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Published: 2009/05/26
by Mike Greenhaus

A Trip Through Rothburys Sherwood Forest

Though the inaugural Rothbury boasted marquee names like Widespread Panic, Dave Matthews Band, Phil Lesh & Friends, Trey Anastasio and Gov’t Mule, for many the festival’s highlight was the illuminated Sherwood Forest. A lush, natural wooded area located in the heart of the Rothbury’s performance space, The Sherwood Forest fully embodies the festival’s multi-media vision, boasting numerous art installations, surprise performance spaces, a light show, and, of course, quiet enclaves for concertgoers to enjoy some rest and relaxation. Rothbury will return to Double JJ Ranch from July 2-5, featuring performances by The Dead, Bob Dylan, String Cheese Incident, Willie Nelson & Family, The Black Crowes, Damian “Jr. Gong’” Marley & Nas, G. Love & Special Sauce, Gov’t Mule, Broken Social Scene, Yonder Mountain String Band, the Disco Biscuits, Les Claypool and many other artists. The Sherwood Forest will return as well, promising some new tricks, along with some familiar favorites. Art Director Andy Carroll lets Relix and know what to expect.

Let’s start with some personal background. You have worked many festivals in the past, but usually as a lighting designer, right?

My background is more in concert lighting design. I was String Cheese Incident’s lighting guy for 10 years andduring that time and sinceI’ve worked with other bands. I’m currently Michael Franti and Spearhead’s lighting designer, as well as production manager. I also do a smattering of local events and festivals around the San Francisco Bay Area where I live. So concert lighting is how I ended up designing Sherwood Forest.

Since Rothbury I have also done a smaller installation at the Outside Lands Music Festival that was very different, but I just had so much fun with Sherwood Forest that I’d love the opportunity to do more and more of the landscape, architecture design stuff.

While remaining environmentally conscious, I know Rothbury’s promoters did a bit of work on the site before last year’s festival. Did you do any work on the Sherwood Forest area prior to the event or just design within the natural space’s parameters?

It’s an epic space. I could have done nothing and it still would have been an amazing space, but the fact that I could come in and do what I did really put it over the top. The forest is just a really sweet spot. We didn’t need to plant anything or take any greenery out other than clearing brush and debris just to make it cleaner and tighter, but I talked to the guy who planted the forest 55 years ago. He was a guy named Wally who was part of the Double JJ ranch. He is a super sweet old mana really cool old guy and, last year, he cruised around on his 4 wheeler, loving the festival environment. It totally blew his mind. He planted it 55 years ago with the intention of continually clearcutting the forest and harvesting it over and over, but they never did, so that’s why the forest is sort of in a grid. The trees are evenly spaced, so now you have 50 foot pines.

It must have been exciting to apply your background as a lighting designer to such a natural setting.

I had fun with it because my original intention was to program a lot of different themes, but I ended up having them all kind of loop so one would go for 8-10 minutes and then morph to the next look. But then, when a really big show would let out like Dave Matthews Band, I would be the man behind the curtain changing all these effects. My lighting consul was fenced off by one of the generators, so when big crowds were walking through and the people were just goin’ nuts, I would add all these crazy effects. So I guess I didn’t originally envision doing that, but once I felt the energy of 30-40,000 people going through, I was like, “Ya I gotta play with it.”

When did you start designing the forest itself?

We started talking about it the summer before the first Rothbury. The founder of the event approached me, and, frankly, I had asked him about being involved in some capacity on one of the event’s stages [the festival’s promoters, Madison House, manage String Cheese Incident]. He said, “I have this different area of the festival for you. It’s this forest, it’s amazing.”

We had done the Fuji Rock Festival in Japan at the base of Mount Fuji with the String Cheese Incident, and they really have it goin’ on there with lots of forests. They have tons of lighting effects, and groovy little walkways, so that was some inspiration. I thought it’d be sweet, but coming fresh out of concert lighting it was a little bit of a letdown, but once we started getting into it, I saw the possibilities. We really started talking heavily about the project around January/February and then sometime in April or May, we went out there for a week or so and I immersed myself in the space. I measured the entire forest, and we drew maps and gridsjust really giving us a base for what it would be like to work in that space, how much power we’d need and how many cables we’d need. We were still clearing some of the land, and they put on some culverts on some of the walkways that were kind of like ditches to really make it nice for people to walk through.

