As many of you know, this year’s Cornerstone Festival was the last. After 29 years, the last several with sharply declining audiences, the organizers at Jesus People USA have decided to pull the plug. As I understand it, the choice was either to continue with Cornerstone, or keep their Chicago-based ministries going, and I think they made the right choice.
But that doesn’t make it any easier. Last week, I made the now-familiar drive down to Bushnell, Illinois for the final time. Cornerstone has a special place in my heart. I’ve been five times now (2002, 2005, 2010, 2011 and this year), and I can say there’s no other festival like it. There’s more good music at C-Stone every year than you’ll find in half a dozen Lollapaloozas. And the people there are like family.
Once again, my traveling companion was Jeff Elbel, and I feel lucky to have him as a friend. I got to meet Chris Hauser for the first time, and hang out with people like David Cervantes and Brian Smith, people I may never see again. And of course, I got to hear some amazing music from some unjustly ignored artists, topped off by a performance by my favorite band, the Choir.
What follows is my day-by-day Cornerstone diary. It’s quite long, and I apologize for that. I’ve broken it up into two columns, so it’s not too overwhelming. If you want the gist, here it is: Cornerstone was a festival unlike any other, and this last one was no exception. Despite not sharing the faith it’s based on, I always felt welcomed and included there, and I’m going to miss it terribly.
All right, here goes. My thoughts on the final Cornerstone.
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Wednesday, July 4
I had been wondering when it would hit me. Turns out, it didn’t take long.
The Cornerstone Festival has been running for 29 years, as of 2012. I’ve only gone five times – 2002, 2005, 2010, last year, and this. And yet, as I made the familiar drive through the cornfields of Marietta, Illinois, it felt like coming home. I don’t really know how else to explain it. This fest has grown to mean so much to me, and as I approached the usual checkpoint at the entrance, I just kept thinking about how sad I was that it was all ending.
The first people I saw today were David Cervantes and Brian Smith, two guys I’d never have met without Cornerstone. And the first thing out of my mouth was, “We never get to do this again.” That killed the mood, but David brightened it by saying, “We need to make the most of it, then.”
I’m sorry, I know that’s corny, but the emotions swirling around my head as Cornerstone plays out its last string leave no room for embarrassment. I love this festival. It’s a little miracle in the wilderness, a place where musicians who have the temerity to express genuine faith in music get the recognition their talents would otherwise deserve.
Cornerstone is not a place for pandering, target-marketed, jump-for-Jesus pabulum, although there’s certainly been some of that over the years. But in the main, it’s a place where artists can wrestle with faith, take on its big questions, and create dazzling and thoughtful works for a receptive audience. That audience has shrunk considerably in recent years – even last year, I felt Cornerstone’s death throes happening – but its commitment to this art has never wavered.
And the artists recognize it and appreciate it. Virtually all the bands playing at Cornerstone 2012 are doing so for free, as a way to say farewell to this magical gathering that has meant so much to them.
So there was indeed a pall of sadness over Wednesday’s festivities, but it was overpowered by a sense of celebration, of remembering what Cornerstone has been and embracing that. The fest this year is divided between two main stages – one for hardcore and metal bands, and one for everything I want to see. Here at the last, the Gallery Stage has finally taken its place as the centerpiece of the festival – it was always the place where the magic happened.
Wednesday was earthy day at Gallery, focusing on acoustic and blues music. I first attended a 40th anniversary party for Rez Band, one of the first and most influential Christian hard rock acts. The members of Rez also created and run Cornerstone, so we owe them a great deal. Glenn Kaiser, lead singer and guitar player, hit the stage later in the evening for a bluesy set with amazing harmonica player Joe Falisco. Kaiser played one of his signature cigar box guitars – literally, a homemade guitar constructed from a cigar box and some plywood. Sounded fantastic.
Ashley Cleveland surprised me. I’ve never seen her play, and always dismissed her as pretty typical. But her set of gospel-inflected blues, accompanied by her husband Kenny Greenberg, was riveting. Her voice is big and bold, and it filled the Gallery tent, not needing any backing other than the two guitars. And Kenny? That man can play.
