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Summer music festivals thrive nationwide

New artists are discovered when paired with crowd-drawing names

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Call ’em rebel bashes. Or rock-and-rolling circuses. Or just chill-out picnics. But, with all kinds of live music events dominating the summer vacation season this year, traditional conceptions of ”music festivals” just don’t seem to fit.

Between June and September, there will be an ear-popping 500-plus live music fests around the country, offering jazz, rock, punk, and classical, as well as the bastard children of all these. Beyond the numbers, though, this year’s festivals are surely most notable for furthering the Xers’ transformation of the pop-culture landscape, updating the music festival kids-and-picnic-baskets image for the age of Friends and backpacks.

”As far as the music industry goes, Generation X has their act together in terms of producing a show that appeals to a lot of senses, beyond just rock & roll — it draws a more diversified, larger group of people,” says Jay Link of Pollstar, the music industry magazine that tracks live music events.

”When we began the Newport Jazz Festival [in 1954], we were the only game in town. Now there must be at least 1,000 music festivals worldwide,” says promoter George Wein, whose JVC JAZZ Festival stages shows in New York City and Newport, R.I., among other places. That plethora of concerts runs from Montreal’s venerable International Jazz Festival to the mammoth hormone carnival that is Lollapalooza, to local favorites like Seattle’s Bumbershoot Fair. And as younger audiences demand that the life cycle of hipness be shorter and shorter, so too have new fests sprung up to satisfy the thirst for cool.

The very concept of a festival emphasizes unity amid diversity, cramming multiple stimuli into one day, week, or month. Moreover, given the trend toward salary-eating ticket prices for any concert, there’s safety in numbers; having seven or eight acts on a bill almost guarantees several satisfying performances, often from unexpected sources. ”For me,” says Michael Dorf, organizer of the What Is Jazz? series and head of Manhattan’s arty Knitting Factory jazz club, ”one of the greatest things is to be able to book a bill where one artist is going to draw, and then to put an unknown artist on the same bill that the audience will like.”

More-established bands can also benefit from the festival format, of course. ”The hard part is convincing six acts that all think they’re headliners to go on tour together when they all have pretty good reasons to go it alone,” points out Kevin Morrow, VP of tours and talent for House of Blues. ”The way we approached the Fugees was by saying ‘We’re going to take you to a level that you can’t achieve on your own right now.”’

Yet the fact that even Lollapalooza and its founder, Perry Farrell, can part ways after only five years indicates how the standards of hipness have intensified. Fortunately, the festival circuit has an illustrious alterna-history of its own, as ”answer fests” constantly crop up to prod their stodgier counterparts — like Farrell’s hoped-for sequel to Lollapalooza, the Enit Festival. The Porno for Pyros frontman waxes mystical about refocusing on nature instead of name recognition. ”Each person who buys a ticket buys a tree, and during the afternoon they’d plant it,” he says, envisioning a shared evening dinner and morning tea in addition to an all-night concert, with each element supposedly geared toward expanding consciousness and celebrating personal responsibility.