Best of the Fest

This year’s fest deserves a longer wrap-up, but first, I want to offer my annual list of best-of’s. Please add a comment to add your favorite moments.

Best show, all-around: Mike Mains & the Branches

The crowd on stage with Mike Mains & the Branches. Photo by Steve White for www.ornerstonefestival.com

At least, this was the best show if you were standing and dancing within 5 feet of the stage! (Though, I think the rest of the Gallery crowd liked it, too.) The music was amazing and the band’s energy was contagious. They were polished, tight, and having fun — great to see in a band with just one “real” album under their belts and playing only their second Cornerstone. Definitely one of those bands that, had things gone differently, could be playing a key role in fests for years to come.

Best encores: The Violet Burning

Michael Pritzl of the Violet Burning. Photo by Steve White for www.CornerstoneFestival.com

The Violets played as a 4-piece and really brought the rock. I hadn’t seen them in a few years, and feared it might be a morose and almost funereal moment, as this band who has played dozens of festivals looked upon the end. Instead, it was an outright passionate celebration of the work of God around us, rock & roll, Cornerstone, and so much more. The main set, playing through about half of the 3-cd set “Story of Our Lives,” was good, but the encores just blew me away.  Working in fan-favorites from years past and an odd 1:45am call to Mike Row, it somehow added up to a very ephemeral moment of simultaneously having my face melted by rock & roll and wanting to fall on my knees before God.

Best moment from a Gallery-stage band to capture what Cornerstone means: The Choir

I think I was 5 when The Choir played the first Cornerstone. No, I wasn’t there. I didn’t know any of their music until a group of friends played me “Circle Slide” one night at Cornerstone 1998 or 1999 (about a decade too late). Due to the influence of my friends, I’ve come to appreciate their heartfelt lyrics, adapting style, perseverance to keep making music, and simultaneous sense of both humor and emotion. As others have said, it was very fitting for the band who played the first show of the first Cornerstone to give the fest a final eulogy on Saturday night.

Best moments from Underground-stage bands to capture what Cornerstone means: Flatfoot 56

Flatfoot 56. Photo by Shutterblade for www.cornerstonefestival.com

I honestly didn’t make it to a single second of this year’s Flatfoot show. I’m sad about that, but heard reports on it from several friends. I think they, once again, captured something about the essence of Cornerstone. Inviting the crowd to participate, making great music, and honoring God. They printed t-shirts listing all their past fest shows (and the themes of those shows), and you could check off which you survived.

Best souvenier: the fest posters & shirts

It’s not just because these posters look so awesome in our home office! This year’s fest shirts — and posters — were really well done. They’re reportedly the most complicated design that Belly Acres has ever printed for a fest shirt ever. And, what’s better — I’ve heard you’ll be able to buy them post-fest. (Watch the Cornerstone Festival facebook page for info, I’m sure.)

Best Get Your Arms in the Air moment: Da MAC

Nate & Scott watching Da MAC. Photo by Steve White for www.cornerstonefestival.com

Da MAC has an absolute gift for bringing people together and getting them to worship through music. I’m so glad I’ve gotten to see him several times at the fest over the years. Toddlers, teens, adults, punks, athletes, fest directors, engineers and quilters (those last two are my husband & I) — everybody had their hands in the air doing the “dirty bounce” and much more.

Saturday

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Saturday was upon us and it was finally time to say our final goodbyes. Up until today I think many people had been putting it off, enjoying the festival and pretending nothing was going to change. Today however was time to confront reality and it made emotions heightened even more than the normal “last day of Cornerstone” state. We started off the morning going to the church service at the Chelsea Gallery stage. It takes something pretty monumental to get our group stirred and out to the grounds before noon and I’d say this counts. Glenn Kaiser led the crowd in worship and then John Herrin spoke briefly thanking everyone for the years and years of good memories and hard work by everyone at the festival. Current co-organizers Scott Stanhke and Genesis Winter also took a few brief moments to thank the staff and everyone for coming this year when the band list was slashed and the stages reduced. John Thompson shared a little of his many years at the festival and then opened the floor for people to tell their stories about Cornerstone. I’m sure it only scratched the surface of the myriad of stories but people who had been attending the festival for 20-25 years told their stories as well as people who had only come for a year or two. We heard many stories of misfits, people who didn’t feel they fit in feel a sense of belonging at the festival. We heard stories of people meeting their life partners, recovering from loss, and finding Jesus after rejection from mainstream churches. Finally, they closed down the afternoon with a communion service and we all joined together for the last time to break bread and drink together.

