I got a lot of raised eyebrows and half-mouthed chuckles when I told people I was going to a Christian music festival.
Not just any Christian music festival, mind you, but the strangest of the strange. Cornerstone Festival is a gathering of thousands, of all ages, from everywhere. They congregate in the middle of nowhere, Illinois (actually a small farm town called Bushnell), pitch tents and listen to live bands and speakers for five days. It’s covered in dust, usually about 100 degrees, features about a dozen stages and a couple hundred bands, and is an hour from the nearest interstate. Mention all this, and then throw in the Christian thing, and, well… chuckles.
I didn’t get laughs from people I know well – my love of certain bands in the spiritual pop realm is well documented, and I’ve been to Cornerstone before, so my friends know what attracts me, even though most of them wouldn’t be caught dead there. Casually mentioning my plans to attend Cornerstone to those here in Illinois, though, was almost like handing out a Jack Chick tract. People look at you differently, and expect that you’re going to start evangelizing, and speaking in tongues.
Okay, it’s not that bad, but I understand what repulses people. The dark and ugly sides of Christian culture are often only drowned out by the crass and superficial ones, and the latter, at least, was on full display last weekend in Bushnell. Perhaps it’s because I don’t come from a religious background, and I don’t possess what most would consider deep, abiding faith, but I found the marketing of Jesus to be all-pervasive and irritating at this year’s festival.
Part of it is that I had been before – three years ago, I attended the fest to see the Lost Dogs and the Choir live for the first time, and the giddiness of that turned Cornerstone into a magical wonderland for me. The band members just milled about with the regular people, the atmosphere was positive and brotherly, and the thrill of seeing these musicians I’d been enjoying, in many cases, for more than a decade live and on stage was intoxicating. It was a new world.
This year was more of an eye-opener. I can’t imagine what it must be like to have a genuine faith in Jesus Christ and then come to a place where his name is traded for cash on a regular basis. I don’t pray, I don’t go to church, and I have a relatively open view of God and faith, and even I got upset at some of it. It’s been reduced to a marketing demographic. Christian values are now a brand like any other – how else to explain a booth selling underwear emblazoned with the slogan, “You ain’t getting any?” (Of course, I contend that if you’re close enough to read the slogan on someone’s underwear, you’re probably getting something.)
Christian t-shirts. Christian hats. Christian buttons and pins. All of which do to the complexities of faith what George W. Bush does to the intricacies of world politics – reduces them to a sound byte, a slogan, something catchy and memorable that’s all surface and sheen. The same faith-veneer attitude pervaded the bands on the main stage this year (which I completely avoided). “Artists” like TobyMac and Relient K, branded as Christian to target-market their latest big-money venture, pumping out shiny, cheerleaders-for-Christ crap that’s as disposable as anything in the mainstream market. They have nothing to say – their music and lyrics knowingly steer clear of difficult topics and genuine expression, aiming for a particular church-going, middle America demographic that laps it up.
It is possible to go the entire weekend at Cornerstone without hearing a single serious, thought-provoking word about Jesus Christ. That was fine with me a few years ago, when I would try to convince people that the Choir, for example, wasn’t “that Christian.” I have since discovered, of course, that the expression of faith bands like the Choir offer is a large part of what I love about them. The difference between expressing faith honestly, like the Choir, and doing jumping jacks for Jesus, like TobyMac, is like a line in the sand. With a few exceptions, for the main stage bands, Christianity is a business tool. I can’t speak to their personal motivations, but it would be hard to argue against their use of Christianity as a selling point – “Now with 40% more Jesus than before!”
For guys like Terry Taylor and Bill Mallonee, just to name a couple, faith is part of who they are. It runs in their blood, and it comes out in their music because it has to. To do less would be dishonest. But it’s so much a part of them that they don’t have to sing about it all the time. Their songs and records are the furthest thing from calculated, and they’re often about how difficult life can be, which is why you won’t hear them on Christian radio. You also won’t hear them on mainstream radio, because they made the mistake early on of allying themselves with the Christian industry, and no matter what else they do now, they’re considered gospel artists. (Seriously – could anyone in their right mind call the 77s a gospel band?) They share the same fate as most honest artists who don’t calculatedly stake out a demographic – they’re ignored, and their music goes unheard.
