If I told you that for the Fourth of July next year, you should go to central Michigan for four days, you’d likely call me crazy. I’d call me crazy, but nun the less, that’s what I did and I’ll never be the same again. I attended the Rothbury Music Festival.
In a giant pot, put in a heaping helping of The Dead, String Cheese Incident, Keller Williams, The Black Crowes, and Willie Nelson. Then slice up some Railroad Earth, STS9, Ani DeFranco, Yonder Mountain String Band, Toots & The Maytals and Damian Marley & NAS. Finish it all off with a big dollop of Bob Dylan serve it up with some Disco Biscuits and garnished with 20 other great bands and you’ve got yourself a Rothbury Stew. Yes, Varuka, the Rothburies do taste like Rothburies.
After four days of gorging myself on Rothbury Stew (vegan, of course), I reflect on some of the fantastic flavors that were in my bowl. The appetizer to this wonderful feast was the arduous task of getting in and setting up camp. Picture giant green field where horses roam about and large trees line the edges…that’s the campground. So large you needed a shirpa or even better a Rothbury taxi to get around. More on that later. The Ranch Arena stage offered the first helping of stew, Keller Willams style. Keller’s playful original jams and original takes on familiar covers, makes Keller an excellent start of the weekend. The set went on for 90 minutes or so culminating with a visit on stage from some old friends, String Cheese Incident, minus Michael Kang and Bill Nershi. This was indeed an incident.
I’ve always been a fan of the pairing and got a chance to get Keller’s thoughts on playing with SCI after the show, “They’re (SCI) fantastic, old friends. I feel real comfortable with those guys. There’s a whole slew of songs that we don’t have to rehearse even if we haven’t played together for a year and we just jam it out and it works,” said Williams. When asked about Rothbury Music Fest Williams said, “It’s a real special thing they’ve got going on here.”
Following Keller came the first surprise of the weekend, a band called Lotus. Full of amazing extended jams and the guitar work of Mike Rempel, Lotus certainly got my dancin’ feet moving and I’m looking forward to hearing a lot more from them. Disco Biscuits closed out the Ranch Arena stage the first night and if you’ve never had Biscuits after midnight, you’re missing out on some high energy trippy jams that will twist your soul in ways you’ve never imagined possible. Day one was short but certainly sweet.
If you’re an early riser, Rothbury offers morning yoga every morning at 10:30 am. If you made the Disco Biscuits show, you didn’t make yoga on Friday. With a festival of 35,000 people, 4 stages and countless musical acts and workshops, you can’t make everything. Choices had to be made and they were tough. Friday brought the fans Martin Sexton, G. Love & Special Sauce, Flogging Molly, Damian “Jr. Gong” Marley & NAS and another new band to check out, Broken Social Scene. I missed them but Tim Carbone, fiddle player of Railroad Earth commented, “I just had my mind blown by Broken Social Scene.” Must check those guys out. My choice was the Odeum Stage for the day, as it offered G. Love, Marley and culminated with String Cheese Incident.
Marley, with rapper NAS, brought the noise and the funk, reggae style. A wonderful blend of rap and reggae with a real social message. Still carrying the torch he father Bob Marley passed on to his youngest son (Damian was 2 when his father passed away in 1980), Marley stirred the stew pot with cries for peace and one love. After the show he even took time to take photos backstage with many of the folks hanging about, present company included. What a nice guy. NAS was just as friendly.
Friday night was about to turn into an incident. After a 2 year hiatus, SCI came back together for one show…Rothbury! And the crowd couldn’t have been happier. There’s nothing like a String Cheese Show. The blending of bluegrass jams with psychedelic rock sounds and long extended jams just whips the crowd into a creamy froth. They pulled out no stops. An early first set “Miss Browns Tea House” and a late “This Must Be The Place” followed by a “Rollover” with teases of Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” just sealed the set off nicely. Second set got going with “Outside Inside” into “Desert Dawn” with electric glowing hula hoopers on platforms and acrobats on giant ribbons hanging from above the stage. What next giant beach balls…YEP! But first, fire dancers. The set continued and oddly the beach balls got larger and larger until a giant red one, bigger than a VW Beatle came bouncing out from back stage. It was an incident for sure. They closed with “Texas” and then the encore featured Keller Williams on “Best Feeling” and Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground.” The show ended with “Restless Wind” which was exactly how I felt. A thrilled crowd, with smiles wider than the Grand Canyon left the main stage, satisfied that they’d made the right choice to come to Michigan. On to STS9 for some late night high energy electronica.
