Written by Jeff Modzelewski
There is no doubt at this point that Electric Forest consistently throws the best party of the year. The festival has the experience and passion to bring Forest attendees into a different world. Everything about Electric Forest is focused on building a community of bands and fans for a 4 day celebration and an opportunity to leave the rest of the world behind. Within a half hour of getting into the forest I overheard two fans talk about the experience. One woman looking around at the forest and say to her friend “I’m so happy to be alive right now.” Another guy talking on his phone saying “Where am I? I’m in heaven, that’s where.” Electric Forest is a life-affirming event, a community building experience of music, art, and love that is unique in so many ways.
If you’ve ever been to a Las Vegas casino, you know that the experience can be very disorienting. The entire purpose of the setup is to make you forget the outside world and keep you occupied as long as possible. That is not unlike what it’s like to walk into Electric Forest. From the moment the bass hits you at the Tripolee stage as you walk through the main gates, everything about the venue is captivating. Sensory overload is the name of the game, and the music, lights, art, and people are coming at you from all directions and demanding your attention. Just the walk between from Tripolee over to the Ranch Arena stage can be an adventure, with vendor booths playing their own music and drawing folks in with mini light shows of their own. There’s an adventure no matter what direction you turn, which can make it difficult to stay on task. And this is all before you even make it to the legendary Sherwood Forest, the heart of Electric Forest, where each corner seems to be calling you to explore. The vast scope of this festival means there are always stones left unturned, always roads not taken and always more adventures to be had.
Musically, Electric Forest continues to offer so much to their fans. Along with the EDM that the festival is known for, jam, rock, funk, bluegrass, soul, and folk scenes are all represented, and Electric Forest always succeeds in putting some unexpected gems on the lineup. I knew I was going to enjoy The String Cheese Incident, Lettuce, Horseshoes and Hand Grenades, and TAUK. I didn’t realize how much fun I would have at Lee Fields & The Expressions or John Craigie, but those are just two of the new artists that I’ll be talking about. These bands were clearly thrilled to be representing their scene at a festival known for electronic music.
Thursday was a nice run of TAUK into The String Cheese Incident followed by Lee Fields & The Expressions and Lettuce to close things out. TAUK kicked things off nicely with an energetic set, although the sound at the Sherwood Court stage was a little quiet for the power they generally put out. I think most fans expected The String Cheese Incident to do something different for their single set on Thursday at the Jubilee. I don’t know that anyone expected a single-song set. The band took “Rosie” and turned it into a 70 minute extended nonstop jam. They clearly had some parts that they had prepared and wanted to hit through this set but they also left things open enough so they had space to explore. Everyone had opportunities with this format, but I have to say that Billy Nershi looked to be having more fun than anyone. For a guy best known for his acoustic bluegrass style he had no hesitation when it came to rocking out this set, and his leads really helped direct the band throughout.
The surprise of Thursday was Lee Fields & The Expressions. Fields has spent his life as a soul and R&B artist without ever giving up on his dream of making music. He’s started getting his due in recent years, and his performance in the Carousel Club shows why. He has a powerful voice and engaged with the crowd, pouring emotion through his voice. His band was provided excellent backing for the performance, and the crowd loved it. Lettuce closed the night at the Jubilee. They’ve played a few sets at the Forest but their Thursday late night set was one of the best I’ve seen from them. Full of energy, the band closed down the Jubilee tent with a show that kept the first-night crowd dancing throughout. They hit some of their biggest jams and kept the crowd engaged through a funk-filled 2 hours.
Saturday started with a mid-day set at the Grand Artique with Desmond Jones. Electric Forest has always made room for local Michigan acts, and Desmond Jones took full advantage of that with their energetic set at the Artique. The band had great stage presence and a good sense of humor about themselves, cracking jokes and vamping with the crowd while also playing a genre-blending mix of rock, funk, and country. From there I stayed in the forest for Brandon “Taz” Neideraur at the Observatory. Taz has been hailed as the prodigy sent to carry the guitar forward. While that’s a lot of pressure to put on a teenager, Taz has stepped up to embrace the expectations and exceed them every chance he has. Taz led his excellent band through riff-driven classic rock, and took numerous opportunities to lay down the expressive solos that he’s become so well known for.
