Electric Forest, a two weekend, eight day music festival near Rothbury, Michigan outdid themselves this year. The forest was covered with original art pieces, eccentric characters and games and activities, so there was rarely a dull moment. And at night, the woods came alive with an absolutely stunning neon light display; everything that made the forest beautiful in the daylight was amplified by the lights dancing across them. This year’s phenomenal lineup, stunning forest and incredible atmosphere all made Electric Forest an incredibly special experience.
Even entering the forest for the first time was an overwhelming experience. As I stepped through the front gate, I found myself greeted by a driving rhythm flowing from the subwoofers of the Tripolee stage, where a majority of the drum and bass and deep house acts would perform. After wandering the grounds a bit, I finally settled at Waka Flocka Flame performing at Sherwood Court, Electric Forest’s biggest stage. Waka had transitioned fully into the EDM realm. He rarely rapped, mostly acting as a hype man while his DJ played drop after drop. But while the nostalgia trip back to middle school dances was fun for a hot second, his set became boring quickly and I moved on.
A little while later I found myself at Con Brio’s secret show at the Grand Artique stage. The Grand Artique is the festival’s smallest stage and isn’t even on the festival map. Hidden behind the trading post, artists really have to earn their crowds while performing there. Throughout the weekend, some acts only brought in 15 or so fans, but Con Brio packed the venue. Their fiery stage presence drew fans in like moths to a flame. Their undeniable energy coupled with the intimate venue made their set a definite highlight of the weekend.
The top highlight of day one, however, was Kamasi Washington. The saxophone virtuoso brought along a five-piece band to back him, and every member was immensely talented. Washington’s improvisational jazz didn’t fit in with the rest of the lineup and most festival goers overlooked him, but that actually turned out to be a positive. The smaller crowd created a more personal connection to Kamasi, making for a rare treat and welcome change from the more aloof DJs.
Long Beach rapper Vince Staples closed out the night at the Jubilee stage. Given that he was the only rapper on the lineup (besides Waka, but who’s counting him?) and it was the same night of his album release, Staples’ set should have been a really special performance. Maybe it was the crowd’s exhaustion, or maybe the EDM fans were hoping for something else, but the crowd seemed ambivalent towards Vince. Each track drew polite applause instead of ravenous cheers, and Vince mentioned four times that his new album was now out, only to be met by an underwhelming crowd response. He continued trying to appeal to the crowd, playing his track with Flume and even a Major Lazer remix. Unfortunately, overall his set didn’t connect and the night ended on an odd note.
In the dense campgrounds, sleep is near impossible. Campers set up renegade stages to keep the party raging through the night, and early-risers made a good night’s sleep feel like a distant dream. So come the start of day two, exhausted but determined to see all that I could, I set out into the forest and stopped by jam band The String Cheese Incident. String Cheese performed five sets in the first two days (you read that right, five sets), and felt like a constant source of relaxation through the first half of the weekend.
Then I moved on to see DJ-Duo Two Friends at the Jubilee stage. Every stage at Electric Forest has its own amazing unique personality, except for Jubilee. Jubilee is just a big open space under a tent with a bar at the back. Regardless, Two Friends kept the Jubilee crowd jumping with a strong mix of pop-inspired remixes and forward-thinking dance cuts. The addition of a live saxophonist made their set especially fun.
What to do next wasn’t an easy decision. Turning down the opportunity to see Kamasi Washington’s second set for Tycho was a painful choice, but in the end the right one. Performing at Sherwood Court, Tycho lulled the crowd into peace with their hypnotic, swelling tunes. However, the tested veterans had amateurish stage presence, staring at their instruments almost the entire show. It didn’t seem to matter to anyone, though. The audience was too lost in Tycho’s looping tracks to care what was visually happening on stage, and the show still was a great one.
