My trip to Cornerstone Festival 2008
I've gotten around to writing up my post-fest report on attending this year's Cornerstone festival. Five days of music, film, seminars, and assorted weirdness in the middle of northwest Illinois. Always a fun time, between bands, films, seminars, mocha frappucinos, Elephant Ears, and walking the gauntlet of tiny generator-powered stages where screaming bands practice primal scream therapy at you from either side of the road.
I had a great time: meeting some old friends from Camp 77s, meeting Andy Whitman, enjoying the great weather, and trying not to get pulled into any mosh pits. Actually, mosh pits and stage diving seem to be passe these days, so '90s. Among the crowd at main stage this year, I saw what seems to be the rage among the young people these days. A group of about six or seven guys would line up and each would link their arms to the guy in front of them. Then one by one, other guys would run up form behind and launch themselves onto the pile to build some kind of human pyramid. Kind of like a three-dimensional rugby scrum. I declined to participate since I valuable my limbs and holding on them. Well, at least the kids aren't on drugs.
I arrived Tuesday afternoon and performed that most sacred of Cornerstone rituals, setting up the campsite. Actually, mine wasn’t much of a campsite, such a simple dome tent. A tent that has gotten me through many a Cornerstone, sheltering me from the rain and holding in plenty of that Cornerstone heat and humidity. I then greeted some old friends from my camping neighbors: Camp 77s, a group made up of people like me: obsessive 77s and Lost Dogs fans who set up a cluster of tents in the same spot every year, down at the end of a gravel road that leads from the main road. It’s a nice location, shady, not too far to walk to the showers and the rest of the site, yet far enough away from the primal scream therapy bands that the buzzsaw guitars were merely a distant rumble.
Over the next five days, I had the chance to hear some good seminars, one taught by Andy Whitman on listening to music, and another taught by author Vinita Hampton Wright on the writing process. I had the chance to see some excellent films at the Flickerings barn and the Imaginarium tent, and a report of those films can be found at this link:
Oh, and Flickerings was excellent as well. I've posted a report on my blog, it's the post you find if you read all the way to the bottom of this one. Reading these rambling is quite a feat, so I like to kid myself that reading even more of my drivel would be worth reading this flotsam and jetsam, but you, gentle Internet reader, may come to a different opinion.
Anyway, getting back to Cornerstone, I got to see a number of good bands that didn’t scream at me:
Timbre – A harp player who played in one of the smaller tents accompanied by a oboist and a pianist. I've seen Timbre plucking her harp a couple years running now. She's delightful, and a much better singer than Joanna Newsom.
Brother Red Squirrel – JPUSA folks that form a kind of Cornerstone house band, they do some cool cover songs, like Sly Stone. And the leader of the band kind of reminds me of a squirrel with his dreadlocks. I don't know how red squirrels got from the Isle of Wight, UK, to Illinois, but I've learned not to question such things at Cornerstone.
Glenn Kaiser blues band – a smoking-hot set, a Cstone tradition. Glenn's version of the blues always goes down just right, like a taste Memphis and the Mississippi Delta in the northwestern Illinois corn fields.
Homer Hiccolm and the Rocketboys - Nicely done pop rock with nice harmonies. They are the first band I’ve ever seen who got their name based on the film October Sky. Apparently, Homer Hiccolm was the name of the author who wrote the book the film was based on, and the name of the book was “Rocket Boy”. I’m happy that musicians are reading, since it seems that some authors seem to fancy themselves as rock stars.
Sixpence None the Richer - It’s good to see this band reunited and to hear Leigh Nash’s lovely voice again. The band sounds better than ever, playing a good selection of past songs, including, of course, “Kiss Me”, and a couple of new songs too. Looking forward to a new album from them soon.
