headlined by ethereal Baltimore synth-rockers Beach House, Aussie slack-folk crooner Courtney Barnett and festival heavy Chance the Rapper. Amusingly, celeb offspring Willow “Whip My Hair” Smith is also on the ticket.
Attendees have compared FORM to Burning Man, and yes, there is a blissed-out, free-expression vibe at the festival – along with morning yoga and plenty of scandalously clad millennials – but ultimately it’s a rock show. And a good one. FORM has earned favorable write-ups in the New York Times and Rolling Stone, lending an oft-overlooked part of the Arizona high county some overdue attention.
Recommended accessory: A romper. And a tent. There’s on-site camping.
Joshua Tree Music FestivalMay 17-20
Joshua Tree, California
Dubbed “a family-friendly global music experience” by organizers, this roots/folk/jam-centric fest in the California desert also features rides and play areas for kids, and yoga for the fitness-minded. But the biggest draw has got to be Joshua Tree itself, one of the most stirring desert landscapes in the Southwest.
Recommended accessory: Tie-dyed scarf that smells faintly of bong-water.
Napa Valley, California
Quietly, a wine-country promotion company called Jam Cellars has cultivated a three-day mega-festival that rivals the Coachella Music and Arts Festival in volume and sheer quality of its music acts. Headliners Muse, The Killers and Bruno Mars are backed up by a strong second string, including Earth, Wind & Fire, Billy Idol and Phantogram. There’s also a strong food and beverage program, including – naturally – a wine garden.
Recommended accessory: Galoshes for the on-site grape stomp.
Talk about gilding the festival lily. On June 9, three of Flagstaff’s coolest, most audience-friendly summer festivals – Flagstaff Blues & Brews (flagstaffblues.com), the Made in the Shade beer festival (azbeer.com) and the Route 66 Chili Cookoff – will all occur on the same day, which typically isn’t the case. It might be possible to pack all three into one furious 24-hour romp of beer, music and spicy cowboy food, but take out a life insurance policy first.
Recommended accessory: Tums.
Showing real savvy and audience awareness, the organizers of this high-country indie film showcase – held at Yavapai College – sneak in a modest wine-tasting program alongside the main event. Call it a festival within a festival. And it makes perfect sense, given the college’s rising viticulture and enology program.
Recommended accessory: A monocle, so when you’re sipping your wine and watching your art film, people will take you seriously.
Heber City, Utah
Held on the banks of the Provo River in northern Utah, this midsize music festival offers definite venue-value, with the scenic Wasatch Mountains to the west and the towering Uinta range to the east. So if you see only one music festival in a sun-dappled river valley this summer, make it Bonanza. The lineup is tidy but appealing, with melancholy sex priestess Halsey and tribe-rock standouts Local Natives prominently billed.
Recommended accessory: Your May copy of PHOENIX, should you decide to explore the Wasatches.
Arroyo Seco Weekend
Feeling like heading to L.A. this summer? Harbor a yen for Boomer rock legends and aging indie-rock Gen X acts? Whoa Nelly, do we have a festival for you. Neil Young, Jack White, The Pretenders, Kings of Leon, Robert Plant, Alanis Morissette, Violent Femmes and, yes, The Bangles will all play to the delight of retired dentists and soccer moms on a grassy flat outside the Rose Bowl.
Recommended accessory: Sweatshirt.
San Marcos, Texas
Sure, it’s a bit far… but this thing is just so Texas, we had to include it. The concept: Your ticket purchase for the two-day festival comes with tubing passes. Each morning, you redeem a tubing pass and float down the San Marcos River to the Cool River Ranch amphitheater, at which point you’re free to enjoy the music, pard’ner. Our inner sunburnt, 24-year-old, Natty Lite fan is so into this, bro. Someone should do it at our own Salt River.
Recommended accessory: If you’re not wearing cutoffs, people might think you’re a communist.
Payson Food Truck Festival
You shouldn’t have to drive all the way to Payson to find a decent coterie of food trucks – and you don’t, in fact. There are plenty of credible food truck events in the Valley. So think of a visit to cool, mountainous, swimming-hole-dotted Payson as added value. Vendors will include meat pie purveyor The Lava Pit, Udder Delights ice cream and about two dozen mobile eats units, and a beer garden curated by THAT Brewery.
Recommended accessory: Swimsuits for Ellison Creek swimming hole.
Music Tastes Good
Long Beach, California
Our final festival rec slips past the summer window a bit, but with “bands, chefs and ooey-gooey goodness” in the offing, as the promoters promise, how could we resist? Respected indie music acts Ween, Sleater-Kinney and Sylvan Esso have played the festival, but it’s the ambitious food program that sets it apart, with the stars of the West Coast culinary scene plating their stuff, including Portland, Oregon, barbecue hot spot Lardo.
Recommended accessory: Ball cap.
Visiting Yavapai County for FORM or Prescott Film Festival? Make a Cottonwood side trip and take these hospitality tips with you.
Best Meal Value: Merkin Vineyards Tasting Room & Osteria
Arizona wine pioneer and elusive rocker Maynard James Keenan’s new tasting room in Old Town Cottonwood also has a tidy food menu (that’s the “osteria” part) featuring some of the most luscious bruschetta in Arizona, plus a selection of modestly priced handmade pasta dishes that put more expensive nearby restaurants to shame.
Best Alternate Hotel Option: Pines Motel
Naturally, you should stay in one of the cool, vintage Old Town hotels – e.g. The Iron Horse Inn, The Tavern Hotel, Cottonwood Hotel – but if they’re in “no vacancy” mode, as is often the case, check out this pleasant, reasonably priced ($130/night) motel on the hill just up the highway. Clean, spacious rooms with kitchenettes make for a nice fallback.
One in a flourishing cluster of tasting rooms in Old Town, this friendly and efficient front for Eric Glomski’s seminal wine label boasts an unbeatable variety of white, red and white-red-hybrid flights, with five generous pours each and a fair smattering of top-shelf selections.