AudioFeed Goes Fourth
Highlights from the Best Fest in the Midwest

The story of my AudioFeed 2016 is one of things going wrong.

For starters, I wasn’t even supposed to be there. I was scheduled to be in London, working a particle physics conference (and seeing as much of the country as I could). I would have been sad to miss AudioFeed for the first time, but hell, I would have been in London. I think I would have survived. But when those plans were abruptly changed, I had to scramble to secure a ticket and lodging for the festival.

Then my car broke down. If anyone reading this owns a Ford Focus manufactured earlier this decade, you know exactly the trouble I was having. The bizarre manual/automatic transmission in the Focus (and the Fiesta) just doesn’t work, and Ford knows it – they have kindly extended the warranty on them to 150,000 miles, meaning they expect the transmission to act up for the life of the car. I didn’t have to pay for repairs, which is nice, but it’s still a headache. I was without my car for 11 days, and unsure whether it would be ready in time for my annual trip to Champaign.

And then, on the first day of AudioFeed, I had to work, I dealt with a broken garage door opener, and I got stuck in a terrible traffic jam on the way to the fest, the result of a truck taking an exit ramp too quickly and flipping over. I missed most of the first day, including three sets featuring my friend and constant AudioFeed buddy, Jeff Elbel. By the time I’d checked into our hotel and made my way to the festival grounds, it was close to 7 p.m.

It would have been very easy for me to be frustrated and sad about all that. But then, I walked onto the grounds and I was at AudioFeed, and it’s impossible for me to feel anything but elated while I’m there. The first band I saw, quite by accident, was called Comrades. They’re a female-fronted metal trio sporting some beautiful textures and vocals, and they were incredibly loud, and I loved every minute of their set. And as I looked around, I realized I was the oldest person in the Black Sheep tent (the designated space for metal bands) by about 20 years, and I couldn’t help but laugh.

And then I saw Brian Smith and Kevin Shafer and the aforementioned Jeff Elbel and Matthew Welchel (and his sons Jack and Nick) and Jim and Jennifer Eisenmenger and John Thompson, and I met Nancy and Richard Lindsey and Matthew Hunt and several other people from a discussion group I frequent. It didn’t take long to feel like I was home, and that feeling remained for the entire weekend.

I’ve spent a lot of words in this space trying to explain AudioFeed to people who haven’t experienced it. I’m not sure it’s possible. Some may remember Cornerstone, the legendary Jesus-centric hippie music festival that ran in Bushnell, Illinois for 29 years, and may expect a similar atmosphere at AudioFeed, its natural successor. But to me, it’s very different. Perhaps it’s that I came in on the ground floor – I’ve been to all four AudioFeeds so far. As someone who doubts as often as he believes anything, I felt like an impostor at Cornerstone, but I feel welcomed and loved at AudioFeed. I’ve never once felt out of place.

For three days (four if you arrive early for camping), the Champaign County Fairgrounds is basically turned into a commune where everyone is just incredibly nice to one another. And there is music! I contend that, pound for pound, there are more phenomenal bands at AudioFeed every year than any other fest I could name. These bands, even the ones that have been around for 30 years, are usually unjustifiably obscure. Many are just starting out, trying to make a name, but many have been toiling in anonymity for most of my life, and AudioFeed is one of the only places each year to hear them play.

At first glance, the lineup this year didn’t give me many reasons to expect greatness. But I found it anyway, at least partially by being willing to try new things. Rapper Jackie Hill-Perry, for example, is terrific, spitting spiritually minded rhymes with speed and skill. Singer Chris Dupont reminded me of James Taylor, but then he threw in a healthy dose of ambient music and guitar wizardry. I bought his album Anxious Animal, and I would have bought his new one, Outlier, had it been available on CD. But Anxious Animal is excellent, full of deceptively well-written songs with delicate arrangements, driven by his even, clear voice.

The Mailboxes are one of my favorite new discoveries. Essentially the project of songwriter Jillian Spears, the Mailboxes are whimsical and piano-driven, like a less angsty Fiona Apple at times. Their album Red Flags is delightful. I love all of it, but I’m particularly taken with “The Way It Is,” an honest song about messed-up love and how that can be just right. It’s beautiful. I was similarly happy to discover Tow’rs, an Arizona five-piece anchored by a husband and wife who harmonize together beautifully. They play expansive yet catchy indie-rock with horns and strings, and their new album The Great Minimum (named after a G.K. Chesterton book) is wonderful.

On the louder end of things, I was pleased to see Analecta again. They’re a duo made up of a drummer and a multi-instrumentalist who swaps out instruments, playing them through a looping pedal to create massive post-rock atmoscapes. Their new record is called Aes Sidhe, referencing Irish mythology, and is a mammoth wallop of a thing, dragging you along on an emotional journey. And while I didn’t hit the metal tent quite as often this year, I did discover Death Therapy, the new project by Jason Wisdom of Becoming the Archetype. My first visit to Cornerstone was in 2001, and Wisdom was there on the side of the road handing out the first Becoming the Archetype demo CDs in white sleeves. I got one, and have been following them ever since. Death Therapy is a big departure, an electronic groove-metal duo, and it’s really neat stuff.

