AudioFeed’s Hat Trick
Festival's Third Year Cements Its Success

Last weekend, while I was enjoying the third annual AudioFeed Festival in Champaign, several of my friends were at Soldier Field watching the final shows of the assemblage calling itself the Grateful Dead. They posted pictures of the thousands and thousands of people crowding the stadium, and uploaded snippets of songs. Some people I know paid hundreds of dollars to be there, and while it looked like a good time, all I could think about was this:

I’m so glad I’m at AudioFeed.

For a fraction of the cost of a single Grateful Dead show, I had another glorious three-day music extravaganza in the company of marvelous people. I’ve written before about all the things AudioFeed does right – its roots are in the late, lamented Cornerstone Festival, but it’s smaller, the main stage is indoors, the other stages are within easy walking distance, the mix of new bands and old favorites is just right, and (this is very important) the bathrooms are indoors and have working toilets. In just about every way, it’s an improvement for me over Cornerstone, wonderful as that festival was.

For its third year, AudioFeed didn’t change much of anything, and that’s perfectly fine. The Champaign County Fairgrounds remains the perfect venue for an intimate fest like this, and I wouldn’t trade the family atmosphere for anything. Because truth be told, what I love about AudioFeed has very little to do with the comfort of the air-conditioned main stage or the fact that the toilets flush. It’s the fact that this gathering of people has become special and important to me. Unlike Cornerstone, I’ve been there from the start with AudioFeed, and I’ve watched it come into its own. I have no doubt I’ll still be attending this festival in 20 years, and we’ll be talking about the bands I saw this weekend in the same hushed and reverent tones we use for those who were there for Cornerstone’s early days.

And that’s the last time I will mention the predecessor festival, because AudioFeed is absolutely its own thing. While there are always the requisite headline acts to bring in the old-school fans (like me), this fest belongs to the younger artists. For me, AudioFeed is about finding new bands to obsess over as much as it is enjoying my favorites. The festival’s hit rate is pretty amazing so far – I maintain that there are more great bands per capita at AudioFeed than at any other festival I’ve been to. This year I found several terrific acts I hadn’t heard, from the brooding American Wolf to the Ryan Adams-y Jason Barrows to the dexterous prog-rock-y Narrow/Arrow.

But while the music is the draw, it’s not the reason I choose this festival over any other. I think my friends have stopped expressing surprise that I would not only attend but look forward to a fest dedicated to a faith I don’t share. As longtime readers no doubt know, spirituality is something I wrestle with, and something I’m fascinated by. And while Cornerstone sometimes felt like a club I wasn’t in, AudioFeed continues to be a place where I can just be who I am. There are die-hard Christians and atheists and those who aren’t sure, and everyone is welcome and respected. The vibe is never preachy, always open. And there are so many great people – this year even more so, as a couple of my old Cornerstone buddies made the trip. Getting to see them again while watching some of our favorite bands was a treat.

As usual, the musical lineup broke down into new discoveries, returning AudioFeed staples and classic bands. Here are some highlights:

My AudioFeed began on Thursday, July 2, with my good friend Jeff Elbel and his band Ping on the main stage. Ping is a lot of fun, and Jeff is never happier than when he’s performing – it’s always nice to see. The six-piece lineup tore through some new songs and some tunes from the latest Ping album, Gallery, before launching into what ended up holding the top spot for most unexpected cover of the festival: “Can You Picture That,” by Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem, from The Muppet Movie. Yeah, it was awesome.

Also on Thursday I saw the aforementioned Jason Barrows, whose moody and guitar-heavy set sold me on a copy of his album, Islands of My Soul. It’s a brooding collection of meditations with a couple terrific rockers, particularly “Up From the Sea.” The legendary Harry Gore played a blistering set on the main stage, at one point continuing to solo while walking through the audience and standing on chairs. (Harry also, as is his tradition, set up a portable PA and jammed for a bit outside on Saturday. He covered a 77s tune while its author, Mike Roe, was walking by with Derri Daugherty and Steve Hindalong of the Choir, and all three rushed over to join him on the chorus. I saw a bit of that from afar, and it was great.)

Waterdeep, a husband-and-wife duo I haven’t had much time for, thoroughly charmed me with their acoustic set – so much so that I bought their new self-titled double album, and enjoyed it completely. The album is technically a pair of solo records – disc one features songs written by Lori Chaffer, disc two songs written by her husband Don – but it seems to present a coherent picture of this winsome act. I’ll be exploring further. On the other end of the spectrum were Phinehas and Silent Planet, two of the bands I caught on the metal-oriented Black Sheep stage. Both were inventive and interesting.

I’m going to try to be kind to Burlap to Cashmere, since their set was so good. This long-running quartet plays a truly progressive mix of wrist-breaking acoustic rock and world music, and they do it very well. But I have to say I wasn’t impressed with their attitude – they sound-checked for 40 minutes, then played for 90, including three encores, although they were only scheduled to play for 75. This massively truncated the set of the band ahead of them. And since that band was Hushpad, one of my favorite AudioFeed discoveries, I wasn’t pleased. Hushpad did take the stage close to midnight and played a few songs, and their expansive lineup – including Von Strantz violinist Kelsey Horton – sounded amazing. I wish I could have heard more from them. A more compact version of Hushpad played a tremendous set of shoegaze pop on Saturday, though, so that’s OK.

Speaking of Von Strantz, they were the first act I caught on Friday, July 3, and holy hell, are they great. Every time I have seen them, they’ve had a different lineup – this time they were a duo, singer/guitarist Jess Strantz and Horton on violin and cello. It’s the songs that make them for me – Strantz’ tunes are tremendous, melodic and joyful and always memorable. Their debut album Narratives is excellent, and you should buy it. They were followed on the main stage by Narrow/Arrow, the new project of Cody Nicolas, formerly of the La De Les. I’d never seen Nicolas play live, and he knocked me out – he played two electric guitars at once, one flat and one strapped on, while singing, with N/A’s ridiculously good rhythm section weaving and winding behind him. It was groove-oriented prog-rock, very well represented on their debut EP Middlechildren.

