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Rothbury Day 2: Bettye LaVette Comes Home

Of the Oakland Press

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ROTHBURY, Mich. -- "You know I'm home, don't you?" That's the first thing R&B singer Bettye LaVette told her audience Friday (July 4) at the Rothbury Festival, reveling in what was indeed a triumphant homecoming.

She was born Betty Haskins in nearby Muskegon before moving to Detroit as a teenager and scoring a hit single, "My Man -- He's a Lovin' Man," in 1962. She stayed busy in subsequent years but never enjoyed the same success until 2005, when she released the acclaimed album "I've Got My Own Hell to Raise," followed by last year's Grammy Award-nominated "The Scene of the Crime."

So despite a tragically small crowd for her Rothbury set, which faced competition from the Wailers and Snoop Dogg on a rival stage, LaVette's smile was wide and constant as she strutted for an hour in a white pants suit. "This is the first time many of the people here including my doctor, have seen me as a grown person," she noted, adding with a laugh that the hell she raised as a western Michigan youth "had my picture up in 10 post offices."

Her performance, however, was pure heaven, one of the best of the festival so far. Opening with "The Stealer," LaVette and her band -- with Detroit rock mainstay Brett Lucas on guitar -- touched on both of her recent albums, including a tough version of Lucinda Williams' "Joy" and Willie Nelson's "Somebody Pick Up My Pieces," which she sang while sitting on the stage -- her "senior citizen moment." She also offered a medley of her early material, including an affecting rendition of "Let Me Down Easy," her unsuccessful second single.

Fighting sound leaks from Snoop Dogg's nearby set, LaVette -- who now lives in New Jersey --finished with a rabble-rousing "Right in the Middle of Falling in Love" but was not done for the day. Followed by Drive-By Truckers, whose leader, Patterson Hood, produced "The Scene of the Crime," LaVette joined the Southern rockers for the song "Jealousy," which Hood said left the band "flabbergasted" -- and, apparently, disappointed with its support for LaVette. "Sorry we were so rusty, darlin'," bassist Shonna Tucker said after LaVette left the stage. "I love you."

And at least the Truckers had drawn the size of crowd that LaVette deserved on Friday.


Variety was the theme of Rothbury's first full day on Friday, with the jam band-heavy lineup accented by the worlds of R&B, hip-hop and some eclectic acts that drew on World Music styles.

Like LaVette, Memphis singer Charles Walker played before a too-small crowd on Rothbury's main stage (the Odeum), but certainly won some friends with his funky, Southern-friend soul and energetic performance. Just before him, on the Sherwood Court stage, Wallflowers leader -- and Bob's son -- Jakob Dylan and his band, the Gold Mountain Rebels, started the day with a low-key set focusing on the laid-back material from his new solo album, "Seeing Things," as well as his band's "Something Good This Way Comes" and "Three Marlenas."

The Wailers' spirited reggae set included many of their greatest hits with Bob Marley -- "Jammin'," "No Woman No Cry," "I Shot the Sheriff" and "Three Little Birds." Snoop Dogg brought hip-hop, and one of Rothbury's largest crowds, to the party, albeit with a kind of by-numbers performance heavy with gangsta cliches, calls to "get stoned, get drunk" and have sex. He also distinguished himself by repeatedly referring to Rothbury as East Lansing, which is probably where his own drugs kicked in on the trip to the festival.

Drive-By Truckers, on the other hand, breathed fire as Hood alternated angry, angsty songs with bandmate Mike Cooley's more temperate rock 'n' roll fare -- including "3 Dimes Down," which references Bob Seger's "Rock and Roll Never Forgets." Hood also delivered Independence Day's most fiery oratory, preceding "Puttin' People on the Moon" by urging fans to register to vote and declaring President George W. Bush and his administration "fired."

Modest Mouse was another hit at Rothbury, playing the final show on the touring cycle for its latest album, "We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank." But frontman Isaac Brock told the large crowd in Sherwood Court that he was in a weakened state, having tried to "tackle" bandmate Tom Peloso the previous night. "I just ricocheted off him," Brock explained. "I can't feel my arm, which isn't good. I think I got a concussion."

