Rothbury Music Festival 2009
The Dead, Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan and His Band, Matisyahu, Ani DiFranco, Les Claypool, Brett Dennen, John Butler, Nas and Damien Marley, The Ragbirds
Rothbury, MI • July 3-6, 2009
Each concert experience we have is measured against those that came before it. And it was nearly impossible not to compare Rothbury 2008 with this year’s festival, which almost didn’t even happen.
Last October, questions of whether or not there would be a 2009 festival began began circulating when the owners of the site’s location on the Double JJ Ranch filed for bankruptcy forcing them to put the land on the auction blocks. It wasn’t until January 6, 2009 that a federal bankruptcy judge approved a deal between promoters Madison House and AEG to lease the Michigan property until August 2009. Once the deal was reached rumors about possible headliners Phish, AC/DC or the Foo Fighters started flying around. When the official line-up was finally announced, none of those acts were on it. Instead it was more of a headliner line up anchored on rock, folk, and country canon featuring The Dead, Bob Dylan and his band, and Willie Nelson. This year’s bill also included artists spanning jams, reggae, rock, and hip hop, but there was still one key obstacle that Rothbury had to overcome in order to put on the festival.
In a tight economy, and with a short timeline, Rothbury faced the challenge of maintaining its mission to be a sustainable and green festival. For the most part it was successful with only minor changes if you looked closely and went on a behind the scenes Greet Team tour, which I did (more on that later).
From the return of Think Tank workshops to the informed Green Team volunteers stationed throughout the festival grounds, Spitfire Agency’s Sarah Haynes was determined to still maintain Rothbury’s “green” festival status. During the Green Team tour on Sunday afternoon, Haynes explained that one of the biggest obstacles was to still use biodiesel as a fuel and power source even after the company they used last year to process the biodiesel on site had frozen their operations because of the current recession. By all accounts, and without any final numbers at the time of this review, I would say Haynes was successful in maintaining Rothbury’s green integrity.
Rothbury 2009’s music menu might not have been as varied or plentiful as last year. But this opened up the chance to explore the other strength of Rothbury: its strong focus on art installations featured throughout the grounds. To name a few of my discoveries, there were half-buried buses sticking out of the ground, giant boots made out of recycled metal, tree decorating contests, zen nature walks, and nightly burlesque shows that challenged my thoughts on feminism and female empowerment.
My musical adventures at Rothbury began on Friday afternoon by soaking up the positive vibes of Brett Dennen. The singer-songwriter injected tenderness and soul with tracks from his latest Hope for the Hopeless. His set of warm folky grooves flung me onward as I voyaged to the next set.
Walking through the tall, slowly swaying pines trees of Sherwood Forest was one of Rothbury’s most beautiful experiences. During the day it was a spacious and peaceful place where fans could chill out in hammocks or lay their tired heads on the floor of pine needles for a quick afternoon nap. At night it transformed into a glowing visual spectacle of stimulation filled with floating orbs and flashing strobe lights. It was also home to the Speak EZ theater where fans could take in a nightly burlesque show.
In Sherwood Forest I also discovered the silent meditative wonder of Reincarnation, a zen nature walk filled with mini-monuments, statues and shrines designed for reflection and rejuvenation from a weekend of rock. Each creation was made with an extremely detailed mosaic mix of pine needles, fruit bits, bottle tops, and other recycled machine and gear parts. The exhibit’s leader, who calls himself “Nature,” showcase his, and his team of artists’, ability to use the terrain as art. Most of the exhibit was built into the trees and natural ground of Sherwood Forest, creating a weekend sanctuary for those looking to rest their senses from the continuous rock. After my stroll through Reincarnation, it was off to see if this would change my perspective on seeing Nas and Damian “Jr Gong” Marley twice in less than a week.
But sadly, not much had changed since I last saw Nas and Damien Marly showcase their Distant Relatives collaborative album at Rock the Bells hip hop festival just six days earlier in Chicago. I did, though, see more hula-hooping than break-dancing during the reggae hip hop fusion “One Love/One Mic” medley. Nas and Marley successfully mined the collective one love vibe that flowed throughout Rothbury the entire weekend. But no matter how many blunts were puffed in the crowd or how many Michael Jackson tributes Nas tossed out, he still didn’t win me over or convince me that he’s a true live emcee.
It wasn’t until Saturday afternoon that I was able to wash away Nas with the help of John Butler’s solo set. He “fought off the sound gremlins” and squeezed ripples of electrified country-folk blues romps. Butler bent chords and notes with waning effex pedals sending surges of electrified emotion through the crowd. Fans stomped along on every beat turning the grass area at the Ranch Stage into the skin of a kick drum.
