About a decade ago – when the Flaming Lips' Wayne Coyne rolled across the 2004 Coachella crowd in a giant hamster ball – only a few multi-day music festivals drew audiences that size. And only a smattering of regional versions like North Carolina’s own Merlefest (which turns 30 next year) existed.
Since then, though, they’ve become big business, popping up all over. In Concord we have the annual hard rock and metalfest Carolina Rebellion (May 5-7). And AEG – LiveNation’s biggest competitor – has similar rock fests in Oklahoma and Ohio.
No matter your taste, there’s a music festival coming up within a day’s drive of Charlotte that makes for a great vacation. Music fans can choose where to go based on proximity, price, lineup and vibe. Here’s a handy guide to some of the biggest and best destinations east of the Mississippi.
Okeechobee Music & Arts Festival
March 2-5; Okeechobee, Fla.; www.okeechobeefest.com.
What: Hippy mentality mixed with modern and mainstream music. The South Florida gathering focuses on holistically sustainable living and environmentally-friendly practices in an oasis of live music, yoga, and nature.
Distance: 640 miles (about nine hours away).
Big names: Kings of Leon and Usher with the Roots top the bill, along with Bassnectar, the Lumineers, Flume and Wiz Khalifa.
Don’t miss: Recent Grammy winner Sturgill Simpson, the Gospel Soul Experience featuring Allen Stone, and the Blind Boys of Alabama – and most of all Solange. Beyonce’s little sister makes killer music of her own, but hasn’t embarked on a full-scale tour like sis.
Tickets: Four-day pass $279; VIP passes $599, including VIP forest camping or glamping for $2,899 per couple. Or live like a rock star: For $19,899, you and seven friends get a decked-out tour bus with private facilities, flat-screen TVs, a kitchen and access to private showers (because even for $20K the bus doesn’t have one). Can’t swing it? RV camping is $225-$275.
April 27-30; Wilkesboro; www.merlefest.org.
What: Doc Watson’s family’s tribute to his late son is a family-friendly foray into folk, bluegrass and roots music and it’s become a North Carolina institution.
Distance: 90 miles (1½ hours).
Big names: Zac Brown and the Avett Brothers head up a bill that includes returning staples Sam Bush, Peter Rowan, Marty Stuart, Del McCoury, Leftover Salmon and Jerry Douglas.
Don’t miss: Homegrown acts like Darin & Brooke Aldridge, Tift Merritt, Mipso and Chatham County Line’s plugged-in Electric Holiday set.
Tip: It gets cold in the foothills so dress accordingly.
Tickets: Single-day pass $45-$75; 3-day and 4-day passes $140 to $195, reserved seats $220-$245; kids 12 and younger are free in general admission area. An RV camping pass is $450. Campus parking, which is limited, is $100-$150.
May 11-14; Black Mountain; www.theleaf.org.
What: A 22-year-old bi-annual mountain arts, culture, and world music festival. (The second in 2017 is Oct. 19-22.)
Distance: 115 miles (two hours).
Big names: Macy Gray, afrobeat outfit Antibalas, classic soul singer Lee Fields & the Expressions, Nickel Creek’s Sara Watkins and singer-songwriter Martin Sexton.
Don’t miss: The acts you may not have heard of, like Canada’s electronic trio A Tribe Called Red, who mix dubstep with reggae, house and hip-hop, or Mauritanian singer-songwriter Daby Touré.
Tips: LEAF is the rare kid-friendly fest with eight family-friendly adventure areas with roaming performers, workshops, animals and reptiles, costumes, dance, musical instruction, games, a giant interactive jellyfish bubble and more.
Tickets: Single-day ranges from $40 to $65; weekend passes are $135 to $165 through March 16.
May 12-14; Atlanta; www.shakykneesfestival.com.
What: The downtown ATL festival is what Coachella used to be on a smaller scale – a mix of up-and-coming and established indie rock bands, current “it” artists, and influential old-timers with ample cred.
Distance: 250 miles (four hours).
Big names: The XX, Pixies, Phoenix, LCD Sound System, the Shins and Ryan Adams.
Don’t miss: Charlotte acts Foreign Air (former members of HRVRD) and Flagship, up and comer Pinegrove, and established indie breakouts Cloud Nothings, Carseat Headrest and Sylvan Esso.
Tips: If you’re on a budget, consider the single-day option. There are performances for kids each day and strollers are allowed (though bikes, skateboards, scooters, chairs, tents, canopies and pets are prohibited).
