The beer comes in a plastic bottle, and it has been known to cost seven bucks or so for a mere 22 ounces, the cap twisted off of the brown plastic by people in white polos and visors yelling, “Let’s see those wristbands, folks.” And people buy–not necessarily because beer in the summer at a huge amphitheatre really tastes better, or because it goes down more smoothly than it does in a smoky club in December, but because it is, after all, summer.

It’s time to relax. It’s time to celebrate–something, anything, anytime. It’s time, more or less, to grab a seat in the form of a blanket on the manicured lawn of a hillside, spending the night singing along with 22,000 of your closest friends as Kenny Chesney plays that inane, mundane and fun-as-hell song about the same sexy tractor to the same record crowd for the third year in a row. That said, here’s some of the picks of the season:

Fleetwood Mac
Alltel Pavilion at Walnut Creek

May 22

If you were one of those chosen few males who always thought that Christine McVie was much more enticing than Stevie Nicks, you may want to sit out this tour. McVie will not be touring with The Mac this time around, as she has been working on a solo outing entitled In the Meantime due out this summer. But drummer Mick Fleetwood, Lindsey Buckingham, Nicks and McVie’s ex-husband John McVie will hit the road this summer in continued support of last year’s Say You Will, a DVD recorded in Boston in 2003 (and due for release on June 15) and the en masse recent re-release of key Mac discs like Rumours and Tusk. Tickets are $35-100.

Great High Mountain Tour
Amphitheatre at Regency Park
May 22

Follow-up tours for the “Down from the Mountain” tour–which was nothing more than a follow-up to the somewhat unexpected and entirely unprecedented success of the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack–are getting old. But, with a talent well that runs as deep as that of the latest “Great High Mountain Tour” installment, at least the idea doesn’t get boring. Bluegrass godfather Ralph Stanley joins the bill along with the beautiful melancholia of Alison Krauss’ voice and what may be the best bluegrass backing band in recent history, Union Station. Folk vanguards Norman and Nancy Blake will also be on hand, as well as The Nashville Bluegrass Band, one of the tightest bluegrass quintets around. Ollabelle, a fresh sextet of bluegrass musicians hailing from Brooklyn and the East Village, could be the needed new life force on this circuit. Tickets are $40-55.

Chicago and Earth, Wind & Fire
Alltel Pavilion at Walnut Creek
July 9

As far as musicology goes, this 6 p.m. gig–a showcase of successful attempts to bridge the gap between soul, rock and funk–is essential. Earth, Wind & Fire is one of the most successful and influential soul bands of the ’70s, turning out a horn-driven funk built around perfectly arranged rock numbers that has been as necessary for the development of hip-hop as nearly any sound in history. And Chicago, who has been making music in some form for two years more than Earth, Wind & Fire (since 1967), is the second biggest American rock band ever, at least according to the way the Billboard charts. Prepare to move those feet to a sweltering stateside hit parade that goes overlooked much too often. Tickets are $19-54.

3 Doors Down
Alltel Pavilion at Walnut Creek
July 23

One might easily ask: “Why should I spend $45 to go see 3 Doors Down, Nickelback and Puddle of Mudd–three of those ‘modern rock’ bands they play on the radio–at Alltel Pavilion?” The answer is simple: to put a face with a name, of course. That’s because, aside from looks, little separates these three mod-rock radio darlings from one another. Their sounds come chock full of flat, compressed vocals and the same five or so chords, occasionally accompanied by an introductory arpeggio that “the chicks will totally dig, dude.”

But seeing these guys live will make the name game easier the next time you flip the switch. The really atrocious Canadian guy with the beak of a nose is Nickelback’s Chad Kroeger, and the guy with unwashed hair who resembles Kurt Cobain gone country is Puddle of Mudd’s Wesley Scantlin. 3 Doors Down is that band that plays last. Tickets are $25-51.50.

Dave Matthews Band with Robert Earl Keen
Alltel Pavilion at Walnut Creek
July 26

Detractors of the Dave Matthews Band are quick to point out that it seems the Charlottesville acoustic pioneer and his occasionally gawk-worthy quartet of uber-talents have some kind of plan for world domination to be implemented by making college students think there is no other band. Those same naysayers rarely have much to say about the music itself besides vague statements like “I just don’t dig it.” But, of all bands that fall loosely under the mainstream banner, Matthews & Co. is perhaps the most deserving. After all, they built their own massive network of fans years before signing with RCA Records under what may be considered one of the most artist-friendly record deals of the past decade. Since then, they have emerged as the only under-50 rock band with the ability to pack stadiums and amphitheatres annually. Some see Matthews as a devil, but–for those that can get around the irksome horde of “Daveheads” and realize that he has stuck to his artistic guns when most wouldn’t have–he is a visionary. The fantastic Robert Earl Keen opens. Tickets are $39-56.

The Dead
Alltel Pavilion at Walnut Creek
August 17

Fittingly, The Dead will kick off their season on June 12 in Manchester, Tenn. with a stop at the massive Bonnaroo Music Festival, an extravaganza that owes much, if not all, of its eclecticism, spirit and structure to The Grateful Dead. They’ll continue from there, playing 14 dates in three weeks, including an incredible five-gig stand at Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Colorado and a leg-concluding show with The Allman Brothers in George, WA on July 3. The Dead will hit the road again 20 days later, finally making it to Raleigh just two days before the tour ends. Fayetteville native Jimmy Herring will be handling guitar duties on this tour, as will Gov’t Mule and Allman Brothers standout Warren Haynes (who will open the show with an acoustic set). Mickey Hart, Phil Lesh, Bob Weir, Bill Kreutzmann and Jeff Chimenti set the band’s core for the “Wave Your Flag” Summer Tour 2004. Groovin’. Tickets are $39-49.

John Mayer with Maroon 5 and DJ Logic
Alltel Pavilion at Walnut Creek
August 24

They say that John Mayer has no soul, that he’s just another one of those silly white kids with good hair playing pop songs about curves and heartaches to the ladies. And, in some ways, those accusations are safe assumptions: after all, a song like “Your Body is a Wonderland” can only have one purpose. But many in the same crowd do respect Questlove and his work with The Roots. And, as it turns out, Questlove holds Mayer in such incredibly high esteem as a musician and a songwriter that he played drums on the first track of Mayer’s last batch of perfectly arranged, brilliantly devised pop songs, Heavier Things, and recently told a magazine that this 20-something Georgia songster “wants to make his Voodoo so bad it hurts.” For now, though, he seems content to make pop so smart it hurts. The irrepressible DJ Logic opens, along with what Mayer would sound like if he was as bland as some people contest he is: Maroon 5. Tickets are $32-42.

Alltel Pavilion at Walnut Creek
August 31

If this is indeed the last Ozzfest, fans can expect to leave the highly successful heavy metal festival with ear-searing, decibel-driven memories. The first stage is reserved for the heroes this year: Ozzy himself, Judas Priest and Slayer. Zakk Wylde’s Black Label Society will join the activity on that stage with Phil Anselmo’s Superjoint Ritual and Scandinavian metal kings, Dimmu Borgir. The second stage will be headlined by the masked men of Slipknot, though some of the festival’s most exciting and inspiring action can be found there early in the day: God Forbid, Atreyu, Lacuna Coil, Bleeding Through and Every Time I Die. Tickets are $35.50-100.50. EndBlock