About this time last year, the Rothbury Festival was little more than a big question mark.
No one quite knew what to expect from Michigan’s entry into the mammoth summer music festival market that had grown in the United States. Bringing bands to a horse ranch (the Double JJ) in the western part of the state sounded promising — and potentially disastrous.
But Rothbury’s inaugural year proved better than anyone — even its organizers — could have predicted.
More than 30,000 ticket buyers took in sets by the Dave Matthews Band, John Mayer, Widespread Panic and others — plus a reunion of threequarters of Phish — and raved about the rolling, bucolic site that was more spacious and varied than other festival venues around the country.
Warm, rain-free weather over the four days certainly didn’t hurt things, either.
A second Rothbury was confirmed during that weekend — and will take place July 2-5 — but producer Jeremy Stein of Madison House Presents says now that was always a certainty.
“I don’t think anyone tries to build a project like this for a single year or two,” Stein explains. “There’s just so much on the front end to deal with, it’s almost not worth the time to do it only for a year.
“We’re trying to produce something that will last a very long time. You can’t answer all the questions ’til you do year two, year three, year four — one year at a time. It sounds like a sports cliché, but that’s the way it is.”
As Rothbury prepares for its second year, it’s certainly clear that the festival generated goodwill — and good word of mouth — in 2008.
Phil Lesh, who played Rothbury’s closing night last year with his own band and returns this year for a July 4 show with The Dead, says he felt “it was a very artist-friendly festival.
“I believe it was a very fanfriendly festival as well — very low-key, very mellow, lots and lots of really good acts and a variety of musics. I enjoyed it immensely, so I’m glad to be going back.”
Dweezil Zappa, whose Zappa Plays Zappa is returning to Rothbury this year, adds that “of all the festivals that we played, that was the best one. It had a really nice atmosphere and a nice mood for things and people seemed to be there to have a fun time. We’ve been to other festivals that have been around for awhile and are supposedly the best ones out there that didn’t run as smoothly.”
The Chicago jam band Umphrey’s McGee did not play last year but was quick to sign on for a late-night July 4 set this time, mostly based on what the group heard about Rothbury’s maiden voyage.
“Everyone was saying it was one of the most well put together festivals and just had everything a great festival should have,” says guitarist and Michigan native Jake Cinninger. “I was like, ‘We have to play this festival. This sounds way cool.’ ”
Despite the plaudits, producer Stein says there’s room to improve on Rothbury’s 2008 model, a process that started shortly after the first festival finished. “Even if we liked how something went — and we did — we still ask how it can be better,” he notes.
Some of the improvements, he says, are in “the nonglory stuff,” backstage and staffing operations that will be tightened up and made more efficient. “That’s stuff you can’t do perfectly in year one, just because you haven’t seen the site run yet,” Stein explains. “There’s a lot of efficiency you can gain there, which may not be visible, but it helps the patron and the whole show overall.”
As far as those visible elements, Stein says Rothbury’s philosophy is “we’re not going to do the same thing every year, no matter how great it is. The look and feel of the show will always be Rothbury at its core, but it’s always got to have a fresh coat of paint on it each year. That’s the exciting part for us.”
Sherwood Forest, the identifying component at the center of the Rothbury site, will be dressed up and decorated like last year, and Stein promises festival organizers will be “raising that bar for sure.” The forest also will house an area called the Speakeasy that will expand last year’s secret stage area into a more active venue hosting everything from workshops to “special late-night shows.”
“It’ll be an almost anythinggoes vibe in there,” Stein says.
Rothbury will remain environmentally focused with a heavy recycling effort, and the Think Tank educational component also will be expanded with more informational booths and opportunities for more intimate, small-group exchanges rather than the large-scale symposiums at the 2008 festival. “People will be able to shake hands and talk to each other directly,” Stein says. “They won’t have to just watch people on a stage, talking.”
There also will be a larger Farmer’s Market promoting organic foods and a revamped Tripoli area at the front of the facility with circus performers, art installations and other activities.
As for the music, Stein says he again wanted to focus on “high integrity in the music. This is not a kind of spoon-fed commercial music festival; this is in some ways a bit of a connoisseur’s festival, with lots of different, great music out there that real music fans are really interested in.
“Whether it’s rock or rap or electronica or bluegrass, whatever, we want to have an environment where, if it’s at Rothbury, you trust that it’s something of real quality and integrity and you might check it out even if you’ve never heard of the band.”
The coups this year, of course, are the only summer performance by The Dead, surviving members of the Grateful Dead who regrouped for a short tour earlier this year, as well as the only show of 2009 by the String Cheese Incident. Stein says that because members of both groups played last year’s festival with their own projects it wasn’t hard to get them on board for 2009.
“They knew how great it was,” he says. “It wasn’t like calling someone on a cold call to do something like this. They knew what it was all about, and it just fits them like a glove.”
Stein acknowledges that ticket sales were initially sluggish, hampered by the faltering economy — especially in Michigan — and by the Double JJ’s bankruptcy, which largely had no effect on the festival. But he says he’s seen “some really positive response” during the past month, with sales picking up particularly after the festival offered a $149 two-day ticket for July 4-5 with headliners The Dead, Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan.
“There’s no question people around Michigan are happy about that,” Stein says. “They’re really jumping on those (tickets).”
Ultimately, all involved with Rothbury hope the elements combine again to make for a good weekend that will only generate more buzz for a third year.
“These kinds of festivals are meaningful because the opportunity to bring people together and have a good time and make great music has increased,” says The Dead’s Mickey Hart. “It’s just you and the people and the music and the sound. That’s a great energy to be part of.”
The Rothbury Festival takes place July 2-5 on the Double JJ Ranch in Rothbury. Tickets are available in weekend, four-day and VIP options. Prices vary. For information and schedules, call (888) 512-7469 or visit www.rothburyfestival.com.
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