The AudioFeed Festival turned five this year.
I’m happy to say I haven’t missed an AudioFeed yet, and if I have anything to say about it, I’ll be there each year for as long as the merry band who organizes it keeps the torches lit. It’s become for me like going home and seeing family once a year. I’ve really stopped being able to review the festival, if that’s ever what I was doing, since it’s become such an important part of my life.
I’ve talked at length in this space about why AudioFeed is important to me. I grew up in a church, but for 25 years after I left, I’ve never felt at home in houses of worship. I’m still not sure what I believe, or even how best to explore the belief I have. The constant thread, though – the thing that keeps me coming back to a sense of the divine, the infinite – has been music. I grew up listening to Christian music – awful stuff, like Petra – but in 1990, I bought a mysterious-looking album called Circle Slide from one of the best bands I’ve ever had the pleasure to stumble on, The Choir.
The rest is history. My love of the Choir introduced me to Daniel Amos and Adam Again and the 77s and Starflyer 59 and so many other artists. My life would be infinitely poorer without them all. I eventually made my way to Cornerstone, the legendary alternative Christian music festival in Illinois, and when I moved to this state in 2004, I started going regularly. Cornerstone allowed me to see bands like the Choir and the 77s live for the first time, and introduced me to many more terrific artists I may never have encountered otherwise.
Still and all, I never felt comfortable at Cornerstone. I felt like an impostor more often than not, as if I were just waiting to be unmasked as a non-believer. I made some dear friends at Cornerstone, but always came away from it feeling like I’d crashed a party, and barely got away with it. Still, I was heartbroken when Cornerstone ended its mammoth 28-year run in 2012, and when the Choir, the last band on the last night, closed their set with “To Bid Farewell,” I definitely had something in my eye. (It’s really dusty in Bushnell.)
AudioFeed has gamely stepped into that gap, but it’s become more than clear over the ensuing five years that they have no intention of being the “next Cornerstone.” While the main draws for me at first were the bands I have loved for decades, I’m now just as excited about discovering new artists and seeing again the bands I first found at AudioFeed. I’m there for the likes of Von Strantz and Hushpad and Marah in the Mainsail (bring them back!) as I am for the old favorites.
As you might have guessed, this approach has turned off a lot of the old Cornerstone crowd, and I used to worry about that too. But I’ve seen this remarkable community grow up around AudioFeed, and I understand now that this festival is for them, not for the folks who just want to re-live the good old days. It’s about the future, in ways that Cornerstone no longer was. It’s about nurturing a new crop of fantastic artists and supporting them as they grow and create. And if they happen to explore faith in interesting ways, more so the better.
For five years running, I have felt at home at AudioFeed. It’s a festival that accepts people wherever they are in their journey, and invites them to participate. That, more than anything else, is what I need. I’ve recently started going to church again for the first time in a quarter-century, and it’s because I found a place that believes that everyone is welcome. Religion, for so many people, is about exclusion, about building walls between people and then getting on the “right” side of those walls. And I have always thought that it should be about love.
Because, as a band I love once sang, there’s something wonderful about love.
This fifth year was no exception. It was less a year of discovery for me – there seemed to be fewer new acts I had not seen before, but there certainly were some, including the Grey Havens and Lowercase Noises, that I will now follow forever. My favorite sets this year were mainly found on the larger Arkansas Stage, and included a smooth and soulful show by singer Liz Vice, a completely unexpected old-time gospel revue from the normally swamp-blues-y Sean Michel, a similarly surprising gritty set from John Mark McMillan, a guided tour through social issues set to rhyme by Sho Baraka and another chance to see the rolling fireball that is Ravenhill. My friend Jeff Elbel played two sterling sets as well, one with his current band Ping (road-testing several songs from the upcoming The Threefinger Opera) and one that reunited his ‘90s band Farewell to Juliet.
In addition to Sho Baraka (more about him next week), there were a couple shows at AudioFeed 2017 that I think demonstrate clearly why this festival is not just important to me, but an important thing to have in the world. With evangelicals supporting Donald Trump (still!) in record numbers and Christians seemingly standing against every fight for equality, I can think of no institution that needs to consider other viewpoints as much as the church does. And one of those viewpoints the church needs to consider is why people leave it.
The organizers of AudioFeed invited Derek Webb to make his debut appearance at the Radon Lounge (basically the acoustic stage). Webb is a superstar in this corner of the music world, having made his name with Caedmon’s Call and a slew of inventive, incisive, decidedly Christian solo records. But in the intervening years, Webb’s marriage dissolved (due to infidelity on his part), and he has lost his faith. His new songs, to be released on an album called Fingers Crossed later this year, detail that loss of faith with as much honestly and insight as he has brought to his entire career.
He played six of those new songs, and make no mistake, they are searing and amazing. They would have had him run out of Cornerstone on a rail. That AudioFeed gave him a platform to share them, and that the audience accepted both them and him as they are, speaks volumes about why I am so comfortable at this festival. When they say they want everyone to feel welcome, they mean it. I identified with much of what Webb was singing about, and had the audience turned on him, they would have been turning on me too. But they didn’t.
Similarly, one of the headliners this year was David Bazan, who, with his band Pedro the Lion, was an important part of the Christian indie scene in the ‘90s. Bazan also went through a very public loss of faith some years ago, and has been writing (brilliantly) from that perspective ever since. His work is bleaker now, more concerned with struggle and silence than it used to be, but it’s no less wonderful. (And he’s just delivered a swell platter from his new supergroup Lo Tom that is well worth hearing.)
I encountered some Christians who could not believe that David Bazan was not only invited to be part of AudioFeed, but was headlining. This would never happen at Cornerstone, or at any other Christian festival, they said. And of course, they’re right. That, to me, is what makes AudioFeed special. Bazan wasn’t preached at or lectured. He was listened to and loved, right where he is. I think we could all use more of that, but I think the church especially could learn that lesson.
Yeah, AudioFeed is just a music festival, a gathering of a few thousand in a fairground in Champaign once a year. But it feels like so much more than that. It feels like a family to me, and in the way it approaches community, inclusion and diversity, it feels like the future. It feels important. I’m so grateful I get to visit every summer, and I hope I get to every summer for a long, long time. Viva AudioFeed.
Next week, I’ll talk about some of the music I picked up at this year’s festival. Yes, music! I know, right? Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.