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Rothbury Roundup: No Sophomore Slump

Of the Oakland Press

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ROTHBURY — “Dude, this one’s even better than last year...”

That sentiment was voiced by a young man wearing a felt robe and a crown as he traipsed through the opulently decorated Sherwood Forest area of the Double JJ Ranch during the second annual Rothbury Festival over the holiday weekend. He was not alone in his assessment, either, as the throng estimated in the mid-30,000s gave the four-day affair, at least through Sunday afternoon, a resounding sophomore thumbs up.

“The goal, honestly, was to raise the bar,” Rothbury founder and organizer Jeremy Stein of Madison House Presents said on Saturday. “We really think we go there.”

Rothbury 2009 certainly enjoyed and built on the attributes of its inaugural year. Aided by a rustic, picturesque site, mostly good weather (except for some brief rain on Saturday) and a manageable crowd size, the festival had both fans and performers singing its praises.

Kyle Hollingsworth of String Cheese Incident, whose band played its first show in nearly two years to headline the Friday night schedule, said that playing Rothbury with their solo projects inspired he and his bandmates to regroup for this year’s event. “We felt like there was something really magic going on here,” explained Hollingsworth, who acknowledged “drinking a beer, smoking a joint and walking around the forest” over the weekend.

"So many of these festivals are held in these really giant places and aren’t super-friendly to be at. (Rothbury) reaches out to people and caters the fans. You come here and there are hammocks in the trees, y’know?” he said.

The good word about Rothbury’s first year also prompted a group of University of Montana students to head to Western Michigan for the holiday. “We we’re all friends from school and wanted to see some music this summer, and this sounded like the best place to be,” said Nika Espiefs, 19, who came from Wilton, Conn. Her friend John Frye, 21, of Cleveland, attended Rothbury in 2008 and again enjoyed the “friendly atmosphere” the festival presented.

“It’s not something I want to see grow too much,” Frye noted, “because it works so well now.”

While the weekend crowd was predominately teens and twentysomethings sporting tye-died homages to Rothbury “jam band” headliners such as The Dead and String Cheese Incident (though not much in the way of Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson), there were also a significant number of families tenting in Rothbury’s camp grounds. Matthew Banks came from Madison, Wisc., with his 16-yearold son and 13-year-old daughter.

“The kids love the music, so it’s something we can do in common,” said Banks, 44. As for the relaxed attitude toward drugs and alcohol at the festival, he added that, “if they see someone getting stoned, I can use that as a teaching moment. Hopefully they’ll realize you can have a great time without getting high.”

Stein said he was pleased that Rothbury had become “a national festival” this year, with license plates in the campgrounds from as far away as Alaska and British Columbia. Besides marathon performances by The Dead — whose encore of, appropriately enough, “U.S. Blues,” was accompanied by 4th of July fireworks — and a highly theatrical set by String Cheese Incident, Rothbury also rocked to the Black Crowes, G. Love & Special Sauce, Hill Country Revue and Zappa Plays Zappa, as well as the hip-hop/ reggae combination of Nas and Damian “Jr. Gong” Marley and World Music by King Sunny Ade & His African Beats and Femi Kuti & the Positive Force. Sound Tribe Sector 9, Girl Talk and Umphrey’s McGee were among those keeping the party going until 4 a.m. or later each morning.

And while most of the offerings were electric and loud, 82-year-old bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley and his Clinch Mountain Boys still charmed the audience with a selection of rootsy favorites such as “O Death,” “Man of Constant Sorrow” and “Little Birdy.”

The Rothbury bar was also raised for the festival’s environmental and charitable efforts this year. Preliminary numbers indicate that recycling efforts at the festival site and in the campgrounds were both up significantly, while a food drive had netted 13,000 pounds in donations as of Saturday evening.

Stein, however, said it was too early to commit to a third Rothbury Festival in 2010. The Double JJ ranch, which went through a bankruptcy following last year’s festival, was sold last week to a consortium Progressive Resorts. Principles from the group were in attendance over the weekend, and Stein said Madison House and AEG Live do “have our eyes” on a third festival, though a decision likely won’t come until later this year.

Send your thoughts and comments to Gary Graff


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