After two years off during the pandemic, Electric Forest jammed back to life at the Double JJ Resort in the village of Rothbury, MI (population: 486, according to the 2010 census) this past weekend, June 23-26. More than 40,000 people — young people, older people, actual old people and actual children — descended upon the Forest from points throughout the Midwest and well beyond, arriving by the bus and car load. A few people landed on the site via parachute. My mom and I took the car ferry from Wisconsin.
Taking place on a rural, verdant 400-acre swath of land located 10 miles east of Lake Michigan, Electric Forest is known and beloved in the festival scene for marrying all flavors of electronic music with jam and jam-adjacent bands, and in doing so demonstrating the spiritual intersection between these genres and the hippie souls who love them. This year, the festival hosted headliners Porter Robinson, Griz, The String Cheese Incident, Disclosure, Louis The Child and The Disco Biscuits, with additional highlights including Femi Kuti, LP Giobbi, Sylvan Esso, Big Gigantic, CloZee, Toro y Moi and many more.
80% of this year’s attendees were 2020 ticket holders who held onto their passes through the pandemic, and Electric Forest Founder Jeremy Stein tells Billboard that the festival was created using more or less the same plan he and the staff at Madison House Presents (who produce the festival alongside Electric Forest partner Insomniac Events) had put together for the 2020 show that never happened. “I think Electric Forest has a lucky scenario,” Stein says. “Even though there are all the other issues — supply, labor, the truck breaks down, whatever it is — we have all the people who really know how to work through it and know what the goals are. Something we’ve all worked hard for is that there’s an incredibly tight family of people putting this on. People talk about ‘Forest family’ with all the folks coming to the show, but that’s really what it is on the inside as well.”
Same here. While I’ve previously attended Electric Forest with colleagues and friends who felt like family, this year I brought my actual family: my mom, Sara Willems. At 64, she’s a music devotee who’s had the same Steve Miller Band CD in her car since the early ’90s, was in the first row of a Journey concert while six months pregnant with me, raised my siblings and me on Neil Young and Poco and designed many of our family vacations around roadtrips to national parks.
But while she’s seen the Eagles 15 times, my mom’s experience with multi-day music festivals has been limited to me calling her after any given Coachella/EDC/LIB/Ultra/Burning Man to provide a recap. Her involvement with electronic music has been similarly narrow, although I did once take her to see Deadmau5, whom she loved. (“What’s that thing that happened when the music got really intense then everyone went crazy?” she asked after this show. It was the drop.)
So, given her interests and general willingness to try new things, it seemed that Electric Forest’s amalgamation of woodsy fun, multi-genre music, community atmosphere and emphases on whimsy would appeal to her. When I asked her if she wanted to go, she packed a cooler full of yogurt and white wine and got in the car.
Below, my mom reflects to Billboard about her experiences with Electric Forest 2022, her very first multi-day, electronic-focused music festival.
What was your experience with music festivals, prior to this weekend?
I’ve not had much experience with festivals that lasted days, but I have attended concerts that lasted an entire day. In 1972, I saw the Beach Boys, Jesse Colin Young and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young at Milwaukee County Stadium at an event called Day On The Green. I’ve been to others similar to that, but nothing quite like Electric Forest.
What made you want to go to Electric Forest?
Well, I love music. I’ve been to hundreds of concerts in my lifetime, and I’m always open to new music. When you suggested going and asked me to go with, I thought, “Sure, yeah. Let’s do it. It sounds like a lot of fun.” The weather looked great, and the location was perfect for where I live [in Wisconsin.]
Once we got settled at our campsite and went into the festival, what were your initial impressions?
Shock and awe. I was absolutely shocked by the enormity of the event, and yet at that point I still hadn’t had an opportunity to walk around the entire festival. Also the awe… there’s a magical feeling you get when you walk through such a well-planned event. The attention to detail is what made it stand out. I think my dazzle started when we walked into Sherwood Forest, and the attention to the beauty of the experience, with the flowers and the landscaping, the installations, the thoughtfulness behind the set ups, the beautiful reminders that were nailed onto the trees. The installations were so well done and so thought provoking. It’s really a feeling you get when you walk in there. It’s a special place.
Did you expect it to be like that?
I had no expectations at all.
You chatted up a lot of strangers over the weekend. What did you make of the attendees?
