By the time Rothbury arrived, the music festival phenomenon had solidified in the U.S. and across the world. People had been realizing -- by reputation and by personal experience -- that it feels good to gather with thousands of fellow music fans for a weekend and reel in the positive vibrations. The first major annual festival to pop into mainstream American consciousness was Bonnaroo, which premiered in Manchester, TN in 2002 but didn't catch widespread recognition until around 2004. Next was Coachella, a fest that had actually been running in Indio, CA since 1999. With two rural festivals leading both the east and west by 2005, Lollapalooza reemerged as a one-time event in Chicago, after the touring version -- with roots as far back as 1991 -- came to an end.
I had been to All Good Festival, one of the nation's oldest "jam band festivals," in 2005 and 2007. The West Virginia camp out has taken place in a few different locations since 1995, but never really strayed from the basic formula. In fact, my brothers and I chose to attend All Good in 2005 because Bonnaroo had already gotten too big. Rumors told of Manchester attendance numbers upwards of 100,000, waiting more than 10 hours to be checked into the camping area, and sweltering heat that rose above 90 degrees. All Good welcomed a comfortable 20,000 in the Appalachian foothills with mid-July temps peaking in the low 80s. In exchange, the only bands even close to the mainstream were Les Claypool (originally of Primus) and the Flaming Lips.
But the important point is that, going to All Good in 2005, my brothers and I were horribly under-prepared. We didn't have a table or chairs. We didn't have a tarp to keep the wicked rains from seeping into our tent. We didn't have rain boots to trek through the deepening mud. We had fun the first time, but we returned in 2007 with better equipment and improved mindsets, and we had an incredible time.
A growing number of people around the country were doing the same -- trying out camping festivals, learning the hard way that it's not all fun and games, and then improving upon past efforts. More and more festivals seemed to be popping up around the country: Wakarusa in Kansas, Langerado in Florida, Sasquatch in Washington, Vegoose in Las Vegas, and on and on. This left Michigan natives, and really anyone in the Great Lakes region, with an important question: when would our turn come? So when Madison House Presents and AEG Live announced in late 2007 that Rothbury Music Festival would take place at Double JJ Ranch in Rothbury, MI over Fourth of July weekend 2008 -- well, I practically jumped in celebration.
It made me even happier to read on their website that they'd be striving for sustainability and minimized waste. Part of their mission statement also read, "We are captivated by the unique experience that a perfect live musical moment offers; when we transcend beyond individuals and into a collective." This matched a personal revelation that I had undergone over the past year. I had a feeling that many others were starting to see the same thing. I hoped that Rothbury meant what they said, because it was the first time that a festival was founded with such a bold mission. If a festival in Michigan could actually pull that off, and not just use these lines as a sales gimmick, it could be a great thing for the state as a whole.
After months of waiting -- for tickets to go on sale, for the artist line-up to be announced, and for the schedule to be released -- July finally arrived. I told myself beforehand that the security screen, ticket check, and line to the campground would be the most stressful aspect of the weekend. I knew this because I had attended All Good twice.
I had glanced over Rothbury's list of prohibited items, but I didn't pay close attention since I had been to similar events in the past. I definitely missed the "NO GLASS CONTAINERS OF ANY KIND!" line on that list. So when I got to the security checkpoint, the oafish man in a red polo shirt snagged my bottle of Frank's Red Hot sauce. To anyone unfamiliar with Frank's, this might not seem like a big deal, but to me, it was a threat to the quality of every meal I would eat that weekend. I was thankful that I had brought beer in aluminum cans and whiskey in a plastic bottle. Unfortunately, the man did find our fifth of Black Haus blackberry schnapps, a product only offered in glass bottles. We had to pour it into a Nalgene bottle, but at least we still had the liquor.
As if that wasn't bad enough, the nitwit then informed me that I wasn't allowed to bring knives into the festival. He was holding a pair of two-inch, curved searing blades from a picnic set. I wondered, "How the hell would those be considered a weapon?" But then, the more I thought about it, I realized that I could use one to hook through his jugular vein and bleed him to death in less than 30 seconds. I was still angry, but I took a deep breath and kept repeating in my mind, "He's just doing his job. He's just doing his pathetic, waste-of-a-life job."
Part of the reason this incident was so hard to work my way out of was how he asked the questions: very succinctly, with a straight face, and without offering event he slightest clue of what he was searching for. Looking back, I wished I had just said "no" to every single question. But how could I? Reading the restricted list after the fact, I saw no mention of knives anywhere.