Summer is the best time to experience the transporting power of live music -- especially at outdoor festivals. With the sun above, good food, drinks and fun-loving friends around you, the summer concert experience becomes indelible. This year, there will be plenty of opportunities to indulge your love for live music under the sun (though the offerings in air-conditioned arenas aren't too shabby, either) as some of the hottest names in pop, rock and R&B blow through the area. Here are a few shows you don't want to miss.
Death Cab For Cutie -- Merriweather Post Pavilion, June 9
The alt-rock band, whose pop breakthrough came with the release of 2005's Plans, topped Billboard's albums chart last week with its latest CD, Narrow Stairs. The album is a starker, more dissonant follow-up to its gleaming, platinum-selling predecessor. On the set, it's also evident that the quartet, which first received mass exposure in 2003 on the teen soap opera The O.C., is still a restless bunch of musicians. The guys stretch their sound on the new record, coloring it with darker shades here and there. With its evocative arrangements and novelistic lyrical melancholia, Narrow Stairs is one of DCFC's stronger efforts and should translate well on stage.
R.E.M. -- Merriweather Post Pavilion, June 11
On Accelerate, the progressive '80s rock band finally returned to a sound evocative of its glory years. The CD, released in April, is focused and blistering with guitar blasts, defined grooves and Michael Stipe's straight-no-chaser lyrics and urgent vocals. The record doesn't displace the nervy rock of R.E.M.'s early years. That was another place and time. But Accelerate is still a welcome burst of energy, something the guys haven't shown in a while. It's a major step up from the utter lifelessness of the group's last studio album, 2004's Around the Sun. R.E.M. actually sounds like a solid unit on Accelerate. Maybe that'll come across on stage.
Alicia Keys -- 1st Mariner Arena, June 15
In a career that's barely a decade old, Alicia Keys has become one of the most celebrated artists of her generation. The native New Yorker owns 11 Grammys and four multiplatinum albums. Her latest CD -- As I Am, released in November -- was yet another immediate smash, spawning the across-the-board No. 1 hit "No One." The album is perhaps her most ambitious effort, expanding the scope of her "neo-soul" approach. Guest appearances include rockers John Mayer and Linda Perry.
But with stiff, laughably simplistic choreography, Keys' stage show can be corny at times. (She's no Janet Jackson, that's for sure.) The artist is at her best when she's sitting at the piano, banging and belting away. Let's hope there's more of that on this tour.
Vans Warped Tour -- Merriweather Post Pavilion, July 16
In keeping with the tradition of the 13-year-old music and extreme-sports event, the promoters of the alt-rock and pop festival have packed the day with budding and established bands.
The mile-long list of acts includes Angels and Airwaves, Gym Class Heroes, Every Time I Die, Relient K, Say Anything and As I Lay Dying. The Vans Warped Tour, like any other music festival, is very much about vitalizing the communal energy with exciting sounds. And the high-octane music is sure to induce lots of slam-dancing.
Donna Summer -- Pier Six Concert Pavilion, July 16
"The queen is back," Summer declares in a cut off her new CD, Crayons. Released last week, the album is her first set of new songs in nearly 20 years. The Queen of Disco, 59, certainly isn't in "MacArthur Park" anymore as she belts over sleek, propulsive tracks glittered with neon synths. Although the album is a mixed bag, Summer's voice is still a powerful, incredibly versatile instrument. The youthful vibrancy she brought to her greatest hits -- "Bad Girls," "Hot Stuff," "She Works Hard for the Money" and others -- hasn't diminished a bit. Although several of the new songs are well-performed, they can't touch the classics. At the show, I'm sure Summer fans will want to hear more of the old than the new.
Virgin Mobile Festival -- Pimlico Race Track, Aug. 9 and 10
Its third year in Baltimore, the two-day event is quickly becoming one of the hottest tickets on the national summer festival circuit. This year's lineup is perhaps the strongest with an array of acts from classic rock to progressive pop, and just about everything in between.
The headliners include the pioneering Chuck Berry, the legendary Bob Dylan, the egomaniacal but often interesting Kanye West and the moody Nine Inch Nails. Jack Johnson, Lupe Fiasco, Cat Power, the Foo Fighters and Wilco round out the list of marquee names. But still, there's more: Classic hard rock will be represented by Iggy Pop and the Stooges. Lil' Wayne will hold it down for hard-edged hip-hop. And funky retro-soul receives a fine ambassador in Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings. Others to catch include the charming KT Tunstall and the much-buzzed-about British pop-soul newcomer Duffy.