Cornerstone is the only gig of the year for some of these bands, and the only place one can go to see them. The over-commercialism is like a buzzing fridge after a while – you just have to ignore it, or you end up railing against it. Perhaps the funniest response I saw came from Nick White, drummer for Colorado jokesters Roper. White apparently found the booth where they were selling pink baseball caps that read, “I Heart Christian Boys,” and he bought one and wore it for the rest of the festival. Too cool. But there were girls wearing those hats seriously, along with boys wearing shirts that read, “I’m in love with a man” on the front and, “His name is Jesus” on the back. I mean, who comes up with things like that?
* * * * *
Cornerstone itself seemed to draw a line between young and old this year, which bothered me a bit. Over time, the festival has skewed younger and younger, and this year the organizers seemed to plop all the long-running bands and older musicians under one tent. Naturally, this is where I spent most of my weekend, away from the glossy pop and screaming hardcore that made up the other 80 percent of the fest. I was disappointed, though, that the schedule often separated the audiences, so that a band like the Choir played at the same time as Copeland, for instance. Copeland is great, but I wish some of the younger fans who saw them play could have seen the Choir. The show would have made new fans of all of them.
I can’t begrudge the new bands, though, because some of them are really good. I discovered a few that I plan to follow from now on. Lovedrug, for example, played the first show I saw, and they were marvelous. They, like their label-mates Copeland, traffic in dramatic, piano-laced rock with swooping melodies and huge orchestration. Their album, Pretend You’re Alive, is excellent, especially “Blackout” and the should-be-a-hit “Rocknroll,” and comes packaged with a beautiful booklet that’s worth the price all by itself. It’s self-consciously arty, but like Copeland’s great In Motion, it delivers.
John Davis, meanwhile, is not a new artist, but for most of the attendees of his Saturday afternoon show, he may as well have been. Davis was the singer/guitarist of Superdrag for most of the last decade, but his self-titled solo album puts his newfound faith in the forefront. (No pun intended, for those of you who follow this industry.) Every song is about Jesus, in the most direct and obvious way, and one might be tempted to classify this record with the DC Talks of the world, if not for its classic pop sound. Still, this album didn’t thrill me upon first listen. (And now I can’t seem to find my copy, so I can’t even give it a second go.)
But man, seeing Davis play this stuff, it’s obvious what it means to him. The songs are mostly Brian Wilson meets the blues, but his performance elevated them to sublime levels. “Jesus Gonna Build Me a Home” was a highlight, as was “Salvation,” and you can’t go wrong with his choice of guitar player – Sixpence None the Richer’s resident genius Matt Slocum. The show made me want to reassess the record, and as soon as I locate it, I will. Davis has slammed some doors with this album – whether Superdrag fans will follow him down this path, a la Neal Morse and his old fans, remains to be seen. But it’s obvious that Davis is doing this because he wants to, which instantly makes it more interesting and genuine.
Speaking of genuine, the most intense show I saw all weekend came courtesy of David Eugene Edwards, also known as Woven Hand. Edwards used to be part of rock trio 16 Horsepower, but his new project is much scarier. Edwards took the stage armed with an arsenal of stringed instruments and a vintage microphone, accompanied by amazing drummer Ordy Garrison (who looks just like Hugh Laurie playing Dr. House), and proceeded to spook the willies out of everyone.
Woven Hand’s material is sometimes traditional-sounding, sometimes progressive, and always foreboding. Live, Edwards spits and snarls his words, never moving from his seated position, but firing death rays from his eyes. His lower lip was filled with sunflower seeds, and I was close enough to him that every once in a while, one would fly out and strike me in the face. From that vantage point, Edwards is incredible to watch, and I would bet that you could set him on fire while he’s performing and he wouldn’t even notice. He and Garrison communicated so well, and played so tightly, that I hope the White Stripes were taking notes – this is how to pull off a guitar-drums duo in a captivating way. On record, he’s not as exciting, but his Old Testament lyrics come to the fore, and it’s still scary.
It seems like every time I go to Cornerstone, I discover a new band that smacks me upside the head and makes me pay attention. Last time it was Ester Drang, who this year played an atmospheric set of new songs from their forthcoming Rocinate album. I’m now physically excited for this record – the new songs are dreamier and longer than those on Infinite Keys, but still have the same sense of melody and dynamics. Drang is a trio now, but their huge sound hasn’t shrunk at all. This is going to be a good album.
