All photos are thanks to Gil Raitses, unless otherwise noted.
Day One: June 2nd
The campsite scene.
On this first night of Rothbury, there wasn’t much reason to leave the secondary stage once arriving: there was no competition at all as far as choosing between acts on the first night â€“ Future Rock and 2020 Soundsystem were tempting, but Lotus and The Disco Biscuits parallel to them was a no-brainer. Both acts were being eagerly awaited, and Keller Williams provided a nice and easy introduction to the marathon of music that would be Rothbury. String Cheese Incident did come out for a soundcheck on the main stage at some point during the evening, and supposedly the crowd erupted as they sank into some free-form jazz, but by the time Keller (who is like a sixth member of the band) hit the stage, they had finished.
Keller Williams, grooving to himself.
Keller Williams is great to watch perform: he’s got some serious guitar chops, constantly playing accompaniment and melody on one guitar, while at other times doing his trademark looping, working pedals with his bare feet, beatboxing into the microphone, filling a song out until there’s a full band playing behind him. What was most notable about Keller’s set was his choice selection of covers in homage to recent musical happenings. He performed Bird of a Feather, what turned out to be an excellent version of Phish’s often-performed tune. That was really the one that got the crowd going, as you might expect. He also gave a nod to Woodstock’s anniversary with, well, Woodstock, by Joni Mitchell. And then, of course, Michael Jackson received his proper due with Rock With You. By the time Keller finished, around 10:15, the sky had just turned dark, and we were ready for the raucous dance party that Lotus and The Disco Biscuits would bring.
The Ranch Arena.
Lotus is the perfect opener for The Disco Biscuits. The two bands have a similar style, combining jamband music with a pretty heavy techno influence, they’re both from Philly, and Lotus doesn’t peak quite as hard as the Biscuits, either. At the same time, they add their own twist to things of note is the influence of post-rock in the vein of Explosions In The Sky in their music, which certainly made an appearance Thursday.
After a lengthy sort of introductory sequence, Lotus went into Jump Off, hitting up a pretty funky groove. The band really showed off their musical pallet with this one: they immediately and smoothly transitioned out of the funk and into a dark house-y groove, Miller’s synths sending a sharp spear of electronic noise cutting through the rest of the band. The fat bass forced the issue of the song’s tonic, meandering slightly only to strongly land on the note every single measure. They built the song into a whirling frenzy of noise, reading each other perfectly, coming out the other end into a badass disco groove. Mike busted out the wah-wah masterfully before everything subsided back to a nice and safe resting point before Clemens decided to bring the song back up again. The rest of the band followed in time, and soon Mike was making his guitar scream and wail atop the chaos. And then the song ended abruptly. What was great about Lotus set was how well-paced it was. The band has a definite strong understanding of how to put together a solid setlist, and when the band isn’t peaking, they’re playing with deft musicality, really showing off their chops. It was cool to hear the post-rock elements show up very prominently, too – I’m thinking specifically of “Behind Midwestern Storefronts,” which would be totally unsurprising to hear on a Silent Ballet compilation. Towards the end of the set, they busted out “Spiritualize,” everyone’s favorite Lotus song, apparently. It wove through surprisingly varied textures, all the while backed by a persistent untz untz.
“Are y’all at Kinkos straight-flippin’ copies, or all y’all wearin’ motherfucking flippy-floppies?” asked bassist Marc Brownstein (Brownie) as The Disco Biscuits took the stage. They were clearly ready to close out Rothbury’s first day, and close out the first day they did, playing non-stop for just under three hours with a set that showcased a number of tunes, old and new, and that ended the evening leaving us wondering how we could survive the next three days, considering we hadn’t even yet been to the main stage.
The Disco Biscuits.
From their stellar opening, the band went straight into Liquid Handcuffs more jamming, more peaking. They band used the end of Handcuffs to segue into a short rendition of Sabre Dance, and brought the song to a screeching hault with Barber’s guitar resonating in the air just a second after everything else had stopped. All in all, we got about forty minutes of completely uninterrupted music before a break. The Disco Biscuits pulled out all the stops for their Rothbury show.
