After Coachella, SXSW, Bonnaroo and Ultra—Electric Forest Makes Other Festivals Look Foolish

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“Oh my GOD!!” were the first words that I uttered upon entering the Sherwood area of Electric Forest. This became a recurring theme amongst my friends and I as we wandered around what we all knew would soon become one of our favorite music festivals.

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Photo by Morgan Mullin

The significance of this overture may be lost upon the casual reader, so let me emphasize that my friends and I are seasoned festivalgoers. We have been to most of the major festivals in the United States: Coachella, SXSW, Bonnaroo, Ultra, etc. You name it and one of us has probably been there. Suffice to say, when it comes to festies we are very discerning and do not fuck around. So when we made the decision to travel from California to Michigan for Electric Forest it was not taken lightly. We came with high hopes and correspondingly high expectations.

This year was Electric Forest’s second year in existence, but it’s roots run much deeper. In 2008 the jam band the String Cheese Incident forged the beginnings of Electric Forest. With a huge following all over the East Coast Cheese started the Rothbury Music Festival, which brought together an insanely diverse line up featuring them as the centerpiece. Rothbury ran for two years at the future site of Electric Forest to the delight of festival heads around the world and to much critical acclaim. Then in 2010 after two successful years, there was an inexplicable hiatus.

Though no one knows exactly why AEG decided to call it quits, rumor has it that it got too big too quickly and that they spent too much money on the insane production that had come to define the event. Lucky for us, during this transitional year two of America’s best promotion companies, Madison House Presents and Insomniac, were hard at work picking up AEG’s slack and putting together what would come to be known as Electric Forest.

Then in 2011 what once was Rothbury was born again as the Electric Forest. Smaller, better organized, and with an insane line up headlined by String Cheese this fledgling festival was poised to pick up where its older brother had left off. Having heard nothing but amazing things about Rothbury I tried my hardest to make it to this first Electric Forest but just couldn’t get it together. After attending this year this has become a decision that I regret horribly. Electric Forest 2011 was heralded by many as the return of Rothbury in full force and quickly built buzz as a world-class destination music festival.

As one who quickly learns from my mistakes, I started making arrangements to attend this year’s Electric Forest as soon as tickets went on sale. This decision was quickly vindicated when they announced the huge EDM culture line up: String Cheese, Bassnectar, STS9, Thievery Corporation, Big Gigantic, Conspirator, EOTO, Datsik, Borgore, Major Lazer, Ghostland Observatory, Girl Talk, Gramatik, Mimosa. The list went on and on, filled from top to bottom with the world’s most talented bands, producers and DJs. The gauntlet had been laid out and everyone involved was itching to throw down in the Electric Forest, unfortunately we all had to wait until June 28.

After what felt like years of waiting the dates finally arrived. Those of us smart enough to get tickets before they sold out excitedly set off on our journeys to central Michigan. As everyone arrived there was a distinct feeling in the air unlike any festival I had ever been to. Everyone who came really wanted to attend, to participate, and to make Electric Forest 2012 the best music festival ever.

Organization

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Photo by Morgan Mullin

This was the most well organized and cleanly run festival I have ever been to. From checking in to leaving and every moment in between you were surrounded by helpful employees, volunteers, and festivalgoers. Where as fumbling volunteers working for wristbands make most festivals possible, it was obvious that this was not the case at Electric Forest. Every aspect of this festival seemed impeccably orchestrated and ran like a well-oiled machine.

What made this all the more impressive was that the many disparate facets that ran together seamlessly at Electric Forest often trip up the most seasoned event coordinators. Handling 40,000 + attendees, 5 musical stages, artists, media, volunteers, vendors, health and human safety (bathrooms, medicine), and a staff of thousands is par for the course for your average music festival. However, these guys shouldered the additional responsibility of providing transportation between the campgrounds and venue, a fully stocked general store, numerous places to shower, clean and plentiful bathrooms, a comprehensive recycling/greening program, a diverse array of food options, and a number of activities you will not find at any other music festival. The amount of stuff going on at Electric Forest was truly astonishing, and the fact that it all went off without a hitch is a testament to Madison House and Insomniac’s ability to put on a hell of a party.

Environmentalism

Electric Forest’s dedication to environmentalism should be the benchmark for all other festivals to measure themselves against. The range of approaches and sheer inventiveness of their greening initiatives, collectively dubbed “Electric-ology”, was astounding. Besides the traditional call to action via signage and social media, Electric Forest implemented an innovative reward system that incentivized being green. As you wandered the festival doing eco friendly activities (recycling, picking up trash, using sustainable products, etc) you would be given eco points coupons by the staff. You could then redeem these coupons at the Electric-ology booth for prizes like merchandise, coupons, and entries into hourly raffles.

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Location

The lesson learned between the last Rothbury and the first Electric Forest was that the Double JJ Resort is such a good venue that it would be a crime to not hold a music festival there. In fact this may be THE best place to hold a music festival that I have ever seen.

