Words by: Cal Roach | Images by: Dave Vann, Kenny Pusey & Jay Scherer
Rothbury Music Festival :: 07.03.08 – 07.06.08 :: Double JJ Ranch :: Rothbury, MI
Did summer really need another festival? As many as there are now, what would another fest bring to the community that it didn't already have? Did the organizers of the Rothbury Music Festival, a first-year event held on the Double JJ Ranch in Michigan learn anything from the failures and triumphs of the granddaddy of modern festivals, Bonnaroo? The first Bonnaroo was an experience that the festival generation can never have again. All the poor planning, heat and chaos was no match for the pioneering atmosphere and three days of amazing music. There was plenty of sunburn, soreness and heat exhaustion, but everyone who was there came to his or her next festival better prepared, and Rothbury exuded the aura of what we'd all learned. We all brought extra toilet paper, plenty of sunscreen and water bottles, eager to find out if the jaw-dropping artist lineup could put this brand new event on the permanent map.
| Rothbury by Dave Vann|
Thursday :: 07/03
There are certain aspects of the festival experience you have to just get through including traffic, for one. Getting in was relatively painless Thursday around noon, although parking and setting up camp was a cramped and poorly organized affair. No big deal, though; I'm usually dripping with sweat, exhausted and unmotivated the first evening of Bonnaroo, but thanks to weather you can actually nap comfortably in, Rothbury was much kinder. It took longer than I expected to get to Sherwood Court, one of three arena-type stages, but Perpetual Groove sucked me in immediately. This was the official debut of new keyboardist John Hruby, but you'd never have known it. The band seemed too big for Thursday evening, especially on the stunning set-closer "Teakwood," which churned on a buzz-bass-led groove that built to a techno pitch then exploded in a cascade of Brock Butler guitar wails. The bar was set high already and I'd only seen one set.
Next, I walked in on "Bamboozled By Love" from Zappa Plays Zappa at the Ranch Arena, and I really didn't want to tear myself away. There was no video screen to show old footage of Frank for the band to play off of but his pre-recorded voice was still a part of the show. After the "Yellow Snow Suite," I left to catch some of Lotus at the Tripolee Domes, the stage where I sort of wished everybody could play; essentially, three huge jungle-gym-looking domes lit with all kinds of lights and effects, bathing band, crowd and sky in LED. Lotus was in the right place at that time; nothing overwhelming, but lots of dance-friendly groovin' and twitchin' and buzzin.' STS9 comparisons are warranted and not generally flattering to Lotus, but it seemed like a pleasant set and the crowd was certainly moving.
| The Disco Biscuits with Dave Murphy (STS9) by K. Pusey|
The main event for Thursday was The Disco Biscuits, back at the Ranch, and the crowd was primed. To be a true Bisco fanatic, you have to be like a Trekkie who can speak Klingon (that was what kind of version? It completes the version from when?) So much planning goes into the Biscuits' mystique that it's a wonder these guys can find the time to jam, but of course, they do, and you certainly don't need to know the mythology to love the music. The segue from "Digital Buddha" into Pink Floyd's "Run Like Hell," and the way they have come to own this song in their own right, require a prowess few bands possess, period. "Story of the World" got so giddy at its apex, it seemed that would have to be the end, but they came back once more with "Rockafella" and nailed the end with a "Run Like Hell" reprise that set the crowd on fire. We'd just seen how many hours of music? And there are still how many days left?
Friday :: 07/04
I woke up at 9:30 a.m., about three hours later than I've ever slept at 'Roo, as the tent generally hits 100 degrees around 6 a.m. in Tennessee. For a first year fest, it was pretty hard to find anything to complain about. There were some long lines for ice that might end in the truck running out before you got a bag, but this was only ever a temporary setback. The mood was ebullient amongst veterans and newbies alike.
| Tea Leaf Green by D. Vann|
Tea Leaf Green needs to find something soon to separate itself from the pack besides just Josh Clark's guitar prowess. Friday's set was a good example of the group's standard attack: good musicianship, fluid jams, nothing too intense and all too derivative. There is a thread of sameness that links many, many jam bands together, but the really good ones develop something unique that transcends this makeshift genre, and Tea Leaf Green hasn't found its something yet. Following TLG was Sam Beam of Iron & Wine, who oozed disingenuous indie smart-assitude. Who wasn't sitting in the audience thinking, "Isn't it hilarious having another hipster joking about how high we all are?" Beam was the one who kept lousing up his songs and laughing about it, after all. I don't particularly care for his singing, but he played a pretty mean acoustic guitar some of the time, and there's no denying his songwriting skills, but he could stand to learn some audience appreciation.