At the end of the day I had to keep reminding myself that this was only the first night we still had three more days of even longer sets and bigger crowds.
Day Two: June 3rd
What’s great about Rothbury is how much there is to do beyond listening to the music: there are a number of think tank discussions happening during the day, and plenty of other activities to keep things interesting. Yoga is held every morning, African drum classes are given, and a number of environmentally-focused talks are had throughout the weekend. There was a lot of participation from activists who were at the festival, and it was heartening to see so many people there as committed to spreading environmental awareness as much as they were to seeing so much music.
And there was plenty of music to go around on Friday. Damian Marley and Nas came together for a pretty hard-hitting set, the usual relaxed vibes of reggae taking a backseat, allowing more hip hop influence to come in, getting everyone dancing. Brett Dennen gave a relaxing performance, bringing out a solid cover of Billie Jean towards the end of his set. Broken Social Scene threw some rare indie flavor into the musical mix, performing a fantastic, albeit straightforward, Anthems For A Seventeen Year Old Girl, and Soulive brought the funk with one of the tighter horn sections I’ve heard.
The future of the String Cheese Incident is at this point uncertain: about two years ago, guitarist Bill “The Nersh” Nershi announced that he would be packing up his guitar and beard and leaving the band in order to pursue his own side projects. The band had not performed together prior to Rothbury since the summer of 2007. All of the individual members were at last year’s festival, and it was heavily rumored that they would get together and play a set, but this didn’t end up happening. Needless to say, there was a lot of buzz going around regarding the band’s nearly four-hour timeslot. Divided into two sets, expectations were high. The band took the stage fairly nonchalantly, fiddling with their instruments, performing some last-minute tuning and warming up, before picking right up into Rollover, with its irresistibly bouncy groove. Vocals harmonized pleasantly during the refrain, and the song bounced along happily for nearly ten minutes before the band segued into Can’t Stop Now, a sort of bluegrass-y honky tonk tune, with frenetic drumming and fast-paced guitar licks resounding the whole time.
String Cheese Incident’s huge balls.
Diehard SCI fans seemed incredibly pleased with the evening’s setlist, and those, like me, who had never seen them before, were equally as happy. It sounded like it could have been a best-of compilation, but the band has a pretty extensive library of songs to choose from, so they may just be really excellent songwriters.
After closing out the set with a violently danceable Texas, the band brought out Keller Williams to sing Best Feeling, (which is his own composition but which SCI has done many, many times), and then segued right into Stevie Wonder’s Higher Ground, though their cover leaned more towards the Red Hot Chili Peppers version.
After such a show, you’d think it would be time to call it quits, but we still had a good four hours before thinking about making the trek back to the campgrounds. Luckily Sound Tribe Sector 9, as well as Girl Talk, was providing the late night entertainment. I spent my time at the STS9 show, but Girl Talk apparently killed it, as usual.
Sound Tribe was ready for some dirty, dirty grooves. The opener of Be Nice was a perfect choice, delivering a sharp contrast to the other bands who had played thusfar, and continued this exposition with Atlas, which was noisy as hell, held together only by a persistent drum beat throughout. It was nice to hear a band focus less on an individual’s improvisation for a period of time. It allowed the audience to groove along with the entire band, just going with the collective vibe. There are certainly improvisational aspects of the band’s music, but it comes through mostly in subtle changes to the musical texture. STS9s set was thoroughly enjoyable and kept everyone dancing until well past 4 AM. We were halfway through our forest adventure.
Day Three: The Fourth of July
Admittedly, I wasn’t particularly excited about many bands during the day on Saturday. Obviously The Dead were going to be great, and the late night offerings were a tough choice between Umphrey’s McGee, another Sound Tribe set, or a Shpongle/EOTO double-header. So most of the daylight hours were spent checking out the non-musical goings on of Rothbury.
- Sherwood Forest by day.
One of the coolest things about Rothbury is easily the Sherwood Forest area. In between the Ranch Arena, on the way to the main stage, is a densely-wooded area that by day is incredibly relaxing. Hammocks are strewn in between countless trees, ready to be taken. People hang out under the trees when hammocks are not available, or they sit on one of the stumps scattered across the ground. Walk far enough, and you’ll find a secret stage where a 24-hour burlesque show goes on, and elsewhere you’ll find a bar set up between two trees, like something out of Gilligan’s Island-uh, except it’s the forest.
