As a consummate city dweller, my second annual trip to Electric Forest was shrouded in equal parts fear and hysteria. City festivals have their major perks, like the ability to eat lunch in a nice urban deli prior to entry, opportunities to explore the area’s cultural attractions, and the availability of a nice shower to wash away the day’s vices. All activities that are easy to take for granted until Saturday afternoon beneath the harsh sun as you eagerly wait for Big Freedia to bounce across EF’s Tripolee Stage. Sure, hammocks are abundant within the ornately-lit Sherwood Forest, but it’s hard to catch a moment of slumber beneath the massive evergreen trees when endless opportunities for collaborations exist at Rothbury, MI’s massive Double JJ Ranch. After two years, it’s clear, artists don’t just visit the forest to play to adoring fans from across the U.S., they come to hang out with one another, creating new tracks and long-term relationships.
Even with horse manure covering most of the campsite and lengthy treks for essentials, the sunburns and blisters were a small pittance to witness impromptu collaborations between Cherub and Big Gigantic, String Cheese Incident with The Travelin’ McCourys and Keller Williams, Alvin Risk alongside Dominic Lalli, and the true oddities that take place all festival long within the shade of the forest. Plus, the festival may wrap around four each morning, but if you have the ability to outlast Ghostland Observatory, Major Lazer, Steve Aoki, Diplo, and bass wunderkind Crizzly, then the party continues into the camping area with rogue sets by dozens of musicians and DJs. All the excitement leads toward one major drawback — finding sleep. But that is what Monday and Tuesday are for.
After wiping away the dust and a seven-hour drive back to reality, this is how I recall the weekend that was Electric Forest. Like all great adventures, neither words nor pictures can truly do the event justice, for there is a sense of camaraderie and freedom that develops after days of yoga and nights of communal partying that must be experienced to be appreciated.
Thursday, June 28th
Conspirator Sherwood Court 9:00 p.m.
Led by the Disco Biscuits’ Marc Brownstein (bass) and Aron Magner (keys), Conspirator added heat to an already blistering Thursday evening. With current drummer KJ Sawka (formerly of Pendulum) and guitarist Chris Michetti, the four-piece were the early epitome of Electric Forest the hybrid of jam music, mechanized bass, and virtual synths. The infusion of Sawka helped reshape the live band’s dynamic low end, working tightly with Brownstein to create a rhythmic, yet ever-shifting bassline for Magner to work in progessive house synth lines. Periodic eye contact and hand gestures helped keep the outfit in tight synchronization through a series of new tracks. Defying any definable genre: the set approached bass-heavy freeform jazz.
Wolfgang Gartner Ranch Arena 10:15 p.m.
A former Deep House DJ, Wolfgang Gartner (AKA Joseph Thomas Youngman) produces a more melodic set than many of his electro-house peers. Gartner’s early progressive house vibe was driven through the crowd with a series of Jump Up drops, most notably in Devil’s Den, his track produced alongside Skrillex. The performance was an early indicator of how heavy the EF crowd was prepared to go throughout the extended weekend.
EOTO Sherwood Court 10:45 p.m.
Originally with a sound based in live Middle Eastern-infused dub, EOTO’s sound has shifted more toward highly syncopated glitch/electro hop. Formed by String Cheese Incident’s percussionists Michael Travis and Jason Hann, the duo form their live loops and intricate backbeat with a plethora of equipment including multiple mixing boards, vocoders, and Travis’ tower of keyboards, pads, and string instruments. The duo now perform surrounded by the massive Lotus created by visual mapper Zebbler, who also created Shpongle’s Shpongletron. As visually stimulating as it may be to a late-night crowd, the size is a distraction to the actual performance of the two great artists. On the flip side, the surrounding flower serves as a complimentary visual dynamic to compliment the duo electronic efforts.
Quixotic Forest Stage 11:00 p.m.
Based in Kansas City, MO, Quixotic is a next generation cabaret backed with percussive world music. Completed with a fiddle, two percussionists, a beautifully tempting live keyboardist/producer, and multiple female dancers, the troupe surrounded the Forest Stage with entertainment. The crowd shifted from the stage, where at one point four dancers weaved among one another wearing laser gloves, toward a chiseled woman working a silk rope, and a duo slinging their bodies through a structure of giant metallic rings. Quite possibly, the surprise spectacle of the Elecrtic Forest weekend, and a true can’t miss during future excursions.
Ghostland Observatory Ranch Arena 12:00 a.m.
