ROTHBURY, Mich. -- Amidst the rock, rap and World Music that populated the Rothbury Festival's second day, a little Michigan music helped give Friday's (July 3) schedule a bit of local flavor.
Lansing's Steppin' On It played the very first notes of the afternoon on Rothbury's Ranch Arena stage, waking early risers -- many from around the Midwest who had seen the actively touring group play before -- with its easygoing blend of Americana styles. The irony; a song about leaving the country (during the last Bush administration) when, in fact, the 30,000 or so attending Rothbury came INTO rural environs for the weekend.
Over on the Sherwood Court stage, meanwhile, Ann Arbor's Macpodz played an equally eclectic but more electric set of loose, jam-filled songs that were mostly instrumental but occasionally featured flutist-percussionist Nick Ayers' falsetto vocals. The group just released a live album recorded at The Ark, and manager Matthew Altruda called the Rothbury show "the most important gig we've done," though it's also played other significant festivals such as moe.down and Mountain Jam.
"This is kind of like the Super Bowl," Altruda noted. "All other festivals are like the weekly games, and this is the Super Bowl. "It's so aesthetically organized and there's so much media and people to pay attention to you. It's a great opportunity."
Others will have the same opportunity during the festival's final two days. Four Finger Five, a jam band from nearby Muskegon open the Ranch Arena stage on Saturday (July 4), while Detroit rockers the Hard Lessons and Ann Arbor's folky Ragbirds have early spots on Sunday's show.
The Michiganders has mostly sunny skies and unseasonably temperate conditions to play in, which kept the Rothbury crowd fresh well into the wee hours, for mass dance parties with Sound Tribe Sector 9, Chromeo and Girl Talk, while Chromeo also played a semi-private party on the Double JJ ranch beachfront.
Friday's biggest musical moment came from String Cheese Incident, regrouping for its first public show in nearly two years. Guitarist Michael Kang, noting that playing Rothbury with their individual side projects prompted the members to do it as a group this year, promised the crowd that "we're gonna have as much fun as humanly possible," and the Colorado sextet made up for lost time with a marathon three hours and 45 minutes of music spread across two sets.
Befitting the occasion, SCI brought a degree of spectacle to its genre-hopping mix of styles. During the second set it deployed onstage arielists and fire twirlers, while bare-midriffed hula hoopers twirled on four lighted platforms situated deep in the field -- all while the group played epic renditions of favorites such as "Desert Dawn," "Bumpin' Reel" and "Texas." The group also added to the indefatigable crowd's own assortment of beach balls and inflatable toys by distributing an assortment of giant-sized balloons and balls, including one particularly large red orb that came perilously close to wiping out the mix board.
SCI slipped in covers of Talking Heads' "Naive Melody" and Stevie Wonder's "Higher Ground," and good pal Keller Williams joined the for an encore of "Best Feeling," returning the favor of half the band playing with him during his Thursday night set. (Williams sat in with Martin Sexton earlier in the day as well.) SCI also paid a subtle tribute to Michael Jackson by slipping the "Beat It" riff into the improv section of the show-closing "Restless Wind."
Also drawing a big crowd Friday was a potent 80-minute combo set by Nas and Damian "Jr. Gong" Marley. Taking a break from their current run on the Rock the Bells Tour, the duo performed individually and together -- vamping on Bob Marley's "One Love" about halfway through the show -- and also previewed several songs from their upcoming collaborative album, "Distant Relatives," including the leaked track "As We Enter," "The Strong Will Continue" and "Africa Must Wake Up," and joined forces for "Road to Zion," which the pair recorded together.
G. Love & Special Sauce, meanwhile, delivered a pleasantly loose and spirited performance that had fans rocking to "Let the Music Play," "Fire It Up," "Baby's Got Sauce" and "Can't Go Back to Jersey" while also sliding a bit of the Beatles' "Why Don't We Do It in the Road" into "Booty Call." King Sunny Ade & His African Beats offered an hour-long exposition of vibrant choral singing, highlighted by a particularly lively "Mo Roju O," which featured Ade on guitar, and "Africa." The World Music vibe continued with Femi Kuti & Positive Force's percolating Afrobeat and Caucasian reggae from California's Rebelution.
Brett Dennen joined the Jackson tributes at Rothbury by adding "Billie Jean" to his set list, while Broken Social Scene's ranks swelled to 10 members at times -- half of which were playing guitar -- and the group was genuinely disarmed when it finished its planned set 15 minutes early and scrambled for more material to fill the time.
Two- and one-day tickets are still available for the remainder of the Rothbury Festival. Information can be found at www.rothburyfestival.com.
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