So I’m back from my fourth Cornerstone Festival. I am sunburned and exhausted. But I got to travel one more time to Bushnell, Illinois and see some of my favorite musicians perform. And there’s nothing I’d rather have done with my vacation week.
Cornerstone is an institution – this year’s was the 28th – but painfully low attendance this year has me wondering just how long it will stick around. I remember being unable to even get near the main stage to see the Altar Boys play a few years ago. And this year? Even for the big-name old-school acts on the main stage on Thursday, I walked right up to the edge of the stage. It was sad. Intimate and fun, but sad.
I hope Cornerstone continues, because it’s a place where magic happens. I’ve taken in some of my favorite live musical moments there, discovered bands I might never have heard, and reveled in the sweet sounds of wonderful acts who simply don’t play anywhere else. It’s become like home for me. For the last two years, I’ve been able to share the Cornerstone experience with my friend Jeff Elbel, without whom the festival would simply collapse. Everywhere you look, there’s Jeff, connecting cables and checking levels and grabbing the right guitars for the band members. He’s indispensable, and I thoroughly enjoyed going on 2:30 a.m. food runs with him, and comparing notes on our experiences.
Jeff also has a great band called Ping, and they have a new EP called Peanut Gallery. Fully fleshed-out pop-rock with strong melodies and honest lyrics. Check it out here.
So during my three days at Cornerstone, I kept a running journal at my blog. I’m going to present those blog posts here as my report from the festival. I also bought about a dozen new albums while I was there (and another dozen or so older records I have been searching for), and I’ll go into those on the blog as I listen to them.
Without further ado, my thoughts on Cornerstone 2011, as it happened.
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Thursday, June 30
I’m getting old. I thought I’d be able to scrawl out a few notes on the first day of my Cornerstone experience last night, but as I stared at the computer screen at 2 a.m., I just felt all of my energy being sapped away. Last year I had no problem writing up blog entries in the wee hours, but I just couldn’t do it this time. So here I am at 1 p.m., putting these thoughts together before heading back to the festival for Day Two.
This is my fourth Cornerstone Festival, so it’s starting to feel like home to me. I know the ins and outs of the stages, and where to find the best burgers, and where the ATM is. (A crucial discovery I made last year.) But the first-day immersion into this culture I am increasingly less a part of is still strange for me.
Whenever I talk to people about Cornerstone, I tend to frame it in terms of how un-Christian it is. Or at least, how counter it is to the accepted image of Christianity. I guess I do this partly to justify it to myself, but also to make it seem appealing to my religion-averse friends. Because the music is amazing. Stunning, remarkable stuff, on the whole. And that’s why I’m here.
But there is no way to couch what I saw last night. This was a full-on Jesus rally – in fact, that was the name given to the Main Stage lineup: Jesus Rally. It was a celebration of the Jesus movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s, a wave that started in California and swept the nation, culminating in big festivals like Cornerstone. And as I stood with just a few thousand others, watching the aging forerunners of this movement playing to an aging crowd, I felt like I was bearing witness to the end of something special.
Before all that, though, the day got off to an inauspicious start with Mike Roe’s solo set at the Gallery Stage. The power had gone out at Gallery shortly before, and Roe was forced to stand in front of the stage, acoustic guitar in hand, and compete with the piercing sounds of hardcore from the nearby tents. It just didn’t work – I couldn’t hear anything the man was doing. Luckily, I’ll have two chances today to see Roe do his thing.
So that was disappointing, and looking around at the sparse attendance this year was even more saddening. As I understand it, there was some debate over whether Cornerstone 2011 would even go ahead, given the low turnout last year, and this year doesn’t look any better. But what I love about Cornerstone is the intimacy. For instance, during Roe’s set, Derri Daughtery, guitarist/singer for the Choir and one of my favorite musicians in the world, sat down in the audience and just hung out with us. That’s pretty cool.
Another thing I like about the fest is its ability to surprise me. Here’s a good case in point: Barry McGuire played the main stage on Thursday afternoon. He’s a 75-year-old bald and paunchy man, best known for singing “Eve of Destruction” in the ‘60s, and I didn’t have high hopes for his performance.
