Sorry this post has taken so long to appear. I didn't get to sleep until about 4:30 a.m. on Sunday, and then I drove three hours home, and then attended a weekly meeting of fellow pop culture enthusiasts. So this is literally the first chance I've had to unwind and scrawl down my thoughts on the final day of my Cornerstone experience.
So yeah. On Thursday, I got to see Daniel Amos play, and Phil Keaggy knock it out of the park with his band Glass Harp. On Friday, I got to see the Choir redeem themselves with a magical acoustic set, and hear the Lost Dogs triumphantly recover from the unexpected absence of Terry Taylor. But Saturday may have been my favorite day at Cornerstone 2011.
That's because Saturday was New Discovery Day. There were only a couple of acts I knew I wanted to see - Photoside Cafe, the Wayside, and most importantly, Saviour Machine, performing their first stateside show in 10 years. The rest of the lineup, however, was a complete mystery to me. And that's the way I liked it.
Every year at Cornerstone, I find at least one band or artist I hadn't previously stumbled upon. My first visit in 2001 gave me Beki Hemingway. My second, in 2005, gave me Mutemath. Last year it was Photoside Cafe and Timbre, both of whom played on Saturday. Oh, and though I didn't discover him at Cornerstone 2005, I first heard about Sufjan Stevens while I was there - everyone was buzzing about this little album called Illinois.
So that's a really good batting average for this festival, and the 2011 edition did not disappoint. First, though, I disappointed myself - I meant to get up in time to see Timbre play, and I missed it. Timbre is a harp-playing wonder, and her band a progressive pop ensemble worth experiencing. Alas, I just couldn't rouse myself early enough to make her 1 p.m. set time. (Yes, I realize that's pathetic. Sorry, Timbre.) But you should buy her stuff anyway.
I did get there in time to see River James, a dramatic rock outfit from the East Coast. I found their set pretty average, until they launched into a song called "Dreams," which was extraordinary. That tune by itself led me to pay $5 for their debut EP. I look forward to seeing where they go next. I also caught Lauren Mann and the Fairly Odd Folk, a piano-playing songwriter and her band from the wastes of Canada. Her tunes are melodic and strong, her voice true, and I practically knocked people aside to pay $10 for her debut album, Stories From Home. Her new one is apparently done - it was produced by Aaron Marsh of Copeland - but won't be out until January. I'll be looking for it.
I took a quick trip to Main Stage to see the great Photoside Cafe next, and they were just as good this year as they were last year. They still sound a lot like the Levellers - raucous, fist-pumping folk-rock with a violin at its center. Great stuff. I ducked back to the Gallery Stage just in time to catch the end of the Psalters set - sweaty, stomping traditional folk tunes with bite, played by nine people shoved onto a stage just that little bit too small for them. They were great.
But the big discoveries of the day were still to come. Songs of Water hails from North Carolina, but they play music as big as the world. Each member plays half a dozen instruments, from the hammered dulcimer to the violin to the tin whistle to all manner of drums, and the band plays big instrumental jigs and quiet, reflective pieces with equal aplomb. Their set knocked me flat. I immediately bought both of their records, and dulcimer player Stephen Roach's solo work as well. New album The Sea Has Spoken is all kinds of wonderful.
And then, after a set of sweetly swaying spirituals and love songs from The Wayside, I discovered Josh Garrels. An imposingly tall man from Portland, Oregon, Garrels does what I would describe as an even mix of coffeehouse folk and hip-hop, although that doesn't quite describe it. On stage on Saturday he performed pretty, jaunty folk numbers like "For You," and then brought the house down with a full-on rap explosion called "The Resistance." Both of these songs are on his new album, with the amazing title Love and War and the Sea In Between.
And guess what? You can get the whole record for free. Garrels honestly believes that God has told him to give this album away. And considering it's 18 songs, 75 minutes, and very, very good, that's impressive. It's not just downloads, either - he's pressed up CDs, and is giving those away as well. The freebie will be available for an entire year, he says. If it gives more people an opportunity to hear this album, well, that's a win, because it's a frank and well-made piece of work. Try it.
So at this point in my day, something amazing happened. The teenagers and hippies who had packed the Gallery Stage to hear Josh Garrels all filed out, and were replaced by a legion of goths dressed in black, many wearing face makeup. It was a complete audience changeover, except for me and one other guy, as far as I could tell. Apparently, Garrels' audience doesn't overlap much with Saviour Machine's.
Their loss. Saviour Machine is a band unlike any other I know. Led by the operatic and melodramatic voice of Eric Clayton, this is a band that creates theatrical gothic metal soundscapes, with crunching guitars and ethereal keyboards, but puts them in the service of surprisingly melodic and beautiful songs. Since 1997, they have been working on a four-CD concept piece called Legend, which depicts in phenomenal detail the Book of Revelations - almost page by page. The first part came out in '97, the second in '98, the third in 2001, and then... nothing.
Clayton has been working on the final installment of Legend for 10 years, while battling health problems and record label insanity. Because of all that, Saviour Machine hasn't played a show in the U.S. in 10 years. So Saturday night was something truly special. The group took the stage to perform unplugged, having rearranged their noisy, intense music for a quieter, more intimate setting. They opened with a cover of "Sympathy for the Devil," and closed with "Gethsemane," from Jesus Christ Superstar. And in between, they treated us to songs from all phases of their career.
It was my first Saviour Machine show, and it was amazing. Afterward, I got to meet Clayton, and he was an extremely nice and down to earth guy. We talked about the fake Legend Part III:II that's out there now, thanks to his unscrupulous German record label, and about the future of the band. He plans to bring the acoustic show on tour, and use the funds from that (and subsequent DVD and CD releases from the shows) to finish the Legend series. I, for one, can't wait.
And so with that, I dragged myself back to my hotel room and collapsed. It was another great Cornerstone, even though I kept hearing about low attendance, and rumblings that this may be the last of these annual festivals. I sincerely hope this isn't true, because just in the four trips I've made, I've seen more great music and discovered more great musicians than any other festival I've ever attended. Long live Cornerstone, is what I'm saying.
And now, to sleep.