“Holy Mackerel! Life is good.” String Cheese Incident’s Bill Nershi
I made it to Rothbury, Michigan on Friday night, after covering a show in Philadelphia on Thursday and flying into St. Louis. I pulled into the Wesco convenience store to ask for directions to the festival grounds and was relieved and surprised to see that the employees wore tie-dyed t-shirts that said, “Welcome Forest Dwellers! And unicorns!” Apparently I was only a few miles from the festival, but without the shirts it would be hard to believe. Rothbury and the surrounding areas are so dark and quiet at night, you can’t believe that the promoters managed to hide 32,000 people out there in the woods.
I arrived in the middle of a full-scale party. I watched Excision on the Tripolee stage while lit-up hula hoops spun around me. Then I ventured into the forest part of the venue. It’s a mix of the Renaissance Faire, Cirque du Soleil (with costumed packs of buskers) and Bonnaroo in its early years, before they started accepting corporate sponsorships. The forest is really magical. Hammocks swing from every tree. Lanterns hang across the wide middle path. Artists perform on small stages. Festival-goers relax in a giant birds’ nest on the ground.
The woods also include three smaller stages, plus the Silent Disco.
The festival grounds are on the Double JJ Ranch, a Wild West-themed family amusement area. Festival-goers can sign up for shuttles to the waterpark section, and there’s also a lake somewhere on the grounds.
Electric Forest has a bit of a split personality, with the fans pretty evenly divided between jam band heads and EDM ravers. There’s some crossover, but because the stages are all going at the same time, you could tailor your experience to just one type of music, maybe adding in some a la carte soul, like Aloe Blacc. The hippie side, especially, was a very friendly place, again like the Phish or Dead-related festivals a decade ago. People smile at each other like it’s everyone’s birthday. They greet strangers with “Happy Forest!” They high-five.
The EDM crowd is mostly focused on having the best time of their lives. There’s a communal aspect of that half of the crowd as well, but each person seems more in his or her own world, or with a particular group of friends. But everyone goes all-out creatively. The audience as a whole was actually more inventive and creative than any of the bands, with elaborate costumes, campsites, signs, and things on posts. “You’ve created a new civilization, and I want to live here!” said Matt Johnson, during Matt and Kim‘s set.
Electric Forest is more porous than other festivals. Many concert-goers left the festival and went into town regularly, and I went a little farther afield to spend time at some lakes and dunes in the area. The campground party goes until after the sun comes up, and when the sun comes up the tents get hot, which makes it hard to get much sleep. So it was nice to be able to recharge in the many area nature preserves (or in one of the eno hammocks scattered not just in the forest, but all over the festival grounds).
The Electric Forest really is a special place. The dual purpose of the venue gives it a good energy – it’s a place to go on vacation and spend time with the people you love. It’s not surprising that such a lovely artistic community has sprung up on those grounds, and I hope it’s a community that the promoters will continue to cultivate. As String Cheese Incident’s Bill Nershi said, it was the “most lit-up, motivated, enlightened, hope-for-the-future crowd [he’d] ever seen.”