Many Illinoisans take summer trips to Michigan. The weather is ideal for everything from golf to water skiing, and the weather at the first ever Rothbury Festival couldn’t have been better. The rain hit the expansive festival grounds Wednesday night before most people arrived, and thunderstorms rolled through Monday morning around 4 a.m. to mark the end of the festivities.
The beautiful weather was supplemented by the immaculate Double JJ Ranch. Campers, RVs, and cars were lined up for a light security check and dispersed throughout the grassy expanses to set up camp. The main area with all of the stages had numerous attractions, including a giant, spinning umbrella, which created the illusion of the monkeys swinging around it when a strobe light was aimed at the giant merry-go-round. Needless to say, this got a lot of visitors late at night as people wandered back to camp.
Between the Sherwood Court stage and The Ranch Arena lay the Sherwood Forest, a thick expanse of hundreds of hundred foot trees, hammocks, lights, sculptures, and paths. Off the beaten path, you could find a makeshift graveyard with a fountain, recycled-materials sculptures, and a narrow winding path. A stage was set up just beyond this phantom cemetery, where Les Claypool was rumored to play and Emmitt-Nershi Band played late Saturday afternoon.
Rothbury Festival was billed as a music festival revolution, and it certainly lived up to the hype. People showed up in droves. Many estimates were around 50,000 people – young and old, and from near and far. I even saw an Alaskan flag in the campground! Every band showed up to put on a great show and few disappointed the endearing crowds.
Thursday night was highlighted by Disco Biscuits’ set at the Ranch Arena. I loved the choice for this time slot, as people were ready to get their late-nite on with their light-up toys and glow sticks. Musically, their set was really tight. The bass and drums were locked in all night. The crowd was set aloud when bassist, Marc Brownstein, introduced David Murphy of STS9 to play keys for a lengthy jam.
As the Bisco set wound down, I walked over to see EOTO, a drum/keyboard duo featuring two former String Cheese Incident players. If you caught their set when they opened for Umphrey’s McGee at Canopy Club, you know how much fun these two jam veterans have on stage. It was great to see so many people dancing late into the night, a trend that would continue throughout the festival.
Friday, July 4 had everyone set in high gear as (contraband) fireworks began ringing through the clear skies. The high profile line-up featured many genres, and campers rose with the morning heat to spark up their grills and ice down their coolers. My first stop was out at Sherwood Court to see a bit of Jakob Dylan and the Gold Mountain Rebels. I was overly hopeful that seeing the former Wallflowers frontman would result in an impromptu version of “One Headlight,” but I was happy to enjoy his set from a nice spot in the shade of one of Rothbury’s many trees.
Next up was yet another Cheese side project, Panjea featuring Michael Kang. The bands’ other members hail from Africa. Barry, the lead singer from Zimbabwe sung songs with simple, uplifting lyrics and anti-war sentiments. Playing mbira (an African instrument made of metal tongs plucked over an hollow body), his lyrics were memorable, singing “Why do we kill people who kill people to show people that killing people is wrong?”
After Panjea, tough decisions started to arise. Tea Leaf Green’s set overlapped with The Wailers’. I had already caught these bands live so I decided to catch some of Sam Beam’s solo set. Unfortunately, I wasn’t at liberty to stay long. Snoop Dogg was due up on the main stage at 4:15.
Now, there isn’t better time for a Snoop set to start. His grand entrance began with a Scarface montage set over “O Fortuna” from Carmina Burana with thunderous bass. He finally arrived on stage riding a giant purple tricycle shaped like a chopper. Once he picked up his personalized microphone, the phat beat to “Next Episode” dropped. Of course, he did one for the ladies with “Sexual Seduction,” probably my favorite part of the set, besides everyone singing along to “Smoke Weed, Get Drunk, and F*ck,” which very well could have been the slogan of the festival. A couple more “foh sheezys” and we had to head out to catch Keller Williams and WMDs.
Keller is quite spontaneous on stage when he plays by himself, but when he plays with Mosely, Droll and Sipe his music tightens up a bit. Keller, however always adds his own touch of himself to the songs, adding a whistling part or “mouth trumpet.” They jammed out “Freeker by the Speaker” right into a great version of Jerry’s “Eyes of the World,” reworking some of the lyrics to fit the Rothbury locale.