But it was marvelous. He shaped that gruff old voice into a terrific instrument, and held the audience in the palm of his hand. His set – just him and a guitar – built up force as it went, and in addition to a bevy of old folk tunes, he covered Madonna’s “Frozen.” He ended with “Cosmic Cowboy,” a riveting spoken-word journey. It was something to see.
From that moment on, I spent the rest of my day at main stage. This is the first time I’ve done this – the main stage is usually populated with the most shallow, commercial, worthless music at the festival. Whatever you normally think of when I say the term “Christian music,” that’s what you’ll find at main stage most years.
But this year? Classic act upon classic act. Resurrection Band? Phil Keaggy? Petra? I’ll take “Music I Obsessed Over When I Was 12” for $1,000, Alex. Nothing but aging, God-loving hippies all day. It was an experience.
As usual, Daniel Amos didn’t quite fit in. But man, they tore it up. DA has been playing Cornerstone since it started 28 years ago, and I last saw them perform in 2001. Terry Taylor, one of the world’s most criminally underrated songwriters, is 61 now. But he led the band through an absolutely scorching set, including a flat-out awesome burn through “I Love You #19.” They also played “The Twist,” my favorite Taylor song – it’s proof all by itself that “religious art” is not an oxymoron.
I expected DA to be the highlight of my day, and for a while, it looked like my prediction was spot on. Randy Stonehill played an unremarkable set of too-direct folk music – he has a tremendous voice, and an awkwardly amusing stage presence, but I’ve never found much art to what he does. E Band trotted out their ‘70s prog and ‘80s pop to an appreciative audience, but I crept away to eat and read for a while.
Resurrection Band was very good, though. One of the first real Christian hard rock acts, Rez is fronted by married couple Glenn and Wendi Kaiser, who also lead Jesus People USA, the Chicago organization that puts on Cornerstone each year. Glenn just happens to be one of the best blues-rock guitarists you’re likely to hear, with a strong and gritty voice.
Glenn is 58 years old now, and he and Wendi have both packed on the pounds since the early days. But their set was fiery and raucous. Highlihghts included “Lovespeak,” “Your House is On Fire,” “Shadows,” and an epic, smoldering take on “Where Roses Grow,” Glenn really showing what he can do with a bluesy lead.
But then! The rock bands on Thursday were interspersed with solo acoustic acts, and when I saw the name Phil Keaggy, that’s what I immediately expected. But no. Phil, one of the finest guitarists on the planet (seriously), brought his band Glass Harp with him. And they smoked. An eight-minute take on “Time” just set the stage – the real deal was a 30-or-so-minute medley that started with the instrumental “David and Goliath” and ended with “Do Lord.”
Phil is a perfect example of the paradox inherent in this music I love. Keaggy’s musical prowess is undeniable. I can think of no one I know who wouldn’t be goggle-eyed and amazed at his work. But he simply and directly expresses his faith in his songs, so he’s relegated to the Christian section of the music store, next to old Amy Grant records and Stephen Curtis Chapman. He should be revered as one of the best guitar players alive, but at age 60, he’s largely forgotten. And I feel privileged to have seen this show. It was astoundingly good.
After all that, there’s no way Petra, the original “ministry band,” could have lived up. And they didn’t. I liked Petra a lot when I was a church-going pre-teen, but there’s an inherent cheeseball silliness to what they do – they’re kind of the Jesus-rock Survivor – and it’s not an ironic, knowing silliness. They’re a band that should be playing Knott’s Berry Farm, not main stage at a festival like this.
And they were under-rehearsed to boot. “Clean,” their third song, was an absolute train wreck – guitarist Bob Hartman was playing in a different key than everyone else, and they finally just had to stop, compare notes (for 10 MINUTES) and start over. And I just couldn’t take much more, so I left.
But on the way out, I caught the last few songs of the Farewell Drifters set at Gallery Stage, and I wish I’d seen the whole thing. The Drifters are young guys from Nashville who play bluegrass-pop with delirious harmonies and instrumental prowess. I heard them do new tune “You Were There,” and had to buy the new album Echo Boom immediately. Their sweet music was a balm after Petra, and ended my night on a graceful note.
Today should be my favorite day of the fest, with Kerosene Halo (Mike Roe and Derri Daugherty), my roommate Jeff Elbel, the Choir, Glenn Kaiser Band, the Lost Dogs (minus Terry Taylor, apparently) and Deas Vail. Report later, or tomorrow if I’m still too old to do it tonight.
