Bonna-What?: How 7 U.S. Music Festivals Got Their Names
This whole week, the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival, featuring the Black Keys, Radiohead, Dr. Dre & Snoop Dogg, Pulp, At the Drive-In, the Shins, AVICII, David Guetta and maybe one or two others, will be all anyone who follows music these days will be talking about. Then early next week, it's all they'll be reading about. Rocks Off is glad to say we'll be sharing some of our pals at LA Weekly and OC Weekly's on-site coverage right here.
Coachella more or less ushers in "festival season," the spring- and summer-long chain of bands, beer and board shorts that shoots from Southern California and New Orleans to outside Nashville, the East Coast and Chicago, and wraps up a couple of hundred miles west of here in Austin's Zilker Park October 12-14.
But let's face it: The sad fact is that most music festivals' names suck. They're either really boring ("Place" + "Music Festival"... yawn) or somewhat misleading. Some of America's top events, such as the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and both the Newport Jazz Festival and Newport Folk Festival, leave little room for the kind of music in their titles, or at the very least use very broad definitions of "jazz" and "folk."
Rock. And. Roll.
There was actually something called the 1979 California World Music Festival, featuring -- wait for it -- not-quite-NPR faves like REO Speedwagon, Toto, UFO, Journey and Van Halen. Interestingly, you never seem to see any festivals named after genres that are a little bit more commercially vibrant, like pop, rock or rap.
We don't know that we'd necessarily connect the word "Ultra" with electronic dance music, but then we don't live in Miami and don't listen to a whole lot of that stuff anyway. (We are trying... apparently it's rather popular.) And even at this late date, just try to get any respectable insurance company to underwrite a policy for an event with the words "rap festival" in the name. That's the world we live in, although Murs has made it work with his Paid Dues festival, which the California rapper organized himself and brought like-minded artists such as Odd Future, Wu-Tang Clan, Dipset, Mac Miller and many more to the NOS Events Center in San Bernadino, Calif. over the weekend.
Many festivals, including some in our area, don't even bother to mention music in their names at all. We're looking at you, next weekend's Kemah Crawfish Festival, and the upcoming Free Press Summer Fest. (Sorry, guys, it's true.) Milwaukee's Summerfest, thought to be the largest festival of its kind in the world with attendance at the 11-day event regularly topping 1 million, also falls into the same trap.
But spend enough time on a relatively quiet Friday afternoon, and suddenly there were a few festivals whose names were interesting enough for Rocks Off to find out where they came from.
1. Coachella: Coachella, the music festival, is named for both the valley in California's Chocolate Mountains and the small city near the festival grounds. But the word itself means nothing. It's thought to be a mispronunciation of the Spanish word "conchilla," which means "small white snail shell." Apparently a long, long time ago, Coachella used to be underwater.
2. Stagecoach: Held in the same spot a couple of weeks after Coachella and organized by the same promoters, Stagecoach does for country music what Coachella does for rock, hip-hop and EDM. Rocks Off can only imagine Goldenvoice Entertainment, the company that produces both festivals (part of the AEG umbrella), was trying to conjure country music via the Old West. For a bunch of L.A. types, they did a decent job. This year's headliners include Jason Aldean, Miranda Lambert, Blake Shelton, Brad Paisley and Alabama.
3. Bonnaroo: Unless we've missed one, this is probably the coolest name for a major American music festival you're likely to find. One of the guys who started the Tennessee festival, Jonathan Mayer - not the ladykilling white bluesman - told Spin he was living in New Orleans and found an old Dr. John album called Desitively Bonnaroo online. The old Night Tripper, himself, amidst a minor career renaissance with new Dan Auerbach-produced Locked Down, titled that 1974 LP (featuring a key supporting role by the Meters) after an old New Orleans word that means "fun." Another old New Orleans word that means "fun."
4. All Tomorrow's Parties: Or this one, started in 1999 in London and named after the drone-heavy song on the Velvet Underground's 1967 debut album The Velvet Underground & Nico. ATP's organizers add a twist, much copied now, by letting an artist they admire book the festival (called "curating"). Sonic Youth did the honors for ATP's first American edition, held at UCLA in 2002. It relocated to the East Coast in 2008, when My Bloody Valentine did the honors, and glum Brooklyn rockers the National are at the wheel this year.
5. Bumbershoot: The rare instance of a festival name that is both clever and appropriate to its surroundings. Bumbershoot, which takes place in Seattle over Labor Day Weekend, is also a term for "umbrella" that dates back to the 1890s.
6. Lollapalooza: Its exact etymology is unclear, but "Lollapalooza" also dates back to the 1890s and merely means "something unusual." As far as we know, Perry Ferrell has not been actually been to trademark the word, although he is a partner in the festival he started as Jane's Addiction's 1991 farewell tour and moved into Chicago's Grant Park in 2005. More likely, he was thumbing through a thesaurus when looking for something to call Jane's tour; Merriam-Webster suggests "bee's knees," "cat's meow," "jim-dandy" and "sockdolager." Any one of those might have turned out a wee bit differently.
7. Rocks Off really, really hopes we don't have to tell our readers how the Austin City Limits Music Festival got its name (hint: Raphael Saadiq and Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears were on last on week), but this year's lineup should be announced in a few more weeks.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.