Tickets: Single-day tickets $99; 3-day pass $185; single day VIP $275, 3-day VIP $525.
May 18-21; Durham; www.moogfest.com.
What: The technology-minded festival serves as a tribute to Bob Moog, creator of the Moog synthesizer (among other things; and by the way, the name rhymes with “vogue”), who called North Carolina home. It’s as much an educational experience as an entertaining one.
Distance: 150 miles (two-plus hours).
Big names: The nighttime performance lineup hasn’t been announced, but Moog has built a reputation for showcasing the most cutting-edge of artists and influential electronic music acts.
Don’t miss: The daytime schedule includes educators from Duke, UNC, NCSU and Georgia Tech, those who work in innovative technology, and musicians and producers such as Nick Zinner of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Simian Mobile Disco’s Jas Shaw, Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein of Survive, who created the music for the hit Netflix series “Stranger Things.”
Tips: Make Moog yours: Go for the music, or bring the kids for a fun interactive introduction to future technology, or bring your laptop and recorder and go to school.
Tickets: $199-$249; $449-$499 VIP.
May 19-21; Gulf Shores, Ala.; www.hangoutmusicfest.com.
What: The Gulf Coast festival that feels more like spring break. Instead of camping, concertgoers can stay at resort hotels and condominiums. Camping and cabins are also an option at Gulf Coast State Park, 3 1/2 miles from the stage.
Distance: 600 plus miles (nine hours).
Big names: Mumford & Sons, Frank Ocean, Twenty-One Pilots, Chance the Rapper and Weezer.
Don’t miss: Rare live appearances from Ocean, Iceland’s Sigur Ros and the return of reggaeman Shaggy, and Andrew McMahon (of Jack’s Mannequin), solo.
Tips: Don’t forget beach gear, bikinis and sunscreen. Use the shuttle service, because parking is extremely limited.
Tickets: 3-day pass $309; $1,099 VIP pass includes access to stage-side pool, free food and drinks, and clean restrooms.
June 8-11; Manchester, Tenn.; www.bonnaroo.com.
What: The granddaddy of modern jam band festivals which morphed into the mainstream. It has boasted A-list headliners like Paul McCartney and Eminem; this year it’s U2.
Distance: 400 miles (6½ hours).
Big names: U2 performing “The Joshua Tree,” Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Weeknd, Chance the Rapper, Lorde, Major Lazer and the XX.
Don’t miss: Breakout acts from 2016 like lo-fi rockers Carseat Headrest and country singer Margo Price, plus the XX (who may become the biggest band of 2017), N.C.-bred/Baltimore-based Future Islands, who headline Coachella, and likely show stealer Cage the Elephant.
Tips: Wear a hat and stay rested.
Tickets: $324.50 to $349.50 for a four-day pass, camping included (although a car camping pass is required for vehicles for an additional $60). Day parking is $40. RV passes are $250-$795.
What: The equivalent to PNC Music Pavilion’s Country Megaticket wrapped up in three days of the biggest names in country music on two stages oceanside.
Distance: 180 miles (four hours).
Big names: Kenny Chesney, Darius Rucker and Jason Aldean.
Don’t miss: The full 30-band lineup has yet to be announced, but Billy Currington, Lee Brice, Big and Rich, Kip Moore and Dee Jay Silver will be there.
Tips: Fireworks, chairs, kites, tents and pets are all prohibited.
Tickets: Three-day pass $179, VIP $399, Super VIP $1,099.
DC Jazz Fest
June 9-18; Washington, D.C.; www.dcjazzfest.org.
What: Not your traditional flip-flops and tank top festival, this nine-day citywide celebration takes place across over 40 venues in 22 neighborhoods.
Distance: 400 miles, six hours.
Big names: Gregory Porter, Robert Glasper Experiment, Kenny Garrett, Black Violin, and Kandace Springs, who play (along with the artists listed below) the weekend of June 16-19.
Don’t miss: Korean pianist Youngjoo Song, vocalists Lori Williams and Ola Onabulé, and DCJazzPrix winners New Century Jazz Quintet. A full schedule will be released this spring.
Tip: Note that some events are free and some require tickets.
June 15-18; Dover, Del.; www.fireflyfestival.com.
What: The producers of Coachella’s answer to the trendy West Coast fest that brought alternative and indie music festival chic.
Distance: 500 miles (eight-plus hours).
