The 10 Best Music Festivals of 2018

Music Lists Best of 2018
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The 10 Best Music Festivals of 2018

People seem to take one of two stances when it comes to music festivals. As with some divisive bands (Def Leppard, The 1975 probably), you either love ’em or hate ’em. Most of us here at Paste fall into the first category when it comes to festivals. Yes, music festivals are dirty and slimy, and portable toilets are universally detested, but, sometimes, they’re worth tolerating—even embracing—for just a few days. If you can survive all the sweat, insanely high beer prices and smells of cannabis wafting through the air, you’re sure to be granted a series of memorable moments. Festivals are all about moments—sprinting, out of breath, to catch your second-favorite band while still on a high from seeing your first-favorite band; seeing someone wearing the same My Morning Jacket t-shirt as you; bumping into a member of Moon Taxi at the pizza stand. Music festivals are where people who love live music—more often than not, the same types of music—congregate and worship. Love ’em or hate ’em, they were an important aspect of live music in 2018, and they provided us with tons of moments we’re sure to be talking about for years. Here are Paste’s 10 favorite festivals of the year, listed in alphabetical order.

1. AMERICANAFEST

Decisions, decisions. That’s what AMERICANAFEST entails. Granted, it doesn’t quite have the spread or sprawl of South By Southwest, but given the depth and breadth of venues and variety Nashville offers, it’s quickly catching up. The uninitiated may be daunted by the need to strategize; multiple concerts and showcases take place simultaneously throughout the six-day fest, but, ultimately, given the incredible array of icons and up-and-coming contenders who take part, it’s best to celebrate the shows one does see, rather than lament those missed due to continuing conflicts. Indeed, unless one can clone one’s self, there’s simply no way to see even a fraction of the hundreds of artists appearing on the dozens of different stages spread across the various environs of Music City. That said, there’s little or no divide between artist and audience, and easy access for a quick hello is generally assured. Likewise, the Awards Ceremony is a must-see treat, offering ample opportunity to catch any number of luminaries sharing kudos at one memorable and magical event. Likewise, with folks from 49 of the 50 states and some 14 countries worldwide, credit the Americana Music Association with doing a superb job of bringing Americana enthusiasts together under a big umbrella. —Lee Zimmerman

2. Austin City Limits

The first weekend of Austin City Limits Music Festival was an absolute scorcher—both in terms of the exceptionally hot weather and the sizzling performances. Nearly every act commented on the heat, but shockingly, none seemed fazed by it. A recurring theme was support for Beto O’Rourke with stickers, pins and t-shirts galore with several organizations onsite registering people to vote. Though we live in dire times with deep rage and division, day one of Austin City Limits was a much needed kick of serotonin with standout performances from Paul McCartney, Alvvays, David Byrne and Big Thief. The sets from day two were even more potent and urgent given the news of Judge Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court. Fittingly, day two was dominated by powerful, uncompromising female acts like St. Vincent, Chvrches, Japanese Breakfast, The Breeders, Sharon Van Etten and more. Day two appearances by headliners Metallica and Deftones meant a sea of tattoo sleeves and black t-shirts, which showed a noble devotion to traditional hard rock and heavy metal garb in spite of the hot weather. When Childish Gambino pulled out of his day three headline slot, the festival gave the opening to Travis Scott while also adding French rockers Phoenix to the Honda Stage to beef up the lineup. Arctic Monkeys headlined the Honda Stage and unsurprisingly drew a crowd size comparable to that of Travis Scott. Arctic Monkeys and Phoenix put on galvanizing, career-spanning performances while the rest of Sunday’s sets were also some of the best of ACL’s opening weekend: Janelle Monae, Shame, Amen Dunes and Parquet Courts. —Lizzie Manno

3. Folk Alliance

There was a time when the idea of a folk music festival would conjure up images of Birkenstocks, peace signs, campfire chorales of “Kumbaya,” and folks who resembled stunt doubles for Peter, Paul and Mary. Thankfully, Folk Alliance International has broken with that stereotype, and while the old guard was duly represented at this past year’s gathering in Kansas City by the Kingston Trio, Ronnie Cox and the occasional solo sojourner, the influence of Americana and an influx of singer/songwriter type made for a decidedly contemporary confab. Literally hundreds of artists descended on the Westin, the host hotel, taking over both exhibition rooms and, during after hours, three floors of guest rooms where beds were removed, presenters moved in and intimate showcases dominated the proceedings. If it was something like a scene out of Animal House, given that the hotel hallways resembled college dorms and the frenzy of activity made most frat houses seem tame, and the party principle definitely made the setting all the more enticing. Add to that such stellar names as John Oates, John Gorka, Jorma Kaukonen, Mary Gauthier, Tim Easton, Jon Langford, and Grant Lee Phillips, among the many, and it become abundantly clear that FIA is one groovy gathering indeed. —Lee Zimmerman

