Rothbury Music Festival
Dave Matthews Band, Widespread Panic, John Mayer, Snoop Dogg, 311, Betty Lavette, The Wailers, Atmosphere, DJ Rekha, The Dresden Dolls, Ingrid Michaelson, Colby Collette, Modest Mouse
Rothbury, MI July 4-6
by Chris Catania
With Rothbury Music Festival, the music experience almost seemed secondary to creating a new "greener" and more sustainable model for the summer destination festival. And with jam-orientated headliners like Dave Matthews Band, Phil Lesh and Friends, and Widespread Panic, some were dubbing Rothbury as "the new northern Bonnaroo."
But that didn't seem to be the case, necessarily. In terms of music, maybe. But during the weekend, as I sat in on a few of the Think Tank sessions and media roundtable discussions designed to find solutions for making festivals and the world more sustainable and eco-friendly, I saw several ways in which Rothbury was trying to set itself apart from the rest. In short -- even though it appeared to be yet another music festival popping up in the Midwest -- the first of its size in Michigan and a major boost to the local economy -- the essence of Rothbury appeared to be a purposeful blending of music, art, and education, a tangible result of a group of festival promoters who decided not to create just another summer music festival, but attempted to forge new ground and offer music fans the opportunity to put their money toward a "greener" cause while still enjoying the music of their favorite artist (jam-band or not).
On Friday, under the midday sun, Jakob Dylan and the Gold Mountain Rebels played the blues and folk-pop as Dylan grinned and complimented the still waking-up crowd saying, "The early bird gets the worm." The title to his new album Something Good This Way Comes seems to be an upbeat riff on a Ray Bradbury classic, and well, the tunes matched the easy-going mood as tracks of hope and redemption and sly twists lurked around every corner.
Even without Bob Marley, the Wailers still manage to draw a massive crowd and capture the Rasta-feeling you get when any of Marley's anthems roll across your ears. Those gathered twirled joyously in the large field that houses the Odeum mainstage, soaking up "No Woman, No Cry," and a new political track, "I Wanna Yell," full of blasting horns and vintage reggae stomp and fist pumping. Even the local law enforcement loved it. During the anti-establishment anthem, "I Shot the Sheriff," I put the riddims and the lyrics to the test and asked a member of The Michigan State Police if this song bothered her and how the first-time festival was going so far. She chuckled and said the song was actually a personal favorite and that she was going to tell her colleagues back at the station what a terrible time she had just so she could get assigned next year.
Okay, so the cops were enjoying Rothbury and the weekend also turned out to be a homecoming for unsung (until recently) soul diva Betty Lavette, who grew up in neighboring Muskegon, MI. Her 2007 Grammy-nominated Scene of the Crime sounded riveting and gorgeous. With the sun as her spotlight, she spliced in her thoughts on getting snubbed by the industry (and the Grammys) over the last five decades, and carried on with her set, singing songs that tore right through me, cutting me to the quick, her bluesy-soul drenched vocals and emotive lyrics telling how it is and has always been.
Going from Betty Lavette to Snopp Dogg was a show in itself, but when the original D-0-G-G rolled on the stage in his blinged-out, diamond-studded banana-seated bicycle, the crowd yelled "Snoop!" and the video screens flashed a gangster montage of Snoop and Tony Montoya and his "little friend." The tracks from Sensual Seduction (2008) proceeded and I wondered just how exactly Snopp Dogg manages to simultaneously misogynize and massage women while also playing the tough guy gangster and commanding such attention of the fellas? An answer eludes me still, but I know it has a lot to do with his intoxicating liquid chocolate flow and deft knowledge of how to satisfy all his fans with such few words. The same couldn't be said for 311, who performed earlier and sounded like they were stuck in a time capsule and liked being there.
As Friday evening rolled around, I joined other fans and popped a squat in a field covered in blankets, and enjoyed the melodic mastery of Modest Mouse as they journeyed through "We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank," and other songs. It felt good to really enjoy the band on a deeper level live, beyond the hit "Float On," as Isaac Brock steered the way with punk-style riffing on a banjo and viciously quirky vocals, like captain Ahab with total crowd control.