After a short break, it was back to the music one last time. Lauren Mann and The Fairly Odd Folk started off an incredibly strong lineup on the Chelsea Gallery Stage. After their debut last year the band came back this year with even more confidence and a fuller sound. They didn’t have as much success getting people up and dancing such as at the Mike Mains and The Branches show last night probably due to the stifling heat, but I would think this kind of music would also be fun to dance to. Following them, Timbre had flown out from Russia just to be at Cornerstone for her show. Travelling for 24 hours, she sounded a little slap happy but it didn’t affect her meticulous and beautiful harp playing. She remarked that we were one of the biggest crowds she plays for every year and I couldn’t help but wonder how many other artists would say the same exact thing.

Kye Kye started the evening off with some nice trippy music. Looking at the liner notes in their CD, I was impressed with how much thought they had given to their lyrics. I’ve seen bands have scriptural references for songs before, but they had scripture references for nearly every line of each song. Josh Garrels played next and he has become such a beloved institution at Cornerstone. His song “Ulysses” from his newest album gets me every time. “So tie me to the mast of this old ship and point me home/Before I lose the one I love, before my chance is gone.” I wish I could have stayed for his entire show because it was incredible, but I had to skip out to see the moment of the festival.

Word has started to spread around the festival that there would be a Viking Funeral performed at the beach for Cornerstone Festival. As in old Norse tradition, they would set a longboat out to water and then shoot a flaming arrow at it, lighting it on fire and letting it burn (hopefully, this one without an actual body in it.) Standing on the beach, I waited for a little bit before a procession of motorcycles roared over the hill and behind it a group of kids carrying the boat singing “Amazing Grace.” As they set it out on the lake two older ladies had a conversation behind me. “It doesn’t seem a very Christian thing to do.” “Well, neither are Christmas Trees but we do that, too.” Good point. Once the boat was lit on fire it was a nice, emotional moment. Well, at least until the kids started singing “Na na na na, na na na na, hey, hey, hey, goodbye.” Like all things Cornerstone it was bizarre, only sort-of planned out, but most of all memorable.

I climbed back up the hill to the Gallery tent one last time. Thank goodness the heat was finally starting to break or I probably would have died. If there was the old Main Stage this year would we have made it through the week without heat exhaustion? Probably not. Anyways, I arrived in time to catch most of The Farewell Drifters set and they sounded great. I loved their cover of Paul Simon’s “The Only Living Boy In New York” and they even brought John and Michelle Thompson on the stage for a rollicking little song. After that, while Norma Jean was in the process of destroying the Underground Stage the band that played on the first slot of the first day of the first Cornerstone Festival closed out the last night. The Choir played their entire _Chase The Kangaroo_ album from beginning to end to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the album. There was even someone that was dressed up as a Kangaroo that jumped on stage and danced during the title song forcing the band to keep straight face and finish the song. The four-piece band sounded as good as they ever have debuting a couple new songs and treating us to one last growling, noisy, ambling version of “Circle Slide.”

When the Choir finished approriately with “To Bid Farewell” that was that. Cornerstone Festival was officially finished (at least for now) for good. I probably speak for a lot of people, but I didn’t get very emotional at the end because I was so worn out. I was honestly numb when it all ended. I think the flood of emotions will start pouring out during the next week when I’m at home unpacking and starting to realize there will be no more need to pack again. I’ll be listening to new CD’s and realizing there will be no flood of new CD’s again. That’s when it’s going to hit hard that this era of life is over.