No band puts on a light show quite like Austin’s Ghostland Observatory. Just a duo, frontman Aaron Behrens and live producer Thomas Turner can fill an entire forest with lasers, piercing vocals, and soulful electro beats. The performance began with a hiccup, a major cut in sound that eliminated all vocals more than a few dozen feet from the stage, inciting a chant among the crowd to TURN IT UP!!. Possibly an attempt for a last minute sound check, Behrens kept signaling to the sound crew to alter the mic, monitor, and speakers.
The headlining performance focused more heavily on Turner than previous tours. Heavy edits of Dancing On My Grave and Kick Clap Speaker enabled the duo to keep the energy pulsing, choosing to mix between tracks and avoid song breaks. Even without his long flowing mane, Behrens owned the stage, dancing from side to side amid the lasers and smog machines, always managing to keep his peculiar pitch for crowd favorites Ghetto Magnet and Freeze. Of course, no Ghostland set is complete without Club Soda and the downpour of glowstick the longer the better.
Friday, June 29th
Cherub Tripolee 3:00 p.m.
Those not hip to Mufreesboro, TN’s Cherub missed out on an intimate opportunity to witness the up-and-coming duo perform alongside Big Gigantic. Big G’s Dominic Lalli (saxophone) and Jeremy Sulken (drums) sat in for a series of tracks beginning with the profane, but hilarious XOXO and stayed til set closer Doses and Mimosas. The afternoon seemed like a rare occasion for Jordan Kelley and Jason Huber. Kelley enjoying every moment of performing with Lalli, and Huber was able to share the moment with his mother, dedicating Monogamy for her first ever festival appearance.
Two Fresh Wagon Wheel 5:00 p.m.
After extensive touring in 2011, the Nicholls brothers behind Two Fresh have expanded their sound for festival season 2012. Producing a form of uptempo electronic hip-hop beats, the pair are a fury of hands moving from laptops to their mixer to controllers. The setup was so cramped in the humid Wagon Wheel that a stage tech accidentally snagged a cord, bringing the initial flow to an abrupt stop. Two Fresh immediately excused the folly, and DJ Raw Russ added a bit of hype until the problem was resolved. The hype-bass hip-hop was further syncopated with the constant pulse of drummer Colby Buckler. Much like their appearance at Detroit’s Movement, Two Fresh added a bit of their own lyrical flow to the set. The duo have the ability to write a hook, but they deliver a beat much more aptly than they deliver a line. A problem easily resolved by reaching out to the industry’s many young emcess.
Virtual Boy Forest Stage 8:30 p.m.
Virtual Boy is classic music generated for your character in The Sims or Half Life. Founded by classically-trained musicians Henry Allen and Preston Walker, the duo filled the Forest Stage with multiple synthesizers, a midi guitar, and live performance bassist Mike Cardusic to transform dense melodies into modern dance-pop instrumentals. In other words, developing a sound similar to Hot Chip during a Bach appreciation session. With the crowd out in full force to chill in the shade and synth elegance, two rave mimes stepped on stage to cause a little bit of mayhem and draw some laughs from the band and wookies among the forest.
Paper Diamond Sherwood Court 10 p.m.
Formally of The Pnuma Trio, Alex Botwin now attacks the production table as Paper Diamond. Having earlier curated the Elm and Oak Beach Bash at EF’s Wagon Wheel, Botwin lured the crowd through the forest with his mix of Colorado party music, dubstep, plus variations of hip-hop remixes and instrumentals. The set featured tracks from previous EP Levitate and multiple new songs, most notably a production with Big G’s Dominic Lalli that draws major characteristics from the growing trap movement. According to Botwin, look out for much of this material to become available this week.
Thievery Corporation Ranch Arena 12:30 a.m.
Often with 13 members on stage, Thievery Corporation nearly topped String Cheese for most crowded EF main stage performance. Co-founders Rob Garza and Eric Hilton are still key members of the world beat collective, but are only a small cog in the live Thievery Corporation experience. Garza manned the decks high above the crowd, like a puppeteer pulling the strings on his life-size marionettes. Hilton chose to sit the Electric Forest performance out, like many of the band’s resent appearances. The show was dominated by the abilities of bassist Hash, sitarist Rob Myers, and the myriad of vocalists including Sleeper Wonder, Sitali, and rapper Sista Pat.