Widespread Panic delivered jam band nirvana over two sets and nearly three hours of music on the Odeum stage, culminating with a cover of Talking Heads' "Life During Wartime." But the lucky Rothburians who skipped part of that to see Of Montreal on the Ranch Arena stage were the real winners, witnessing a theatrical, Flaming Lips-styled Cirque du Rock spectacle featuring existential performers -- including three maniacally movie little people -- and video enhancements so trippy it was wisest to not try to figure out what it all meant and simply enjoy the sights and sounds.

Thievery Corporation was the standout of the day's many wee-hours offerings. The Washington, D.C., duo brought with it a 15-member collective of musicians, singers and one belly dancer to play its globe-spanning repertoire of styles -- including a couple of songs made famous in TV automobile ads -- that had the field in front of the Sherwood Court stage twirling for an hour and 45 minutes.


With plenty of Detroiters and Olde English D's in the crowd, the Motor City certainly has a strong presence at Rothbury. But one of the area's contributions is being heard more than seen.

Taylor-based Thunder Audio is providing the sound for two of the festival's stages -- the main showplace, the Odeum, and the Ranch Arena, which may be the most pleasant and picturesque venue on the 200-acre festival grounds. Thunder president Tony Villarreal said the two systems, some of which will be used by Metallica on its upcoming tour, represents a multi-million dollar investment, and he has a crew of 14 working between the two stages.

Thunder also has systems out on the road with Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, Steely Dan and others.


All is smooth sailing for Rothbury's early days from the police perspective.

Michigan State Police Lt. David Roseler said Friday that "overall things are going good," with minimal arrests -- mostly for "alcohol-induced" disorderly conduct with a couple of drug busts as well. "It's nothing over the top," he added.

Security is low-key but evident on the Rothbury grounds, with state police officers making the rounds and mounted troops monitoring the crowd. Physical safety seems to be the primary focus rather than drug use and trafficking, which is relatively rampant throughout the site -- as it is at most major festivals of this nature.

Roseler said that Rothbury organizers told police that as of Friday evening there were more than 31,000 people attending the festival, a number they expect to grow during the weekend.


One needn't spend Rothbury dirty. Showers are available on the campground for $10 a shot, with, one attendant noted, hot and cold water.

"They can take as long as they want," she said, adding that, "if there's a long line we ask them to be courteous and shower as quickly as possible."

Or they could just turn off the hot water if they're taking too long...

"I could," the attendant said. "I'll have to think about that."

Showers are free, however, in the VIP camping area, where fans spent $475 instead of the regular $244.50 weekend ticket price. They also get a special seating area at the Odeum stage, with a bar that has discounted drinks. "It's well worth it," said one a purple wristband-wearing VIPs from Kalamazoo.


While most of the Rothbury campers spent Thursday setting up their sites, on Friday, before the music started, they began exploring the extended campgrounds at the Double JJ Ranch. "This place has everything!" one Rothburian exclaimed as he walked by the waterfront -- which was already jammed with early morning swimmers and a long line in front of the water spigot where everyone was required to rinse off before hitting the lake, and which some no doubt were using in lieu of a $10 shower.

The festival crowd also made use of the camp's swing set, shuffleboard court and other amenities.


Independence Day didn't escape the Rothbury crowd -- even if Snoop Dogg's "happy (expletive) Fourth of July, (expletives)" didn't exactly ring patriotic.

Several fans spent the day dressed as Uncle Sam, while another paraded around the site carrying a placard of his image. And four young women from Chicago watched the Wailers set in self-made red-white-and blue tops with short red skirts and red stripes painted on their legs.

Rothbury organizers celebrated the holiday with a post-midnight fireworks display that followed Widespread Panic's performance.


Keep your eyes up and you'll see any number of items brandished above the crowd's heads at Rothbury.

Several fans are walking around with mannequin heads attached to poles -- which one member of Michigan's Greensky Bluegrass group said "freaked" him out when he saw it in the audience during the band's performance Thursday evening (July 3rd). Also seen floating around -- devil's pitchforks and all manners of flowers.

One tall, bearded man walked around the site carrying a wooden sign advertising his services as a shaman. And a group from Canada dressed up for Friday night's shows in a combination of superhero capes -- one in a full-scale Superman outfit -- and Team Canada hockey jerseys. 

Send your thoughts and comments to Gary Graff


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