Thursday, July 1, 2010

Cornerstone Festival, Day One

Gentle readers, I am bone tired.

I decided last year that I am just too old for all-day music festivals. This is a hard pill to swallow, but Lollapalooza really did me in last summer. Cornerstone, the annual Jesus People USA party in Bushnell, IL (roughly three hours from my house), is smaller and easier, but 13 hours of sun and music still took its toll on me today. Don't get old. It's depressing.

So if I'd already decided I was too ancient and decrepit for this sort of thing, why am I at Cornerstone this year? Well, that's where the corollaries to the "too old" rule come into play. If enough stars align, enough top-of-the-heap acts turn up on the roster, I'll be in. I'm too much of an obsessive fan to do anything else. Lollapalooza and Pitchfork seemed like total wastes of time this year, but Cornerstone... well, three big stars aligned, plus my friend Jeff Elbel agreed to split the cost of a hotel room, so here I am.

It's been five years since I ventured out to Cornerstone Farm, a giant field in the middle of nowhere. In 2005, my response was mixed - I loved the music, but railed against the odd and all-pervasive commercialism, the Jesus-peddling I saw everywhere. I'm not sure if the fest has changed, or if I've mellowed out, but what struck me this time is just how cool Cornerstone is. It's a non-stop hippie party, the kind of festival at which people leave their bags on their seats to mark them, unafraid that anything will be stolen. There's a bike park, there's a grocery store, there are campers and tents and RVs everywhere, and the overall vibe is just fun.

When I was a kid in Massachusetts, discovering all this cool music that no one I knew had ever heard of (The Choir, Daniel Amos, the Prayer Chain, etc.), I thought of Cornerstone as this magical faraway land I would likely never get to visit. I still think it's kind of magical, even though I live here now, and this is my third time. The feeling is just different. Attendance is down this year, the merch tents are dark and dispiriting places, and some people I talked to are certain that Cornerstone is petering out. But still, everyone's just happy to be there, and to hear music they can't hear anywhere else.

As much as I try to say that I'm just in it for the music, I know it's not true. I listen to this stuff, and I come to this festival, to confront my own faith, or lack thereof, and to see the world through the prism of these fascinating artists, if only for a little while. I'm not interested in simple declarations of faith - I could go to the main stage for that, if I wanted to, but I don't. TobyMac makes me want to run away screaming. But I'm also not interested in avoiding the topic, either. As a man with a very abstract spiritualism (and virtually no religious tendencies), I want faith presented to me in new ways, ones that will make me think about it and consider my own beliefs.

While watching the Glenn Kaiser Band play the Gallery Stage today, I thought about this little corner of the music world, and how it's perceived. Glenn Kaiser is easily one of the best blues guitarists in Chicago, if not the country. Why don't you know who he is? Well, Glenn preaches. A lot. His set is about 50% killer blues riffing, and 50% talking - this time, he spoke about how Christians should get out of their churches and help their neighbors, a topic well worth visiting, in my view.

If Glenn stopped his preaching and just played, he wouldn't be true to himself. But because he's true to himself, no one knows how good he is. It's very strange to me. Admittedly, Glenn Kaiser can be a lot to take in all at once, but if there's any act on the festival bill that should be too Jesus-y for me, it's him. And I loved listening to his set this afternoon. His perspective is not my perspective, but I enjoy hearing it, and imagining the world through his eyes.

But let's talk about those aligning stars, before I collapse from exhaustion. I said three of them lined up for me (and I think three is the minimum it would take to get me to this fest), and two of them played today. The first is, of course, the Lost Dogs, that spiritual pop supergroup of Mike Roe, Terry Taylor, Derri Daugherty and Steve Hindalong, four guys I've been listening to since I was 16 years old.

The Dogs actually played throughout the day, in various combinations. Roe started things off with an acoustic set full of the old gospel and blues songs he's been fascinated by recently. I've said it before, but give me Mike Roe and an acoustic guitar, and I'll be happy for hours. Taylor then took to the stage for a trio set (with Roe on bass and Hindalong on drums) that flipped through some of his more obscure back pages. (He actually played "I Had a Bad Experience With the CIA and Now I'm Gonna Show You My Feminine Side." I would have been happy if he'd merely said the title from the Cornerstone stage.)

Roe and Daugherty then did a set of covers and oldies, which was nice. Daugherty, who sings with the Choir, has a high and clear voice, while Roe's is more typical bluesman, more rough than smooth. Together they sounded elegant. The highlight, for me, was "Dunce Cap," my favorite Lost Dogs song, and one I'd never heard live.

The Dogs then played a full-on rock and roll set at 10 p.m., and man, it was great. Their new album, Old Angel, is an absolute masterpiece, and it seems to have revitalized these aging troubadours. Every second of their set rippled with energy. Hindalong remains the most entertaining drummer on the planet to watch - his facial expressions are priceless - and the rapport between the four of them is at an all-time high.

The second of my stars tonight was Iona, a five-piece from the U.K. I've been listening to Iona for almost 20 years now, and I've never seen them live before. It was amazing. I don't know how to describe Iona. They're like Celtic folk prog rock, like Rush jamming with Enya, and it sounds horrible, but it works brilliantly. 15-minute songs based on Celtic prayers with unison bagpipe and electric guitar solos, all capped off with the lovely voice of Joanne Hogg. They were great.

And you want to know why I consider Cornerstone magical? Try this. At 1:30 in the morning, Iona closed out their main set with a piece called "Castlerigg," kind of an Irish jig on Jolt Cola. Even after 12 solid hours of music, everyone in the place - hundreds of people - got up and started dancing. It was pure joy in motion, and an awesome thing to be a part of.

Some stray observations and notes:

My roommate Jeff Elbel played another strong set of tunes with his ever-expansive band Ping - nine musicians this time. Several new songs, all of them good. Jeff also manages the gallery stage, where all the acts I saw today played, and he gets precious little thanks or sleep for the privilege. He's much more tired than I am right now, and I'm pretty much wiped out.

The discovery of the festival so far is Shel, a band I was ready to laugh off. Four teenage sisters (drums, piano, mandolin and violin) backed up by their father on guitar. Sounds awful, right? But they were awesome. They played complex folk-rock, harmonized beautifully (especially on the more bizarre numbers), and capped it off with a cover of Led Zeppelin's "The Battle of Evermore." I was impressed.

The cafe near the Gallery Stage has a lemonade-and-iced-tea blend drink for sale. It's called a Robert Palmer. That's right, Robert Palmer, not Arnold. So I asked the kid behind the counter why, and he grinned and replied, "Because it's simply irresistible."

Okay, to sleep with me. Tomorrow is the third of my three stars, the Choir, perhaps my favorite band on earth. More musings on faith and art to follow. Check back here early Friday morning for the next installment.


  1. I always had the same kind of magical delusions about Cornerstone when I was a kid. The first time I went was 2002 and really only because I was sure it was the last chance I'd get to see Luxury play (I was right and it was totally worth it). It was ridiculously hot that year and we wouldn't have survived if our friends in Bleach hadn't offered us shelter at the church they were staying at, saving us from camping hell.
    I wish you'd gone two years ago when we played it. It would've been cool to hang out. The festival really is fun and it would be a really cool, ironic, twist of fate if we got to play it again someday.
    Have fun, don't get skin cancer, and go see our friends, Dignan.

  2. Hey Taylor,

    Thanks! Dignan is on my list for tomorrow (well, later today...). Also, if David Bazan keeps getting invited back, I see no reason you shouldn't be. :-)

  3. Even though it was for way too short a period of time, it was excellent seeing you again!!!

  4. Agreed, Chris! It was fun catching up.