This time, though, the discovery of the festival was Mutemath, a quartet featuring Paul Meany, singer and keyboardist from the now-defunct Earthsuit. That band was really good, but Mutemath is excellent. Live they sound like Radiohead doing Police covers, with electric pianos, frenetic beats and Meany’s Sting-like voice atop it all. Their show was the last one I saw, and I hummed several of their songs for hours afterward.
Unfortunately, on record they’re not as amazing, but they’re still good. Their debut EP, Reset, features seven songs, and no two of them sound alike. The giant pop explosion of “Control” is probably the best thing here, but the Earthsuit-esque reggae beat of “Peculiar People” and the bizarre instrumental title song aren’t far behind. The sound is a little too slicked up – I’d have loved this if I hadn’t seen them live first, and I hope the imminent full-length captures more of the energy and power of their concert. They played several new songs that were superior to the ones on the EP, so here’s hoping. Even with all the gloss, though, Reset is one of the best things I bought at the festival.
* * * * *
While I always enjoy discovering new music, I went to Cornerstone to see some old favorites, and none of them disappointed.
The Violet Burning always puts on a great show. Michael Pritzl is a born performer, and his emotional songs and delivery just draw you in. He was battling a two-day illness at the time of his Friday night show, but he gave everything he had anyway, and made a bunch of new fans in the process. His new Violet Burning lineup – bassist Daryl Dawson, guitarist Doug Heckman and drummer Jason Lord Mize, all of whom look very similar – manages to capture the fullness of TVB albums brilliantly. The style is straightforward, dramatic and openhearted, so you need that skyward-reaching sound, and this band delivers it.
Pritzl himself is just incredible to watch, whether he’s slashing his way through glam-rock like “Berlin Kitty” or soaring on the beautiful waves of “Slowa.” He puts everything out there, and undoubtedly a show like the one he put on Friday night leaves him drained, but he still spent 45 minutes afterwards chatting with fans. Both the concert and the new live album, The Loudest Sound in My Heart, draw heavily from one of his best (and most neglected) records, Demonstrates Plastic and Elastic, and the concert ended with “Gorgeous,” which was.
Pritzl’s most recent releases display many different sides to what he does, from the computer-rock of The Gravity Show, to the slicker radio pop of This Is the Moment, to the haunting acoustics of Hollow Songs. And now the live album brings another side, more of a classic old-school TVB dramatic edge. Even the newer songs, layered and smoothed out on record, took flight on stage, and they sound great on the live album. (The Gravity Show’s “Aching” steps forward here as one of Pritzl’s best songs.) It sounds like an emotional rebirth for one of this little corner of the music world’s best performers.
The Lost Dogs took the stage after TVB, and brought with them another tale of illness – Mike Roe had apparently spent the night in the emergency room with an inflamed lung. He looked like death, but he played well, and joked along with his usual snarkiness – no one who didn’t know about his illness would have noticed the difference. The Dogs have become kind of the main band for Roe, Terry Taylor and Derri Daugherty (of the 77s, Daniel Amos and the Choir, respectively), and they put on their typically excellent set, playing tunes from their last few records. (Nothing before Gift Horse, unfortunately.)
One of the best choices the Dogs have made in recent years is to bring Choir drummer Steve Hindalong into their ranks. He’s one of the best percussionists you’ll ever see, and he brings an energy to the Dogs live show that seems to invigorate them. The trio has honed their vaudeville act to perfection – Taylor is the cranky genius, Daugherty the meek yet dry one, and Roe the mischievous troublemaker – and it’s to their credit that they’ve made room for Hindalong’s personality. Even if you don’t know the history – they’re the spiritual Traveling Wilburys, coming from respected rock bands to play Americana and folk music – you’ll laugh at their antics.
Their new album, Island Dreams, is a Lost Dogs record in name only. It’s an instrumental collection of beach tunes, beautifully played and recorded, but it bears no resemblance to anything they’ve done. It recalls Roe’s Daydream project, actually – soothing tones, great guitar work, some fine vocals from Christine Glass Byrd. It’s not something I will pull down off the shelf very often, and it was likely made just to have something to sell at Cornerstone, but for what it is, it’s very good. And Taylor’s liner notes are hysterical.
