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Michigan's Rothbury Music Festival


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Rock on! (and camp out at the ranch)

4-day music weekend to combine big-name performers with an environmental theme


When fans begin arriving at the Rothbury festival today, they'll likely be struck by the lush beauty of the place: sumptuous rolling hills, sparkling blue lakes, forests outfitted with a kaleidoscope of lights.

What won't be so apparent is the behind-the-scenes nitty-gritty that led to this four-day music weekend north of Muskegon.

"It was a whole lot of antacid," said Don Strasburg, vice president of booking for AEG Live, which is staging the event with Colorado firm Madison House Presents.

For Strasburg and his partners, including fest producer Jeremy Stein, this weekend culminates months of complex planning. They've been Rothburied for more than a year -- booking artists, coordinating with state and local officials, working with engineers to turn the Double JJ Ranch into a mini music city.

Rothbury isn't the biggest U.S. music event, but it is the most notable newcomer on a national festival scene that has begun to blossom in a big way.

Hundreds of workers have been putting the final touches on the site this week. The first of Rothbury's expected 35,000-plus fans will begin rolling in at 6 a.m. today, setting up their campsites before diving in for four days of music and environmental themes.

The hum of trucks and the beeping of forklifts will be replaced by the sounds of acts such as the Dave Matthews Band and John Mayer. The tranquil, rural site, bounded by 12 miles' worth of fencing, will teem with college-aged fans and twentysomethings.

Keeping with the neo-hippie vibe onstage, officials anticipate a mellow weekend. This isn't a hard rock fest like the rowdy Woodstock '99, which famously descended into chaos on its final night.

"The bands are all pretty low-key," said 1st Lt. Dave Roesler of the Michigan State Police. "From that aspect, we're not expecting any major trouble with the crowd. It's just a lot of people in one place at one time."

Citing security concerns, police officials won't divulge staff numbers, but Roesler said troopers have been summoned from as far as Brighton.

"This is by far the largest event to land in Oceana County," he said.

Festival officials said late Wednesday attendance could reach 50,000.

"When we first heard about this, I thought, 'Wait -- this is a dream,' " said David Woller, supervisor of nearby Grant Township. "And now here we are. Here's the day."

Big dreams and a little luck

As these things often are, Rothbury was a combination of big dreams and a little luck.

Stein and Strasburg, longtime allies in the Colorado concert industry, had talked for years about staging a major rock fest. Having paired to produce hundreds of concerts -- along with events such as the 1999 millennial gala in Portland, Ore. -- they felt ready to step up to the next level. What they didn't have was a site.

"We were looking all over the country," said Strasburg. "It's very hard to find the sort of space and access we needed while being within reasonable distance from major population centers. But first and foremost, you need an infrastructure. You can't create anything special if it isn't going to function."

Along came Brian Lipsitz.

A Bloomfield Hills native who attended the University of Colorado and was active in the Boulder music scene, Lipsitz was introduced to Stein by a mutual friend in 2006. He'd already been toying with the idea of a big concert at the Double JJ, a 2,200-acre resort owned by his parents, Robert and Joan Lipsitz. The ranch had just hosted its first major music act: Southern-rock band Molly Hatchet, there for a bike rally.

Phone chats led to more formal talks, and in November 2006, Stein made his first trip to the Double JJ.

He was sold.

"I was looking for a site that would be a definer for a festival, a unique space that you couldn't reproduce," said Stein. The infrastructure was key -- plumbing, electricity, water wells -- "but unquestionably, it was the natural surroundings that really made it," he said.

Numbers were crunched, budgets proposed and within months, Rothbury was a go -- christened with the name of the tiny, 416-person township near the Double JJ. By the time of the fest's public announcement in February, excavation and brush clearing had already begun at the site.

"This has all been a combination of the right forces and the right timing," said Lipsitz, 24. "As we developed the plan, we started feeling more and more confident of creating something on a larger scale."

Lauren Maiman, a friend of Lipsitz, looks back bemusedly at her long-ago offer to lend a hand at his concert someday.

"I never guessed he'd end up working with some of the biggest names in the industry and wouldn't really need my help parking cars," she said.

An environmental mission

For Strasburg, the linchpin moment came with the booking of Widespread Panic, a star of the jam-rock scene.

"Our headliners are all artists we scoped out early on," he said. "Widespread Panic was the first to commit, which involved a good bit of faith in us. That's when I realized this really was going to happen."

Rothbury's environmental mission was a key part of the pitch to bands, organizers say. Billed as a sustainable event, the fest is aiming to create minimal waste and will hold workshops with titles such as "How America's Youth Are Driving the Energy Revolution."

Structuring the schedule of 80-plus performers and designing a musical flow that made sense turned out to be far trickier than Strasburg had envisioned.

"I went in thinking this would be easy," he said with a laugh. "By the time I finished the grid, I realized: Actually, yes, this is rocket science."

Though some news accounts have described this as the first annual Rothbury festival, organizers have been cautious about how they describe the future.

"We'll reexamine after this is done and see how everybody wants to move forward," said Lipsitz.

In Grant Township, which passed ordinances allowing the Double JJ to host festivals, supervisor Woller is taking a wait-and-see approach.

"Do we have everything covered as a local government?" he said. "We don't know yet."

Rothbury's team of specialists includes veterans from the global festival scene. Still, Strasburg is sure lessons will emerge as the weekend progresses. He's in a lucky spot: He gets to play the role of festivalgoer and soak up the scene.

