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AudioFeed's Second Verse

The Fledgling Festival Finds Its Voice

7/16/14

The AudioFeed Festival is not Cornerstone.

I said this last year, intending to illuminate the differences between the influential Christian music festival, which ran for 29 years until finances caused its demise in 2012, and its spiritual successor, now in its second year at the Champaign County Fairgrounds here in Illinois. I enumerated all of the things that separate the two – AudioFeed is smaller, its stages closer together, the fairgrounds closer to civilization, the music younger and drawn from different traditions. (It’s also much closer to my house, which is nice.) Because the AudioFeed organizers were just stepping out on their own, I wanted to make sure longtime Cornerstone folks knew how good the festival was – in fact, how it rose above Cornerstone in many ways.

This year, though, I say that to cut the ties. AudioFeed is not Cornerstone – it’s not some junior version of a much-loved festival, not some second-rate shadow of a legend. This was the year that the festival proved itself, stepped into the light and became its own thing. And it was a tremendous experience to be part of. After this year, I’m certain AudioFeed will be around for a while, and the bands I saw this year will be the ones spoken of in hushed and reverent tones 20 years from now, as the ones who were there at the beginning.

This isn’t to say that AudioFeed has completely broken free of its history. They maintained a nice balance this year of older, more respected acts and young, hungry newbies. But look at the older acts they brought in – the 77s have always been outsiders in the spiritual pop scene, often relegated to Gallery Stage with the other black sheep, but here they were the elder statesmen, headlining the first night. And Steve Taylor’s penchant for offending the Family Christian Bookstore crowd is a badge of honor to his fans here. Taylor’s a living legend to these people (and, of course, to me as well), and the perfect choice to close out the festival. The AudioFeeders had the good sense to once again invite Glenn Kaiser and his band, providing an indelible tie with Cornerstone, and a stamp of approval that carries a lot of weight with the older crowd.

But the lifeblood of AudioFeed is not that older crowd. It’s the kids, and while they respect Taylor and Mike Roe, they were there to see acts like Listener and ’68 and My Epic and Sean Michel and Von Strantz, new legends for a new generation. You’ve probably never heard of any of these bands – I hadn’t, before AudioFeed – but to the teenagers and twenty-somethings that made up the bulk of the audience over the July 4 weekend, these were the can’t-miss shows. These were the bands speaking their language, the artists connecting with the crowd the way the Choir and Daniel Amos and, yes, Steve Taylor and the 77s connect with me.

This is the future of the festival, and I’m glad the organizers realize this. Making a smaller, more convenient clone of Cornerstone would have been easy, and it would have ensured this fest’s doom within a few years. You’re not going to see Audio Adrenaline or Randy Stonehill or any of the other mainstays from the ‘70s and ‘80s Jesus Music movement playing AudioFeed. This is a whole new thing. This is where the beating heart of spiritual pop music lives now, and it’s a beautiful magic to behold.

* * * * *

It’s hard for me to explain to people why I go to a Christian music festival every year, given that I don't share this faith. It’s sometimes hard to explain to myself. The most obvious reason is the music – there are more great bands per stage at AudioFeed (and Cornerstone before it) than I have found at pretty much any other festival. You think I’m exaggerating, but I saw more than 20 sets over the weekend, and shook my head at only one of them. (Rhett Walker Band, I’m looking at you. Well, I’m not looking at you anymore, and I’m happy about that.) As I’ll mention, I made a number of amazing discoveries this year, and reveled in many more old favorites, bands I just can’t see in any other context.

But it’s also the sense of community that draws me in. And this is another way in which AudioFeed feels different from Cornerstone. I built a nice group of friends at Cornerstone, but I rarely felt like I truly belonged – there was too much history, and there were too many people sizing me and my faith up. That could have been in my head, but it felt real. I felt like an interloper more often than I think I cared to admit. But I don’t feel that way at AudioFeed. Part of the reason may be that the kids who were always on the sidelines at Cornerstone are now running the show. But I feel like part of it is summed up in their mission statement on their website: the festival will create an atmosphere of love, “without regard for appearance, religious belief, race, societal status or any other thing that separates us from each other in the world at large.”

AudioFeed is not a preachy litmus test. That kind of Christianity seems to have no place there. In its place is an atmosphere of acceptance and joy. Several of the acts invited to play AudioFeed are not Christian – in the case of Homeless Gospel Choir, expressly so. But they, too, are accepted. Come, play, share your thoughts. We’re listening. Don’t get me wrong, Jesus is all over this festival. But it feels like he’s just hanging out with us, instead of watching and judging us. As a guy who is definitely down with the “love everyone” part of Jesus’ teachings, and dismayed when Christians don’t follow it, that atmosphere makes all the difference to me.