Snoop Dogg came out to roars from the sizeable crowd at the Odeum, the event's main stage. "How ya doin', East Lansing?" he mumbled, well before he lit up any blunts onstage. The crowd took it all in stride and Snoop rolled out a virtual greatest hits set, but that's exactly what this situation called for; nobody could say Snoop didn't have his audience's best interests in mind. His live band was able to beef up some arrangements, although the sound was the worst it ever got at the fest; though this actually improved the latest single, "Sexual Seduction," by somewhat muffling Snoop's singing voice. However, his rapping was lazily spot-on, and he has a presence all his own, infectious, even when he's rapping about things you can't even clearly conjure images of. And when he asks, "How y'all feelin', East Lansing?" you have to say, "Gooooood."
| Snoop Dogg by Jay Scherer|
I'm sure Keller Williams' WMDS looked on paper like a plan that couldn't possibly fail, but so far, Keller has proven to be more of a lone craftsman than a collaborative artist. When you remove his ability to do whatever he wants, whenever he wants, it's probably an enjoyable challenge for him but it gets tedious for me. These are all great musicians; this just isn't their band. Given time, maybe they'll coalesce, but apart from a few bright spots, this set felt more like an exercise than a performance. It also revealed that Keller's normal voice isn't strong enough for a rock band; he sounds best accompanied only by himself.
We wandered back through Sherwood Forest after WMDS, taking in the feast for eyes that it was. Close-packed evergreens were strung with hammocks, branches slung with oblong white sheets, trunks draped in what looked like a phosphorescent gauze, spotlights swimming throughout the woods, and other objects dangling and spinning above our heads. It was Mother Nature's art augmented by human art, and one of the little touches that truly highlighted the efforts people made to make our weekend that much more interesting.
| Dave Schools (WSP) by Jay Scherer|
Modest Mouse was raucous from the get-go, although mostly in the slick, dance punk style of the group's recent work. But singer Isaac Brock sings with a sincerity akin to Darby Crash's, and his enthusiasm comes across even better live than on record, where you hear Brock sing the songs exactly the same way every time you listen. It brings some dulled meaning back to hear a different inflection. The band brought some much-needed clang to the proceedings and did its best to drown out 311. We left in order to catch the last half of Yonder Mountain String Band's set with Jon Fishman on drums. This isn't Fish's first seat behind this band, and he's clearly in his element with bluegrass. It was an energetic performance, as always, with YMSB; if you know what you're expecting, you won't be let down.
Next, I saw my first Widespread Panic show with lead guitarist Jimmy Herring, and I didn't really know what to expect. It became immediately clear that he has injected some overall energy into this institution of a band. Melodically, he can be a bit cliché, maybe relying on his considerable speed a bit much, but the somewhat meatier edge he has brought Panic is most welcome. The biggest problem with WSP remains the drumming. I just don't understand what anyone sees in Todd Nance's drumming, but I understand there must be a vein of camaraderie too rich to discard here, and it could be catastrophic to make a change at this point. They have had a few hiccups over the years, but the band still packs the lawn full of fans, and still wails. Tonight, they had violinist Ann Marie Calhoun onstage for some great stringed battles as well as some straight-up smooth playing. Highlights included "Arleen," "Surprise Valley" and the closing epic page-turner of "Sewing Machine" and "Life During Wartime." After the drum jam, which was augmented but not quite saved by Jeff Sipe, the band was firing on all cylinders, although the end of set two seemed a bit abrupt, almost unfinished. Maybe it was the lack of an encore, but it could also be that we missed a bit of each set by skipping out to see Of Montreal.
