Pop music festivals in 2011 face the same challenge as always: branding new dishes from the communal stew of touring bands. But through social media the tastemaking classes keep expanding, along with every alternative subculture; the festivals, in turn, keep swelling and diversifying, despite the economy.
The Ultra Music Festival, in Miami, has grown to three days (from two) of electronic dance beats. This year's edition, March 25-27 at Bicentennial Park, encompasses the mainstream names in trance and house - Tiesto, David Guetta and the ubiquitous Will.i.am - as well as weird dubstep hybrids like Rusko, and live bands, including Holy Ghost!, from New York, and, gulp, Duran Duran.
As for metal: Scion Rockfest, the excellent one-day free festival on March 5 in Pomona, Calif., is a done deal. All tickets are claimed. But the longer-running Maryland Deathfest, at Club Sonar in Baltimore, presents a similar collection of underground metal subgenres, in one club across four days, May 26-29. The Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival takes place April 15-17 at the Empire Polo Club, in Indio, Calif. Twelve years in, it's the major outdoor crucible of the mainstream alternative. Curious fact: An unusually large number of the bands in 2011 have had a Billboard Top 10 album over the last two years - Kanye West, Kings of Leon, Arcade Fire, the Black Keys, Mumford and Sons and the National.
But the same goes for Bonnaroo, June 9-12 in Manchester, Tenn. Once it was jam-band central, the festival of pale, matted locks. But this year's Bonnaroo, besides delivering your Widespread Panic, your String Cheese Incident, your Primus, half duplicates the headline acts of Coachella; it also wades into hip-hop (Eminem) and Eurodisco (Robyn) and metal (Opeth); and it brings the closest thing to reunion news - a show by the late-'60s Los Angeles band Buffalo Springfield, with Richie Furay, Stephen Stills and Neil Young.
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Back at the Empire Polo Club, on April 23, in their (so far) only U.S. appearance together, come the Big Four - Metallica, Slayer, Megadeth and Anthrax, the winner's circle of mid-'80s thrash-metal bands. And the week after that, in a nice bit of dissonance, comes Stagecoach, the mostly mainstream country festival, with Carrie Underwood, Darius Rucker, Rascal Flatts and Kenny Chesney. Those who find Stagecoach a brassy vulgarity will dig Merlefest, April 28-May 1 on the campus of Wilkes Community College in Wilkesboro: four days of bluegrass and the Anglo-American acoustic roots-music continuum, including Robert Plant and the Band of Joy, Sarah Jarosz, Lyle Lovett, the Wailin' Jennys and Del McCoury.
In the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, across two weekends from April 29 to May 8, taste goes crazy. You can't connect the dots; you just gorge. There are treats for older heads: Willie Nelson, Lucinda Williams, Maze. There are younger acts: Lupe Fiasco, Arcade Fire. Then there's Kenny G. There are indeed a few big names in what we all would call jazz: Sonny Rollins, Ahmad Jamal. And then there are the reasons you travel long distances for live music: the intensities of the brass and Mardi Gras Indian bands, the gospel tent, and - special this year - a huge amount of Haitian music, including Tabou Combo, Boukman Eksperyans, RAM and Emeline Michel.
We end in a parking lot, as always. The Bamboozle sets up April 29-May 1 on the asphalt around the Meadowlands complex in East Rutherford, N.J. These are long days in the sun for American teenage boys and their youngish dads: Bruno Mars, Lil Wayne, Wiz Khalifa, Attack! Attack!, LMFAO, pop, rap, metalcore, ska, electropop, sneakers, water, coffee, aspirin.