The thing about Rothbury is it takes a good 30 min to go from the front gate to the main stage. In addition they provide many distractions, but none a distracting as Sherwood Forest. By day, a mere grove of trees about 200 yards or so wide. By night, a psychedelic light show and visual trip through a colorful array of things that catch the eye. Spinning blacklight sculptures and a path of “reclaimed art” which included recycled material as well as things the artists found in the forest like pine cones, twigs and the like. Not to mention the Oasis Bar and the multitude of hammocks for resting your weary bones. You must pass through here to get “home.” It’s hard to leave once you enter.
The Rothbury Taxi. Now this is an amazing service they provide. Golf carts, painted up as black and yellow checkered cabs, would take you anywhere in the festival (outside the main gates) you’d like to go for $5.00/person. Each cab could hold 5 people safely, 9 if you really work at it. That being said, a reasonable full load would net the cabbie $25.00 plus tips which according to one festival goer could be paid in beer, food or other items. “I tipped my cab a cold beer,” he said. You can’t do that in New York City. If you’re out there in the back country campground, those guys could save your calves after 4 days. They’ll be waiting for you outside the main gate when you need them. As will the seemingly all night “Shakedown Street” where you could indulge the little consumer in you by purchasing anything from a vegan smoothie for breakfast to a hat or t-shirt and just about everything in between. It seems that Rothbury has found a way to organize what used to happen magically on it’s own on a Grateful Dead lot. Outside was certainly a drop in the bucket compared to the vendors lining the inside of the festival grounds. A flea market with live music, every stage’s had it’s fair collection of things to attract your eyes and empty your wallet. That being said they were all reasonably priced and a real good collection of folks dedicated to the green movement with their products. Toyota was there representing their hybrid cars as well as American Spririt cigarettes promoting their new organic cigarette. Don’t shoot the messenger, if you’re gonna smoke, at lease smoke organic, right?
Saturday was a day to look forward to as a nation, the Fourth of July (insert firework sounds here). The day our nation celebrates the claiming of a country for our own from the British who didn’t own it in the first place but stole it from an indigenous people who’d been here for thousands of years prior to us even realizing it existed. Nevertheless, we drink beer and blow stuff up to celebrate the afore mentioned accomplishment. And so we did. Saturday’s line-up was another killer day of music.
Underground Orchestra was an early favorite featuring Viking of Long Beach’s Delta Nove on bass guitar. Other highlights from the day were Railroad Earth, Son Volt, Zappa Plays Zappa, Jackie Greene, John Butler, Les Claypool and the Black Crowes. Chris Robinson and company delivered and excellent set of Crowes music. The show everyone was looking forward to though, was The Dead. A Dead show on the Fourth of July is as American as hot dogs…wait, no those are German…as apple pie, wait, no, also German…as waving the American flag. And wave that flag they did…the freak flag flew wide and high.
This was the one and only Dead show for the Summer. After and extensive Spring tour, the “core four,” Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Bill Kreutzman and Mickey Hart came back out for one more show with Warren Haynes (Allman Bros. Band, Gov’t Mule) and Jeff Chimenti (Ratdog) to round out the 6 piece psychedelic rock band. True to form, they came out of the box strong with a crowd favorite, Sugar Magnolia. The set reads like a “Best of” or “Greatest Hits” album. Eyes of the World into Estimated Prophet. The California love was given. On to a vintage “Loose Lucy” then a crowd favorite “Friend of the Devil.” Warren Haynes delivery of the Van Morrison song, “Into The Mystic” was a true first set highlight. A “Help>Slip>Frankiln’s Tower” ender to the first set and the crowd was ready for the fireworks, both visual and auditory, that would come second set.