By night, however, Sherwood becomes something completely different. Deep colors are projected through the trees by light fixtures strewn all about the place. People dressed as elves run around, glowing neon green, some standing directly over a light so they become creepily illuminated. Every fifteen minutes or so, the lighting goes haywire for about twenty seconds, flashing a bright and intrusive orange seemingly at random, a sort of strobe light effect happening. Basically, it’s trippy as hell, but that doesn’t stop people from being in the hammocks at all hours. Even by night there are people with glowsticks at the ends of ropes, twirling them around, creating an eye-catching streak of light in the dark.
“I think it’s about time we gave a round of applause to the guys who thought this country up,” Bob Weir said in between songs, reminding everyone that this was indeed the 4th of July. And what’s more American than The Grateful Dead? Hippies, rock music, rampant drug use. I couldn’t name a foreign band that has people following them on entire tours, seeing them 500+ times. In fact, I ran into two Japanese Deadheads, decked out in exactly what you think of when you think of a Deadhead, who had traveled all the way to the States just to see the band perform.
The Dead regaled us with fine renditions of “Shakedown Street,” “Sugar Magnolia,” and Van Morrison’s “Into The Mystic,” among many others over the course of four hours. The show closed out with â€œSunshine Daydream,â€ a classic Dead tune that ends with just a loud and raucous bliss-out, pianos banging along, guitars weaving in and out of everything, cutting to half-time before ending in a classic rock band ending. As an encore, we were given U.S. Blues, which seemed appropriate for the occasion, and almost immediately upon starting up, fireworks shot into the sky. I think this may have been the only firework display that was actually sanctioned by the festival, and it was spectacular.
Fireworks during The Dead.
Take this feeling home with you, and do something good with it, were Bob Weir’s closing words. When all was said and done and the background music kicked in again, a Deadhead turned to me and said “Welcome to the family.”
Once again tuckered out after a lengthy headlining show, it was up to the late-night bands to get energy levels back up. On this particular night, Shpongle and EOTO were playing back-to-back under the Tripolee domes. There was an Umphrey’s McGee set, as well as STS9 coming out and doing a full band set in spite of originally only being lined up for a PA set. Having already seen STS9, though, and considering that Umphrey’s had at the last minute been penciled in to close out the entire festival on Sunday night, it was Shpongle and EOTO for me.
There’s not too much that can be said about Shpongle’s set. He DJ’d a solid dance party for a good hour, but there wasn’t any of the spectacle that he’s become known for, which is fine, since Mr. Posford’s music holds up on its own just fine. By the time Shpongle’s set was over, there was a huge crowd underneath the domes, standing around waiting for EOTO to come on.
EOTO is an electronic/jam side project of Jason Hann and Michael Travis from String Cheese Incident. The duo is very improvisation-heavy, so every set of theirs sounds wildly different from one another. There are still familiar song forms to be heard, but the rest of the performance is very freeform. EOTO certainly provided enough music to keep even the most amped of festival-goer content. The sun was starting to break above the horizon when the music finally settled down. What a way to celebrate our independence!
Day Four: July 5th
The main stage was far and away the place to camp out on the last day of the festival: performers slated to go that day were, in order: Yonder Mountain String Band, Willie Nelson, and Bob Dylan. After the intensity of the past three days, Sunday was clearly designed to be a comedown day, with some pretty mild music up through to an early closing time of three or so in the morning.
Yonder Mountain’s set had been looked forward to all weekend by a lot of people at the festival. Set to play a mid-afternoon set, their sound is perfect for dancing around in the middle of the forest in Michigan. During the opener of Traffic Jam, banjo player Dave Johnston laid down an impressive solo, plucking the hell out of his instrument. Johnston’s banjo playing is a key facet of Yonder’s sound, providing a steady stream of eight- or sixteenth-notes as is needed. Our goal this afternoon is to fill everyone’s teeth, nose, and ears with dust, announced Jeff Austin, the band’s mandolin player. It’s not a difficult goal, if you consider just how fast Yonder can (and does) play. Yonder Mountain String Band definitely brought a wide array of sound to their Rothbury set, and they would serve as a great jumping point for people looking to get into bluegrass, to be sure.
