Light the Fuse: a Review of Electric Forest 2014
June 26-29, 2014
Written by Alex Kratzert
“Music has always been a matter of Energy to me, a question of Fuel. Sentimental people call it Inspiration, but what they really mean is Fuel. I have always needed Fuel. I am a serious consumer. On some nights I still believe that a car with the gas needle on empty can run about fifty more miles if you have the right music very loud on the radio.”
― Hunter S. Thompson
On the early morning of June 26th, just as the first birds began to bicker and the billboards and fields faded out of the dark, the front license plate of our white Kia pointed north. North toward Canada; north toward those Great Lakes; north toward something strange, new and free. The car had plenty of gas in the tank, but it was our minds that continued along in desperate need of a refill. I stayed awake through the night with one other, only getting about an hour of fogged sleep while the Adderall and caffeine only gave him a few winks. Empty Red Bull cans found their way into the small crevices between all of the clutter, and “White Room” by Cream was on for about the third time.
We arrived on fumes at around nine in the morning. We found the better side of the North entrance and sat in line for a short time, passing fields of Cherry trees rolling along in the green. The guys who checked our car were very cool and accommodating, and the volunteer staff only proved equally as positive throughout the weekend.
As we set up camp under a cloudy sky, sleep remained my mind’s sole focus. The energy was far too spry for many, though, and by
ten o’clock our area had turned into an electric pregame full of handshakes, hugs, beer, hula hoops, and peddlers of every kind. Still, my eyelids were heavy, the Pabst warm and my gut furious, and so I had made the decision to take a long, lucid nap before a late night of Umphrey’s McGee. It was about then that the sky opened up to the sun, my tent began to bake, and the neighbors were stopping in to say hello. “Curve” by Papadosio was playing (or maybe it was “The Plug”), and suddenly it felt necessary to stand and mingle. Off in the distance you could hear the bass drop and climb back.
One of the neighbors introduced himself as Bone Crusher. He was a friendly guy wearing jeans, tie dye, pins and stones, and we began discussing the vibe of the whole scene. We shared an appreciation for music and Zen (one particular proverb being something like, “Treat great tasks as if they were very simple, and treat simple tasks as if they were really great” – said with regards to putting up a canopy without poles). We also dug the excitement and outlandish lens of everyone around, all keen and animated toward a mad ramble. At one point he said (from my memory), “Man, I feel like that’s why the weather cleared and the sky opened up. It’s all in tune…”
So the weather held well all night. After EOTO’s set (interrupted shortly by Kyle Hollingsworth), the sun had gone below the trees and then it was time for Umphrey’s Mcgee. With quaking knees and a heavy head, I wasn’t sure if I would make it until the end of the show at 2 am, let alone through the first set. But a few hours later, there I was migrating with the herd from the far end of the venue at the towering Sherwood Court stage, happily lethargic in a ramble of oh, sweet madness.
Cosby Sweater had played an excellent set during Umphrey’s midnight break, the first of three of the weekend (one being a surprise performance). Joel Cummins had joined them for a song, collaborating on a grooving remix of “Another Brick in the Wall.” Then, they played a remix of theirs called, “Cocaine Blues,” and you can check it out on this fan video as well as their Soundcloud.
And then more Umphs. There was one moment during their second set where it all really clicked. The rest was excellent no doubt; a barrage of ripping, stop-and-go guitar licks, intense builds, moments of clarity, and tangles of movement. But in the hours of sound that ripple through the spaced wind of a music festival, there are always those few, cherished moments when sparks fly and your mind ignites.
It happened first when they began performing “Come as Your Kids,” a mashup/remix of “Come as You Are” by Nirvana, “Kids” by MGMT and, to take it back to ’84, “You Spin me Right Round (Like a Record)” by Dead or Alive. I remember almost calling it a night; eyelids shuttering toward closed with a throbbing pressure behind my knees and a general soreness in the soles of my feet. Then, as the music climbed from low to high and then back down only to shoot straight up again, my feet fell numb, my knees limber and my eyelids wide like a spring-wound curtain. And then I began laughing. And twisting. And bouncing and howling. And then it all bounced and howled and twisted. And then I continued laughing more and more until the sounds stopped, the band wiped their eyes clean and the crowd applauded for another. I must have looked like a madman, chortling alone among so many with not a drop of anything (too) strange. It was a night full of fun, smiles, energy and life, powered by the strings and the heads and the keys of the musical mind. It always amazes me how much farther the body can go with the right song, the right jam, and the right scene very loud, bright and immediately in front of you. Cheers, Thompson.