Another Athens, GA band, these guys (particularly singer Kevin Barnes) are shameless Bowie worshippers, and the great thing about David Bowie is that his influence is at once so pervasive and so unique that you can be Bowie-esque in so many ways but still really be nothing like the man. I've seen more elaborate stage setups from Of Montreal in the past, but this was the most intense set I've seen from them in purely musical terms. Barnes seemed like he had something to prove to the small crowd, and whatever it was he was impassioned about it. "She's A Rejector" was a full-on headrush, and "The Past Is A Grotesque Animal" was a ten-plus-minute workout that whipped Barnes and the audience into frenetic lurching. It was a somewhat bizarre interlude to Widespread, but refreshing.
| Kevin Barnes - Of Montreal :: by D. Vann|
The main late night set on Friday was Primus, a band that had only four gigs scheduled this year and hadn't played a show in a year and a half prior to Rothbury. As busy as bassist-singer Les Claypool is with other projects, I'm left wondering how much rehearsal these guys could possibly get before gigs. But while fans continue to wonder whether Les will ever start playing new material again, we still get treated to genre-defying performances of music so unique, it's utterly timeless. These songs are still evolving, played by three musicians who seem to have lost not a step over their entire careers, and whose chemistry is so intuitive that their first show in 18 months was at least as amazing as any Primus show I've ever seen. Maybe they know that if they ever actually suck, there will just be no more music in the Primus genre, and they're just too decent to let that happen. Thanks, guys. Ever since drummer Tim Alexander returned to the band in 2003, their live show has gotten better and better. Primus always improvised live, but Claypool's increasing prominence on the jam band scene has fostered a more jam-oriented philosophy in Primus, and it plays to the strengths of each member. Guitarist Larry LaLonde was ridiculous in the epic "Over The Electric Grapevine;" this is a musician who has been peaking for about 15 years. "American Life" was a mind-boggling journey, a surging, twisting full-band jam that just went where no other band can really go. Even "Wynona's Big Brown Beaver" got extended, and now that the song had lain dormant, its weird potential showed itself in ways that never appeared in its heyday. There just wasn't a misstep in this set, my favorite of the weekend. All 12 hours of music caught up with me in the span of 25 minutes as I walked back to camp. Thank God for mild Michigan summer mornings.
Saturday :: 07/05
At your average festival, you get used to the butts and beer cups strewn everywhere, which was why it was so weird not to see all that crap at Rothbury. The staff and volunteers at the event did an unbelievable job throughout the weekend keeping the grounds clean. Landfill, compost, and recycle bins densely populated all areas of the festival, and attendants stood watch to make sure people were being conscientious. While it's maddening to try and work out why people won't make the miniscule effort to put bottles in the recycling bin instead of the trash, it's equally frustrating that businesses everywhere fail miserably to provide the little bit of motivation and education necessary to make a difference in people's actions and attitudes. With "Think Tank" seminars on environmental issues held throughout each day, the organizers of Rothbury really weren't just paying lip service to the green trend. Ultimately, maybe it's counterproductive to praise people for just doing what everybody ought to be doing, but it's still nice to see a commitment and a follow through.
| The Secret Machines by K. Pusey|
I got to the Ranch in time for the somewhat recently reformed Secret Machines (guitarist Benjamin Curtis left the band to focus on a new project, School of Seven Bells last year), possibly the loudest show of the weekend. They slowly built metallic waterfalls of sound that crested and flowed and generally pulsed with a shrill intensity that never flagged significantly. They played a mixture of old and new material, but stopped worrying about melodies for the most part and filtered everything through a big My Bloody Valentine-style barrage. "Alone, Jealous and Stoned" was truly monumental, sort of a testament to the various styles this group takes on, but the set was almost one big piece in itself, with some distinction between movements. Ultimately, it exemplified the kind of continuity that many bands can't hope for onstage.
