North American Music Festivals: A Definitive Ranking

Music festivals are a wonderful summer pastime in North America. Although one may argue that the OG of music festivals is Glastonbury in the UK, North American festivals get their fair share of well-deserved attention. What better way to spend a hot summer’s day than sitting outside and enjoying some live music in the company of many other music fans?

In addition to enjoying my current city’s Calgary Folk Music Festival year after year,  I have had the fortune of attending several music festivals over the last summers, and have come to appreciate that certain festivals may make you feel more Zen than others, even if others seem more popular. What I think it boils down to in the end, is what your preference for the music-festival experience is. The choices are between ones set in the city, like Lollapalooza in Chicago, IL, Austin City Limits in Austin, TX, and Newport Folk Festival in New York, NY or camping festivals, like Sasquatch in Washington, Coachella in southern California and Bonnaroo in Tennessee.

A second thing to consider is how important is the music to you since some locales seem to manage sound bleed between stages better than others and some festival organizers make moving between sets and meeting your basic needs easy, while others make it so difficult that you may end up missing a set if you have to use the toilet, eat, get water or move to a different stage.

Finally, some festivals seem to be more of a party or a scene than others. So when it comes to choosing which festival to go to, as a handsome Texan once told me while waiting in line for a pop-up concert in Austin after the last day of Austin City Limits was cancelled: “You gotta pick your pony and ride it.”

So how do you pick your Pony?
If you’re new to festivals and trying to figure out which one to go to, there are several factors to consider which I’ll share below.

Music Vs Party:
This first thing to consider is the most important: Why are you thinking of going to a music festival? Is it for the music? Like one of your all-time favorite bands are playing Lollapalooza 2015 and you’ve waited 6 whole years to see them live and at this point you’d fly to Timbuktu for their show (ahem, The War On Drugs)? Or is it because you like the frenzied party atmosphere and don’t really mind if you miss some bands here and there?

Getting up close for The War on Drugs at Lollapalooza was well worth the wait. 

I have never met a festival that delivers fully on one of these extremes over another, but I have found some that tip more toward being about a party or a scene than being about the music. If the party is your thing, then go for it. For myself, I go for the music above all else. All festivals are kind of a party, so I don’t feel that I need one that specializes in parties and some festivals are better at making the music accessible than others. A festival that makes it easy to move between stages and meet my needs between sets is right up my alley.

City vs Camping:
Second, I prefer city festivals over camping since the camping at Coachella was truly disgusting and this comes from someone who has lived and travelled to some pretty sketchy places. The thing to remember is that festival camping isn’t like that peaceful weekend you spent beside a lake or a forest last summer. Rather, it’s tens of thousands of people crammed together on tiny camping pads in a dusty field with little to no shade, with water and port-o-potties a 20 minute walk away, and at least for Coachella, you’re not supposed to bring your own food and camp stove in. Festivals like this are designed to make you spend as much money as possible on over-priced, tiny portions of mediocre food and seem to care very little about your comfort. No thanks. I’ll get my camping fix elsewhere.

Pictured: Not Coachella camping.

On the other hand, when attending a city festival you can check out different neighbourhoods, sleep more comfortably, eat outside of the festival grounds and often there will be aftershows since the evening performances end earlier on account of city bylaws. This means you can check out your favourite bands in cool venues and it also gives you an opportunity to mitigate scheduling conflicts. For example, during our recent Lollapalooza experience, instead of having to choose between seeing Alt-J and The War On Drugs at the festival who were playing at the same time on different stages, we were able to get tickets to Alt-J’s aftershow at the beautiful Aragon Theatre venue. Conflict resolved.

The Aragon Ballroom in Chicago is a wonderful concert venue,

Finally, each festival tends to have its own vibe and that is because of the people who tend to go to it. For my part, I prefer a more relaxed vibe because to me that enables the best music viewing experience.

So of the following big-time North American Festivals: Austin City Limits, Lollapalooza, Ottawa Bluesfest, and Coachella, here is my ranking from best to worst:

1) Austin City Limits
For reasons I elaborated above, I love ACL since it is above all else, about the music. It’s along the shores of the beautiful Ladybird Lake, and takes place in one of my favourite cities I have ever been to. Austin is a vibrant, quirky, affordable, beautiful and friendly city that is a must-visit for any music lover. The festival makes seeing music and meeting your needs exceptionally easy, doesn’t have a designated beer garden so you don’t need to be locked away to enjoy a drink, and organizers place a great emphasis on keeping the grounds clean. I loved that I could watch a show and not have to turn around to a field full of garbage the way I would at other festivals. It was also very easy to bike to the festival along a gorgeous river pathway.The vibe is pretty chill and it seems like the people who go are there for the music, rather than to be seen in their culturally-misappropriated headdresses and do so many drugs that they won’t remember half the bands they see. To quote the attendant at the nearby Barton Springs: “ACL is more backpacks and camelbaks” than other festivals. She was right. After the festival was over, I knew that it was one that I would want to do again and again.

