I had probably a dozen people ask me if I was going to Lollapalooza this year. My response to them was always the same: “No, I think I’m going to Cornerstone instead.” And the reply was usually a quizzical look. Yes, I was passing up the chance to see Green Day and Soundgarden and numerous other popular acts in Grant Park to hang out at a Christian music festival in the middle of nowhere.
And you know what? I’d make the same decision again in a heartbeat.
Last year’s Lollapalooza experience convinced me that I never want to do it again, especially now that they’ve opened the gates up to 20,000 more people. I had fun, but it was a festival full of people who didn’t care if I lived or died, and there were just too many of those people for me to fully enjoy myself. Cornerstone, on the other hand, is smaller – the gallery stage, where I spent most of my time, can hold about 800 people – and infinitely nicer. The vibe there is love and joy, music and fun.
Plus – and I promise you, this is true – there’s more truly great music at Cornerstone than at Lollapalooza. I saw some old favorites, and made a bunch of new ones this year – a full list of bands to check out is at the bottom of this column. I had a fantastic time at the fest this year, and I’d love to do it again next year. I owe lots of thanks to Jeff Elbel, who roomed with me, and to Chris MacIntosh, Grandfather Rock himself, who hung out with me.
Each day, after the festivities ended, I posted a summary on my blog. What follows are those posts, reworked and edited. I know, it’s like cheating, but I also wrote a 2,200-word review of the Choir’s amazing new album, Burning Like the Midnight Sun, this week, and you can find that here. For now, here are the details on my Pilgrimage to Bushnell.
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Day One – June 30, 2010
Gentle readers, I am bone tired.
I decided last year that I am just too old for all-day music festivals. This is a hard pill to swallow, but Lollapalooza really did me in last summer. Cornerstone, the annual Jesus People USA party in Bushnell, IL (roughly three hours from my house), is smaller and easier, but 13 hours of sun and music still took its toll on me today. Don’t get old. It’s depressing.
So if I’d already decided I was too ancient and decrepit for this sort of thing, why am I at Cornerstone this year? Well, that’s where the corollaries to the “too old” rule come into play. If enough stars align, enough top-of-the-heap acts turn up on the roster, I’ll be in. I’m too much of an obsessive fan to do anything else. Lollapalooza and Pitchfork seemed like total wastes of time this year, but Cornerstone… well, three big stars aligned, plus my friend Jeff Elbel agreed to split the cost of a hotel room, so here I am.
It’s been five years since I ventured out to Cornerstone Farm, a giant field in the middle of nowhere. In 2005, my response was mixed – I loved the music, but railed against the odd and all-pervasive commercialism, the Jesus-peddling I saw everywhere. I’m not sure if the fest has changed, or if I’ve mellowed out, but what struck me this time is just how cool Cornerstone is. It’s a non-stop hippie party, the kind of festival at which people leave their bags on their seats to mark them, unafraid that anything will be stolen. There’s a bike park, there’s a grocery store, there are campers and tents and RVs everywhere, and the overall vibe is just fun.
When I was a kid in Massachusetts, discovering all this cool music that no one I knew had ever heard of (The Choir, Daniel Amos, the Prayer Chain, etc.), I thought of Cornerstone as this magical faraway land I would likely never get to visit. I still think it’s kind of magical, even though I live here now, and this is my third time. The feeling is just different. Attendance is down this year, the merch tents are dark and dispiriting places, and some people I talked to are certain that Cornerstone is petering out. But still, everyone’s just happy to be there, and to hear music they can’t hear anywhere else.
As much as I try to say that I’m just in it for the music, I know it’s not true. I listen to this stuff, and I come to this festival, to confront my own faith, or lack thereof, and to see the world through the prism of these fascinating artists, if only for a little while. I’m not interested in simple declarations of faith – I could go to the main stage for that, if I wanted to, but I don’t. TobyMac makes me want to run away screaming. But I’m also not interested in avoiding the topic, either. As a man with a very abstract spiritualism (and virtually no religious tendencies), I want faith presented to me in new ways, ones that will make me think about it and consider my own beliefs.
While watching the Glenn Kaiser Band play the Gallery Stage today, I thought about this little corner of the music world, and how it’s perceived. Glenn Kaiser is easily one of the best blues guitarists in Chicago, if not the country. Why don’t you know who he is? Well, Glenn preaches. A lot. His set is about 50% killer blues riffing, and 50% talking – this time, he spoke about how Christians should get out of their churches and help their neighbors, a topic well worth visiting, in my view.
