Rothbury Music Festival: 2-5 July 2009 – Rothbury, MI

Keller Williams

“Live Strong bracelets should never have gained popularity,” I thought to myself, as I laid awake on the rock hard ground with a ringing sound penetrating my eardrums. A yellow piece of rubber as a way to express your personal sense of fashion, patriotism and philanthropy? Seemed a bit cheesy to me at the time.

God Damn I needed sleep…

It’s baffling that a diatribe more akin to awkward pillow talk between Anderson Cooper and Katie Couric would enter my thoughts while at a music festival. Nevertheless, the reality that I would need to uphold the ‘Live Strong’ mentality in order to make it through Rothbury came rushing into my head on this obnoxiously sunny July morning.The location for the event, as self-proclaimed “Festivarian,” and opening night musical act, Keller Williams, described it, was “quite fine.” But it was more than just a good setting for live music.

Set amidst the trees and expansive meadows of western Michigan, over the 4th of July weekend, Rothbury was able to capture the scenic appeal of West-Coast festivals, with the all star lineup that commercialized Midwest festivals, like the “now legendary” Bonnaroo, regularly bring to the table. And this, might I add, in just its second year of existence. While festivals of this magnitude regularly proliferate a corporate shield, with sponsorships aplenty and fan satisfaction in the backseat, Rothbury provided a respite from these commercial dregs. That’s not to say there weren’t the usual “distractions” of festival life.

There was a shrill hissing coming from just outside my tent at 7:30 a.m. on the final morning of the festival. The sound was distinct. It was the piercing sound of a balloon being filled with nitrous gas, or “whippets” as the parking lot dwellers call it. Either way, at that moment it sounded like an elephant was letting out its last dying gasps– just footsteps away from where I desperately tried to reel myself into the peaceful lull that could be called sleep, or might just be known as rest given the circumstances. While certainly not innocent in terms of life’s “finer’ things, “huffing,” which I believe from 7th grade Health class is hardly good for the brain, and seemed like a bold decision at 7:30 A.M. Summoning my minimal energy, I ventured outside.

“Could you please fill up your nitrous balloons elsewhere?” I implored half-dazed.

“Ya bro,” the starry-eyed passerby sighed. “Relocate guys,” he muttered to his cohorts.

Normally I might have let the sleep deprivation get the best of me. However, the music was so impressive at Rothbury that retrospectively these “unforeseen encounters” seemed to be nothing more than a grand lesson in anthropology.

Opening its 4th of July carnival of characters on a Thursday, two days before United States citizens celebrate their nation’s independence by blowing up a small portion of it, Rothbury kicked off with a loose, uninhibited and fittingly explosive performance by Keller Williams who strolled onstage after a 90-minute performance by North Carolina’s African-inspired instrumentalists Toubab Krewe. With an array of instruments to suit his fancy, (including 22 guitars which Williams brought to Rothbury so as to replicate a guitar-store onstage) the bluegrass–folk jam-master, known for his multi-instrumental capabilities, looped Rococo style arrangements on the bass, acoustic and electric guitars, coupled with Afrobeat percussion, sending the jam-scene regulars into a fervor with a bluesy tease of Phish’s “Birds of a Feather.” Williams was joined onstage by members of festival headliner The String Cheese Incident (Keith Moseley on bass, Kyle Hollingsworth on keys, and Jeff Hann on drums) for slinky fan-favorite renditions of the bluegrass foot-stomping “Portapotty” off 1998’s Spun and “Kidney in a Cooler,” a doo-wop fairytale epic off 2002’s Laugh, which pays a smile-inducing homage to the American folk classic “Deep Elem Blues” in the song’s bridge.

As the moon dipped into the abyss, and the smell of marijuana slowly dissipated into the evening breeze, night one of Rothbury was complete. Like a fraternity house recovering from a night of partying, the Rothbury crowd slept in. Thankfully, festival organizers knew this and didn’t schedule the first act on Friday until just after noon. Gracing the Odeum main stage at 3:30 was the penultimate “Bro” band G. Love and the Special Sauce. Riffing on silky smooth beats, topped with freestylin’ vocal licks, G. Love, adorned in black linens and a 1920’s bowler hat, shuffled his way through the set with relative ease. A longtime college-circuit act, G. has managed to keep his vibe fresh with continued strut, albeit occasionally cheesy strut, during his live performances. Backstage after his set, Garrett, or G. for short, let loose on the art of freestyling– a musical soirée he has continued to embrace over the years.“Most rappers don’t really freestyle,” G laughed. “I’ve been on tour with a lot of these hip-hop guys and they don’t kick something off the top of their head, even though they say they are.”

