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.

Do It For Love

All the bands that are playing Cornerstone this year are doing so for free (or even paying to play on a generator stage).  That’s pretty amazing, especially in the current economy – these bands, many of which struggle to make food and gas money in the best of times, are donating their time and talents to come way the heck out into rural Illinois to pay their respects and play on the farm one last time.

Temperatures are expected to reach triple digits today – the weather in the Midwest is brutal right now.  And yet thousands of gloriously peculiar people have willingly converged on this dusty, sun-baked plot of land, in defiance of all logic, to spend a week huddling together under a few scattered islands of shade listening to everything from bluegrass to hardcore.

JPUSA, the Chicago-based organization who have put on Cornerstone for the past 28 years, don’t make a lot of money from the fest.  Some years, they don’t make any at all, and finances reached a breaking point this year, to the extent where JPUSA had to decide between continuing to do this fantastic festival every year and using the resources for the homeless shelter they operate.  To the eternal gratitude of all of us who love this place, and in defiance of all common sense, they did decide to put on one final Cornerstone to give us all, bands and fans, a chance to say goodbye.

The 77s played the first Cornerstone and many others besides, so it was fitting for them to spend an evening at the final fest revisiting their history.  The band, mostly down to Mike Roe and an occasional assortment of friends and guests (including some drum tracks on an iPod), is in some ways symbolic of the festival itself – somewhat diminished in its later years, but still beloved by those who have been lucky enough to experience it.

For most of their two hour set, Mike and guitarist David Leonhardt played as a duo (with occasional help from the aforementioned tracks), focusing primarily on songs from Sticks and Stones, a disc of b-sides and rarities from the late 80s that has become many fans’ favorite release from the band.  Roe’s vocals sounded great on favorites like “This Is the Way Love Is,” “God Sends Quails,” “MT,” and “Don’t, This Way,” and his guitar playing was a joy to watch.

Mike Roe of the 77s

For the encore, Roe and Leonhardt were joined by Jeff Elbel (bass) and Dave Dampier (percussion) of Ping to fill out their sound for the grand finale.  They got the over-40, after-1 AM crowd going as they ripped through “Dave’s Blues,” “UUUU,” “Ba Ba Ba Ba,” and “Nowhere Else” (with a great backstory introduction from Roe to explain why he needed the crowd to help out with the “hey na na” part).

To top it all off, after some encouragement from MC John Thompson, the rabid crowd, and even Elbel, the band came back out for a second encore to send us all off into the mercifully cool morning with a song on our lips.  The song they played was one of their best, one that inspired some legendary Cornerstone moments, and one that sums up why all these bands came out to play for free, why all these fans are here suffering in the heat to watch them, and why JPUSA decided to put on this year’s fest at all: “Do It For Love.”

Bittersweet (and hot!)

Well, the day we’ve been both looking forward to and dreading has arrived – the final Cornerstone is underway.  The happiness and joy of making the annual pilgrimage to Illinois is tempered by the knowledge that next year, for the first time in decades for a lot of folks, we don’t know exactly what we’ll be doing around the Fourth of July.

Still, JPUSA have done a great job with a bad situation, and this year’s Cornerstone still feels vibrant and alive.  There aren’t as many stages, but there are still tons of bands across innumerable musical styles, and plenty of people there to watch them play.

The weather is also getting in a few final shots at fest-goers.  After being spoiled by beautiful weather and cool temps for a few years, we’re enduring temperatures near 100 and some stifling humidity this year.  For the first time in my 15 year fest history, I had to go sit in the car to get some A/C yesterday afternoon.  But I’m not going to admit defeat – I’ll be back out there again, trying to drink water faster than I can sweat it out, in a couple of hours.

It seems like a year to take care of some minor unfinished business around the fest for me. Yesterday, I made time to listen to some bands that have been playing the fest forever but that I’d never seen – Glen Clark and the Family, Aracely, and The Illalogical Spoon – and had my first lemon shake-up.  Good stuff.

One of the best bands of the day was Duke Otherwise, some folks from the band Ticklepenny Corner doing some really cute, creative kids’ music that an audience of adults  nonetheless really enjoyed.

Good Luck Varsity

Another favorite was Good Luck Varsity, from Detroit.  The band overcame some struggles with mics and monitors at the Underground Stage to deliver a passionate, high-energy set.  The band seemed really excited to be playing Cornerstone, and the crowd really responded, demanding an actual, spontaneous encore.  The band obliged, figuring out one more song to play and pulling their friend, rapper Da MAC, out of the crowd to play with them.  Lots of fun to close out a good first day of the fest.

Anberlin FTW

Anberlin closed out Saturday night on Main Stage this year, and delivered one of the most face-rocking shows of 2011.  Things got off to a bit of a rough start, with MC John J. Thompson introducing the band, who then failed to materialize.  (Apparently Stephen was still back on the bus brushing his teeth – I applaud his oral hygiene, if not his punctuality.)  But once the band took they stage, they unleashed a torrent of energy that had the crowd on its feet (and occasionally off the ground) and fists in the air.

