And now, the second half of my Cornerstone 2012 diary.
Friday, July 6
Well. Today was… awesome.
It was also hotter than hell. Temperatures broke 100 degrees today, and the Cornerstone faithful sought shelter under the Gallery Stage tent. That kept the sun off our backs, but did nothing for the mugginess – in fact, it only exacerbated it, what with the hundreds of people in one space sweating thing. But believe me when I tell you we didn’t care.
Today’s lineup of music was tremendous. I stayed at Gallery all day, as I will tomorrow, and wasn’t let down. I began the day with Maron Gaffron, soulful singer and songwriter, whose band includes my roomie Jeff Elbel on bass. Maron has a voice most singers would kill for, and her songs range from swaying funk to acoustic folk. The biggest hit was a ditty she wrote for her children, in which she promised she would climb high mountains and swim deep seas for them, before announcing, “But I’ll probably never have to, so I’ll do your laundry.” It was delightful.
And then I got to see Elbel in all his glory, as his band Ping performed their last show on the Gallery Stage. Jeff is a Gallery fixture – he’s been the man behind the scenes at every Cornerstone I’ve attended, either running around backstage to make sure everything is in order, or playing one of the 45 instruments he’s good at. He’s been a big part of the reason Gallery Stage works, and his shows are always like family reunions. Ping is a massive band – there were nine of them on stage today – and they’re scattered all over the country, so Cornerstone is their annual meet-up party.
I’ve seen a lot of Ping shows, but this one was probably my favorite. Everyone had such a great time. Jeff writes clever and fun tunes that look like they’re a blast to play. The band kicked off with “Early Birds and Night Owls” from the new Ping record, Gallery, and proceeded to just stomp through the set. They played many of my favorites from Gallery – which is, by the way, terrific – including the Cars-esque “Light It Up” and the Twilight Zone-inspired “Time Enough at Last.”
But the most poignant moment came when the band launched into their “mystery cover” – they tore through “Deep,” by Adam Again. That’ll mean nothing to folks who aren’t immersed in this corner of the music world, but for those of us who remember Gene Eugene, it was important and moving. Gene died in 2000, but he left behind a legacy of amazing songs (both with Adam Again and with the Lost Dogs), and of the literally hundreds of bands he helped. I was grateful to see him paid tribute.
Ping ended their set with “Make Sure Your Eyes Are Fine,” an absolute scorcher from Gallery, and steadfastly avoided turning sad and maudlin at the prospect of never again performing on the Gallery Stage. But I was sad. I’m going to miss Ping shows, and I’m glad Jeff and I have become such good friends. Another thing I have to thank Cornerstone for.
Today was discovery day on the Gallery Stage. The evening was filled with acts I’d never heard of. Guitarist Trace Bundy was up first, dazzling with his six-string dexterity. One of his tricks involved five capos, those devices that clamp down over the strings on the neck to change keys. While he played, he moved those capos around, altering the pitch of the notes he was plucking. It was something to see.
Hushpad brought a love of ‘80s shoegaze, a sound I’ve rarely heard at Cornerstone. They were great, often extending their songs to make pretty noise out of their amps. I will anxiously await their new album. Mike Mains and the Branches played an emotional form of pop-punk, bringing more energy to the stage than just about anyone else. They were fun to watch, but the songs were pretty average – I was struck by the idea that a group this energetic could also be kind of boring. But at the end, when they invited audience members up on stage to dance and sing, they had everyone in the palm of their hand.
Mains also had the line of the day, when introducing his band: “We’re Mike Mains and the Branches, and I’m Neil Diamond.”
And then came Neal Morse. Here’s an interesting paradox: I could hardly believe Neal Morse was playing Cornerstone, and at the same time, could hardly believe it was his first time at the fest. Neal is an old-school prog-rocker, raised on old Yes and Genesis and bands of that ilk. About 10 years ago, he split from his band Spock’s Beard and decided to make prog-rock for Jesus. It’s an odd combination, but it works.
After an eternity of setup, the band (including longtime bassist Randy George) took the stage, and immediately blew the crowd away. Morse’s material is jaw-droppingly complex, full of keyboard and guitar solos and odd time signatures, yet remains melodic – you could hum any one of his songs. He played for about 90 minutes, running through tunes from One and Sola Scriptura (his rock opera about Martin Luther – for real), and giving us a sneak peek at his new album Momentum, out in September.
I spoke to so many people who had never heard of Neal Morse before his set, and had become raving fans after it. Such instrumental dexterity is rare to see in person. The band was great, but Neal was stunning, darting between fleet-fingered keyboard runs and scorching guitar, and singing the whole time. The crowd responded best to a suite from Testimony 2 involving his daughter Jada, born with a hole in her heart. According to Neal, she was healed by God, and while I’m not sure what I believe in that case, the Cornerstone audience erupted into applause when the song reached that miraculous moment. It was cool to see.
