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Elliot Alpern: Is '13 an unlucky number for summer music festivals?

By Elliot Alpern, Daily Music Columnist
Published February 26, 2013

This past week was a stressful one for most in Ann Arbor as midterms exams and projects continue to loom on the horizon. But for others, the past few days were for frenzied celebration as some (the truly, hopelessly dedicated) were released from another tension that weighed just as heavily on the conscience. Yes, I’m talking about the release of the lineups of two summer music festivals — Firefly and Bonnaroo — after preceding weeks of rampant speculation.

It’s finally, finally time to start talking about summer plans, to circle some dates on the calendar and cross out others, all in pursuit of the ideal string of festivals. Ever since that inception of the yearly music fest known as Lollapalooza way back in 1991 (and the subsequent resurrection in 2003), the business of multi-day music celebrations has exploded, culminating in the yearly summer offerings we’re blessed with today.

And yet — feel free to call me out if you disagree — did anyone else let out sigh or a “meh” as one lineup leaked, and then another, only to realize that none of the festivals seem to be that truly exciting? The prospects should be entertaining and enticing, as they always are (especially when headliners are thrown millions of dollars for a single performance), but was anyone really shocked or amazed by the turnout for 2013?

Regardless of my pessimistic outlook, there are a few acts at most festivals to make them worth (or almost worth) the hefty ticket prices. I usually follow the same formula: compare lineups by tiers and look out for big names that tend to appear frequently. Circle those that are unique or so awesome that they don’t have to be unique, and count the circles. Analyze accordingly.

So, let’s have a look-see. First up on the docket is Austin, Texas’ South by Southwest festival, which, in addition to the music, also provides cinema and other forms of culture.

SXSW: March 8-17, Austin, Texas
Amid the entries that are making a number of appearances this summer (like Vampire Weekend), Ra Ra Riot, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis and The Airborne Toxic Event make this event worthy as the only opportunity for a few marquee acts. Add in delicious food and the common small-club experience, and this should be a fun pre-summer getaway.

Ultra Music Festival: March 15-17 and 22-24, Miami
As one of the biggest electronic music festivals of the year, Ultra beckons with some of the heavyweights of the EDM business like Crystal Castles, deadmau5, David Guetta and Avicii. Again, as more of a niche festival, what could be a more fun (but late) spring break than jumping around with thousands of crazed, possibly drug-addled EDM fanatics in the Miami sun?

Coachella: April 12-14 and April 19-21, Indio, Calif.
Coachella is the argument to the above question. Usually, along with Bonnaroo and Lolla, the Cali fest is one of the premier live-performance collections of the year. Yet when the lineup was announced way back in January, I was only drawn by a handful of artists. Blur is cool, but honestly, I’d rather have Damon Albarn bring Gorillaz and ask for a few cameos from other performers. Lou Reed is a rare appearance even if he’s a bit over the hill, and the presence of Phoenix is opium for alt-lovers, but what else? RHCP already did Lolla last year; the XX is all over the place; even Wu-Tang Clan and the Postal Service are coming to Bonnaroo and Sasquatch, respectively. I’d rather save my money for a closer and better set of performances.

Sasquatch: May 24-27, Gorge, Wash.
For a somewhat smaller festival, Sasquatch actually pulled a couple good headliners this year: Mumford & Sons, the Arctic Monkeys and Ben Gibbard’s aforementioned Postal Service. But the drop off is steep from there — Vampire Weekend, Sigur Rós, the xx and then we’re wading through Cake and Dropkick Murphy’s, relics of past (and better) festivals.

Bonnaroo: June 13-16, Manchester, Tenn.
It was Roo’s lineup announcement that ultimately spurred me to write this article. I’d heard both sides of the argument already by the end of the day: “Paul McCartney! Billy Idol! ZZ Top!” I have to admit, the blast-from-the-past factor is high, even if Mumford and Tom Petty are somewhat tired headliners. And R. Kelly would probably be worth the 12-hour car ride alone. But did anyone else find it weird that DANIEL TOSH was screaming in all caps on the second line? And again, maybe it’s just me, but Björk isn’t a top-liner, just like how Wilco (ever the critic’s darling) shouldn’t be the first band on the second line. I feel like my mantra for the weekend would be “Come for the middle tier, stay for the top tier.”

Firefly: June 21-23, Dover, Del.
I’ll admit it: I’m a sucker for Firefly. I went to last year’s inaugural show, and while RHCP, Tom Petty and Vampire Weekend don’t hold a candle to last year’s trinity of the Killers, the Black Keys and Jack White, I’m still excited for a few other unique names. Foster the People has yet to appear on another lineup, as does MGMT. Add in Kendrick Lamar and six more artists to come (last year’s late addition was the Silversun Pickups, Bassnectar and Fitz and the Tantrums, for context), and this festival nestled in the backwoods of Delaware should follow up last year’s breakout success, or at least come close.

Overall, I think we should wait for Lolla and Outside Lands for a total preview of 2013 at large. And with rumors of Jay-Z and the Cure for the former, maybe there’s still hope. But for now, my calendar circles are a little too few and far between.