After reggae ambassador Damien Marley and rap’s lyrical diplomat Nas joined forces for a 90-minute set of soul-meets-swagger, the nag-champa burning faithful got their first dose of the weekend’s jammy bliss. The String Cheese Incident, reuniting after a yearlong absence from the hippie circuit, joined forces for what would be the most inspired performance of the festival. SCI’s ability to harmoniously blend bluegrass, rock and techno together was front and center from the first note of the gurgling intro to “Roll Over,” off 2005’s Outside Inside, which opened (and closed) their first set. Electric guitarist/mandolinist Michael Kang yelled to the crowd in his merry intonation, “We’re gonna have as much fun as humanly possible,” before blasting through loopy renditions of “Desert Dawn” “Joyful Sound” and “Texas.” Keller Williams returned the previous day’s favor, encoring with SCI for the fan-favorite “Best Feeling.”

Electro-jamsters STS9 and mash-up DJ phenomenon Girl Talk (Gregg Gillis) battled for Friday’s late-night supremacy. Gillis, sweaty, shirtless and surrounded onstage by ravers, hopped in an inflatable raft and rode atop the sea of smashed partygoers. “There are so many rules for concerts,” Gillis said in his trailer six weeks earlier at Illinois’ Summercamp Festival. “I mean, who came up with these rules? Sometimes you just gotta step outside that box.”

It’s refreshing to wake up on the 4th of July knowing the music you are going to hear is far better than the Beatles cover-band your local town has booked to soothe the aging ears of suburban America. Saturday at Rothbury was to be The Day of The Dead, not be confused with La Dia de los Muertos, a Latino celebration of those who have passed on. This day was for The Dead, as in the Grateful Dead. While not in its original incarnation, sans Jerry Garcia, the group has managed to unite its loyal following since the death of its departed leader.

That’s not to say the 4th wasn’t chock full of superb music before the “original” jam-band was to take the main stage. Just outside the Sherwood Forest, a lazy hammock-sporting “redwoods wannabee” by day and psilocybin-user’s dream by night, stood the Sherwood Stage where Dwezil Zappa, son of Frank, muscled out a reverberating set of his father’s classics. Donning a blue and yellow t-shirt and jeans, to compliment the Zappa family locks that hung down to his chin, Zappa did his daddy proud with electro-chaotic classics like “Don’t Eat The Yellow Snow” and “Bamboozled By Love.”

With their set overlapping with Zappa’s, Southern bluesy rockers The Black Crowes fought for every audience member they could squeeze onto the main stage’s massive lawn, putting on a passionate performance that suggested the spark is still alive for the Crowes nearly twenty years after their 1990 breakout Shake Your Money Maker. Front man Chris Robinson, with long mane and Grateful Dead sticker to match, let his soulful croon hang low as it danced atop gritty classics like opening tune “Wiser Time, “ “Jealous Again” “ and “Thorn in my Pride.”

As the evening clock pushed its way towards eight, the neo-hippies abandoned their tents, bongs and beers, flocking in unison towards the Odeum for The Dead’s only performance of the summer. While considered by some a nostalgia act at this point, The Dead’s performance, helped in large part by awe-inspiring solos from guitar-God Warren Haynes (Gov’t Mule, Allman Brothers Band) was far from humdrum. It was spirited mayhem among the masses as Bob Weir’s grandfatherly growl anchored the opener, “Sugar Magnolia.” Phil Lesh’s tiptoeing bass line drove “Eyes of the World” and “Estimated Prophet” before Haynes stepped into the limelight with an endorphin-releasing solo during the first-set closer “Franklin’s Tower.” The second set was pure jam-rock with “China Cat Sunflower”>“I Know You Rider” setting up an explosion of color in the sky, as fireworks glistened during the time- appropriate encore of “U.S. Blues” and “Not Fade Away.”

