Rothbury: The Best Festival Ever?

July 25, 2009 at 12:13 pm
Contributed by: Chris

And now for something completely different…

I had the honor of speaking at the Rothbury Festival over July 4th weekend, and have been meaning to write up some thoughts and observations about it. After several weeks’ delay, here they are.

The Rothbury Festival is held every year over the July 4th weekend, in the town of Rothbury, Michigan about an hour’s drive northwest of Grand Rapids, near the shore of Lake Michigan. It’s mostly a farming area, well forested, with daytime temps in the high 90s and mildly chilly nights, at least this year. A blessed bit of cloud cover and light showers one morning made it very comfortable, and helped dampen the dust.

An estimated 35,000 people attended the festival this year–a number that might have been overwhelming in a smaller venue–but it didn’t feel crowded at all. In fact the thing that struck me most about the festival is how incredibly well it was executed.

Now, I’m a serious “festivarian.” I love music festivals. Rock, jazz, jam, bluegrass, reggae, blues, world music, you name it, I’ve seen it. To name just a few: New Orleans Jazzfest, Telluride, Summerfest, Strawberry, High Sierra, Wintergrass, Reggae on the River, Gathering of the Vibes…plus all the “other” festivals, like Burning Man, the Oregon Country Fair, the Mungfest (you have to be a Seattle beer snob to know about that one!) and on and on. I have attended at least 50 of them over the years, maybe 100, I really don’t know–it all gets a little fuzzy after awhile. (By the way, if you’re looking for festival information, there’s no better place to start than my friends at JamBase, where I used to be a software engineer. They have a great festival guide.)

Most of the time I’m there to see the music, but on occasion I have also attended as a musician. This was the first time I had been a speaker, however. Rothbury is (to the best of my knowledge) unique in having a “think tank” component of panel sessions, where experts from various disciplines come to discuss sustainability, “green” things, activism and the environment. I spoke on two panels as an energy expert, alongside an impressive group of people with serious cred as doers. It was a pleasure to meet them and have a bit of spirited dialogue with smart and effective people on the same path as me, more or less.

I can honestly say that this was absolutely the best organized festival I have ever seen.

From my perspective as an artist, it was a breeze. I got a well-organized and very comprehensive information packet telling me everything I could possibly need to know, complete with phone numbers that people actually answered. The artist transportation crew somehow managed to make everything smooth and easy, despite juggling an impressive and constantly changing set of logistics involving over 60 (it may have been many more) different acts–we’re talking hundreds of people and a scheduling nightmare. I know that I missed several of my scheduled shuttles to take me the half-hour back to the hotel. (The site is part of a sort of Western theme park with ample facilities and dorms, but had gone bankrupt last year and was now boarded up while the new owners prepare to reopen it. So the organizers had to look well away from town to find adequate lodgings.) Yet, I never had to wait long to catch another van, and the organizers were always pleasant and helpful and met my needs in minutes. No snapping at the artists here, not even at 2 am after a very long day. Smooth. No hassles at all.

The backstage area was also very well appointed, despite having to be constructed out of tents and portable equipment in grassy fields. There was shade, room to sit down, cold water, various treats (a giant table of boiled crawfish and corn on the cob; the ice cream truck; nice snacks), and yes, unbelieveably, an open bar, where volunteers worked like animals all day and late into the evening under pretty rough conditions. My hat was off to them for staying cheerful throughout and keeping everybody well supplied.

Security was a breeze, despite the number of people running back and forth from the backstage areas. Nearly all of the security were festival personnel, who were very low-key and cool, and it was never a hassle to get anywhere with my wristband. I saw perhaps one uniformed policeman casually walking the grounds.

A note about festival wristbands. Normally they’re horrible uncomfortable Tyvek paper things (or worse, plastic). These bands were fabric, with nice graphic design and a small round plastic clasp. Perfectly comfortable, washable, held up to wear, and in the end was something I’d save in the ticket collection instead of throwing the slimy thing out in disgust. I also have to give them huge points for the fact that the single wristband got me everywhere I needed to go, instead of ending the festival with a slinky-sized batch of different wristbands for access to different places. Wristbands are a small thing, but they’re a pet peeve of mine, and they way they did it was just one of the many little details that made Rothbury so right.

The overall flow of the festival was fantastic. Stages were well set apart, so the sound bleed-over was negligible (a merciful change from the norm). The various parts of the campus were well marked with creative signage at every intersection. The pathways were kept watered–no choking dust here. Most of the utility transport was done around the outside edges of the grounds, so I wasn’t constantly dodging golf carts, as is so often the case.

The grounds were extremely well done, with occasional large art pieces (reminiscent of Burning Man, I thought), banners and streamers everywhere, and beautiful colored lighting at night. The “Sherwood Forest,” a well groomed, forested corner of the grounds, had its own art pieces and decorations–very cool. Water bottle filling stations and porta potties were ample, and somehow, always clean. (I’ve seen some bad ones in my time, believe me.) There were plenty of places to relax and cool off in the shade, even take a nap in a fairly quiet place.

The big stages were set up with Jumbotron screens and PA systems that sounded great, even at high volumes. The lighting was absolutely top notch as well.

I mean, even the swag was cool. Toyota sponsored “cooling stations” where you could grab a free, new bandana, plunge it into a barrel of ice water, and use it to cool yourself off. They never seemed to run out of them, either–all printed with the Rothbury 2009 logo, making it a souvenir item.