The set opened with Lebanese Blonde from 2000’s The Mirror Conspiracy, then proceeded with more current material off of Radio Retaliation and Culture of Fear. During a festival dominated by heavy beats, Thievery’s downtempo set offered much needed downtime. For nearly two hours, those standing swayed to the hypnotic rhythms generated by the collective, with those laying down probably experiencing wonderful dreams a midst the starlit Northern Michigan Sky.
Steve Aoki – Tripolee – 2:15 a.m.
Steve Aoki may be best known for his raucous L.A. parties, but judging by the producer’s eyes, he had more on his mind Friday night than squirt guns, inflatable rafts, confetti cannons, and epic amounts of vodka. Before jumping into the mix he surveyed the crowd, evaluating just how much energy to push through the decks. The electro-house set didn’t try to match the intensity of stage predecessors Zeds Dead and Datsik, Aoki balanced the set at 130 BPM, mixing between the lower tempos of “Ladi Dadi” and “Beat Down” (feat. Iggy Azalea) and then pushing the pace with his killer unreleased track with UK’s Knife Party dubbed “Piledriver”. Aoki also embedded a half-time into his set, taking roughly five minutes to bring the Dim Mak crew of Alvin Risk, AutoErotique, Felix Cartal, Zeds Dead, Datsik, and guest Excision on stage for one spectacular family photo with the dirty-yet-dayglowed EF audience in the background.
Crizzly – Wagon Wheel – 3:15 a.m.
After the absurdity of 12th Planet’s infamous Wagon Wheel appearance at 2011’s EF, new precautions were in place this year to cut down on the chaos inside of the intimate setting. Strictly enforcing fire code, roughly 85% of the audience was littered around the beach outside of the venue soaking up Crizzly’s crunkstep. For those lucky enough to squeeze inside, they witnessed the super fresh-faced producer merge late 90’s crunk with Skrillex-esque crescendos and bass drops. Even after an hour of heavy mechanized bass lines, most weren’t ready to leave, causing the production team to simply pull the plug on the late-night fiasco.
Saturday, June 30th
Santigold – Ranch Arena – 5:30 p.m.
Like several main stage acts, Santigold was roughly 20 minutes late beginning her early evening set. Having not yet seen the songstress before live, I was expecting a DJ setup with dancers surrounding Santigold for added spectacle, so I was surprised when a full backing band appeared on stage. Even more so by their outfits, which seemed like an odd combination of Sponge Bob and Devo. Two young dancers did the majority of the dancing, Santigold conserving her energy for perfect renditions of “Go!”, “Freak Like Me”, “Creator”, “Say Aha”, “L.E.S. Artistes”, and “Unstoppable”. For those from Brooklyn, the collective added a bit of grime to the set with “Brooklyn Go Hard”.
The set also showcased the maturity of Santigold. The performance as a whole was jovial, but Santigold has developed into a powerful leading lady. She never pushed too hard into the microphone, thus saving her voice for continued touring, and she consistently made eye contact with members of the audience without ever coming across as too gimmicky. The over-the-top showmanship was reserved for the dancers, who went through several costume changes and choreographed dance moves.
Big Freedia – Tripolee – 6:45 p.m.
The crowd was small, but Check Yo Ponytail curated an amazing stage Saturday for the Forest. New Orleans’ Freddie Ross (AKA Big Freedia) may only write songs with a handful of words, but damn can he repeat those words quickly. The Queen Dive/Dick Eata delivered an amazing bounce extravaganza for the audience, complete with two voluptuous females a one muscle-jerking male dancer. “Azz Everywhere” and “Excuse” got the females bouncing, and while neither dancer had a smile on her face, both were able to maintain their intensity throughout the performance. The dancing wasn’t left entirely for the ladies, Freedia also shook it until the belt flew off.
Das Racist – Tripolee – 8 p.m.
I must admit, I don’t truly understand the enigma that is Das Racist. At best, the Queens trio of Himanshu Suri (AKA Heems),Victor Vazquez (AKA Kool A.D.) and hype man Ashok Kondabolu (AKA Dapwell) are the second coming of The Beastie Boys (a collective of a-typical rappers capable of blending political activism with street humor) or they could very well be a joke rap group in the vein of funnyman Andy Kaufman. When audible the trio spat verses about everything from Oxycontin and loving one another (“Brand New Dance”) to being fucked up while boarding planes. At the very least, the beats spun by Pictureplane quelled by love for old-school hip-hop.
Nobody Beats The Drum – Forest Stage – 9:30 p.m.
