Cover photo taken by Don Idio
I’m going to make assumptions about you, the reader. Let’s assume you 1) love music, 2) have been to anywhere from 1 to 100 music concerts or festivals, or perhaps, 3) you’re anxiously awaiting your very first chance to experience what they’re like firsthand. You discuss music with your friends, you watch videos online of performances you couldn’t make it to, and you follow and read-up on the latest news from your favorite fests and artists. If you don’t, I’m glad you’ve found your way to Festival Squad, but I know why you’re here, you music junkie!
If you prescribe to the previous set of characteristics, chances are you have discussed Electric Forest and discussed it multiple times. As one of the most anticipated and celebrated festivals in the scene, Forest has become a coveted destination to folks all over the country. Pictures boasting a blazing neon forest immediately attract the eye, but what awaits in this community is so much more than eye-catching.
You may have heard those who make the pilgrimage to Rothbury, Michigan every year refer to this place as “home.” You may be guilty of this yourself, as I am too. While it sounds far-fetched, it’s anything but.
It’s hard to imagine the type of crowd that draws to the Forest without naming the creators who set this celebration into motion. The String Cheese Incident is an American jam band hailing from Colorado that formed in 1993, blending together elements of bluegrass, funk, psychedelic rock and electronica. From on stage this year, the band shared some of the root ideas that bloomed Electric Forest:
“Way back when, we attended our first music festival and it was one put on by the Grateful Dead,” said Bill Nershi, as he quietly strummed away on his guitar. “What really blew us away was the community they were able to create.”
The emphasis on the first Electric Forest was on the people that the fest would draw in. While the band played at the Rothbury Music Festival in years prior, the inaugural Electric Forest festival in 2010 was announced as a String Cheese production – to be complete with 3 live Cheese sets, art installations and the whole shebang. Artists were carefully curated to stay in the String Cheese family, also adding in those they could jive with. This resulted in friendly faces from all over the country gathering in a new location to celebrate the same community on a grand scale of love, sharing and kindness. Lifelong friends and newcomers had found another place to call home.
Cheese heads and Forest-goers alike know that Cheese plays three sets throughout the weekend, Friday and Saturday, but they also know what to expect with the “Shebang.” The term is an affectionately shared nickname for Cheese’s annual Saturday night set, also commonly referred to as the Spectacle. Saturday night’s four-hour cheese set includes a two-hour jam, a short intermission, and a second set that blows every other act of the weekend out of the water, guaranteed.
When electronic violinist/mandolinist Michael Kang graced the stage post-intermission with, “It’s another Saturday night in the Forest,” the crowd erupted, and I wasn’t the only one with goosebumps.
The grooves were funky – a new-age crossover between jam, experimental electronic, and even some wubby drops folded into the mix. As the songs built, so did the surprises. Two golden hoops emerged from audience with aerial dancers suspended 10 feet over the crowd. Streams of people ran all the way to the stage from the back of the Ranch’s expansive lawn wielding gigantic blow-up balls, complete with LED glow lights to toss and bounce around. As Cheese covered Pink Floyd’s “Shine on You Crazy Diamond,” green lasers criss-crossed the sky and descended toward the Earth. Fireworks exploded from the stage, from behind the trees, from overhead in places that made no physical sense. Confetti showered from the heavens above. With so much to appreciate in every space you can look, the Shebang is a can’t-miss event in the Forest. For some, it’s the main reason they show up.
We owe The String Cheese Incident for their contributions to music and to culture, but we owe them so much more for providing us with this space to roam freely as ourselves, celebrate our differences, bask in what makes us unique and spread love that knows absolutely no bounds. With gratitude and respect, Cheese deserves all of our humble thanks.
ONE BIG HAPPY FAMILY
For the last two years, Electric Forest was splayed over two weekends with slightly altered lineups and two different crowds. The idea was to let more people experience the Forest while still keeping it intimate at lower capacity levels. What resulted was double the ware and tear on the beautiful grounds, missing out on reunions of friends who chose opposite weekends, and overall double the work and clean up.
