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Top 10 Music Festival Headliners in North America: Summer 2014 Power Rankings

Festival Outlook

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    Welcome to Festival Outlook, a new supplemental column that will provide more in-depth analysis for the rumors found on Consequence of Sound’s Festival Outlook. In this installment, Michael Roffman, Alex YoungFrank Mojica, Carson O’Shoney, and Josh Terry revisit this past Spring’s power rankings for the top 10 festival headliners and re-assess accordingly for summer.

    Frank Mojica (FM): So, recently at the Council of Festival Illuminati, we revisited the crop of North American music fests and, after careful analysis and deliberation, adjusted our power rankings for the summer. And now it’s time to do the same for the headliners.

    One question that continues to surface is how important is the headliner in 2014? We saw at Coachella that they really don’t matter so much anymore, but that seems to be less true for other festivals. Will they eventually follow suit, or is Coachella an anomaly? Will the reception of Kanye West be better at Outside Lands? In any case, we are midway through festival season, Bonnaroo has come and gone, and so has Lollapalooza.

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    What stands out to everyone? Which top-tier artists have been both a triumph creatively or commercially for these fests? Or better yet, both? What hasn’t worked?

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    Photo by Heather Kaplan

    Michael Roffman (MR): I’d say at face value, headliners are still very important in moving tickets. You can’t sell out a festival with a poor assembly of top talent, but here’s the switch: You can get away with mundanity if you layer the festival. Coachella was a great example of this, same with Bonnaroo, and Lollapalooza followed suit this past weekend. In fact, the weekend was a major success thanks to all the staggered acts. Never once did I feel pressured to only see two headliners. Eminem and OutKast both proved extraordinary, but if they didn’t, there was always Phantogram or Jenny Lewis, respectively. Sunday was even better with almost every top genre covered to cap off the weekend: Kings of Leon (rock), Chance the Rapper (hip-hop), Darkside (alternative), and Skrillex (EDM). As I said … layered.

    But not every festival has that luxury, so headliners take precedence. With that in mind, I don’t think there’s any better headliner to reign over a festival than Jack White. Hey, I don’t even like the guy’s music anymore — well, outside of The Dead Weather — but I’ll be the first to admit that he’s owning every festival slot he’s been booked for, thanks to his impromptu covers and choice back catalog selections. He’s a born performer, and if you do love Jack White, especially his latest offering, Lazaretto, then you’re in for even more of a treat, expecting to hear both new material and surprises. Again, I’m not a fan. I probably won’t listen to Lazaretto again this year, and I haven’t even seen him on this run in person, but I can’t think of a better headliner out there.

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    What about Arcade Fire, Mike? They’re a close second. The problem is they’re not really a festival headliner this year, save for their appearance at Coachella and Glastonbury. Had they appeared at Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza, or even Austin City Limits, I think they’d be a shoe-in for No. 1, but I just don’t think it’s fair to those acts that actually have signed the dotted line with Superfly or C3 or AC Entertainment. Having said that, they’re without a doubt the live act to see, and if you haven’t seen them on this “Reflektor Tour,” you’re missing out.

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    Photo by Philip Cosores

    Alex Young (AY): I think a headliner’s importance certainly varies depending on the festival. I also think it varies based on the headliner itself. In my mind, the reason Jack White and Arcade Fire are the consensus top two headliners in 2014 is because their performances aren’t just of the utmost quality, but also offer variety. I had the opportunity to see Jack headline Bonnaroo and Forecastle this summer and both performances were widely different due in part because Jack doesn’t use a setlist and rather bases his song choices on the audience’s reaction. Not one of his shows are the same, yet each performance maintains the same level of excellence, which is why, even after two fixes in less than a month, I’m still chomping at the bit to see him again. The same can be said about Arcade Fire, as well as Beck and Ryan Adams, all of whom have incorporated the same level of uniqueness into their own recent sets.

    With such headliners, each performance proves all the more special and memorable. At both Bonnaroo and Forecastle, I heard general attendees and festival organizers alike raving about Jack’s performance, deeming it one of the best in the festival’s history. In a conversation I had with one of Forecastle’s chief organizers, he explained that he was a little worried about how Jack’s performance would top what he did at Bonnaroo, yet somehow the Third Man rocker managed to blow any and all expectations out of the water. I think that’s the benchmark of a great headliner, to exceed the gold echelon already expected of you and to leave attendees with a lifetime memory.

    Photo by David Hall

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    OutKast // Photo by David HallCarson O’Shoney (CO): To think, this was supposed to be the summer of OutKast. When they announced in January that they would play 40 festivals in their first tour since 2001, I would have predicted they’d be the clear-cut champion of a power ranking like this one. 40 festivals? That’s an impressive number, and even in a time where headliners are looking too similar across the board, it was seen as a welcome return for one of the most beloved hip-hop groups of all time. However, they got off on the wrong foot in their first performance back at Coachella and have since been so ubiquitous that it’s not as special or exciting as it could have been. Don’t get me wrong, since that ill-fated first show, they tweaked their game plan and have been consistently killing it at festivals across the world. Their headlining set at Counterpoint was everything I hoped for and more.