Pictured: exactly how Austin makes you feel. 

2) Lollapalooza
ACL is actually Lolla’s younger, southern sister, so I was keen to visit the festival that inspired my favourite. I also heard many good things about Chicago as a city and it did not disappoint. For such a large city, we found it very easy to get around and there was no shortage of fun places to eat, drink and explore throughout the city. The aftershow venues were superlative and festival itself is right downtown in Grant Park, showcasing Chicago’s beautiful skyline and urban green spaces. That being said, there was way more waste than I would have liked to see and part of that was because of the people it seemed to attract. I watched some super-trendy looking, vapid 20-something complain about how much better New York was as a city and she couldn’t believe she was wasting time in such a dump and then proceed to throw her empty can on the ground when there was a recycling bin literally two steps in front of her. There were a lot of these kinds of people, mostly hanging out at the Perry Stage enjoying an all-day-long EDM dance party which gave the festival a bit of a frat party atmosphere. I liked the lack of beer gardens but the sound quality at the Sprint Stage left a lot to be desired. All in all, I’m glad that I got to go once and I would go back to Chicago in a heartbeat, but I’m not sure if I would go to Lolla again.

A nice place to watch some music.

3) Ottawa Bluesfest
Consider ACL and Lolla as sprints, and Ottawa Bluesfest a marathon. It takes place over 10 days in a park by the river in Ottawa and a few other venues hosting smaller shows. On weeknights, the shows start around 5pm and go until 10pm and then on weekends they last the whole day. There are no beer gardens which makes it great and despite the name, there is often a really diverse lineup of artists. If you’re able to snag early bird tickets, it’s a good value too since you’re able to see so many bands over the course of the 10 days. That being said, unless you live in Ottawa, taking 10 days off for a festival is kind of hard and the sound at some of the stages wasn’t very good. Just like Chicago, Ottawa is a beautiful city that I’d like to visit again, but I am not sure I am in a rush to attend another Bluesfest.

4) Coachella
 Coachella is held on a beautiful, but extremely dusty patch of land that features palm trees and mountain views, weird public art installations (like a giant, inflatable astronaut because Coachella) and even a ferris wheel. If you see pictures of the festival, especially ones of the paid-to-attend celebrities showing off the most ridiculous outfits they could imagine wearing to somewhere it’s 30 degrees C/90 degrees F in the shade, you might think that Coachella is glamorous. Make no mistake, Coachella is anything but. Out of all the festivals I’ve been to, I found it to be the worst organized which meant it was difficult to get from camping into the festival and then once inside, if you had to go to the bathroom, get water or something to eat between sets, it would take so long that it was

First, the organizers barely provide the basics to meet your bathroom and hydration needs both outside the venue in the camping section and inside the concert grounds. This leads to such atrocious human behaviour such as people showering in the drinking water fountains, because who wants to pay $7US for a showers, and people peeing right in the middle of grounds where everyone is walking because they don’t want to spend the 45 minutes it takes to go to the bathroom thereby missing the next set. The same goes for camping. Basically, the whole grounds becomes a toilet. Second, Coachella only lets you drink in the beer gardens which is a lame place to spend a festival so people sneak in all kinds of drugs and get so messed up they pass out as you walk by at 3pm because they smoked joints laced with PCP all day instead of eating or drinking water, or they drank so much in their camp that they’re swerving on their feet and missing the show they told you they were excited to see 2 hours earlier. Finally, for some godforsaken reason, it’s apparently a tradition to trash the outhouses on the last night which people did and the results were beyond gross. There is some great people watching and fun art installations that make Coachella a lot of fun, but between it being so hard to move between sets and meet your basic needs while enjoying the music, the gross people and the seas of garbage that were left everywhere, I’m in no hurry to return to Indio anytime soon. It could be that I just hit it on an off year, but there are far to many good festivals out there (see 1-3) to risk some of the negative aspects of Coachella again.