And finally, there was the Violet Burning.
I first saw the Violets on the Gallery Stage in 2001, and they knocked me out. Andy Prickett was with them at the time, and they conjured up this wall of swirly sound that physically slammed against you. I had heard their self-titled album at that time, but little else, and I quickly tracked down everything I could, and kept up with them ever since.
I’ve seen the Violets probably a dozen times since 2001, but they’ve never put on a show like they did tonight. Last year, Pritzl and company released their magnum opus, a triple album called The Story of Our Lives. It’s an astonishing achievement, and it’s also astonishingly loud – they’ve taken on a harder, dirtier, grimier edge, and they play with a force they only hinted at before. Pritzl remains one of the most emotive singers in rock, but the music now matches him with a scorching fire.
They played nearly all of the first disc and half of the second of Story as their main set – a bold move, but one the audience lapped up. This is the strongest Violets material ever, and it comes off so well on stage. And then they returned for an extended encore, playing until about 2 a.m., and that was one of the most emotional things I’ve seen so far at this final Cornerstone.
They brought Michelle Thompson of the Wayside on stage to sing “As I Am.” They played the glorious “Goldmine.” They slammed their way through the classic “Low.” And they ended things with “Gorgeous,” the remaining faithful singing along at the top of their lungs. The Violets gave it their all, and we gave it right back to them, a circle of love for a band and a festival too few have experienced.
That was truly something. I expect tomorrow will be similarly moving, particularly when the Choir hits the stage for the last show of the last Cornerstone ever. It’s starting to feel real. This is happening.
* * * * *
Saturday, July 7
And it’s over. The last notes have been played, the last prayers have been prayed, and Cornerstone is no more. As I write this, they’re dismantling the Gallery Stage for the final time. Never again will I see some of my favorite bands on that stage, in this field, with these people. Never again.
I don’t even know how to process today. It was an emotional one, for sure – I gave and received more hugs today than I can count, and shed a few tears too. I knew Cornerstone meant a lot to me, but I suppose I didn’t know how much until now, until we arrived at the end.
In a lot of ways, I don’t feel like I ever got the full Cornerstone experience, and that may have to do with the fact that, by most measures, I don’t belong here. This is a festival of faith, and yes, it’s faith wrapped up in amazing artistry (which is what draws me here), but it is still faith, and I don’t share it. I’m 38 years old, and I still don’t know what I believe. If this were a normal Christian festival, it would not be for me.
But Cornerstone is anything but a normal Christian festival. It’s a place where all are welcome, even me. I’ve never felt anything less than a sense of home when I’m here. It’s a place without judgment. Come and listen. Be respectful, and you’ll be respected.
I loved it here.
Another reason I never got the full impact of the fest was that I attended strictly for the music. Cornerstone had seminars and art workshops and movies and games, and I really didn’t experience any of it. I parked myself down at the Gallery Stage most days and just soaked in the tunes. Today was no exception. I suppose I could have tried to do more, tried one last time to get the full Cornerstone effect, but I didn’t. I stayed at Gallery from about 2 p.m. to about 2 a.m.
The first band on my docket was the incredible Photoside Café, a group I might never have heard without Cornerstone. In fact, the stage was thick with bands I’d likely never have run across without this festival today. Photoside has always reminded me of the Levellers – aggressive folksy rock with a violin at its center, and some just fantastic, complex songs. “Kill Your TV” was the highlight for me today, and they played it as if they’d never have the chance again.
Lauren Mann took the stage next, bringing her Fairly Odd Folk with her. She’s from Canada, and I saw her last year on the Gallery Stage and made a mental note. Her new album is called Over Land and Sea, and was produced by Copeland’s amazing Aaron Marsh. It’s a sweet little confection, full of simple songs of joy, and I like it very much.
But Mann shines live, and her brief set touched on all the reasons why. Her songs take on a jaunty power on stage that gets sanded off on record, her voice leaping for notes as her wickedly talented band revolves around her. At one point in today’s show, the three backing musicians froze in place for a full minute while Mann continued to play and sing, and the effect was awesome. Mann’s well worth checking out, and I expect she’ll just keep on getting better.
There’s hardly any way for Timbre to get better than she is. The harp-playing wonder graced the Gallery next, having interrupted her European tour to be there for the last Cornerstone. (For, it should be noted again, no money at all.) Timbre is a mesmerizing player and singer, like Joanna Newsom with a more immediately likeable voice and a feel for classically-influenced progressive tunes. She and her backup band – a drummer and a cellist – played their take on Radiohead’s “Like Spinning Plates,” and a slew of slowly-unfolding originals. It was a treat to see her again.
