Electric Forest: An Incident on the largest of scales

Written by Rex Thomson / photos by Michael Podrid and Rex Thomson

July 20, 2011

 


sci_6.jpgThe inaugural Electric Forest Music Festival was a near riot of sensory input featuring music provided by an amazing array of artists coupled with an unmatched visual flair. Hosted by Colorado’s legendary String Cheese Incident, and featuring various SCI side projects along with some of the finest DJs, jam, funk and bluegrass acts… giving the festival a singular identity.

You could watch the plan as each day’s music started organically before progressing towards the heavier side of things and eventually, the more produced end of the dial.

Held in the western side of Michigan on the site of the 2008 and 2009 Rothbury festivals, Electric Forest was an expansion of the style shown at those well received events. The (Sherwood) Forest itself featured hundreds of glowing trees, art installations galore and a couple of things scientists will be puzzling over for years to come.  In the middle of it all was a stage that was completely surrounded by trees that seemed to serve as an extension of the human audience, the tress frozen in a moment of bliss.

_mg_0995.jpgAfter an extended hiatus, The String Cheese Incident began to play select dates, relearning what it means to be a band.  With so many influences and styles under one roof, you could see the crack forming for some time before the band rested.  As each player’s individual leanings were explored onstage, performances had become wildly varied and the flow was suffering as a result.

In the aftermath of Cheese and to this day, every member of the Incident has their ongoing side concerns, each catering to his own musical persuasion. Guitarist Bill Nershi has his relationship with Drew Emmitt of Leftover Salmon fame, that carries the mountain music standard under the moniker Emmitt-Nershi band. Keyboardist Kyle Hollingsworth has assembled a band of some of the Colorado’s finest players, trying his hand at being bandleader. Bassist Keith Moseley has hit the road with (amongst others) Keller Williams, Jeff Sipe and Gibb Droll. And last but not least, while mandolin/violin player Michael Kang has sat in on multiple projects, the remaining SCI percussion section of Jason Hann and Michael Travis has delved into the world of electronica with EOTO.

With most of these acts as a core of the Electric Forest bill, the rest of the lineup was built around the variety of musical tastes that SCI members have embraced, melding them all into a festival that truly reflected the host band… thereby making Electric Forest “The House that Cheese Built” in the most literal sense.

Thursday

Early arrivers wandered the grounds in obvious bewilderment, marveling at the amount of eye candy strewn through a primary attraction, the infamous Sherwood Forest. Two large clearings hosted the main stages, separated by a wooded psychedelic funhouse.  In addition to the aforementioned tree covered interior stage, the Dome stage provided a home to Americana acts by day and mad throngs of dancing humanity by night.

Starting things off with an earnest touch, the Emmitt-Nershi Band sang songs of their mountain home and the lives they’ve lived on and off the summits.  Shortly after, Kyle Hollingsworth led his band through a very soulful and funky array of tunes while Toubab Krewe brought its “influences in a blender” approach to world music to a grateful crowd.

greensky_bluegrass.jpgThe crowds grew darker as the weather slowly threatened to turn ugly, dark crimson and purple clouds darkening by the moment. As home state heroes Greensky Bluegrass took the stage, their first song seemed to summon the storm gods and a light rain turned quickly to a downpour. Lightning arched sideways through the sky and halfway through the second tune, a tale of crime and punishment entitled “Jaywalkin,’” the band was forced to take cover as power was pulled from the stage. While the band clearly wanted to play, safety was the issue at hand.  No sane person should want to be on a free standing metal structure in a rainstorm, but the band waited in the wings for a break in the storm as a group of fans stood at the rail, screaming themselves hoarse as they tried to get the band to defy sanity and play on.

When the storm finally faded as their designated set time expired, Greensky sadly relinquished the platform to Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe, though not before saying “We owe you one!”

Taking the stage to bring his patented brand of funk, Denson repeatedly gave thanks to Greensky for their dedication to the show going on, all the while treating the delighted audience who rushed back out to hear the jams get laid down by the sax man and his tight band while getting down to a strong slice of horns and snappy beats.  Next up, the band that defines the term “Jamtronica,” Lotus, closed the evening out with thumping beats and a light show that bordered on hypnotic.  It was a fine way to close the evening. Lotus played on ten full minutes past the power being pulled for those close enough and lucky enough to be near enough to hear the stage monitors. That sort of passion and refusal to finish proved to be the spirit that reigned supreme throughout the weekend’s festivities.

