For two years the Rothbury Festival located just north of Muskegon rode about as high as any music festival in America. Between 2008 and 2009 it attracted headliners such as The Dead, Bob Dylan and Snoop Dogg. Sadly, this was not enough to save the festival’s venue, the Double JJ Ranch, from going into bankruptcy after the 2009 event. There was no music festival at Double JJ in 2010.
“We took a year off and the world changes a bit,” said Jeremy Stein, Electric Forest producer/partner at Madison House Presents.
In the summer of 2011 a large music festival returned to Double JJ, on the weekend leading up to the Fourth of July. Rothbury had been renamed “Electric Forest,” and the lineup shifted a tad toward the two niche markets of folk/bluegrass and Electronic Dance Music. The experience, though, stayed largely the same.
One of the truly unique elements of Electric Forest Stein is quick to mention is the Sherwood Forest, the area of the venue deep in the forest with hammocks strung from trees, psychedelic lights and artwork that looks straight out of the mind of Tim Burton.
“Sherwood Forest is a huge part of what we do out there,” Stein said. “It’s kind of two different venues at once. Two different vibes...”
The ‘two different vibes’ is something of an underlying theme throughout Electric Forest, as well as many other festivals. With the emergence of hip-hop and electronic music (read: dubstep) as veritable forces in the festival market, most events aim to create the necessary atmosphere for attendees.
“The late-night scene is different than the daytime scene,” Stein said. “The dance music is the nighttime scene. There’s great reggae and great bluegrass [during the day].”
While the focus is music, it can’t be overstated enough that any festival is as much about the full experience of simply being there, as it is about catching as many bands as you can. The idea of “organic growth,” as Stein calls it, is a very big deal to the people involved with Electric Forest.
“The experience of being there trumps any headliner.”
While that is undoubtedly true, it would be difficult to knock Electric Forest’s headliners in 2012, or even those acts further down the bill. The first three lines of the “lineup” section of the festival’s website boast such talent as Bassnectar, STS9, Girl Talk and Santigold.
Keith Moseley, bass player for noted progressive bluegrass band The String Cheese Incident (also headlining) talked with Revue about the band’s three sets at Electric Forest.
“We were first introduced to the site for the initial Rothbury event ... It’s a fantastic site first and foremost with the Sherwood Forest, the water features and lakes on the property,” Moseley said. “There’s something about being up there in that part of Michigan during the summer.”
By following in the footsteps of seminal festival bands like The Grateful Dead and Phish, The String Cheese Incident goes a long way to fill the necessary niche for jam music. Its multiple, multi-hour sets – where there are no song repeats – allow the members to dig deep into their musical repertoire.
“It’s really a chance to get to see a broad cross-section of the band,” Moseley said.
Also by playing every day, Moseley says String Cheese takes pleasure in the opportunity to get to hang out at the Electric Forest site the entire weekend.
“For us, it’s a treat to get to meet some of the other artists and performers ... we typically have some people sit in with us during the weekend. It’s exciting to be on something that feels like a more cutting-edge festival.”
The festival is not just a showcase for national talent, however. There are quality local acts appearing on the bill, including acclaimed Grand Rapids folk band The Crane Wives.
“One of the most exciting things about playing ... is the opportunity to meet and play for so many new people that we haven’t had a chance to be introduced to yet,” said Tom Gunnels, who plays banjo in the band.
Gunnels added the band will be at many other Michigan festivals such as Sleepy Bear Music Festival, Wheatland and Hoxeyville.
As music festivals continue to grow in the mainstream consciousness, people in the West Michigan area should be excited about having a quality event in their backyard. From both an economic perspective, as well as a community-building one, it appears that Electric Forest can go a long way in achieving both.
Also, it’s just a lot of fun.
Photos: Matt Urban