It’s been two full years since the team at Live For Live Music has been able to write about our favorite festivals. After the COVID-19 pandemic canceled virtually all music events last year, the live music industry began picking up the pieces in 2021.

While the ongoing pandemic continued to present new obstacles throughout the year—and wound up prompting a slew of New Year’s cancellations—many festivals managed to adapt to the evolving landscape and pull off the kind of music, arts, and community events that millions had missed the previous year.

For this installment in our 2021 year-end Staff Picks series, we’re taking a look at our favorite festivals of 2021. While the simple act of attending an in-person gathering in 2021 brought was worth celebrating, these were the events that went above and beyond after a treacherous 2020.

You can also listen to a playlist of our favorite new tracks of 2021 here and read up on the year’s strangest sagas here.

Mountain Music Festival | ACE Adventure Resort | Minden, WV | June 3rd–5th, 2021

[Photo: Adam Berta – Lettuce]

For many, Mountain Music Festival signaled the re-emergence of large-scale, full-fledged music festivals. Its return to ACE Adventure Resort in Minden, WV on June 3rd–5th served as a beacon of hope for our ongoing efforts to return to “normalcy.” Boasting a diverse lineup topped by Pigeons Playing Ping Pong, Lettuce, The Wood Brothers, The Infamous Stringdusters, and many more, MMF acted as the perfect re-entry to festival season.

A truncated Thursday night schedule saw the West Virginia locals Fletcher’s Grove open up the weekend on the intimate Lake Stage, followed by sets from Asheville, NC’s Empire Strikes Brass, and the Dayton, OH natives, The Werks. After daytime sets from Vintage Pistol and Moon Hooch on Friday, festival-goers sunk their teeth into the meat of the weekend with TAUK‘s sunset performance. Pigeons, the Friday night headliners, brought 90-minutes of high-energy psychedelic funk to the mountain, with a set featuring sit-ins by TAUK’s Alric “AC” Carter, Matt Jalbert, and Isaac Teel, along with the Funk You horn section.

Pigeons Playing Ping Pong – ACE Adventure Resort – Minden, WV – 6/4/21

In addition to three days of music, Mountain Music Festival offered a variety of activities and workshops, which came in handy on day three. Attendees took part in yoga and other workshops in the multi-purpose arts and activities tent during the day on Saturday, stretching out the festival muscles that became atrophied during the pandemic-induced layoff. The music wasn’t done just yet, however, as MMF still had a full day of jams ahead. Day three saw performances from BareFuzzArlo McKinley, The Infamous Stringdusters, and The Wood Brothers before North Carolina’s own Big Something emerged to close down the Main Stage and sent everyone packing to the next festival.

Big Something – Mountain Music Festival – Minden, WV – 6/5/21 – Full Show

[Video: Big Something]

Revisit Live For Live Music‘s full coverage of Mountain Music Festival here.

Summer Camp Music Festival | Three Sisters Park | Chillicothe, IL | August 20th–22nd, 2021

[Photo: Keith Griner – Billy Strings]

Summer Camp Music Festival made its triumphant return to Three Sisters Park for its 20th anniversary on August 20th–22nd. After organizers pushed the historic gathering from 2020 to 2021, then later moved it from Memorial Day weekend to mid-August, tens of thousands of ardent S’Campers descended on Chillicothe, IL for some long-awaited musical therapy. Braving the often-treacherous Midwestern sun, festival-goers enjoyed four nights of eclectic music (including a Thursday night pre-party) from a lineup headed by moe., Umphrey’s McGee, WeenBilly Strings, Three 6 MafiaGRiZREZZSTS9, and Tipper.

After acts like Umphrey’s, LettuceThe Floozies, and Manic Focus warmed up the stages on Thursday, the party really got started on Friday with the first full serving of music. Friday’s most anticipated artist was none other than Billy Strings. Mentioned as one of Live For Live Music‘s top breakout artists of 2019, the musical juggernaut that is Billy Strings capitalized on his success in 2020 with a Grammy, taking home the award for “Best Bluegrass Album“, followed by the release of Renewal in 2021 that captured another nomination for the 2022 awards ceremony.

