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A Weird Trip Back Into The Electric Forest

A year of anticipation had finally come to an end. Since my first trip to Rothbury in the summer of 2012 a lot had changed. Last year’s experience defined my summer and what I would come to expect of the season: autonomy, companionship, and release.

The sun had long set over Manhattan as we took off into the night, passing quickly through New Jersey and into the densely fogged hills of Pennsylvania. The moonlit scape over the ascending highways made it seem like we were slowly rising towards a new planet, one with new rules and a refreshing take on life. By the late afternoon the sun was high in the sky shining at our backs as we passed through a tree-lined meadow north of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Traffic slowed to a halt as we and the rest of our love tribe approached the exit for the Double JJ Resort.

Florally painted vans and cars bumped everything from psychedelic rock to psy-Trance as we slowly and anxiously trudged along the country road, with the ferris wheel floating like a mirage far across the grassland. Girls and boys ran out of their crowded cars to pick daisies from fields, running up to car windows handing them out as a peace offering or affixing them as a crown on their heads. An hour later we found our way through the camp entrance to the little square patch that would be our home for the next four nights, and quickly set up our tents so we could get to exploring.

Soon the grounds had become a vibrant neighborhood to wander with each street putting forth a life of its own, with our little alley easily recognizable by the Jolly Roger flag that whipped in the breeze 20 feet up. By the fall of dusk we made our way down and over to the festival entrance winding our way through the row of vendors on main street. I was happy to see many of the same artists as the year prior hawking everything from tapestries to beautifully blown glass bowls to intricate and huge holographic wall art that transformed and transfixed from every angle.

Our first jaunt into the festival grounds came when reggae-electronica fusion trio A Tribe Called Red were on the decks of the Tripolee stage by the main entrance. After jamming out for a half hour we made our way over to explore the forest while it was still daytime. I had been waiting for a year to show some new people the wonders of Sherwood Forest even though I was plenty excited for my own return to the woods to see what new and recognizable mind-altering thrills it had in store this year. Strolling up the path that leads up to the forest gates is always an electrifying journey. Multicolored lanterns dangling from lines above saturate the visual spectrum, slowly but surely preparing your mind for unraveling. But nothing can truly prepare anyone for the vacuum of weird that exists beyond the owl-guarded portal. 

Within the realm of Sherwood normal is insane and maniacs roam free. An energy vortex seals the truth within the plane of surreal that slopes its way through the two tree-lined streets. The forest is a classroom for the eccentric, the lost, and the living. It speaks in ways unknown, echoing silence through the alleys of pilgrims swinging away on their hammocks high in the trees. It assaults our consciousness with the chaotic reality of existence, tangling our minds in the ether of supersized dreamcatchers, and clouds our vision in its hazy corners. 

Inside the gateway we are greeted with mimes on stilts, unicycle-riding knife jugglers, candy princesses, and butterfly dancers. But beyond the paid performers there are a seemingly infinite amount of vibrant friendships that are waiting to be made. We find our way to this group of three little hollow igloo looking structures and start the Forest dating game. Within seconds we know everyone in our circle as if they were our best friends. When they depart we are sad but know we have shared a pure connection with them all; it's bittersweet. But new friends come fill the seats left vacant and we get to talking and listening again. And the cycle continues for four days. In the Forest strangers are friends you had but hadn't met yet.

The circus continues into the night. Morgan Page packs the Ranch Arena stage at 8:30 playing a monstrous set that competes with the impending thunderstorm. Bolts of lightning strike far in the distance as he sits behind deck rain pouring down on the enthusiastic crowd. The sound gets cut for a few minutes and luckily the forecast for the weekend from then on is wrong - the clouds don't part but the rain stops before the grounds get too muddy. Up next is the little French sensation better known as Madeon. I had only seen him over a year prior so I was looking forward to the set in a big way. It's pure magic, and a bit harder than I would expect from the Electro-pop prodigy. Benny Benassi closes out the night with the absolute best set I've heard from him. While Madeon and Page had us shuffling through the lawn, Benassi pulls out the relentless groove and makes us get down and dirty. He puts out a ton of new material for our ears and interestingly enough throws in some serious Trance making the entire mix blissful electronic crossover. 

Friday plays host to my favorite set of the entire weekend: GriZmatik (GRiZ & Gramatik), with special guests. I knew from the start that our favorite jazztronica duo Big Gigantic would be accompanying the two onto the Sherwood Court stage but didn't know what to expect. Dominic dominates the sax while the other three get down to some serious mixing. The performance was liberating in so many senses, groovy but dropping instantaneously into the hardest set I have ever soaked my ears in. We return to the Sherwood Court the next evening to see 3LAU, an artist I have had my eye on for over a year but never experienced live. We stationed our blanket far back on the grass giving us plenty of room to maneuver through Progressive mashups that left me awestruck but still anxious for the main act of the night: Above & Beyond. Admittedly I was on the floor for a good two hours when the announcement that they would be playing came through, but I really don't think I've been more excited for a single show in my entire life.

After seeing any act tens of times it's normal to start to pick at their performance, but I really couldn't find anything to complain about despite the short duration of the set. Festival wise, this was the best I had seen them - close up and intimate right next to the sound but still with room to dance. Paavo and Jono elevated our spirits with a whirlwind set that touched on "Liquid Love," plenty of Group Therapy and tracks off of Anjunabeats Vol. 10, as well as their newest two singles "Walter White" and "King For A Day." With each silky smooth bass-driven transition the crowd would flare as glowsticks flew through the night sky cheering them on

The Forest at night is a different place with different critters. It's easy to get lost, but that's how you get found. Disco balls and lasers discordantly emit light of all different colors, huge luminescent flowers change with touch, and larger-than-life jellyfish structures draw in strangers from different states of mind. Time flows through every corner of the forest, making the experience a standstill but at the same time the fastest and most elusive trip of your life. Techno vibrates from a small but immensely loud stage adding a decisive groove to its small little corner of the forest. Across the way the groove's more spontaneous, with random friends lining the drum truck each striking to their own rhythm. Some parts of the woods are silent, that's where you go to take a nap or do some reflecting. 

Electric Forest is not an "EDM festival," or a jam-band festival, or even a music festival. It's a celebration of balance between the times when you're just breathing and the times where you're gasping for air because you're so happy to be living. It's about the small little moments that inextricably multiply to make this world so magnificent. As Pretty Lights closes out the main stage Sunday with a moving performance that has my knees buckling, we make our way over to the Sherwood Court to give our final salute to the year's celebration with Beats Antique. The set is tribal and perfect for the forest crowd, but I get an uneasy feeling in my stomach. After a rousing four days in Rothbury, I'm not ready to go home.

As we begrudgingly wave our final farewell until next year to the gates of the Forest a renewed sense of optimism mixes in with the blues. The night is far from over and the experiences at the campsite provide the perfect parting gift. We sit on the roof of the car watching parades of floating lanterns hundreds of feet up with fireworks banging in the background. As our neighbor lights them off before us they slowly drift up before finding their own comfy little tunnel of wind to soar and take off with rapid speed into the cool air. Like the lanterns we all found our groove in Rothbury. I found mine in 2012 and kept it going through this year's escape into the wild, and now it's been renewed. I'm not so sad anymore when the sun rises the next morning. How could I be when I got to experience something so divine and now tradition?

Photo Gallery

By Edward Fancher

Photos by Brooke Allan for EDM Lounge

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