There aren't many places where it's common to be surrounded by a pair of young children dressed head-to-toe in gold dancing to psytrance, find yourself in a pop-up library in the woods, or witness someone walking an inflatable duck on a leash. At Electric Forest, June 25-28 in Rothbury, Michigan at an area of woods dubbed the Sherwood Forest, this type of eccentricity isn't just accepted, but widely encouraged. For the last five years, the Midwest soirée has become one of the most beloved events on the festival circuit in North America. It's not just its perfectly curated mix of EDM-tinged, underground dance, and otherworldly psychedelic jam music, but the fact that in the forest, the only limits of attendees' experience are that of their own imagination. And those imaginations can rival Lewis Carroll with a bit of of Hunter S. Thompson.
With a reported attendance of 45,000 guests, this year's sold-out edition of the festival was its grandest yet, with a diverse crowd of Foresters from far across the tide-pool (and country) including, but not limited to, PLURed out kandi kids, jigging jam heads, and techno lovers—all meeting under the pristinely cool (and surprisingly frigid) Michigan summer sky to share in an array of magical moments, wow-inducing new stages, surprising collaborations, and the fest's biggest form of self-expression—totems, which this year mostly centered around phalluses, Bassnectar, and Left Shark obsessions.
Like years past, the fest's Tripolee stage had a laser focus on straight-up skull-scrambling dance music from around the club-focused genre spectrum throughout the week, curated by the likes of Carl Cox and Bassrush. San Francisco techno artist Matrixxman unleashed a pounding Day One set, followed by iconic figures like John Digweed and Cox, who played a closing set to an surprisingly sparse crowd. The stage was more heavily occupied for the likes of DJs like Flux Pavilion, Datsik, and Carnage over the four days. While the festival flexes nothing close to the rave-centric vibe of an EDC or Ultra, loyalty towards the lineage of screechy dubstep and trap music remains a constant pillar of the Forest, and stage attendance were proof. While it's thankfully a rarity, it's here you might find a "Sex, Drugs, and Dubstep" t-shirt being ripped off in a state of rage.
As the spiritual leaders of Electric Forest, three days of sets from Colorado bluegrass-meets-jamtronica unit The String Cheese Incident offered fans nearly ten hours of transcendent improvisation throughout the weekend. Their Saturday night sensory spectacle was the apex of this, this year unleashing flying remote controlled blimps and a dangerously unhinged, gorgeously squirming acrobatic dancer dangling from a hot air balloon into the heavens above. Musically, String Cheese represents much of the stylistic M.O. of the festival as a whole, acting as a link between electronic and conventionally instrument-led jam band sounds. As usual, special appearances helped cement their status as spiritual godfathers to the forest and its many minions. During their opening night encore, Skrillex joined the group on guitar and vocals for some raucous and impressively effective covers of The Doors. Taking to the mic to pump up the crowd before his own headlining DJ set, Skrillex also thanked fans, security guards, food vendors, and String Cheese themselves for pulling of such a wonderful event. Aww, Sonny.
On the closing night, Dom Lalli of Big Gigantic stormed the stage to jam with the Cheese on sax. When the group wasn't hypnotizing the masses from the Ranch Arena main stage, big names like Seattle hotshots ODESZA played a slightly redundant set of cheery rhythms to a packed crowd. Headlining sets from Kaskade and Skrillex himself were other nighttime highlights though one of the festival's most anticipated moments was the Saturday night performance from Bassnectar. The bass god's 90-minute marathon was a front to back flash mob of sparkling totems, flags, flailing arms, dropping butts, lasers, and every other sort of frenetic form of ragedom both humanely and cosmically imaginable. Cycling through his blend of low-end sub smashes and hip-hop cuts, it was truly a sight to behold. During his encore, String Cheese frontman Michael Kang emerged on stage toting his electric violin to lock into a trancey duet of 'Nectar's seminal psy-bass jam "Dubuasca." Only in the Forest do you see these cross-genre "holy shit" moments.
