Rothbury Ruminations

Summer in West Central Michigan now means one thing to the hardcore hippies: Rothbury Festival, replete with jambands, glowsticks, colorful lights, a tricked out forest, and, uhh, whatever else they love at the hippie be-ins.

Because the festival is situated in rural Michigan and I was coming from Florida, I had to choose between flying in to Detroit or Chicago and driving a few hours (Southwest doesn’t fly into Grand Rapids, Mich., the nearest city of any size to the festival site).

Since I picked Detroit last year, I chose Chicago this year so I would have a different scenic drive. Bad choice. There was some Stimulus Plan road construction on the drive up that brought traffic to a standstill. I should have made it in plenty of time for the first band because the first day doesn’t start until evening, but the traffic ruined that.

Photo: John Davisson

Fortunately, I did make it in time for most of Davy Knowles and Back Door Slam’s set on the Sherwood Stage. I love the way he cranks out the blues-rock Stevie Ray Vaughn-style, and he was tearing it up on the first evening of Rothbury.

Next on my list was one-man-band Keller Williams at the Ranch Arena. The field was packed. I knew he was popular but there must have been 20,000 people there for his set.

Photo: John Davisson
A fisheye view of the festival’s magical glen.

On the way to Keller, I took my first walk through Rothbury’s Sherwood Forest area and saw some of the magic starting. As I came back by, it was lit up and looked wonderful. This area is one of the highlights of Rothbury.

In the daytime, the light filtering through the trees and the many hammocks make it a great place to chill out and relax. There’s also artwork made out of forest debris like twigs, branches and stones and a little stage hidden in the woods for surprise sets by bands.

Photo: John Davisson
Lighting up the night with a jam.

At night, the forest comes alive with lights that change colors, illuminating the trees and florescent art. If you feel like relaxing more, you can get a vibrational sound massage courtesy of The Conduit. You just layback blindfolded on a couch as two “vibrational alchemists” generate soundwaves around you with gongs and other instruments. Buskers play throughout the forest, and there’s even a bar.

Even though I know I probably didn’t see everything that happens in the magical Sherwood Forest, there were bands to see. So after chilling for a while (and taking plenty of photos), it was time to head to the first late night shows at Rothbury.

Photo: John Davisson
Adding some indie-rock color.

I started with a little Lotus, using my fisheye lens to try and capture some of the nice lighting effects they had. I ended the night back at the Sherwood Stage with some hip hop courtesy of the The Cool Kids and some indie-rock from the Cold War Kids. I was looking forward to Kid Cudi, but he had to cancel his set.

Photo: John Davisson
Bringing some trippy to the hippies.

I began the second day of Rothbury with King Sunny Ade & His African Beats on the Odeom Stage and some Man Man on the Sherwood Stage. I was headed to the Ranch Stage and photographing the daytime vibe in the forest when I passed a sign saying Lotus would be doing a “stripped” set at the hidden stage in the forest. Having enjoyed their set the previous night, I changed my plans and headed to the “stripped” set.

Photo: John Davisson
Showing the kids how it’s done at Rothbury Festival, Rothbury, Mich.

At Rothbury, one should definitely be flexible in planning because there’s always something surprising happening. It was a nice set, with a smaller crowd of hippies ready to dance and twirl in the woods.

After Lotus, I finally made it to the Ranch Arena for a nice set by Broken Social Scene, followed by some more relaxing in the forest before the headlining set by The String Cheese Incident and glowstick wars and all the circus atmosphere one comes to expect from String Cheese Incident.

Photo: John Davisson
They’ve got legs…

For the late night sets, I checked in with Chromeo and Girl Talk on the Sherwood Stage, which was packed for the evening’s festivities. While in the pit waiting for Girl Talk, a girl in the front row kept asking me to pick up glowsticks for her. She called them flavor sticks; Are they now edible?

Photo: John Davisson
It’s not a party until somebody climbs up on a table.

The third day of Rothbury was the 4th of July and there were fans dressed up in red, white and blue. After a brief rain (the only rain during the weekend really) I started the day with Jackie Greene on the Odeom Stage. He was good, but I left early because I was really excited to see Zappa Plays Zappa.

Photo: John Davisson
Dweezil does papa Frank proud.

Zappa’s music is so timeless and it’s sad that Frank is gone, but thankfully Dweezil is there carrying on the tradition. After the Zappa set, I checked out some Black Crowes but it was too jammy for me; I would have preferred the familiar hits.

I ended the day at the back of the Odeom field listening to The Dead. I couldn’t really watch because I was so far away, so instead I observed the fans dancing away from my perch in a comfortable camping chair. A wonderful fireworks display started during the encore of The Dead’s set and I was ready for it, armed with a tripod and the perfect location to capture the stage, the fireworks, and the Rothbury balloon. Of course the Dead played longer than planned, and I was ready to spend some quality time sleeping before the final day.

Photo: John Davisson
What becomes a legendary band best? A killer light show.

Sunday at Rothbury was less crowded as people were packing up and some were leaving early to get ready for the working week. That made it easier for me to get a prime spot in front of the Odeom Stage, because I’d decided to just stay at one stage and check out all of the sets there. Of course it didn’t hurt that Bob Dylan was scheduled to headline on the Odeom.

Toots & The Maytals played first, bringing some island flavor to Rothbury. Yonder Mountain String Band did a great jamgrass set that had the hippies dancing and kicking up a dust storm. Next was Willie Nelson, who always plays a great set and Rothbury was no exception; he even had Toots join him for a song.

Photo: John Davisson
Fireworks punctuate an encore by The Dead.

Finally, Bob Dylan came out and played a long set. He looked great as he kicked things off by playing guitar for a couple of songs before settling in to keyboards with occasional harp work at the front of the stage. He doesn’t allow photographers in the photo pit, which is a shame because he was in top form. He even seemed to be posing for the fans in the audience when he was playing guitar. But that’s persnickety Bob for you. I would love to photograph him from the pit, as would most of the photographers at Rothbury.

Watching his set, brought on so many thoughts about the changes in American society throughout Bob’s career. Dylan grew up in “Leave It to Beaver” America, but I don’t think the Beav and the rest of the Cleaver clan would recognize the place now. I wonder if Bob imagined that kind of transformation when he wrote “The Times They Are A Changin’” and what he thinks of the state of things.

Since he hardly ever gives interviews, you never know if the mythos surrounding him is even half true. There are dozens of books about Bob, but you can’t believe everything you read. I’d sure like to ask him about a few things, so Bob, have your people call my people at Pollstar and we’ll do lunch or something sometime. Yeah, right!