Shopping for Dremel tool bits at the Mega-Lo-Depot last week, I almost spent $40 on a case of cutting wheels, a sanding attachment, and a diamond tile cutter. On the way down the aisle, a variety pack of bits caught my eye — everything I needed for $25, plus plenty more I'll enjoy finding a use for.
The same principle applies to concerts. Add up the regular door prices for all the bands you'll see at any of this spring's regional music festivals and the grand total will far surpass the $100 or so you'll spend on full weekend tickets. For live music lovers in a rough economy, there's no better investment than a festival. Bring your own beer (but not to all of them), sleep out under the stars, and relax or dance away the evenings to an array of talented acts.
We've compiled the best bets for Charleston weekend warriors over the next two months. Each of these festies is within a five-hour drive, making it doable for gainful 9-to-5ers. And if you've been laid off, most even offer free tickets to those who volunteer an afternoon of work over the weekend.
March 26-29, Live Oak, Fla.
An Americana dream, this North Florida hootenanny never disappoints. Camp out around a pond circled by Spanish moss-draped cypress trees and walk down a sandy path to backstroke across the Suwannee River. Grab a hammock at the amphitheater stage and hear Richie Havens, Darrell Scott, Shannon Whitworth, and Donna the Buffalo pick and croon for you. This year's lineup is among their best ever; it also includes Peter Rowan, the Duhks, Blueground Undergrass, and the Gourds. The hardest thing about Springfest is going back home. www.magmusic.com
Shakori Hills Grassroots Festival
April 16-19, Pittsboro, N.C.
This biannual party in the hills of central North Carolina was born from the original grassroots fest in New York hosted by Donna the Buffalo. A fair mix of snowbirds and rebels alike, Shakori is a family-style party like no other. This spring features Donna, Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys, Boulder Acoustic Society, Holy Ghost Tent Revival, and Jim Lauderdale. And there's always plenty of quirky art and crazy people to get carried away with. www.shakorihills.org
April 23-26, Wilkesboro, N.C.
The granddaddy of bluegrass festivals never disappoints. It's different from the party fests — no booze inside the gates — but with many of the world's finest musicians pickin' away with each other in a shared setting like no other, you wouldn't want to water down your recollections of the all-star acoustic jams. Founder Doc Watson continues to perform all four days, along with festival veterans like Peter Rowan, Jerry Douglas, Del McCoury, Sam Bush, and the Carolina Chocolate Drops. Travis Tritt, Emmylou Harris, and Linda Ronstadt also join a lineup with too many greats to name. www.merlefest.org
French Broad River Festival
May 1-3, Hot Springs, N.C.
Now in its 12th year, French Broad is as cozy a mountain shindig as they come. Spend your days on the river, then rollick in the evenings with the Rev. Horton Heat and regular alumni like Larry Keel, Acoustic Syndicate, and the Snake Oil Medicine Show. Folly Beach's Dangermuffin make their first trip up this year to the two-tent spectacle in the tiny mountain enclave of Hot Springs. www.frenchbroadriverfestival.com
Lake Eden Arts Festival (LEAF)
May 7-10, Black Mountain, N.C.
Ahhh ... a relaxed sigh of joyous contentment best sums up the LEAF experience. A family-friendly affair, LEAF is as much about the community, art, yoga, water slide, and bonfires as it is about music. But the bands are the core, and this spring's lineup includes Martin Sexton, the Meter Men (of the Meters), Natalie MacMaster, David Wilcox, and Charleston's own Sol Driven Train. Bring the kids and buy tickets early — LEAF consistently sells out. www.theleaf.com
May 15–17, Swainsboro, Ga.
Oftentimes the best festivals come in small packages. Only about three hours from Charleston, along the banks of the Ohoopee River, this grassroots fest promises to be an intimate but wild party. Headliners include Charleston faves like Randall Bramblett, Blueground Undergrass, the Last Waltz Ensemble, and the Yonrico Scott Band. We're guessing this will draw a couple thousand music lovers at most — a stark alternative to the anonymous crowds at Bonnaroo. You'll actually get the chance to hang out with the new friends you meet in front of the stage. www.myspace.com/hoopeejam
Wanee Music Festival
June 5-6, Live Oak, Fla.
The Allman Brothers host this annual gathering of family and friends on the Suwannee River, featuring two nights of the original southern rockers. They're joined by Gov't Mule, the Derek Trucks Band, the Doobie Brothers, Toots and the Maytals, Little Feat, Susan Tedeschi, the Wailers, Jorma Kaukonen, Keller Williams, the Drive-By Truckers, Col. Bruce Hampton, and Grace Potter and the Nocturnals. It's a lineup built to knock you flat on your ass. www.waneefestival.com
Want more? Check out the Keel Family Function (LaFayette, Ga., April 3-5), Sweetwater 420 Fest (Atlanta, April 18-19), and Boombutywah (Kingston, Tenn., May 29-31). And don't forget Bonnaroo and FloydFest this summer! Get rowdy and get home safe.