Throughout the show, a man (probably in his late thirties) could be seen dipping and sliding through the crowd with a cigarette hanging out of the corner of his smirk. In his hand was a large disposal bag, which he was filling with whatever gravity grabbed a loose hold of. He’d smile and pat anybody having a good time, more than happy to help keep the grounds clean. He was most likely returning his hard work to the Electricology booth to win prizes; I’m sure, though, that it was the feeling of doing good that was the real motivating factor. So far I have found that that sort of thing can get you high all on its own. Books, too. Swear on my life.
The Conscious Alliance had also made an appearance once again, accepting donations of monetary value as well as nonperishable food items. 20 items or a suggested monetary donation would get an individual a stunning 3D poster by Phil Lewis Art. It’s great to see the arts bringing consciousness; they seem to always be very well-attuned.
The Sherwood Forest is crawling with all sorts of conscious folk. I met someone named Eli Brown who works with The Elevated Movement, which sells hand-made artistic hammocks. Not only are these incredible works of art, but they are also made one hundred percent out of recycled plastic. A line on their business card: “Two Trees for Every Hammock Made.” Eli gave me the rundown of their business and showed me some of their work, which perched in the forest by the Sherwood Court. The designs portrayed intricate scenes of space; stars, galaxies and nebula emanating light, strained through clouds of hydrogen, carbon and oxygen. Other designs include intricate depictions of dragons, alchemists, phoenixes and kaleidoscopic portraits, which can all be viewed here. He pointed out all of the other hammocks scattered through the forest and brought up the question of what happens to all of them. He inquired that after days of sweat, dirt and patron-stink that they all most likely get thrown out rather than washed and reused. “Give ‘em to the people!” he concluded. Check out their website and Facebook page, and help support another conscious group of individuals.
Walking through the forest at night is like stumbling through the rabbit hole, creatures and madness reeling you through the towering trees. Rockets and hot air balloons flew high above the paths with sculptures and art installations scattered every which way. Mazes of hammocks created neighborhoods in the pine, with slapped-bags every which way and spinning typhoons of glowing neon surrounded by gawking audiences. Unicorns, owls, octopi, giants, fair ladies, purple-haired dancers and people of total nonsense roamed about through the current of the crowd, giving those patrons floating along a sight to marvel at and a world to dream in. The Observatory sat in the center of the Sherwood Forest; an oriental-style structure with pillars and swooping peaks along catwalks and staircases. It surrounded a bar where the Kyle Hollingsworth Brewru Experience took place the following day, along with psychedelic bingo at night (to name a few). I left the forest that night with a wide, crooked grin, laden to the brim with psychoactive fatigue. It was a long, weird walk.
Friday morning arrived in a flash of UV; music, fireworks, wise cracks, and foaming beers belting the wake up call for the late-to-rise. If one could get their act together by noon, they could do yoga at the Tripolee Stage where a flock gathered in the sun every day to limber up for the night to come. I had only caught the tail end of one (more of an observer than anything), and upon hitting the oblate, quarter-inch mattress each night, I figured I might have made a mistake not stopping in for a squat. From what I’ve been told, it feeds the brain, too.
But even when the muscles strain, the joints creak, the mind throbs and the eyes can’t help but fall shut toward sleep, it is the music
and the energy that keeps you afloat until the end. At least, for most. It has been the rolling tide of the world and life to have those that think one way, those that think another, and those that exhibit a whole new strange kind of thought process. It seems to exist in just about any festival nowadays (and any community for that matter), especially considering the eclectic nature of these lineups. The families and followings of Electric Forest suffused all over the festival grounds, but each night from about eight to one o’clock in the morning, the Cheese family found their space at the Ranch area and plunged into the experience, however it was that they saw it.
The entrance line to the stages was a cattle walk on the first night; a rabble of heads and bodies herding tightly through the causeways and thresholds, with police officers formed along the checks. The law held a high presence at this festival, and the crowd did well at keeping them bored and scuffing pebbles. On the second day, the lines were formed into a block of horizontal rows that snaked to the front. It kept the current well in motion, spread out the crowd for the claustrophobic folk, and gave security a bit of a breather. As patrons entered the maze, high-fives began clapping incrementally with each surpassing column, smiles and camaraderie at every turn. It took me a time to realize that I had been high-fiving the same twenty or thirty individuals along the way, but not many seemed to really care or notice, so it continued pretty much until the end. What a laugh.