While attending festivals I attempt to stay objective and focused, but something about the samples and sonic craftsmanship of Nobody Beats the Drum (NBTD) just causes the fanboy to unravel from within. Having already seen the Dutch threesome perform three times during 2012, the trek to the forest was an attempt to see how the guys would be perceived from the bass-heavy crowd EF attracts. The setting brought forth a darker, deeper side of NBTD, generating enough energy to move the hammocks that line the outskirts of the small forest stage. Their Korg module and multiple controllers allow the audio/visual collective to change up the set each and every night, an attitude held over from their earlier days as electro-jazz musicians. The forest setlist may not have been as memmorable as Sunday’s appearance at Tripolee (which featured my favorite track “Girls Suck”), but given the location, this tops my list of NBTD experiences.
12th Planet Dada Life – Tripolee – 10:30 p.m.
I arrived at the Tripolee stage to witness the bass madness of Cali’s 12th Planet, but when two bunches of bananas were propped on stage I knew something was up. As two monster inflatables rose onstage, it was affirmed that Sweden’s Dada Life were about to message the crowd with the deep vibrations of their electro-madness. There are many rules of dada, but they’re all based around the idea of “Always kick out the epic motherfucker,” which they did from the get-go. Known for their greasy sound, the duo of Olle Corneer and Stefan Engblom spliced in a bit of euro-house and gave eardrums a chance to readjust before more debauchery.
Alvin Risk – Forest Stage – 11:00 p.m.
Here is a little tidbit I discovered: Add in a TBA and people will be talking about the set, and making wild guesses the entire weekend. Prior to the always well-dressed Alvin Risk taking the forest stage, rumors of Pretty Lights, Diplo, Excision, and a Bassnector collaborator were all being circulated across EF. Even though his name may not be as recognizable, the young bass junkie churned out a “Psychotic” set for the unsuspecting crowd. As mentioned in the intro, Big G’s Dominic Lalli took the alongside risk mid-set to add improvised jazz-sax riffs to Risk’s demonic bass productions.
STS9 Sherwood Court 12:00 a.m.
The men behind STS9 are five of the most talented musicians of any genre, but Saturday those skills were masked by the giant pyramid of The Great Cycles Spectacle. With over two hours to perform STS9, the set spanned the band’s discography, starting with early classics “Evasive Maneuvers” and “Inspire Strikes Back” then working newer “post-dance rock” tracks like “Be Nice”, “When The Dust Settles” into the fold. The run of early 2000’s tracks was truly a mesmerizing experience into the collective abilities of Brown, Lerner, Murphy, Phipps and Velmer. However, given that the set utilized the “Great Cycles” visuals, it would have been nice to hear more of the that tour’s other-worldly vocal cues and instrumentation.
Major Lazer – Tripolee – 2:00 a.m.
Major Lazer’s MC needs to realize fans can only keep up their arms waving and jump up and down for a finite amount of time. No matter how many times you insist, eventually it just gets old. Major Lazer’s sets are rife with theatrics – streamer cannons, topless DJs, bouncing balls, girls expressing themselves onstage – but after witnessing multiple performances one realizes just how choreographed the entire performance is. Nonetheless, watching Diplo roll around in his giant hamster ball (i.e. Wayne Coyne of The Flaming Lips and Bunny from Rabbit in The Moon) is always cause for celebration.
Musically, the set cut across multiple genres. True Jamaincan Dancehall was the focus of the chill segment of the show, but the mini-breather led into an explosive drum and bass conclusion. Not normally known to reach 160 BPM, Diplo asked the sound team to check the system’s levels, before attempting to blow out the speakers with the incendiary conclusion.
Sunday, July 1st
The M Machine – Tripolee – 4:00 p.m.
Due to all the hype surrounding San Francisco’s The M Machine, I was slightly underwhelmed by their/his DJ set. Excuse the possessive pronoun confusion, but The M Machine is normally a three piece, and only Ben Swardlick made an appearance at the festival. This meant no gigantic iPad controlled M Machine. His ominous production style didn’t first click with the slim crowd, but as he worked through tracks from Metropolis Pt. 1 into the mix, more people were comfortable exiting the shade and dancing to the EP’s chill-wave undertones. This, in all honesty, may be the one major downfall during festivals, a lack of time and stage area to showcase each artist’s visual display.
Gramatik – Tripolee – 6:30 p.m.
If you like the organic electro-hop of Pretty Lights, be sure to check out Brooklyn’s Gramatik. (It’s not hard, considering all his music is available for free at prettylightsmusic.com.) Both his live show and sound are very reminiscent of Pretty Light’s earlier career, manipulating his arrangements with the multi-faceted APC 40 and guitar work by Alex Fakin.
