My Last Cornerstone Haul
New Music From Old Friends (And One New One)

Doctor Who fans can be pretty odd.

Case in point. My best friend Mike, the man who got me back into Who with a vengeance eight years or so ago, owned a number of cats when he was growing up. Well, in truth, they were stray cats that somehow found their way to his boyhood home in Massachusetts, and his mother fed them, and that was that. They stayed. And they all had fairly prosaic names. Kitty. Blackie. Friendly.

That is, unless you asked Mike. He would tell you their full names: Kitanadvoratrelundar, Blackanadvoratrelundar, and Friendlanadvoratrelundar. Every cat in the house had a full name that ended with “dvoratrelundar,” and Doctor Who fans are now nodding their heads, because they get the reference. The cats were all named after Romanadvoratrelundar, or Romana for short, the Time Lady companion of Ton Baker’s Doctor in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s.

Besides the frankly amazing name, Romana was a remarkable character, the first denizen of the Doctor’s own race to travel with him since his granddaughter Susan in the ‘60s. She was prickly and witty, a match for the Doctor’s own intelligence, and over the course of her three years as the Doctor’s partner, she was played by two delightful actresses. It’s Lalla Ward who gets most of the accolades – she stayed longer, she had a more dazzling chemistry with Baker (the two were married during their time together on the program), and she starred in City of Death, one of the greatest Doctor Who stories of all time.

But it was Mary Tamm who originated the character, playing Romana for the 26-episode Key to Time arc in Season 15, and if you go back and watch those episodes, she’s simply terrific. From her first entrance in The Ribos Operation, in which she haughtily tries to put the Doctor in his place, to her double role in The Androids of Tara, to her heroic work trying to keep The Armageddon Factor from flying off its tracks, Tamm proved herself a fine actress and a worthy match for Baker. (One of my favorite exchanges between the two: “I’ll call you Romana.” “I don’t like Romana.” “It’s either Romana or Fred.” “All right, call me Fred.” “Good. Come along, Romana.”)

Simply put, she was great, and she made her mark on the series despite only hanging around for one season. Tamm went on to do lots of other television, but she always returned to Who, for commentaries and conventions and audio plays, a whole slew of which are slated to come out soon. Mary Tamm died on July 26 after a long battle with cancer. She was only 62. Watching the Key to Time series – episodes that rekindled my love for this show in 2004 – will never be the same now. All hail the original Romanadvoratrelundar. May she rest in peace.

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It’s been nearly a month, and I think I’m finally recovered from Cornerstone.

Of course, I mean physically recovered. I’m not sure I will emotionally recover for quite some time, and I expect I’ll feel the same flood of loss and mourning come July 4 next year. But as for the toll four solid days of heat and music took on my tired old bones, I think I’m back to normal.

So now it’s time for one of my favorite parts of the annual Pilgrimage to Bushnell: going through and devouring the new music I bought. And since this is the last Cornerstone, my kid-at-Christmas routine – tearing off the shrink wrap, reading the liner notes, digging in to new music from old favorites and discovering artists for the first time – is bittersweet. I’m never going to get to do this again. Couple that with my smaller-than-average haul this year, due to finances, and my Cornerstone 2012 experience is kind of going out with a whimper.

But not really. While I didn’t buy a lot this year, what I did pick up is pretty well magnificent. And the records I didn’t end up getting – the hard copy of Josh Garrels’ Love and War and the Sea In Between, the debut album from Kye Kye, a two-part acoustic release from The Violet Burning – will be winging their way to me as soon as I can afford them. So I’m going to call the last C-Stone haul a success.

Let’s start with my friend Jeff Elbel. I was an Elbel fan before I was his friend, but I will definitely cop to a bit of bias on this one. I heard Gallery, the new album by Jeff’s band Ping, in stages as he recorded it in his home studio, and I’ve been getting to know the songs live for years. I can’t deny that parts of Gallery are like comfortable old shoes for me at this point. But I promise you, I’m being as objective as I can when I say that Gallery is Elbel’s best record, ever, under any name.

