Cornerstone's Successor Proves its Worth

The AudioFeed Festival is not Cornerstone.

This is an important thing to remember. Although AudioFeed has risen from the ashes of Cornerstone, which ended its epic 29-year run in 2012, it’s not the same thing. I was a devotee of the brilliant spiritual pop festival that called Bushnell home for nearly three decades. It was just about the only place to see some of my favorite bands, including Daniel Amos, the 77s and the Choir, and the atmosphere of the place was always welcoming and wonderful.

But man, there were so many times last weekend when AudioFeed felt like Cornerstone. This new festival was rushed together in three months, but you wouldn’t have known it. In fact, in some ways – and I say this while looking out for the lightning bolt – AudioFeed is an upgrade. It’s like the organizers took my Cornerstone experience, isolated it from everything I didn’t like about the festival, and made it more convenient by a factor of 10. Your mileage may definitely vary, but I had a terrific time at AudioFeed, and I think it’s a fine successor.

I wasn’t really expecting much. The lineup included only a few bands I wanted to see, over two days instead of five, and at the Champaign County Fairgrounds, a small-ish outdoor venue. And a week or so before the fest, one of the artists I was excited to see, Bill Mallonee, pulled out. But my friend Jeff Elbel was playing (four times!), and going to festivals with Jeff is a summer tradition. So I paid my money and I took my chance.

So, let me count the ways I enjoyed AudioFeed more than Cornerstone:

It’s closer. About an hour closer, in fact, and the drive is a delightfully easy one.

There’s no dust. The Champaign fairgrounds are nicely maintained, a step up from the dirt-filled Cornerstone Farm.

There were three stages – the main (Arkansas) stage, the metal stage and the acoustic stage – and they were all right next to each other. Minimal amounts of walking.

The main stage was inside and air conditioned.

The main stage booked bands I wanted to see. Cornerstone’s main stage often included mindless cheerleaders like TobyMac and Skillet. AudioFeed’s headliners were Denison Witmer and The Soil and the Sun. That was pretty much the tone.

My hotel was about two minutes from the festival, instead of 20.

I understand this list makes me sound old, like I shouldn’t be attending days-long music festivals. And maybe that’s not far off. I can’t do Lollapalooza or Pitchfork Fest – they’re just exhausting. But I’ll say that the audience for AudioFeed was probably 75 percent young kids. And they seemed to like the more convenient festival just fine. For me, AudioFeed was all of the music I loved with none of the discomfort. I’ll take that equation.

And the music! Once again, I got to see some of my favorite unknown spiritual pop bands on a big stage. Highlights for me included Michael Roe, who tore the roof off with a snarling, bluesy set, backed up by Steve Hindalong and Tim Chandler from the Choir. They played fiery versions of some of Roe’s most rocking songs, including “Tattoo” and “Perfect Blues,” and threw in a cover of “Back Door Man.” (The sign language interpreter blanched at some of those lyrics.) Roe was the perfect lead-in to bearded bluesmen Sean Michel and Glenn Kaiser on Friday night, and both delivered fine, smoking sets.

My roommate Jeff Elbel killed it on the main stage on Friday with his expansive band, Ping. They played a high-energy set spanning Jeff’s whole career, from his old band Farewell to Juliet to his new album Gallery. As I mentioned, Jeff played four sets, including two with semi-retired goth-rocker Brian Healy, as part of an all-star Dead Artist Syndrome band. The acoustic set on Friday night was a bit of an unrehearsed disaster, but Saturday’s main stage show came off well. The band included Steve, Tim and Derri Daugherty of the Choir and Gym Nicholson, of legendary (at least in these circles) band Undercover.

But by far my favorite Elbel moment came early on Friday, as he and members of Ping backed up Harry Gore at the acoustic tent. If you’ve been to Cornerstone, you know Harry Gore. He usually sets up anywhere he can, with his electric guitar and a portable amp, and plays requests. Cornerstone just wouldn’t be Cornerstone without Harry Gore, and giving him his own set at AudioFeed started this thing off just right.

