Earlier this week, Insomniac and Madison House Presents released the initial lineup for the Electric Forest Festival, set to take place in Rothbury, MI from June 27th through the 30th. I was thrilled, but while freaking out and sharing the news with everyone I knew, I seemed to get a lot of “meh” responses, claiming that it appeared to be inferior to others, such as Chicago’s Spring Awakening Music Festival or Miami’s Ultra Music Festival. Taking a quick look at some comments on Facebook and Twitter showed that many were echoing a very similar sentiment. I was shocked that most folks seemed to be less excited for the Forest as they were for these other events.
After the initial confusion, I looked back at the lineups of years past and I began to realize that they were right in one aspect…that Electric Forest, even though it spans an extra day, just doesn’t have the same amount of star-power in their lineup as other festivals. Where they were wrong though, is how that observation somehow translates into an inferior event. These festivals are created with different goals in mind. UMF is designed to bring everyone and their brother in the EDM world to a single place for a couple of weekends, coinciding with the enormous Winter Music Conference. Spring Awakening tries to pack as many big-named DJs as possible in one weekend without serving up the commercialism that runs rampant at UMF/WMC (by design) which, according to some fans, ruins the experience. The overall point that people seem to be missing is that these festivals aren’t being put on to satisfy every single EDM fan. Their aim is to foster a special environment that promises a certain type of experience for the fans that want it.
The EF Experience
While the others boast star-studded casts, the folks at the Double JJ Ranch seem to focus on musical and spiritual exploration, and do so in way that’s more genuine and less hipstery (yes, that word just happened), meaning they don’t turn their backs on artists in some douchey attempt to stay indie, ironic, or whatever virtue they pretend not to be striving for, because they’ve found success in the mainstream. With a few power houses such as Pretty Lights, Benny Benassi, Knife Party, Passion Pit, etc., they celebrate the successful ones, without overdoing it, and manage to build an environment that encourages you to take a stroll out of your comfort zone. You get new and fresh artists from all over the map; EDM, jamtronica, bluegrass, indie-rock, etc. There’s not always a “can’t-miss” artist on one of the stages, so you have the liberty to wander around, discover, and partake in new things, both in and out of the musical realm. I know it’s a first world problem…but there’s a certain level of suck when you’re forced to choose between three of your favorite acts multiple times throughout a weekend. The freedom you have to simply get lost in the Forest without having to think about all the stuff you’re missing makes it infinitely more enjoyable.
Like I mentioned before, there’s so much more than the music at EF. Only the planners know what’s in store for this year, but last year there was African drum workshops, a full-sized glow-in-the-dark disc golf course, gong massages, instructional hula-hooping sessions, and a seemingly infinite amount of artistic expression happening all over the Forest at any given time. While I have no regrets from my experiences of last year’s festival (other than skipping the closers, Big Gigantic, in an attempt to get a head start on the trip home) I still found myself hearing stories and seeing videos of truly amazing things that I would have loved to enjoy.
The stage setups are another important factor to the Forest’s allure. Instead of multiple plain-white tents that are only distinct in the genre of music being played, the different stages each feel like a unique venue. Sherwood Court is a classic, wide open field. Tripolee feels like a circus with people dancing around a giant display of colorful abstract panels centered in the middle. The Ranch Arena is an amphitheater cut out of the trees on the side of grassy hill, which makes for mesmerizing visual effects shows. The two other stages, the Wagon Wheel and the Forest Stage, inspire smaller and more intimate musical settings.
Let’s not forget about the two pieces at the heart of EF, the only things that I might consider mandatory, The String Cheese Incident and the Sherwood Forest. Simply calling SCI a “live band” doesn’t even remotely begin to do them justice. Their sets are a complete adventure in their own right, melding jazz, blues, EDM, funk, and indie-rock into an embodiment of the entire soul of the festival. Nobody at the Forest should leave without seeing an SCI performance, and with 3 of the incredible sets throughout the weekend, there’s no excuse to miss them. The Sherwood Forest is a breathtaking arrangement of colorful lights, statues, sculptures, and other art strewn across the thick wooded area between two of the stages. There’s plenty of chill hangout spots, a couple bars, TONS of hammocks, and it even possesses it’s own stage, the aforementioned Forest Stage, so you can dance amongst the trees. From the few paths, you can check out a lot of the attractions…but if you’re brave enough to leave the trails, there’s much more to be seen. Both SCI and Sherwood Forest are probably the most mind-blowing and visually stimulating things I’ve ever witnessed.
The final, and arguably the best, aspect is the people…including the ranch staff (who all seem to be named “Carl”, paying homage to a phenomenon that began a few years ago), the volunteers, and the other festival-goers. While you may get a sense of camaraderie, acceptance, or tolerance from most festivals, you won’t get the sense of family like you do in the Forest. You arrive and set up your campsite for the weekend, squashed by strangers on all sides, and even before the end of the first day, you feel surrounded by brothers and sisters. You’re at home, and by the time you leave, you will have created bonds with those strangers that will last a lifetime. The staff and volunteers are all there with the same mentality, considering that the minute their shifts end, most of them will be going on these adventures alongside you.
With all of that, I would argue that even though these other events are phenomenal and I wouldn’t hesitate to encourage a friend to go to one…they pale in comparison to the Electric Forest Festival. I would even dismiss the notion that it will be great in spite of the lineup. The Forest will be magnificent, in part, because of the lineup.
I hope to see you all there. I, for one, can’t wait to return to the Double JJ Ranch and explore the Forest with family.
I can’t wait to go home.