When one era ends, hopefully another springs up and none of us know what’s next but whatever it is I wish the best to Jesus People USA. They are one of the most astonishing groups of people I know with their skill of pulling everything off skillfully while it all somehow appears like it was planned on the back of a napkin. Most of all, they’ve done this festival with the right motives and the right heart towards the artists and those that attend the festival. They get art and faith and I hope that part of Cornerstone continues on even if the festival ends. Thanks to the web team for all of their hard work getting video and photos uploaded and even supporting an infrastructure for a website in the middle of nowhere. Thanks for allowing me to have a voice and a small part in this event that I hope people look back fondly for decades and say, “Man, do you remember at Cornerstone when…..”

Hopefully, we’ll have some more posts to sum up the festival and do a little more review of the week as a whole. And also spill out our guts and tears for a little self-therapy. This is the end, but this is not the end.

Love God, Love others,

Jeff

Saturday – quick

There are certainly a few wrap-up posts to come. But, for anybody following along at home, I wanted to put out a quick post about what happened on this final Saturday.

The Choir, the band who opened the first day of the very first Cornerstone, wrapped it up on the Gallery to a passionate crowd. Customizing “Everybody in the band” to express thanks to JPUSA and their Cornerstone family was a nice touch. They very appropriately closed with “To Bid Farewell.” (update 7/9: find Derri Daugherty’s introduction to the song and the performance of “To Bid Farewell” here on youtube. I can’t yet get myself to re-watch it. Beautiful & emotional.)

Earlier in the day at the Gallery Kye Kye, The Farewell Drifters, Timbre and Josh Garrells played to great young crowds, including quite a few people (shown by raise of hands) attending their first — and last — festival. I don’t know if it was just my brain looking for themes, or if it were chosen by the bands, but I noticed many lyrics today that were appropriate in saying goodbye. Among those is this line from the Farewell Drifters: “Everything comes to an end, my friend.” As much as people may have joked today about “Occupy Cornerstone,” it is true that even good things come to an end.

Norma Jean reportedly brought the fest to a good close on the Underground stage (though I wasn’t there, admittedly). They started about the time that many people were walking back from the beach after being part of a crowd giving Cornerstone a send-off with flames and a few fireworks. Just wait until you see pictures of that!

The highlight of the day for me (in terms of scheduled events) was the morning memorial/church service. Honest worship (led by Glenn Kaiser, his daughter Ami, and Hilde from The Crossing) combined with poignant stories from fest-goers, and a very emotional and appropriate sharing of the Lord’s Supper.

Safe travels to everyone as we head home from Bushnell for the last time.

{hugs}

Friday

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I’ve been doing a good job of being adventurous and checkng out all of the stages up to this point, but today I finally succumbed to the heat. Whatever was on the Chelsea Gallery stage was good enough and that’s not a terrible thing. The day started out at the Bushnell Locker for their infamous ribeye sammiches. These are the kind of traditions I will truly miss. There may be other festivals, and Lord willing there will be some festival like Cornerstone again some day, but I have my doubts I’ll ever have a ribeye sammich again. I almost assuredly will not enjoy it with friends in a butcher shop’s break room again, for sure.

Before we bury Cornerstone though there are still two days of music left and we started the day out with Relentless Flood at the Underground Stage which had some nice shreddy guitar and a drummer on vocals. After that I caught a second performance by Doug Mains and the City Folk. They seemed an odd fit on the normally metal Sancrosanct Stage, but they drew a nice crowd and delivered a nice set of folk music.

Maron Gaffron shared a scrapbook of pictures from her Cornerstone experiences all the way back to 1985. It was a lot of fun to see pictures of her as a child (weren’t we all?) at the early festivals all the way up to last year’s festival. The Maron of today played a nice soulful set and then joined Jeff Elbel for his show. Elbel pulled out all of the stops for his last show at Cornerstone even throwing in an enthusasitic cover of Adam Again’s “Deep.” Thanks for the bag of one hundred glow-in-the-dark bouncy balls, Jeff. My children will very likely set off some epic mischief with them. Of all the shows at Cornerstone, these are the ones I am saddest to see end. Many bands I will be able to catch on tour but it’s not likely I’ll see these bands again.