I'm not going to pretend that I understand the Southern rock and jam-band ways of Widespread Panic, or that I get what's so amazing about them. But I tried and watched cluelessly as Panic fans swigged their beers and swayed their hips to the noodling riffs of this mean, yet sensitive, yet serious, hard-rocking feeling, good Southern rock-sounding band.
After the departure of guitarist Ben Curtis, I had my doubts about Saturday's Secret Machines set. But as the drummer, Josh Garza, and bassist/vocalist, Bradon Curtis, and a new guitarist proceeded to stomp their way through the set, my head began to bounce like a ball on stringed pleasure paddle and my toe began to insanely tap on the grass and everything about the band that was so good, crisp, and powerfully classic rock before was more impressive and thriving and pulsing. The band is as mighty as ever and now free from alleged major-label handcuffs, and getting ready to unveil a new album due later this year. For 45 minutes, The Secret Machines resembled a Midwestern thunderstorm filled with fantastic psychedelic-fuzz melodies that mirrored the propulsive pelting of ten-thousand silver drops on a sizzling tin roof.
After a northern trek with other Rothburians through a small forest dubbed "Sherwood Forest," it was time to see the Dresden Dolls, an excellent punk rock cabaret duo (piano and drums) who perform with a flair of vaudeville, putting on a show full of dark sonic stories of the downtrodden and rejected, hidden deceptively in sweet and stomping melodic pop songs swathed with brushstrokes of sideshow theatre and threads of wry humor.
The sun went down and the moon came up as all 40,000 plus settled in for Dave Matthews Band. After an intro jam session of guitar, swirling horns, and jazz-rock drumming, Dave Matthews tried to capture the Rothbury vibe, "This is a nice little place up here, I think I might go over in those woods and curl up in a hammock and try to lick the moon." With inspired spirit, likely coming from the recent injury to horn player Roy Mauller, the band played on with invigorated versions of old staples ("Satellite," "Grey Street," "Under the Table and Dreaming"), and mixed in some Peter Gabriel ("Sledgehammer"). And I think Matthews successfully licked the moon by the end of the show, sending the crowd off into the night ready for more.
So the crowd split, some going to get electro-entranced by STS9 or Crystal Method, while others headed towards the Bhagra beats of DJ Rekha, who turned the Tripoli domes -- the headquarters for nightly wee-hour DJ sets -- into a dance party oblivion and an education. Under the radar, the New York-based DJ has pioneered an irresistible fusion of Punjabi folk music with hip hop, reggae, and dub to create a diverse dance floor celebration.
Ingrind Michaelson's Sunday set was good background piano-bar music as I rubbed the morning crusties out of my eyes, but her performance of "The Way I Am" -- even when precluded by a humorous a cappella rhyming of "Ice Ice Baby and "The Theme to The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" -- still almost put me back to sleep. Same goes for Colby Collette, who clearly doesn't have the live performance chops to go beyond her one bubbly Myspace/You Tube hit. But she's trying, at least. And sooner or later, John Mayer, who followed Collette, will eventually get better tour mates and hopefully established himself as a true bluesman and slip away from his rep for being a just a softy Top 40 crooner. He played those hits and then tore the set wide open with sublime blues jamming.
As Rothbury wound down, the crowd flocked to the Sherwood stage to hear Minneapolis hip hop duo Atmosphere squeeze out the beats and rhymes of rapper Slug's new third-person perspective storytelling on "When Life Gives You Lemons, Paint That Shit Gold." Slug bounced all over the stage with more smiles and grins than usual and seemed to be thoroughly enjoying himself as he worked the crowd with labelmate Brother Ali, who set off his own lyrical weekend fireworks with "Uncle Sam Goddamn."
Rothbury had all the basic elements of a camping-style music festival. But after talking with veteran fans who've been to Bonnaroo and Coachella, two things set Rothbury apart: the relatively untouched grounds of the historic JJ Ranch, and the surrounding woodsy atmosphere that made it neither "a 100 degree frying pan venue" like Coachella or an increasingly "dirty" atmosphere like Bonnaroo. And most of all Rothbury, with its onsite biodiesel, compost and recycling compound, has begun to create the blueprint for a prototypical sustainable festival where the fans appear to want to rock, and rock "greener."