I thought the crowd was very polite, very open, very easy to talk to. Everyone was so friendly. The thing I also noticed immediately was the way the crowd sort of sank into the mood of Electric Forest. I was struck by the fact that people come to this event and can be who they want to be for just a few days. They have the freedom to do that, to express themselves, whether it be how they dress, or how they dance, or their choice of music. One fellow said to me that he can come to Electric Forest, and I can come to Electric Forest, and we can have completely different experiences, but we can both have the time of our lives. And I have to agree with that.
People also have an opportunity there to let themselves be whimsical, be in their natural state where they feel joy. And I think it’s a really important thing to be able to do, especially in the climate of the country and the world today. We have to be able to have an outlet to really express ourselves freely, and that is one thing that Electric Forest showed me is available.
So you’re saying that you think this event and others like it are actually important for people?
Very important. I think it’s medicine for people, in a good way. Good medicine. A healing medicine. It allows people to escape their 9-to-5 life and just come and enjoy themselves and be who they want to be for four or five days.
What were your favorite moments of the weekend?
So many! I think one of my favorites was the realization — and it happened pretty much right away — that this is a really special event, that the organizers really considered all the details to make the size of this event really comfortable and enjoyable for everyone there. I enjoyed Sherwood Forest, which is an experience unto itself — the details of the art, the flowers, the beautiful installations, the colors, the freedom and bliss you find in that environment. It makes you feel like a little fairy in the forest.
The other thing I was very surprised by is the size of the event. There were more than 40,000 like-minded humans able to gather together again to celebrate music and life. And in little Rothbury, Michigan! And there was the genuine kindness people showed me and also attending with you and getting a better understanding of your work.
Tell me about your favorite musical moments.
There’s a lot of music I’m interested in. Some I don’t really care for. That being said, beyond what you show me, I’m not very exposed to electronic dance music, and I learned a lot about it over the course of the four days. I very much enjoyed Fred Again… He put on a show that not only provided the most beautiful music, but it was so thoughtful. I really left that show with a profound feeling of an artist understanding what people are going through. He was wonderful. He did an excellent job. I think he’s all heart. I think he provides a show that just draws people in in a way that really makes a person understand how music can be so healing.
And also I was thinking at that show that music itself is a common denominator for so many people. People argue about so many things in this world today, but music is universal, and I really felt that way during Fred’s show.
What about The String Cheese Incident? You’d never seen a jam band before their show on Saturday night. Based on your dancing and cheering, you seemed to really enjoy it.
I’m a huge jam band fan now. They were so great! The show was four hours long, and it seemed to go so fast because it was so enjoyable and so much fun. The second set, especially when they had the fireworks, the giant disco ball, the parade floats, the parachuters — it was exciting, thrilling. The music was amazing and the crowd, once again, there were smiles on everyone’s faces. People were really enjoying each other’s company. That show was fantastic.
What was it like to find out about the Supreme Court overturning Roe Vs. Wade while we were at the festival?
I could have been anywhere in the universe and most likely would have had the same reaction, but the fact that I was at the festival and literally minutes away from attending a women’s healing circle, it brought me to tears. I was really very sad about it, and I was glad to be with the women I was with at that moment. That was another magical piece of the event — that I was there in the space at that moment, with 100 women holding hands and praying for something better for all of us, and for our daughters, and our sisters and those who are going to come on our heels. It provided a lot of comfort to me.
Do you have any recommendations for things that could have been improved?
Well, I’m always going to be that person who will have a list at the end of the day. For the enormity of the crowd, the overall experience was really great. To manage that enormous event is no easy task. But the cleanliness of the shower and bathroom facilities really took a dive the last two days or so, and those facilities should be kept cleaner, to the best of their abilities. Especially after the environment we’re coming out of with Covid.
You mentioned how you think these events are important for people to come and experience freedom and joy. Do you feel in any way different now at the end of the weekend than you did when we got there?
Yeah, you know, I’ve always tried to practice tolerance and understanding and compassion and acceptance and inclusion, but I came away from this event sort of with that being a doctrine, that it can happen. Tens of thousands of people were there to enjoy each other’s company and music. It was peaceful, and it was an example of how we can live in this world.
What would you say to someone who’s never been to a festival like this and maybe has the impression that it’s just for young people and they’re thinking about going but are on the fence?
Get off the fence! This festival is for everyone: young, middle-aged, older people. I fall on the latter part of that spectrum, and I was so welcomed and so well taken care of. I might be a little different from others in that I have an ability to be open to many different types of experiences, but if you’re wondering about going, I say go, because it opens up your world.