Kye Kye is a terrific little band with one of the worst names I could think of. (The fact that Kye apparently means Christ doesn’t make it any better for me.) They’re an electro-pop outfit with a riveting singer and a penchant for big melodies, and they had the crowd in the palm of their hand. Big thumping keyboard sounds, shimmering guitar, beats that wouldn’t quit. The line to buy their first album, Young Love, was impressively long.
And that was it for the new discoveries this year. Up next was the astounding Josh Garrels. Last year at this time, I was watching Garrels for the first time, soaking in his epic take on folk music. This year, I went in as a raving fanboy. His new album, Love and War and the Sea In Between, made #4 on my list last year – it’s a remarkable achievement, a cohesive and stunning piece of work.
Watching Garrels sing “Ulysses” is a heart-rending experience. Watching him rap his way through “The Resistance” is the opposite, a galvanizing, on-your-feet call to arms that moved through the Cornerstone audience like lightning. That he can do both, and then encore with the fathoms-deep dialogue of “Zion and Babylon,” makes him a performer far above the norm. As Emperor Palpatine said to Anakin, I’ll be watching his career with great interest.
For the past year, Garrels has been giving away Love and War, but now, finally, you can pay him money for it. Go to www.joshgarrels.com.
After that, the Farewell Drifters were a bit slight, but still oceans of fun. Down a man after the departure of fiddle player Christian Sedelmyer, the four-piece Drifters wandered through a strong set of genial bluegrass-pop, the kind of thing that brings a smile and a tapping toe. They covered Billy Bragg and Wilco’s “California Stars,” from the Woody Guthrie-inspired Mermaid Avenue project, and delivered a superb rendition of Paul Simon’s “The Only Living Boy in New York.” They’re a great band, and they served as a refreshing palette-cleanser before the final act.
The Cornerstone Festival started in 1984, and the first band to play the first set was a group of California kids calling themselves Youth Choir. They were exuberant and wide-eyed, and they played melodic new-wave pop that somehow ended up drowned in synths on their debut album, Voices in Shadows.
No one could have predicted that 28 years later, they’d still be going strong. They changed their name to The Choir, and added a few new members over the years. They just released their 12th album, called The Loudest Sound Ever Heard. They are my favorite band, and in an act of almost divine poetry, the Choir was chosen to close out the final Cornerstone fest. It could not have been more perfect.
I was a Choir fan for 12 years before I got to see them live. I’ve witnessed probably a dozen Choir shows since, and it never gets less thrilling. I have given up trying to explain or understand the alchemy of this band. I just know that when the four of them are together, they make a strange kind of magic. Tonight, that magic worked as often as it didn’t – the joy of watching them work is that they take risks, particularly bassist Tim Chandler, and sometimes those risks end up uglier than they should. But that’s part of the thrill, part of the glorious racket they make together.
The show itself? They played their entire Chase the Kangaroo album – they’re celebrating its 25th anniversary – and swung through two new songs and two classics. As usual, they ended with an extended take on “Circle Slide,” this one louder and more raucous than normal. I’ve often wanted them to play that middle section, in which they all go off script and make as much pretty noise as they can, for a full hour, so enveloping is the sound. We got a minute or so this time, but it always feels like oceans of noise washing over me.
I got to hear some of my favorite Choir songs live on the Gallery Stage one last time. “Cain.” “Sad Face.” “A Sentimental Song.” “Consider,” which, as Doug Van Pelt said to me, has the greatest drum intro of all time. It was joyous. And then it was over – after about an hour, the band left the stage. And I knew this was it. One encore, and Cornerstone would be finished forever.
During the day, I tried to figure out what song they would play last. For some reason, I just didn’t consider “To Bid Farewell,” the sweet lullaby that all but closes their incredible Wide-Eyed Wonder album. Derri Daugherty and Steve Hindalong, two guitars, Derri’s emotion-choked voice, four minutes of painful beauty. I cried. I’m not going to lie or hide it. I cried. It could not have been better. And I hope they’re right, and a sad face is good for the heart.
Before the final song, Derri delivered an impassioned speech about Cornerstone, and what it has meant to him. He related it to the Island of Misfit Toys, a place where those who don’t fit in anywhere else can come together and feel safe. Until he put it into words, I’m not sure I understood what I was losing, what we all were. After the show, I hung around for a while, hugged some people, said goodbyes, and left Cornerstone for the last time. I’m not sure it’s hit me yet, but I haven’t been able to get through my video of Derri’s speech without tearing up. (You can try it yourself – my video is here.)
It really was the Island of Misfit Toys. A safe haven. One week a year in another world. I already miss it terribly. Goodnight, Cornerstone. You were a little miracle, and the world is much poorer now that you’re gone.
“A sad song for the songs I never would sing, if I were to bid farewell to you today…”
* * * * *
Thanks again to everyone who made Cornerstone what it was for 29 years. I’m sorry I only saw a fraction of it. And special thanks to Jeff Elbel, for sharing the experience with me.
See you in line Tuesday morning.