Aradhna – Here’s something completely different. The band is made up of American guys who have spent much of their lives living in India. One of them plays a sitar, the other guys play guitars and drums, and they were accompanied by a seated choir comprised by nearly as many members as perform in the Polyphonic Spree. The band and choir did meditative worship songs to the Christian God, yet in the musical style of Indian music and lyrics sung in the Hindi language. An interesting mix of cultures that shows how the transformative effects of beauty and devotion to God cross cultural boundaries. And it shows how artistically impoverished most American worship music is artistically by comparison. Also shows the danger of listening to contemplative music during a midnight show, I could have drifted off to sleep listening to this beautiful soothing music. Fortunately I managed to stay awake and fully absorb this unique experience.
We Shot the Moon – A band that was recommended by a friend of mine. Very fine pop rock that isn’t dogged down by emo whininess. I met a couple of guys from the band later in one of the merch tents, they’re cool guys.
Jan Krist - A folk singer making her first appearance at Cornerstone in a number of years. Intelligent folk rock that is intelligent enough to provide smart cultural commentary, but isn’t so full of itself that it forgets to have some fun with some wordplay based on TV shows. Hearing her made me miss the all-day Acoustic Stage that used to be at Cornerstone a few years ago.
Jeff Elbel and Ping - A band that plays here every year, led by Jeff who basically runs the Gallery Stage is like getting together with old friends. Fun stuff, fun rock and roll that doesn’t take itself too seriously. Jeff even brought his young daughter out to sing one of his songs. And she isn’t annoying like that Hannah Montana chick.
Resurrection Band - It was a thrill to see these veterans of Christian rock get together once again. When if comes to excellence in both music and ministry, they are truly the real deal. As authentic as both rock and roll and humanity get. And some kicking blues rock to boot. It’s great to hear those songs from their Awaiting Your Reply album again, as well as my favorite Rez song, “Colors”
77s - Another trip down memory lane to see this band play, the band that has played at Cornerstone more often than any other over the years. They always play good old-fashioned no-nonsense rock and roll, but there was something special this year. One, hearing them play rocking versions of old blues and gospel songs from their terrific new CD, “Holy Ghost Building”. These songs fit into the 77’s classic rock style surprisingly well. And seeing David Leonhart perform with them again is very cool, a reunion of the mid 90s “Drowning With Dry Land in Sight” lineup. The highlight: hearing a cover of the Doors “Riders of the Storm’ segue into the 77s, “Pearls Before Swine”, which has always been a sublime piece of blues rock.
Degarmo and Key - Another reunion. But this is classic rock not of the 70s, but of the 80s. And this is music not based on old time blues and gospel, but squarely pop rock from the heart of the Evangelical Christian subculture. OK, to be fair, D&K did get their start in the 70s. And the few songs they did from their first couple of albums were some pretty cool blues and Memphis-style soul. Then the 80s happened, and synthesizers replaced guitars, and the well intentioned Degarmo and Key decided to abandon rock and roll to “minister” to the young people by appealing to the lowest common denominator of synth pop music and “bumper-sticker” style evangelistic slogans. And they had to do those songs, too, oh well. Still, it was mildly amusing to relive some memories of my younger days as a bright-eyed youth group member. In all, a mixed bag of cool rock and roll and cheese. It goes down like spam, not an unpleasant experience, but nothing I’m in a hurry to go through again. Besides, I guess it’s good that Cornerstone gave Moms and Dads something to do to relive their youth while their kids are moshing to screamo bands. And these Moms and Dads sure were having a good time. Hey, it if floats their boat.
Set Free - On my way walking to the Gallery Stage to see Over The Rhine's midnight show, I heard a band playing in one of the tiny stages along the way. They were a group of kids from Texas with a band name of Set Free. Yes, that's one of the most clichéd names any CCM act could ever come up with. Anyway, they were singing rock and roll worship songs to an assembled audience of a grand total of 8 people. They had some Asian kid on guitar with hair down to his butt like one of the guys from Dokken, and a girl with one of those impassioned pleading voices you hear from every other worship band. But something about them really grabbed me. Maybe it was that they were just a bunch of nice kids who wanted to serve the Lord, and they got in a van to come to Cornerstone to play some rock and roll, with no pretensions on being a part of an industry, or being marketed to tell a bunch of teenaged girls about how cool that guys with cool hair who love Jesus are. There's something refreshing about that.
