Im just going to come right out and say itI didnt really expect Rothbury to be anything special. I expected a disorganized, obvious rookie of a festival to provide me with a decent Fourth of July experience and to add some mementos to my scrapbook. Did I ever underestimate it!
After a long drive from Southern Indiana to Rothbury, Michigan, I was thrilled to finally see a line of traffic headed towards the Double JJ Ranch, the venue that was home to the Rothbury Music Festival. Check in at the gates was quick and simple, setting the relaxed social scene that was to come. Festival-goers were playing Frisbee in the grass, basking in the warm sun and cool breeze. After going through security into about 45 minutes of sitting in traffic, my perfect day buzz wore off. I was anxious, and ready to see what Rothbury was all about. I was most concerned with a few particular questionswhat could this event bring that was unique? How seriously will people take the green efforts discussed on the webpage? How will the shows be? Can it really hold its own and become one of the U.S.s top festivals? I became skeptical and curious, but the day was beautiful and so I decided to relax, wait the traffic out, and watch folks do their thing.
Once inside the main grounds, it was hard not to notice the over-top attractions. The yellow Establishment tent fit right in with the traveling circus acts that performed inside it throughout the weekend. The inflatable neon structure looked it was once attached to one of those bounce house things, and its glow-in-the-dark color appealed to both the kid and the raver in me. The most impressive, however, was the spinning monkey drum circle. At night, the monkeys spun round and round, positioned appearing to be leaping in circles around their tree. These crazy features alone gave the festival immediate character, and it was exciting to watch all the attendees experience the displays for the first time.
After checking out the cool stuff for a few good minutes, it was time to catch some music. Heading towards Greensky Bluegrass, I was enamoured by the most complex stage Ive ever seen at a music festival. It was dubbed the Tripolee Domes, and it featured three structures resembling those dome-shaped jungle gyms from your favorite childhood playgrounds. As the sun went down, smoke created the illusion of a ceiling above the stage, and the heat from bodies helped those listening to the evenings DJs forget that it was cold enough to see your breath outside.
Walking around the venue you would eventually wind up in the enchanting and peaceful landmark that was Sherwood Forest. Upon first glance, it was obvious that this was what people would remember most of Rothbury. The forest had been trimmed so trees were tall and thin. Hammocks were tied between them, and shelters resembling bamboo pumpkins were scattered throughout. The best thing about Sherwood Forest during the day was the much-needed shade it offeredif you were lucky, you could even catch a band at the secret stagebut at night, it morphed into something wondrous. Christmas lights and glowing papers were wrapped around the trees, causing the forest to shine neon pinks, greens, and purples. Sherwood Forest was always projecting the vibe it needed to, whether that was a calming day with nature or a raging nighttime party. Due to the excellent planning on Rothburys part, we got to walk through it every time we wanted to get to one of the main stages.
So Rothbury was unique, but was it sincere? The festivals webpage was covered in environmentally friendly promises. Hypocrites, I had thought earlier as I waited in traffic, inhaling the exhaust of the car in front of me. However, soon after entering the main site, Rothbury proved it was anything but an environmental poser.
Rothbury kept nearly spotless festival grounds, and did this through extensive efforts to keep them tidy. Throughout the site stood friendly faces wearing peach ONE person who cares T-shirts, each standing behind a group of three different colored trashcans. Each can had a different purpose: compost, recycling, and landfill. If you were unsure, the friendly peach T-shirt helped direct your waste to the correct bin. There were constantly crewmembers roaming around keeping the areas clean, so you wouldnt accidentally step on a half eaten veggie burrito while dancing. The festivals extreme actions definitely made people more aware of their littering habits. My friend pointed out that people were even throwing away their cigarette butts. Ive never seen anything like it, she exclaimed.