If Glenn stopped his preaching and just played, he wouldn’t be true to himself. But because he’s true to himself, no one knows how good he is. It’s very strange to me. Admittedly, Glenn Kaiser can be a lot to take in all at once, but if there’s any act on the festival bill that should be too Jesus-y for me, it’s him. And I loved listening to his set this afternoon. His perspective is not my perspective, but I enjoy hearing it, and imagining the world through his eyes.
But let’s talk about those aligning stars, before I collapse from exhaustion. I said three of them lined up for me (and I think three is the minimum it would take to get me to this fest), and two of them played today. The first is, of course, the Lost Dogs, that spiritual pop supergroup of Mike Roe, Terry Taylor, Derri Daugherty and Steve Hindalong, four guys I’ve been listening to since I was 16 years old.
The Dogs actually played throughout the day, in various combinations. Roe started things off with an acoustic set full of the old gospel and blues songs he’s been fascinated by recently. I’ve said it before, but give me Mike Roe and an acoustic guitar, and I’ll be happy for hours. Taylor then took to the stage for a trio set (with Roe on bass and Hindalong on drums) that flipped through some of his more obscure back pages. (He actually played “I Had a Bad Experience With the CIA and Now I’m Gonna Show You My Feminine Side.” I would have been happy if he’d merely said the title from the Cornerstone stage.)
Roe and Daugherty then did a set of covers and oldies, which was nice. Daugherty, who sings with the Choir, has a high and clear voice, while Roe’s is more typical bluesman, more rough than smooth. Together they sounded elegant. The highlight, for me, was “Dunce Cap,” my favorite Lost Dogs song, and one I’d never heard live.
The Dogs then played a full-on rock and roll set at 10 p.m., and man, it was great. Their new album, Old Angel, is an absolute masterpiece, and it seems to have revitalized these aging troubadours. Every second of their set rippled with energy. Hindalong remains the most entertaining drummer on the planet to watch – his facial expressions are priceless – and the rapport between the four of them is at an all-time high.
The second of my stars tonight was Iona, a five-piece from the U.K. I’ve been listening to Iona for almost 20 years now, and I’ve never seen them live before. It was amazing. I don’t know how to describe Iona. They’re like Celtic folk prog rock, like Rush jamming with Enya, and it sounds like it would be horrible, but it works brilliantly. 15-minute songs based on Celtic prayers with unison bagpipe and electric guitar solos, all capped off with the lovely voice of Joanne Hogg. They were great.
And you want to know why I consider Cornerstone magical? Try this. At 1:30 in the morning, Iona closed out their main set with a piece called “Castlerigg,” kind of an Irish jig on Jolt Cola. Even after 12 solid hours of music, everyone in the place – hundreds of people – got up and started dancing. It was pure joy in motion, and an awesome thing to be a part of.
Some stray observations and notes:
My roommate Jeff Elbel played another strong set of tunes with his ever-expansive band Ping – nine musicians this time. Several new songs, all of them good. Jeff also manages the gallery stage, where all the acts I saw today played, and he gets precious little thanks or sleep for the privilege. He’s much more tired than I am right now, and I’m pretty much wiped out.
The discovery of the festival so far is Shel, a band I was ready to laugh off. Four teenage sisters (drums, piano, mandolin and violin) backed up by their father on guitar. Sounds awful, right? But they were awesome. They played complex folk-rock, harmonized beautifully (especially on the more bizarre numbers), and capped it off with a cover of Led Zeppelin’s “The Battle of Evermore.” I was impressed.
The cafe near the Gallery Stage has a lemonade-and-iced-tea blend drink for sale. It’s called a Robert Palmer. That’s right, Robert Palmer, not Arnold. So I asked the kid behind the counter why, and he grinned and replied, “Because it’s simply irresistible.”
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Day Two – July 1, 2010
Tired doesn’t even describe it today.
I woke up at about 8:30 a.m., because that’s just what I do – I haven’t slept past 8:30 in ages. I couldn’t get back to slumberland, so today I did 12 hours of music on four hours of sleep. You’ll forgive me if I keep this brief, although I don’t really think I will.
I’m going to say this as plainly as I can: the reason I got out of bed this morning at all was the Choir. I’ve been a fan for 20 years, and I’ve seen them play four times now. The last time was in 2005, which, sadly enough, was the last time they reconvened on stage. So after a half-decade without Choir shows, I was pretty stoked for tonight’s late-night performance.