The String Cheese Incident didn’t do anything quite as surprising as their 1-song Thursday set (or their Saturday Shebang set) but they put down a solid, fun Friday jam session mixing old tunes, new jams, and a couple of bustouts. “Ten Miles To Tulsa” got its first live performance in 16 years, making it one of Cheese’s biggest bustouts in recent memory. “Eye Know Why” and “Hi Ho No Show” were a couple other first set highlights. The second set led off with “Outside and Inside,” always a song that fans enjoy. Nershi kept his hands on things with another fan favorite in “Texas.” I personally really enjoyed their cover of “Nothing But Flowers,” as Kyle always has fun singing The Talking Heads. “Sirens” was powerful with some great rise, and the set closing “All We Got” was a surprising closer.
I went straight from Cheese to see Southern Avenue at the Grand Artique. They killed their Grand Artique set 2 years ago, and this one was just as good. This is a band that deserves every bit of praise that they get, with a great mix of guitar licks and a solid backbeat all supporting Tierinii Jackson’s vocals. Jackson commands any stage that she’s on, and it’s impossible to keep your eyes off of her when she’s moving. The Nth Power served up a set of Earth, Wind, and Power at the Carousel Club to close out the Studio 54-themed night at the stage. While I love seeing the Nth Power just about any time, it was cool to see them try something different. They had a handful of extra musicians on stage including Jennifer Hartswick, and it was a fun set with some great soul.
Saturday was highlighted by Cheese’s Saturday Shebang set. The first set was relatively standard, featuring newer tunes like “Colliding” and “Get To You” with a crowd pleasing “Joyful Sound” and “One Step Closer.” The first set closer featured a very cool moment when Lynx came out to rap over “Let’s Go Outside.” The second set kicked off with the debut of a cover of “Baba O’Riley” before kicking into the “shebang” portion of the night with “Valley Of the Jig.” Things went over the top with “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” that saw a crazy dance drumbeat coming from Travis and Jason. It very much felt like two different songs going on at the same time that just fit together. While the song was going on the band brought out a dance group on stage, shot a crazy amount of confetti, blew off fireworks, and had hoop dancers performing in the crowd. Things didn’t slow down for the rest of the set, either. This was Cheese at their most non-stop energetic, including a killer closing of “Jellyfish” directly into “The Big Reveal” (which is one of the band’s best new jam vehicles) and ending with Kang leading a slightly wompy “Beautiful.
That was just part of an excellent Saturday. The afternoon started with folk singer John Craige on the Honeycomb stage. This new stage was one of the highlights of the festival, with an “in the round” feel and a raised area with chairs and a full living room for fans to relax in. Craige is a great storyteller, weaving his songs around the stories behind them. He had the crowd laughing and singing along. I love seeing different styles at the Forest, and I love a little folk along with everything else the festival has to offer. I also caught parts of a heavy rock set from Dragondeer and some of Chon‘s amazing guitar work after Cheese. The rest of the night was spent chasing down scavenger hunt clues throughout the festival in a crazy chase.
The final day started with self-proclaimed Acoustic Dance Music artist Horseshoes & Hand Grenades. It was great to see a bluegrass band at the Forest, and the band had a great crowd. For a festival known for their electronic base, Horseshoes & Hand Grenades packing the Observatory shows that there’s plenty of room for other styles. Ghost Light was next, also at the Observatory. The hour-long set from this new group packed with powerhouse musicians showed off their improvisational skills and technical expertise. The Floozies have moved further into electronic territory over the past few years, but they still put on a funky show, and their light show was one of the best of the weekend. My final set of the festival was from improvisational violinist Dixon’s Violin. Dixon has been a regular at the Forest nearly every year, and his organic meditative set provided a beautiful endcap to the weekend.
