A Chattanoogans Guide to Summer Music Festivals

By: Carson O’Shoney

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (UTC/The Loop) –  This past weekend, the Coachella Music and Arts Festival kicked off the summer music festival season in Indio, CA. The likes of Gorillaz, Muse and Thom Yorke graced the Empire Polo fields and got music lovers excited about the upcoming festival season.

People flock to music festivals in droves for many reasons. The atmosphere of being surrounded by music lovers and having bands play all day and all night attracts many. Getting to see all the bands in one place attracts others. Junior Shahad Zarkani likes festivals because, “it’s a very chill way to enjoy music, a lot less stuffy than the concerts I usually go to.” Whatever the reason, music festivals are immensely popular are there are many different ones for fans to choose between.

While Coachella is arguably the most prominent music festival in America, it’s not on the radar of most Chattanoogans because of its far away location. For this article, we’ll be focusing on the music festivals that are closer to home (within a ten hour drive) and more realistic than the festivals out west. There are still plenty of festivals that Tennesseans can easily make it to.


We’ll start with the biggest of them all – Bonnaroo (June 10-13). Tennesseans sometimes take it for granted, but people come to Bonnaroo from all over the world. It’s one of the biggest and best music festivals out there. And Chattanoogans are lucky, this world-renown music festival takes place only an hour away in Manchester, Tenn. Bonnaroo is the music festival of choice for many Chattanoogans, largely due to this fact. “I would love to try different music festivals, but they’re just too far away,” said Zarkani. But with the consistently strong lineups Bonnaroo brings, having it be the only festival one attends in a year makes this okay  for most. This year’s lineup, while a step down from years past, still has a lot of exciting acts to offer – including Jay-Z, Tenacious D, Stevie Wonder and ousted Tonight Show host Conan O’Brien.

Metallica performing at Bonnaroo 2008

Metallica performing at Bonnaroo 2008

If you like camping, hippies and a laid back atmosphere, Bonnaroo is the festival for you. Junior Caleb See will be attending his first music festival this summer, and Bonnaroo’s reputation has preceded it. “I’m most excited about the “roo environment” that everyone keeps talking about.” Indeed, plenty of people go for the atmosphere just as much as for the music. The campsites are a great home base, and a place to relax with the company of friends in the mornings before each day of music starts. The hippies who populate Bonnaroo, love them or hate them, make it a better place. They make the audience interesting, not just the music. They also promote the Bonnaroo spirit – very laid back and free spirited. Which is the same atmosphere that runs throughout the whole festival. Between the art exhibits of Such n Such and the homemade stores throughout Centeroo to the Ferris Wheel and the air conditioned film tent – There’s much more to Bonnaroo than the music.


Bonnaroo is not for everyone, however. Chattanoogans who aren’t up for the rough four days of camping and no showers have a local alternative, that happens the same week as Bonnaroo. Chattanooga’s Riverbend Festival has been going on since 1981 and has had a host of legendary acts like James Brown, the Beach Boys and Willie Nelson. The festival stretches over nine days on five stages around the riverfront in downtown Chattanooga, and boasts over 100 bands, with a good mix of local and national touring acts. This years lineup includes Sheryl Crow, Alison Krauss, The Charlie Daniels Band and George Clinton. So if you like sleeping in your own bed every night and staying local while seeing some classic acts mixed in with some local flavor, Riverbend is the festival for you. The audience has a wide range, and the environment is a family friendly one. Riverbend is a festival that college students and their professors can enjoy equally. “My favorite part of Riverbend is the opportunity to see so many acts that were big when I was in college,” said UTC Professor Chris Dortch. “Bands like Steve Miller Band, America, Earth Wind and Fire, Z.Z. Top. Awesome!”


While Riverbend has been around for a long time and attracts a large audience, it’s not as far up the ranks as the likes of Coachella and Bonnaroo, who are both part of what festival goers call “The Big Three” of American music festivals. The third in the group is a storied franchise – Lollapalooza. It’s a bit further away from Chattanooga than the others I’ve covered, but it still attracts a large southern audience. It’s hometown since 2005 (after being a traveling festival in the 90s), Chicago, IL, is just over a nine hour drive from Chattanooga, which is a pilgrimage that many Tennesseans make every year – particularly college students. Their target audience is traditionally a bit younger than Bonnaroo and Riverbend, as they include up and coming headliners such as the Killers, Kings of Leon, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Muse and Interpol. This year’s appeal to the younger audience includes headliners Arcade Fire, The Strokes, Phoenix and Lady GaGa. But that’s not to say they don’t appeal to the older music fan as well. This year’s festival will mark the first show for the reunited Soundgarden since 1997. The atmosphere isn’t up to par with the experience you get with Bonnaroo, but the city of Chicago is just as much a part of the attraction as the music is. Lollapalooza takes place in the beautiful Grant Park in downtown, just blocks from Michigan Avenue. The crowds in the relatively long but narrow Grant Park can be a hassle, but festival founder Perry Farrell (of Jane’s Addiction) has promised to expand the festivals limits this year and open it up to allow more room for comfort.