4. MerleFest

Located on the rolling campus of the Wilkes Community College in Wilkesboro North Carolina, MerleFest encapsulates bluegrass, Americana, roots music and most other tradition-tapping genres within its domain. Founded by bluegrass pioneer Doc Watson and named for his son Merle, the annual event consistently attracts a broad spectrum of leading luminaries, from those who graced the 2018 line-up—Kris Kristofferson, Steve Martin, Buddy Miller, Rodney Crowell, the Mavericks, Robert Earl Keen, Bela Fleck, the North Mississippi Allstars, Rhiannon Giddens, Peter Rowen, the Blind Boys of Alabama, and the Steep Canyon Rangers, among them—to recurring regulars like Sam Bush, Jim Lauderdale, Donna the Buffalo, Jerry Douglas, and Alison Brown. Likewise, its 11 stages frequently host jam sessions and other informal opportunities to see its stars in action. Meanwhile, MerleFest continues to faithfully cling to the past while exploring ever adventurous ways to move forward. Doc and Merle’s spirits loom large over the proceedings, with most performers evoking one or both. Likewise, the spirit of community and commonality not only makes this a family-friendly event, but also fosters inclusiveness in every way. No matter if you’re a veteran or first-timer, the good vibes are accessible to all. —Lee Zimmerman

5. Montreal Jazz

The 39th year of Montreal Jazz Festival started with a bit of controversy, and rightfully so. A show called SLAV, described as “a theatrical odyssey based on slave songs,” featured white actors sometimes dressed as slaves. Activists, including singer Moses Sumney, were vocal in how tone deaf it was to feature this show, and after two days of back and forth—and a lot of listening to and consideration of perspectives—the festival cancelled the production. What stood out most here was how Montreal Jazz Fest didn’t run away from the controversy, but rather they addressed it through daily statements and eventually owned up to the gaffe and proved they’d grown from the experience. The whole situation showed the power of the music festival to exist within itself and consider and value new opinions and learn. This is how an institution grows. Every year presents new challenges, and a festival cannot simply operate in the same fashion or within the same set of rigid ideals each year. 2018’s Jazz fest showed why this festival is a worthy showcase for diversity in music. From Indigneous Canadian singer and piano player Jeremy Dutcher (who went on to claim the Polaris Music Prize later in the year) to jazz great Herbie Hancock, to up-and-coming pop sensation Jessie Reyez alongside a ton of free programming for the people of and in Montreal that week, Montreal Jazz Fest is a fine example of how a city and a government understand the value of arts programming and invest in a property that feeds a city culturally forever. —Adrian Spinelli

6. New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Fest

“Jazzfest,” as it’s known to the locals, spreads itself out over 14 stages both inside and outside the city’s racetrack, so there’s something for everybody. You can squeeze in with the big crowds to hear the out-of-town stars (this year they included Sting, Common, Bonnie Raitt, Lionel Richie, Beck and Aerosmith), but that would mean missing the best reason to travel to New Orleans on the last weekend in April and/or the first weekend in May. There’s nothing like seeing Louisiana artists interacting with Louisiana audiences, and this year was no different. The planned tribute to Fats Domino (who’d died the previous fall) featured fellow legend Irma Thomas, local gems Davell Crawford and Al Jackson, TV star and New Orleans native Jonathan Batiste and Raitt with her New Orleans-based pianist, Jon Cleary. These are singers and pianists who swim in the same sea where Domino once swam, and the music showed it. The Neville Brothers’ Charles Neville died just before the festival, and his family members and proteges (including Trombone Shorty) provided impromptu tributes. And there’s no better way to absorb the city’s spirit than to join with the dancers two-stepping and waltzing to the Cajun music of Beausoleil, the zydeco of Corey Ledet or the trad-jazz of Gregg Stafford’s Jazz Hounds. —Geoffrey Himes

