Friday, July 1, 2011

Cornerstone 2011: Thursday

I’m getting old. I thought I’d be able to scrawl out a few notes on the first day of my Cornerstone experience last night, but as I stared at the computer screen at 2 a.m., I just felt all of my energy being sapped away. Last year I had no problem writing up blog entries in the wee hours, but I just couldn’t do it this time. So here I am at 1 p.m., putting these thoughts together before heading back to the festival for Day Two.

This is my fourth Cornerstone Festival, so it’s starting to feel like home to me. I know the ins and outs of the stages, and where to find the best burgers, and where the ATM is. (A crucial discovery I made last year.) But the first-day immersion into this culture I am increasingly less a part of is still strange for me.

Whenever I talk to people about Cornerstone, I tend to frame it in terms of how un-Christian it is. Or at least, how counter it is to the accepted image of Christianity. I guess I do this partly to justify it to myself, but also to make it seem appealing to my religion-averse friends. Because the music is amazing. Stunning, remarkable stuff, on the whole. And that’s why I’m here.

But there is no way to couch what I saw last night. This was a full-on Jesus rally – in fact, that was the name given to the Main Stage lineup: Jesus Rally. It was a celebration of the Jesus movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s, a wave that started in California and swept the nation, culminating in big festivals like Cornerstone. And as I stood with just a few thousand others, watching the aging forerunners of this movement playing to an aging crowd, I felt like I was bearing witness to the end of something special.

Before all that, though, the day got off to an inauspicious start with Mike Roe’s solo set at the Gallery Stage. The power had gone out at Gallery shortly before, and Roe was forced to stand in front of the stage, acoustic guitar in hand, and compete with the piercing sounds of hardcore from the nearby tents. It just didn’t work – I couldn’t hear anything the man was doing. Luckily, I’ll have two chances today to see Roe do his thing.

So that was disappointing, and looking around at the sparse attendance this year was even more saddening. As I understand it, there was some debate over whether Cornerstone 2011 would even go ahead, given the low turnout last year, and this year doesn’t look any better. But what I love about Cornerstone is the intimacy. For instance, during Roe’s set, Derri Daughtery, guitarist/singer for the Choir and one of my favorite musicians in the world, sat down in the audience and just hung out with us. That’s pretty cool.

Another thing I like about the fest is its ability to surprise me. Here’s a good case in point: Barry McGuire played the main stage on Thursday afternoon. He’s a 75-year-old bald and paunchy man, best known for singing “Eve of Destruction” in the ‘60s, and I didn’t have high hopes for his performance.

But it was marvelous. He shaped that gruff old voice into a terrific instrument, and held the audience in the palm of his hand. His set – just him and a guitar – built up force as it went, and in addition to a bevy of old folk tunes, he covered Madonna’s “Frozen.” He ended with “Cosmic Cowboy,” a riveting spoken-word journey. It was something to see.

From that moment on, I spent the rest of my day at main stage. This is the first time I’ve done this – the main stage is usually populated with the most shallow, commercial, worthless music at the festival. Whatever you normally think of when I say the term “Christian music,” that’s what you’ll find at main stage most years.

But this year? Classic act upon classic act. Resurrection Band? Phil Keaggy? Petra? I’ll take “Music I Obsessed Over When I Was 12” for $1,000, Alex. Nothing but aging, God-loving hippies all day. It was an experience.

As usual, Daniel Amos didn’t quite fit in. But man, they tore it up. DA has been playing Cornerstone since it started 28 years ago, and I last saw them perform in 2001. Terry Taylor, one of the world’s most criminally underrated songwriters, is 61 now. But he led the band through an absolutely scorching set, including a flat-out awesome burn through “I Love You #19.” They also played “The Twist,” my favorite Taylor song – it’s proof all by itself that “religious art” is not an oxymoron.

I expected DA to be the highlight of my day, and for a while, it looked like my prediction was spot on. Randy Stonehill played an unremarkable set of too-direct folk music – he has a tremendous voice, and an awkwardly amusing stage presence, but I’ve never found much art to what he does. E Band trotted out their ‘70s prog and ‘80s pop to an appreciative audience, but I crept away to eat and read for a while.

Resurrection Band was very good, though. One of the first real Christian hard rock acts, Rez is fronted by married couple Glenn and Wendi Kaiser, who also lead Jesus People USA, the Chicago organization that puts on Cornerstone each year. Glenn just happens to be one of the best blues-rock guitarists you’re likely to hear, with a strong and gritty voice.

Glenn is 58 years old now, and he and Wendi have both packed on the pounds since the early days. But their set was fiery and raucous. Highlihghts included “Lovespeak,” “Your House is On Fire,” “Shadows,” and an epic, smoldering take on “Where the Roses Grow,” Glenn really showing what he can do with a bluesy lead.

But then! The rock bands on Thursday were interspersed with solo acoustic acts, and when I saw the name Phil Keaggy, that’s what I immediately expected. But no. Phil, one of the finest guitarists on the planet (seriously), brought his band Glass Harp with him. And they smoked. An eight-minute take on “Time” just set the stage – the real deal was a 30-or-so-minute medley that started with the instrumental “David and Goliath” and ended with “Do Lord.”

Phil is a perfect example of the paradox inherent in this music I love. Keaggy’s musical prowess is undeniable. I can think of no one I know who wouldn’t be goggle-eyed and amazed at his work. But he simply and directly expresses his faith in his songs, so he’s relegated to the Christian section of the music store, next to old Amy Grant records and Stephen Curtis Chapman. He should be revered as one of the best guitar players alive, but at age 60, he’s largely forgotten. And I feel privileged to have seen this show. It was astoundingly good.

After all that, there’s no way Petra, the original “ministry band,” could have lived up. And they didn’t. I liked Petra a lot when I was a church-going pre-teen, but there’s an inherent cheeseball silliness to what they do – they’re kind of the Jesus-rock Survivor – and it’s not an ironic, knowing silliness. They’re a band that should be playing Knott’s Berry Farm, not main stage at a festival like this.

And they were under-rehearsed to boot. “Clean,” their third song, was an absolute train wreck – guitarist Bob Hartman was playing in a different key than everyone else, and they finally just had to stop, compare notes (for 10 MINUTES) and start over. And I just couldn’t take much more, so I left.

But on the way out, I caught the last few songs of the Farewell Drifters set at Gallery Stage, and I wish I’d seen the whole thing. The Drifters are young guys from Nashville who play bluegrass-pop with delirious harmonies and instrumental prowess. I heard them do new tune “You Were There,” and had to buy the new album Echo Boom immediately. Their sweet music was a balm after Petra, and ended my night on a graceful note.

Today should be my favorite day of the fest, with Kerosene Halo (Mike Roe and Derri Daugherty), my roommate Jeff Elbel, the Choir, Glenn Kaiser Band, the Lost Dogs (minus Terry Taylor, apparently) and Deas Vail. Report later, or tomorrow if I’m still too old to do it tonight.

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