It’s still sometimes tough for me. Sean Michel, the intimidating bearded man who runs the main stage (called the Arkansas Stage), has a penchant for preaching in between the killer blues-rock he plays with his band. He picked that up from Glenn Kaiser, who divides his set evenly between sermons and explosive guitar theatrics. Both these men are genuine true believers, so it’s hard to begrudge them, but I have a hard time with it. They say all they need to with their songs, often more artfully. And the aforementioned Rhett Walker Band’s mix of Bible-thumping, Southern rock and knee-jerk patriotism made me want to walk out.

But for the most part, the spirituality on display comes from a subtle, sincere place, and not only can I handle that, I cherish it. I’m in this music thing to hear different perspectives, to see the world through the eyes of great artists. I don’t want them to hide who they are, any more than I want to attend a festival where I have to hide who I am. I have always responded to honest expressions and dissections of faith, despite the fact that I don't share it. When I hear my friend Jeff Elbel launch into “Comfort Me,” I always think of it as a beautiful and deeply felt thing, easily his prettiest song. Tales from his life, like “Light it Up” and “Engine of Destruction,” are fun, but “Comfort Me” comes from a deep place, and it's easy to tell.

That’s what I’m looking for, in music spiritual or not. I want it to mean something, to the artist and to me. AudioFeed is a place where, more often than not, the music means something deep and powerful to the people playing it, and that honesty connects with me. That is why I go every year. There’s just nothing else like it.

* * * * *

In what’s becoming a tradition, I shared a hotel room again with my dear friend, the aforementioned Jeff Elbel. We didn’t get to experience much of the festival together – Jeff’s a busy man at these things, running about offering his technical expertise and making everyone sound better, in addition to playing his own music. His band Ping played a strong set on Friday, drawing heavily from his terrific new album Gallery (on which you will find “Comfort Me”), and Jeff also backed up singer-songwriter Maron Gaffron and legendary guitarist Harry Gore for their own shows. Oh, and he played a midnight show on a local radio station and an impromptu set in the kids’ area. Whew!

I don’t think it’s even conceivable anymore to hold a fest like this without Jeff Elbel. He wasn’t even running a stage this year, and he still seemed like the hardest-working man there. And he still made time for a 2 a.m. visit to Merry Ann’s Diner with me, Jeffrey Kotthoff and Dave Dampier for a Haystack, still the most unhealthy breakfast sensation I have ever ingested. Thanks a ton to Jeff for making it possible for me to go to this festival, and for being such great company. And for covering a good Bob Dylan song.

* * * * *

1,500 words and I haven’t really talked about the music yet? Yikes.

I split my AudioFeed musical experiences into three groups this year – new discoveries, return engagements and old favorites. The new discoveries were many this year, far more than last year, and I found at least three bands I will follow for the rest of their careers.

One of those is Von Strantz, the full-band project of songwriter Jess Strantz. I saw Jess on her own before I saw her with the band, and both were striking, remarkable experiences. Her songs have a remarkable breadth to them, full of complex yet hummable melodies. (As proof, I’ve been humming one called “The Line” since first hearing it.) Her band consists of her on guitar and foot percussion, a bass player and three violins, with everyone harmonizing. And it’s a wonderful sound.

Von Strantz is currently releasing their debut full length, Narrative, in installments. The first chapter, a four-song EP called Troubled Souls, is pretty great, particularly the epic “Nothin’ Good In Me.” “All I Need” is another example of a worship-y song that comes from the heart. I quite like it. The second volume is out next month, and it contains “The Line,” so I’m pretty excited to get it. Von Strantz is my favorite discovery from AudioFeed 2014, and I’m thrilled to have happened upon them. Can’t wait to see where they go.

Similarly, the Decemberists-esque band Marah in the Mainsail knocked me out. A six-piece outfit with male and female singers, a horn player, a banjo player, and a guy using a gigantic rusty chain as a percussion instrument, Marah plays music that reminds me of being tossed about in a storm at sea. Their songs are dark – a new one called “Wendigo” contained the darkest line I heard at the festival: “I keep a pistol under my pillow, a rifle by my bed, I keep it loaded for self-defense, one bullet for my own head.” Their characters are haunted men and sinners, their music driving and intense.

Their EP, Devil Weeds and Dour Deeds, is pretty awesome. Opening with dark gospel tune “Devil in the Woods” to set the tone, the band smashes through six miniature epics with menace and relish. “Drag You Down” and “Headsmen” are amazing, but the whole EP bodes well for the future of this band. I’ll be paying attention.

The metal stage (called the Black Sheep stage) held only sporadic interest for me this year, but I did discover two interesting bands. War of Ages is a relatively long-running metalcore act with an indefatigable lead screamer, and they put on an incredible show. (Their new album, Supreme Chaos, comes out next week.) And My Epic was a huge surprise, a swirly ambient metal group with a real sense of art to what they do. I’ve ordered their new album Behold, and I’m expecting to like it a lot.

