When I was a teenager, I discovered what I’ve come to think of as Cornerstone music.
I’ve told this story many times, so I won’t bore you with it again. Suffice it to say that my first exposure to the spiritual pop music I would come to love was a little album called Circle Slide, by a band called the Choir. This was not Christian music as I had come to know it – shallow, facile, motivated by a Jesus-per-minute count – but real, honest, deep spiritual art. These were musicians who wrestled with faith, like I did, and they weren’t always the victors.
After some time of listening to this stuff – Circle Slide led me to the rest of the Choir’s work, which led me to the Lost Dogs, and Daniel Amos, and the 77s, and Adam Again, and Mike Knott, and the Violet Burning, and on and on – I started hearing about this festival called Cornerstone, where these guys would play once every summer. As an East Coast boy, I was certain I’d never get to Cornerstone. It was in some magical, mythical, faraway land called Bushnell, Illinois, so far outside the world I knew that it may as well have been on Saturn.
I imagined what it must be like, though, to hear so many great, largely unknown bands over one weekend. In 2002, I moved to Hobart, Indiana – while not exactly close to Bushnell, I was certainly within a feasible distance of Cornerstone for the first time in my life. So I went. And it was even better than I’d expected. I got to meet many favorite artists (most notably Derri Daugherty and Steve Hindalong of the Choir), and I got to see more than a dozen great shows. I saw the 77s for the first time, and cemented my opinion that they’re one of the planet’s best rock bands. I saw Daniel Amos and the Choir and the Violet Burning and Mike Knott and the Wayside and Ester Drang and so many others.
And I got the opportunity to soak Cornerstone in. It takes place in a dusty, hot field in the middle of nowhere, and it’s like no place else on earth. I’ve gone back a few times since, but that first C-Stone experience remains my favorite. Each time I’ve returned, though, I’ve managed to discover new artists I’m overjoyed to follow. I first saw Mutemath at Cornerstone in 2005 – it was the day’s last show, and I almost skipped it, and I’m incredibly glad I didn’t. In 2010, I got to see Iona perform, and discovered Photoside Café and Timbre.
And last year, I saw Phil Keaggy tear it up with a full band, and Saviour Machine play unplugged for more than two hours, and found the music of Josh Garrels – he made my #4 album of 2011, the incredible Love and War and the Sea In Between. Attendance was in stark decline last year, but the music wasn’t. Cornerstone again provided the backdrop for some of the best music in one place you’re likely to ever hear. As soon as the 2011 fest was over, I started making plans to return in 2012.
I’m taking you on this trip down memory lane because in a few weeks, it will all be over. Organizers have announced that due to slumping ticket sales over the past few years, the 2012 Cornerstone Festival will be the last. They’ve scaled it down considerably, too – lacking funds to pay the bands, the organizers sent an email asking for volunteers to play for free. They got many affirmative responses – more than I would have thought, actually – and the lineup is pretty good. But they’ve eliminated the main stage, and collapsed the fest to just two stages, one for acoustic and rock acts and one for metal bands. (Hopefully they’re nowhere near each other.)
It’s been a whirlwind couple of weeks on that front, and I’m still trying to process it – not only the idea that the festival I’m going to see this year will be a tinier, more intimate thing, which may actually be a plus, but also the sad reality that I may never get to do this again. This will, in all likelihood, be my last Cornerstone Festival. It’s difficult to get my head around.
Here’s what I know, though. I’ve had some amazing times at Cornerstone, and met some incredible people. And on Wednesday, July 4, I’m going to pack up the car and drive south and do it one last time. I get to see some big names, like Iona and Neal Morse, but I’m more excited about one last C-Stone visit with some old favorites, like the Violet Burning and the 77s. And in a touch of poetry, the band that initially opened the first Cornerstone – the Choir, possibly my favorite band in the world – will close the final one. Couldn’t be more perfect.
One last time. I’ll be sure to tell you all about it.
