My friend Zach House compared feeling homesick to “lying in bed on a cold, crisp night and having your blanket ripped from you.” Your security, comfort, and contentment stripped. You find yourself with an “empty sting in the pit of your stomach”, longing for your blanket — your home. In these words he sent me, Zach wasn’t describing his home in Grand Rapids, but rather a four-day spectacle, a magical weekend of music, art and friendship called Electric Forest that he attended for many years.
This past weekend I had the courtesy of attending my first Electric Forest. Not being a fan of electronic music, I didn’t buy into the typical gasconading by friends and Forest attendees alike. Being a live music musician currently heavily in the scene, I am aware of the production scale, lineup, and reputation of the festival. I’ve had the Rothbury vs. Electric Forest lineup discussion a thousand times. “Back when the lineup was real music,” the critics would say -- myself included. Despite my level of intrigue or how highly people spoke of the festival, I couldn’t justify buying a ticket.
What could possibly make Zach feel homesick for a place he only spent four nights per year? Why in the world would someone from New York or California drive all the way to Michigan for this festival? The answer is multifaceted. But for people like Zach, it’s simple. The Forest is home. The other festival-goers are family. And each day in the Forest is filled to the brim with magic, bright lights, imagination, childlike wonder, music, dancing, laughing, hugging, playing, kindness, and positivity. It’s a weekend free of “real-world” stress, cell phone attachment, and most importantly, judgment. If you go in with an open mind and open heart, you will become a part of the family. And you will long for your new home when it’s ripped from you like a blanket on a cold, crisp night.
Yes, the people are fantastic and so is the music, but you can get that at any other festival in the country. I’ve been to Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza, and a hoard of other festivals where the vibes were positive and I had a great time. What makes Electric Forest unique is the aesthetic created by the Forest, the time and effort put into decorations, thematic installations, and creative displays. Here is the lineup of 18 installation artists if you’re interested: https://www.electricforestfestival.com/2017-info/installation-artists/
Almost everywhere you go there is an art installation, live artists, giant sculptures, or fairy gardens. At night, the woods are illuminated by hundreds of top-of-the-line production lights that change colors, spin and rotate, and cast shadows among the trees, stages, and creatures within. There are professional performers, dancers, jesters, and burlesque dancers roaming the grounds for photo opportunities or shenanigans with festival attendees eager to play along. It’s like stepping into a fantasy world — the production and creative team for the festival do their jobs extremely well.
When I had no live performances to see I would say to myself, ‘Oh yeah, I’ll just go to Sherwood Forest and explore a little.’ There is so much going on, it would take weeks to discover all the hidden secrets of the forest. For a first-time attendee who has gone to many other festivals, it was the Sherwood Forest that truly made Electric Forest unique.
Let’s not forget about why everyone is at the festival in the first place (you’d hope). The lineup is what sells tickets — and in years past, the lineup was the biggest red flag for me. I am not a fan of EDM, dubstep, or much electronic music. I respect it, appreciate it, and know why so many people enjoy it.
The Electric Forest lineups have always been fantastic for fans of electronic music. In conversations with friends and other music fans, the genre shift from jam bands/live music to more DJs and producers is a hot topic. Bassnectar, Odesza, Big Gigantic, Claude Vonstroke, A-Trak, Bob Moses, and The Floozies are just a few of the big names that brought in thousands of fans.
I tend to skew towards the live band, rock, and roll, funk, etc. side of things, so initially I was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to find music I was into in the lineup. Let me state this clearly — if you wanted to go the whole weekend without seeing any electronic music, only good, live bands, you could do it. My favorite sets of the weekend came from Kamasi Washington (both nights), My Morning Jacket (seemed to be a crowd favorite), Khruangbin, Lettuce, The Bluegrass Generals, and Donny McCaslin.
In a weekend of drum machines and sample tracks, I managed to watch three of the best live drummers in the scene, back to back to back. Robert ‘Sput’ Searight (Snarky Puppy, Ghost Note) played two sets with Kamasi Washington and sat in with String Cheese on Friday night, Mark Giuliana played with Donny McCaslin, and Adam Deitch (Lettuce) finished off Friday night with a strong performance at the Jubilee stage. Giuliana is a world-class drummer and completely blew my mind.
It was encouraging to see so many young music fans actively engaged and excited by jazz, funk, and soul music. There was truly something for everyone this weekend, but I didn’t know there would be until I went through the lineup and listened to every single artist/band. Take the time to learn the lineup before committing to or brushing off your next festival. You could easily find your new favorite artist.
Electric Forest is a place with seemingly no rules or limits. When the music is playing, you are dancing, singing and smiling. That’s what makes music so great. The present moment, the notes and sounds consume you. Your mind and body are so ready to forget work, school, or whatever else has been causing you stress and pain. You just needed a little distraction. A reminder to get in touch with what is happening around you right here, right now.
This is partly the reason why Electric Forest, and every other festival, concert, or art event is significant. Our brain and heart need moments of wonder, curiosity, and playfulness. When you are in a judgement-free zone, you can let it all out. You can wear whatever you want (or don’t want). You can scream at the top of your lungs. You can smile for no damn reason at all, enjoying the sunshine, the rain, and the mud between your toes.
On Thursday night at the Hangar stage, Matt Butler conducted The Everyone Orchestra with members of String Cheese, Joe Hertler & the Rainbow Seekers, Pigeons Playing Ping Pong and more. Everything was improvised, even the lyrics and vocal melodies. At one point, everyone in the crowd was singing in unison:
How lucky are we to live in a time when there is a genre of music to please everyone? To live in a time where strangers greet you with a hug and flower for your hair? How lucky are we to hang from trees in our hammocks, to share campsites with our best friends, and to be our weird, quirky selves?
Every now and then we need reminders. A reminder to take a deep breath and reconnect with ourselves, those around us, and our surroundings. I think people love Electric Forest so much because it gives them the opportunity to do just that. It makes them feel welcome like they’re home with family. Now that I’ve spent a weekend in the Forest, it’s no wonder Zach felt homesick when he left.
Now, we return to our regular programming, take a shower, and wait for our next family reunion.