Last summer we embarked on our first jam band journey, driving a mere three hours across Michigan to attend Rothbury. Within hours of our arrival, we were hooked on the camping festival vibe and by the time we left, we had vowed to attend again in 2010. Unfortunately, Rothbury had to take a hiatus this year due to the venue’s bankruptcy sale. Apparently this process dragged on long enough that the promoters were not able to book a high quality lineup, as bands had already committed to other festivals. This was actually a blessing in disguise, as it forced us to find another festival to attend. And we found two: All Good, in Masontown, WV, and Hoxeyville, in Northern Michigan.
All Good is one of the oldest fests around, with a stellar reputation, and it proved to be an awesome experience. You can read our write-up here, here, and here. We just got approved for credentials for Hoxeyville, which will be held Aug. 20-22, and we are really looking forward to it. Maybe we’ll even be able to hook up with any GloNo readers who plan to attend.
But Hoxeyville is not quite at the level of Rothbury or All Good, at least not when it comes to booking bands. Rothbury got The Dead to headline last year, arguably the biggest name in the jam “industry,” except perhaps Phish, and All Good featured Furthur, this year’s equivalent. Hoxeyville’s headliner is another Grateful Dead legacy band, the Rhythm Devils, which should be excellent. But let’s be honest, the two drummers, Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann, are just not the draw that guitarist Bob Weir and bassist Phil Lesh are.
All this is sort of beside the point here, however, as this article isn’t really about the bands. Sure, you pick a festival to attend primarily based on the bands, but if the venue is shit, you’re not going to want to endure three or four days just to see your favorite band. That’s what single night shows on tours are for. A festival experience goes way beyond the bands, and encompasses all kinds of different stuff that makes your weekend fun and memorable (or unrememberable, as the case may be).
So we’ve outlined 10 categories that contribute to a festival’s greatness, and we’re going to rate each one on a ten-point scale. Add up all the scores and you’ve got our rating. We’ll be comparing Rothbury and All Good now, and after we get back from Hoxeyville, we’ll rate it too.
Hard not to be biased here, as Rothbury is in our home state of Michigan, about equidistant from the Chicago and Ann Arbor GloNo offices. On a more objective note, the close proximity to both the Chicago and Detroit area means that 12.2 million people live within an easy four-hour drive.
All Good: 7
With nearby Pittsburgh and Columbus, OH, offering just 2.7 million combined residents, the masses coming to All Good are going to be coming from much farther places. That said, New York and Philly have over 23 million residents, and they’re both within a day’s drive.
2. Getting there, access roads
Rothbury is right off a main highway. We usually wait in longer traffic lines for most large concerts we attend.
All Good: 4
As the first hour we spent sitting in the dusty line of traffic winding down a single-lane dirt road bled into the second, we realized that being told to get there early was the best piece of All Good advice received. Departure was similarly fraught with long lines of traffic, even though we got going a day early.
3. Camping facilities
We barely escaped getting stuck in the mud as we were ushered into the camping area and told to just find a space anywhere. Which meant camping under a billboard near the highway, a mile-long walk to the stage.
All Good: 4
Even worse, the security ushering cars onto the hills surrounding the All Good stages had absolutely no concern for whether there was even room to pitch your tent. The cars in our area were so crowded together that had it not been for someone pulling out and going to park elsewhere, we would have been sleeping in the van.
With multiple stages that required a few minutes of hoofing it to travel between, and overlapping set times, there are often deliberations that need to be made. Then there’s the inevitable confusion of trying to find your friends that decided to go see a different act. Plus, you get worn down running from stage to stage in a vain attempt to “not miss anything.”
All Good: 8
The solution seems to be found at All Good: Build two stages next to each other. When one band finishes, the next one can immediately begin on the second stage. It works brilliantly.
Vendors at both fests seemed to be identical, so we’ll just give them both nearly perfect scores, with one point docked just because festival food is universally mediocre. Which is why we bring a big cooler. Vendors at both fests had pretty much every hippie lifestyle accessory you could ever want.
All Good: 9
Just stay away from Spicy Pie.
6. Ticket prices/value
Tickets for Rothbury were $250 plus fees. Rothbury also offered an “old man” ticket, good for just the weekend, for $150.
All Good: 9
Tickets for All Good were $179 plus fees. All Good also offered discounts if you bought early.
The three stages at Rothbury were all relatively large venues unto themselves, and only the main stage lacked shade. Shade is a huge plus, but mitigated by the absolutely gigantic main stage, which was so big that being towards the back of the crowd just sucked. Sound was excellent at Rothbury, regardless of which stage you were at.
All Good: 7
The genius of All Good’s two main stages being combined has already been explained, but All Good did have a third stage, a nice small one right in the camping area. This was a neat, but under-utilized venue. Our biggest gripe is that we wish the organizers would have done a better job locating the Porta-Johns in the main stage area so you didn’t have to walk through the entire crowd every time you had to take a leak. At least the All Good stage area is still small enough that there’s really no bad place to stand, at least compared to many huge outdoor venues. All Good also had awesome sound.
Security is a necessary evil, and in case you haven’t figured it out yet, security guards at festivals have wildly varying standards of enforcement. We saw people getting all but strip-searched going into the stage area at Rothbury, yet other people managed to sneak in dogs. Outside the festival the cops seemed disinterested in busting people, but we had enough problems with Western Michigan cops when we were kids that we wouldn’t take anything for granted.
All Good: 5
We only saw one security staff member really hassling someone at All Good. We were patted down once out of every five times we went through the cordon, despite having well-displayed media credentials. Often the security people at the side entrance would just disappear for a while, leaving the gates wide open. Outside the local cops were intimidating and we saw plenty of people being pulled over and searched for no apparent reason. Bottom line: Be smart and be safe.
9. The overall scene/crowd
Letting your freak flag fly is what these jam band festivals are all about and Rothbury had plenty of diversity in the freak department. From painted ladies to spinners to biker dudes to the costumed and arty, they were all there. Just wandering around people-watching was great fun. Rothbury seemed a bit more corporate than All Good, but when the man is giving you free Clif Bars you don’t complain too loudly.
All Good: 7
This scene was a little more homogenous, and a lot more southern, which kind of freaked us out. We also saw a lot more drug dealers hawking a lot harder stuff than at Rothbury. But let’s not make too much of these points, as overall the All Good scene was cool and calm and we had some excellent and friendly neighbors near our campsite. Corporate sponsorship seemed nonexistent.
One thing on this score really stands out about Rothbury: Sherwood Forest. We would have paid money just to hang out in this area of tall pine trees near the stages, even without bands. Decorated with lights and art installations, Sherwood had its own bar, and it was the perfect place to hang your hammock and disappear.
All Good: 7
There was nothing like Sherwood at All Good, unless you count the nightclub made out of a bus that kept us up late and woke us up early. Rather, All Good gets its points from the absolute impossibility of finding any level ground up there on Marvin’s Mountain. What better way to hide your inebriation than by giving sober people a reason to be stumbling too?
All Good: 67