This year, back down to one weekend, the Earth’s appreciation was noticeable. Last year’s worn-down, muddy grounds were suddenly lush, grassy lawns that were much more pleasant to walk and sit upon. It does help that the rain held off this year – although weather channels predicted rain every day, there was only one small storm early Friday morning while (mostly) everyone was asleep. The Forest provides, and this year, it provided unending sunshine.
You’ll be surprised how many people you can run into that you know in such an expansive place full of 50,000+ people. Running into a friend in such a place is a cherished moment that can’t be duplicated, but in the Forest, we are all family. You can turn to any person with any thought or idea that comes to mind and build a meaningful conversation. The openness of this community means that we are all there for each other. What may start as a silly comment could turn into a few minutes of conversation, an hour of exploration and on to a lifelong friendship. We come to the Forest to be together, and we get what we give. With a little love to share, you will receive all of the love back.
The lineup this year included headliners ODESZA, Kygo, Bassnectar and Zeds Dead, all of which had people abuzz all weekend over the mind-boggling performances that one can only experience in this place. The guest appearances and surprises, however, were extra hype. Honey Dijon was unable to perform due to a flight cancellation, but Louis The Child magically announced a “Playground Party” in the disco-ball lined Carousel Club to fill in the spot Saturday night at 1:30am, Seven Lions and Dimbo played a secret b2b set in the Observatory, an open amphitheatre-type stage in the middle of the Forest, early on at 4pm on Sunday. And despite the internet’s strongest rumor-spreading powers, no, there was no GRiZ appearance at Forest this year. He has, however, already began hinting at next year’s rumors…
But the music in the Forest is not only found in the festival. Outside the gates in the General Admission camping lots sit the RVs (and not just any RVs). Over the last few years, the number of renegade RV late-night DJ sets has grown tremendously, and several artists pop up to play surprise sets late into the night on stages built atop these structures, complete with graphic TVs, lights and fans.
This year, Subtronics played a late-night set on the Panky Rang Renegades bus. Ganja White Night came out for a secret set b2b with Caspa over on the Good Bus. The Struggle Bus had everyone raging all weekend long with a stacked lineup, including a surprise performance by one of the Funk Hunters, and a highly impressive sound system. So impressive, actually, that a few people picked up a nearby loose piece of fence and started riding the rail in the back of the crowd. These sets are anything but secondary to the festival; they have become part of the woodwork and a necessity for the night owls once the Forest closes at 4am. The view from the back of the crowd at any of these buses during their peak sets resembles the Ranch during Bassnectar: neon, glowing totems galore, headbangers as far as the eye can see, and smiles that shine in the moonlight.
The music and the comradery are enough to bring anyone in to the Forest. What waits inside, though, are endless mind tricks to discover. A scavenger hunt distributed by the Travel Agency in the Hangar will lead you around the Forest, hunting for a prize that’ll get you into a secret set unknown to those who don’t play. The Chapel, a church-like structure decked out in rainbows and lights galore, curates parties that celebrate our differences, from drag shows, to one big communal birthday party for those celebrating, to the Gingers Exclusive Party for redheads only to appreciate the least-common natural hair color on Earth. At least a few lucky couples are married here each year, followed immediately by the reception of their lives.
At the base of a tree, you might find a whimsical, glittery door leading to a fairy’s little woodland home. A small lantern between trees reading “Look inside!” holds photos of Electric Forests past with a small pull-rope to circle through the memories. An hour-long maze inside of a colorful structure will have you questioning whether you fell down the rabbit hole, or if you’ve been in Wonderland all along.
With endless things to discover, each person’s experience in the Forest is absolutely unique. Over 50,000 people have left holding different discoveries near and dear to their heart, and memories that will last a lifetime. What did you discover?
We’ll see you next year in Rothbury for Electric Forest’s 10th anniversary… and what a homecoming it will be!
View our full Electric Forest 2019 gallery here.