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Friday, July 1
Now that was much more my speed.
That’s because Friday was Gallery Stage Day here at Cornerstone. I think I wandered from the gallery stage once during my nine-hour festival experience yesterday, and that was to buy a chicken kabob for dinner. (Mmmm. Chicken kabob.) Otherwise, it was all gallery all the time.
I’ve really started to think of that stage as Cornerstone itself. Pretty much all of my best experiences at this fest have happened there. It’s a marked contrast to every other hangout at Cornerstone, from the grandiose Jesus-pop of main stage to the screaming, brutal hardcore and metal of… well, just about every other stage. Gallery is relaxed and intimate and fun, and it features my favorite musicians at the fest.
It also seems to be a place where artistic expressions of faith (or anything) are welcomed more readily. In my view, the best artists at Cornerstone are the ones who incorporate that faith into their lives, and sing about their own experiences. A band like Petra is a cartoonish huckster selling an idea that has very little bearing on how people live their lives. An artist like Terry Taylor writes about the world the way he sees it, its ups and downs, trials and triumphs, and does so through the prism of his own beliefs. That’s the difference, I think.
I mention Taylor up front because he was a notable absence from Friday’s lineup. A family emergency called him back home. Taylor’s had a rough go of it lately, and I felt sick as I heard the news. Apparently his son Andrew is in the hospital, but is going to be all right. I wish him a speedy recovery.
This turn of events left the Lost Dogs without its guiding light. In a lot of ways, the Lost Dogs are the reason I come to this festival. Terry Taylor, Mike Roe, Derri Daugherty and Steve Hindalong have, together and separately, made some of my very favorite music, and it’s always a treat to see and hear them play. I got two incarnations of the same band on Friday, and both were marvelous.
First up was Kerosene Halo, the new Daugherty-Roe project. The album, available now from Lo-Fidelity Records, is gorgeous – an acoustic tour of covers and co-writes, from the expected (two Daniel Amos songs) to the incongruous (Tom Waits’ “Bottom of the World”). The show was essentially the album come to life, Roe and Daugherty harmonizing like angels while Hindalong provided subtle percussion. Great stuff.
Then my roommate Jeff Elbel took the stage with his eight-member incarnation of Ping, and tore the roof off. (Well, it’s a tent, but you get me.) Jeff has a new EP called Peanut Gallery, and he sounded positively renewed at this show. He dropped his guitar to become a full-on rock star frontman during “You Little Victim,” and blew apart the rollicking “I Forget.” He offered the audience a choice of closing song, and they picked “Comfort Me,” a new, prayerful piece. This was, in my ever-humble opinion, the best Ping show I’ve ever seen. Get the new record here.
After an extended dinner break and a show by the Crossing, I took my place in the front row for the Choir. If you know me at all, you know the Choir is pretty much my favorite band. And you also may remember that they blew it big time at Cornerstone last year, turning in an unrehearsed and sloppy set. This year was redemption – an acoustic performance, just Derri and Steve and Dan Michaels. And it was proof that Cornerstone is a place where magic happens.
Put simply, last year I spent the Choir show repeating over and over, in disbelief, “This is my favorite band.” This year I spent the Choir show grinning and saying with pride, “This is my favorite band.” They played old favorites like “Clouds” and “To Cover You” and “Circle Slide,” they turned in a menacing and wonderful version of the newer “Midnight Sun,” and somewhere in the middle, had a blast recasting “Leprechaun” as a harmonica-driven folk song.
But the most jaw-dropping moment came when Hindalong premiered a new song about his own alcoholism. It was fearless and stark and powerful. As he said, the Choir’s career has been all about openness and discussion, about the band and its fans as an extended family. It sure felt that way to me on Friday. I’ve been a Choir fan for more than 20 years, and they’re very much like family to me. I only get to see them once a year, but I cherish the experience.
Glenn Kaiser stomped through a blistering set of blues-rock next with his band. This would have been the Glenn Kaiser Band show to see for newbies. Ordinarily his sets are 50% music and 50% preaching. This time, it was 90% music, and the music was awesome. I am particularly fond of “What Can Be Shaken,” an apocalyptic barnburner played on a lap steel. Glenn puts on a great show.
