Saturday, July 2, 2011

Cornerstone 2011: Friday

Now that was much more my speed.

That's because Friday was Gallery Stage Day here at Cornerstone. I think I wandered from the gallery stage once during my nine-hour festival experience yesterday, and that was to buy a chicken kabob for dinner. (Mmmm. Chicken kabob.) Otherwise, it was all gallery all the time.

I've really started to think of that stage as Cornerstone itself. Pretty much all of my best experiences at this fest have happened there. It's a marked contrast to every other hangout at Cornerstone, from the grandiose Jesus-pop of main stage to the screaming, brutal hardcore and metal of... well, just about every other stage. Gallery is relaxed and intimate and fun, and it features my favorite musicians at the fest.

It also seems to be a place where artistic expressions of faith (or anything) are welcomed more readily. In my view, the best artists at Cornerstone are the ones who incorporate that faith into their lives, and sing about their own experiences. A band like Petra is a cartoonish huckster selling an idea that has very little bearing on how people live their lives. An artist like Terry Taylor writes about the world the way he sees it, its ups and downs, trials and triumphs, and does so through the prism of his own beliefs. That's the difference, I think.

I mention Taylor up front because he was a notable absence from Friday's lineup. A family emergency called him back home. Taylor's had a rough go of it lately, and I felt sick as I heard the news. Apparently his son Andrew is in the hospital, but is going to be all right. I wish him a speedy recovery.

This turn of events left the Lost Dogs without its guiding light. In a lot of ways, the Lost Dogs are the reason I come to this festival. Terry Taylor, Mike Roe, Derri Daugherty and Steve Hindalong have, together and separately, made some of my very favorite music, and it's always a treat to see and hear them play. I got two incarnations of the same band on Friday, and both were marvelous.

First up was Kerosene Halo, the new Daugherty-Roe project. The album, available now from Lo-Fidelity Records, is gorgeous - an acoustic tour of covers and co-writes, from the expected (two Daniel Amos songs) to the incongruous (Tom Waits' "Bottom of the World"). The show was essentially the album come to life, Roe and Daugherty harmonizing like angels while Hindalong provided subtle percussion. Great stuff.

Then my roommate Jeff Elbel took the stage with his eight-member incarnation of Ping, and tore the roof off. (Well, it's a tent, but you get me.) Jeff has a new EP called Peanut Gallery, and he sounded positively renewed at this show. He dropped his guitar to become a full-on rock star frontman during "You Little Victim," and blew apart the rollicking "I Forget." He offered the audience a choice of closing song, and they picked "Comfort Me," a new, prayerful piece. This was, in my ever-humble opinion, the best Ping show I've ever seen. Get the new record here.

After an extended dinner break and a show by the Crossing, I took my place in the front row for the Choir. If you know me at all, you know the Choir is pretty much my favorite band. And you also may remember that they blew it big time at Cornerstone last year, turning in an unrehearsed and sloppy set. This year was redemption - an acoustic performance, just Derri and Steve and Dan Michaels. And it was proof that Cornerstone is a place where magic happens.

Put simply, last year I spent the Choir show repeating over and over, in disbelief, "This is my favorite band." This year I spent the Choir show grinning and saying with pride, "This is my favorite band." They played old favorites like "Clouds" and "To Cover You" and "Circle Slide," they turned in a menacing and wonderful version of the newer "Midnight Sun," and somewhere in the middle, had a blast recasting "Leprechaun" as a harmonica-driven folk song.

But the most jaw-dropping moment came when Hindalong premiered a new song about his own alcoholism. It was fearless and stark and powerful. As he said, the Choir's career has been all about openness and discussion, about the band and its fans as an extended family. It sure felt that way to me on Friday. I've been a Choir fan for more than 20 years, and they're very much like family to me. I only get to see them once a year, but I cherish the experience.

Glenn Kaiser stomped through a blistering set of blues-rock next with his band. This would have been the Glenn Kaiser Band show to see for newbies. Ordinarily his sets are 50% music and 50% preaching. This time, it was 90% music, and the music was awesome. I am particularly fond of "What Can Be Shaken," an apocalyptic barnburner played on a lap steel. Glenn puts on a great show.

And then came the Lost Dogs, minus Taylor. The band tapped Paul Averitt, who played bass with Daniel Amos on Thursday, to sing Taylor's parts, and he nailed it. He was tremendous. Even without Taylor, this was one of my favorite Lost Dogs shows (and I've seen about a dozen now). It's typical of this band of longtime friends and mutual admirers that they spent the show jokingly ripping on Taylor for being absent, and then playing his songs with reverence. And they played "Carry Me," my favorite from last year's brilliant Old Angel, and it was wonderful.

They ran out of material by the end of their set, and initially refused calls for an encore, but when the crowd just wouldn't relent (and rightly so), they charged back on stage for a take on Bob Dylan's "Knocking on Heaven's Door." It was a graceful conclusion to a great show.

I knew Deas Vail couldn't compete with that as the closing moment of my Friday Cornerstone experience, so I stayed for a couple songs of sky-high dramatic indie pop (which I liked), and then slowly wandered back to the hotel. A great, great day at Cornerstone. Tomorrow (well, today) I am darting back and forth between stages, but I finally get to see Saviour Machine play, which will be fascinating to say the least. More tomorrow!

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