    But unlike Jack White and Arcade Fire sitting at the top of this list, OutKast have pretty much stuck to the same setlist at every date of their festival tour. That’s a fine strategy for some, but when you’re headlining just about every festival out there, changing things up every once in a while can go a long way. There’s a reason you’re gunning to see Jack again, Alex. You just never know what he’s going to do. He might bust out a Lorde cover or pull out a White Stripes deep cut. With OutKast, you’re gonna get the hits. It’s going to be fun as hell, but you’ll still get the same set no matter how many shows you go to. That’s why they’re only at No. 6 on this list. That’s still a solid position in the grand scheme of things, so all that said – if you somehow miss them this summer, you’re gonna regret it. I guarantee it. You just won’t need to see them a second time.

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    Photo by Lilian Cai

    On the other hand, when Morning Phase first came out, I thought Beck would embark on an all-acoustic tour. Then he started showing up at the top of lineups, and I wondered how well something like that would go over for a festival crowd. I adore that record, and most of his other acoustic works, but that type of music just does not lend itself to festival headliner status. In hindsight, I should have known better, as he proved me very wrong. Sure, there are still sections of his show that feature his softer side, but it’s just a small portion of the show — the majority of it covers the big, raucous rock songs and the ass-shaking funk of the rest of his catalog.

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    He’s playing all the crowd-pleasing hits, but he’s changing it up enough to keep things interesting – from Midnite Vultures deep cuts (“Get Real Paid”) to splicing in covers in the middle of his own songs (“Think I’m In Love/I Feel Love”). He’s been on fire this whole tour, his festival appearances notwithstanding. While an all-acoustic Beck would be a thing of beauty on its own, it would never go over as well as his current show at big festivals like Forecastle and Pitchfork. I’ve never been more happy to be proven wrong – and after seeing the show for myself, I might even bump him up to No. 3 on this list.

    Photo by Philip Cosores

    Jack White // Photo by Philip CosoresFM: When it comes to headlining sets, changing it up really does make a difference. Arcade Fire and Jack White have a knack for making each set feel special and once in a lifetime. Just compare the two Arcade Fire performances at Coachella or any two unpredictable sets from Jack White this year, really. The same goes for Beck because he’s really gone 110% in delivering crowd-pleasing sets this year.

    It’s those differences that keep people coming back for more. I know I’m about to see Arcade Fire for the eleventh time, for example. With OutKast and also Neutral Milk Hotel, it was exciting to finally see them, but the sets they do are the kind where once is really enough.

    Apparently headliners can still draw considerable controversy, such as Metallica and Glastonbury and Kanye West at Bonnaroo. Do you think they did a good job of proving themselves and silencing the naysayers?

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    Josh Terry (JT): It’s funny that both Kanye West and Metallica, arguably two of music’s best live acts, were met with such fierce opposition. Sure, both artists have had their moments of getting on the wrong side of press and the public. Sometimes the criticism is deserved, like the backlash following Metallica and the Napster debate, their unflattering self-portrayal on Some Kind of Monster along with West’s infamous 2008 Bonnaroo appearance.

    On the other hand, oftentimes the backlash is overblown and feverish, like when people bafflingly complain about West’s self-confidence (seriously, why shouldn’t he have an ego?) or those who dismissed Metallica’s actually pretty good last album, Death Magnetic. While talented, both rarely stray away from controversy. Fortunately, for forgiving Bonnaroo-goers and curious Glastonbury attendees, they found that the reason why West and Metallica have such staying power is mostly due to their memorable live shows.

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    Photo by Ben Kaye

    For West, despite scores of idiots still making South Park “gay fish” jokes at ‘Roo in 2014, by most accounts, his 21-song, career-spanning set was a memorable and triumphant return. Of course, not everyone enjoys West’s proclivity to stop the music and muse on topics like his place as a creative entity and celebrity, his relationship to the media, and his wife, Kim Kardashian. But for many, the appeal isn’t just Kanye West the musician; it also comes from Kanye West the person. Since Bonnaroovians needed a palate-cleansing, emphatic performance to get rid of 2008’s sour taste, there’s little West could’ve done better.

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    Metallica’s story is fairly similar. Even though they’ve never had a disastrous set at Glastonbury (they’ve never been booked), they were a relatively puzzling addition for a festival whose previous headliners included Mumford and Sons, Arctic Monkeys, Coldplay, U2, and Muse. In 2008, Jay-Z received some backlash as the first rap headliner, but he victoriously responded to Oasis’s Noel Gallagher’s criticisms by covering “Wonderwall”. Even then, he didn’t receive as much backlash as Metallica, who had 15,000 angry fans petitioning organizers to book someone else and had everyone from Arctic Monkeys’ Alex Turner and the dude from Kasabian riffing negatively on the booking. That said, their set, which was heavy on older live staples, quelled the doubts and muted the critics. According to our reviewers, “Metallica earned their spot on the Pyramid stage by laying down a fiercely intense set of well-known classics interspersed with more recent work.”