If you’re not familiar with Ping, here’s the scoop. They’re a loose collective of about 10 to 15 musicians, who gather at irregular intervals to play Elbel’s winning, witty songs. While they’re all great players, there’s an appealing lack of pretension to what they do. Jeff’s tunes are funny, breezy, thoughtful things, and Ping plays them like old friends having a ball. But there’s nothing shambling about this outfit, either – Gallery is the best-sounding Elbel album, belying the fact that most of it was recorded in Jeff’s garage studio, and though the live-band energy is present from first note to last, all those notes are precisely arranged.

Jeff’s a tremendous musician, able to play just about anything well, but with Ping, he’s surrounded himself with wonderful players. Check out Mike Choby on the organ – he shines on “Early Birds and Night Owls.” Dig John Bretzlaff on the guitar, laying down subtle flourishes throughout, and Andrew Carter, formerly of LSU, knocking the six-string solos out of the park. Most of all, marvel at Maron Gaffron, who is essentially Ping’s other lead vocalist here – she has at least as much mic time as Elbel, and her soulful pipes elevate every tune she’s on. (Take special note of her showcase, “Your Wicked Mirror,” a splendid slice of soul that allows her to dig deep.)

But the real stars of this album are the songs, the strongest set that Elbel’s ever delivered. Where Ping’s last record, The Eleventh Hour Storybook, balanced its more considered pieces with a handful of throwaway novelty tunes, Gallery is a solid slab of witty wordplay and catchy melodies. It’s an album of faith and family, and while there are laughs, they’re thoughtful ones. It’s the closest Elbel has come to the work of one of his heroes, Terry Taylor – it gets the balance exactly right, and earns its big moments.

My favorite here is probably “Light It Up,” a song of domestic discord. Its characters – clearly Jeff and his wife – find themselves fighting over insignificant things. “Trampling a field of eggshells, leaving not a screw unturned,” Elbel sings, before announcing that “I don’t mind if you don’t mind, so what’s there to fight about?” The music is reminiscent of the Cars, and Elbel’s vocal duet with Gaffron is just swell. My other favorite is probably “Make Sure Your Eyes Are Fine,” the record’s most rocking number. Over a stomping groove, Elbel lashes out at critics who forget the planks in their own eyes. (Best bit: Gaffron crooning the middle section. “Mama should have taught you better, it shouldn’t be for me to tell you…”)

“I Forget” is the record’s funniest piece, Elbel running down the list of things his sieve-like brain just can’t retain. The kicker line is sweet: “But I remember you love me, and I remember I love you…” Elbel’s voice is a character all its own on this song, and the arrangement is buoyed by some peerless violin from Matt Gadeken of Photoside Café. And yes, Twilight Zone fans, “Time Enough at Last” is based on the famous episode starring Burgess Meredith.

But Gallery’s most affecting moments are the ones that reflect on Elbel’s faith. In particular, the album features two modern hymns – straightforward, simple and direct. “In a Place Where Shadows Grow” is from the point of view of St. Peter, after his denial of Jesus, and its lyric is reminiscent of Leonard Cohen to these ears. And closing number “Comfort Me” is as lovely a prayer as I’ve ever heard. There’s nothing complex about it, but then, there’s nothing false about it either. It’s exactly what it should be.

And so is Gallery, in fact. Elbel named this record after the Cornerstone stage he helped bring to life, and it’s fitting – Ping’s shows there always felt like family reunion parties. They were comfortable and loose and all-inclusive and fun, just like this album. Like I said, I’ve been an Elbel fan for longer than I’ve been his friend, and I think this is the best thing he’s done. If you haven’t heard Ping, you should start here.

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I don’t know Lauren Mann, but I have met her twice.

I first discovered the Canadian songstress at last year’s Cornerstone, where she and her band, the Fairly Odd Folk, performed a fun, melodic set of piano-driven pop. I bought her first record, Stories From Home, which is actually a collection of formative recordings, and at the time, she promised that the “real” album would be out soon. Well, it’s here now, and it’s just great.

It’s called Over Land and Sea, and it more than fulfills the promise I saw in Mann last year. It’s a light and breezy affair, full of simple songs about wonder and love, but there’s so much joy in these grooves, so much pure, heart-on-sleeve delight, that only the hardest of hearts could dislike it. This record was produced by Aaron Marsh, formerly of Copeland, and his fingerprints are on every minute of it – the instrumentation is adventurous, but never detracts from the songs, and the whole thing floats 10 feet off the ground.