Mike Mains and the Branches played a blistering set near the end of the final Cornerstone in 2012, and I somehow failed to buy their record or see them since. But here they were, playing the Radon Lounge (ostensibly the acoustic stage, but more often than not accommodating loud, powerful bands), and they tore it up again. Mains is a hell of a frontman, his songs are driving and explosive, and his band is on point. I rectified my previous error by buying both of Mains’ albums, Home and the awesomely titled Calm Down, Everything is Fine. While they lack the sweaty energy of the live set, they’re both swell collections of punky pop.

Of course, while I always stumble on these delightful new discoveries at AudioFeed, it’s the familiar favorites that I look forward to the most. Jeff Elbel, my roommate and the busiest musician at AudioFeed, played eight sets with various bands and lineups, and it’s always a joy to see him do what he does best. His own band, Ping, is on the verge of releasing a new album called The Threefinger Opera. It’s a conceptual piece about Jeff’s struggles with a pinched nerve that cost him the use of the last two fingers on his left hand. (Important fingers for a guitar player.) He’s had to re-learn how to play while he heals, and as therapy both physical and mental, he wrote a new set of songs about the experience. Ping played most of the songs on The Threefinger Opera> during two terrific sets, and I’m quite looking forward to hearing the real thing.

Jeff also played with Cornerstone legend Harry Gore as he ripped through a set of songs by Larry Norman, one of the pioneers of spiritual rock music, and with The Wayside, John J. Thompson’s Americana rock outfit. It was perhaps the swampiest Wayside set I’ve ever seen, crawling and laced with feedback. Late on Friday night, John and Jeff joined Brian Healy in the latest incarnation of Dead Artist Syndrome, one of the first goth bands on a Christian label. That show took place in the Asylum tent, which I had never ventured into before. To get to the stage, you had to duck into a small opening and walk through a corridor of Christmas lights and dark imagery, and it was like stepping into another world entirely. Healy is older and in poor health, but on stage he was oddly magnetic, skewering himself and his bandmates with his signature wit and pelting the audience with silly string.

Perhaps Jeff’s highest profile set came on Saturday as he backed up Steve Hindalong, drummer with the Choir. Steve has a grand new solo album called The Warbler, which I will talk about in more detail next week, and while the set was plagued with technical problems, it was still fun. Steve’s voice has improved since his first solo record in the ‘90s, and his songwriting has skyrocketed. The Warbler is full of folksy gems and earnest, honest looks at life, and I was happy with how much of it I got to hear live.

There were a few other more well-known acts on my AudioFeed lineup this year. Scream-fueled rock band Emery played all of their second album, The Question, and impressed greatly. Josh Garrels, who I discovered at Cornerstone near the end of the festival’s run, delivered his usual mix of breezy guitars and that powerful, sweeping voice. I was particularly impressed that he sung all of the high notes in “The Arrow” without faltering. Glenn Kaiser, one-time leader of the pioneering Rez Band, dropped another set of blues played on cigar box guitars, with harmonica prodigy Joe Filisko accompanying him.

And then there was One Bad Pig. As a kid growing up in church, I loved One Bad Pig, one of the first Christian punk bands. They made three studio albums of funny, sharp punk rock, lead throat Carey Womack squeal-screaming his way through most of them, and for some reason that music is imprinted on me. When I heard that the band had reunited to play AudioFeed, I confess I laughed. But damn if they weren’t fantastic. The Pig played two sets, and while I missed much of the first one (in the metal tent), I saw the entire second one (in the Asylum), and it was so much fun. I’ll talk more about them and their reunion record next week.

I was also very happy to see some of my AudioFeed discoveries once again. Listener, for example, is a band like no other – imagine Shellac fronted by a heartland poet who speak-screams insights and encouragements in a wild cadence. Harp player Timbre enthralled with a late-night set on Saturday, bringing the orchestral flourishes of her extraordinary double album Sun and Moon to life with only a couple musicians. Jason Barrows drove us through songs on his Springsteen-meets-Ryan-Adams debut album Islands of My Soul, and since he is Garrels’ guitar player, he had the strange experience of having his boss open up for him.

Barrows closed out the main stage on Sunday night, but he wasn’t the last band of the festival. That honor went to the always-wonderful Hushpad, led by my friend Matthew Welchel and his two sons. Hushpad plays an ever-unfolding brand of shoegaze pop, and their new six-piece lineup fills this sound out marvelously. I think it was my favorite experience of the festival. There were probably 20 of us, staying past midnight to hear a band we love play music we adore, and in that moment, I felt bonded to this place and this fest like never before. Hushpad’s album Helas is available now on iTunes and other digital distributors, and I think it’s superb. But it won’t capture that experience of seeing them play these gorgeous songs on a warm summer night with such great people.

I think I’ve proven that I also can’t capture the experience for you. In trying to cover all the bases here I fear I’ve written a rambling, uninteresting list. Here’s the thing: AudioFeed has truly come into its own as a festival unlike any other, and I’ll never be able to tell you what it’s like to be there. In that moment, watching Hushpad bring another terrific weekend to a close, I knew that nothing had gone wrong, that everything had worked out and I was where I was supposed to be. And I’ll be back next year, too.

Next week, a deeper look at some new AudioFeed albums from One Bad Pig and Steve Hindalong. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook here.

See you in line Tuesday morning.