Over the Rhine - Another Cornerstone tradition was seeing their midnight show. I’ve seen this band many times, at least twelve by my count. Beautiful music as always, but I hate to admit it, I was really tired. So I had to leave a few minutes before their set was over to make the long trek to my campsite. Stiil, it was pretty neat to hear Karen’s voice drifting through the air as I walked on back to my tent
Michael Roe - This guy’s everywhere at Cornerstone, between the 77s, Lost Dogs, and this solo acoustic set. He did some stuff from the new 77s record, and at the end he brought out Jimmy Abegg, a fine guitarist who has played with Vector and Charlie Peacock. The two of them closed with a nice rendition of “Ache Beautiful”.
Psalters - I’ve seen them before. Interesting, but their weird music, it’s off kilter melodies and driving percussion, I’ll admit, kind of drove me up the wall. As well as the heat radiating from the packed tent. I’m too old to endure those saunas. I’ve had enough of that from the 90s ska scene. So I left after a couple of songs.
Reilly - A cool new band I discoverd. I was intrigued to hear they come out of Sovereign Grace ministries, as Reformed theology and indie rock don’t intersect very often. And I loved their energy. Mostly I loved the uniqueness of a sound that incorporates violin, sometimes one, sometimes two, into the usual indie rock sound. Cool, I get tired of guitar-bass-drums sometimes, no matter now poppy their power pop is. And they seem like sincere kids.
I also stopped by the Press conference tent, since the Lost Dogs and 77s were scheduled. They couldn’t make it due to having to do a sound check at the main stage. But I did get to hear and interview of Brian “Head” Welch. He talked about finding Jesus, leaving his old band, Korn, kicking meth, and trying to live a new Christian life. And it’s cool that his new album is going to be hard music, rather than the kind of soft rock album John Davis did after he first got saved. Even though I’ll pass on listening to it, instead letting the kids rock out to it.
Main Stage 25th Anniversary shindig – Friday evening, Cornerstone put on a 25th anniversary celebration featuring short sets by old Cornerstone favorites like the 77s, the Lost Dogs, and the David Crowder band, well as some newer bands, some of which I’ve heard of, some of whom I didn’t. The nice thing about it was that it actually motivated me to walk down to the main stage, since these days, main stage mostly features hardcore and heavy bands that the “youth” are into but give me a headache. This non-metal lineup was nostalgia for when I used to care about what was going on the main stage. Back in the 90s when some of my favorite musical moments happened on that stage: seeing bands like Chagall Guevera, the 77s, Steve Taylor, and Iona. It also reminded me what a long walk it was all the way down there from the cluster of tents where the Gallery Stage and food tents are located.
I missed the first band, Flatfoot 56. But the next band, the Lee Boys were absolutely smoking. They do the “sacred steel” thing in the style of Robert Randolph, and I loved what those guys can do with steel guitar. They put most so-called “guitar heroes” to shame, definitely.
I also enjoyed the mini-sets, three songs each or so, by 77s, Lost Dogs, and Glenn Kaiser and friends.
There were also some newer bands like The Glorious Unseen and the Michael Gunger Band, as well as the Robbie Seay band, who specialize in rock worship music in the style of Delirious. I’ll admit, I believe that worship is meant to be a participatory activity and not a concert that you sit and listen to. I enjoy singing worship music, but it’s simple choruses and slow rhythms don’t make for very interesting listening. But these bands were pretty good and they sang with passion. And The Glorious Unseen had a harp player on stage with them. Harpists are cool. I could have done without some of those ads that played on the video screen between bands, though, especially the one that advertised a conference for teenaged girls with the hottest heartthrob band of hot Christian guys on the Christian scene, Hawk Nelson.