My first and only venture of the weekend into the Establishment turned out to be a blast. It was basically a little cocktail lounge inside a tent, very classy and very shaded. Estradasphere (listed as "Circus & Theatre" rather than as music, for whatever reason) played a breakneck set that focused mainly on older material, but the audience was rapt, especially gaga over Timb Harris' violin playing. The band's blend of Middle Eastern folk, jazz and metal seems chaotic at times, but the disjointed rhythms are so precise and entrancing, you still have to try to move body parts to the beat. When Harris and guitarist Jason Schimmel played intricate runs in unison, spines tingled.
| MMW :: by D. Vann|
It was pretty clear that the biggest crowd was at Sherwood around 5:15 p.m. for Medeski, Martin & Wood. It felt strange to be seeing this particular band in broad daylight for some reason. It was a warm one for sure, but still not too warm in the early evening heat to get people moving. One of the reasons John Medeski is such a presence is his connection to the beat. Rather than just skate in and around the rhythm like a normal jazz pianist, he becomes the rhythm. He's often propelling the groove much more directly than Billy Martin or Chris Wood. Perhaps predictably, though, the set was pretty laid back overall. The crowd was still grooving, but there was a very long night ahead, so not many would complain about a chill MMW set.
There was a time, around 2002 or so, when I started to feel like I knew exactly what I was going to get at a Dave Matthews Band show, and he probably wasn't going to show me anything I hadn't seen before besides a guest keyboardist or some backup singers. I just didn't feel like the music was evolving anymore. Fortunately, Matthews has found numerous ways to revitalize himself, taking time for solo ventures and bringing friends onstage with the band. All I could really say about the DMB show on the horizon was that it would be a different lineup than any other I'd seen or would likely see again. Longtime Matthews cohort Tim Reynolds would sit in on electric guitar for the full show, possibly to somewhat make up for the loss of keyboardist Butch Taylor, who left the band unexpectedly in May. This would be my first time seeing trumpeter Rashawn Ross play with the band, and sax player LeRoi Moore had been injured less than a week prior to Rothbury, so Jeff Coffin of Béla Fleck's Flecktones sat in on sax.
| Dave Matthews by K. Pusey|
It didn't take Coffin long to make himself known. The intro to opener "Seek Up" built to a shrill, horn-driven climax before Matthews even began singing, and the end jam was just as powerful. With Reynolds on board, the whole show was decidedly more muscular than typical DMB, and Reynolds really was the star for much of the night. Matthews was in zany spirits, scatting his way through the end of "Jimi Thing" and busting a move through "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)." Mainstays from his latest crop of tunes, "Eh Hee" and "Cornbread," had seemed a bit flimsy before, but with Reynolds' help they were richer and dirtier, and rarity "#27" came across as classy in its simplicity. The band has worked a few of Matthews' solo tunes into the repertoire, and "So Damn Lucky" and "Gravedigger" were both potent, somewhat more frenetic than Dave & Friends' versions. The show did lose a little steam toward the end of the set, although the "Anyone Seen The Bridge?" section was impressive, especially with a couple of non-members along for the ride, but "Too Much" was unremarkable, and set closer "Ants Marching" was rote. Overall, though, it would have to be called a triumphant set. It didn't take me anywhere I haven't been, but it did show me some things I hadn't seen from Matthews before.
The traffic jam coming out of the Odeum after DMB's set meant some of us didn't catch the very beginning of Sound Tribe Sector 9, possibly the most anticipated set of the weekend by the majority of the crowd. It took no time to get absorbed into this performance, and it was impossible to break away. STS9 did not invent the organic/electronic hybrid that the band plays, but it has become the standard bearer for this style, and at this point, the high watermark. The Tribe led us through a dizzying set of music that no one has yet put a decent label on. I couldn't really make out the individuals onstage, so I was left with the impression, from the intoxicating light show and the almost inhuman music coming from the stage, of being slowly abducted by an unknown force. There were occasional periods when a lull in intensity or a mood shift would leave you with nothing to latch onto, but part of the power of STS9 is the frightening anticipation. When it was all over at 3:30 a.m., I couldn't help wanting more but I was sure I'd just been part of a near-perfect happening.
| STS9 :: by D. Vann|
Sunday :: 07/06
All weekend we'd been making jokes about what show Trey might decide to pop onstage for, but the reality wound up being fairly predictable, though no less moving than it might otherwise have been. After Rodrigo Y Gabriela put on a fun display of acoustic guitar wizardry, complete with covers of "Master of Puppets" and "Stairway To Heaven," the Odeum crowd swelled. Trey emerged innocuously, alone, and busted into "Back On The Train." For a few songs it was a bit surreal but most of the crowd hardly seemed to really care what was going on here. I wasn't even feeling much impact. But for some reason, "Let Me Lie" really got to me. I think when I'd first heard it, it sort of felt like the first real Anastasio/Marshall song I'd heard in ages. "Wading In The Velvet Sea" was pretty emotional, too. But of course, when Mike Gordon came out, the crowd really came alive. Trey quipped, "If only we could find a drummer and a keyboard player." The first brand new song, "Backwards Down the Number Line," seemed like a fairly solid Trey tune, but "Alaska" actually had something else - it was funny. It was pure fun, and they were having a blast singing it, and then "Chalk Dust Torture" was over with and everyone rushed over to the Ranch for Gordon's set.
