The wild ride from Rothbury to the Electric Forest.

June 22, 2022

The wild ride from Rothbury to the Electric Forest.

By Ross Field, Contributing Writer.

ROTHBURY — When the rumors that were spreading in late 2007 of a large music festival being planned for southern Oceana County came to fruition with the first Rothbury festival in July of 2008 at the Double JJ Resort in Rothbury, music fans and local residents in west Michigan expressed amazement. The festival, which was billed as “A Sustainable Camping Festival Celebrating Music, Art and Action,” was going to be bigger and grander than any other musical event held in the history of Oceana County.

Now, with the 10th Electric Forest beginning Thursday June 23, I reached out to four veterans of the original Rothbury festivals and the subsequent Electric Forest festivals, to hear of their experiences as the festival grew and evolved.

The Electric Forest is now acknowledged worldwide as a destination festival, one that is unique and that should be on every music fan’s bucket list, and the original Rothbury festivals are remembered by those who attended as monumental events in their lives.

And, it all started with the 2008 Rothbury Festival.

“I was at the first Rothbury,” said Michael “Miko” Steinberg, of West Bloomfield, Michigan. “And I was stoked for the musical lineup. I am a ‘jambander’ at my core and the lineup was full of my favorites. Because I was coordinating a volunteer booth (the Jellyfish; scijellyfish.org) we got in early. The Forest was under construction still, and it was amazing to walk around and see what this thing was going to be.”

The 2008 Rothbury brought more than 30,000 fans of music to the Double JJ Resort in Rothbury, Michigan, and featured such national acts as the Dave Matthews Band, Snoop Dogg, The Black Keys, Primus, Yonder Mountain String Band, and Widespread Panic.

“I’m an old ‘Deadhead’,” said Norm Kittleson of Whitehall. “When I heard this festival was going to be just a few miles from my home, and I saw the lineup, I knew I had to go. The first Rothbury festival will go down in history as one of the greatest ever. I heard so many people saying they had never before seen anything like it.”

From the start, the Rothbury festival stood apart from other music festivals around the world due to the incorporation of art into the forested environment of the ranch. During the day the woods were a giant canvas of art installations and sculptures with costumed characters roaming the grounds interacting with festival-goers. At night the dazzling display was enhanced by a multitude of light shows and arrays of lasers moving through the forest canopy.

The festival also promoted environmental consciousness, and personal growth and responsibility.

“My favorite memory of the Forest and the art was at the first Rothbury,” said Kittleson. “It had finally gotten dark, and I was walking down one of the main paths of the Forest. The light show was happening, and all of a sudden all the trees started shifting colors and laser lights started shining through the forest and moving in wild patterns.

“There was a simultaneous ‘Whoooooooooa!!!’ by almost everyone in the Forest. Thousands of people were awestruck at the same time and having the same reaction. It gave me goosebumps.”

“Being from the west Michigan area, I was able to watch the entire community take on a form of surprise and anticipation once the festival was announced and began to approach,” said Tom Wall of Muskegon. “As night approached on July 4th, experiencing the Forest for the first time all lit up was a trip, and then we came upon the Primus show.

“So many glow sticks flew through the air it was like a current of energy we had never before experienced. It was nearly mesmerizing, and it had such a profound effect on my expectations for concert production. It forever changed my view on festivals completely. It was an experience to remember.”

The word spread that this Rothbury festival was a very special and unique event, and despite rumors of financial troubles at the Double JJ, the Rothbury festival returned bigger and better in 2009. Over 36,000 people saw world famous acts including Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, The Dead, Ralph Stanley, the String Cheese Incident, and Ani DiFranco performing on the three main stages.

More so than in 2008, there were many acts from the worlds of jazz and Electronic Dance Music (EDM). And, in the Forest, the art and light shows in the Forest were even more of a treat for the senses, and hundreds of hammocks hung among the pines.