I can’t quite say I discovered Listener this year, since I did see them play last year. But this time, I actually, well, listened. They’re a spastic trio with a shouted-word madman in front, basically spitting out poems with furious abandon. I was so impressed with their set that I bought all three albums they had on sale (they have five), and the latest, Time is a Machine, is my favorite. I also can’t say I discovered Josh Scogin, since I’ve seen The Chariot play live before, but his current project ’68 was new to me. It’s a duo with drummer Michael McClellan, and it’s just as spastic and musically insane as his prior band. Debut album In Humor and Sadness is remarkable, diving down a whole bunch of musical rabbit holes.

Which brings me to Homeless Gospel Choir. I cannot overstate the impact that Homeless Gospel Choir’s short set had on the 200 or so people who saw it. Derek Zanetti is a funny-looking guy with a funny voice and a guitar, like a sarcastic version of the troubadours of old, and in 30 minutes, he carpet-bombed the entire festival. The set was even more intimate than intended, since sound problems forced Zanetti to bound off the stage and into the audience, playing unplugged while we all gathered around him.

Zanetti’s songs are angry things that pull no punches. To walk into this environment and play a song subtitled “Some Christians Are Nazis” was remarkably brave. He introduced every number as a protest song, and he wasn’t kidding – “With God On Our Side” lambasted U.S. theocratic foreign policy, for instance. In between songs, he openly shared stories about his recent nervous breakdown, and his friend suffering from PTSD. It was a moving, darkly funny, powerful performance. It was a bold choice for AudioFeed, too – Zanetti took on Christianity from outside it, aiming deep and drawing blood. He was absolutely riveting. I hope they have him back.

* * * * *

In addition to new discoveries, I was excited to see some of the bands I had discovered at AudioFeed last year. Noah James, for instance, is a big-voiced songwriter with a growing talent. This year he released an EP called Sun and Moon, and it’s a great next step for him. It’s a beautifully produced thing, and it shows how far he’s come as a writer. The gentle metaphor of “Heaven’s Far,” for example, stands in contrast to the clumsier early song “Not Your Type,” and bodes well for his future. And James can still sing the hell out of a song, as he proved in two riveting sets.

Sean Michel also has a new EP called Rise Again, though it is not yet available. The blues-rocker played three sets over three days at AudioFeed, despite an infection that kept his voice hoarse and strained. The new songs, particularly “Ain’t Turnin’ Back Now,” are fist-pumpers, and Michel’s compact trio played them with verve. In one of my favorite moments of the festival, Michel brought out Peter Furler (yes, of the Newsboys – more on him in a moment) and Jimmy Abegg to join him on a cover of “Rockin’ in the Free World.” It was pretty great.

Perhaps my favorite metal band in the world right now is Hope for the Dying. They play massively complex pieces that vacillate between melody and explosive shouting, and they play to tracks of orchestration, meaning they can’t screw up. There were no surprises this year during their set – no cover of “Don’t Stop Believing,” for instance, which they played at the final Cornerstone. Just phenomenally well-played technical metal. There’s a new album in the works, apparently, and I’m looking forward to it.

But the real draw for me in this category was Hushpad. I’ve talked about them before, but not at length, so I will now. Hushpad is the project of songwriter Matthew Welchel, and they fly their shoegaze flag proudly. They play reverb-drenched pop songs that build and swirl majestically, often evolving into furious jams and instrumental sections. They’ve been a different band every time I’ve seen them, and this time, it was a three-piece incarnation, Welchel with his two sons on bass and drums. They were terrific, particularly when they launched into “Fairy Girl” at the end. That song’s an epic, and they pulled it off marvelously with only three players.

I’ve been after Welchel to make a new album for a while, and this year he finally indulged me. The new Hushpad record is called Helas, and it’s surprising – it’s extremely low-key, fragile stuff. Hushpad live can be, in the words of a certain car manufacturer, a driving experience. But about 80 percent of Helas is delicate, expansive, almost tender. Welchel does up the tempos here and there, most notably on single “Tilt,” but he mostly opts for the slow and gorgeous. It’s an album that clearly means a lot to its creator, and it sounds largely crafted in solitude. The beautiful reverbed guitars are everywhere, Welchel’s voice is earnest and vulnerable, and songs like “Pacific Ocean Blue” and “Lullabye” and “A Waiting Song” achieve a tremendous beauty, despite their small scope. Helas is not what I expected, but I like it a great deal, and more each time I listen.

* * * * *

And finally, there are the old favorites, the hooks that draw me to AudioFeed. Despite its proximity, it's entirely possible I may not have gone to that first AudioFeed Festival if the Choir had not been playing. I said earlier that the organizers are doing a great job of balancing the bigger names with the smaller acts waiting to be discovered. The bigger names again served as the festival’s tie to the past, and once again, that proved essential this year.