Once I had all the info on the size and the space then I could really get into how I could make it really sweet. I talked to some artist friends I knew about bringing in some of their arthanging chandeliers and what not, and then started designing the lighting space. I tried to just stay in the forest as much as I could and just feel the vibe. The day I had the talk with Wally was really sweet, and really gave me a sense of how cool it was that the guy who planted it was still aroundjust the whole ranch is amazing, and it’s really special that Sherwood Forest is really the centralized point of the festival. To get anywhere you pretty much have to walk through the forest. So I was also kind of working with the crowd flow, and if someone was going to veer off to the left or right, what would it be like over there, and we tried to bring in other elements like gathering tons of hammocks. A lot of those things we had donated, and we had to gather all the elements. It just sort of started to roll from there.

Were you trying to create any particular scene in the forest? The forest definitely gave off a feeling of escapism.

Well, definitely a crazy setting, but we really just wanted to give people an amazing place to hang out, which the forest itself already was. But then you throw a bunch of hammocks in there, and now people have a place to actually hang out. We found that people didn’t mind just sitting on the ground, which was great. I wasn’t necessarily going for the uber-tripped out zone, though it had a little bit of that feeling. It just became a really over the top experience that you never felt before, and to have a bunch of lights in the forest like that, you couldn’t help feel something you never felt before. It was really just a great experiment.

Year one of the festival was really just a total experiment. Since it was our first year we all had the mentality that we should try to make sure everything was amazing, and just sit back and see what happened. We put as much art in there as we could, as much lighting, and really just tried to tweak and dial it to make it as aesthetically pleasing as we could, and once the doors opened I just sort of sat back, and walked around, and watched people, and saw what they liked, and listened to what turned people on. Honestly, I didn’t hear anyone say “Oh so, and so sucked,” it was a lot of “Oh that’s so amazing. I really liked the blah-blah-blah.”

As far as year two of the festival, what elements do you hope to change or expand upon?

It is going to be the same space, but the cool part is that as the festival expands in numbers, so can the forest. I put perimeter fencing around the forest in terms of where resources were put in to clear brush, debris, and poison oak, so people wouldn’t get hurt, but there’s a lot of room to expand. This year, the size will pretty much be the same, but in terms of art and lighting, budgets were a little tighter, but I don’t think anyone will feel that. It’s a little more challenging for us, so it’s a little more challenging to make it happening on the same level with the same or less money, but that’s just how it is sometimes, and you accept that and you work with it. I tried to get more hammocks, and more spaces to hang out, and tried to work on localizing and defining spaces because last year was really open, and didn’t have as many little pockets for hanging out. I tried to bring in some of the same artists, and some different artists, so it’s the same feel, but with some different concepts, layers, and flow so it feels fresh.

What type of sounds did you incorporate into the forest?

Mostly ambient sounds from other parts of the festival. If I could wire the forest with sounds like crickets or Tibetan bells or little quirky sounds that would be sick, but it was mostly sounds from other parts of the festival. I think this year there will be more ambient sound from the stages: the main stage, The Odium, and Sherwood Court stages. We weren’t sure what the sound bleed would be like in the forest and, sure enough, there was a lot of sound coming from the other stages. I would love to put some 200 foot sound baffle around the entire perimeter, that would be so groovy, so on one hand it kind of stinks, but you still really feel the festival vibe. I noticed on the Northeast end of the forest, closest to the Sherwood Court, the smaller stage that you could be sitting in the trees on the perimeter, and you have a good view, and can still hear the music pretty well. It will probably be pretty similar, but there’s not much you can do about the sound bleed from other areas.

What inspired you to name the area Sherwood Forest?

Honestly, I didn’t. The founder of the event had thought “Sherwood,” and I was like, “eh, that’s ok,” so everyone got into a big naming process, what are cool names, and we’re throwing things out like “The Electric Forest,” and other crazy names, and somehow Sherwood Forest stuck, and people started to roll with that, so I figured we’d just roll with Sherwood Forest. It has some appeal, it already has a little place in people’s hearts from Robin Hood, or movies, or plays. Rothbury itself has kind of that Robin Hoodish, England type vibe. At first I was almost a little disappointed, and then I was just like OK, Sherwood Forest, and then I got into it, and I just thought OK this is what it is, the name is whatever, and my job is to make it amazing regardless of what it’s called.

Looking towards year two, do you plan to re-envision any elements of the forest?

It was really special. I didn’t go in with too many expectations except to do a great job, and have a sweet spot for people to hang out a little bit, or for people to pass through on the way to the concerts that everyone was really excited about. As the event was happening though, I realized how many people were really affected. I really loved the forestit was a lot of people’s favorite part of the festival and that shocked me because I didn’t go into it with that kind of mindset. So when I started to feel that, I was really happy to be a part of it, and got really excited for year two. Year two is gonna be sweet, we got the forest, and I am doing lights for the String Cheese Reunion, so it’s gonna be a huge weekend for me. I’m really stoked.

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