Rothbury: the new kid on the block hits it big

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No doubt about it – the inaugural Rothbury Music Festival had an ambitious goal, and it was everything promised and so much more. The environmentally-conscious music festival derived from good intentions, but at a time when there were already too many summertime choices to make. 

Would there be a strong attendance for the event’s first year?

Would it live up to the hype?

After the first year, the choice is obvious: Rothbury is where you want to be.

Located in the lovely coastal region of Lake Michigan at the Double J Ranch, Rothbury easily has bragging rights as one of the best festival locations in the nation.  Aside from the near perfect weather (four full days of gorgeous sunshine and refreshingly cool nights), the heavily-wooded festival site offered golf, horseback riding, volleyball, a lakeside beach and so much more.

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Sherwood Forrest / E. Anderson

After taking a moment to breathe in the delicious Michigan air, set up camp, and stroll around the breathtaking site, it was time for some music.  Zappa Plays Zappa was on The Ranch Arena, Mickey Hart Band on the Sherwood Court and Lotus at the Tripolee Domes. 

Thursday was an action-packed full night of music that started the festivities off right.  Earlier in the evening Greensky Bluegrass, Kyle Hollingsworth, Underground Orchestra, Perpetual Groove and The Juan Maclean Group had turned in sets that were regretfully missed. 

However the night seemingly belonged to Railroad Earth. Their midnight set at the Sherwood Court was greeted with a sky full of dancing stars and a field full of fun.  The opening “Mighty River” instantly had the crowd in hoedown mode.  During their set friends Dan Sears and Dominic Lalli of Panjea joined in on “Right in Tune,” and Kyle Hollingsworth took the stage, squeeze box in hand, during “Elko.”

On the way back to camp it was nearly impossible not to stop in at the Triploee Domes for a dance nightcap.  This stage had to be one of the most enticing stage set- ups.  Three huge domes framed the perpetually moving party and stage as the night air illuminated by the domes syncopated light show.   EOTO took us home Thursday night.{mospagebreak}

Friday would shape up to be a huge day of music as the festival really got going.

Jakob Dylan and the Beautiful Girls were the two first artists to take the stage. However there was a huge draw to go straight to the Odeum main stage and start the day with The Dynamites.  Charles Walker and his crew of funky gentlemen got things grooving early with their funk and soul review.

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Panjea / B. Hodge

Panjea has always been an intriguing project.  Michael Kang, members of The Motet and Chris Berry made up the core of the band and provided a nice bridge between two contrasting acts that would take the stage over at the Ranch Arena: The Dynamites and Tea Leaf Green.

San Franscisco’s Tea Leaf Green has taken kindly to the grooves of new bassist Reed Mathis (Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey).  Mathis and guitarist Josh Clark locked in on songs like “Let Us Go”, “One Reason” and “Jezebel” providing one of the afternoon’s better sets. 

Meanwhile, reggae’s legendary act, The Wailers, hit the main stage with a dose of their iconic favorites, and got the crowd good and hazed before the one and only Snoop Dogg.  I don’t think anyone could have predicted just how fun Snoop’s set would be.  The Odeum was filled and bouncing for the whole hour and change.

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Snoop Dogg / E. Anderson

The Drive-By Truckers played a late afternoon set on the Sherwood Court to a small but very appreciative crowd.  It was hard to compete with a bumping Snoop Dogg set that overlapped for the first 30 minutes.

As the Truckers made their way through the set, a swarm of people stumbled out from the Sherwood Forrest and primed up for Widespread Panic with Betty Lavette and the DBT on “Jealousy” and other favorites like “Lookout Mountain” and “Women without Whiskey.”

Widespread Panic, who claimed yet another festival headlining spot in 2008 when they took the stage Friday night, seem to be somewhat notorious for dropping the ball at major music festivals.  However, this fourth of July they stepped up and went for the all-American grand slam with an opening “Pigeons” that soared more like an eagle. 

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Widespread Panic / B. Hodge

Jerry Joseph’s “North” followed and assured the crowd we had all arrived and the north would treat us all just fine for this holiday weekend celebration. 

Fiddle player Ann Marie Calhoun may be the most talked about special guest that the WP crew has befriended of late.  After she joined the band for “Surprise Valley”> “Arleen”> “Surprise Valley,” with certainty the hype is warranted.  Calhoun ignited the already hot songs with fresh vigor, and raised the bar for the rest of the weekend.

After a mighty impressive fireworks display that ended Widespread Panic’s performance, Les Claypool and Primus took the stage at The Ranch Arena.

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Primus / E. Anderson

This was the first Primus performance in a while, and the legendary, quirky bassist had a full and attentive audience as he and his band ripped through their catalogue.

The night air seemed to be blowing back into the forest and over to the Sherwood Court for Thievery Corporation.  No one in attendance would have complained if Thievery had played the entire night.  Songs like “Exilo,” “Warning Shots” and “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter” were more inviting than the nervous energy of Primus, and helped to heat up the night with electric grooves and infectious dancing.{mospagebreak}

After a long night of dancing, Saturday unintentionally started late with a little Secret Machines followed by Gomez at The Ranch Arena. 