Thursday was blues-rock night, with Sean Michel and Glenn Kaiser both paving the way for the great 77s. I’ve waxed ecstatic more than once in this column about the 77s and their leader, the extraordinary Mike Roe, and they did not disappoint. Roe on his own is often quiet and meditative, but when he gets together with drummer Bruce Spencer and bassist Mark Harmon, he bursts forth as a rock guitarist without peer. I could listen to Roe play for days and not be bored. The show leaned heavily on the bluesiest of the trio’s records, including the awesome Tom Tom Blues, with Roe dropping jaws on “Outskirts” and a sloppy yet amazing, show-stopping performance of “Woody.” There ain’t nothing in the world like a full-on 77s rock show, and I’m always grateful when I get to see one.

The 77s have a new album, and in fact Mike Roe does too. Both records are packaged together, and collectively called Gimme a Kickstart And a Phrase or Two. It's a covers project, with all songs chosen by backers of Roe’s latest Kickstarter campaign, and some of the choices are positively amazing. (The band jammed on one of them, the Animals’ “Bury My Body,” during their set.) I’ll deliver a full review of this once it’s available to buy online. But suffice it to say that it’s a thoroughly successful project, and if you’re a fan of this band (or even if you’re not), you’re going to want one of these.

The big guns were kept in reserve until Saturday, though. I feel like I’ve been waiting my entire life to see Steve Taylor play live. I’ve been a fan for as long as I can remember – sneering sarcasm went a long way with younger me, and Taylor’s ‘80s catalog has that in spades. Meltdown and On the Fritz drew me in, but it’s the extraordinary, dark, amazing I Predict 1990 that has stayed with me. It’s one of the finest records I know. Taylor went on to form Chagall Guevara, one of the most underrated bands of the 1990s, and then give us Squint, another solo masterpiece, before checking out of music in the mid-‘90s. He quit touring while I was in college, and I sincerely thought I would never get to see him play.

Naturally, you could have knocked me over by breathing hard when I heard that Taylor had launched a Kickstarter campaign for a new album and tour. We don’t have that album yet – it’s called Goliath, and he’s still working on it – but man, we got the tour, and I can check another great thing off the “to-do-before-I-die” list. Taylor’s new band is called the Perfect Foil, and it includes legendary guitarist Jimmy Abegg, bassist John Mark Painter (of Fleming and John and a bunch of Ben Folds records) and drummer Peter Furler, formerly of the Newsboys.

Furler and his new band played a set on Saturday as well, as a warmup, and I will admit to being worried about it. Amazingly, though, the guy from the Newsboys walked on stage and tore it down. He ripped through a series of compact melodic rock songs from his new album Sun and Shield, and even reinvigorated a couple Newsboys songs. I’ve never been a fan of Furler’s work, but he impressed me. (And I later shared a hotel elevator with him, and he was unfailingly nice.)

But Steve Taylor… holy hell. Taylor and the band handily delivered my favorite show of the fest. The man is 56 years old, and he still has the boundless energy of a preteen. He shimmied and shook, danced and did a freaking cartwheel, and never missed a beat vocally. He’s still one of the most distinctive singers on the planet. Every old song he played was a classic, from “On the Fritz” to “I Wanna Be a Clone” to “The Lament of Desmond R.G. Frederick-Underwood IV” to an astonishing one-two encore of “We Don’t Need No Colour Code” and “Hero.” And the new songs, well, they were awesome. Punky, sharp, full of energy and wit. “Rubberneck” is gonna be great on the record, and I loved loved loved “Goliath” and “Only a Ride” and “A Life Preserved” and… hell, all of them.

Taylor even dropped a cover of Beyonce’s “Single Ladies.” Yes, you read that right. It was an incredible show, and I am beyond grateful to have seen it.

But that isn’t how my AudioFeed 2014 ended. The final show of the festival came courtesy of harpist Timbre and her band, and I couldn’t have asked for a better way to say goodbye. Timbre’s music is ethereal and complex, particularly the new songs slated for double record Sun and Moon sometime next year, and there’s an air of magic to what she does. Backed by a violinist and a drummer, she played and sang her heart out, despite the fact that the clock had crept past 1 a.m. It was glorious, and when it was over, I surveyed the remnants of AudioFeed and it felt like home.

That’s honestly all I could ever ask for. If I am welcomed to this festival, I will attend every year. It already feels more like my own than Cornerstone ever did for me. But AudioFeed is not Cornerstone. It’s already, in its second year, its own special, fantastic thing. I’m going to go to this for as long as they let me. I’m excited to watch it grow and evolve. It’s only going to get better from here.

* * * * *

Whoa. 3,800 words. OK then. Next week, we catch up with a bunch of recent releases. Leave a comment on my blog at tm3am.blogspot.com. Follow me on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am, and Twitter at www.twitter.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.