I’ve been upfront about my absence of faith, but here’s one thing I will say: every time I get to see the Choir play, I thank God I’m alive. For one thing, it’s such a rare occurrence, and for another, every show may well be the last. And for a third, the Choir spins such a magical atmosphere each time out, it’s like living through a particularly vivid dream. I remember my first Choir concert, in 2001, after 11 years of listening to their records over and over again. I could scarcely believe it was happening – here were these people I’d only seen in photographs, playing this music I love intensely right in front of me. Magic.
If I ever needed confirmation that my heroes are human, tonight provided it. I don’t want to say this, but tonight was a bad Choir show. The band clearly hadn’t practiced much, and there were wrong notes galore, shifting tempos, forgotten lyrics, and a couple of spectacular flameouts. They tried to get through three new songs (from their wonderful new album Burning Like the Midnight Sun), and watched helplessly as they fell apart. The set was heavy on their twin high water marks Chase the Kangaroo and Circle Slide, and featured songs this band has been playing for 20 years. And yet, in Derri Daugherty’s own words, it was rough.
Despite all that, I still enjoyed myself. Watching these guys play is always fun, and these songs are so permanently etched into my soul that even a bad performance couldn’t spoil them. I feel lucky to have seen this show, and lucky to be a fan of this band. And the hundreds who gathered to watch the Choir’s return to the gallery stage all seemed to feel the same way. This is our band, and if they have an off night, we’ll help them through it. We love them. Tonight of all nights, we love them.
And every time I get to hear them play that bit in the middle of “Circle Slide,” when they all just start making as much pretty noise as they can for as long as they can, my heart sings. “Circle Slide” was magnificent tonight. It’s the kind of song that lifts you up and twirls you around, higher and higher. I wish the entire show had been as good, but hey, I got to see the Choir play one more time. I’m very lucky.
Also, I can console myself by listening to Burning Like the Midnight Sun over and over again. For the second time in a row, they’ve made their best album since Circle Slide.
I expected the rest of my day would be long and boring while I waited for the Choir to play. But I took in some superb performances today, and discovered some new favorites. Today’s gallery stage lineup was assembled by John Thompson of the Wayside, formerly of Aurora, Illinois and now of Nashville. Thompson brought several of his fellow Nashville troubadours up north with him, and they were all quite good.
There was songwriter Kate York, whose clear voice and lovely tunes were captivating even with no accompaniment. “It Rains Here Too” may be the prettiest sad song I’ve heard in years. Brooke Wagonner played a set of Regina Spektor-ish piano pop, quirky and dramatic. And the Farewell Drifters showed off their chops – they’re a bluegrass band (two guitars, stand-up bass, mandolin and fiddle) that plays well-written pop songs with great harmonies. Well worth checking out.
The Wayside closed out the New Nashville portion of the program, playing a selection from their new one, Spiritual Songs. Very nice stuff, traditional and church-y, but well-arranged. I must confess, though, I ducked out for a bit before the Wayside took the stage, to go see metal maniacs Sacred Warrior. I used to listen to them back in my teenage metalhead days, and their brand of Queensryche-esque rock still made me smile.
And Jeff Elbel and Ping’s set on one of the smaller side stages was the most fun moment of my day. Seven musicians crammed onto a tiny stage, playing a ragged set full of splendid covers, from “The Whole of the Moon” to “The Book of Love” to Chagall Guevara’s massive “Violent Blue.” It was an absolute blast, and the 40 or so people privileged enough to see it all had a great time. Plus, Jeff gave away a plaster cast of his teeth to one lucky audience member. You can’t top that.
So even though the Choir show wasn’t all it could have been, today’s lineup was a good one. Tomorrow I get to close this whole thing out with Over the Rhine, and I can’t think of anything better. Wait, no, I can – sleeping for six or seven hours straight. I think I’ll try that. Check back here to see if I was successful.
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Day Three – July 2, 2010
So I’ve been reading this book by Daniel J. Levitin called The World in Six Songs. In it, Levitin posits that music is an evolutionary necessity, an absolutely vital part of our human existence. We create music because we have to, because our brains are wired to express and receive information and emotions through song. Music is, Levitin says, a biological imperative. We sing because we are, and we are, in large part, because we sing.
I see that everywhere I look at Cornerstone. Every few feet, someone is making music, and I don’t just mean the bands on the myriad of stages. Small groups harmonize in the middle of the walking path. A kid with a guitar spins stories while his friend keeps time on a plastic bucket. One of the coolest things I saw all week was a collective of acoustic players gathered inside an unused silo on the farm grounds, singing and taking in the ambiance.