"My job is to keep my eyes open and take the whole thing in, understanding the experience so we can adjust," he said. "When I'll be able to breathe is when I look out and see people saying, 'Wow -- this worked.' "

Contact BRIAN McCOLLUM at mccollum@freepress.com.

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Rothbury line-up and schedule

The line-up


The Ranch Arena

7:15-8:30 p.m.: Greensky Bluegrass

9-10:30 p.m.: Zappa Plays Zappa

11:15 p.m.-1:30 a.m.: Disco Biscuits

Sherwood Court

6:30-7:45 p.m.: Kyle Hollingsworth Band

8:15-9:30 p.m.: Perpetual Groove

10-11:30 p.m.: Mickey Hart Band featuring Steve Kimock and George Porter Jr.

Midnight-1:30 a.m.: Railroad Earth

Tripolee Domes

6:30-7:45 p.m.: Underground Orchestra

8:30-9:30 p.m.: Juan Maclean

10:15-11:30 p.m.: Lotus

Midnight-2 a.m.: EOTO

Wagon Wheel

10 p.m.-midnight: Motion Potion

Midnight-2 a.m.: DJ Rootz


The Odeum

12:45-1:45 p.m.: The Dynamics featuring Charles Walker

2:30-3:30 p.m.: The Wailers

4:15-5:30 p.m.: Snoop Dogg

6:15-7:45 p.m.: 311

8:45-10 p.m.: Widespread Panic (Set 1)

10:30 p.m.-midnight: Widespread Panic (Set 2)

The Ranch Area

12:30-1:30 p.m.: The Beautiful Girls

2-3 p.m.: Tea Leaf Green

3:30-4:30 p.m.: Sam Beam

5:15-6:30 p.m.: Keller Williams featuring Moseley, Droll & Sipe

7-8:45 p.m.: Yonder Mountain String Band featuring Jon Fishman

9:30-10:45 p.m.: Of Montreal

12:30-2:30 a.m.: Primus

Sherwood Court

12:30-1:15 p.m.: Jakob Dylan & the Gold Mountain Rebels

1:45-2:45 p.m.: Panjea with Michael Kang

3:15-4:15 p.m.: Bettye LaVette

5-6:15 p.m.: Drive-By Truckers

7-8:30 p.m.: Modest Mouse

12:15-1:45 a.m.: Thievery Corporation

2 a.m.-close: Bassnectar

Tripolee Domes

7:15-8:30 p.m.: Sage Francis

12:15-1:15 a.m.: Flosstradamus

1:15-2:15 a.m.: Diplo

2:15 a.m.-close: Pnuma Trio

Wagon Wheel

6:15-7:15 p.m.: Fiction Plane

Midnight-1 a.m.: DJ Rootz

1-2 a.m.: Motion Potion

2 a.m.-close: Sojorn


The Odeum

1:15-2:15 p.m.: Four Finger Five

2:45-3:45 p.m.: State Radio

4:30-5:45 p.m.: Citizen Cope

6:30-8 p.m.: Michael Franti & Spearhead

9-11:30 p.m.: Dave Matthews Band

The Ranch Area

12:45-1:45 p.m.: Dead Confederate

2:15-3:15 p.m.: Secret Machines

3:45-4:45 p.m.: Gomez

5:30-6:45 p.m.: The Black Keys

7:15-8:45 p.m.: Slightly Stoopid

Midnight-2:30 a.m.: STS9

Sherwood Court

12:45-1:30 p.m.: Trampled by Turtles

2-3 p.m.: Emmitt-Nershi Band

3:30-4:30 p.m.: Dresden Dolls

5:15-6:45 p.m.: Medeski, Martin and Wood

7:15-8:45 p.m.: Derek Trucks & Susan Tedeschi -- Soul Stew Revival

11:45 p.m.-1:15 a.m.: A3

1:30 a.m.-close: Crystal Method

The Establishment

7:45-8:45 p.m.: Boombox

Tripolee Domes

7:15-8:30 p.m.: Bus Driver

11:30 p.m.-12:30 a.m.: DJ Harry

12:30-1:30 a.m.: DJ Rekha

1:30 a.m.-close: Kraak & Smaak

Wagon Wheel

2:30-3:15 p.m.: Sweet Japonic

3:45-4:30 p.m.: Uncle Boogie Pants

11:45 p.m.-12:45 a.m.: Motion Potion

12:45-1:45 a.m.: DJ Rootz

1:45 a.m.-close: DJ Harry


The Odeum

1-2:15 p.m.: Steel Pulse

2:45-4 p.m.: Rodrigo Y Gabriela

4:30-5:30 p.m.: Trey Anastasio

6:15-7:45 p.m.: Gov't Mule

8:30-11 p.m.: Phil Lesh and Friends

The Ranch Area

1:30-2:30 p.m.: Brett Dennen

3-4:15 p.m.: JJ Grey & MOFRO

5-6 p.m.: Colbie Caillat

6:45-8:45 p.m.: John Mayer

Sherwood Court

1-1:45 p.m.: Ingrid Michaelson

2:15-3:30 p.m.: Taj Mahal

4-5 p.m.: Beth Orton

5:45-6:45 p.m.: Mike Gordon

7:30-8:30 p.m.: Atmosphere and Brother Ali

The Establishment

4-4:45 p.m.: Adam Ezra Group

Tripolee Domes

10:30-midnight: Boombox

Midnight-1 a.m.: Pnuma Live PA

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