Hidden away in Rothbury Michigan, far from most major cities, the Double JJ Resort offers a nice respite from the real world. Designed as a camping get away with lush surroundings this venue offers numerous aspects conducive to the music festival environment. The whole place sits on a bed of well-manicured grass and contains wooded forest areas, pools, a water park, a Frisbee golf course, and a lake. For campers this means a nice grassy place to pitch your tent, ample space for camping, as well as the opportunity to partake in numerous activities that you won’t find at any other festival. At Electric Forest you are never more than a few minutes and a couple dollars away from a refreshing trip down a waterslide, a game of Frisbee golf, or a festival taxi back to the music.

At most festivals the venue is gorgeous and the campgrounds are shitty or vice versa, it is very rare to have both be as amazing as they were at Electric Forest. Upon entering the venue you are greeted with the ubiquitous festival ferris wheel, the electronically oriented Tripolee stage, and the path to enlightenment. As the path unfolds, beset on each side by grass and trees, it becomes evident just how big this place really is. Everywhere you look there is something exciting and new—whether it be one of the five musical stages, one of many vending areas filled with food and merch, countless restrooms, VIP areas with hidden pools, or the amazing Sherwood Forest.

With no exaggeration at all the Sherwood Forest is the most well produced and artistically inspired area I have ever seen at a music festival. The entire place is jam packed with art installations, hammocks, performance artists, and big beautiful trees. You can spend hours wandering around Sherwood while remaining completely entertained and rarely seeing the same thing twice. If everything else about the festival changed and now sucked but the Sherwood Forest remained the same you could still make a compelling argument that Electric Forest was a necessary stop for any festival fan.

Lastly, the weather at Electric Forest was extreme but more than tolerable. During the days the temperature was usually in the nineties with very high humidity, which lead to a lot of sweating and a couple of hot rain showers throughout the weekend. The nights however were absolutely perfect. Picky people may complain but the sun was shining, the sky was clear, the nights were mild, and there were no natural disasters. What more could you ask for?

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Photo by Morgan Mullin

Community

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Photo by Morgan Mullin

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Photo by Morgan Mullin

If you forced me to come up with one gripe about Electric Forest I would have to say something about the festivals approach to art. Not performance art mind you for in that arena there were more than enough performers of all types to satisfy even my high standards. However, when it came to the actual physical creation of works of art Electric Forest lags behind many of my favorite festivals. Even though the whole festival was full of art installations and other forms of beauty to inspire people there was no real institutionalized attempt to allow people to express themselves.

However, instead of relying on the festival to provide everything, the festivalgoers sprang into action. Without any paid artists, communal canvases, or art supplies given to them by the promoters, the people took it upon themselves to electrify the forest. I can’t seem to find anything on the website, any posts made on Facebook, or any other material that contained this information but everyone seemed to get the message—Electric Forest is all about audience participation. It’s as if Insomniac took that stupid “ you are the headliner” bullshit from EDC (it’s pretty clear who the headliners are there) and brought it to Michigan where it actually means something. Maybe there is something in the water in Michigan that makes this more poignant, but I suspect it is something in the String Cheese.

Throughout the Electric Forest you were surrounded by fellow festivalgoers in the process of beautifying the surroundings. For most people this amounted to picking up trash, dressing in ridiculous outfits, and jaunting merrily around the venue. However, the seasoned festival heads and the artists in attendance heeded a higher calling and tried their best to make Electric Forest truly awe inspiring. These wonderful people all carried intricately decorated festival poles to mark their places, all kinds of laser lights to brighten the forest, canvases to paint as they wandered, and floating lamp balloons to release into the sky. Then during key moments of numerous performances the entire crowd would erupt into enormous glow stick wars as fireworks were shot from within (this is somehow legal in Michigan). Taken all together with the rest of the amazing ambience of Electric Forest, the crowd’s participation turned what otherwise might have been an average festival into something you need to see to believe.

On a personal note, the supportive and participatory attitudes of my fellow festivalgoers was really what earned Electric Forest a spot amongst my favorite festivals. All of my neighbors were absolutely amazing. They shared whatever they had with a bunch of traveling strangers from California as well as the joys of naked boobage during pretty titty hours. Any wandering passerby instantly became a new friend quick to offer food, party favors, or any other item that may be of use during a festival. It was these wonderful people who immediately took to the Electric Forest Challenge put on by my website CrowdsEye.com and made it such a success. After working for years to build CrowdsEye and turn it into a place for festivalgoers to share their experiences, it was so amazing to get such a warm reception at Electric Forest. For the real inside scoop on what it was like to go to Electric Forest log onto CrowdsEye.com to see what you missed and vote for your favorite content.