    What about some of the more unique bookings this festival season? With Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and Massive Attack returning to the summer circuit, how have they held up to the rest?

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    Photo by Philip Cosores

    MR: We’ll know this weekend how well Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers will sound on this tour. I don’t like to jump to conclusions too often, but I’m willing to bet ol’ Tommy’s got a number of oldies in his set. His latest album, Hypnotic Eye, is an attempt to grasp the more simplistic rock ‘n’ roll of his past, and while it only somewhat manages to do that, the mindset is clear: He’s ready to punch away at the six-string, not linger there. So, all of those jam-heavy setlists of years past will probably fall wayside to more favorable material. Last year’s intimate theater gigs, his Beacon show especially, was a strong indication of that, and also of his endurance onstage. So, with that in mind, I think his forthcoming appearance at Outside Lands will be a breath of fresh yet familiar air, at least with regards to veteran headliners.

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    The problem with Massive Attack it would seem is that they don’t really have anything new to add. I can’t imagine what I saw in 2010 will be much different than what they’re doing now; I could be wrong. They still haven’t followed up Heligoland, but perhaps their re-emergence indicates we’ll actually see something down the line. Last I recall, they were supposed to reunite with Tricky, and well, we haven’t heard much since. Their live show is something to contend with, however, and lately they’ve been railing against the brutalities across the Gaza strip, so hey, at least that political spirit of theirs remains fiery and relevant. That’s something.

    Look, I’ll always see Massive Attack. Always. I just don’t know if they’re enough to sell me on an entire festival. Having said that, they’re an incredible addition on any bill looking to expand their palette. I guess I’m just a grump who wants more music from them. #bias

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    Photo by Dan Pfleegor

    Are we missing anyone else? How about some disappointments this year? Maybe it’s just me but having seen St. Vincent three times now this year, I’m a little fatigued by her live show. It’s one hell of a production, don’t get me wrong, but it goes back to what we discussed earlier about predictability. With St. Vincent, it’s almost two-fold: Not only is the setlist a carbon copy, but so are her mannerisms — from the robotic skittering down to the way she twists her head. When I last saw her at Pitchfork, I was definitely surprised to see her plunge dome-first into the drum head, but altogether, the set (at least to me) seemed a little too premeditated. I hate saying that, though, especially since she’s one of my favorite living artists. Am I crazy?

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    FM: Yep, crazy. I saw her close out Saturday night at Sled Island, and it was the best headlining set I’ve seen all year and makes my all-time short list. It was quite different from the two times I saw her earlier this year, actually. While it had the same production, choreography, and shortened setlist, there were some next-level surprises.

    Photo by Heather Kaplan

    Wednesday - Kaplan - St Vincent - 11For example, when Annie Clark shuffled over to my side during “Rattlesnake”, I instinctively put away my camera as she gave me the piercing death stare, which kept going and going as she steadily leaned forward and back while shredding until she tipped herself over and on top of us. She seems to really let loose during “Your Lips Are Red”, which is always a jaw-dropping sort of epic, whether she’s head-butting kick drums or throwing garbage on people. And I mean that literally, because my mouth was actually sore for half the night afterwards. If another west coast tour isn’t announced soon (everywhere but here this summer and fall, apparently), I’ll have to fly somewhere for one more round before the year ends.

    But even off-script moments are likely premeditated across the board. I mean, bands rehearse for months and months before going on tour and then soundcheck before going onstage. How often does a band have a real unplanned encore? It’s written or typed out well in advance (except for Jack White lately). Arcade Fire didn’t just spontaneously appear with Deborah Harry or Paft Dunk because arrangements had to be made for those to happen.

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    MR: Eh, I don’t really count those as “differences,” Frank. But I’ll contend that we’re of the camp that gets to see acts again and again all year. Most people only attend one festival, or see someone tour once per year, so with that in mind, she has one of the best shows of the year. I just think back to when I saw her supporting Strange Mercy or Actor or even Marry Me, and it was Annie Clark on the stage, not her vision of St. Vincent. By comparison, she felt more organic and alive, which I guess is the point she’s trying to juxtapose this year with her latest tour, but on the whole, I miss hearing her witty rapport with the audience or the off-the-cuff stories behind some of her songs. I got a little bit of that when she covered Nirvana’s “Lithium” back in Chicago this past Spring, and it was a spark of life that just had me reeling. Anyways, I felt I needed to offer a little clarification.

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    Photo by Wei Shi

    Regardless of my hesitations, I’d still slot her high on this list as she’s the sort of artist whose presence will be felt by everyone: passersby, fans, and critics. That’s a power few artists ever achieve, even those on this list.

    FM: And the power of St. Vincent with a guitar is akin to Thanos with the Infinity Gauntlet. So, it seems that headliners do, in fact, still matter at most festivals for the time being. Ideally, they bring everyone together at the end of a long day for a massive shared experience. And whether it’s Rihanna guesting with Eminem, Deborah Harry singing with Arcade Fire, or Jack White dropping random covers, people like to be surprised by the biggest stars.

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    And now, for the best of the best…

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