| Mike Gordon & Trey Anastasio by Jay Scherer|
Gordon and his band played several tunes from his upcoming solo album, which sounded great, but the last two were sabotaged by anticipation for Trey; who'd come onstage, then left as Mike told everyone they had to find a guitar somewhere. After Trey's actual entrance, they played another new song, and then "Meat," smiles beaming from stage and crowd alike. No one could have missed the connection going on between the two "former" bandmates. Finally, enter Fishman, who accompanied the band for the final song, The Beatles' "She Said, She Said." It may have been nothing momentous, but there were moments when it seemed like Trey and Mike were hinting at leading the little jam astray, in the best possible sense. And like that, the three-quarters Phish reunion was over. With the rampant rumors about the end of the hiatus, it all seemed to go by so quickly, but then, so did the whole weekend.
| Warren Haynes by J. Scherer|
It was interesting walking in on Gov't Mule playing the same song we'd just heard Mike and Trey playing. Festivals, ya gotta love 'em! Warren Haynes' voice sounded spectacular, especially on the "Hunger Strike/Dear Mr. Fantasy" sandwich. It felt like he wasn't so concentrated on soloing, more on singing and song, which surprised me a bit, but Haynes has always been the one '70s survivor who isn't a slave to the decade that created him.
Haynes returned to the stage not long after Gov't Mule left it as a guest during the first set of Phil Lesh & Friends' festival closing performance. Sitting at a P&F show, you might suspect that the improvs all sound like Grateful Dead jams because they're mostly Dead songs, but there's more to it than that. With Lesh being the only former Dead member, it's puzzling why most of the various musicians who come in and out of the collective insist on emulating his former mates. Keyboardist Steve Molitz (Particle) should have injected some (relatively) youthful freshness into the band, but he just blended back into the meandering stream of sound on Sunday. Haynes struggled to stand out as well, although when he was given the spotlight he made use of it. Singer Teresa Williams was a welcome help, adding some professional-sounding vocals, but she was underused, singing on only three songs in the first set and two in the second set. With all the potential "Friends" around, why not bring on anyone who might be able to bolster the energy coming off the stage?
The final set of a festival is not really supposed to be the barnburner, so I wasn't disappointed in Phil's set, exactly - it just bored me. Years ago, I saw one P&F show that blew my mind. Otherwise, I've seen a few pretty good shows and now, one downright boring one. I feel like the project is losing steam, but clearly, many, many fans don't share this opinion. In truth, aside from possibly Sound Tribe, no set got more people on their feet and dancing around than Phil's, and if Phil is still giving the people what they want, he may as well keep it up. However, it may be the cruelest irony that 13 years after Jerry Garcia's death, the Dead's music still isn't allowed to die.
| Phil Lesh and his light up fretboard by D. Vann|
While this was an incredible weekend of music on par with any event of the summer, it seems possible that it could go downhill from here for Rothbury. Festival organizers have procured the resort for the first weekend in July through 2010, and are already hoping to double the size of the fest next year. My advice: DON'T DO IT. We barely had enough space to step between our tents this year, and thinking about the delays leaving DMB, only with twice the people, isn't pleasant. Would they cut down more trees to widen the paths? Bulldoze more land to expand capacity? How about, for a change, keeping the relatively pure motives for the event intact, NOT altering what's not broken, instead of giving in to greed? Learn a lesson from Bonnaroo: cater to the fans that made you a success. Don't try to squeeze the community for every red cent. Either way, I suspect most people will remember "the first Rothbury," like the first 'Roo, as something amazing that can't be duplicated, and I am immensely grateful to have been a part of it.
Continue reading for more images of Rothbury...