Outside of the music, there were dozens of experiences, both big and small, that fans could enjoy. The Travel Agency was back again, sending fans on a chase to solve 4 puzzles throughout the venue. These included deciphering secret codes, searching for a hidden lock box, and going through an hour long “guided experience” full of magical creatures in Sherwood. When parts of the experience include a sing along with a wolf-like creature, a travel through space with Star Horse, and firing up the Zebra-omitor to send yourself messages in both the past in the future, it becomes hard to describe to those who weren’t there. Sherwood also included the Art Bar, a crafty nook where you could build, color, paint, or just play. Another scavenger hunt in Sherwood opened with crawling under a table to find the puzzle and involved finding three stolen items in the Forest expanse. The Trading Post was filled with interesting and often very unique goods available for purchase or trade, no mass produced plastic crap please.
The Hangar was, as usual, an experience all by itself. This performance space has taken on a unique role at Electric Forest, not quite the immersive sensory overload of Sherwood Forest, but more a play space to interact with dedicated performers from an alternate 1950’s-ish reality. Brightly colored sparkly makeup and hair are the norm for the residents of the Hangar, who often speak in riddles and always with a strong Brooklyn accent. While Sherwood Forest is the first thing that sets Electric Forest apart, I believe the Hangar is equally impressive in its many interactive rooms. You can visit the apothecary for some holistic healing. There’s an area to get a rubdown, provided by a padded car buffer that feels amazing after a couple of days on your feet. There’s a military-style (temporary) tattoo shop and a classic style barber shop if you want to change your look up for the weekend. You can go bowling, play pool, get some candy, get a drink and a makeover, and even go to the matchmaker to try to find your perfect Forest partnership. With the secret password you can even visit the brothel (poetry only, no hanky panky). When it comes to explaining what makes Electric Forest so special, the Hangar is one of the pieces that I can point to and know that there’s nothing else like it.
One thing you have to give up at Electric Forest is your fear of missing out. You could spend 4 days at the festival, not see any music at all on the main stages, and still not be able to do everything that the Forest offers. Or you could do nothing but see music, schedule yourself down to the minute, and you’re still going to miss excellent performances that you would have loved to see. Electric Forest isn’t about doing everything, it’s about doing whatever feels the best at any given time. I had to miss the Sophistafunk 90’s tribute in order to catch the festival-closing Dixon’s Violin set. In order to make my way through the Banyan Family Tea House I missed Grateful Shred. I missed the poetry brothel for the first time in years in order to explore parts of the Forest that I hadn’t yet made it to, including a crazy show at the Chapel. I didn’t regret making any of these choices, and there simply isn’t enough time to do everything. But losing my fear of missing out is a lesson I had to learn in order to appreciate everything I did get to see and do.
The sheer scope of experiences available at Electric Forest is difficult to wrap your head around. Building a single experience, like the Banyan Family Tea House, is a project that takes so much time and expertise. Performers had to make the entire interactive set, design the costumes, print the stickers, practice the script, and put together all of the little details and clues. And that is just one experience in one part of the Forest, something that a fraction of Forest attendees actually end up participating in. Electric Forest has so many of those types of interactive experiences and events that I’m positive there are many I don’t know about. Add all of those together, and then combine it with the amazing work that goes into every stage, and you end up with a festival that does things on a grand scale while still paying attention to every detail.
Outside of the 4 walls of where I live, there is no place that exemplifies the concept of “home” for me more than the Double JJ Ranch and Resort in Rothbury, Michigan. Over the years, Electric Forest Festival has grown, shifted, contracted, and evolved, always continuing to keep this unique spirit alive while constantly reinventing itself and never staying stagnant. The Forest uses this energy to intentionally bring folks into a new community, a separate space outside of their normal world. Everything about Electric Forest is set up to change your perception from the time you get onsite and into the venue until the time you make that long, dusty, tired drive back to reality. This community may only come together once a year, but, once you become a part of it, it stays with you. Electric Forest 2019 continued the precedent of building, nurturing, and encouraging this community in new ways.
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