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Photo by Morgan Mullin

Music

Last but surely not least is the absolutely insane line up of musical talent that graced the Electric Forest this year. The sheer amount of big name headliners and other talented musicians caused Electric Forest to walk the fine line Coachella does of possibly being too good. When the line up is too good it can be stressful as a festivalgoer trying to navigate a giant schedule full of conflicts. However unlike Coachella, Electric Forest did an impressive job of segregating the stages by musical genre, placing the headliners, and avoiding as many house-music conflicts as possible. Though some conflicts were unavoidable, my feelings of loss were often placated by the many secret shows and guest appearances. Chances are if you missed an artist you could catch them doing a secret set at the Forest Stage or popping up to play during someone else’s set.

My musical highlights include:

Dominic Lalli and Big Gigantic: There may have been an elected King of Electric Forest but Dominic Lalli, the saxophonist/producer of Big Gigantic, was the real king of the forest. Having participated in all the previous Rothbury/Electric Forest’s as Big Gigantic rose from a side project to a headliner, Dominic earned the right to guest star wherever the fuck he wanted. I saw him onstage killing it with String Cheese, Break Science, Eoto, Griz and Gramatik to name just a few. Then he and drummer Jeremy Salken came out to close the festival as Big Gigantic and showed everyone where they got the name. Debuting an insane new stage set up, these guys threw down a set that got the crowd buzzing and will keep people talking until next years Electric Forest.

12th Planet: Living in Los Angeles I have the pleasure of seeing America’s Don of Dubstep many times throughout the year, so I didn’t feel to bad when I decided to skip his set in order to catch Girl Talk. However, while I was wandering the Sherwood Forest on the final day of the festival I found myself undeniably drawn to the insane bass emanating from the Forest Stage. Low and behold when I arrived it was none other than 12th Planet dropping an intimate secret set within the trees that anyone in attendance will cherish forever.

Girl Talk: What can I say about producer Greg Gillis? Say what you want about what he does on stage but the guy certainly knows how to get a party started. Though it was hard to drag me from STS9, in the end I am glad I left for Girl Talk’s insane dance party.

The String Cheese Incident: I am sure many Magnetic readers are familiar with Eoto’s brand of improvised electronica but have never even heard of String Cheese. So allow me to blow your minds, Eoto is String Cheese, well the percussion section at least. Going into Electric Forest I was a huge Eoto fan and had heard of String Cheese but did not know what all the fuss was about. Why were these guys the main headliner? Well after listening to 8 of their 12 hours of set time at Electric Forest I found out that this is a band you have to see live to understand. These guys really take you through a journey with their insane instrumentals, genre bending twists, and mind blowing visual production. Then to top it all off as the music plays people crowd surf in bubbles, performance artists dance in costume, fireworks explode, glow sticks/balloons fly through the air, and everyone in the crowd has the time of their lives.

Gramatik/Griz/Big Gigantic: In the middle of the schedule there was a spot that said TBA that caused the festival to stir from the very beginning. Who could be audacious enough to do a secret show opposite String Cheese, STS9, Dada Life, and 12th Planet? None other than the three G’s from Colorado Gramatik, Griz, and Big G come to throw down in the forest for what was one of the craziest sets of the weekend.

Thievery Corporation: Many people may get the wrong idea about Thievery Corp if they catch one of See-I and Rob Garza’s many DJ sets under the Thievery name. This is not Thievery Corporation. The Thievery Corporation that I know and love consists of 10 or more live musicians/producers and tour very rarely. That is why when you catch them headlining a festival with their full live set up it is a real treat that is not to be missed.

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Photo by Morgan Mullin

To be quite honest all of the music at Electric Forest was phenomenal and could be considered a highlight. Everyone who played brought insane energy, pulled out an interesting cover/remix, or invited a special guest on stage. Never before have I ever seen such a diverse line up of world class musicians exist in one place without ego’s conflicting. Everyone on this line up was just as happy as the fans to be in the Electric Forest.

Conclusion

Electric Forest is a festival that has achieved perfect balance in its two short years of existence. With 40,000 attendees it is just the right size to feel full but not insanely crowded. At this size it can still be ranked amongst the much larger Coachellas and Bonnaroos but maintain a more intimate communal feeling of a festival like Lightning in a Bottle or Wakarusa.

Similarly, the location is very well suited to its purpose. Easily reachable from the East or West Coasts yet a few hours away from civilization the Double JJ Resort provides an ideal spot for a destination festival. As a destination festival Electric Forest congregates a like-minded group of people while weeding out some of the unsavory elements that are present at other festivals. Everyone at Electric Forest really wanted to be there, so they all participated in making the festival better and were a joy to be around.

Unlike many festivals, every aspect of Electric Forest ran smoothly and complemented the other facets. It was as if the festival was an organism that had achieved equilibrium with its environment. The question is after selling out for the first time will it grow to accommodate its newfound popularity? Will it remain a local String Cheese fest or change into the World Class EDM Culture Festival it has the potential to become? No one can say for certain but I can tell you that I will definitely be there next year to see what happens, and I recommend that you do the same.