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And now, for someone who wouldn’t be caught dead at Cornerstone.
I’ve devoted a lot of space in this column to defending John Mayer from his own work. The man’s a world-class guitar player, and on stage, he’s a wizard. But when he gets into the studio, all of that energy dissipates. He’s never made an album I love, never made one that lives up to his estimable skills. Most importantly, he’s never made a record that feels real.
His last effort, 2009’s Battle Studies, was the worst of the lot. Studio-shined into complete irrelevance, the record was a sad slew of glossy ballads and mid-tempo snoozefests. Ever since “Daughters” hit big in 2003, Mayer’s been casting about for that next swoony hit, and he’s loaded down otherwise decent albums like Continuum with the latest rotten fruits of that search. I’ve long since given up hoping that he’ll capture the intensity of his live trio on disc, but with each new record, I grow more grateful that he nailed down “No Such Thing” when he did. The Mayer of Battle Studies would never write something so free.
I don’t want to give the impression that Mayer’s fifth album, Born and Raised, finally delivers on that score. In many ways, it’s the opposite of what I’ve been looking for from him – it’s a low-key, mellow, breezy record, his most mature to date. But it’s also the first one I unconditionally like. It’s funny. Mayer made his mark with “No Such Thing,” a song in which he promised never to grow up. With Born and Raised, he has finally and irrevocably broken that promise. And in the process, he’s made his first great album. Who knew?
Born and Raised is the product of a lot of soul-searching. Mayer’s been out of the public eye for a couple of years, following surgery on his vocal cords, and he went into virtual isolation, trying to figure out what to do next. What he decided, evidently, is to write his strongest collection of songs – earthy, folksy things, with honest and earnest lyrics – and record them without any of the radio-baiting gloss that has plagued his work. This is a simple thing, a modest and humble record, and because it’s so unfussy, it feels more genuine than anything Mayer’s ever done.
The title track is as good an example as anything here. It’s a slight thing, a lightly-strummed folk number with confessional lyrics: “All at once it gets hard to take, it gets hard to fake what I won’t be…” But it’s lovely. There’s some perfectly-pitched piano and organ from Chuck Leavell, a nice helping of tuneful harmonica, lap steel from the venerable Greg Leisz, and the heavenly backing vocals of David Crosby and Graham Nash. It’s a completely different sound for Mayer – more country-folk than blues-pop – and it suits him remarkably well.
There’s some blues here, most notably the sly grin of “Something Like Olivia,” but it’s hanging-out-in-the-backyard blues, tasteful and mellow. The heart of this album is in its sparser tracks, like the darker “If I Ever Get Around to Living,” accented perfectly by Leavell’s electric piano. “Shadow Days” is the closest thing to a hit here (which is why it’s the first single), and even that feels looser somehow, more earned. And because of this tone, he can go for a fanciful number like “Walt Grace’s Submarine Test, January 1967” and not watch it float out of his grasp.
This album never really stops impressing, right up to its final song, “A Face to Call Home.” A lovely duet with Sara Watkins (of Nickel Creek fame), this ode to domesticity could very well be that slow-dance hit he’s been chasing for nine years, and he got here honestly. There’s not a false note to be found, nothing that cries out to be played on the radio and at weddings, which is why it works so damn well.
I’ve always liked Mayer, and until now, always walked away from his studio albums shaking my head. Not this time. It might just be that I’m getting older too, and these more grown-up songs work for me in ways they wouldn’t have only a few years ago. But there’s no denying that Mayer has changed things up for the better here, finally approaching his music organically, from the heart. That makes all the difference. Born and Raised is a delight, the best record of Mayer’s career, and hopefully the first of many he makes on this new path. I always knew he had it in him.
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Keeping things short this week. Next week, the Beach Boys reunite. God only knows whether this will suck. Leave a comment on my blog at tm3am.blogspot.com. Follow my infrequent twitterings at www.twitter.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.