Every year at Cornerstone, I discover at least one band or artist that will stay with me for life. This year, I’d bet money that Seth Martin and the Menders fits that bill. They played a huge singalong set of Sufjan Stevens-esque orchestral folk music. The band – and there must have been nine of them on that stage – lifted the audience up again and again, crescendo after crescendo. It was an amazing experience. I immediately bought their album, which has the tremendous title Putting the Sky to Sleep.
But really, everything today was prelude to the final 77s show at Cornerstone. The 77s are, no hyperbole, one of the best rock bands on Earth, and never more so than at Cornerstone. Only a few thousand people know about them, which is criminal. Mike Roe is a guitar player that can stand with the very best, whether caressing your soul with an acoustic or pealing out lightning strikes on an electric.
He did both tonight, starting off gently with “MT,” he and David Leonhardt on acoustics. The mood was already overcast, and with every song they played, I couldn’t help but think, “This is the last time I’ll hear this song on this stage.” When they launched into the epic tearjerker “Don’t, This Way,” I almost cried. The guitar lines in that song never fail to move me.
At set’s end, Roe and Leonhardt welcomed up my Cornerstone roommate, Jeff Elbel, and his band’s percussionist David Dampier to round out a searing live band lineup. After smashing through “Dave’s Blues” and “U U U U,” the band left us with their best singalong, “Nowhere Else.” Hearing the Gallery audience sing the “na na na” part, their voices rising in wonder, I couldn’t help but agree with Roe: there was nowhere else I would rather be.
And then, we got them to come back out for one more song, by singing the chorus of “Do It For Love” until they acquiesced. It was one last magical Cornerstone moment for this band, one I love with all my heart. I left exhausted, but happy.
The 77s have three new releases – an expanded remaster of their beautiful Echos o’ Faith acoustic live album, and two compilations of live performances from Cornerstone, winningly titled Cornerstone is Dead, Long Live Cornerstone and Cornerstone Forever. My sentiments exactly. Reviews of these as soon as I hear them. I also bought new records from Lauren Mann and the Fairly Odd Folk, who impressed me a lot last year, and Jeff Elbel and Ping – I’ve been hearing their long-gestating record Gallery (named after the stage) in pieces for years, and it’s finally here. And it’s great.
Tomorrow, the Wayside, Iona, Aradhna and a bunch of other artists I haven’t heard yet. Now, for sleep.
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Thursday, July 5
Cornerstone 2012 is a shadow of its former self.
In its heyday, the festival would draw 25,000 to 30,000 people. This year, if there are 4,000 people here, I’d be surprised. The Gallery tent is usually pretty full, but when you realize that there’s no main stage this year, and this is the main attraction, it becomes sad. Even for its last hurrah, Cornerstone couldn’t stop the decline.
I’ve seen the slow deterioration over the past couple of years. When I first attended in 2001, the place was mobbed. I couldn’t even get down the dirt roads without ducking in between people, or moving at the speed of the crowd. Gallery Stage, always the second-tier attraction, was impossible – if you weren’t there early to grab a chair and hold on to it for dear life, you were standing on the sidelines.
This year, I’ve managed to be up front for virtually every show I’ve wanted to see, and this without a main stage to pull people away. Lines at the food vendors are never more than two or three people long. And I can park close, and walk the pathways without seeing more than a dozen people. We’re the die hards, the ones who love this festival with all we have, here to watch it go quietly into that good night.
Today was always going to be my weak day. It turned out to be weaker than I expected – Quiet Science, a band I had been looking forward to, bowed out, and Gallery was empty from 4 to 6 p.m. I caught the last-ever Cornerstone performance of the Wayside, led by local Illinois legends John and Michelle Thompson (and featuring my roomie Jeff on bass). It was a nice set of country-folk that shone a spotlight on Michelle’s forthcoming solo EP.
This was probably one of the last Wayside performances, full stop, as well. As John said at one point, “If it hadn’t been for Cornerstone, we’d probably have stopped bothering to be a band years ago.”
At the Wayside show, I met Chris Hauser for the first time. We’ve been Facebook friends for a while, through our mutual buddy Dr. Tony Shore, but we’d never met in person. He was gracious and fun to hang out with – Chris works in the Christian record business, and has for decades, and he had fun stories about some of the musicians I admire. And he worked promotion on one of my favorite albums of all time, the Choir’s Circle Slide.