The Ranch had to be the overall best stage.  Nestled in the woods, it was completely surrounded by trees, providing plenty of daytime shade for those looking to get out of the sun, and nighttime shadows that set the backdrop for many marvelous performances over the weekend.  Where festival stages tend to be dropped into the middle of a field (see the blaring summer sun at Bonnaroo in Tennessee or Wakarusa in Kansas), Rothbury delivered some very welcome changes.

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The Black Keys / E. Anderson

After Gomez, The Black Keys took the stage and the electric blues duo provided a great afternoon of music without having to relocate at all.

Michael Franti and Spearhead were on The Odeum stage on the other end of the site, so another walk through the forest was in order.  Franti always delivers.  If by some miracle you had made it all weekend without being in a good mood, there is no way you could have sat through Spearhead without having your spirits lifted.  Even though his performances are often a little to familiar, they are still filled with bombastic energy and positivety.  And songs like “Yell Fire” and “Say Hey” never get old.

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Dave Matthews Band / B. Hodge

Saturday’s headliner, Dave Matthews Band sported some new faces for their performance.  LeRoi Moore had suffered some serious injuries during an ATV accident, and the band had to look for someone to help fill the multi instrumental member’s shoes.  There was probably no better man to call for horn help than Jeff Coffin.  Always willing to make good music, Coffin jumped on board and will be for the rest of the summer.  Coffin, along with longtime friend Tim Reynolds, helped to deliver possibly one the better DMB shows that I have seen.

The band peppered the audience with greats like “Proudest Monkey,” “Eh Hee” and “You Might Die Trying,”  and then broke out the goods on Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer.”  The performance ended with a grooving “Thank You” that sent everyone into overdrive.

Late night, Sound Tribe Sector 9 owned the rights to The Ranch Arena, but then Crystal Method began to light things up.  This was probably the most energetic performance of the weekend, and went late into the night (like any good dance party should).  On the way out the Triploee Domes sat there calling out for one last dance.  Kraak and Smaak were laying down old school hip hop beats, and freaking out to some intense light energy as the Tripolee Domes proved once again to be the little stage that could.{mospagebreak}

After very little sleep and nine holes of golf at the Double J’s onsite golf course, the musical day began with the tail end of Steel Pulse and an afternoon set by the legendary Taj Mahal.  The full throttle energy of the festival had taken a noticeable turn for a more calm and unwinding nature.  Following some blues and beer with Taj, international phenoms Rodrigo y Gabriela wowed the audience on the main stage with astonishing guitar work. 

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Taj Mahal / B. Hodge

Then Trey Anastasio took the stage for his first official performance since his arrest/rehab.  It was good to see him back happy and healthy, yet he offered up a somewhat boring set of acoustic tunes.  The set was highlighted by the guest appearance by fellow Phish member and friend Mike Gordon for a new song or two. 

Gordon was playing right after Trey one stage over.  So most of the crowd migrated over to see if Trey would return the favor.  And rightfully he did.  Gov’t Mule started about half way thru Gordon’s set, and many fans found themselves lost at the cross roads, confused on what to see.  No doubt Gov’t Mule would be good and Mike Gordon had become slightly boring, so I chose to go the opposite direction back thru the woods, to my favorite stage for John Mayer.

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John Mayer / B. Hodge

After watching Mayer deftly mix his successful, radio-friendly pop with searing, bluesy guitar numbers, it was time to trek it over to Atmosphere and Brother Ali.  The hip-hop showcase slammed, and added to the diversity of the weekend.

After being fairly disappointed by the past few Phil and Friends shows, there was uncertainty as to if it was worth staying to see the Sunday headliner.  It is always great to see Phil out making music and living a healthy life, but this ensemble does not seem to warrant headliner status.  However on this night they did seem to find some magic. 

To the delight of the crowd, Phil and company hit their stride early; it could have been thanks to help from Warren Haynes on “Here Comes Sunshine”> “Althea”> China Cat Sunflower” and “Mexican Girl,”  or perhaps from Teresa Williams’ guest appearance on “Here Comes Sunshine” and “Dire Wolf.”  Jackie Greene’s “About Cell Block #9” also added some high energy and moments of excitement.

At set break the Tripolee Domes began to play host to the closing party with Boombox.  As the night began to unwind more and more people wandered up to the domes.  The grooves continued with a live PA set from Pnuma Trio.  Then the first interruption from mother earth came, as the skies opened up and the rain fell hard.  Not a bad way to end it, with a free light show from the heavens.

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Tripolee Dome / E. Anderson

Rothbury was not only a great music festival, but also a groundbreaking event in proving that the music industry could be leaders in the movement for a more environmentally responsible existence.  Aside from the music, there were panel discussions on how we can all help to change our footprint.  The whole weekend, volunteers, fans and artists helped to remind one another not to litter, to recycle your trash properly, and to appreciate the beauty that surrounded us all.  The festival proved that you can save the world with music without wrecking it with trash.

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