Saturday saw festival co-hosts Umphrey’s McGee deliver its third set of the weekend. UM proved the old adage “the third time’s a charm,” putting together a flawlessly executed performance that preceded a slot from fellow co-hosts moe. Ghost-Note helped the party rock straight past midnight and into the next day before Dayton, OH’s own The Werks then closed out the Friday night/Saturday morning festivities under the glow of a full moon.

The Werks — “Moonset” — Chillicothe, IL — 8/21/21

One of Sunday’s most memorable moments came as a bit of a surprise. Following some truly spectacular sets from lespecialDopapodSpafford, Three 6 Mafia, and Ween, came the toughest choice of the night: moe.’s final set, GRiZ’s only appearance of the weekend, or the world debut of Death Kings. Those who opted for the latter saw Mike Gantzer (Aqueous), Ryan Stasik (Umphrey’s McGee), and Mikey Carubba (formerly of Turkuaz) takeover the Soulshine Tent for 90-minutes of punk and metal-inspired jams.

Death Kings – “96 Quite Bitter Beings” (CKY) – Chillicothe, IL – 8/22/21

Revisit Live For Live Music‘s full coverage of Summer Camp Music Festival here.

The Peach Music Festival | Montage Mountain | Scranton, PA | July 1st–4th, 2021

turkuaz remain in light, turkuaz, turkuaz peach, 2021 music festivals

[Photo: Jesse Faatz – Turkuaz Remain In Light]

In late 2019, The Peach Music Festival announced that it would move its annual event at Scranton, PA’s Montage Mountain to July 4th weekend, with the promise of fireworks every night. While the 2020 edition of Peach never took place as scheduled, organizers maintained the same July 4th experience in 2021 and kept much of the same, jaw-dropping lineup, as well. Co-founded by the Allman Brothers Band in 2012, Peach has always delivered some of the most jam-packed lineups of the summer and 2021 was no different, with performances by OysterheadThe String Cheese IncidentJoe Russo’s Almost DeadWarren HaynesUmphrey’s McGee, moe.Pigeons Playing Ping PongOteil & Friends, and many more.

While Peach has continued to compile some of the biggest names in the jam world, festival organizers put as much effort into curating an excellent undercard. As the afternoon sun burned away what remained of the Thursday morning rain, the rising New Haven, CT jam-rock quartet Eggy jump-started the first full day of music on the Grove stage.

Friday saw the opening of the Mushroom Stage, as even more artists packed into Montage Mountain. Sets from Nicole AtkinsThumpasaurus, and Dizgo set up the day’s first big highlight on the Peach Stage, Live At The Fillmore East, a tribute to ABB’s iconic live album for its 50th anniversary. Day two also saw performances from Ghost LightMagic BeansFunk YouUmphrey’s McGee, and the return of Joe Russo’s Almost Dead. While it had been two years since JRAD last played the festival (counting our worldwide enforced year off), it had been three since the eponymous bandleader Joe Russo graced the Peach Stage, as Evan Roque and Ben Perowsky filled in for him in 2019 following the birth of his daughter.

It’s hard to imagine a more jam-heavy 14 hours than the Saturday lineup delivered on the third day of Peach. Shortly after Kitchen Dwellers got things started on the main stage, Celisse treated fans at the Grove Stage to one of the most memorable sit-ins of the weekend. As the rain poured down at Montage, Celisse’s Ghost of the Forest bandmate (and bandleader) Trey Anastasio appeared on stage with his trusty Languedoc guitar in hand, trading licks and adding backing vocals on “Undercover”. Of course, this wouldn’t be Trey’s last time on stage that day.