I arrived at the Sherwood Court a little late for Papadosio, just as they were beginning “Utopiate.” They seem to get better each time I see or listen to them, and they never fail to send your mind on a wild trip. I have always been most impressed by their drummer, Mike Healy, who seems to never let up and take a break, no matter how soft the jams get. They are a group of true talent and creativity whom I highly recommend seeing before whatever’s next. It’s a wonder to me how they are hardly ever higher on the lineup, but, as Vonnegut would say, “So it goes.”
Eventually, it was time for the first appearance of The String Cheese Incident. Michael Kang, singer/guitarist, addressed the crowd before the band went into “Colliding” to kick off the first of six sets. Then came “Search,” and the last two songs of the set were “It Is What It Is” into “Bollymunster.” The jam of “It Is What It Is” stands out as one of the most interesting, enticing, liberating and uplifting bits of creative music that I have come to witness, with a riff that still sounds strong in my head. It was all a very happy vibe; a celebration for the second half of the start of the short experience of Rothbury. I could hardly keep still, and when the music was booming, fast or mellow, peak or trough, the heads and lively souls of that lawn in the trees would bob, nod, rip and roar right along with it, fully enveloped in the free, weird and wild kind of life.
During the show, while grooving through the spacious gaps of the Cheese family, someone said my name in passing. It turned out to be a guy who was also from Connecticut, as well as the boyfriend of one of my very good friends. His name is Matthew; he was very kind and offered me to join them in their niche off to the left side facing the stage. A group of friends had claimed an area not more than seventy feet from the stage with plenty of room to step and sway. I am still amazed at how much awareness the Cheese family has of personal space, along with many other conscious concepts. A good lot. During the break I began speaking to one of his friends, Ricky, who told me he heard that next year the festival would be split into Electric Forest Music Festival and Rothbury Music Festival. Two different worlds in very tight quarters; it’s a wonder if the weld would ever have continued to hold.
After the break, Cheese came back with one of my favorite sets of music to-date. The set went: “Rosie” > “Bonafied Lovin’” > “Rosie,” “Song in My Head” > “Give Me the Love,” “Piece of Mine,” “Joyful Sound” (with a real dub-like jam) > “Restless Wind” > “Desert Dawn” and a “Rivertrance” encore. I am relatively new to live Cheese in comparison to the loyal family members. I saw them play for my first and only time at the inaugural Lock’n festival, and since then I have run through shows and explored the captivating, intricate jams that they have channeled throughout the years (all thanks to Archive). This set contained many of my own favorites, and it proved to augment the edifying truth that music is one of very few things in this world that continues to bring us all together. Love; friendship; trust; loyalty; sensations; memories; these are all part of the music of the world, accordant to the ripples of how things sound.
There’s something special that happens during these shows; any show that really gets you out of bed and on the road to a new place and a new experience. Whether it be Cheese, Umphs, Tribe, Zeds Dead, Lauryn Hill, Stephen Marley, or anything else that has planted its name on the lineup reel, each one carries with it the potential to create something real and liberating; an ephemeral dose of the gratuitous life. I found this moment in the space and sound of Cheese, and again I fell destitute and adrift in peace and hilarity. Hardly before have I felt so comfortable shouting at my deepest breath, rambling on hasty soles while showered in sweat and tears among fits of laughter and crazed fulfillment. This crowd has most certainly become a family, and while no tribe has ever gotten it completely right, this one has at the very least found its place of peace, comfort and joy in a world that is not always quite so.
And so the rest of the weekend teemed with many more of these sorts of experiences. STS9 had played their first set during the second of the String Cheese Incident on Friday, after which Umphrey’s McGee performed for the last time of the weekend. For the encore of their incredible footprint on this year’s Electric Forest, they played “Bridgeless” into “Time” by Pink Floyd, and then back again to round it all off. There was an interesting blend of old and new that weekend, keeping the sounds that started it all strong and alive while taking creativity and collaboration to new heights with new apparatus. It is very likely that many of these amplifiers had been cranked all the way up to twelve, as if eleven hadn’t done it enough already.
Saturday’s shows consisted of Stephen Marley, The Floozies, Emancipator Ensemble, Flying Lotus, and another round of STS9 and the String Cheese Incident. The second set of Cheese brought on Lauryn Hill (who had also played on Friday before them) for the Ms. Lauryn Hill incident. She joined them after a fantastic display of confetti, lasers, smoke, and the flying sounds of “Valley of the Jig.” The entire lawn erupted, stepping from a hyperactive climb to a jam that induced flashbacks of Contae Chiarrai, which can be viewed in this fan video. After the sight, Ms. Hill stepped onstage to join The String Cheese Incident in performing an incredible, eclectic set. They covered “Is This Love,” “Jamming,” and “Could you be Loved” by Bob Marley and the Wailers, and they also played “Killing Me Softly” and “Ready or Not.” The crowd was packed tightly this time, a mix of the Cheese family with a little something new for a mind that listens for a different sound.