As the sun began to sink in the Michigan sky, the funky makeshift freaky flags flew high as all the tribes of Rothbury assembled to take part in sixty minutes of pleasure shrieks, surly screams, and lurching led by Les Claypool. He took his flock of happy freaks deep in to his mythical underworld filled with lyrical stories of magic mushrooms and other down-rabbit-hole adventures. While Claypool slapped and plucked his bass, his green-masked cello player grinned and reveled in the glory of the tripped out scene.
Until Saturday night, seeing, hearing, feeling, and experiencing the vibe of a Dead crowd had escaped me. But underneath a blanket of sky filled with fireworks celebrating our nation’s independence I finally got my dose of The Dead and melted into the heart of inspiration of the quintessential jam band. I have reviewed many jam bands before and it was a revelation to finally experience live the sweet sounding “Sugar Magnolia,” and see the beauty of “Eyes of the World” even if the Leader of this legendary sub-culture was not there in person; for his presence was truly felt in the collective spirit. As The Dead filled the hearts of legions of Heads, I sat at the top of the hill at the Odeum stage and I wondered, when the time came, who would be the one to fill The Dead’s shoes and the hearts of its faithful followers who spinned, twirled, and relished every last note, soaking themselves in two sets of synchronized satisfaction that carried on into the night.
Sunday began with a bit of local flavor via Michigan quintet the Ragbirds. Their leader, singer songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Erin Zindle, flashed bright smiles using her friendly spunk to get the crowd swaying and grooving. Zindle sweetly crooned over a gentle, albeit aggressive, purr of folk, salsa, and rock. She beautifully pondered the meaning of “little things” in life as she told her lyrical story unfolding chapters from their forthcoming album Finally Almost Ready.
A few hours later, it was time to enter the holy realm of bearded and baseball-capped Hasidic Jewish rapper Matisyahu. He dropped my jaw instantly with his awe-inspiring beat boxing performance using his mouth as a nimble multi-instrument to bridge together a set of spiritual transcendence. Everyone in the crowd seemed to be lifted up off the ground in some way — even the naked couple who danced freely in the afternoon sun and wore only large grins and fuzz patches. As Matisyahu continued to play tracks from his forthcoming album Light, those festivalgoers who saw the couple watched with a sense of awkward pleasure and a sense of deviant and peculiar enjoyment. The couple seemed like a stark contrast to Matisyahu’s worshipful performance. But when I thought about it, I wondered if we were actually getting an unexpected insight into what it might have looked like to see the Bible’s King David dance around in just a skimpy loincloth entranced and praising the Lord.
Strolling back over to the main Odeum stage, country, rock, and folk legend Willie Nelson took me on a ride through music history. Donning his southern Texan cowboy subtle swagger, cowboy hat, and braided locks, he bathed the afternoon crowd with his sweet weathered croon mixing his classic storytelling songs with new ones. Since I split time between Matisyahu and Willie Nelson, I thought about how summer festivals set up like Rothbury, even when the prime might be past some artists, allow us the chance to celebrate music’s past, present, and future simultaneously.
At first glance or listen, she might appear to only promote female solidarity but from a guy-who-knows-a-great-poet-when-he-sees-one’s point of view, it’s nearly impossible to not get electrified or inspired by her passionate pursuit for self-expression. Ani DiFranco’s set was pure poetry. From “Fuel,” “32 Flavors,” “Manhole,” and tracks from her latest Red Letter Year, including “Napoleon,” she laid on us one gigantic and gorgeous set of verse. In between songs, with a wide grin of pleasure and deep unashamed satisfaction, she explained that “I’ve struggled with monogamy for awhile but when I met this guy it became really easy.” The crowd cheered DiFranco’s honesty and discovery of love and companionship. And when a fan shouted for an update on DiFranco’s motherhood adventures, she smiled and said, “The baby’s great, thanks.” Then she nearly pulled the strings off her guitar, setting off her own fireworks, with a political and proud song for her country dedicated to President Obama.
Wrapping up Rothbury’s headliners, Bob Dylan and His Band brought the rhythm and blues in the way only Dylan can. As I expected, it was like a two-hour episode of his Theme Time Radio show. The sly and dapperly dressed Dylan pressed keys from a few Time Out of Mind songs and then tossed in others from his massive catalog, twisting them into strange melodic explorations like he usually does live. Then he continued to transform rhythms, switch up melodies, and sing-mumble his way through cuts from his latest Together Through Life .
After Dylan, we packed up our tent and hit the road. Rolling down the road back to Chicago, I felt like I was back where I started. Last year I left wondering if Rothbury would live to see another year. And I found myself wondering the same this year, with even more doubt and uncertainty about the festival’s future. I know there are a lot of fans who hope they will return. But we’ll have to wait and see.
For more coverage of Rothbury’s Green Team, and other events, check out Live Fix.
Rothbury Music Festival: www.rothburyfestival.com