Following sets from TAUKAndy Frasco & The U.N.Neal FrancisOteil & FriendsDopapod, and Doom Flamingo, Anastasio took to the Peach Stage with his longtime friends, Les Claypool (Primus) and Stewart Copeland (The Police), for the headlining set of the festival, Oysterhead. In just the band’s third performance since 2006—and its first in 17 months—Trey, Les, and Stewart wasted no time delving into the meat of their alt-rock, neo-psychedelic catalog. Following this momentous performance, thousands of attendees were treated to the eagerly awaited world debut of the Remain In Light Talking Heads tribute by Turkuaz, Jerry Harrison, and Adrian Belew.

Sunday put the proverbial cherry on top of an excellent weekend, starting with the Peach Guitar Pull, back for its second consecutive year, followed by sets from Blind Boys of Alabama, Nic Perri & The Underground Thieves, New Madrid, Warren Haynes, and two weekend-closing sets from String Cheese Incident.

Oysterhead – The Peach Music Festival – 7/3/21

[Video: oskar]

Read Live For Live Music‘s full coverage of The Peach Music Festival: Day One | Day Two | Day Three | Day Four

Suwannee Hulaween | Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park | Live Oak, FL | October 28th–31st, 2021

hulaween, hulaween string cheese, 2021 music festivals

[Photo: Keith Griner – The String Cheese Incident]

Live Oak, FL’s Suwannee Hulaween has found itself on our list of favorite festivals for the fourth consecutive year, and for good reason. Hula has established itself as one of the country’s most well-executed and wonderfully curated festivals, which is no doubt a testament to the hard work and dedication of its organizers and host band The String Cheese Incident. The four-day event saw five stages spread across the Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park with an eclectic lineup that included headlining performances from My Morning Jacket, SkrillexLeon BridgesKhruangbinZeds DeadUmphrey’s McGee, Greensky Bluegrass, and, of course, three nights of The String Cheese Incident.

After lespecial handled business over at Spirit Lake, Greensky Bluegrass tore down The Amphitheatre stage on Thursday afternoon and Umphrey’s McGee stepped forward and collected the pieces to help craft an exciting opening day for one of the year’s best weekends of music. Umphrey’s arrival was bittersweet, as the band’s inclusion on the lineup came after Joe Russo’s Almost Dead abruptly canceled its appearance one week before its scheduled appearance. More than up to the task, UM filled JRAD’s shoes and did it in a spectacular fashion. Umphrey’s even slipped in a little nod to JRAD during the group’s first of two sets, delivering a cover debut of the Grateful Dead‘s “Althea”.

Umphrey’s McGee – “Althea” – 10/28/21

[Video: runaway jr]

One of the weekend’s biggest highlights came on Saturday with The String Cheese Incident’s annual themed performance. The Colorado-based sextet somehow managed to best 2019’s ’90s theme that saw SCI cover artists like Red Hot Chili PeppersNirvana, Phish, and more. In 2021 members Bill NershiMichael KangMichael Travis, Keith MoseleyKyle Hollingsworth, and Jason Hann revealed a third-set “Dance Party” with covers from the catalogs of David Bowie (“Let’s Dance”), ABBA (“Dancing Queen”) Sly & The Family Stone (“Dance To The Music”), Elton John (“Tiny Dancer”), and much, much more.

Hulaween wasn’t done just yet, as a full Sunday schedule included a spot from Maggie Rose, the final Turkuaz Remain In Light appearance (and presumptive “last Turkuaz show” overall), two more hours of Cheese, and an ethereal stage-closing set from Khruangbin at The Meadow.

Revisit Live For Live Music‘s full coverage of Suwannee Hulaween here.

Fred The Festival | Infinity Farm | Arrington, VA | August 20th–22nd, 2021

2021 music festivals

[Photo: Chris Quinn – Goose w/ Dawes]

Another one of our Breakout Artists of 2019Goose, had a career year in 2021. In addition to releasing its sophomore album, Shenanigans Nite Club, and a spinoff film of the same name, Goose hosted its very first festival. Fred The Festival arrived as part of the LOCKN’ Farm festival series and took place in Arrington, VA on August 20th–22nd. The weekend saw Goose perform four times in addition to sets from DawesCory WongDr. Dog, and more.

