From the KFRC Fantasy Fair and Magic Mountain Music Festival to Newport Folk Festival and of course Woodstock, the US has a rich history of birthing festivals made for and by alternative and counter cultures that championed independent creators and generally those veering from the norm.
But given the might behind the wave of corporation-sponsored and titanic-sized events that have come since and the saturation that they have left in their wake, it might be understandable to have forgotten the alternative roots of the industry. With that in mind, we've put together a list of ten of our favourite festivals who push progressive ideals and left-leaning lineups.
Lineup: Khruangbin, Nathaniel Ratecliff & The Night Sweats, Julia Jacklin, Laura Veirs, Fruit Bats, The Beths, Sam Evian
Though originating as a celebration of bluesgrass music in the late nineties, Pickathon has since become a meeting place for contemporary indie, folk and Americana artists. Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, the festival has also become well-known for its environmentally-friendly and aware attitude, banning single use plastics and sourcing materials locally. Ticket sales are also capped at 3,500, which also helps in lessening its environmental impact.
When & where: 2-4 August; Pendarvis Farm, Happy Valley, OR.
Desert Daze Festival
Lineup: The Flaming Lips, Flying Lotus, Stereolab, Animal Collective, Dungen, Parquet Courts, Temples, Shintaro Sakamoto
As alluring and intoxicating as its name suggests, Desert Daze is now one of the leading festivals for psych-rock, garage, and all of its mind-bending derivatives. Reaching its seventh edition this October, the festival is often compared as the cooler, smaller and weirder cousin to Coachella – the Guardian even called it the 'anti-Coachella'. Both take place in the sweltering deserts of south California, but whereas the bigger and older titan has long made space for a mainstream and 'millennial' demographic by inviting a more pop-based lineup, this far-out underdog still proudly boasts a dedication to guitar-music and the freaky psychedelic tropes that characterised rock festivals of the late sixties.
When & where: 10-13 October; Moreno Beach, CA.
Pitchfork Music Festival
Lineup (2019): Whitney, HAIM, Robyn, Mavis Staples, Earl Sweatshirt, Belle and Sebastian, The Isley Brothers
The flagship music event of its muso-bible namesake, Pitchfork Music Festival has the pick of the draw when it comes to the biggest names in indie and alternative music. The festival is held in Chicago's Union Park, which is charged with a history of protest and unionising, no doubt adding somewhat to the festival's eminence. Though born in 2006, the festival also began a European contingent in 2011 in Paris.
When & where: TBC July 2020; Union Park, Chicago, IL.
Lineup: Jill Scott, FKA twigs, Kamasi Washington, Leon Bridges, Toro Y Moi, Scarlxrd, Death Grips
Inspired by the 2003 documentary Afro-Punk, the festival began at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2005 as a way of championing music, art, fashion and other cultural expressions made predominantly by black artists. Creating a platform for black musicians and artists within the mainly white alternative and 'punk' circles and subcultures, AFROPUNK has had a significant impact and can also be found in Atlanta, Paris, London and Johannesburg.
When & where: 24-25 Aug; Commodore Barry Park, Brooklyn, NY.
Lineup (2018): Big Red Machine, The National, Sharon Van Etten, Moses Sumney, Pussy Riot, Julien Baker
Formed in 2015 by The National's Aaron Dressner and Justin Vernon, a.k.a Bon Iver, Eaux Claires Music & Arts Festival was always going to be popular with indie heads. Both Dressner and Vernon have performed with their main outfits as well as together in their joint project Big Red Machine, but the festival generally has an impressively open-minded outlook when it comes to their billing. Previous editions have seen the likes of James Blake, Erykah Badu, Paul Simon, Chance The Rapper, The Staves and Sharon Van Etten. Though it took a break in 2019, the festival has announced it will return in earnest in 2020.
When & where: TBC; Eau Claire, WI.
Camp Flog Gnaw Carnival
Lineup: Tyler, The Creator, Solange, BROCKHAMPTON, Earl Sweatshirt, Thundercat, Juice WRLD, FKA Twigs
A newbie on the scene, Camp Flog Gnaw Carnival, or OFWGKTA Carnival, is the notoriously cheeky Tyler, The Creator's own festival. Naturally, Tyler's peers such as The Internet, Earl Sweatshirt and Domo Genesis have made appearances, along with the likes of Mac DeMarco, Justice, Migos, Kali Uchis, Lana Del Ray and Roy Ayers. Twinned with a ferris wheel and carnival rides, Camp Flog makes for an undeniably fun festival alternative.
When & where: 9-10 November 2019; Dodger Stadium, Los Angeles, CA.
Lineup: Angel Olsen, Devendra Banhart, The Flaming Lips, John Cale, Kurt Vile & The Violators, Dinosaur Jr., Deafheaven
Perhaps Texas' answer to Desert Daze, Levitation festival is another star-studded psych fest put on by the folks behind The Reverberation Appreciation Society. Perhaps the festival's biggest virtue is its reliably impressive lineups, from Tame Impala to The Jesus & Mary Chain to Primal Scream to Angel Olsen. The festival's vendors and food and drink stalls are also carefully curated to match the wider independent aesthetic and ethos.
When & where: 7-10 November, Austin, TX.
SXSW: South By Southwest
Lineup (2019): The Amazons, Hayley Henderickx, Car Seat Headrest, Sam Fender, Shigeto, Molly Burch
Widely known as America's premier new music showcase, SXSW is truly an institution within the States, and indeed in the wider international sphere, as hundreds of up-and-coming acts from around the world are exported to Texas every March. Beyond giving new music artists a platform, the festival also celebrates film and the many facets of the wider media industry through panels, workshops and debates. Politics and current affairs are also tackled – 2019's edition for example featured a talk with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
When & where: 13-22 March 2020, Austin, TX.
Underground Music Showcase
Lineup (2019): Honne, Chicano Bateman, Black Mountain, Tuxedo, Earth Gang, Still Woozy, Empress Of, Yves Tumor
As its name makes obvious, Colorado's Underground Music Showcase is all about spotlighting hundreds of local talent and mixing them with more established alternative acts. Though mainly drawing a local/Colorado-based haul, the festival has been developing over the years and its more international mix of headliners reflects this.
When & where: TBC July 2020; Broadway, Denver, CO.
III Points Festival
Lineup: The Stokes, Robyn, Wu-Tang Clan, Disclosure, Stereolab, KATRANADA, Caribou
III Points Festival began in 2013 with four pals aiming to put on an event that reflected the rich culture of South Florida, but since then it has become widely-regarded as one of the US' leading alternative music festivals. It's faced its hurdles – not least the horrendous Hurricane Matthew in 2016 – but has seemingly grown stronger and has the fanbase to prove it. In recent years the festival's lineup has begun to resemble that of Spain's Primavera Sound, which should go some way to indicate the trajectory III Points is rightfully on.
When & where: 1-2 May 2020, Miami, FL.