Local Spins writer Troy Reimink returned to Rothbury for the first time in eight years. What he saw at Electric Forest impressed and amused him, a testament to the festival’s “magical legacy” and “circus of overstimulation.” (Photos)
We meet again, Forest. Sure has been a while.
When I last entered the placid confines of the Double JJ Resort, Barack Obama still had black hair — and, notably, just became president. The year was 2009. Back then, molly was still called ecstasy, and kids wore angel wings instead of butterfly capes. Twitter was a bewildering new fad among the visiting journalists, most of whom, myself included, worked for honest-to-God print newspapers.
Western democracy was more or less functional.
The Electric Forest festival was still Rothbury, named for the village halfway between Muskegon and Ludington on the state’s western edge that surrounds this circus of overstimulation.
And, from the looks of it, roughly half the 40,000 attendees the first weekend of the festival — which now spans two — would have still been in grade school. (Warning: occasional 30-something navel-gazing to follow.)
I ended up at this year’s Electric Forest the same way I get most of my Local Spins assignments: While drinking with editor John Sinkevics, I’ll decide against my better judgment that something several months in the future looks fun, volunteer to cover it, then forget I’ve done so until a few days before the event.
FINDING THE PINNACLE MOMENT JUST BEFORE MIDNIGHT
My resulting lack of journalistic preparation for the festival left me wildly unequipped to grapple with the more than 16 hours of String Cheese Incident performances scheduled to unfold by the time the event wraps up a week from now. So, luckily, I went on a day whose headlining act was something a little more palatable to those of us who never fully imbibed the jam-band Kool-Aid: My Morning Jacket.
The Kentucky band’s blistering show on Saturday night opened with the appropriately trippy “Victory Dance,” a propulsive and hypnotic ode to the setting sun. A nearly three-hour set of career highlights peaked with the back-to-back gems “Off the Record” and “Lay Low,” from the band’s 2005 masterwork, “Z.”
And if you think you can imagine a better moment at a summer festival than Jim James and his bandmates ripping through a note-perfect cover of “Purple Rain” just before midnight as Prince-colored stage lighting faded into a clear, starry sky, well, you’d be wrong.
Headlining sets at Electric Forest represent a sort of unifying crest after which the night can break into a thousand directions.
Almost nobody calls it quits before 3 a.m., and at any given point there are three or four DJ sets happening on one of the main stages, inside the sprawling mixed-use Hangar venue or at less formal spots in the famously mind-warping Sherwood Forest.
The main late-night draw was Bassnectar — a DJ otherwise known as Lorin Ashton — whose kaleidoscopic sets have become the stuff of Electric Forest legend. But visitors in other moods, or in different phases of their chemically induced journeys, could groove to the funk stylings of the Motet under the Jubilee dome, throw down deep in the woods at the silent disco (now a standard treat at festivals), or simply wander around and stare. I managed to do it all.
PLENTIFUL HIPPIE POLITENESS AND INEBRIANTS
Not a ton has changed since the festival’s early days. The layout is mostly the same from year to year, as are a lot of the vendors. Its environmental friendliness is becoming standard. Electric Forest now stands solidly in the music-industry firmament as a fine example of how to blend subcultures, how to assert a curatorial vision on a massive scale and how to mitigate the things that can make festival attendance annoying, which is everything.
The festival-goers are so polite it’s almost unnerving. At least a dozen young people asked me for directions, which probably means I’m old enough to resemble an authority figure, but, thankfully, still young enough that I don’t look like a narc. Security is chill. People wish each other “happy Forest,” and are unfailingly generous with their recreational substances.
Speaking of that, Electric Forest has the reputation, verifiable by abundant anecdotal evidence, of being laissez-faire with regard to inebriants. This is old news at festivals, obviously, but there is actual data on the subject that paints an interesting picture. The website Detox.net recently published an analysis of Instagram posts from major U.S. music festivals that mention drugs, and Electric Forest visitors performed impressively compared with its peers. (For detailed information about this study, check it out at detox.net online here.)
Of the posts that were identifiably drug-related, Electric Forest’s percentage of references to LSD and DMT exceeded that of any other U.S. event. It also had the second-highest percentage of mushroom mentions and the third-highest for marijuana. (The winner in that latter category was something called Marley Fest, which makes sense.)
You can joke all you want about festival drugs, but it’s almost certainly cheaper than staying legit and paying for booze. While Electric Forest remains unique on several fronts, it still performs the essential function of a music festival, which is to gather thousands of people into a controlled space and force them to relinquish huge amounts of money.
The setting and general aesthetic of Electric Forest create the dissonant experience of seeing any lingering whiff of “counterculture” identified and monetized straight into oblivion. The revolution might not be televised, but it is available in the form of a $13 “zen mule” cocktail.
‘PRETTY GREAT’ WAY TO STAY YOUNG AT HEART
Yet if you have the discretionary funds (or a media pass), it’s pretty great. It’s fun to sprawl in a hammock on a summer afternoon. It’s fun to get lost in a forest full of light installations and wandering performance artists. It’s fun to see friends from Grand Rapids band crush it and take names: Shouts to Vox Vidorra, which performed Saturday.
It’s also fun to try and assign logic to people’s fashion decisions.
Returning to these grounds conjured a nervous night of strange memories from a previous life. (Cue the “wave speech” music from “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.”) In the early days, I watched Snoop Dogg ride a pimped-out tricycle onto a Rothbury stage that no longer exists, hit a huge blunt and say to the crowd, “What’s up, East Lansing!”
I broke national news about the impromptu acoustic reunion of three-quarters of Phish during the inaugural 2008 Rothbury, widely assumed to foreshadow a full-band comeback at the next year’s festival, even though that booking never materialized.
And there was the time I enraged hundreds of Widespread Panic fans when something un-worshipful I’d written about their Rothbury performance ended up on a message board.
And, of course, there was the person I met during Chromeo, with whom a summer-long entanglement would reinforce that pearl of wisdom from “30 Rock”: Never go with a hippie to a second location.
Ah, good times.
So, yes, I got older while Electric Forest remains the same age. Years go by even while the woods themselves feel dislodged from time.
A poignant tribute to this idea stuck out like a sore thumb in Sherwood Forest. There among the dazzling eye and ear candy sat an all-terrain vehicle with a man’s picture on the seat, covered in trinkets and tokens left by appreciative festival-goers.
It was 89-year-old Wally Wojack, the Double JJ owner who died in April. A plaque explained how Wojack planted the forest in 1955 and spent the ensuing decades cultivating it as a place where people could dress, act and enjoy themselves however they wanted — and “be inspired to live to the fullest, to leave a magical legacy, and to always be young at heart.”
Hard to think of a better place to do that than Electric Forest, even for those of us whose freak flags now fly at half-staff.
PHOTO GALLERY: Electric Forest 2017
Photos by Anna Sink
Electric Forest Day 1 Coverage, Photos, Video: Electric Forest turns Rothbury into ‘greatest spot on Earth’
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