I also thought it amusing when the MC brought out to the stage someone who played in the ‘80s heavy metal band Anthrax. Not the guy with the goatee who always shows up on those VH1 specials, “The 50 Most Rockin’ Heavy Metal Moments Ever”. This was someone else, probably the drummer. Next to him was a guy who was in another ‘80s metal band called Accept, who I only know through their song, “Balls to the Wall”. Anyway, these guys said they found Jesus, which is good to hear. Then they said the two of them were putting a new Christian metal band together and they were going to rock Cornerstone on main stage next year! OK, I can handle an ‘80s metal nostalgia night on occasion, but only if Oz Fox from Stryper is involved, since he was part of both the Stryper and Bloodgood reunions, and neither of them was too embarrassing.
The highlight of the evening was a set by Over The Rhine. They walked out on the walkway that juts out from the main stage into the crowd. They huddled together and performed some of their lovely art-pop tunes. A lovely sound to accompany the sun setting, and they managed to make a concert in front of thousands of people on the lawn seem intimate.
Then there was a nice communion service, where Charlie Peacock let the crowd in reciting the Lord's Prayer and the Nicene Creed. And we got to light candles. Candles are cool.
The last band to appear was the David Crowder band. They do a kind of power pop praise music that’s pretty cool for about ten minutes and then gets a little boring. At least David has a cooler goatee than that guy from Anthrax. And I got a good view of the fireworks display after the main stage was over.
Mike Farris - After his solo gig at the 25th anniversary thing, he did a midnight show on the Gallery Stage with a full band and two very cool female back up singers (one of whom was the daughter or granddaughter of one of the founding members of the Fairfield Four, someone told me). And this show was amazing. The Best of the Fest for me! Mike was what they call a killer diller.
They started off with some songs from Mike's very fine CD, Salvation in Lights. Then the band kicked into some classic soul songs like "I'll Take You There" by the Staples Singers, and the evening turned into a sublime soulful celebration. The energy of the band and the singers was amazing. Too bad only 50 or 60 people were in the audience inside that big top tent, but every one of us was totally getting some church on in there. Someone told me later that Linford and Karen from Over the Rhine were hanging around in the back of the tent, enjoying the show. I hope they bring back that band next year, and put them on the mainstage.
Deas Vail - Pleasant, pretty piano-based pop rock. They seem like likable folks, and I’m pulling for them, though. Because the world needs more bands that stand for beauty and artistry, not screaming
Josh Garrelts – A neo-folkie who combines Jason Mraz-styled wordplay filtered through Ben Harper soulfulness. I liked him OK, though his songs tend to sound the same after a while. I had to leave early. I was hungry. I needed a Gyro.
Charlie Peacock - Now this was special. His first time at Cstone since ’96, and very cool to seem him reunited with Jimmy A. And with Kevin Max singing with them, yes the Kevin Max that was with DC Talk. Good thing that Kevin doesn’t look like Kurt Cobain anymore. And at the end of the set, Charlie brought out Mike Roe to help out on guitar. I told you Mike was everywhere at Cornerstone! And how cool was it that Charlie went all the way back to do a couple songs from his first solo album, Lie Down in the Grass? Very cool indeed.
The Lost Dogs - A terrific way to close out the fest. And the earlier start time did both the band and their fans well. We’re not teenagers anymore. They did the old favorites, the golden oldies, the classic rock, the old chestnuts that make us all proud. And there was the gift that my friend David Cervantes of Camp 77s found at Cracker Barrel. A snoring stuffed dogs with three suckling puppies “nursing”. Yikes, that’s as cheesy as American tourist trap cheese can do. But given how the Lost Dogs love their shtick, recycled or not, it just seemed prefect. My favorite quote of the fest was from Mike Roe after discovering this special, uh, love gift: “This is the most disturbing thing I’ve ever seen on a rock and roll stage, and I’ve seen a lot.”
The vegetarian stir-fry food tent is the best place to eat, even better than the Gyros stands. …I enjoyed the late night chats at Camp 77s. Daniel Amos needs to come back and to do one more reunion show. …. Wouldn’t be funny to hear a hardcore band that screamed lyrics exclusively in French, especially since no one would be able to tell the difference anyway?
All in all, a very enjoyable fest. It was great to see old friends and meet new ones, and bid everyone goodbye on their journeys across the USA back home.