Friday

_mg_1209.jpgEarly risers were treated to a fresh round of rain that ended quickly and left a beautifully clear blue sky above. Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band lived up to their billing and produced a grinding, careening energy that propelled the day into strange new territory.

While J.J.Grey & Mofro took advantage of the humidity in the air to transform the woods of Michigan into the bayou of Florida with their singular southern sound, Chicago natives Van Ghost, featuring Michael Berg and sultry vocalist and trumpeter Jennifer Hartswick had everyone within earshot grooving to their rocking, funkier songs chosen especially for the daytime party crowd.

Son of a legend, Stephen Marley brought the sounds of the islands to the main stage for a delighted sea of smiling faces. His pedigree is more than just his heredity with decades of making music under his belt. His ignition of the crowd with a mixture of his father’s songs as well as his own was, in essence, child’s play.

The crowd took a deep collective breath as it was at last time for the stars of the weekend, The String Cheese Incident, to deliver their opening address to its constituency. A warm round of hellos and last minute fine tuning was followed by the first big moment of release as the familiar strains of “Best Feeling” served as the bands not so subtle message to the gathered masses….”We are happy to be here…get ready for some fun” that flowed directly into the grassy tinged “Can’t stop now” and the interplay between piano and guitar interplay of “Pirates.”

_mg_2300.jpgA choppy, upturning “Raindrops” exemplified the first set’s vibe that cooked slowly with bubbles appearing around the edges before turning into a rolling boil.  Long time Cheese heads were pleased with second set highlights “Shantytown” and “Rivertrance” while the classic rock bombast of Rush’s “Tom Sawyer” was met with the band’s techno organic nature, creating a chugging space oddity.

A quick encore of “Just One Story” left the crowd sated for the night, but not done dancing by any stretch of the imagination.

New Orleans funkateers Galactic brought their native sound with them, aided by vocals from Living Color front man Corey Glover and Rebirth Brass Band trumpeter, Corey Henry.  Galactic showed their depth by mixing wild staccato horn blasts in with tailing rides of the rolling rhythms laid down by drummer extraordinaire Stanton Moore and cresting surges provided by Richard Vogel’s organ runs.

An epic “Tiger Roll” summed up the set, with a fearfully huge payoff to the steady ascension and culminated with Moore crashing physically into his kit.

Across the way, through the now glowing maze of tree trunks and costumed loonies, one of the world’s most known DJs was set to take things to a completely different level.  High atop a lit perch, Tiesto stood alone. Mixing live, he called out like a digital pied piper and the crowd was his to do with as he willed. Spinning loops, bass implosions and the sound of beats being turned inside out shattered many a mind in the crowd, and the walk home was one of recovery for most all who had witnessed the emperor on high.

Saturday

_mg_1368.jpgComing in from enjoying the festival site’s variety of amenities, complete with a beach surrounded lake and a functioning life-sized Mousetrap game, Keller Williams was greeted by a refreshed set of smiling faces, a sight he is certainly used to seeing. After a clutch of always enjoyable Keller tunes, Cleveland’s Rubblebucket made the stage their own with a rabid fanbase cheering them as they went wherever front woman Kal led the cacophonous ensemble.

Across the grounds, The Ragbirds also followed a leading lady, Erin Zindele, and her amazing array of instruments, from violin to accordion. A world folk collective, The Ragbirds alternately had the crowd listening intently and boogieing wildly.

Classic Rock legends REO Speedwagon brought smiles to the faces of the generations of fans who came out to see their cavalcade of solid gold hits. Touring for over thirty years, REO has built a catalog of songs engrained upon the psyche of everyone who owned a radio and they have no problems bringing the same enthusiasm they did then to this day.

A second slab of Cheese followed a set by New York funk cell Lettuce, with a set that leaned more towards the space end of the spectrum on this night.

While “Colorado Bluebird Sky” opened the first set with a promise of sunshine, the ripping cover of King Crimson’s “21st Century Schizoid Man” foretold wild things to come. The mid-set Zeppelin cover “Kashmir” had the entirety of the show moving.  Costumed burlesque dancers tossed out light up bunny ears, wigs and glasses to the crowd, transforming the first 50 rows of people into a glowing sea. Hula dancers and giants balloons overhead made the spectacle all the more surreal.  Fire dancers on podiums were spotted in the crowd and the moment turned into an event, a full blown “Incident” occurring right before the spectators’ eyes. Deliriously happy and glowing from within and without, Cheese fans left the wooded circle to go in a dozen directions at once. Some chose to wander the psychedelic woods while some ran for that next sound or the next party.