I ended up spending time with Chris, and then with Jeff away from the festival. I don’t like to admit it, but walking around and seeing what it’s become has made me more than a little sad. I’m still grateful to be here, and wouldn’t have missed it. But it’s a little like a ghost town where miracles used to happen.
We got back to the fest around 8:30, and I got the chance to meet Steve Taylor again. Steve was one of the most important Christian musicians of the 1980s, pushing boundaries that many didn’t even know were there. He’s gone on to be a superb film director, and he brought his latest, Blue Like Jazz, with him. I’ve seen the film three times, and I met Steve when he premiered it at Judson College in Elgin a few months ago. (I did better this time. I could actually speak words.)
Steve said the movie brought in about $600,000, and he hopes it’ll do better when it’s released on DVD in August. According to my journalist friend Brian Smith, Steve also said he’s recorded new music, and is prepping a live album from his astonishing band, Chagall Guevara. So that’s good news.
And yes, some people complained about Blue Like Jazz. It’s a move that reflects real life, so it includes drinking and drug use and swearing and people who like to have sex with others of the same gender. And it never judges any of this. I heard one guy call it all “unnecessary,” which misses the point by a spectacularly wide margin. Unless it reflected the real world around it, the grace notes at the end of the film would be pat and meaningless. Yes, even at Cornerstone, people balked. I shook my head and left to see Iona.
Iona! I would have paid full price for this festival just to see them again. Iona is a band unlike any other. They have found a wondrous middle ground between traditional Irish music and full-blown prog-rock, kind of a mix of old Yes and the Chieftains. Joanne Hogg has a blindingly good voice, and guitarist Dave Bainbridge and pipe player Martin Nolan can somehow play these incredibly complex, proggy-trad Irish reel lines in unison. (I was sitting with someone who had never seen the band, and the moment when he realized the guitar and pipes were playing together was priceless.)
Iona has a new double album called Another Realm, and it’s magnificent. They played a bunch of songs from that, including the 11-minute “White Horse,” along with classics like “Irish Day.” They ended their set with a stomping instrumental reel that had everyone on their feet at midnight in the 100-degree heat. It was a full-out dance party, and so much fun to experience. And then, headlining act Aradhna was late, so Iona got to play a couple more songs, including the timeless “Today.”
Seriously, you’ve never heard anything like Iona. Go here.
Aradhna is a band I should have liked. On guitar, bass, sitar and tabla, this foursome played circling Middle Eastern folk music, with fine vocal melodies. But after a few songs, I was just done with it. I’m not sure why, and I may investigate this band further some other time.
So I wandered off, finding myself at the Sacrosanct Records tent, intrigued by the band on stage. They call themselves Hope for the Dying, and they’re a complex, technical metal band with no bass player. They played to pre-recorded orchestral tracks, giving everything that boost of grandeur – and also, that completely unforgiving edge should they screw up this maddeningly complicated music. They never did.
I knew I was in love when, halfway through their set, the band covered “Don’t Stop Believing.” Yes, that “Don’t Stop Believing.” I immediately bought both of their records, the more traditional metal self-titled EP, and the more orchestrated Dissimulation. If you’re into technical metal, these guys are pretty great. And they really served to drive home the diversity of Cornerstone – after watching the Irish prog band, I caught a little of the Middle Eastern folk outfit before enjoying the cerebral metal group.
After that, I stuck around to see a screening of Fallen Angel, a documentary about Jesus Rock pioneer Larry Norman. Turns out, Larry Norman was an ass. Did you know that? Because I didn’t. The entire film was about what an ass Larry Norman was, featuring interviews from the people he screwed over during his life. It was a sour-tasting way to end the day, and yet, it was fascinating.
So that was my weak day, and it was pretty strong, truth be told. Met some great people, saw some amazing music, discovered a couple new bands. Just another fine day at Cornerstone.
Tomorrow, Jeff plays his final C-Stone set, and I get to see Neal Morse and the Violet Burning. Wowser.
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See you in line Tuesday morning.