And then came the Lost Dogs, minus Taylor. The band tapped Paul Averitt, who played bass with Daniel Amos on Thursday, to sing Taylor’s parts, and he nailed it. He was tremendous. Even without Taylor, this was one of my favorite Lost Dogs shows (and I’ve seen about a dozen now). It’s typical of this band of longtime friends and mutual admirers that they spent the show jokingly ripping on Taylor for being absent, and then playing his songs with reverence. And they played “Carry Me,” my favorite from last year’s brilliant Old Angel, and it was wonderful.
They ran out of material by the end of their set, and initially refused calls for an encore, but when the crowd just wouldn’t relent (and rightly so), they charged back on stage for a take on Bob Dylan’s “Knocking on Heaven’s Door.” It was a graceful conclusion to a great show.
I knew Deas Vail couldn’t compete with that as the closing moment of my Friday Cornerstone experience, so I stayed for a couple songs of sky-high dramatic indie pop (which I liked), and then slowly wandered back to the hotel. A great, great day at Cornerstone. Tomorrow (well, today) I am darting back and forth between stages, but I finally get to see Saviour Machine play, which will be fascinating to say the least. More tomorrow!
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Saturday, July 2
Sorry this post has taken so long to appear. I didn’t get to sleep until about 4:30 a.m. on Sunday, and then I drove three hours home, and then attended a weekly meeting of fellow pop culture enthusiasts. So this is literally the first chance I’ve had to unwind and scrawl down my thoughts on the final day of my Cornerstone experience.
So yeah. On Thursday, I got to see Daniel Amos play, and Phil Keaggy knock it out of the park with his band Glass Harp. On Friday, I got to see the Choir redeem themselves with a magical acoustic set, and hear the Lost Dogs triumphantly recover from the unexpected absence of Terry Taylor. But Saturday may have been my favorite day at Cornerstone 2011.
That’s because Saturday was New Discovery Day. There were only a couple of acts I knew I wanted to see – Photoside Cafe, the Wayside, and most importantly, Saviour Machine, performing their first stateside show in 10 years. The rest of the lineup, however, was a complete mystery to me. And that’s the way I liked it.
Every year at Cornerstone, I find at least one band or artist I hadn’t previously stumbled upon. My first visit in 2001 gave me Beki Hemingway. My second, in 2005, gave me Mutemath. Last year it was Photoside Cafe and Timbre, both of whom played on Saturday. Oh, and though I didn’t discover him at Cornerstone 2005, I first heard about Sufjan Stevens while I was there – everyone was buzzing about this little album called Illinois.
So that’s a really good batting average for this festival, and the 2011 edition did not disappoint. First, though, I disappointed myself – I meant to get up in time to see Timbre play, and I missed it. Timbre is a harp-playing wonder, and her band a progressive pop ensemble worth experiencing. Alas, I just couldn’t rouse myself early enough to make her 1 p.m. set time. (Yes, I realize that’s pathetic. Sorry, Timbre.) But you should buy her stuff anyway.
I did get there in time to see River James, a dramatic rock outfit from the East Coast. I found their set pretty average, until they launched into a song called “Dreams,” which was extraordinary. That tune by itself led me to pay $5 for their debut EP. I look forward to seeing where they go next. I also caught Lauren Mann and the Fairly Odd Folk, a piano-playing songwriter and her band from the wastes of Canada. Her tunes are melodic and strong, her voice true, and I practically knocked people aside to pay $10 for her debut album, Stories From Home. Her new one is apparently done – it was produced by Aaron Marsh of Copeland – but won’t be out until January. I’ll be looking for it.
I took a quick trip to Main Stage to see the great Photoside Cafe next, and they were just as good this year as they were last year. They still sound a lot like the Levellers – raucous, fist-pumping folk-rock with a violin at its center. Great stuff. I ducked back to the Gallery Stage just in time to catch the end of the Psalters set – sweaty, stomping traditional folk tunes with bite, played by nine people shoved onto a stage just that little bit too small for them. They were great.
But the big discoveries of the day were still to come. Songs of Water hails from North Carolina, but they play music as big as the world. Each member plays half a dozen instruments, from the hammered dulcimer to the violin to the tin whistle to all manner of drums, and the band plays big instrumental jigs and quiet, reflective pieces with equal aplomb. Their set knocked me flat. I immediately bought both of their records, and dulcimer player Stephen Roach’s solo work as well. New album The Sea Has Spoken is all kinds of wonderful.