While it was the headliners that drew the crowds, it was the stacked undercard that truly made the weekend special. Fred The Festival saw the return of three Goose-adjacent side projects, ElephantProofVasudo, and Orebolo. After Grateful Shred opened the weekend, Vasudo took the stage with its first show in eight years. Comprised of Goose members Rick MitarotondaPeter AnspachTrevor Weekz, and Jeffery Arevalo, the quintet also featured vocalist/keyboardist Matt Campbell. This performance came just weeks after the group released its long-awaited debut LP, Call It Louis, and saw Mitarotonda, Anspach, and company run through five of six tracks from the album.

Vasudo – Fred the Festival – Arrington, VA – 8/20/21 – Full Set

Goose’s four sets throughout the weekend provided the band’s faithful fans with everything they could have ever wanted. In addition to delivering rarities like “Elmeg The Wise” and “Factory Fiction”, the five-piece indie-groove outfit also welcomed a variety of special guests, including Dawes’ Taylor and Griffin Goldsmith. The last night saw Goose perform its final two sets, which each also featured sit-ins. Tour manager Jon “Coach” Lombardi offered up his skills on rain stick for the set one opener, “Honey Bee”, before Doc joined in on the set-ending “So Ready”. The second ended with the seldom-played “Factory Fiction”, which saw Vasudo’s Matt Campbell make his way to the stage on keys.

Goose – Fred the Festival – Arrington, VA – 8/22/21 – Set Two

Check out our full coverage of Fred The Festival here.

North Beach Music Fesitval | North Beach Bandshell | Miami, FL | December 10th–11th, 2021

2021 music festivals

[Photo: Andrew O’Brien – Electric Kif]

The inaugural North Beach Music Festival arrived in Miami Beach this year with a mission: bring the vibrant national jam band scene to South Florida—an area full of fans but frequently spurned by tour routing—for a multi-day festival at the oceanside North Beach Bandshell. The inaugural event, produced by GMP Live in partnership with The Rhythm Foundation, featured two full days of performances at the permanent Bandshell stage as well as a side stage in the adjoining park, with no overlapping sets.

While Miami Beach vistas and the lush confines of the North Beach Bandshell got fans listening, the festival’s artist lineup was what sealed the deal for many of the out-of-town fans making the trip. From Florida favorites like The Heavy PetsElectric Kif, Tand, and Juke to nationally touring outfits like SpaffordPigeons Playing Ping Pong, Ghost-Note, The Motet, TAUK, and Aqueous to fan-favorite bandleaders and instrumentalists like Marco BeneventoEric KrasnoBrandon “Taz” Niederauer, Holly Bowling, and Karina Rykman, North Beach Music Festival offered fans a potent cross-section of the extended jam circle over the course of two eventful days.

It would be difficult to talk about NBMF without touching on artists-at-large The Horn Section, the plug-and-play brass trio comprised of Chris Brouwers (trumpet), Greg Sanderson (alto/tenor sax), and Josh Schwartz (tenor/baritone sax). These guys were all over both stages all weekend long, popping in to sprinkle some flavor on various different performances. On Friday, the trio jumped in on sets by The Heavy Pets, TAUK, Electric Kif, The Motet, and Pigeons Playing Ping Pong. On Saturday, they lent their horns to both Eric Krasno & The Assembly and Aqueous.

Aqueous ft. The Horn Section, Shira Elias, Craig Brodhead – “Let’s Dance” (David Bowie) – 12/11/21

[Videos: Fred Ramadan]

TAUK ft. The Horn Section, Jennifer Hartswick, Shira Elias – “Crazy In Love” (Beyonce) – North Beach Music Festival – 12/10/21

[Video: CHeeSeHeaDPRoDuCTioNS]

Head here to read Live For Live Music‘s coverage of North Beach Music Festival.

Honorable Mentions: AsheJamBrooklyn Comes AliveDenver Comes Alive,