Summer Guide: Al fresco aural delights

A round-up of New England's outdoor music fests
By NINA MACLAUGHLIN  |  June 11, 2014

Jenny Lewis, at the Newport Folk Festival July 25.

To set the scene: summertime, eight years ago, maybe 10. A Radiohead show at Great Woods in Mansfield, MA, which is now the Xfinity Center but will always be known as Great Woods. Dark and threatening skies, bulbous clouds churning high above like boiling mountains, an electricity in the air, across the wide lawn, born of the drama above, born of the volume and energy of Mr. Yorke and his crew. Winds rose with crescendos. Then came the rain. Thunder, rumbling and roiling then sharp as a crack on the drum, lightning flashes brighter than the spotlights. People were scared. People were thrilled. Bone soaked and yelling with every flash of lightning, it was as though the band itself controlled the storm. It wasn’t the best concert I’ve been to, but it was one of the most memorable. That sort of thing doesn’t go down indoors.

Inside, at a club or a stadium, the sound presses in more intensely as it bounces against walls and ceilings. But outdoors, what you sacrifice in sound quality, you make up for in something more elemental. Grass, sand, dirt, mud. Rain, sun, bugs, stars. What’s more summery than a blanket on the ground? A cooler, some pals, some tunes, the dizziness of a party with a crowd of strangers? Not much, we’ll say. Herein, six states’ worth of outdoor concerts, from big festivals and national acts, to smaller scale music series with local bands. There’s stuff worth the road trip, and stuff worth a bike ride downtown. Bring sunscreen. Bring a change of clothes.


The  Newport Folk Fest , arguably New England’s biggest concert festival of the summer, has not, for a long time, been the exclusive home of beards, braids, and banjos — though there’s some of that, and always will be. The festival has been showcasing up-and-comers and big, established bands since it began in 1959. The lineup for this year’s festival, July 25-27, includes Band of Horses, Ryan Adams, Mavis Staples, bright-eyed Conor Oberst, Deer Tick, Jenny Lewis, Sun Kil Moon, Trampled by Turtles, and about 60 other acts. You’ll have to be creative to get your hands on tickets — the mid-summer festival is typically sold out before the temperature hits 75.

It’s the 60th anniversary of the  Newport Jazz Fest (August 1-3), and this year’s headliners include Bobby McFerrin, the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis, Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue, and dozens of others.

The  Newport Concert Series on the waterfront presents a sampling of uptempo bands for summer evenings, including Yes (July 13), Barenaked Ladies (July 18), and KC and the Sunshine Band (July 9). The  Waterfront Reggae Festival on August 9 features Freddie McGregor, John Brown’s Body, Etana, Mighty Mystic, New Kingston, and Soul Rebel Project. It’s St. Patrick’s Day in August with the Celtic Rock Festival with Eileen Ivers, Gaelic Storm, Black 47, Celtica-Pipes Rock!, the Tartan Terrors, and the Fighting Jamesons.

In Providence, WBRU runs its  Friday Night Concert Series at Waterplace Park, with every show featuring a local opener. June 20 it’s Phantogram with the Brother Kite; July 11 it’s Magic Man with the Complaints; July 25 it’s a quartet of brothers from South Africa called Kongos with Satellites Fall.

The annual Labor Day  Rhythm and Roots Festival continues this year in Charlestown at Ninigret Park with Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys, Donna the Buffalo, Jim Lauderdale with the Traveling McCourys, Ten Strings & a Goatskin, the Pine Leaf Boys, and many more.


Wilco’s  Solid Sound music and arts festival at the edge of Massachusetts in North Adams, is taking the year off. But you can sign up now for updates for the 2015 festival, taking place June 26-28 of next year.

The Museum of Fine Arts continues its Concerts In the Courtyard series, with a cool range of folk and world music offerings, including Patty Larkin (August 6) and the energetic Debo Band, which takes its inspiration from ’60s era Ethiopian funk. Elsewhere in Boston museumland, the Institute of Contemporary Art showcases bands from Berklee College of Music every Thursday evening (July 10-August 28) as part of their free Harborwalk Sounds series.

On the banks of the Charles River, the Bank of America Pavilion plays host to Willie Nelson (June 17), ’90s blowbacks Counting Crows and Toad the Wet Sprocket (July 2), the Goo Goo Dolls (August 15), among others. Piano man Billy Joel plays Fenway Park (June 26), and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers play there on August 30.

In New Bedford, where “cannibals stand chatting,” according to Herman Melville, whaling is traded for wailing (in a good way) with the  New Bedford Folk Festival (July 5-6), with Kate Campbell, Vance Gilbert, the Murphy Beds, Christ Smither, Spuyten Duyvil, and many more.

The indomitable  Tanglewood in lovely Lenox is best known for its classical series as the Boston Symphony Orchestra makes their summer performance home there, but they also host a few rock shows. James Taylor’s Fourth of July shows are already sold out, but Train plays on August 29; Josh Groban plays on August 30; and Tony Bennett gives the season’s farewell performance on August 31.

The  Lowell Summer Music Series has a bunch of top notch shows including Lucinda Williams (June 27), Neko Case (June 28), Andrew Bird (July 12), and Lyle Lovett (August 16) — all of whom seem uniquely suited to play in this old mill city.

The bands at this year’s  Green River Festival in Greenfield are as notable as the hot-air balloon rides also on offer during the weekend (July 12-13). You have Josh Ritter and the Royal City Band, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Lady, Grant-Lee Phillips, Lady Lamb the Beekeeper, and a bunch of others.

The  Boston Calling music festival closes out summer over three days (September 5-7) in City Hall Plaza with a superior line-up including the National, Neutral Milk Hotel, Lorde, Girl Talk, Nas and the Roots, and Spoon.

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