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Rothbury Festival Brings The World To Michigan

Of the Oakland Press

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ROTHBURY, Mich. -- Michigan became a destination for music festival fans from around the world on Thursday.

The inaugural Rothbury Festival, a four-day event on the Double JJ Ranch, launched right on time, with String Cheese Incident keyboardist Kyle Hollingsworth -- performing with his own band -- announcing, ''Here we go, Rothbury '08'' and breaking into a 10-minute instrumental version of the Beatles' ''Taxman'' that had the crowd of tie-dyed and Moosejaw-attired youths whirling and bouncing in the field.

Over the next three days, the festival will host acts such as the Dave Mathews Band, John Mayer, Primus, Widespread Panic and solo projects by members of the Grateful Dead and Phish -- so-called ''jam bands'' that are favorites of the nuevo hippie crowd that's in the vast majority at Rothbury.

The party preceded the music, however -- starting at about 5 a.m. when the gates opened for hundreds of cars already lined up for the festival's campgrounds.

With a reported pre-sale of about 30,000, organizers expected up to 50,000, paying $244.75 and up for tickets for more than 70 acts and a wealth of other activities, to roll into Rothbury this weekend. Tickets were purchased in all 50 U.S. states -- with the largest turnout from the Midwest -- and more than 15 countries.

''It's too good a lineup to pass up,'' said Guy McClung, 21, relaxing by his tent after driving 11 hours from Kansas City, Mo. ''All these bands are really great.''

Eric Forsell, 21, who came 14 hours from Boone, N.C. - and enjoyed the fact he was an Appalachian State University student back in the state of his school's biggest football victory -- said it was appealing to be at the first edition of Rothbury, too.

''To be here for something new is really cool,'' he explained. ''A first-time festival is always good. Nothing's set in stone yet.''

Mickey Hart, the Grateful Dead drummer who headlined Thursday's show with is own band, echoed that sentiment.

''You've got thousands of people out there all wanting to be part of the experience,'' Hart said. ''It's a high. Good feelings are raised from the concert, and then it's what do you do after the concert? You have to take them home and turn those feelings into concrete deeds that help make a better world.''

Rothbury, in fact, has staked out a position that's about more than music and heavily titled towards environmental consciousness. Besides an extensive recycling effort -- including an attempt to get into the Guinness Book of World Records with the largest-ever can sculpture made from donated food -- Rothbury is also holding a Think Tank with seminars about alternative energy and climate change.

''I like the idea that (Rothbury) promotes sustainability,'' said Mike Savina, 21, of Kalamazoo. ''At a lot of festivals you get individuals promoting it, not an entire organization like they're doing here.'' Others were skeptical, however.

''I understand what they're trying to do, and it's cool,'' said Brett Huffine, 18, of Houston. ''But I think a lot of people are just here for the music and the party.''

The camping area was certainly in a festive state before the music started on Thursday, though some early bloggers posted complaints about horse manure around the grounds. Despite waits of up to five hours snaking through the village of 416 to get onto the elaborately decorated 200-acre site, spirits were high as groups of fans gathered together by their tents, drinking beer and playing hackeysack and frisbee. Two concert-goers jammed on acoustic guitars by their Volkswagen Westfalia camper vans. A group of Michigan State University students played baseball in an open area, while another group from Montana tried to recycle twine into string for their kites.

An open market of artwork, jewelry and other crafts also opened in an attempt to recoup the cost of tickets, gas and supplies.

While festival crews finished constructing the six performance areas and sopped up standing water from Thursday's heavy storms, the Rothbury general store (where a case of beer ran $35) and souvenir stands did a brisk business. So did the food drive tent, which was giving away commemorative posters to those who donated 10 cans or $10.

Keith Barker, 50, brought his son and two friends from Houston to Rothbury as a high school graduation present. ''I promised him a road trip,' said Barker, who also suggested Rothbury. ''It flashes back to my youth -- although they used to call them concerts, not festivals.''

Michiganders at Rothbury, meanwhile, expressed hope that the festival will be a success and become an annual event.

''We should have more!'' said Aaron Hall, 25, a Michigan native who now lives in Montana. ''This is a great place to have something like this. It's the best climate, the best lineup, really great people...It's just what these (festivals) should be.''

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