And man, Harry’s set was awesome. Half originals, half covers, all blistering rock – he somehow missed the definition of “acoustic stage,” ripping into extended, fantastic electric solos at every opportunity. The big wide grin on his face was worth the whole weekend. So much fun.

Of course, the Choir played on Saturday night. They remain my favorite band, and every time I get to see them in a festival setting, it’s an indescribable treat. Derri’s voice is still sweet as a bird’s, and his guitar an uncaged animal devouring the room. The Choir live is barely controlled chaos, even as they play some of the prettiest songs you’ve ever heard. They did just about everything I wanted to hear, and threw in a few surprises – an acoustic take of “All Night Long,” from their first EP, and a fairly decent new song. It was one of the best shows I’ve seen the Choir play, and I feel lucky, as always, to have experienced it.

I’m also grateful to have seen Hushpad, and watched their evolution into a top-class band. I discovered them last year at Cornerstone, and thoroughly enjoyed their shimmering shoegaze pop. This year, they blossomed – a six-piece band took the main stage on Saturday night and mesmerized the audience with glorious, reverb-drenched bliss reminiscent of the Cocteau Twins and Kitchens of Distinction. Leader Matthew Welchel swears his band is making an album this year, and I’ll be watching for it – the hour it’s available, I will buy it. Hushpad is one of the best bands I’ve discovered in years.

I made several other new musical friends at AudioFeed. There was Noah James, he of the big voice and the wry stage presence. James has just released an EP of reworked hymns, and it’s pretty great. Ravenhill tore up the main stage on Friday – imagine if Black Sabbath had grown up as Southern Baptists, and you’ll get the idea. Lauryn Peacock played a couple sets of unadorned piano-pop, which didn’t prepare me for the full production on her album Keep It Simple… Let the Sun Come Out. It’s nice stuff.

Probably my favorite discovery, though, was Robert Deeble. I’m almost embarrassed to admit I’d never heard him before – Deeble’s been around since the mid-‘90s, creating atmospheric acoustic music unlike almost anything I’ve heard. He reminds me of Bruce Cockburn at times, but his music is more spare, more airy. Deeble played some tunes at the acoustic tent, but really impressed with his main stage set, accompanied by Steve Hindalong on drums. I bought his complete discography, including his latest, the accomplished and lovely Heart Like Feathers. A full review is coming soon. It’s simply excellent.

Who else? So many others. I got to see Cody Nicolas of the La De Les playing solo, dazzling the audience with his complex guitar technique. I caught most of a crazed rapper who calls himself Spoken Nerd. (“This song is called ‘I Wish Those Jerks Had Never Killed John F. Kennedy,’” he announced, before actually playing a song with that title.) I saw a bizarre Portland act called Insomniac Folklore, a duo going by the name Mayhew the Traitor, and a lovely singer-songwriter named Molly Parden. I also caught a terrific set by harpist Timbre, who is currently working on a double album called Sun and Moon that is among my most anticipated new releases.

And I even ducked into the metal tent a few times. I saw Hope for the Dying again, and they’re still the best new metal band I’ve heard in some time. I caught some of A Hill to Die Upon, and saw most of Grave Robber’s show – this is a band heavily inspired by the Misfits, wearing Halloween masks and spraying the audience with red liquid. They were a lot of fun.

And so was AudioFeed as a whole. The organizers have already doubled down for next year, and I’m ready to go again. Copious thanks to Jeff Elbel for once again being my festival buddy and my excuse to talk to semi-famous people. (Thanks to Jeff, I also got to meet legendary producer Mark Rubel, tour his amazing studio in Champaign, and then eat the most hideous, delicious breakfast concoction on earth with him at 3 a.m.)

AudioFeed is not Cornerstone, no doubt. But it’s a fine answer to the question of what’s next. I hope it survives for years to come.

Next week, some of that spiritual pop, with Daniel Amos and Robert Deeble. Leave a comment on my blog at Follow me on Twitter at

See you in line Tuesday morning.