From the hilarious improv jamming of festie mainstay Supertall Paul, to new blood like Autograf and collaborative jam supergroup Everyone Orchestra, there's nothing like dancing in the forest. Highlights here throughout the days include tree covered spectacles from Miami Horror, breezy trip-hop courtesy of Little People, and a standout late night set from Soul Clap, who held down their Crew Love marathon for the second year. Filling the ecstatic crowd with unlimited swagger, Eli Goldstein and Charlie Levine of the Boston duo let loose jam after jam dropping booties left and right with down and dirty funk. Before closing out with CeCe Peniston's "Finally," and after dancing with those in the crowd who had made their way on stage in front of the DJ booth, Goldstein shouted out the Supreme Court for its decision on gay marriage. Colorado funk outfit The Motet gave a similar shout out during their own last track at their Sherwood Court performance. It was a true vibe moment if there ever was one.
This year, Foresters were treated to two new stages. The Hanger structure was a multi-purpose hub that featured music from bands like New Orleans' famed Preservation Hall Jazz Band and an array of DJs. Additionally, the large barn-like structure housed a speakeasy, makeshift henna tattoo parlour, and—incredibly—a functioning barbershop. Nothing goes with psychedelia like a fresh faux-hawk, right? Jubilee was Forest's first appearance of a massive tent stage, and was an easy highlight of the weekend. From the emotional crooning of soul-man (and longtime James Brown impersonator) Charles Bradley, to the funky electro of Break Science and an absolutely stunning set from Galactic, fronted by Macy Gray of all people. When she wasn't lulling attendees into saucy bliss, Gray hilariously rambled on the mic in fine form, alerting the crowd that to her unseemly alliance with the New Orleans funk-brass clique was a result of a lucky Google search. We're not sure where Gray's been hiding, but she hasn't lost an ounce of her talent, or personality.
The tucked-away Sherwood Court stage once again held down its rep for bugout-inducing curation with wild beats courtesy of Big Gigantic and Gramatik, who closed out the festival to an overflowing sea of light. Four Tet delivered a memorable live set on the Future Classic-curated stage before the label's megastar, Flume, closed out the zone with a packed performance. Playing new material from his Morning/Evening album, Four Tet was flawless, prompting the crowd to gaze to the heavens and maybe even have a little cry (#feels). There were also existential dance-laden improvisational jams from Lotus as the Philadelphia band managed to combine guitar solos and bass-heavy quasi-deep house that you wouldn't scoff at in a nightclub. The festival's love affair between club lasers and hippies tapestries becomes obvious when jam bands like this let loose on a sick cover of Disclosure's "F For You" and "When a Fire Wants to Burn," twisting effects, guitar pedals and everyone's minds in tandem.
Every foray into the festival's storied Sherwood Forest is one to be cherished. Its glowing illuminated-wooded dream world is probably the the trippiest place this side of Black Rock City, and certainly in the entire state of Michigan. Non-musical oddities include a library with people lounging in empty bathtubs exchanging poetry, a functional giving tree that offers trinkets and treasure, hammock cities, technicolor clouds, translucent conversation pits, and multi-floor treehouse pagodas—all being penetrated by lasers and swaying lights. It's in the forest where you never know what you'll soon stumble upon, from a new group of friends gifting slinkys and Hunter S. Thompson quotes, to people drawing faces on the ground with glow sticks at three in the morning. It's a limitless breeding ground of glorious discovery, and totally weird in the best way possible.
Instituting change is always both a daunting and necessary move for a music festival. Every party always needs some new blood, new ideas, and a little nurturing from time to time. This year at Electric Forest 2015, change was apparent throughout the weekend. More stages, more artists, and more people meant a lot of new faces—a good deal of first time Foresters, some who seamlessly mixed into the festival's positivity ethos (with rare exception.)
While some may criticize the event for appealing more to the masses, in reality, the organizers at Electric Forest are succeeding at bringing one of the most open-minded, community-based, and straight-up fun, music festivals to more people than ever. At this four-day woodsy gathering, strangers feel like old friends, and it's not uncommon for someone to return a lost phone to its owner days later, pass you a joint in the shower (shower joint, man), or give you a massive bear-hug, just because. There's a common phrase that has become a mainstay at the festival (replacing the infamous "Where's Carl" chant), and that's "Happy Forest." You'll hear it from the people at the taco truck, security guards who search you upon entrance at the main gate, or just from a casual passerby who wants to spread the vibes. It's mantras like this that embody the magic that Electric Forest has to offer: no matter who you are, where you're from, what music tickles your fancy, or whatever bizarre image and outrageous message you dangle from upon a giant staff, when you hear it—you know you're home.
David still hasn't decided if he'll let his future children dance to Shpongle. He's on Twitter.