Big names: Lots of them. The Weeknd, Chance the Rapper, Muse, Bob Dylan and Twenty-One Pilots share the weekend’s top tier and Weezer, Phantogram, Busta Rhymes and Glass Animals are some of the secondary acts.
Don’t miss: Kesha, who has been wowing audiences with her post-Dr. Luke makeover.
Tickets: Four-day pass $289; VIP $699, which includes access to private restrooms, dining area, and bars; RV camping runs $299 to $999 for eight people; Super VIP passes are $2,499, which includes access to artist lounge, open bar and meal vouchers, premium main stage viewing, and golf cart concierge. Tent camping is an additional $169 while glamping runs $899 to $1,699 per couple.
June 29-July 2; New Orleans; www.essence.com/festival-2017.
What: The biggest names in R&B gather at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome and the city’s convention center for the long-running black culture and entertainment magazine’s annual festival.
Distance: 700-plus miles (11 hours).
Big names: Diana Ross, Mary J. Blige, John Legend, Chaka Khan, Solange, India.Arie, Jazmine Sullivan and Trombone Shorty.
Don’t miss: Ross and Khan. Not to say that at ages 72 and 63, respectively, these legends won’t be performing for years to come, but with the unprecedented industry losses of 2016 – including Prince, whose Essence Fest performance in 2014 is legend – it’s a good idea to catch these divas while they’re still performing.
Tips: Although tickets are required for concerts, the empowerment seminars, gospel tribute, marketplace and art expo are free and open to the public.
Tickets: $126 to $2,700 at www.ticketmaster.com. Three-day packages are currently sold out.
July 14-16; Louisville, Ky.; www.forecastlefest.com.
What: The waterfront festival from the creators of Bonnaroo, with music, distinguished speakers and organizations focused on environmental issues and awareness.
Distance: 500 miles (seven-plus hours).
Big names: LCD Sound System, Weezer, Run the Jewels, PJ Harvey, Odesza, Sturgill Simpson, Cage the Elephant, Conor Oberst and Spoon.
Don’t miss: Off-site late-night sets that feature surprise pairings and a more intimate experience. TBA.
Tips: If a mattress and working shower are a must, two- and four-star hotels in downtown Louisville run $130-$250, but outlying two-star spots Motel 6 and Days Inn have rooms for under $75.
Tickets: $170 to $265 for 3-day or $425 for VIP upgrade. Single-day tickets will be available closer to the event.
July 26-30; Floyd, Va.; www.floydfest.com.
What: The 17-year-old small-town Americana festival’s ever-expanding lineup has become a hub for up-and-coming acts. The Avetts, Grace Potter and Steep Canyon Rangers built an audience here and helped the festival build a reputation long before they were national stars.
Distance: 150 miles (three hours).
Big names: Although it boasts few household names, this year’s familiar acts include Thievery Corporation, Steel Pulse, St. Paul & the Broken Bones, Michael Franti & Spearhead and Shovels & Rope.
Don’t miss: New acts; Argentinian female trio Femina’s folk-rap hybrid and visual mystique is a curiosity, as is the mix of the Stash! Band’s bluegrass, metal and punk.
Tips: Bring a rain poncho, snacks (especially if you’re vegan or gluten-free, although Dogtown Roadhouse is a safe bet), a hoodie, and shoes you don’t mind getting dirty.
Tickets: Single day $85; multiple-day passes $185-$230. Camping runs $55 to $275. You can add hiking, kayaking, and canoeing for an additional fee.
Willing to travel a little farther or planning your vacation later in the year? Here’s a few more to add to your list.
New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival with Stevie Wonder, Tom Petty, Harry Connick Jr., and a bevy of A-listers and local artists. April 28-May 7; New Orleans (11 hours); www.nojazzfest.com.
Governor’s Ball with Chance the Rapper, Tool, Phoenix, Air, Childish Gambino, and Lorde. June 2-4; Randall’s Island Park in New York City (10 hours); www.governorsballmusicfestival.com.
Panorama Festival with Frank Ocean, Solange, A Tribe Called Quest, Tame Impala, and Nine Inch Nails. July 28-30; Randall’s Island Park in New York City (10 hours); www.panorama.nyc.
LOCKN’ Festival (formerly Interlocken) with Phil Lesh, Widespread Panic, the Avett Brothers, more. Aug. 24-27; Arlington, Va. (six hours); www.locknfestival.com.