As I stopped to turn out of the Rothbury campgrounds on the last evening of the festival, a bubble fluttered past my windshield. I stopped and watched it float. Rothbury had existed within a similar bubble — a temporary world of reckless abandon where music, drugs and peaceful anarchy reigned supreme.
I missed out on last year’s inaugurate Rothbury, and for months preceding the ’09 sequel my keen quipping was met with less-than-positive retort. Gossip about landowner Double JJ’s financial trouble spurred some early anxiety and later the lineup was met with mixed emotion. (“No more John Mayer!” sobbed the teeny-boppers.) No discredit to those discontented by what was surely a less national, more local lineup than last years headliner-packed schedule, but a list with names like John Butler, Matisyahu, Cold War Kids and The Hold Steady sold me right away.
It was a solid mix of big and small, old and new; Rothbury welcomed it all. With so many artists to see in so little time, the weekend could easily have become a bland blur of concerts, but each band brought something different to its set to make it memorable. G. Love & Special Sauce seduced the crowd with its flirty blend of blues and hip hop while Flogging Molly incited Irish punk-rock mosh pits.
The Dead played an impressive four-hour set to a crowd of happy hippie ears. It strung on past the scheduled time slot, ending as midnight fireworks ushered in the Fourth of July. Extra sets and overtime seemed to be themes of the weekend. Electronic duo Chromeo mustered up the muscle to play an after-hours show to the brave few hundred dancers still standing after Girl Talk’s energetic set (which was sprinkled with just the perfect amount of Michael Jackson tributes).
“Such dynamic sets are the nature of the festival beast,” said Augie Visocchi of Detroit’s The Hard Lessons. “Everything you would normally do in a club, you have to do times 10, and it just naturally happens that way. The solo can be a little bit longer, the hits get a little bit harder.”
And Visocchi’s own band is a perfect example of that. Known for stage antics in even the smallest of clubs, The Hard Lessons pulled out all the stops during its Rothbury set early Sunday afternoon, waving the Michigan flag, jumping on amps and tossing free CDs to the crowd.
The singularity of Rothbury’s amped-up performances wasn’t a joy lost on the artists. “My Christmas bonus was … listening to the other acts,” said Ross Huff of Ann Arbor’s Macpodz. “The Dead, the Black Crowes, Toots and the Maytals, the Hard Lessons — I cried. This is why I play rock and roll, this is why I grow my hair long.”
Sure it’s a music enthusiast’s dream, but you wouldn’t even have to be one to enjoy Rothbury — the festival is an experience within itself. The woodsy area between stages, fondly named The Sherwood Forest, is full of tricks and treats. Countless hammocks strung between trees provide shady relief for tired feet worn from days of jamming. At night, lights illuminate the tall pines in a neon glow, stilt walkers and hula dancers walk among the land art and in a shady corner lies the Speak EZ stage — home to burlesque dancers and other theater acts.
And the vibe — oh the vibe. As frustratingly vague as that term may be, there was an undeniable sense of safety and kinship mixed in with the energy and excitement at Rothbury that’s not always present at the big festivals.
Visocchi explained, “Being in a band, it’s unfortunate that a lot of people turn it into a competitive thing, or turn it into some sort of elitist snobbish thing like ‘oooh I don’t like that band anymore’ or ‘I liked them when no one liked them’ … but the vibe here is awesome. Because, its not elitist, its very inclusive, no one here’s looking to exclude anybody.”
In any case, the communal mood was definitely a positive one.
With the vibe and the music in check, all you had to worry about was enjoying your vacation from reality.
Huff’s two cents? “I think the most important thing for me in the weekend was to remember to GET THE FUCK DOWN AND BOOGIE,” said Huff.
So after four jam-filled days and dance-filled nights, I packed up and headed out — sore limbs, dirty feet and beaming smile. And then, just like that, as I turned off the grounds the bubble popped.