Guitar riffs, rhymes and polyrhythmic ragas got the second Rothbury Festival off to an eclectic start on Thursday at the Double JJ Ranch in western Michigan.
If a star is to be born at this year's edition of the Rothbury it may well be Davy Knowles, the blues-rock guitar whiz from the Isle of Man who led his band, Back Door Slam, through a blistering hour-long set on the festival's Sherwood Court stage. With a husky voice and nimble fingers, Knowles delivered fierce renditions of his own songs, including "River Bend," "Tear Down the Walls" and "Keep on Searchin'," the latter co-written with Peter Frampton, who produced the group's new album "Coming Up For Air." Knowles also populated his set with covers, including Woodstock 40th anniversary nods to Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young ("Almost Cut My Hair") and Creedence Clearwater Revival ("Commotion") as well as the late Rory Gallagher's "Walk on Hot Coals." The crowd for Knowles was light, but those who saw him were certainly telling others about the hot one they missed.
But Knowles wasn't the only one making guitar magic on Thursday at Rothbury. Keller Williams played most of his 90-minute set on the Ranch Arena stage alone, looping and blending several instruments and his voice for a typically unique aural trip. After about an hour, however, he was joined by String Cheese Incident bassist Keith Moseley for a few songs, then by SCI keyboardist Kyle Hollingsworth and a drummer for a finish that included a lively romp through "Kidney in a Cooler."
String Cheese Incident also surprised some lucky fans who had managed to slip into the site before the gates opened with a half-hour sound check for its Friday night set, the group's only scheduled performance this year.
Back at Sherwood Court, rap impresario Lyrics Born presented a two and a half hour showcase of his Quannum All Stars, with Lifesavas setting up the Mighty Underdogs all-star troupe -- including Blackalicious' Gift of Gab -- before Born took the stage with a full band to play songs from his latest album, "Everywhere at Once," a cover of Run-DMC's "It's Like That" and an instrumental tribute to Michael Jackson that included snippets of "Billie Jean," "Smooth Criminal," "Beat It" and "Thriller." The Cool Kids filled a late-night spot originally slated for Kid Cudi, while the first of several Toubab Krewe performances served up a selection of World Music styles and Lotus dazzled a packed house at the Ranch Arena with 90 minutes of proggy dance music.
Rothbury will roll out the big guns for its weekend shows which, in addition to the String Cheese Incident, include The Dead's only summer appearance and last scheduled concert of 2009 on Saturday and sets by Willie Nelson & Family and Bob Dylan and His Band on Sunday. Jeremy Stein of Madison House Presents, which produces Rothbury with AEG Live, has acknowledged that advance ticket sales for this year's shows lagged behind 2008, but earlier this week he predicted an attendance of at least 30,000 -- 2008 drew an estimated 35,000 - with hopes that a Saturday-Sunday ticket and a newly added Sunday-only offer will lure additional fans to the festival.