Most impressive of all to me, however, was the strong emphasis they put on making the festival as green and environmentally low-impact as possible, using both ample public education and a comprehensive focus on the festival’s activities. For one example of the hundreds of such details they got right, consider the waste stream.

All of the drink cups, straws, food containers, and flatware were made from compostable cellulose material, which comes at a premium over standard plastic and styrofoam. Disposal stations were located absolutely everywhere, as close as 40 feet apart at the stages, each with three clearly labeled cans for compost, recycling, and trash. But here’s what put it over the top: all the high traffic disposal stations were manned by cheerful volunteers with gloves on, who helped you sort out your stuff into the right bins, or did it themselves if you got it wrong. Volunteers patroled unmanned stations and picked through the cans, putting things where they belonged. The result was a nearly perfect management of the waste stream. At the end of the final night at the main stage, the disposal stations had perhaps 20 bags of stuff destined for the compost, three bags going to recycling (mostly plastic water bottles), and half a bag going to the landfill. Bravo! Thousands of clever little cardboard containers about the size of a small pocket box of wooden matches were available at various locations, in which you could put a lit cigarette butt into a short tube, which would put it out; then you could just close the flap and put it back in your pocket. Each box held five butts, enough to get you to the next disposal station. Ingenious. As a result, the grounds weren’t littered with thousands of butts. There were plenty of volunteers on trash patrol, and the attendees were very good about managing their trash, so the whole grounds remained incredibly clean throughout the festival. I never saw a single overflowing can of disgusting trash anywhere.

On the subject of cleanliness, I don’t know why, but this festival was remarkable to me for how clean everybody was. Maybe it’s a Midwest ethic, maybe I’ve seen too many shows in laid-back California, I don’t know, but the percentage of stanky, unwashed tour rats was so low as to be nearly unnoticeable. Everybody looked good, smelled good, and in the evening they were dressed up to the nines, with sequins and feathers and hats and body paints and every manner of festive apparel. (Wearing plain colored short sleeved shirt and shorts, I felt badly underdressed.) And although they were partying and smokin’ and drinkin’ and there were hot young half-naked girls bouncing around everywhere, nobody seemed to be having a little too much fun. I never once had to step away from some odiferous, drug-addled freak. Even at the Dead’s set, yes. Nor did I see the merest shred of aggression at any time during the festival. Everybody was just having fun, and nobody was out of control. What a rare pleasure.

Another thing that was exceptionally well done was the festival schedule. With beautiful graphic design, it had all the information one needs on a single large folded double-sided sheet of high quality paper that you could fold up and carry around in your sweaty pocket for days without going to unreadable shreds. Again, a small detail, but an important one.

A few random experiences that I jotted down at the festival:

  • The crowd tossing thousands of glow sticks around by the handful at the String Cheese set. Looked really cool. Really bad from an environmental standpoint though. I wonder if somebody could come up with an eco-friendly version of that.
  • People are spaced about three feet apart in the audience–no bumping! Why haven’t I seen that before?
  • Amazing dancer on a small raised lighted platform in the middle of the audience, doing incredible moves with two hula-hoops. (A roadie later told me her name is Megan.) She looked like she could go on for hours without stopping or messing up once. I can’t describe it but she was phenomenal.
  • Topless girls on the Jumbotron! You don’t see that every day…
  • Giant (like 20 to 30 feet in diameter) rubber balls bouncing around on top of the audience. One came from behind and bounced on my head before I saw them–boy was I surprised.
  • The food vendors were universally happy, fun people. All of them accepted my artist dinner token happily; no argument. (Sadly, another rarity.) The food was good.
  • I’m standing near the food court, minding my own business, finishing a pita, and a very happy young girl comes up and throws her arms around me, saying “Are you happy?” “I am now,” I replied. “You should always be happy!” she exclaimed, “Love will change the world!”
  • As I was walking by her during “Shakedown Street,” a girl pokes me twice right on the line “Just gotta poke around” like it was a completely natural thing to do.
  • Vendor of cold coconuts on cart, hacks ‘em open right in front of you with a machete. Unique.
  • Everybody–I mean everybody–was dancing at the String Cheese and Dead sets. For a little while there, I thought Rothbury might be the happiest place on earth.

Oh, yeah, I suppose I should mention the music. I only got a chance to see a few acts, but they were good ones, including String Cheese, the Dead, Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Zappa Plays Zappa, STS9 and Peter Rowan. (Sadly, Tony Rice did not play with Rowan; I don’t know why, as he was on the bill. I’m a huge Tony Rice fan.) All good shows–especially String Cheese, who absolutely shredded–but I gotta say, I don’t care for Dylan live anymore. He talks through the lyrics and flattens out the melodies and does things with the rhythm that just don’t work for me. I’ll stick with his recordings.

As music festivals go, for my money Rothbury is simply the best. I find it amazing that they could get so much right in only their second year of operation. No doubt that is due in large part to the highly experienced and professional teams that make it all happen, plus an army of cheerful and well-trained volunteers. But I have to believe that the Rothbury Festival’s leadership are unique and dedicated people intent on setting the gold standard for how to do a festival. All you other festival organizers, especially the ones who have been at it for decades? Look–I love y’all, you’ve shown me some great times–but you need to get in touch with these people and find out what they’re doing.

Five stars for Rothbury. And “Thank you, for a real good time!”

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