* * * * *
Saturday brought Jeff Elbel to the stage, which isn’t quite accurate – Elbel had been on stage all weekend up to that point, tuning guitars, plugging and unplugging cords, and occasionally playing with other artists. Jeff is everybody’s roadie most years, but this time he was manager of the Gallery Stage (dubbed the Old Farts’ Tent by many). Elbel sported the same haircut and sunglasses he had last time I saw him, three years ago, and he and his band Ping put on another great show. Elbel is obviously influenced by Terry Taylor, and his songs are usually clever and silly.
Ping’s new album, The Eleventh Hour Storybook, was on sale at the festival, but Elbel took the interesting step of giving a copy away to everyone who came to see him play. I’m often afraid that he takes his self-deprecation a little far – he’s much better than he seems to think he is, as the new album attests. “You Little Victim” is a hell of a tune, as is “Getting Ahead of Myself,” and the sweet “All in All” is one of his best. The lyrics to “Goodnight Rabbit” are downright brilliant. Even when he goes novelty, as on “Bark Along With Cody” (a minor hit on the Dr. Demento show, believe it or not), he’s enjoyable. Mostly, Elbel just sounds so grateful to be allowed to make music, and it’s a treat to listen to someone with that attitude.
Bill Mallonee is a little more bitter, but he has probably 20 years on Elbel, and six times as many albums. I got the chance to talk with him at some length – he’s a well-spoken, intelligent guy who’s just been screwed around a few times by life and the music biz. It’s a shame, too, because he’s a terrific songwriter, and an amazingly prolific one. He disbanded the Vigilantes of Love in 2001, and since then he’s released six albums and two EPs. This year alone has seen two full-lengths, with a third on the way by Christmas. He’s trying to outdo Ryan Adams in both the quality and quantity departments, and he may just do it.
His new one, released in time for the festival, is called Hit and Run, and it was recorded in one day. The liner notes compare it to Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska, and that’s pretty close – acoustic Americana songs about faith and despair, played and sung with Mallonee’s trademark emotion. It was obviously quick – at several points, Bill checks on the recording or announces songs to the engineer – but its snapshot quality only adds to its power. This is perhaps the most up-front and raw document Mallonee has yet released, and its nine songs could have carried a fully produced effort. Writing-wise, this is in no way a toss-off.
It also ably demonstrates the difference between music that expresses faith and music that professes holiness. The first song, “Flowers,” features the following lyric: “We all need new beginnings, first steps make you better, and maybe you’re just a prayer away from getting your shit together.” To me, that’s a very Christian line, a true expression of yearning, but to the operators of your local Family Christian Bookstore, it’s enough to get the record banned. That’s the beauty of someone like Mallonee – he is who he is, and he does what he does, and he knows a great line when he hears one.
Here’s another. During his Saturday night show, Mallonee played several new songs slated for Permafrost, his forthcoming album. One of them included a line that’s stuck with me ever since I heard it: “Make my heart beat in time with yours so I’ll know I haven’t died.” Bill Mallonee keeps coming up with lines like that one, and good melodies in which to set them, and I hope some day he gets his due as a songwriter. As an artist, he deserves much better than he’s received.
* * * * *
Which leaves me with the best show of the weekend.
The Choir took the stage Friday at midnight. Jeff Elbel introduced them as “the band of our dreams,” and I couldn’t have put it any better. It’s no secret that they are my favorite band, bar none, and every concert they play could be their last one – they haven’t been on stage since I last saw them, three years ago. But this time, they have an amazing new album, called O How the Mighty Have Fallen, which seemed to signal a rebirth. The show bore that out.
They opened with new songs, but quickly dug deep into their catalog, pulling out ‘80s classics (in my world, at least) like “Consider” and “To Cover You.” They played “Sad Face,” they played “A Sentimental Song,” they played “Love Your Mind,” and they jammed out my favorite new song, “Mercy Will Prevail.” If I had to devise a dream set for the Choir, one that would please old fans like me and win over new converts (all of which were at the Copeland show, no doubt), it would have been pretty close to this one.