7. Newport Folk Festival

On the last weekend of July every year, the Newport Folk Festival takes over Fort Adams State Park, plopping one stage inside the 1841 fort and three more between gray stone walls and the sailboat-studded blue waters of the Narragansett Bay. The festival’s programmers have a very loose definition of “folk;” they’ll book anything that wouldn’t be booked by the Newport Jazz Festival, which uses the same stages the following weekend. As a result, this year’s Folk Festival featured everything from the piano-pounding rock ’n’ roll of Low Cut Connie to the Prince-like funk of Fantastic Negrito. The programmers also have a knack for springing unannounced surprises on the crowds, making for some one-of-a-kind collaborations. This year, for example, Lake Street Dive’s Rachael Price sang the Stanley Brothers’ “Angel Band” with the Wood Brothers. Gov’t Mule’s Warren Haynes joined Wilco’s Nels Cline to sing Tom Paxton’s “The Last Thing on My Mind.” Margo Price dueted with Brandi Carlile on Dolly Parton’s “Nine to Five” and with John Prine on his “In Spite of Ourselves,” and Carlile also dueted with Lucius on their song “Dusty Trails.” Sometimes the best moments aren’t on the published schedule. —Geoffrey Himes

8. Outside Lands

Now in its 11th year, San Francisco’s Outside Lands is finding its groove in a saturated national festival landscape. The festival’s hallmark is its venue — Golden Gate park — which is quite frankly just as iconic of an SF locale as the Golden Gate Bridge. And this touches at the core of what is making Outside Lands such a lasting yearly tradition: that they know exactly how to tug at the strings that make the fest feel like a microcosm of the city. And for all the new money and privilege that traverses the park on that weekend in August, the soul of the city is felt best at the festival through the queer artists who are featured. Perfume Genius’s Mike Hadreas hips moved with a little more jush than usual. Janelle Monáe fought through a stomach bug to deliver perhaps the greatest performance the festival has ever seen. Carly Rae Jepsen brought out dancer Mark Kanemura for his viral “Cut To The Feeling” dance in what was the biggest queer dance fest of the weekend: Here in the town where Harvey Milk once stood proudly for gay rights. Here within an earshot of the Castro district. Outside Lands managed to represent San Francisco’s most important subculture, and even through what sometimes felt like the polar opposite at other stages, the feeling and the intention stuck with us well beyond the weekend. —Adrian Spinelli

9. Shaky Knees

In the rankings of the great American rock music festivals, Shaky Knees seems perpetually on the rise. Since its two-day beginnings in 2013, Shaky has grown by leaps and bounds, to the point where its lineups are routinely able to compete against the biggest and best festivals in the country. Still, rarely is this so clearly illustrated on Friday, May 4, as the 2018 Shaky Knees Music Festival kicked off. It was one of the greatest—maybe THE absolute best—slates of music in the festival’s history, full of Paste favorites, musical legends and up-and-comers. Seriously, where else do you get to see Jack White, David Byrne, Courtney Barnett, Jimmy Eat World, Waxahatchee, Fleet Foxes, Japandroids and The Brian Jonestown Massacre, all in one day? And that’s not even including all of the other great acts, from Lillie Mae to Amasa Hines, Ezra Furman and Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever. If ever there was a daily lineup tailor made for Paste, this was the one. —Jim Vorel

10. South by Southwest

By now, you’ve probably heard the storyline of how SXSW is overrun by corporate interests. And let me just stop right there before we go any further: It is. Look, everything is, especially in the festival world, but that still doesn’t change the fact that SXSW is still a damn great place to discover new artists and experience the best up-and-comers first hand. SXSW crams an intimate relationship with the city of Austin in a handful of days. You learn the lay of the land quickly, and the better you understand how Downtown and East Austin breathe and operate, the more you get out of the experience. It’s totally chaotic, but there’s nothing else like it. Nothing can replace the feeling of sticking around after Liza Anne’s set at Pandora and discovering an artist like Demo Taped, a kid from Atlanta who made some of the year’s best electropop. Or witnessing U.S. Girls totally dominate on a haphazard (and glorious) outdoor stage at Cheer Up Charlie’s for the first of many performances that would make them Paste’s Best Live Band of the Year. Where else can you be totally bummed that Lucy Dacus’s set fell victim to bad entry and production logistics at the NPR showcase at Stubb’s, only to feel totally vindicated two days later when she triumphed on stage at the Brooklyn Vegan showcase at Cheer Up Charlie’s? I’ll 1,000% be back next year, Lone Star in one hand, brisket sandwich in the other. —Adrian Spinelli

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