Set two opened with a usual closer, “One More Saturday Night.” A personal favorite, “Shakedown Street” went into a “China Cat>I Know You Rider” which then delivered us all into “Drums and Space.” All wrapped up into one giant ball of musical greatness. “Viola Lee Blues” and “Morning Dew” were followed by “Throwing Stones” a nice mix of old classic Dead in Viola to newer Dead with Stones. Bob Weir gave us all what we’d waited for all show for the second set closer…”Sunshine Daydream,” the ending of “Sugar Magnolia.”
It was fireworks time. Encoring with the obvious choice, “US Blues” the pyrotechnics came in the form of beautiful fireworks display over the stage as the Dead played on. They finished out the night with an emotional “Not Fade Away” and assured us all they “know our love won’t fade away.” The crowd continued on singing as the band left the stage. With tears of joy in their eyes, the masses moved toward Umphrey’s McGee for late night. There were other choices including STS9 or the Tripoli stage with EOTO featuring Jason and Travis from String Cheese Incident but for me, Umphrey’s is a good call. The boys from Chicago are great and worth seeing whenever possible.
Sunday, Sunday, Sunday. Time to kick back and enjoy something more chill for the final day. After three days of walking and walking and dancing and walking and dancing and dancing and walking…well, you get the point…I needed to sit and listen. Good thing the Odeon had the cure for what ailed me. Toots and the Maytals, Yonder Mountain String Band, Willie Nelson & Family and Bob Dylan. But over on Ranch Arena was Gov’t Mule and Sherwood had Ani DeFranco and Grace Potter and the Nocturnals. What to do. Bones, they needed rested. Willie Nelson…I love that guy. With the IRS, DEA and other government agencies out to get him, Willie’s still out there giving us the goods. “On the Road Again” always pleases. As does his cover of “City of New Orleans.” He busted out a new tune, or at least new to me, “Superman.”
Too many pain pills too much pot
Tryin to be something that I’m not
Tryin to do more than I can
I ain’t Superman
A personal anthem of sorts for Willie, I really liked it. On to the man, the myth and the legend…ok, the other man/myth/legend, Bob Dylan.
The lights dim, the announcer says “Ladies and Gentlemen, Columbia recording artist, Mr. Bob Dylan.” Dylan, who has spent the last decade it seems, behind his stage piano, comes out and performs “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat” on guitar! This is a great ending to a great weekend. Then he plays “Señor (Tales Of Yankee Power)” on guitar as well. Bob then discarded that unwieldy piece of lumber for his comfy keys for a truly unique version of “Tangled Up In Blue.” Only Bob could do what he did to that song and get away with it. It was fantastic…cuz it was Bob. “Rollin’ And Tumblin’”, “Spirit On The Water” and a smokin’ “High Water” followed. “’Til I Fell In Love With You” brought Bob to center stage with his harmonica and “Po’ Boy” gave us more of Bob’s harp playing. A personal favorite of the evening was next with “Highway 61 Revisited.” Although slightly different than usual, it still delivered. “Ballad Of A Thin Man” led us into a fantastic version of “Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again.” “Nettie Moore” and “Thunder On The Mountain” rolled us all into the likely closer, “Like A Rolling Stone.” A crowd pleasing end to the show. Bob encored with “Jolene”, “All Along the Watchtower” and “Blowin’ in the Wind” which crossed the “T”’s, dotted the “I”’s, frosted the cupcake and placed with ever so delicate care, the cherry on top of the sundae that was Sunday. If you needed seconds or thirds, Umphrey’s McGee were doing an unscheduled late night on Ranch Arena for those who had just a bit more in them. When they began to do rock n’ roll Mozart, I took off to bid a fond farewell to Sherwood Forest and the festival grounds I’d come to call home for the last four days.
Departure was imminent. A good night’s sleep and then it’s back, “On the Road Again” as Willie would say. “Like a band of gypsies we go down the highway…” Some off to All Good Fest on the East coast, but most back to the normal lives, having been touched by the fairy of good times, good music and a little bit of social consciousness for four days. We rocked, we rolled, we tripped the light fandango. Hopefully everyone took away from the festival something positive. Whether it was constant reminder of how to live green and take care of the environment we live in or that they now love a brand new band they’ve never heard before…they take with them a message that we all hope they’ll share…Rothburies taste great!