Later that night was Sound Tribe; another shot without Murph on the bass. There were a few times where I felt that something was missing, like there was a necessary layer that had been turned down from eleven to seven. For the most part, though, I was very impressed with Tribe’s new member, as well as their performance as a whole. From low, spacey dub-stuff to psychedelic, convoluted jams, they kept the crowd stepping and smiling. Although this is not the old Tribe that many know and love, they played well; a commoving display flowing with light, sweat, speed and a glaze of rain, fully free of any and all trepidation. At least, for a time; do what you can for now and hold on tight until the next one.
The weekend ended with a day of Aloe Blacc, Bombino, Cosby Sweater, Moby DJ, Earphunk and Moon Taxi, as well as yet another night of the String Cheese Incident. I had never heard Earphunk before, but their rocking licks and psychedelic organ and synthesizer left me grooving through the trees in search of the source. Kung Fu played a set at 1:00 PM on Sunday, arriving not long before only to hit the road right after. They brought the funk to the early afternoon, filling out a thin crowd within a matter of minutes. I had only heard of this group less than a year before and the first time I saw them was at Toad’s Place in New Haven, CT. They killed it, as they did in Rothbury, so I found it necessary to try and get some words from this ascending funk/rock/fusion band. I was lucky enough to get a chance to speak with guitarist Tim Palmieri, who’s motley, ripping and voltaic licks and solos brought the crowd up to rapture and back down again. You can view the interview here.
I didn’t see much for EDM at this festival. There was always something more my speed happening, and with my previous experience of many of the DJs in mind, I slept as fine as one could through the sun baked mornings. But from what I saw and heard from very kind, new and old friends of mine, there was much fun, lots of light, and a hell of a lot of weird to be found in their performances. I was very impressed with Soul Visions and the Human Experience for some of the late-night relax-and-sway. This was no womp, though. Whatever sets the spark to that strange and lively side of your psyche: hear it loud, and listen closely. There’s a lot to be sifted through in these trips; don’t let the bad chatter throw your focus.
The most despairing thing that has thrown the path is when one of our own doesn’t make it back
to spread their experience. A twenty year-old volunteer named Brian passed away on the last night of the festival, the cause of which I do not know. I never met the man, nor do I know his story, but there is little doubt in my mind that in those days and nights, he found at least one drop of fuel and one crack of light; the kind that gives you the urge to live well and free for the time you are given. I’m sure, though, that he found many more than just the one. Hold his family, friends and memory in your thoughts and keep the dream afloat for all those that cannot be with us to see it. If these experiences have shown me anything, it’s that there is a great and evident chance that he, and all the others, will be right there with us on the lawn; a part of the family; giving energy and flow to the sounds. Where else could such life come from?
And so as music is fuel, the families and communities are an engine that roars and stumbles great distances; tacking on miles toward a glorious, gaudy finish; beat, warn and rusted with character. These places are shaped by the people and artists that come through them, and with that comes a great responsibility. Along with advising our friends, family and fellow strangers through an excellent time, it is our principle duty to ensure that it all happens safely, and without incident. Police officers should be at home, tucked in and at peace with their ear plugs; not sweaty, on-edge, hopped up on caffeine and coasting on a bad case of indoctrinated social profiling (among others). Life happens, though, and we may only do our best to hold on and let loose when we get the chance. With that, I feel that the patrons, artists, crew, and even the law at Electric Forest achieved a great deal at this year’s event.
And while the sects of the music scene had found their seclusion among what many have called a mindless bender of debauchery – or something alike – there was much peace and community wherever those collisions occurred. This is not always the case, but how can you really know unless you breathe deep and take that plunge? Our rapid, wavering lives are loaded with brisk bits of experience: good and bad; better or worse; each one feeding the brain with gross amounts of fear, confusion and clarity. Yin and yang: it’s always been the name of this whole crazed game. I hope that your lives have all remained exciting, strange, and full of unknown; with your friends and family alongside, the memories will survive long past our hazed horizons. Deep breaths – and when you’re caught in the rush of all that life, remember to smile. It’s really all a great laugh.
Photos taken by Alex Kratzert