I tried to go over to see Don’t Wake Aislin on the Underground Stage, but after about two songs I reached the point where I was losing my will to live due to the heat. Nothing wrong with Don’t Wake Aislin, I had heard this would be their last show but was relieved to find out it’s because they are renaming and restyling themselves a little bit. Nonetheless, I couldn’t endure it and decided I would spend the rest of the evening under the shade of the Chelsea Gallery tent. Going to the Gallery stage proved fortuitous as I was able to see Trace Bundy on acoustic guitar. Bundy kept the crowd entertained with his multitude of capos even shifting them around the guitar in middle of songs. He also played “Superstition” by Stevie Wonder entirely using guitar and drum apps on his iPhone which was a lot of fun.

The highlight of the night next was Mike Mains and The Branches. The chairs at the front of the Gallery stage were pushed away as people danced in front of the stage. The show was straight up rock with some heartfelt lyrics. When the band beckoned the crowd to come up on stage I really felt like we had a genuine Cornerstone Moment. Neal Morse followed with progressive rock and it was overindulgent, ponderous, and complicated. I’m not gonna lie, the Yes fan in me loved every moment of it.

At the end of the night, The Violet Burning gave us what I like to call a “real Cornerstone Encore.” Years ago, the midnight encore shows used to run two or three hours late into the night, but the last few years the setlists have gotten shorter. Not so with The Violet Burning. After blazing straight through one-and-a-half of the three CD’s of The Story Of Our Lives. Micheal Pritzl took the band through an extended encore through some crowd favorites and even took a little time to call Mike Roe and leave a voicemail. I missed the Flatfoot 56 show where even our intrepid festival co-supervisor took a slide down the waterslide into the pool party, but I’m pretty it had it’s share of “Cornerstone moments” as well. For whatever reason, it always seems like the night before the last night has the big Cornerstone Moments and I’m glad that tradition continued to the end.

Friday night – the presence of God

It didn’t matter where you were on the Cornerstone grounds on Friday night. Cornerstone truly rocked, and it was obvious that it wasn’t just about the music. There was dancing at the Underground with Children 18:3 followed by yet another legendary Flatfoot 56 show, complete with a slide (yes, really!) and their always-beloved version of Amazing Grace.

At the Gallery, Neal Morse & band brought the power of prog-rock and were followed by a 2 + hour set by the Violet Burning. The Violets, playing as a 4-piece, absolutely brought the rock, making for what may be their best-ever Cornerstone show (which says a lot considering how often they’e played). Playing through parts of their newest 3-disc release, then moving into old favorites, they reminded me that you can simultaneously have your fave melted off by rock and roll and want to cry out deeply to your God.

In the distance, I could hear the sounds of DaMac backed up by The Corners on the Impact Stage, getting the crowd to raise their hands and dance for Jesus. I hear there was a Glenn Kaiser special worship set at the beach. It was just an amazing night There was music, and more importantly, the presence of God, all around.

cornerstonearts

Most conversation about Cornerstone Festival centers on the music (especially after a day as amazing as Friday!). But, there are many other sides to the festival — arts, the Imaginarium, seminars, Creation Station, etc. Over the past few years, I’ve really appreciated the cornerstonearts tent and the Art Pilgrimage. These have both made art exhibits and art creation accessible to fest-goers.

Each day, people of all ages bypass music and pull up their chairs in circles and learn new art techniques like fabric dyeing, needle-felting, spindle yarn spinning, and (new this year) cigar-box guitars. While I was dyeing silk Friday afternoon in a multi-generational group of women, dozens of people put the finishing touches on their guitars made from cigar boxes, tin cans, and various leftover bits and pieces. Some of these will probably go on display as a memory of Cornerstone. Others will be given to friends. But, I hope most will be played, proving (once again) that even the most simple items can be used for a bigger purpose.

 

The Art Pilgrimage walk (which goes near the bridge, for those who know the grounds layout) makes art accessible to any fest goer willing to brave the sun for a few moments. All week, casual observers have stopped to reflect on the displays which center around Desert Wanderings. Recycled math homework, fabric, quilting, yarn, acrylics, and all sorts of up-cycled materials come together in mixed media expressions of all types. Even casual observers engage with this very personal art. Stories are told in that art about watching a child suffer in pain, looking at one’s life thus far like rings on a tree (growing from childhood to adulthood and dealing with pain and sorrow), and coming to find a new refuge in Christ.