_mg_2513.jpgColorado’s Big Gigantic proved their name is not a boast, but a promise to be fulfilled by the duo. With live percussion and sax alongside highly adaptable processors and equipment, the crowd stomped the Earth in approval.

With one of the most intensively out of control audiences built in front of him, Bassnectar, rewarded his faithful with the bass bombing of their very souls. Capable of single handedly changing your body’s internal clock, Bassnectar turned the world into a carefully controlled timeless and endless looping throb of mayhem.

Grinding long into the night, the festival peaked as a rising beast under the spell of electronic/DJ acts Skrillex and the Shpongletron Experience… the collective hype of the evening had become its own entity. Though late into the evening and early into the morning, still the thrill seekers wandered in search of more fun and adventure.

Sunday

Starting the last day off in the bright sunlight, Zach Deputy instantly had the crowd in his palm, his happy energy perfectly matching the crowd’s early rising spirit. Hula dancers flanked him, bringing motion to the presentation while he sat in his one man band cocoon singing and playing with the classic Deputy perma-smile on his face that seems to be a true reflection of what is in his heart.

Railroad Earth took the main stage and brought their sonic view of the mountain life to the Forest.  Tim Carbone’s soulful bowing of his fiddle gave way to his rocking guitar licks while the rest of the band showed similar musical agility, making many disparate moves that they somehow melded into a cohesive and pleasant whole.

_mg_2803.jpgWith pure creation and exploration being the hallmark of his categorization defying  act, That One Guy and his magic pipe took the uninitiated portion of his audience to “that one place” as only he can do. That One Guy constructed a swing armed, drum, bass and theramin-esque metal pipe over the course of a year, then took another few years just to learn how to play it.  Judging from the mystified looks of the audience and the shouts of approval at the end of each piece he seems to have learned his lessons well.

Also sitting squarely in the hard to classify range of the musical spectrum is Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros. Sharpe and the Zeros came across as a long form grade school music program that was marooned together on some lost island, with only their basic understanding of music to guide them in whiling away the years waiting for rescue. Helping crest the good feelings generated over the weekend, the undercurrent of slow building culminated in the arrival of The String Cheese boys for their final show of the weekend.

Having  stressed their more eclectic, trance and dance mode on the previous night,  the first set on this evening  saw Cheese truly embrace their bluegrass roots by first welcoming members of Railroad Earth to the stage and then bringing out a few of the members of The Infamous String Dusters to get a true picking party going.  Finally adding Greensky Bluegrass mandolinist and vocalist Paul Hoffman to cap off an extended run of stringed fury, the set on its whole brought a crowd that showed no signs of fatigue to a foot stomping frenzy.

After clearing the stage of all of the additional parts,  the band got down to brass tacks and lit a fuse with a fierce and rapturous “Way Back Home” before closing out the first set with the payoff, an explosive cover of  Allman Brothers’ classic “Jessica.”

liz.jpgA short break followed, after which it was time for a set of tunes that exemplified the Cheese sound, ranging from a Talking Heads cover to the always crowd pleasing “Jellyfish” which had the smiling masses singing along and hitting the various silly vocal cues throughout the song in perfect time.

An extended jam led into the set closer, “Dirk,” and after a pause to let the crowd catch their breath, a short encore of “Shakin’ the Tree” sent the fans away from the show laughing and singing, safe in the knowledge that while The String Cheese Incident may play far less than they used to, they were still deserving of the headlining place that their years of touring and exploration had earned them.

Though the headliners had bowed for the weekend, the music was far from over. Pretty lights took the stage with a massive spectacle of a stage and a glowing cityscape of light to match the aural soundscapes he produced.  Not letting anything slow them down, the remaining unbowed dancers spun with abandon, filtering out from Pretty Lights‘ set to the closing gasp of EOTO‘s drum and bass wall of sound.

The beat was alive in every heartbeat, forming a controlling wave that forced any in earshot to move to the beat providing the absolute best fitting end to a weekend that was based on the rises and falls of a Cheese show itself; the parts that make such a joyous whole during the confines of a single show were applied to an entire weekend.  It was an experiment in lineup design that reflected the hosts perfectly, each act complimenting a component of the hosts’ influences, bringing a sense of exploration, wonder and hope for the future of the returning to the uniquely harmonious blending of sight and sound that is The String Cheese Incident.

 

Click the thumbnail to view more of Michael Podrid‘s and Rex Thomson‘s photos from the fest…