A stark contrast to Tycho, ODESZA highlighted the second night with a brilliant LED display and bright dance music. Many EDM acts can be incredibly detached on stage, hiding behind their turntables, but ODESZA’s Harrison Mills and Clayton Knight embraced the spotlight. Fire spouted from the stage as they pounded their beat pads, silhouetted by images of magma. ODESZA put on one of the best spectacles of the weekend. Like their music, it was simple but delightful.
To end the night, deep house DJ AC Slater performed at the Forest Stage amid the trees. I’ve never been a fan of house music, but Slater’s set was oddly compelling. It’s tough to explain, but there’s something about getting lost in a neon forest while deliriously exhausted that makes driving house beats ideal. The repetitive bass lines and simple stage was the antithesis to ODESZA’s performance and a great way to cap the day.
As day three began, all anyone talked about was Bassnectar. Everyone just seemed to just be killing time all day until his night-closing set. I talked to one self-proclaimed “Basshead” who said the first Bassnectar show he went to changed his life. The more people I talked to, the more I realized how much I had underestimated the acclaimed DJ’s popularity.
While waiting for Bassnectar, I stopped by Sherwood Court to see Francis and the Lights. Francis performs with contagious exuberance. He jumped on anything and everything he could find on the stage. It wasn’t long until Francis burst out of the confines of the stage entirely; his DJ looped the track while Francis pranced around the crowd, inviting everyone to join in. Soon most of the fans near the stage were jumping and running around, too, before Francis one-hopped the barricade and picked up the show right where he left off. With his obvious joy and passion, Francis was another definite bright point of the weekend.
Eventually the sunshine retired for the evening and fans swarmed the Ranch Stage; it was time for Bassnectar. To match the biggest crowd of the weekend, Bassnectar brought by far the most impressive light show of the festival, complete with swirling lights, endlessly reaching lasers, trippy visuals and even fireworks. To start off his show, Bassnectar played a speech by Bill Hicks comparing life to a ride at an amusement park that we’ve forgotten we got on https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KgzQuE1pR1w). Heavy, distorted bass followed for the next hour in a grueling set bordering on sensory overload. Even though I only knew one song he played the whole night, Bassnectar’s set was a thoroughly enjoyable experience. Not a life-changing concert like promised by the aforementioned Basshead, but a worthwhile one nonetheless.
Day four began with unprecedented fatigue. Three straight days of nonstop music and awful sleep left me reeling and craving a relaxation break. Luckily, jam band Earphorik provided exactly that at the minuscule Grand Antique Stage during the first set of the day. Only around 15 people made it to that show, but those who attended were glad they did, myself included. Earphone’s calm, clear riffs refreshed my system and started the final day on a strong note.
Later, after watching Persian trap musician Asadi and old-school rap and pop blender Matoma, I found the only set I strongly disliked all weekend; Autograf. Their set started out innocent enough, with a sub-par remix of D.R.A.M. and Lil Yachty’s “Broccoli.” A regrettable house remix of Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” followed suit, and then a remix of “Heard It Through the Grapevine” that would’ve appalled Marvin Gaye. Many EDM producers try to create a new sound, but Autograf missed the mark badly.
Quickly leaving Autograf, I learned what a real DJ can do at A-Trak’s set. A-Trak has released several original tracks over his long career, but he shines brightest as a DJ. He lead the crowd in a cross-genre dance marathon, seamlessly transitioning from Joan Jett to Ludacris to progressive EDM cuts and everything in-between. He had the crowd on a string, flawlessly leading them through genres for a truly memorable set.
As good as A-Trak was, however, there was no better way to end the weekend than with Big Gigantic’s saxophone-infused dance beats. With live instruments backing their huge production, Big Gigantic were able to harness a stage energy that no single DJ possibly could. Thanks to their excessively danceable tracks, everyone left the forest with a smile on their face and a rhythm in their step.
Overall, Electric Forest is a remarkable festival and my experience there was just that. The organizers’ commitment to featuring every sub-genre of electronic music makes it a must-see festival for EDM fans. Even if you’re not a “Basshead,” there are enough acts who diversify the lineup to still ensure a great time for all.