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Michigan has a number of eclectic music festivals to jump into this summer. © 2019 Encore Publications/Brian Powers
How to experience the area’s eclectic music festival scene

Summer music festivals in western Michigan are as varied and eclectic as the musicians who play them.

Someone looking to get lost in a crowd listening to jam bands in a psychedelic lighted forest full of surprises would feel right at home at Electric Forest, in Rothbury, June 27–30. A different someone — or maybe even the same someone on a different day — wanting to learn to square dance (or belly dance or play an instrument) and listen to Michigan-bred bands would dig June’s Buttermilk Jamboree, in Delton. And if someone is looking for a quick-fix experience, festivals like Leilapalooza in July in Battle Creek or Harmony Fest in September in Three Rivers offer music-packed single-day events.

So how does someone new to the festival circuit jump in on the musical festival madness? We talked with local festival-goers and festival organizers to find out how to get the most enjoyment out of a festival experience.

Be prepared

There are two ways to experience a music festival: day-tripping or camping.

Kylie Ferguson, a Kalamazoo resident and frequent attendee of Electric Forest, has this advice about attending that festival: “Take it as if you’re going on, like, an extremely rustic camping trip.”

Electric Forest is western Michigan’s largest music festival, with an average of 40,000 attendees over a four-day period. Ferguson has attended Electric Forest for the past five years. With art installations everywhere, surprises around every corner (like a secret bar called the Captain’s Lounge that you can find by completing a scavenger hunt), and internationally recognized electronic dance musicians and jam bands on multiple stages, Electric Forest offers an out-of-this-world immersive experience. Hosted by Double JJ Resort in Rothbury, the sprawling festival includes luxury cabins, RV and tent camping spaces, food and art vendors, secret bars, five stages and the iconic Sherwood Forest, decked out in light-based art.

A large-scale festival like Electric Forest sells out quickly and doesn’t come cheap. The ticket for a basic general admission/lodging pass, which includes your bracelet/wristband (which allows you to come and go from the stages and the forest) and a tent campsite and parking space for the weekend, costs $350–$400. RV camping and luxury cabins cost even more but have the advantages of running water and electricity.

You will want to be prepared to cook some of your meals. Although Ferguson says there’s always good food at festivals, eating at food trucks and vendors can get expensive quickly.

On the smaller side of the festival scale is the Buttermilk Jamboree. This weekend festival, set for June 14-16 this year, has an average attendance of 2,000 people and is geared toward families. Hosted by Circle Pines Center, a co-op campground with the goal of teaching peace, social justice, environmental stewardship and cooperation, Buttermilk aims to educate while it entertains. The festival features four stages, including one designated for kid-friendly performances and an open-mic area. The festival lineup includes an eclectic selection of Michigan musicians and bands, such as May Erlewine and Red Tail Ring. Also on the festival grounds are a beer tent and a Folk School, with workshops on topics like dancing, writing and drawing. Attendees can swim in the camp’s lake and hike its nature trails.

“I love Electric Forest,” says Circle Pines Center Director Sasha Ospina, “but it’s so overwhelming and there’s so many people. This (Buttermilk) is like chill, happy time.”

A ticket for a weekend camping space and access to all Buttermilk Jamboree activities is $120 at the gate per adult and $30 per child. As at Electric Forest, Buttermilk RV spaces and cabin rentals cost extra but offer electricity. Shower passes are available for $20 and include access to flush toilets for the weekend.

There are also local food vendors on site who sell a variety of locally sourced, organic food. “We try to get a lot of options, ranging from vegan all the way to the omnivore,” says Mike Evans, Circle Pines’ public relations coordinator. Though some guests choose to buy all their meals from food vendors, most festival-goers choose to cook at least two meals of their own, Evans says.

For non-camping types, a day pass to Buttermilk Jamboree is also an option.

For Leilapalooza, on July 27, there’s no need to bring camping gear, but lawn chairs are a good idea, says Dan Barry, a sound engineer for the festival. From 10 a.m. until midnight in Leila Arboretum, an average of 7,000 guests are able to choose between three stages featuring acts that span many genres, including (but not limited to) country, R&B and rock. Admission to Leilapalooza is free, but parking costs $10. Food trucks and a beer tent are on site as well.