But Rothbury didnt stop there. The festival went above and beyond to do good for both Mother Earth and humanity. Just past the solar cell phone charging station, which did a service to many, and through the Farmers Market, which gave local growers a chance to spread their goodness, was the worlds biggest canned food structure (yes, a Guinness representative judged it on Friday). It featured over 40,000 cans of food that were later donated to the Conscious Alliance food drive. Strewn throughout the festival site were various structures made of recycled goods that looked surprisingly regal, and a recycling craft station stood in the main stage area. As has been the new trend with festivals, Rothbury offered information through their Think Tank series, forums to discuss environmental issues hosted by artists and scientists. Even if you didnt attend any of the presentations, it was hard to not feel like you were making a difference.
So the festival, which stayed clean all the way through Sunday, raised the proverbial environmental bar. However, 35,000+ people did not come out on a holiday weekend to prove they can be carbon neutral. They came for the music, and they were not disappointed. Great shows were everywhere, from Colbie Caillats beautiful music (she got the whole crowd feeling Bubbly during her cover of Jackson 5s I Want You Back, which she sang barefoot) to Diplos unique cinematics (channeling the 90s by showing highlights from the sitcom Dinosaurs while mixing in Smells Like Teen Spiritenough said). Dave Matthews Bands three-and-a-half hour set was a highlight for many, and the Black Keys won over lots of new fans.
An unlikely hit was none other than Snoop Dogg. One of few rappers on the bill, Snoop attracted a considerable audience, composed of both longtime fans and curious bluegrass lovers who couldnt name one of his songs. The crowd passed the final minutes before the rapper came on stage by watching 30 or so girls in the audience flash the big screens. At 4:15, Snoop began his set with The Next Episode, uttering the songs final words Smoke weed everyday at precisely 4:20. He celebrated by smoking what looked like a blunt, and all throughout the crowd, people joined in.
On Sunday, fans anxiously awaited the possibility of a Phish reunion. During Trey Anastasios afternoon set, Phish bassist Mike Gordon stepped on stage and helped the former frontman perform two new songs, Backwards Down The Number Line and Alaska. Anastasio provoked the rumors, saying all he needed was a drummer and a keyboard player, but the real surprise did not come until Gordons set, which immediately followed. Anastasio joined him on stage, and later, Phish drummer John Fishman came out to play on the Beatles She Said, She Said. Fans left the festival having seen 75% of a reunion and with high hopes of a catching the whole band again in the future.
So that was Rothbury 2008. But what will come of the event in future years? Perhaps it is most important to note the comments I overheard Sunday afternoon: That was amazing, Best festival ever, and See you next year! Even after four days of not showering, fans were glowing with the thrill of a weekend like none other. Strangers smiled at each other, hippies danced with abandon, and the typical festival creepsters were nowhere to be found. The festival had almost a family atmosphere, which almost all patrons respected (there had been, of course, a few rudely determined crowd-pushers). It was as if purchasing a ticket instantly made you tens of thousands of friends, each of whom was having the time of his life. The Double JJ Ranch was lit up with satisfaction, and the high stayed with visitors for days.
Most noticeably, the weather was perfect. The breezy, sunny days made for happy attendees. Cool nights were a nice break and made it easy to fall asleep (as long as you were sure to pack socks and lots of blankets). There was no dust due to pre-festival rains, a huge benefit to those with allergies. Sherwood Forest provided a shady haven for the too hot, and the drinking water refill stations helped out the thirsty.
Most distinctively, the site provided Rothbury with extra oomph. The idea of having a festival at a pre-established venue, as opposed to an open field, added to its aura. The Double JJ Ranch provided unique spots for relaxation, such as the lake area, complete with swing set and shuffleboard deck. The memories that attendees left with were the ones they made by spending an already perfect day hanging out in the most perfect of places.
And, most importantly, Rothbury had its own identity. From the spinning monkeys to the dome stage to the clean grounds, the festival was original and enchanting. No one forgot they were in Michigan, as the rich greenery and luscious smells of nature helped the state project its finest vibe. The people were beaming, completely immersed in their vacation. Everywhere you looked, Rothbury was smiling, and thats what a music festival is all about.