Much of Over Land and Sea is quiet – it starts with “Fragile,” plucked out on a ukulele while Mann’s airy voice softly announces itself, and even when the clarinets and strings come in, it’s a whisper. The second track, “I Lost Myself,” begins with a whistle over yet more ukulele, so I was not prepared for the Fairly Odd Folk to come crashing in about the 1:10 mark. The band (which, on this record, includes Marsh on bass and a bunch of other instruments) remains subtle throughout, but the album contains some remarkable crescendos like that, most notably in the second half of the string-laden closer, “Like the Mist.”

The songs may be ditties, but they’re not trifles. Mann tackles love, life, death, parenthood, depression and joy, all in simple but poetic language. Take “Of Life and Of Death,” perhaps my favorite here. It’s a farewell to someone who has passed, and when Mann sings, “I’ll tell them stories so I won’t forget you, and I’ll keep your photographs so I’ll recognize you,” it’s devastating. “Weight of the World” is a song of encouragement, in the most straightforward way: “Now is the time to carry on from here, to march on and plant your flag where you belong…” And “Love, I Lost” is about going back to go forward: “When we find the place where we first embraced, beginning and the end, could we begin again?”

But it’s the dittiest of these ditties, “Dance With Me,” that leaves the strongest impression. A simply delightful, swaying piano number, “Dance With Me” is a snapshot of new love, and it perfectly captures that blooming-rose feeling, that limitless possibility. Yes, it’s corny: “Dance with me under the stars, I’ll get lost in your arms…” But it works beautifully, and the 30 seconds of ambient atmosphere that conclude it are more lovely than I can tell you.

Over Land and Sea is a treasure. It’s a small thing, one that doesn’t call much attention to itself, but its charms are many, and they unfold with time. This is exactly the kind of record I hoped Lauren Mann would make, right down to the sumptuous, elaborate packaging. It probably won’t make her a star, but it’s a simply wonderful calling card from a new artist to watch. I love it to bits. Buy it here.

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But no one celebrated the final Cornerstone like the 77s.

Mike Roe has played the festival more times than anyone else. The original lineup of the 77s performed at the first Cornerstone, and Roe and David Leonhardt closed out a night of the final festival. In between, Mike played nearly every one of these things, either on his own, with the 77s, or with the Lost Dogs. And that means audiences in Bushnell got more than two dozen chances over the years to see one of the finest guitar players alive ply his trade.

My first Cornerstone experience, in 2002, was highlighted by a full-on 77s rock show on the Gallery Stage. And sweet lord, was it amazing. The three-piece band put on what is still one of the finest rock ‘n’ roll explosions I’ve ever seen, pausing only slightly to play all of their then-new acoustic-led EP Direct. Roe is equally adept at the acoustic – his solo shows will make you weep – but when he, Mark Harmon and Bruce Spencer lock into a groove and unleash their full power, it’ll knock you down. The 77s are the best band nobody knows.

And with three new releases, they have truly commemorated the last Cornerstone. I’m actually surprised that more of the long-running acts didn’t do something like this. But if I wanted what is essentially a retrospective live box set from any Cornerstone band, it would be the 77s. And that’s what they (and Chicago-based label Lo-Fidelity Records, the band’s best friend in recent years) have given me. Five CDs of live 77s goodness.

The first release is a reissue of their 1996 acoustic live document Echos O’Faith, which preserves the unfortunate misspelling. (It was recorded in 1992 at Echos Of Faith Church in California, and “echos” is Greek for sound, so it may well be on purpose, but man, I’ve always cringed at it.) The original album is on the first disc, and it’s 79 minutes of glorious melody and resonance. The band – Roe, Harmon, Leonhardt and Choir drummer Steve Hindalong – is in brilliant form, and they don’t stick to the quiet numbers. Rockers like “U U U U” and “God Sends Quails” and “Do It For Love” are simply fantastic in this stripped-down environment.

And you have to hear these songs. This is basically a best-of from the Sevens’ first 10 years, and it’s a treasure trove. “Nowhere Else.” “Bottom Line.” “The Lust, The Flesh, The Eyes and the Pride of Life.” “Happy Roy.” Even a song called “Hard to Say” that never ended up anywhere else. This is a catalog of songs that should be praised to the skies, not all but forgotten. The Echos reissue comes with a second, shorter acoustic show from 1992, recorded in the same venue, and while there’s a lot of overlap, this one includes “Don’t, This Way,” one of the saddest songs I know. It’s just lovely here.