No matter what festival experience you choose, be prepared to walk by wearing good shoes. Be aware that you will be subject to UV rays and Michigan’s state bird, the mosquito, so apply sunscreen and bug repellent. If you forget, these necessities (except the shoes) are typically available for purchase at festivals but will cost you a little extra, and supplies are limited.

Before you go, be sure to check the event’s guidelines on items allowed on festival grounds.

“Don’t bring in any kind of contraband or anything that you wouldn’t take to church,” Leilapalooza Manager J.J. Ramone advises with a laugh. “But this is a music church.”

Also, pets aren’t typically allowed at most festivals, but many events comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act and allow registered service animals with the appropriate paperwork.

Be mindful

With so many unfamiliar people at festivals, limited access to amenities such as showers and flushable toilets and so much good music being performed on multiple stages, it’s easy for a festival-goer to get overwhelmed. Festival-goers say being mindful of yourself, others and your surroundings goes a long way toward reducing stress.

Over the years, Ferguson and her friends have turned attending a large-scale music festival like Electric Forest into a science. Because cell phone service at music festivals is notoriously lacking, she and her friends use the buddy system religiously and designate a meeting spot at each stage in the event they become separated.

At events like Buttermilk and Leilapalooza, it’s practical to stick with the friends or family you arrived with, and the chances of losing touch or getting lost are far fewer.

“Your kids can play and you can enjoy music and you can kind of all be together as a family, and move around the whole site without a lot of effort,” says Buttermilk’s Evans.

Staying hydrated at a music festival should be a top priority. At larger festivals, guests often camp in fields that have very little shade. The campgrounds and venue spaces at Electric Forest have free water filling stations scattered throughout. Guests are welcome to bring as much water as they like to the campground, but are allowed only one bottle of water within the venue spaces. Ferguson swears by her CamelBak, a backpack that stores water and has pockets to hold important items like keys, a wallet and a phone.

“You want something to keep your stuff safe and have a water supply,” she says, “especially if you get into a crowd deep of, like, 20,000 people. It can take 20 to 30 minutes to get out of that.”

Hydration is something to consider at the smaller venues as well. While the entirety of Buttermilk’s festival is contained within a five-acre area, a lot of which is shaded, and guests have access to the camp’s lake and many hiking trails, they should still be sure to hydrate. Circle Pines offers access to well water at no extra charge, and festival workers and volunteers encourage guests to take advantage of that, says Ospina.

Be adventurous

Festival organizers and volunteers dedicate their time to creating a space where people can connect with new and favorite music, artists and each other. A fledgling festival-goer might try to attack a music festival with a detailed plan or strategy, but to have the best experience at any music festival is much more simple: Be open to surprises and new connections.

“I go to these festivals to be surprised,” says Evans, who is on the committee that selects performers for the Buttermilk Jamboree, “so I always want the music to surprise me in some way. I want to hear something that I haven’t heard someone else do.”

Music committees begin scouting for musicians and taking submissions as soon as the planning convenes for any festival. The committee at Buttermilk starts in September and stops by January. To give guests the best musical experience, the committee looks for a selection of new acts that are doing something interesting and new and a group of returning favorites from previous years.

“I think that people who have never been to a music festival don’t understand that there’s this element of trust that’s involved,” says Evans. “We sell hundreds of tickets before people ever know what bands are going to play, because they just trust us to bring the goods.”

With multiple performances happening at different stages throughout any festival, you can narrow down what you want to see and hear by noting that stages typically will have a specific sound, says Leilapalooza’s Barry. Attendees who like more folk and country can hang around one stage, while those who prefer rock or electronica can get what they want at another, he says.

No matter what festival you choose, it’s bound to be an adventure. “You’re going to come out and you’re going to have a fun adventure with your friends and you’re going to see and experience things that you don’t get to experience if you just stay at home and watch television,” says Buttermilk’s Evans.

Jordan Bradley

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