After a dozen trips to the JJ Ranch & Resort for music festivals, it’s pretty amazing that Electric Forest can still surprise me. I consider myself a very seasoned music festival goer at this point. I’ve been to just about every type of festival you can attend. So why is it that Electric Forest is different? What makes this event so unique? The environment, the production, the energy, and the belief that “anything can happen” along with Electric Forest meeting that year after year after year makes this event something completely different than anything else out there, and something that everyone interested in an immersive psychedelic experience should attend at least once.
There are so many things to talk about when it comes to Electric Forest that it’s hard to know where to start. Since, technically speaking, the event is still a “music festival,” we can start there. For a jam band fan such as myself, the music mostly wasn’t catered to my tastes. The festival is extremely EDM heavy, with a handful of acts that fall outside of that very broad label. Luckily there is more than enough to keep me interested. Danielle Ponder started off my festival with an excellent funky soulful set. She’s got a great voice, solid songwriting, and has a really great stage presence. Cimafunk was a super cool Latin funky experience that I would definitely catch again, and was a great addition. Neighbor on Thursday and Dogs in a Pile on Sunday helped add some jam credibility to a lineup that didn’t include much of the genre.
On top of those lower card bands, we did get some solid jam near the top of the card as well. Goose was a Sunday headliner, and they absolutely showed why they are one of the fastest rising bands on the scene. They had an excellent 6-song 90-minute set that showed their ability to stretch out songs and engage the crowd. Chromeo had an excellent midday Friday set with a ton of dancing, although in my opinion they would have benefited from a late-night set. It was hard to really get the crowd going in the Saturday afternoon heat, although the legendary dance duo certainly did their best. Saturday night’s STS9 set was an excellent visual experience with the music guiding the lights and the crowd in a late-night musical journey.
Finally, The String Cheese Incident played three sets over two nights and continued to show why they are always a highlight for many festival goers. It was a little frustrating to see them go from 5 sets last year to 3 this year, but the band made the most of it. They had a full 2 hours on Friday, and they used that time to deliver an all-killer-no-filler raging night. Multiple runs had the crowd energized, including a spectacular “Hot ‘Lanta” and “Desert Dawn” combo, a super fun “Nothing But Flowers” cover,” and an excellent “Bumpin’ Reel”->”Joyful Sound”->”Rumble” grouping. Saturday was a little more of a traditional 2-set show, with the band mixing in covers and originals and weaving between their acoustic and electric stylings throughout the set. The first set seemed to keep getting extended, with an ripping “Black Clouds,” a really excellent rendition of “Birdland,” and closing out with the newer “Trip The Light Fantastic”->”Tinder Box.” The second set included the traditional “Saturday Shebang” in the closing spot, which I don’t feel was the right pacing for the night. Right or wrong, fans have gotten used to the band building a couple songs, doing the massive “Shebang” with props, dancers, fireworks, etc…., and then closing out the set by giving the fans a chance to unwind. While the set was overall solid, it felt like fans kept waiting for the band to hit a higher gear and they just didn’t get there. The “Shebang” was also a little disappointing. The band put together a medley of “Crazy,” “We Are,” “All of the Lights,” and “You Get What You Give,” which was solid but I don’t think brought the crowd in the way other years have. They also didn’t have nearly as much for the actual visual aspect of the night. A handful of dancers on stage, guest musicians, and fireworks are great, but it lacked the crazy energy of past years. Overall I thought Cheese did a great job with the time that they had but I do think they missed an opportunity to go all out the way they have in previous years.
While the music of Electric Forest is important, it is not the primary reason to attend the festival. Every year the festival finds new ways of blowing the minds of the attendees, and 2023 was no different. The festival grounds were as big and as immersive as ever. Sherwood Forest continues to be the heart and soul of the festival. The annual scavenger hunt was moved to the Forest, giving fans opportunities to explore some out-of-the-way corners and spaces. The Chapel continues to have some of the weirdest events and shows every year, and has also solidified its spot as the central hub of the festival for the LGBTQ+ fans, with multiple events aimed at that group. There are numerous stages, from the Observatory which highlights some of the biggest acts playing in the Forest itself, all the way to the small stage at the Library where performances are unannounced and more spontaneous. They changed some of the decorations for 2023 and added a pair of spectacular LED-screen sculptures at either end of the main path. These two sculptures were some of the most interesting art pieces of the year, and you could walk past them all weekend and never see the same thing twice.
The stages themselves were top-notch as always. Amazing lighting, screens with mind-blowing definition, pyro, fireworks, and all sorts of other production made every set at the largest stages visually impressive. It was easy to get lost in the visuals while listening to the music. This is a production style that absolutely benefits a lot of the EDM artists that aren’t necessarily my top choice musically. Adding impressive production values makes the sets more immersive and something to truly get caught up in, even when you’re just passing by a stage.
While some things stay consistent year to year at the Forest, they do also embrace large-scale change. The Hanger had been a mainstay at Electric Forest for years and a central spot to hang out, participate in activities, play games, do the scavenger hunt, and get involved in dozens of other weird opportunities. While no change was necessary, Forest decided to pull the plug on the Hangar and add in a completely new experience. The Dream Emporium was, simply put, one of the coolest and most unique things I’ve ever seen anywhere, let alone a music festival. When I entered the field where the Emporium was for the first time, my mouth dropped open and I literally exclaimed “What the fuck is that!” Which, I believe is exactly what they were going for with this new space. Room after room and experience after experience of “What in the world is happening here!” Walk through one of the main entrances and you’re in a karaoke bar staffed by robots and aliens. Walk through another room and you’re at a beach party with sand, a pond, and an actual yacht in the middle of the room. Another room has a psychedelic “Mind Wash” where you ride you a unicorn or a bouncy horse or a tricycle through a pseudo car wash. Complete the scavenger hunt and you get a pin that lets you go to the roller rink and trampoline room. Walk through another door and you’re in a brightly painted cave ending in a mini-arena with a wrestling ring and a full professional wrestling matches happening.
The whole space was set up so every time you walked into a new room it was an experience of “What in the world is going on here!” Just sitting back and watching new folks head into the different rooms was an experience. The wonder and sheer joy on people’s faces told the entire story. This was an opportunity to turn things up another notch as far as the overall experience for everyone, and Electric Forest took that opportunity to new heights.
Electric Forest might not always be the best “music festival” for jam band fans like myself. However, it is consistently the most fun I have over a weekend every single year. Even when the music doesn’t always line up with my personal tastes it serves as excellent background music for the festival as a whole. Walking through the Forest to the sounds of Infected Mushroom or exploring the Grand Artique while Datura are playing just adds to the immersive experience of the event. There may be a day where I stop going to Electric Forest. A time where the music just doesn’t work or the stars don’t align anymore. However I don’t see that happening anytime soon. I’m already looking forward to next year and I think it’s a festival everyone should try out at least once. You never know what the experience is like until you’re in it.