Bassist Tim Chandler couldn’t make the show, so they called on the aforementioned Matt Slocum to fill in on both bass and cello. He was excellent, of course, as was new Choir-ite Marc Byrd, who provided all the pretty guitar noise that Derri Daugherty used to make. Byrd has been playing with the Choir live since 1996 or so, and he adds so much to their sound – Daugherty can concentrate on the rhythm and the vocals while Byrd fills the space with gorgeous atmospherics. They’ve become even more of a pop band through the years, and Byrd lets them strike up the melodies without losing the float music that is their trademark.
After a rousing round of applause, the band came out for the encore, Daugherty quipping, “We were going to come back anyway, but thanks for clapping.” They launched into a huge version of “Circle Slide,” but then took it down for an acoustic finale that included “To Rescue Me,” the final song on the new album. It’s perhaps the finest faith-filled number they have ever written, a beautiful expression of their need, their hunger for grace, and their performance of it left all the so-called worship music I heard over the weekend in the dust. This, this is what I’m after when I listen to Christian music – not the empty praise of God, nor the avoidance of God, but the honest and true prayer, the search for something deeper and more beautiful.
This band should play more often. I would swear to this – there was no better band playing anywhere Friday night. I say this a lot when it comes to the Choir, but I just feel so grateful that I got to experience it. They, along with Bill Mallonee and the Lost Dogs and the other Gallery Stage bands I love, transcend the very idea of Christian music – they’re just artists, and they sing for everyone, not just the faithful. I am living proof of that – I still have not managed the faith these guys have, but their music has spoken to me and meant more to me, spiritually speaking, than any church ever has. The Choir makes me feel closer to beauty, to wonder, to God. What more could anyone ask for?
* * * * *
A couple of quick things before I set this beast to rest. I got the chance to speak with Marc Byrd after the Choir show, and we talked about his new project, called Hammock. This is the most gorgeous float music I’ve heard in a long time – he makes his guitar sound like clouds and stars. If you like Henry Frayne’s stuff, or Sigur Ros, you should love this. Hammock has a full-length called Kenotic, and a new EP called Stranded Under Endless Sky. Both are terrific, and Byrd (the nicest guy in person) says that more is on the way. Follow the link below and hear for yourself.
Even with all the great music I heard, one of my favorite Cornerstone experiences was hearing J. Robert Parks of the Phantom Tollbooth speak about movies. He took aim at so-called Christian criticism, speaking with the understanding that being offended is not a critical response. It was great to hear a critic from a Christian website talk about engaging the films, instead of listing their naughty parts and calling it good. I’ve read some of his work since then, and it’s worth a look. Go here.
Special thanks to my Cornerstone companion, Chris Callaway. I haven’t seen Chris in a long time – I think the last time we spent any time together was in eighth grade – and we’ve both grown up in surprising ways. It was fun reconnecting with him, and we have a lot of in-jokes from the trip that I haven’t mentioned. (“You stepped in vomit!” Pastor Bob’s cheese. Bill’s backpack of lyrics. Econo-Lodge, where you spend the night…) Chris and I were in a very bad band in junior high, but he’s gone on to play bass for a very good one called Crash Orchid. Hear them here.
Additional thanks to all the great people I met, especially my Save the CD cohorts, Dr. Tony Shore and Dave Danglis. Tony, especially, went out of his way to introduce me to people, usually accompanied by a rave about this very site. (Dig his blog, no doubt updated shortly with embarrassing pictures of yours truly, here.) It was also cool to meet Jim Worthen of Tooth and Nail, and Commander Cote, Jiminy Cricket and Woggy from the DA board. (Perhaps a return visit is in order…) And I can’t forget Chris “Grandfather Rock” MacIntosh, DJ extraordinaire. You were all gracious and kind, and I thank you.
Okay, links. If anything above has piqued your interest, here is where you can find it all:
John Davis: www.johndavismusic.com.
Woven Hand: www.wovenhand.net.
Ester Drang: www.esterdrang.com.
The Violet Burning: www.thevioletburning.com.
The Lost Dogs: www.thelostdogs.com.
Jeff Elbel and Ping: www.marathonrecords.com/ping.
Bill Mallonee: www.billmallonee.net.
The Choir: www.thechoir.net.
* * * * *
Next week, something shorter, with Fountains of Wayne.
See you in line Tuesday morning.