Music is part of our hardware, and music festivals like Cornerstone are places we can connect on that deep, spiritual level. For me personally, I haven’t gone a day without listening to music since… well, I can’t even tell you. And when I meet someone, most often the first thing I want to know about them is what kind of music they like. I’m always on the lookout for new musical experiences, new connections.
Friday was new discovery day at Cornerstone. I knew going in this would be the day with the fewest expectations. None of my well-aligned stars found their way into Friday’s lineup – the headliner at the gallery stage was Over the Rhine, a band I love dearly, but one I’ve seen more than half a dozen times. OtR played twice, once acoustically and once with their full electric sound. They debuted some new songs from the upcoming album The Long Surrender. Their sets were terrific, as always, and I can’t think of a better way to bid the 2010 Cornerstone experience goodbye than listening to Karin Bergquist sing.
But before today, I’d never heard of most of the other bands I took in. And now I have some new favorites (and a bunch of new CDs I haven’t heard yet). I started the day by breaking my moratorium on the main stage – I saw Photoside Cafe, after hearing nothing but good things about them for two days. They were terrific. People told me they resemble the Dave Matthews Band, but they don’t. They sound almost exactly like the Levellers – loud, aggressive folk-rock, with a violin at the center.
Dramatic rockers Dignan knocked me out with their rising-falling-rising-again guitar landscapes. Their album is called Cheaters and Thieves, and if it’s half as good as their set today, I’ll be happy. Paper Route was less impressive, although the crowd was into it. To me, it seemed like they stole Mutemath’s schtick: the drummer is energetic and entertaining in exactly the same ways Darren King is, everyone in the band played percussion at certain points, the show was highly choreographed. The difference is, Paper Route’s songs aren’t as strong. But they have potential.
But the find of the festival, for me, was Timbre. Yes, her name is Timbre. She plays a harp and sings, and her band is extraordinarily diverse, playing toy pianos, oboes, accordions and dozens of other instruments. One song featured a section in what I counted as 21/8, a most bizarre time signature, and at another point, everyone in the band crowded around Timbre, playing parts on her harp – it sounded like a web of plucked strings. Her new album, Little Flowers, includes a cover of Radiohead’s “Like Spinning Plates.” I can’t wait to hear this.
And then there was Eisley, a band I’ve always enjoyed. This sister act has completed its third album, evidently, but it’s lost in record label hell, and may never come out. Which is a shame, because the new song they played tonight (“Sad”) is excellent. Eisley is an energetic and melodic pop band with chops and harmonies and everything going for them. I hope they sort out their label situation soon, because they’re too good to languish for long.
And that’s it, the sum total of my Cornerstone ride this year. I heard from a lot of people how bad attendance was this year, and how depressing the festival was, but I didn’t feel much of that. There was enough extraordinary music to keep me going, even on virtually no sleep. Aside from that unfortunate Choir show, everything went better than I expected.I’m off to dreamland, my third Cornerstone behind me. Special thanks to Jeff Elbel for putting me up for the week, and to everyone I met and talked with. You all helped make a special experience even more so.
Good night, good night.
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Here’s a list of bands I enjoyed this year, many of them new discoveries, with links so you can hear them:
The Lost Dogs: www.thelostdogs.com, www.myspace.com/thelostdogsmusic
The Choir: www.thechoir.net, www.myspace.com/thechoir
Iona: www.iona.uk.com, www.myspace.com/ionauk
Over the Rhine: www.overtherhine.com, www.myspace.com/overtherhine
Jeff Elbel and Ping: www.marathonrecords.com, www.myspace.com/jeff_elbel
Glenn Kaiser Band: www.glennkaiser.com, www.myspace.com/glennkaiserband
The Wayside: www.thewayside.info, www.myspace.com/thewayside
Kate York: www.myspace.com/kateyork
Brooke Waggoner: www.brookewaggoner.com, www.myspace.com/brookewaggoner
The Farewell Drifters: www.thefarewelldrifters.com, www.myspace.com/thefarewelldrifters
Shel: www.iloveshel.com, www.myspace.com/iloveshel
Photoside Café: www.photosidecafe.com, www.myspace.com/photosidecafe
Paper Route: www.paperrouteonline.com, www.myspace.com/paperroute
Eisley: www.eisley.com, www.myspace.com/eisley
The festival itself: www.cornerstonefestival.com
Thanks again to everyone who made my third C-Stone experience a special one. I’ll be putting reviews of the new CDs I bought up at my blog as I listen to them. Leave a comment on my blog at tm3am.blogspot.com. Follow my infrequent twitterings at www.twitter.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.