And then, after a set of sweetly swaying spirituals and love songs from The Wayside, I discovered Josh Garrels. An imposingly tall man from Portland, Oregon, Garrels does what I would describe as an even mix of coffeehouse folk and hip-hop, although that doesn’t quite describe it. On stage on Saturday he performed pretty, jaunty folk numbers like “For You,” and then brought the house down with a full-on rap explosion called “The Resistance.” Both of these songs are on his new album, with the amazing title Love and War and the Sea In Between.
And guess what? You can get the whole record for free. Garrels honestly believes that God has told him to give this album away. And considering it’s 18 songs, 75 minutes, and very, very good, that’s impressive. It’s not just downloads, either – he’s pressed up CDs, and is giving those away as well. The freebie will be available for an entire year, he says. If it gives more people an opportunity to hear this album, well, that’s a win, because it’s a frank and well-made piece of work. Try it.
So at this point in my day, something amazing happened. The teenagers and hippies who had packed the Gallery Stage to hear Josh Garrels all filed out, and were replaced by a legion of goths dressed in black, many wearing face makeup. It was a complete audience changeover, except for me and one other guy, as far as I could tell. Apparently, Garrels’ audience doesn’t overlap much with Saviour Machine’s.
Their loss. Saviour Machine is a band unlike any other I know. Led by the operatic and melodramatic voice of Eric Clayton, this is a band that creates theatrical gothic metal soundscapes, with crunching guitars and ethereal keyboards, but puts them in the service of surprisingly melodic and beautiful songs. Since 1997, they have been working on a four-CD concept piece called Legend, which depicts in phenomenal detail the Book of Revelations – almost page by page. The first part came out in ’97, the second in ’98, the third in 2001, and then… nothing.
Clayton has been working on the final installment of Legend for 10 years, while battling health problems and record label insanity. Because of all that, Saviour Machine hasn’t played a show in the U.S. in a decade. So Saturday night was something truly special. The group took the stage to perform unplugged, having rearranged their noisy, intense music for a quieter, more intimate setting. They opened with a cover of “Sympathy for the Devil,” and closed with “Gethsemane,” from Jesus Christ Superstar. And in between, they treated us to songs from all phases of their career.
It was my first Saviour Machine show, and it was amazing. Afterward, I got to meet Clayton, and he was an extremely nice and down to earth guy. We talked about the fake Legend Part III:II that’s out there now, thanks to his unscrupulous German record label, and about the future of the band. He plans to bring the acoustic show on tour, and use the funds from that (and subsequent DVD and CD releases from the shows) to finish the Legend series. I, for one, can’t wait.
And so with that, I dragged myself back to my hotel room and collapsed. It was another great Cornerstone, even though I kept hearing about low attendance, and rumblings that this may be the last of these annual festivals. I sincerely hope this isn’t true, because just in the four trips I’ve made, I’ve seen more great music and discovered more great musicians than any other festival I’ve ever attended. Long live Cornerstone, is what I’m saying.
And now, to sleep.
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Here’s the list of bands I saw, with links so you can hear them too.
Mike Roe: www.michaelroe.com
Daniel Amos: www.danielamos.com
Resurrection Band: www.resurrectionband.com
Phil Keaggy: www.philkeaggy.com
The Farewell Drifters: www.thefarewelldrifters.com
Kerosene Halo: www.kerosenehalo.net
Jeff Elbel and Ping: www.marathonrecords.com/ping
The Choir: www.thechoir.net
Glenn Kaiser Band: www.glennkaiser.com
The Lost Dogs: www.thelostdogs.com
Deas Vail: www.deasvail.com
River James: www.riverjamesmusic.com
Lauren Mann and the Fairly Odd Folk: www.laurenmannmusic.com
Photoside Café: www.photosidecafe.com
Songs of Water: songsofwater.com
The Wayside: www.myspace.com/thewayside
Josh Garrels: www.joshgarrels.com
Saviour Machine: www.saviourmachine.com
Thanks again to Jeff Elbel, and to David Cervantes for hanging out with me. Here’s hoping for a Cornerstone 2012.
See you in line Tuesday morning.