“I wanted to attend in 2008 but circumstances didn’t allow it,” said Rick Shore of Brooklyn, Michigan. “But, 2009 was not going to slip away. My favorite memory of the weekend was the String Cheese Incident’s ‘Shebang’ featuring their song, ‘Desert Dawn’, with huge inflated balls rolling across the massive audience. It was the weekend after Michael Jackson passed, and just about every band had at least one tribute to him. This was by far the best festival of my life. My world changed in one weekend. Was it the music? Yes. Was it the vibe? Yes. Was it the Forest itself? Yes.”

The sky seemed to be the limit for the Rothbury festival’s future. But then, in 2010, that future came to an abrupt halt due to the financial collapse of the Double JJ. The highly anticipated 2010 Rothbury Festival was cancelled, and for many, many Rothbury fans around the country, this was devastating news.

“Yeah, I was a bit shocked,” said Miko. “I felt they had laid a good base and would grow. This is a big event and as a volunteer coordinator for a non-profit, the wheels are put into motion several months before. So when I learned, I was a bit bummed, but, I knew many of the people involved. If they felt that the project needed to be regrouped, I respected the hell out of their decision. I know I wondered aloud if it was over. But, knowing my friends, they would make it happen again.”

“I was disappointed when the festival didn’t happen in 2010,” said Kittleson, “but I was grateful that I’d had the opportunity to attend the festival the two previous years so I could die a happy man after having been to those two.”

As we all know now, a festival returned to the Double JJ in 2011, but as the inaugural Electric Forest festival. Same site, same Forest, but with a different musical direction. EDM artists became predominate, and the top-billed artists were world-renowned DJs like Tiesto, Pretty Lights, and Bassnectar.

However, the lineup remained eclectic, with the String Cheese Incident playing long sets over three nights, joined by great funk acts like Gigantic, the bluegrass of The Infamous Stringdusters, reggae from the likes of Stephen Marley, and bluegrass from Michigan’s own, Greensky Bluegrass.

“I was concerned about the mix of jam fans and EDM fans,” said Shore. “I was worried it would be like oil and water. In actuality, the jam fans went their way and the EDM fans went theirs. But as time passed, there was PLUR (Peace, Love, Unity and Respect) exchanged, and the love grew. I found some EDM that I kind of liked, and I’m sure those folks were turned on by some music played on instruments. It was a nice blend and the Rothbury vibe seemed to be magically alive.”

“I’m much older than the attendees,” said Miko. “I feel it is their fest and I am a humble guest who can choose to adapt. Detroit is the birthplace of Techno music, so it isn’t like we haven’t had exposure to EDM. When they mix EDM with traditional genres of music, I can get down with it.”

The Electric Forest has continued to evolve and expand, and now features six main stages and three smaller stages in the Forest. The art and installations and light displays in the Forest have grown even more all-encompassing.

In 2017 and 2018 the festival was held over the course of two weekends. Some fans hoped that one weekend would be more of a jam and funk lineup with the second weekend having a lineup of EDM, but both weekends were a mix of predominately EDM acts with funk, jazz, and folk acts in the mix with the String Cheese Incident playing different sets over the course of six nights.

And then the Forest, like stages around the world, was silent again because of the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic.

However, in November of 2021, it was announced that the 10th Electric Forest festival would happen over the last weekend of June, 2022. Beginning Thursday night the stages and Forest will be lit up and filled with people celebrating their love of music and art and friendships that have been nurtured over the course of the history of the Rothbury and Electric Forest festivals.

“There is a wonderful sober community that attends the festival and has a booth where they offer support for those who wish to ‘festivate’ without the use of drugs and alcohol,” said Kittleson. “The music and community are very fulfilling, and I get to celebrate life unfiltered with my tribe. I hope the festival can continue.’

“I’ve made deep lasting friendships at the Forest,” said Shore. “These are true blessings. I can honestly say that the last 10 years would have been different, and not for the better, without the Electric Forest. I just hope the vibe never changes. We need PLUR now more than ever!”

— Photos of 2009 Rothbury festival by Ross Field.

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