Thanks to the many artists who share your skills, passion, and love for Christ through these seminars and exhibits.

Intelligent Design by Debbie Baumgartner, made from cardboard, tape, and repuposed math homework (as seen from below).

Thursday

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This is starting to feel like the journal of a foreign legion soldier in the Sahara. “The sun beat down upon me as I trudged along the path….” Yes, it’s still hot. Nonetheless, the show must go on. Ravenhill brought no less than seven members on the band for their performance on the Underground Stage and they pulled in the crowd with some tight jamming rock that reminded me just a little bit of The Black Keys with soul and rock.

Later in the afternoon we swung by the press tent to hear Jeff Elbel and Mike Roe talk about their experiences at Cornerstone and their future works. With the end fast approaching, people are trying to grapple with putting words to what it will mean to not come back here next year. It almost feels as if people are going to show up on this farm next year with their guitars whether or not there are any speakers, amps, stages, or chairs.

Closing out the afternoon on the Chelsea Gallery stage, The Wayside played their last show here. John and Michelle Thompson introduced new music from Michelle’s new ep and even brought their daughter up on stage to sing with them. If anyone is surely profoundly impacted by the end of Cornerstone, it’s the Thompsons as they shift to a new paradigm and platform to share their music, just as many artists here at the festival will have to do.

I passed by Da MAC doing hip-hop on the Underground Stage on my way to see Golden Sun on the Michigan Stage, but alas, no Golden Sun. Since I now had some open time I wandered over to the Arkansas Stage where Sean Michel was well under way. Michel’s delta blues were so effective that he conjured up the very humidity of the Delta and soon the grounds felt like a swamp. Drenched in sweat, I spent the rest of the early evening at the New Band Stage. The New Band Stage this year was hosted on the Impact Stage, a generator stage that was pretty professional. Two piece band The Bends played and were joined by the violinist from Doug Mains and the City Folk before they played their own show of laid-back music on violin, accordian, and cello.

Finally the sun went down and Icon for hire took over the Underground stage. The band has grown in leaps and bounds since their days on the generator stages years ago and it was clearly evident that they are well in swing of touring as they had the crowd eating out of their hands. Some trampolines, super soakers, and covering House of Pain’s “Jump Around” helps, too. I thought about walking over to the Gallery stage to catch the end of Iona’s show but at that point in the day I had used up all my energy for day. I’m sorry I didn’t as it turns out Iona stretched out their show since the following band Aradhna arrived late. For the last show of the evening, Squad Five-0 entertained the crowd at the Underground Stage as the lead singer crowd-surfed, sprayed water into the crowd and kept us entertained with jokes about my hometown Georgia.

Starting today, we start to get into the hometown stretch with some of my favorite bands, The Violet Burning and The Choir closing out the evenings. Up to this point, I don’t think the reality of the finality of the festival has set in on me yet but I expect it to start becoming something I will have to seriously contemplate soon.

Casual Diversity

One of the great things about Cornerstone, something that makes it so different from anything else I’ve experienced, is how effortlessly different styles (of music, of opinion, of people) mix together at the fest.  It’s easy to take that for granted after years of coming here.  Last night, I stood up from my chair outside a show and saw something a little unusual for everyday life, but somehow completely normal for this place.  Even so, upon reflection I was amused by how casually the words “there’s a guy juggling knives over there” rolled off my tongue.

At Glenn & Wendi Kaiser’s press conference, Cornerstone was described as “an experiment in Christian liberty.”  The fest has a very laissez-faire attitude toward most things, aside from a few basic rules pertaining to safety and respect for others, yet somehow thousands of people from myriad backgrounds manage to come together here every year and not only coexist but integrate into a cohesive body.  If you read through the Cornerstone Memories group on Facebook, one thing that quickly becomes apparent is everybody’s Cornerstone experience is different.  Everybody comes here for their own reasons, and moves within their own circles within the larger body, but those circles are constantly intersecting all over this place, and it’s a fantastic thing to watch.