But that’s the reissue, the album Mike and the boys would have released had this not been the final Cornerstone Festival. The second and third new things truly celebrate the fest, and offer a one-of-a-kind perspective on the past 29 years. And they did it in a way that included their family of fans, and brought the Cornerstone faithful together.

Earlier this year, the band asked the fans for recordings of their Cornerstone shows. The 77s have played the fest 12 times, and the fans sent them halfway-decent-quality recordings from every show. The band then assembled the best of them into a chronological collection called Cornerstone Is Dead… Long Live Cornerstone. More than two hours long, this record includes 21 songs from all stages of the band’s career, and serves as a look back at a phenomenal run of shows at the fest.

Now, this is not a polished live document. The earliest recordings naturally suffer from the worst quality, and it all sounds like bootlegs, but everything here is listenable and enjoyable. The first disc is pretty straight-ahead – you get to hear the original 77s lineup, with Aaron Smith and Mark Tootle and Jan Eric, slam through early tracks like “A Different Kind of Light” and “Caught in an Unguarded Moment,” and they’re a tight, energetic unit. By the time they get to “I Can’t Get Over It” in 1990, they’re firing on all cylinders.

Disc one gets them up through 1995, and the debut of the three-piece band we know and love today. Before that, though, the Sevens bring in Harmon and Leonhardt and deliver marvelous takes on “This Is the Way Love Is,” the dark “God Sends Quails” (always amazing in a live setting), and the rollicking “Nuts For You.” But when the trio arrives, it really arrives, with the signature cover of “Nobody’s Fault But Mine.”

The second disc is Roe, Harmon and Bruce Spencer discovering their own power before our ears. If you want evidence of my claim that they’re one of the best rock bands in the world, this is all you need. Just marvel at the 2000 burn through “Woody,” or the awesome 2001 take on “The Years Go Down.” They’re nimble, fearless, and on fire, a band with few peers.

And then we get to the only thing on these discs I personally experienced – the astounding 12-minute medley/jam from 2002, with Scott Reams on keyboard. It starts near the end of “Unbalanced,” which they performed in full, if I recall, but quickly burns through parts of “Indian Winter, “Rocks In Your Head,” “Snowblind” and “Honesty,” the band stopping and turning about on a dime. It’s a jam of monumental proportions, and I remember it pretty well.

But we’re not done. “Unbalanced,” one of the band’s best tunes, gets a full eight-minute rendition from 2003, followed by an amazing “Blue Sky” and an extended, loose, stunning “Outskirts” from 2006. And the collection ends with another epic jam from 2008, when the Sevens were supporting their album of gospel covers, Holy Ghost Building. They start by covering “Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning,” but over the course of nearly 14 white-knuckle minutes, they hit “Riders on the Storm” and “Money (That’s What I Want),” and show off their raw power once again.

And if you still want more, the Sevens are happy to oblige. The third disc in their Cornerstone series is a three-song EP called Cornerstone Forever, and it includes three songs from the band’s final performance at the fest in 2008. You get a gospel song (“Stranger Won’t You Change Your Sinful Ways”), another rip through “Nobody’s Fault But Mine,” and a Mike Roe classic, “The Lust, The Flesh, The Eyes and the Pride of Life.” Among his fans, that’s the song that will outlive him, the quintessential Mike Roe confession, a tale of shame and addiction. I have more versions of this than any other Roe song, and still, I’m glad to have one more.

Like I said, I’m surprised more long-running Cornerstone bands didn’t memorialize the festival this way. But if any band was going to do it, I’m glad it was the 77s. I will miss this festival like mad, and along with it my yearly chance to see Mike Roe tear it up, but these archival releases will help ease that pain. Heaping helpings of gratitude to Jeffrey Kotthoff and Lo-Fidelity Records for seeing this through, and to the 77s, in every incarnation, for being one of the best damn bands on the planet.

Listen and buy here.

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Wow, that ran longer than I expected. Next week, something shorter. Leave a comment on my blog at Follow my infrequent twitterings at

See you in line Tuesday morning.