I got to see Noah James sing three times over the weekend, and they were all worth it. James has a big, soulful voice, and he writes acoustic folk-gospel tunes that tackle themes as big as that voice. His EP Sun and Moon is worth checking out. I told him that I will never get tired of hearing him sing, and it’s true. I also got to see the incredible Timbre perform songs from her amazing double album, also called Sun and Moon. Timbre plays harp and writes from both a progressive rock and a classical standpoint, composing eight-minute epics of grandeur and scope. Nicolas joined her on stage for a superb rendition of the harp-guitar duet “Of Cloudless Climes and Starry Skies” that took my breath away. There’s almost no way Timbre’s album will not be among the 10 best of the year, so you should definitely hear that.

Duo Analecta impressed with their loop-heavy post-rock wonderment. They’re working on a new record now, but I bought their previous one, Janusbifrons, and enjoyed it immensely. The previously mentioned American Wolf stands as my discovery of the festival. They play a dark and moody brand of atmospheric rock, with a high-voiced singer and some glorious guitar textures. Their set was one of my favorites of the weekend, and they’re from Chicago, so I have no excuse – I’ll be seeing them again soon. After them, The Soil and the Sun hit the stage, and they are seriously one of the best live bands you’ll ever see. Their extraordinary music takes from a hundred different sources and blends them together with a sweep that would make Sufjan Stevens proud. Their new record Meridian is fantastic.

The main stage closed on Friday with a set by Christine Glass Byrd, one-half of GlassByrd, performing gauzy pop along with a lovely cover of the Choir’s “A Sentimental Song.” That wasn’t randomly chosen – her band included Choir drummer Steve Hindalong and bassist Mike Roe, along with Christine’s husband Marc Byrd, known for his work with the Choir and Hammock. Christine has a high, lovely voice – you can hear it on many Choir albums – and her set was pretty great. Once they finished up, I wandered over to the metal tent to hear the last few songs from My Epic, simply the loudest worship band on the planet. They have a cracked and broken quality I respond to. It was a fine way to end my night.

As good as the previous two days were, Saturday stands as my favorite. I began it with a seminar, the first one I’ve ever attended at AudioFeed. John J. Thompson is a living legend in this corner of the music world – he ran True Tunes in Wheaton, IL for years, plays guitar in the Wayside, and just wrote a book called Jesus, Bread and Chocolate that details his time in the industry. He joined Aaron Lundsford, drummer of As Cities Burn, for essentially a history of Christian music, and a meditation on what it means to keep faith through everything that industry throws at you. Really interesting discussion.

And the music on Saturday! So much. Mike Roe played a swell set of 77s tunes with Steve Hindalong on drums. The legendary Glenn Kaiser ripped through his usual sterling gospel-blues tunes, but I ducked out early to catch Ravenhill, a quintet that plays a fierce mix of southern rock, gospel and metal – think Black Sabbath goes down to Georgia. I snatched up their album, Soul, and it rocks like crazy – this band has three guitar players and four vocalists, so their sound is thick and powerful. Their album closes with the same song their set did: “Blood on the Church Floor,” a jaw-dropping piece full of new resonance in the wake of the South Carolina shooting. Just great stuff.

The most pleasant surprise of the day was seeing Mike Stand. Back in the ‘80s, the Altar Boys were the prototypical Christian punk band, with simple lyrics, three chords and super-catchy melodies. Mike is in his 50s now, but he looks like he’s in his 30s, and he has the energy of a man in his 20s. In the afternoon, he played a fun set of old Altar Boys songs acoustically – I came in late to that band’s story, so I wasn’t as emotionally attached to those tunes as many of the older folks in the audience. But then at night, Mike unveiled the Altar Billies, his new trio with acoustic bassist Johnny X and (I keep saying this word) legendary drummer Chuck Cummings. They’re a rockabilly punk band, and their set was the most fun I had all weekend.

Lauryn Peacock is a piano-playing songwriter with an elaborate new album called Euphonia. She held a record release party on Saturday afternoon, playing a strong set with a full string section. I’m still digesting Euphonia, but it’s lovely stuff. I also caught a bit of Muir‘s set – they’re an instrumental trio and their self-titled album is a big, loud, crashing post-rock album with what sounds like a hundred guitars on it. Muir was the last new band I saw this year, and theirs was the last album I bought. It was well worth it.

And then there was one more show. I could not have picked a better way to close out my third AudioFeed than to see The Choir. They’re still my favorite band, and for this show, they were joined by both Marc and Christine Byrd, along with Mike Roe on bass. And yes, they played all of Circle Slide, my favorite of their albums. What is left for me to say about the Choir? They were magical, extraordinary, beautiful. Saxophonist Dan Michaels bounded off the stage and played the middle section of “Circle Slide” while walking through the audience. Marc Byrd and Derri Daugherty entwined their ringing, gorgeous guitar tones like a ballet. Crashing finale “Restore My Soul” was an extended, explosive wonder. I left walking on air. It was perfection.

Many thanks to Jeff Elbel for again being my roommate, for heading to Merry Ann’s Diner at 2 a.m. for the unhealthiest food on the planet, and for making it possible for me to go to this festival. I hope we can keep doing this. I have no doubt at this point that AudioFeed will continue, will grow, will thrive. Three years in, it’s my favorite thing I get to do each summer. I’m so grateful.

Next week, some more music. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook here.

See you in line Tuesday morning.