You really see this in action at dance or hip hop shows here.  Da MAC played a set on the Underground Stage yesterday (backed up by indie rock band The Corners), and he had a substantial crowd standing elbow-to-elbow doing goofy dances and throwing their hands in the air.  It’s a little thing, but it’s still fantastic to see youth group kids, old guys, punks, hippies, and everybody else joining together in unity like that.

The atmosphere here just generally seems to make you want to be a better person. An older guy (with sprayed pink hair) trip and fall in a circle pit at Icon For Hire, and a younger guy in the pit stopped to give him some blocking and help him get back on his feet.  Little things like that are repeated a thousand times a day here – people just doing little kindnesses for other folks, despite the fact that we’re all hot and tired.  It can’t help but spill over into “real life,” and I’m really going to miss coming here every year for a refresher course in what “do unto others” is supposed to look like.

How’s the crowd?

I’ve heard that question from lots of people who aren’t able to be with us this week, so I wanted to attempt an answer. I don’t have any insider info on actual attendance, but the size of the crowd met my expectations and has been growing during the week. I’d venture a guess that it’s 20% smaller than last year.

The campgrounds are much less full than in years past, but the official stage tents are drawing good crowds during the day (despite the heat) and packing out at night. Night crowds at both the Gallery and the Underground filled the tent and spilled outside into the relatively more cool night breeze, with fans of Iona and Squad Five-O clearly being happy to see old favorites once again. Lines to get merch after bands like the 77s and Icon for Hire have often been long, with fans wanting to show appreciation for bands who’ve come a long ways to play for free. Attendance at the afternoon arts seminars has been strong, especially for Glenn Kaiser’s cigar-box guitars class.

Photo by Rudy Harris.

I haven’t made it to any of the morning seminars nor the Imaginarium yet, so I can’t say how those are. Some generator bands are drawing solid crowds (such as New Band Showcase acts like Carielle, The Bends, and Doug Mains & the City Folk or Sean Michel on the Arkansas Stage), though some others have the typically small crowds I’ve come to expect for bands nobody has really heard of and nobody knows what they sound like.

Overall, I think attendance is down (naturally) but there are still a lot of people here to give Cornerstone a nice send-off.

“The Thrift Store of Festivals”

This week, we’ve heard a lot of people talking about their first & favorite Cornerstone experiences. I’ve gotten up a lot more courage than usual to meet new people and ask them their Cornerstone stories. One guy talked about having been to tons of secular festivals in years past. He said the lifestyle he got into eventually led him to Jesus — and also to finding community at Cornerstone.

A father & daughter from my adopted home state of Texas eagerly talked about how many fests they’d been to (virtually every fest of the roughly 13-year-old’s life, and far more than that for the father), and dreamed aloud with me a bit about what might be next.

Band members from stage (including bands like Icon for Hire and The Blamed, doing a reunion show) shared their great enthusiasm for coming to the final Cornerstone. Bands like White Collar Sideshow (at their press conference) expressed how Cornerstone was the first place they really felt welcomed. Other people, in bands & not, wondered aloud what might come next. I think that’s been a question on all of our minds. It might start with “where will I discover new music” or “where will I still get to see my old favorite bands.” But, I think it quickly morphs into “where will I find this kind of community again” or “where will I find another place I belong.”

I recently heard Genesis Winter, one of the co-directors for this final Cornerstone Festival (who’s been to every fest), describe Cornerstone in a way that I think addresses those questions. She said Cornerstone was a bit like “The Thrift Store of Festivals.” Just to clarify: that is certainly not meant as a slam, such as that the fest gets other people’s leftovers (no — the opposite is true — Cornerstone had supported so many new endeavors). I think it’s meant to show that Cornerstone is a place where you find the unique, the different, and the special. No wonder that so many of us are asking where we’ll find another place like this again.

As the fest wraps up, I encourage you to strike up some conversations with those around you. Listen to their stories. Wander by a stage playing music that you’d normally label “totally not my style” and listen for the truth in it. Try to see what other people see. Take one last look around the thrift store shelves to discover what’s unique, different & special.