Modest Mouse played during Yonder Mountain. Having never seen them, I decided to check out the second half of their set. I got to see an exciting version of “Parting of the Sensory.” By this time in the evening, everyone was out enjoying their Independence Day, and the crowd stretched to fill the whole field. Unfortunately, I wasn’t impressed with MM’s live performance. Isaac Brock was too drunk to understand preventing unfamiliar audience members from enjoying his songs. They closed with “Spitting Venom,” a song I really enjoy from their 2007 release. With problems from the soundboard, the distortion and blaring noises came to the forefront, making me wish I had just kept listening to their studio albums instead.
The headliner for the nation’s birthday was Widespread Panic, and there wasn’t a better all-American jam band for the slot. Their stage presence was unparalleled and their musicianship was unbelievable. Their raw sound inspired many fans to set off their fireworks by the second set.
Back to the Ranch stage to see the late night set from Primus, their first live appearance in three years! People were very excited to see the band, tossing glow sticks in every direction. Eventually one landed near Claypool’s feet and, in response, dropped the music down to a light beat, saying, “Please, do not throw objects onto the stage. It is very distracting. So if you think you want to do that again, just sit on it, and twist.” Some people laughed; some were shocked, but all shared an exciting concert experience with Les Claypool and Primus.
Saturday was a very surprising day. It started off early with bluegrass from Trampled By Turtles who could play lightning fast and keep the beat locked down. Right after that on the same stage was Emmitt-Nershi Band, who played some cheese covers and more great bluegrass to a vocal crowd.
Unfortunately you can’t catch everything, and I soon found myself having to choose between The Black Keys and jazz-fusion group Medeski, Martin and Wood. MMW threw down, and I was agape watching the bass for much of the set, so I feel content with my decision, especially since I caught the Keys at a couple festivals last summer.
Saturday’s headliner was Dave Matthew’s Band, and to be perfectly honest, I wasn’t in the mood. No offense to his fans, but I never enjoy myself at his concerts so I wandered the campground looking for some trouble to get into. Of course, when STS9 is set to play at midnight, it isn’t hard to find some people looking to have a good time.
When the moment finally arrived, a sea of glow sticks and people dressed to the nines flooded the Ranch Arena. I can’t remember having more fun at one stage for such a long time. Tribe played an hour past their time slot, calling it quits around 3:45. They played with so much energy and their jams had never sounded cleaner. I was impressed with the way they kept pushing the intensity on jams like “Circus,” “One A Day,” and their new song “Shock Doctrine.” With the crowd wanting them to go on until, it was a good call for the Rothbury heads to give them as much time as they wanted to jam.
Sunday was pretty windy, which allowed some people to sleep a bit longer without getting sweated out of the tent. I decided to rest up for the Trey set by starting the day off with Rodrigo y Gabriela. Next up on the main stage was Trey Anastasio of Phish fame. He recently made headlines for coming off probation with the possibility of a Phish reunion in mind. Nothing exciting happened during his set, although he wailed on the guitar.
After a close encounter with a Phish reunion, it was time for Gov’t Mule to take it away. They got up on stage and rocked out with some classic covers. I decided to give into temptation during this set and grab a bite to eat from one of the vendors. I tried the oriental dish of stir-fry noodles with vegetables. It was delicious and led to the conclusion that a good show goes hand in hand with a good bite to eat.
At the request of people in my traveling party, we checked out a couple of John Mayer songs and I was impressed with his soloing. He really feels what he is playing. You can tell by how he moves his body with the music that he is letting his music flow out of him when he plays. I didn’t hear any songs I knew, but I was told that I was watching him play a song off his Continuum album. It was pretty low key, but that didn’t stop the audience from cheering loudly at its end.
Sunday’s finale came in the form of a Phil Lesh and Phriends set. The whole field in front of The Odeum stage was filled to the brim by the time the set was in full swing. A tired, yet enthusiastic crowd sang along with a sweet version of “Sugaree” before the set break. Towards the end Phil treated the first ever Rothbury crowd with an epic “Fire on the Mountain.”
If it’s at all possible to have too much fun, Rothbury Festival was certainly the place to do it. The site is gorgeous and the people in attendance were as nice as can be. I can’t wait for next year!