There was some more downtime after Yonder gave their performance. Willie Nelson was at the main stage, and he sounds as good as ever, but the crowd wasn’t particularly into it (relatively), and Willie didn’t seem to have too much to say. Ani DiFranco gave a great performance at the small Sherwood stage parallel to Willie, bringing her usual energy and friendliness with her. The Hold Steady and Gov’t Mule performed at the Ranch Arena, but I didn’t make it to either of those shows, unfortunately. People say the Mule killed it, though.
At eight o’clock, after the first day in which we had consistent sunshine, the immortal Robert Zimmerman closed out the main stage. As I said before, Bob Dylan’s not exactly the most incredible live act to see anymore “ his age is really starting to show, especially in his voice, which you would absolutely not be able to understand if you didn’t know the words beforehand. Maybe Dylan was aware of this, though, because he played exactly one song from his new album, focusing on the classics for the rest of the performance. He broadcasted his intentions right off the bat with a pretty rocking rendition of Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat, moving right into Senor. Unfortunately, after these two songs, Bob put his guitar down and spent the rest of the performance either at the keyboard or with his harmonica.
It’s hard to not get into the Bob Dylan songs that we all love, though. Highway 61 Revisited was just as much fun to hear as one could have hoped. In a way, Bob’s less-than-serene voice had the benefit of really forcing the issue of the sing-along. I don’t like speaking ill of a man who I have no real right to be critical of, but this isn’t the Bob Dylan of yore. It all fits perfectly well into his whole persona, I suppose, but I just couldn’t shake the notion that he simply wasn’t enjoying himself up there. If you can’t enjoy yourself performing at Rothbury, it might be time to hang up the old road show, because at least he can be understood on the studio albums.
And so, after four days straight of some of the finest playing I’ve heard all year, we come to the closer: Umphrey’s McGee for a second set. It seems like those organizing the festival realized that the lineup post-Bob Dylan was relatively weak, as the only acts were at Tripolee, and they didn’t pack much punch as far as ending a festival goes. It certainly wasn’t two sets of Phish. So, Umphrey’s McGee was called on to do another set, from 11 PM to closing, which ended up being 1:30 or so.
Umphrey’s McGee. Photo courtesy of Stephanie Pauline Murad.
The set kicked off with a nice sandwich of JaJunk, into 2×2, back into the ending of JaJunk. 2×2 featured pretty straight-up shredding on the part of Brendan Bayliss. The other lead guitarist, Jake Cinninger, took his turn at the axe as well. The whole jam was an unexpected departure from pretty much all of the music that had been heard over the weekend, and Umphrey’s sold it to the crowd really well. It was the last act of the festival, so why not headbang a little?
Easily the centerpiece of the show, however, was the highly explorative Der Bluten Kat, which began innocuously enough, a pretty straight forward rendition of it. The jam towards the end of the song continued as Brendan quoted some Mozart, not unlike something you would hear from the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, but man did it shred. After a good twenty minutes of jamming, drummer Kris Myers dropped a fill and led the band right back into Der Bluten Kat, before abruptly going into In The Kitchen, playing the crap out of it, segueing once more into Der Bluten Kat, and finally finishing it. All in all, it took about forty-five minutes for them to play the entire thing. They then proceeded to do a spot-on cover of Comfortably Numb, the only Pink Floyd cover I heard at the festival, which was rather surprising, given that every jamband plays Pink Floyd covers!
I think next year will see a lot of repeat customers. If Rothbury is able to keep their lineups as stellar as this year’s (and there is no reason to think they won’t), this festival could become downright legendary when all’s said and done. Now that the land is officially owned by the people in charge of the festival, the legal troubles that made this year’s festival a bit of a question mark won’t be back. Rothbury absolutely has momentum on its side right now, and next year’s lineup announcement can’t come soon enough. Until then, the rumor mill will have to continue to grind while we refresh the web site with bated breath. Those hippies, maybe they’re onto something after all.