The String Cheese Incident – Ranch Arena – 6:45 p.m.
I have a hard enough time standing in one place for an hour, so I have yet to figure out how the members of The String Cheese Incident manage to perform all out for four consecutive hours, for three straight days. The group’s talent is unquestionable, but with very little personal interest in bluegrass, those 12 hours were better spent taking a quick nap in the shade or discovering new talent across the festival’s other stages. On Sunday, SCI enlisted the support of Keller Williams and the pluckers of The Travelin’ McCourys for a lazy summer afternoon of bluegrass charm. It was entertaining to engage in general people watching during the set, which included ample amounts of hula-hoopers, poi spinners, and even people enjoying the experience with their dogs. And moments did captivate my interest, the times when Kyle Hollingsworth and the multiple percussionists went on their short psychedelic journeys. Playing so much music over the course of the weekend, SCI are sure to walk away with loads of new Generation Y and Millennial fans, I just won’t be fitting into that category any time soon.
Richie Hawtin – Tripolee – 9:45 p.m.
“This is the type of house music that I love” – an unfortunate statement that I had to overhear during the techno set of Windsor legend Richie Hawtin. Only allotted an hour and a half, and using speakers that had issues the entire weekend, Hawtin’s EF set seemed cautious and safe. His mixing was masterful, but Hawtin rarely attempted to drop into bass-rattling sub frequencies or intricately juggle the beats of his multiple tracks. Probably impossible, a visit by Hawtin into the confines of the Paxahua-curated Wagon Wheel would have resulted in a total surreal techno undertaking.
Bassnectar – Rance Arena – 11:00 p.m.
Nobody draws a crowd like Bassnectar (AKA Lorin Ashton). As the road-tested DJ creeps closer into the general public’s eye, he still maintains most of his long standing bass head brethren. A family that was in full force during his closing set of the main stage. Security may have been keeping a close eye on bags, but the masses still managed to bring in thousands of glowsticks, towering ornate poles, squirt guns, and glow-in-the-dark sand. The excitement spread so wide across the forest that folks clambered for the best angles, even if that meant being perched atop the 50-foot tall trees that lined the stage. Bassnectar did insist that some the hysteria stay off stage, after a fan managed to reach his equipment with a pin-point squirt gun blast.
The set was dense with his current VaVa Voom material, including the title track, “Pennywise Tribute”, “Butterfly”, “Laughter Crescendo”, and “Ping Pong”. Each drop instigating a shower of glowsticks from across the expansive field. Ashton also experimented with a new, more easily digestible, hip-hop sound during the set, and showcased a fresh Modeselektor remix. Still packed at half past midnight, Ashton announced that he had two more hours to go, but only two minutes to play it in. I am certain given the right circumstances, the vast majority would have stayed clear through sun up ingesting the liquid beats of Bassnectar.
Big Gigantic – Sherwood Court – 12:30 a.m.
According to the official Electric Forest information packet, Big Gigantic were set to close out the festival from the Tripolee Stage. However, after slowly trudging my way through the crowd and across the park, I was shocked to see the stage already being dismantled. After a second of utter confusion, mind you this did come after far too many hours in the sun, I was quickly redirected clear across the park to Sherwood Court. To my relief, I wasn’t the only one lost, informing many goers that Big G’s plans had changed. Upon arriving at Sherwood Court, it was obvious why the the change was imperative, there was no way Big Gigantic’s current stage set up, or the hoard of fans, would have fit in the confines of Tripolee.
Dominic Lalli (saxophone/producer) and Jeremy Sulken (drums) seemed shocked with the outstanding turnout, thanking EF on multiple occasions for sticking through ’til early Monday morning. As EDM pushes further into the bass-music realm, Big G have shifted their focus from sax-centered party anthems, to heavy dubstep and hip-hop remixes. Lalli took a deep breath and belted through his sax on “Rise and Shine”, but the remixes now steer his attention away from his actual instrument to the screen of his laptop. The transition has been rewarded, with fans going berserk for their signature remix of Waka Flocka’s “Hard in Da Paint”. In fact, the crowd was still so large and relatively unruly at 1:30 a.m. that an unreasonable amount of police presence could be felt at the stage. As illegal fireworks shot overhead, causing the cops to begin congregating, I decided a slightly early exodus was in order. For the weekend seemed complete, and any harsh enforcement would only have put a sour taste on the final moments of Electric Forest 2012.