The late-night gigs, particularly Umphrey’s McGee, kept the hippies’ heads bobbing and pipes blazing, as the Notre Dame alums tore through intricate jam sequences i.e. the minor-chord ski slaloms of “Mantis” and the joyful guitar grimaces of “All in Time.” Lead vocalist Brendan Bayless let his pipes loose for a noteworthy encore performance of “Glory.” Perhaps Umphrey’s performing after The Dead was a sign of the proverbial torch being passed within the jam scene. Where was Phish to act as the middleman?

Aside from the whippet’s debacle, Sunday morning was a two-fold experience. It was a time to wind down and dismantle: (this included a “house” constructed to resemble a TV, built from plywood and creativity, next to my tent) and a time to soak in the last wringed out melodies from the musical acts scheduled to perform.

After Candian-indie sensation, Sam Roberts Band, paid its respects on the Sherwood stage early Sunday, user-friendly Guster brought the Ranch Stage a whimsical hour of tunes. A few hours earlier, the witty drummer for Guster, Brian Rosenworcel, rubbed his eyes 20 minutes after waking up. “I didn’t realize we were moving back to East Coast time,” he said, as lead singer Ryan Miller, footsteps away, was sitting on a couch, microphone in face, being bludgeoned by an early-morning video interview. God bless publicity!

The band, professional as always, responded in turn with a vocal-friendly performance, complete with Rosenworcel mixing Lost and Gone Forever hand percussion with Keep it Together set work. “Airplane Song “and “Demon,” while cliché, leveled out the seesaw set, and allowed room for newer songs to shine.

The final hours of Rothbury were an orgasmic musical experience. That is, if you had the stamina to trek the paths, and commit to 15-20 minute sets, in order to catch the full rainbow of musical colors offered in such a short time span. Within three and half hours, Minnesota whiskey-soaked bar band The Hold Steady, Orthodox Jewish reggae-stud Matisyahu, ganja-toking folk-legend Willie Nelson and Friends, Warren Haynes- led band, Gov’t Mule, and female-songwriting icon Ani DiFranco all strolled across their respective stages.

“You get out there and play and try to impress or sell yourself to people in a short amount of time,” said Craig Finn, lead singer of The Hold Steady, as he sipped water before going onstage. His band’s stream of consciousness style lyrics, mesmerized the Ranch stage-crowd with chirpy resonance as fans began to realize the marathon of stage maneuvering that lie ahead.

Matisyahu, flossing a black overcoat with a red and white baseball cap, hand-checked in unison as he flowed to “One Day,” an Obama-esque song of hope, off his newly dropped LP Light. Matthew Miller, as he is formally named, then “tucked in his beard” and “roamed the grounds of the festival incognito while checking out the scene.” An hour earlier on the same stage, Ani DiFranco let her feminism shine through, with the breezy “Whose Side Are You On?”

Having never seen Willie Nelson in concert, it was a no-brainer that despite my lack of love for country music, I had to catch the “Red Headed Stranger” and his “friends.” With a black brimmed cowboy hat shading his distinctive red bandanna, Nelson lulled the crowd with an assortment of acoustic melodies, most notably a surprisingly lively version of “Beer For My Horses” that washed pleasantly over the sun-drenched crowd. Racing back to the Ranch stage in the nick of time to catch the bluesy twang of Warren Haynes’ Gov’t Mule, ears were treated to a collection of covers greased in Haynes’ North Carolina howl. Zeppelin’s “I Can’t Quit You Baby,” CSNY’s “Ohio,” Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground”—Haynes can strum em’ all with a parade of flair.

It’s a shame Bob Dylan and his Band were scheduled to be the closing act of the 4-day fiesta. Heads had begun to grow heavy and tanks teetered on empty. But this wasn’t some college-alt-rock band. This was Dylan.

Clad in a skinny black suit with white lapels, Dylan, introduced as “the man who defined rock n’ roll,” plucked his electric guitar for the first two numbers before plopping himself down at his keyboard. Classics like “Tangled up in Blue,” “Highway 61 Revisited” and “Like a Rolling Stone” shimmered with the old man’s grizzly snarl; no longer in tune, but an experience nonetheless.

Making my final hike back to the campgrounds, forgoing a late-addition Umphrey’s set, I weaved my way through the collection of beer cans, roaches and dismantled tents sprinkled across the parking lot. In the distance, I could still hear guitars wailing and drums crashing-but there was a more familiar sound coming footsteps ahead-the hissing of nitrous gas. Nitrous? Pshh! I was hardly fazed.

Rothbury had finally numbed my senses in every magnificent way.