What We Found in the Forest

Electric Forest Festival Review

June 23-26, Rothbury, MI

Written by Charlie Spooner

Photos by OwlEyesOnYou

After struggling through the seemingly endless torrent of rain and fog that carpeted the highway we came at last to our destination, that rare spot on the map of life where hype and reality intersect, Electric Forest.  For years we experienced this festival vicariously through pictures, videos, live recordings, and the epic accounts of our friends, but were never able to make the trip out to Rothbury, Michigan to see for ourselves if it really is one of the best music festivals in the country.  But when the stars finally aligned we jumped at the opportunity and geared up for four days of incredible music, unique and interactive art installations, soulful crowds and the fabled EF woods filled with light and magic.

With map in hand we navigated the myriad of different camping sections after a surprisingly quick check-in and car search for a nearly 50,000 person festival and found the perfect spot to call home for the weekend.  We wasted no time at all setting up camp and then hopped in a pedi-cab that rushed us past the ultra long shakedown street and into the venue so that we could experience the Anjunadeep sponsored Tripolee stage which looked like a highly digitized futuristic temple flanked by two seemingly eternal nature goddesses and all in the shadow of a colossal Ferris wheel. Brought to life by a synchronistic blend of modern technologies were beats and rhythms so deeply intuitive that they bordered on tribal archaism.  We didn’t want to break out of our deep house cocoons and might’ve stayed there the rest of the day if not for the stacked lineups on other stages.  The overwhelming abundance of great musical options is simultaneously one of the best and worst features of large festivals, and we were faced with sonic conundrums all day long.

As night fell we found ourselves at the Ranch stage for Duke Dumont, witnessing him kick off his set with a blast of confetti and streamers while his uplifting vocal house stylings triggered a palpable wave of happiness in the crowd.  Like a gathering of fireflies dancing between the branches of a tree, the flickering neon lights of the many flow toys dotting this counter-culture confluence was a mesmerizing sight.  Afterwards Major Lazer had the crowd bouncing up and down so hard that his set could’ve been measured on the Richter scale.  Meanwhile under a laser filled sky at the other end of the grounds the Disco Biscuits were firing on all cylinders after being plagued early on by technical difficulties.  Other standouts from the first day were master improvisers EOTO at the Jubilee tent and the psychedelic downtempo duo Desert Dwellers who played at the Observatory stage in the middle of the forest, which cleverly has multiple platforms to help spread out the dense crowds and give lots of unique vantage points.  Back at the Tripolee stage our favorite set of the day, Bonobo, had a silky smooth flow going on and provided a great end to a magical night.

The next day was filled with exploration as we traversed the sprawling grounds to get a good feel of all that EF provides, and wow do they provide a lot.  From a dizzying amount of vendors and food options, to tons of art installations of which many are interactive, a hot air balloon and an entire airplane hangar worth of activities, including a barber shop, pin-up photo shoot parlor, press-on tattoo spot and a game room with billiards, ping pong and more, there was no shortage of things to do when not relaxing at the campsite, catching up with (and making new) friends or enjoying the incredible music.  Just for scale, it would take almost an hour to walk from the far end of the campsites to the furthest stage, so this festavarian recommends you bring comfy footwear when you make your pilgrimage.

Friday saw the Tripolee stage change sponsors to Bassrush and with the change came a very different aural landscape.  The music would be high energy and aggressive all day long and the crowds at Tripolee were full of rage faces, with the biggest and most intense crowd being for Adventure Club followed closely by Brillz.  If there was a festival statistician on site, they would tell you that Tripolee saw one of the highest totem per person averages ever recorded at a music festival.  Highlights on the other stages included Vourteque’s killer electroswing, jamtronica pioneers STS9 playing a monster set, Nahko & Medicine for the People raising the crowds spirits through the roof and the power funk of Nola natives the Soul Rebels featuring Gza and Talib Kweli. The festival’s hosts, the String Cheese Incident, also played their first sets of the weekend on the Ranch stage which was outfitted with almost 40 strobes and 150 huge color bars, arranged in horizontal rows at the top of the massive stage and vertical rows on either side, providing mind blowing light shows all weekend long.

Waking up slow is hard to do with the sun pouring down on your tent so we decided to take advantage of our celestial alarm clock and made our way over to morning yoga where we joined the hundreds of aspiring yogis realigning their bodies and chakras in preparation of another day of raging.  The rest of the afternoon was a blur of vendor and stage hopping.  We even joined in a mini parade led by the local Shelby School District Marching Band and witnessed a wedding in the forest before getting down to old school trance DJ Josh Wink’s set back at Tripolee.  However, with SCI’s special Saturday night shenanigans and Bassnectar’s headlining set on the horizon, the real draw of the day was yet to come.

After a quick change for the evening at the campsite we rushed back to see Cheese demonstrating why they are one of the most fun festival bands in the country.  It felt like the whole festival was packed on that lawn dancing underneath a cascade of fireworks, confetti, and unicorn and lucky charm balloons.  Many in the crowd lost their voices for the rest of the weekend after singing along at full volume to a fantastic Prince/David Bowie mashup cover. Next up was Bassnectar and somehow the multitudes multiplied in anticipation of his set.  In what seemed like a tempering of the bass EQ from its usual levels all the way up to “11,” his demonstration on how to create mushrooms using an oscilloscope both shook the Earth and our expectations of what sine and cosine waves could do.  From there it was an all out bass-a-thon as Lorin showed us once again why he is the scene’s undisputed champion.

For hours afterwards we roamed the forest exploring all of the different art installations underneath the ever changing rainbow canopy of lights and lasers.  It was a wonderland of psychedelic sights and sounds, saloons and stages, hammocks and houses, art galleries and costumed crews, heart-shaped gardens and reincarnation villages, and massive wooden giantesses and projection mapped archways.  Now we know what it’s like to get “lost in the forest” and love it.

Overnight the skies opened up and let down a deluge leaving an EZ-up graveyard for us to wake up to, but no matter how much it poured, it seemed that nothing could dampen people’s spirits, and with the exception of some car lanes in the campgrounds, the mud was dry by the time the music started.  This wasn’t going to be a lazy Sunday like most festivals, instead this would be another marathon of music and merriment.   Stick Figure, Michigan natives Greensky Bluegrass and SCI kept everyone dancing all day at the Ranch stage, while the Nth power took the reins at the Observatory and Louis Futon, Louis the Child and Gryffin held down Tripolee.  However, the hands down winner of the day’s biggest crowds was the Sherwood Court where Manic Focus, The Floozies and Griz played to an endless sea of Foresters.  We ended our festival at the Jubilee tent with one of our favorite acts, the gypsy electro carnival rockers Beats Antique who were unveiling new songs and choreography ahead of their upcoming fall tour.  With belly dancer Zoe Jakes at the forefront they have a stage show that is unlike any other and is worth taking the trip to see if ever you can.  Then, after the final note rang out we took our last stroll through the forest that had captured our imaginations and stolen our hearts for four incredible days and vowed to make it back next year.

The American festival landscape is dotted with events that seem to be copies of a copy of a copy of one another. For those of you that yearn for something different, for something more than the rest, for something grand to dig up your childlike wonder that has been buried deep, set aside a weekend in June next year and head on over to Rothbury, Michigan where the music plays late and the forest is electrified.  Just remember to bring your comfy footwear…