I think it’s safe to say that Coachella put me off camping festivals at least for a while, but I still want to go to Bonaroo because I’ve heard that it’s another festival that’s all about the music rather than the scene. Though I will likely rent an RV if I go. Other festivals I’m interested in seeing are: Newport Folk Festival because it’s in New York and it’s where Bob Dylan went electric; Outside Lands in San Francisco, because SanFran; Sasquatch because it’s held in the Gorge; Osheaga because it’s in one of my favourite cities, Montreal; and of course, Glastonbury in the UK because it was the original music festival. I’ll be sure to update my ranking after I’ve attended a few more festivals.

In the end, music festivals are a fun way to spend some time and in many cases, explore a new city.  Choosing the right one for you all comes down to how, where and with who you share your Zen. Keep calm and festival on. 

Finding the Zen in Travel Regrets

There is a certain glamour associated with not having any regrets.

This glamour.
Photo credit: 

But regrets should not be treated as something to be avoided, rather they should be seen as lessons learned. This is very important when considering travel regrets since the stakes are high when travelling. Time is money, parts are unknown and strangers are everywhere, so it is easy to have regrets for many reasons. For example, not avoiding a dangerous place even though you’ve been warned and having your things stolen, not going to that place even though it came highly rated, or conversely, wasting money on things that were not worth seeing despite being highly rated. Despite the negative feelings associated with regrets, they come with a lesson and it’s our role as Zen-minded travellers to figure out what that lesson is.

Any self respecting traveller knows that learning lessons while on the road is a constant, so I’m sharing some of my travel regrets and the lessons they brought with the understanding that I’m sure many more lessons are in store for me as I continue travelling.

1) The crucial importance of details
I am typically someone who is in the middle when it comes to details. So I think I am slightly more observant than the average person, but not Type A about things either. This tendency was both a strength and a weakness when Philip and I planned a roadtrip to Colorado from Alberta one summer. After missing out on tickets to Austin City Limits which had a killer lineup that year, we followed the bands that we wanted to see all the way to Red Rocks in Colorado. Both Neil Young and Crazy Horse and My Morning Jacket were playing a day after each other. Instead of seeing them at the festival, we decided to drive to beautiful Colorado to see them at what we now consider an unrivalled venue. My Morning Jacket played the first show, and our minds were blown. They are an act that are consistently good live, who play for hours with seemingly impossible energy, so imagine our disappointment when we learned that they had played another set the night before with no song repeats. If we had just dug a little deeper and imagined the most perfect concert scenario ever, we could have seen a wonderful band play most of their songs live in back-to-back concerts at arguably, the world’s greatest music venue. Damn. Our only solace is at least one MMJ show at Red Rocks is enough to keep a person floored for years.

Red Rocks. Best. Venue. Ever. 

2) The crucial importance of compatibility
I’ve had the luck to travel both solo and with a crew,  and I have learned that I usually prefer a crew. To me, there is nothing like being able to turn to someone in your crew and know that they are thinking the exact same thing when you see something amazing while travelling. That being said, I have learned that some people are just not travel compatible. For example, while trying to travel to Coachella one year with Philip and some people I hadn’t travelled with before, compatibility became very important. We learned that while some people may be fun to have the odd beer with, going on a trip to a music festival with them is another thing. Our planning and travel styles differed greatly and ultimately Philip and I decided that we would have more fun travelling without them than we would with them. While I regret having something as fun as planning a trip to a music festival end up mired in drama, it was worthwhile to learn that respecting your own style will always guarantee you having the most fun.

One of Coachella’s iconic stages.
 Also a very clear example of  how taking pictures at a concert is a waste of time. 

3) Sometimes you will never know if what you did was right
When I was nearing the end of my 5 months in Mali, my affable host mother Fatamatou asked me to join her on a trip to Southern Mali for a religious event. It meant a very long and uncomfortable bus ride, and probably more uncomfortable sleeping arrangements, but also it meant the chance to spend some time with a woman that I had grown to love immensely, seeing a new part of the country and experiencing a truly unique cultural event. However, the same weekend two of my favourite people that I had met while in Mali would be spending the weekend in Bamako and I had the chance to show them the parts of the city I loved. I mulled over it for a long time, factoring in my recent and unfortunate experience with a parasite, and decided that a relaxing weekend in the city I loved with some people who I missed and didn’t get to see all that often was the best thing for me at the time. Now that some time has passed and I am no longer recovering from a parasite, I sometimes wonder if I should have opted to go with Fatamatou instead, since it was an opportunity do so something truly unique while travelling with someone who I now miss dearly. In the end, I think that I needed to do what was right for me at the time, which was to take care of myself and therein lies the lesson. Despite how amazing the experience would have been, I would have been no use to Fatamatou while feeling sick and I made some amazing memories staying home with my friends that I still cherish to this day.

