Ravers Vs. Hippies at Michigan's Electric Forest

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Note: the Press sister paper in Denver, Westword, asked former Voice Media Group Senior Music Editor Ben Westhoff to investigate the Electric Forest Festival in Rothbury, Michigan this past weekend. This is one of his reports.

Since its founding in 2008, Electric Forest has split the difference between jam bands and EDM. On Friday night Skrillex, playing a guitar, joined String Cheese Incident for a medley of Doors songs “Break on Through (To the Other Side)” and “L.A. Woman.” It wasn’t as bad as it sounds!

Though Bassnectar, Kaskade and Big Gigantic also headlined this year, String Cheese was the true main event, playing the final three nights of the festival, with sets that were scheduled to run from three and a half hours to over four. The co-producers of the festival, Madison House Presents, are the Colorado-based jam band’s management team, and String Cheese is the “original muse” of the event, in the words of festival PR.

While on the surface jam bands and EDM sounds like a culture clash waiting to happen – ravers in tutus, meet dudes who only wear hemp! – in reality it works out great.

Everyone gets along fine at the Rothbury, Michigan festival; people arrive from all over for what they consider a great aesthetic convergence. “EDM and jam bands both draw the same type of people, who want to go all night and follow their favorite acts all over,” says Jacob Efimoff, a festivalgoer from Laguna Niguel.

Not to mention that they share a general message: Be positive! You’re awesome! Let your consciousness go!

I’ll have to admit, though, I was skeptical. This was my first Electric Forest, and reading up on it in advance I saw that many of its acts split the difference between jam music and EDM. In fact, they seemed to be an unworkable mish-mosh of genres. I was a bit perturbed when every band’s bio seemed to describe them as a mix of “funk / soul / electronic / reggae” or some combination like that.

It’s not that these acts aren’t well known for their dynamic live shows, like, say New Orleans’ Galactic (“hip-hop/electronic/world music/rock/blues/jazz”). It’s just that snobby music fans like myself have been brainwashed into thinking you’re supposed to do one thing, and do it well. Take another Colorado act, The Motet (“funk/Afrobeat/disco/electronic music/soul”). I visually recoiled when reading their description of themselves as “a world-class improvisational funk band that has dedicated more than a decade to the healing powers of funky dance music.”

Really, these acts need better PR. EDM and jam music are often dismissed by the skinny-jeans crowd as music you need to be high to enjoy. But I was (relatively) sober the whole time, and had a blast. Take Vibe Street (“grass-hop / future-folk / electro-blues / space-funk”), whose name alone nearly caused my eyeballs to roll back in my head. But it turns out “grass-hop,” a combination of bluegrass and hip-hop, is not that unusual. At his show on Saturday afternoon, the Denver-based DJ merged hard-edged rap beats with dubstep-style bass drops, and long, meander-y interludes. The crowd’s open-mindedness must have rubbed off on me, because I was really feeling it.

Such performances — combined with Electric Forest's cool breezes and pine-tree-canopy setting — have made the festival shoot to the top of my list. If for next year they can find a good (“klezmer/tumbler ska/ string quartet/narcocorrido/Europop”), then I’ll truly be in cross-genre heaven.

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