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ROTHBURY, Rothbury, MI – 7/2-5

Last years debut of the ROTHBURY festival showed loads of promise at an idyllic location, the Double JJ Ranch in Rothbury, Michigan. The 2009 edition worked out any kinks from the year before and produced a relaxed setting for the more than 70 artists performing and the nearly 35,000 people attending. Once again, a concentration on eco-consciousness took place with a number of Think Tank programs discussing the Green Economy and composting/recycling efforts happening throughout the site.

Seemingly influenced by the surroundings, particularly the trippiness of Sherwood Forests mix of lights and sculptures coexisting among nature, the running theme for many was to let their Freak Flag Fly. Although it took place July 2 through 5, the multitude of costumes and outlandish clothing choices made it more akin to a Halloween timed event. But thats just part of the personality of ROTHBURY.

Musically, it moved among a variety of styles with a definite nod towards the jamband world during the day, and then morphed into explosive rave territory late into the night. And, as usual, it wasnt just a matter of seeing acts fulfill ones expectations but finding pleasures among artists who I failed to see perform live in the past.

Despite walking around 15 to 20 miles a day taking photos and catching as much of the performances as I could at the three main stages Odeum, Ranch Arena and Sherwood Court I still considered it not enough. Its times like these that I can only dream of the day Im cloned.

Thursdays musical action began shortly after the gates opened at 6 p.m. Toubab Krewes mix of African instrumentation and rhythms with Western styles became an unending orgy of groove drifting throughout the tree-lined Ranch Arena. Several of the members shared that experience on Saturday when they, along with Jason Hann of String Cheese Incident/EOTO joined Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart during the Drums portion of the Deads set.

Keller Williams transformed the lyrics of Joni Mitchells Woodstock to the situation at ROTHBURY during a set that relied mainly on his solo looping ways. Later, he was joined by SCIs Keith Moseley, Kyle Hollingsworth and Hann.

But, the big one-two punch came from the nearly nonstop live electronica of Lotus and the jaw dropping performance by the Disco Biscuits. Both acts were clearly pumped for another tour of duty at ROTHBURY. In the case of the Biscuits, the members didnt allow the crowd to catch its breath for the first 45 minutes. That will remain with me for a looong time.

Brett Dennen

On Friday, Brett Dennens loose-limbed reggae and pop flavored material provided an early highlight. Man Man proved to be fantastic musical maniacs. With unbridled energy infusing the vaudeville meets pop meets rock theatrics the group sounded like a modern era Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band minus the wink-wink cleverness. Hearing Martin Sexton reminded me that I need to attend more of his shows and be cleansed by his mix of gospel revivalism, Ray Charles influenced soul and positive force. With an ability to mimic other instruments via his voice and guitar playing, Sexton suddenly reminded me of Keller. Almost on cue, a meeting of the minds ensued when the two shared the stage for Sextons Hallelujah.

Femi Kuti & the Positive Force was a monster of sight and sound and the meshing of Africa and the Western world. After all these years, I finally caught a performance by Flogging Molly. And, with its whirlwind of Celtic punk rock, now I understand what all the fuss is about.

String Cheese

Of course, the standout set of the day came from String Cheese Incident, which found the band members acting nearly as giddy as fans. That excitement didnt interfere with the playing. Rollover sandwiched the first set and its overall rootsy foundation versus the second and its nod towards modern vibes. Not surprisingly, Keller returned the visit from the SCI members and dropped by for Best Feeling. A cover of Stevie Wonders Higher Ground and Restless Wind ended the set.

The good cheer moved over to the Sherwood Court where the party disco of Chromeo paved the way for the pumping mash ups of Girl Talk.

By Saturday, I started off much too slowly and still regret missing Ralph Stanley & the Clinch Mountain Boys. On the other hand, a blank spot in the printed schedule turned out to be a wonderful surprise when Hill Country Revue appeared. The group represented its debut quite well, which finds new shapes to mold among the Southern and blues rock genres.

The thrills kept coming when Jackie Greene played a solo set and showed that hes not the New Dylan but the familiar swing to his music definitely gave a strong indication that his music is the bastard child of the former Robert Zimmerman. Australias John Butler not only impressed me by the intensity of his performance but also his humanity. He began the set with a brief prayer to the world. Then, displaying that it wasnt some false bit of showmanship, when his equipment broke down in the middle of a solo Butler initially kept playing, then laughed it off as a roadie fixed the problem.

Other standouts included sets by Zappa Plays Zappa, the always challenging and worthwhile Les Claypool with his band of masked men and the Black Crowes hitting on all cylinders.

The Dead

Trumping all that was the Deads three-plus hours on the Odeum stage. If this was the Core Fours swansong, it couldnt have been done any better. Yes, there was not a mind-altering Dark Star but that magic has to happen and not be forced during a one-time situation. Instead, the set covered all elements of what made the spring tour so good the choice of tunes, the members drive to make an impact via a conscious effort towards precise arrangements and solos which then progress to focused forays into the musical unknown. A double encore of U.S. Blues and Not Fade Away was accompanied by a Fourth of July fireworks display.

Guster

With Sunday being the final day of ROTHBURY 2009, a combination of a relaxed atmosphere and melancholy ran through the grounds. While Toots and the Maytals and Yonder Mountain String Band naturally played up to the moment, I was pleased to see that people drifted off for Sam Roberts Band, the pop bliss of Guster and the solid rock of the Hold Steady. In regards, to the latter act, Ive got to admit that seeing em live has made me more of a believer than I previously allowed.

Finally, Bob Dylan and His Band closed out ROTHBURY with a set that made me love him all over again. As bizarre as the syncopated circus rhythm employed during the last portion of Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again sounded, just the fact that Dylan refuses to play a human jukebox spitting out the hits is highly admirable. It even took a second to completely recognize Blowin in the Wind among its new arrangement.

And, in a sense, Dylans musical statement came to represent ROTHBURY as far as something old dressed up as something new. That could be found among the trees and fields, the spotlight on environmental causes for the present and future, the wide range of ages and the styles created by the artists.

So far there hasnt been a firm commitment to a third ROTHBURY. If it doesnt return in 2010, that would be a shame. The fest really found its organizational footing this year and could move forward with not only future sets of musical diversity but additional creative methods of illuminating the thousands to its message of being kind to Mother Earth.

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