Bustlin’ Bamako

4) Not fighting for what you want
Normally I would be the first to suggest taking a local’s advice, but there are moments where it is worth standing up for what you want to do or see. A few years back, my dad and I travelled to England to see some relatives and cruise around. Our relative took us to the area of Stonehenge but told us that it was “not worth our time”. Instead of paying to go into the site, he told us that he knew of a perfect spot to get a great picture and he would take us there. Once at the “perfect” spot, I realized that all I wanted to do was pay the stupid fee and see Stonehenge up close. I could have sent my dad and great uncle down the road to have an afternoon in the pub together and enjoyed the site on my own. Instead, it is years later and I still don’t really feel like I saw Stonehenge. Finding a compromise would have been easy enough if I had just spoken up.

Check it, I “saw” Stonehenge (sort of)!

In short, the above examples represent so-called travel regrets: missing a concert, trying to plan a trip with people who who have different travel styles, wondering if you made the right choice or wishing that you could do something over. But digging deeper into these regrets reveals some powerful lessons and the most important one is that travel is your time. It’s about you and your priorities and your well-being. No one else can travel the same path as you, so make yours count and be open to learning lessons along the way.

No regrets is right.
Photo credit.

Top 5 Gift Ideas for Zen Travellers

One of the easiest ways to improve one’s outlook on life is to give to others, and ’tis the season after all. So here you go readers, my first “listicle” (à la Buzzfeed):

Gift Ideas for the Zen-minded Adventure 

5) Buff Headwear

One thing that can harsh a traveller’s Zen is being bogged down with too much stuff. This is where Buff comes in. I’m truly surprised by how much I love my Buff. I’ve used it for extra warmth during cross-country skiing, alpine touring, and hiking Mount Elgon in Uganda. I’ve used it for sun protection at Austin City Limits, while hiking on hot summer days in Alberta and at the beach in Zanzibar. I’ve also used it as a pre-filter with my water filter while hiking in the Rwenzori mountains. Buffs are warm, lightweight, some have a sun protection factor of 50+ and all are versatile. Bonus points for affordability, as most are only around $20. 
4)  Give the Gift of Travel

Research shows that experiences create more happiness than things and there are plenty of ways to gift an experience to a traveller. Discount websites like Groupon and Travelzoo offer deals on hotels, meals in restaurants, and activities that the traveller can schedule on their own. Many hotels offer gift certificates, as do some airlines. In short, it is easy to give a traveller what they would like the most, more travel!

3) Gift Your Points
Have you been collecting Air Miles for years and don’t plan on using them any time soon? What about those points for an airline that may expire soon if you don’t use them? Many reward programs will allow you to transfer your points to an eager traveller who will gladly put them to use. It may seem like a stingy gift, but I know I for one would be thrilled to have them over some special from a big box store any day. 
2) Local Currency

All the monies in the world!

If the resident travellers in your life have been talking about their upcoming trips, chances are they would love to receive some local currency to wherever they’re travelling to as a gift. Not only does it show your travel-crazy friends that you actually listen to them, it can also help to alleviate some of their stress by having a bit of local currency in hand when they arrive in a new place. Also, it  makes it more likely that you will receive a nice souvenir from them in return,  thereby creating an infinite loop of gift-giving happiness and who wouldn’t want that?
1) If you can’t afford to buy them a Go Pro, Go Old School with a Travel Journal

Ibn Batutta’s tomb in Tangier, Morocco

blogged before about how I really could have used a Go Pro Hero 4 during certain moments of my recent trip to East Africa. But in the absence of one of those fancy contraptions which I cannot justify buying for myself, a plain old travel journal will suffice to record memories. Gifting a travel journal to your favourite traveller will allow them to follow in the footsteps of the legendary Ibn Batutta whose journal has inspired explorers for centuries. It has the added bonus of making the traveller think of you every time they open it, so if you miss them when they’re on one of their rambles, you could think of it as a gift that guarantees you’ll always be in their heart, wherever in the world they may be.