Watching bands perform in concert halls is fun and all, but how much cooler is it to see, say, Animal Collective in a Big Sur meadow, or to watch the Black Lips in a city park? California’s rising crop of independent promoters make the experience of where you’re seeing music just as important as the lineup. Their intimate weekend festivals, in picturesque locales like state parks, wineries, and ghost towns, stay burned into memory long after all the set lists are forgotten.
This spring and summer, step outside the normal festival circuit and into a whole new kind of experience. Below is our NorCal hit list for music fans seeking singular festival experiences with a few hundred like-minded friends.
1. Venues: Henry Miller Library, Fernwood Resort, Loma Vista Gardens (Big Sur)
Events: Hipnic, Woodsist Festival, Animal Collective Camping Weekend, one-off shows
FolkYeah’s Britt Govea curates amazing music events all over California (he works with many of the venues on this list), but he’s best known for his Big Sur shows. He’s booked Arcade Fire, Joanna Newsom, and hundreds of other beloved indie acts into the cozy meadows of the Henry Miller Library, the Loma Vista Gardens, and the Fernwood Resort, and he hosts annual festivals such as Hipnic (May 20–22), the Woodsist Festival (July 26-27) and the Animal Collective Camping Weekend (September 23–24). He also promotes one-offs in extra scenic spots: a railroad lodge in Felton, a community center in Bolinas, and a historic barn at Gundlach Bundschu (more on that below). Follow FolkYeah for all the updates.
Where to stay: Lodging and camping in Big Sur book up months in advance. We suggest securing a place to stay as soon as you buy tickets to a show. The Fernwood has a range of campsites, cabins, and hotel rooms to choose from.
2. Venue: Gundlach Bundschu Winery (Sonoma)
Events: Huichica, one-off shows
Jeff Bundschu, president of Gundlach Bundschu Winery, is a sixth-generation vintner and a huge music fan who regularly attends SXSW. So when a band manager buddy suggested that Bundschu use the natural amphitheater at his winery to host concerts, it was a no-brainer to bring that dream to life. The same friend introduced Bundschu to the Fruit Bats’ Eric Johnson, and the two hit it off discussing the snobbery that infects the wine and indie rock scenes. They joined forces to create an approachable indie music festival in wine country—and six years later, Huichica (June 10–11) is an annual destination for fans and bands alike. The event combines great music lineups (Cherry Glazerr, Dengue Fever, Giant Sand) with quality food from West Coast vendors and, of course, excellent German-style wine. East Coasters should keep an ear out for a New York version of Huichica in Hudson Valley this fall.
Where to stay: There’s no lodging at the winery, and hotels can get spendy in Sonoma. We recommend going the Airbnb or VRBO route, especially if you’re traveling with a group. Bundschu also suggests that groups on a budget consider packing into the large rooms at Sonoma Valley Inn.
3. Venue: Bandit Town (North Fork)
Events: Hillbilly Heaven Campout, 4th of July Weekend & Labor Day Weekend events
Bandit Town was originally constructed in the ‘70s as a Western-themed movie set, complete with buildings for a blacksmith, a candy shop, and a print shop (and later, a saloon and rodeo arena). But it sat dormant for 18 years until 2014, when Bandit Brand t-shirt owner Jen McMillan bought it, moved in, and started hosting country and rock ‘n’ roll festivals there over holiday weekends. The “town” is located in North Fork, the exact middle of California, so it draws NorCal and SoCal music fans alike. The Bandit Town experience goes beyond just the performances, with Wild West activities ranging from horse shoes and ax throwing to wagon rides and Western “shootouts.” The next big fest is Hillbilly Heaven Campout over Memorial Day Weekend.
Where to stay: McMillan is working on turning old Bandit Town retail spaces into lodging for guests. In the meantime, many attendees camp on the property. If you’d rather sleep under a roof, there’s the tiny South Fork Motel, or you can rent the former Stage Coach Stop from McMillian through her Airbnb page. There are also lots of cabins and motel rooms available along nearby Bass Lake and in Oakhurst (14 miles away).
4. Venue: The Peg House (Leggett)
Event: Hickey Fest
Hickey Fest organizer Ash Reiter fell in love with the Redwoods- and river-lined land around Leggett, California while on a bike trip from Portland to the Bay Area. So four years ago she started hosting a three-day camping and music festival there, timed with the summer solstice. Bands of the indie and folk variety play at the Peg House—which is across the street from the festival’s namesake and campground, Standish Hickey State Park—against a liquid lightshow backdrop. The fest has its own micro-radio station, so you can catch the performances while on a swim break in the nearby Eel River. The lineup for 2016 (June 17–19) will be announced soon—follow Hickey Fest on Facebook or watch the website for details.
Where to stay: Your festival pass automatically books you into group camping at Standish-Hickey Campground.
5. Venue: Mosswood Park (Oakland)
Event: Burger Boogaloo
The Bay Area has a mild obsession with garage rock, so it’s fitting that there’s an awesome annual outdoor festival dedicated to the icons and up and comers of the genre. Burger Boogaloo pays homage to Burger Records, but also hosts generations of rockers ranging from Ronnie Spector, The Flamin’ Groovies, and Jonathan Richman to the Black Lips, King Khan, Thee Oh Sees, and Fuzz. It attracts its share of cult stars too, from the music side (the Mummies, The Trashwomen) to trailblazing director John Waters (who hosts Burger Boogaloo for the second year in a row, alongside Traci Lords, a co-star of Cry-Baby). This all-ages blowout, now in its sixth year, takes over Mosswood Park June 25 and 26.
Where to stay: Since this one’s right off the MacArthur BART stop, there are plenty of lodging options all along the BART line. The city park is nestled between West and North Oakland, and the folks behind Burger Boogaloo use a simple Google search to display the closest motels nearby.