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Rothbury -- A Festival Done Right

Of the Oakland Press

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ROTHBURY, Mich. -- On a quiet morning at the inaugural Rothbury Festival, Adam Herschberger and Hannah Biehl of Indianapolis snuggled in a hammock in Sherwood Forest, the elaborately decorated woods in the center of the grounds at the Double JJ Ranch.

"This is amazing," said Biehl, 21, "the best scenery, the best set-up." She's been to Bonnaroo, a popular music festival held each June in Tennessee, but said that, "I'd probably not go back. I'll come here instead."

That, of course, is music to the ears of Rothbury's organizers, Boulder, Col.-based Madison House Presents. Barring any late-night problems on Sunday (July 6), Rothbury will go down a storming success, the model of a festival done right and four days of the proverbial peace and love (and, well, drugs) that bodes well for what producer Jeremy Stein calls "a long-term concept."

Stein, in fact, has already confirmed the festival will be held again on Independence Day weekend back at the Double JJ. And he's hoping the good word will spread and draw more than the estimated 35,000 that turned out for the first-year event that came to a close on Sunday.

"Anything this complex is a hard thing for people to get their heads around, when there's been no precedent for it. It's like a band; you need word of mouth to get people into it."

Alicia Kulacki, 22, of Livonia will be among those talking Rothbury up. "It's pretty awesome," said Kulacki, came to Rothbury even though her favorite artist, singer-songwriter Ray LaMontagne, had canceled. "I didn't anticipate any of the decorations or all the activities they have here. This is...special."

Rothbury's success was clearly a sum of its parts, and here's what went right during the four-day bash:

*[b]Location, Location, Location:[/b] With its wooded acres and rolling contours, the Double JJ, normally a summer camp and resort, proved to be an ideal spot for a music festival. Spearhead's Michael Franti told the crowd at his set that "I play a lot of festivals, (and) I gotta say this is the most beautiful festival site in all of America." Saturday night headliner Dave Matthews concurred, observing "what a beautiful place to hang out and listen to music."

The Double JJ brought value-plus to the festival's own offerings, including a waterfront, a full playground that both little and big kids enjoyed, and opportunities for horseback rides, rounds of golf and trips to a nearby water park. But it was the setting itself that really delivered; as one staffer noted, "Most (festival) sites aren't like this. I work at Bonnaroo and it's basically a big bowl. This is much better."

The weather also cooperated -- four sun-soaked days with just enough breeze to keep things from becoming sweltering. It can't be controlled, but a first-year event couldn't have asked for much better.

Stein said that in initial evaluations the Rothbury staff wants to look at ways to help direct people around the site better, but the truth is that by the second day most had sussed their way around the 200 acres.

*[b]Right Music, Right Crowd:[/b] Throughout Rothbury many of the fans spoke derisively of the "commercialization" of other festivals -- particularly Bonnaroo, which they accused of "selling out" with TV specials and bookings of mega-acts such as Metallica and Kanye West. Rothbury picked up the disaffected jam band crowd with a 70-plus act lineup heavy on the improvisation-happy likes of the Dave Matthews Band, Widespead Panic and solo projects by members of the Grateful Dead and Phish -- as well as a well-received partial reunion of Phish, which split up in 2004 -- while touches of hip-hop (Snoop Dog), reggae (the Wailers, Steel Pulse), R&B (Bettye LaVette, Charles Walker), a couple nods to pop hitmakers such as John Mayer (accompanied by his girlfriend, actress Jennifer Aniston) and Ingrid Michaelson, and an extensive array of late-night DJs and dance-oriented groups such as Sound Tribe Sector 9, A3 and Thievery Corporation.

The set schedules also worked well, staggering the three main stages to allow fans to see part if not all of many of the major acts' sets.

It's a strategy that will win loyalty, and an even bigger crowd for 2009, if organizers stay on that track.

*[b]Sherwood Forest:[/b] The wooded tract situated near the center of the Rothbury grounds was the hit of the weekend -- a shady hang by day, a carnival by night with trees wrapped in glitter paper, ethereal lighting, street-style performers cavorting with fans and a hidden stage tucked deep into the woods with more DJs and, on Saturday, an artsy hula hoop exhibition. "People will talk about the cool bands they saw at Rothbury and be impressed with that," said John Mogos, 24, of Plymouth, "but then they'll say 'There was this amazing forest, like nothing I'd ever seen before...' "

*[b]Loose But Tight:[/b] Through Sunday afternoon, Michigan State Police reported minimal arrests, mostly for drug dealing and "alcohol-induced" disorderly conduct. Lt. David Roseler said that authorities were "very happy with the way things are going" and that decisions had been made about enforcement philosophies, particularly related to drug use.

"We certainly don't condone it," he noted, "but do you wade into a crowd of 20,000 people and start making arrests for smoking pot -- and maybe cause a riot where people can get hurt? We're mostly focused on the dealers."

*[b]It's Not Only Money That's Green:[/b] Rothbury's well-publicized green initiatives were a hit with fans and artists alike -- even Snoop Dogg was seen in catering sorting his trash into compost, recycling and landfill trash bins. And organizers said more than 80 percent of the trash generated on site was being diverted away from landfills.

While the litter on the grounds Saturday night indicated that things were breaking down a bit and academics conducting symposiums and panel discussions wished for larger attendance at their events (which were outdrawn by the morning Spiritual Gangsters Yoga sessions), a level of consciousness was clearly raised that many felt would provide a model for other festivals.

Improvements? The Double JJ is a horse farm, after all, and a manure stench periodically wafted through the grounds depending on the time of day and how the wind was blowing -- which may well be something all concerned have to live with in the future.

While the campgrounds generally drew praise, some Rothburians were situated far enough away that it took a half-hour to reach the festival site -- which could be remedied by some sort of shuttle system. There was also some sound leakage between the three main stages -- on Sunday, for instance, Taj Mahal's blues thumped across to Rodrigo y Gabriela's acoustic Latin guitar music -- which could also be an easy fix.

Stein, who said all the Rothbury performances were taped and that some unspecified product would result said that he felt there were "no real failures" evident during the festival, with evaluations set to take place over the next couple of months as preparations begin for next year -- after, of course, a bit of rest to recover from this year's bash. And even to savor a good start.

Send your thoughts and comments to Gary Graff


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