Lollapalooza's Front Gate

Lollapalooza's Front Gate

“Some people may be turned off by the corporate sponsorships {at Lollapalooza}, but it’s consistently a lot of fun,” said Junior Brad Petraline. “Plus, seeing the Chicago skyline in the background of every show enhances the concerts a lot.” Lollapalooza is entrenched in the city – it recently signed a contract with the Chicago Parks District to extend their relationship until at least 2018. But due to city ordinances, the festival must end by 10 p.m. every night. Because of this, many of the bands who play the fest do aftershows at various venues throughout the city – adding to the connection the festival has with the city of Chicago. So if you like to get to sleep at a decent hour and like visiting and staying in the middle of one of the biggest cities in the U.S., Lollapalooza is the festival for you.


Chicago’s other major music festival is a hipster’s dream. The Pitchfork Music Festival happens in Chicago’s Union Park, and boasts a consistently great, outside-of the-mainstream lineup. This year’s lineup includes the newly reunited Pavement, Modest Mouse, LCD Soundsystem, OutKast’s Big Boi, Broken Social Scene and more. If your musical tastes are more adventurous than the average music listener, Pitchfork is the festival for you.

For those Chattanoogans who don’t want to travel very far for their music festivals, there is another option in the state of Tennessee. Memphis in May‘s Beale Street Music Festival has been invading the streets of Memphis since the turn of the decade in 2000. The festival boasts a very eclectic lineup year after year, mixing legends like Aretha Franklin, Buddy Guy, Al Green and B.B. King with modern radio rock staples Three Days Grace, Staind, Hinder, Korn and Fall Out Boy, while throwing in high profile hip-hop acts like Snoop Dogg, Three 6 Mafia, The Roots and Fergie with college hipster approved bands like the Flaming Lips, Cat Power, Lou Reed, The Stooges, Band of Horses and Elvis Costello. The festival takes place the first weekend of May in the city’s Tom Lee Park, on the banks of the Mighty Mississippi River. Unfortunately, the past five years it has rained the weekend of the festival and creates a muddy mess, but that’s just an unlucky streak. If your musical tastes are very wide ranging, Beale Street may be for you. This year’s offerings include Widespread Panic, The Flaming Lips, Goo Goo Dolls, Alice in Chains and Earth, Wind and Fire.

This year saw the creation of a new music festival that happens not too far from Chattanooga – Gulf Shores, Alabama’s Hangout Music Festival. The only major music festival that currently happens on a beach, the debut lineup includes the likes of the Flaming Lips, John Legend, Ben Harper & Relentless 7 and the Black Crowes. If you’re a beach person, this is definitely the festival for you. Even if the lineup isn’t as strong as some, being able to experience the concerts while also being able to take a dip in the ocean makes for a fun atmosphere.

Another new music festival making it’s debut this year is the LouFest in St. Louis. It’s a smaller-scaled festival than most summer happenings, but still boasts a solid lineup. Topping the lineup for Loufest are She & Him, Broken Social Scene, Wilco’s lead singer Jeff Tweedy, and Built to Spill. The first year fest happens in Forest Park’s Central Field towards the end of festival season, August 28-29. If you like smaller crowds and a less overwhelming festival, LouFest is the one for you.

From one Lou to another, Louisville, KY has a pair of music festivals of its own, though they’re very different. The brand-new HullabaLOU Music Festival takes place in the legendary racetrack Churchill Downs, and caters to a more mainstream audience. Acts include Dave Matthews Band, Bon Jovi, Kenny Chesney, Steve Miller Band, Dierks Bentley and the Zac Brown Band. If you’re a sucker for arena-sized rock & country, this is the festival for you. Louisville’s other summer offering, Forecastle, caters to a much smaller audience, and features the likes of the Flaming Lips, Widespread Panic, Spoon and Drive-By Truckers. It also fashions itself as an art and activism music festival – so if you’re culturally and politically minded, this is the music festival for you.

Hopefully this article has helped you on your quest to find the music festival that suits you best. Be sure to drink lots of water, wear lots of sunblock, and have a happy festival season!