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The unedited guide to summer music festivals

Hold the patchouli, please…

Back in the days when I was trimming trees to pay the bills, two of the bigger guys on the crew moonlighted as bouncers at Red Rocks, where they got to police some wild crowds and see some incredible shows. Along with all the inside info on what kind of additives any artists might need to help turn on the star power, what I really wanted to know is, “Which shows attract the most beautiful girls?”

Although at the time I was deeply infatuated with gleaming-eyed Sugar Magnolia mountain women, for some reason I still expected them to tell me the most banging babes in all of music heaven turned out for the hard rock acts—all tuned up in black mascara, tiny black t-shirts and big black boots.

But big beefcake Reno didn’t even bat an eye when he answered. “It’s country,” he said. “Those ladies really take care of themselves, and it shows.”

I’ve always been a big fan of country, you know? From Johnny Cash to Gram Parsons to the Eagles where rock, pop and Hank Williams all got smooshed into some suburbanized ideal of L.A. soul. But I’ve also always been a fan of disco, too. And Brit-rock from Zeppelin to the Stones, and bluegrass and techno and Celtic and soul. As long as you mean it when you play it, I’ll try and mean it when I’m listening too.

Which means I’m more than happy to turn out for just about any kind of outdoor music show. For everyone starting to pen their own best summer setlist, here’s a primer for some of the musical genres you’ll see and some of the top catchphrases and accessories to help you enjoy your next festival.


Let’s start with the stars. Headliners work hard to earn their A-spot status, which means you should absolutely expect what you pay for—an unforgettable, top-of-the-line show. You should expect the hits, the horn section, the extended encore and a real-life field full of diehard (maybe you’re one of them), fans who live on every single warbled word. My advice: treat this like the freakin’ Oscars, with some nice drinks, a nice pre, post, or picnic dinner, and some nice(r) outdoor clothes. Why? Because you’ll be telling this story for years.

Recommended accessories: White wine (trust me), cheese, nuts, crackers (or some obvious protein) + a T-shirt from the previous tour.

Top Tip: Book a babysitter. If you’re at this show, you probably need to.


Just a quick note on country: I recently attended a good friend’s wedding where “Western” was listed as the apparel theme, and quite a few folks showed up looking like extras from Hee-Haw. If you don’t typically wear boots and a hat, don’t start here. Do start getting ready to sing-a-long to songs you just learned like you were sitting around the campfire, to drink whiskey from a flask, and to realize that America is the most hygienically gifted country in the world.

Recommended accessories: Ray Bans, a bandanna, and a can of beer.

Top Tip: Don’t bring up politics, everyone will be happier.


Bluegrass shows are a curious thing: some of the most and least-citified people in the west all hoedown together. A genuine mix of salt-of-the-earth swing dancers and PhD mathematicians subconsciously counting out the time, it’s only by talking to them that you might ascertain the difference (if you really want to)—or just look to see which one has real mud stains on their flannel.

Recommended accessories: A flannel shirt, suspenders, a guitar pick.

Top Tip: Taste a little moonshine.

Jam Bands

I really do hate the scent of Patchouli. It smells like despair. Expect to get a noseful at your next jam band show, as well as an earful of some of the best musicians you’ll ever hear. Also expect to dance your damn ass off—any way you want to—and to sweat through your underwear. The main reason people love jam band shows is it gives them an unbridled excuse to ingest about anything they want to and shake their groove like they just don’t care.

Recommended accessories: A lighter, water and a jacket/hoody for later.

Top Tip: Do not accept any baked goods or gummy bears from anyone—ever.


Seeing a reggae show in the Rockies is one of the great privileges of living here. Skanking around in the mountain sun to a steady drum beat and a staccato guitar strum is about the best thing you can do on a late June/July day. People are happy, the rhythm is electric, and you can toss all your worries into the thin high air.

Recommended accessories: Sunscreen, dark shades and a big bag of snacks for the show.

TOP TIP: Camp post-show and keep stoking the fire.


Most mountain people have never actually been inside a throbbing Vegas, LA, Manhattan or Ibiza club, where the beats are pumping so hard and fast you can’t decide which will explode first, your heart or your eyeballs. Lucky for us, all that amplified head-bobbing euphoria has recently gone outdoors (where the endless views and a club-free bar tab are sure to save EDM from its own self importance). Although recent reports from Morrison suggest the volume of said events are rocking the suburbs harder than Quiet Riot ever did, that—just like the way you move your body—is now officially out of your control.

Recommended accessories: Glow sticks and gum (just in case your teeth want to dance, too).

Top Tip: Do not even begin to believe you will still make it work the next day.


Worn out after all that action? Then take it down a notch—and maybe just a little deeper, with a nice non-electric take on the musical mountain show. Whether it’s on stage, or in the town square, this is the perfect way to close out a summer Sunday.

Recommended accessories: Wine, a blanket + a significant other.

Top Tip: Enjoy yourself.

–Peter Kray is EO’s editor-at-large and co-founder of The Gear Institute ( 

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