Thursday, July 10, 2008

WB Guest Writer: Rothbury Festival Review

WB staff will be enjoying some peanuts and Cracker Jacks in Detroit on Thursday, so they're happy to present Part One of an in-depth review of the recent Rothbury Music Festival, written by 78rpm's daughter, 45rpm (left), who attended the event with her Significant Other:

***** Thursday: The middle of Michigan may seem an ill-fated location for a rock music festival, but the Rothbury festival managed to consolidate an estimated 40,000 music fans on 200 acres of land, 222 miles northwest of Detroit Rock City. Torrential downpour the night before the gates opened made camping a bit problematic (ours wasn’t the only car to get stuck in the mud on the way in), but everyone seemed able to find a dry patch in the large open field.

The festival grounds, a 20 minute walk from the remotest camping spot, were flanked by a General Store with the only reasonably priced beverages available ($2 fair-trade coffee!) and information booths, as well as the requisite “Official Merchandise” booth and several food vendors. Once through a security check of varying severity—some guards patted down anyone with large pockets, while others didn’t even check if water bottles were sealed or empty, as rules mandated—we were greeted by several large-scale works of art. A freestanding bamboo sculpture, some intricately carved gates to nothing but more field, and an odd contraption that became one of the most talked about parts of the festival: The Monkeys.

The monkeys (left) hung stationary from metal poles that arched over and down to come together in a central area. Around the center were drums that festival goers could beat to create a monkey sound or a drumbeat. “Oh my God!” I heard one girl exclaim, “Those were at Burning Man! It is so cool!” Sure, it was okay, but her excitement didn’t make sense until night fell. Then the part of the sculpture that supported the monkeys began to spin, and each was crafted so that with the help of a strobe light, it appeared that it was one monkey, swinging from branch to branch, while a snake with an apple in the hand it had in place of a head wound down from above and stuffed the apple into the monkey’s mouth.

To the left of this monkey madness was a large pink and yellow circus tent, adorned on its right by thrift store furniture and naked mannequins. The front of the tent sported a metal sign reading “Establishment,” and this rarely-frequented setting was where we spent most of our time. Inside were tables draped with bolts of cloth, shorter tables with folding chairs around them in the front, and taller cocktail tables in the rear. From the center of the tent hung a rope, surrounded in a 12’x12’ square by antique chandeliers. The floor was covered in hay, but this, as explained by the tent’s proprietor—Amanda Palmer of the Dresden Dolls—was “not for the farm feel” but because the tent had flooded in the previous night’s rains.

The Dresden Dolls are a “punk cabaret” group produced on Roadrunner Records. They have a sizable underground following but minimal radio play. Amanda Palmer is the vocalist/piano player for the group, and the organizer of the Establishment Tent. Most people (like us) who came to the tent before the Dolls performed on Saturday came because they had read about it in her blog. Later, she advertised the tent at their big-stage show, but either way, the Dresden Dolls were a big deal to most Establishment attendees.

On the first night, Thursday, the festival kicked off at seven, and the first show in the Establishment Tent was at nine, and we spent every moment of that first night in the tent. That night we saw Sxip’s Hour of Charm, a variety show from New York City, hosted by Sxip Shirey (left), a close friend of Amanda’s (as were all who performed in the tent). The first act that night and in all succeeding shows was Una Mimnagh, a stationary trapeze artist and the reason for the rope hanging from the ceiling. She performed amazing feats on that rope, some terrifying, some requiring astounding muscle control. She performed accompanied by Sxip’s harmonica, and her act culminated in a 20-foot headfirst fall, from which she stopped herself just inches from the ground.

As the setup for that final drop, Sxip intensified his harmonica playing as Una scaled to the top, then stopped completely as she hung upside down over the crowd. The tent was so silent we could hear her exhale just before she let go. The crowd of 50 or so people erupted in screams and cheers loud enough to have been twice as many. Una was followed by Rachelle Garniez (left), a singer and accordion player with easily the most diverse vocal range I have ever heard. Sounding alternately like a little girl and a grown man who has smoked for many years and everywhere in between, she blew the crowd away. Accompanying her songs were schizophrenic sounding stories about making powdered frogs and sailing the sea in a cast iron bathtub.

Sxip himself performed next, making music using only a loop pedal, a distortion pedal, his voice, a harmonica and a “box of crap” containing various noise makers. After him came Project Jenny Project Jan, a dance music duo playing silly and very catchy songs while projecting correlated images on the ceiling above them.

The show ended with an appearance by Amanda Palmer herself, who performed three songs: one from her upcoming solo album, a Dresden Dolls song, and finally a cover of Radiohead’s “Creep” — on the ukulele.

The Hour of Charm was followed by the Yard Dogs Road Show/Black and Blue Burlesque Review—a group of “Circus Punks,” as I heard them called when I lived in New Orleans. They played music, performed magic tricks, dressed in costumes and generally impressed the audience. Their troupe included a sword swallower whose sword illuminated the inside of his throat, and two excellent female vocalists, one of whom played her own trombone solos during her songs. We left the tent dazed and delighted, and the “Did you see… How did they…” discussions didn’t end until we passed out on the cold, hard ground inside our tent.

1 comment:

Tine said...

Hi!!! I see that you visited Rothbury in 2008! So did I!. In fact, your "Establishment" sign described in your story, was made by my boyfriend, Sethro..::) we won 2 (4day) tix to this event because of that sign!