The set kicked off with a fist-pumping rendition of “Godspeed,” and for the next hour, the band roared through a range of songs from throughout their career.  Debut album Blueprints for the Black Market was represented by “Readyfuels,” and a pair of songs were drawn from Never Take Friendship Personal (“Paperthin Hymn” and the title track).  Cities was probably a little underrepresented with the aforementioned “Godspeed” and “Dismantle. Repair.”, which was as epic as ever – the dynamics of that song, from the gentle intro to the soaring chorus, with a gorgeous breakdown in the middle, are amazing.  New Surrender provided the newer version of “Feel Good Drag,” probably the band’s biggest single, as well as encore selection ”The Resistance,” the Anberlin song most likely to actually incite the riot referenced in the lyrics.

The bulk of the set was drawn from new album Dark Is The Way, Light Is A Place, including “We Owe This To Ourselves,” “Closer,” and single “Impossible.”  A great melody, awesome guitar riff, and those killer arena rock “whoa-ohs” have brought “Impossible” into my personal all-time favorites list with a bullet.  “Pray Tell” brought members of Fallstar to the stage to help out on the driving drum part that anchors the song.  “Art of War” and “Take Me As You Found Me” were the only downtempo songs of the evening, offering the band a chance to catch their breath before getting back to the rock.

Perhaps the only misstep of the evening was a cover of Depeche Mode’s “Enjoy The Silence,” which didn’t translate particularly well to Anberlin’s style (unlike New Order’s “True Faith,” which was fantastic during their set a couple of years ago) and may have sailed over the heads of some of the younger fans in the audience.  But as an older fan of the band, I really appreciate the way they blend elements of 80s arena rock shows with a modern rock sensibility; seeing the band pay homage to their influences is still very cool.

To sum up, Anberlin totally killed it on Main Stage, with one of the highlights of the festival.  Hopefully some other bands were there to take notes on how you can rock hard and still play melodic songs with impressive technical skill.  Anberlin FTW.

This Is Not The End

Well, another Cornerstone, the 28th edition, is in the books.  I’ve now officially been to exactly half of all of the Cornerstones there have ever been, which boggles my mind.  This year flew by – honestly, it’s all just a blur of music, friends, and fun, and it’s going to take a while to decompress all of it.  A full day’s drive home will be a good place to start with that.

There was a lot of talk around the grounds this year about the future of Cornerstone – if there will be one, where it will be, what it will look like, etc.  I talked to some folks with the festival who would have the best information of anyone, and the bottom line is this: yes, times are hard and Cornerstone has been impacted just like most everything else.  There is some uncertainty about what Cornerstone will look like next year.  But nothing has been decided, and nobody knows for sure what the answer is going to be.  The one thing that we can know for sure is that if God wants there to be a Cornerstone next year, He will provide, and nothing on earth can stop it from happening.  But if you have any ideas, suggestions, thoughts, or comments, please let somebody know – e-mail John Herrin, the festival director, post them on Facebook, or leave them as a blog comment.  Somebody will make sure that they make it into the right hands.

The dorm room is packed, and the road home awaits, but the festival coverage will continue.  We’re all taking a little bit of Cornerstone home with us, in our lungs if nothing else.  Some blogs about the last couple of days along with some closing thoughts will show up once we all get home, and there are a ton of photos and cool videos on the way from the coverage team, so keep checking the festival home page and all the other usual outlets.

Safe travels, everybody.  Until I hear otherwise, I’ll see you again next year on a farm in Illinois!

Right Here, Right Now

A few stray thoughts as I sit outside the web trailer listening to Blindside on this lovely, cool Saturday evening…

I mentioned some of the problems yesterday, but I didn’t mention one of the awesome things from yesterday.  It’s not strictly Cornerstone related,  but it’s close enough.  Back in the day, there was a food vendor at the fest called the Bushnell Locker that sold the best ribeye and porkchop sandwiches of all time.  They were so awesome that my friends and I gave them a special name:  sammich.  Artists and fans alike loved the place and sometimes bonded with each other in line over just how great it was.  But a few years ago, they stopped coming to the fest, and many hearts were broken.  But I recently got some fantastic news – every Friday, the locker sells sandwiches in front of their butcher shop right up the road in Bushnell.  My friends and I stopped in on the way to the fest and and two sammiches each.  It was as good as I remembered, and all was right with the world again.

Main Stage has a pretty good lineup tonight.  Seabird (who are working on a new album) kicked things off with a 45 minute set of melodic, piano-driven rock.  Blindside, who last played the fest in 2004, are blasting through an enjoyably heavy show right now.  Even the folks in the back in golf carts are enjoying it enough to stay.  And coming up in half an hour or so, Anberlin takes the stage.  They’re one of my current favorite bands, and I’m totally pumped for the show. They’ve been one of the most consistently solid melodic rock bands around for the last few years, both live and in the studio.  It’s hard to top Cities, but their latest album, Dark Is The Way, Light Is A Place, gives it a run for its money, and “Impossible” quickly shot into my top 10 favorite songs of all time.

Things have indeed gone better today than yesterday.  No power outages, the rain that was forecast seems to have decided not to show, and the heat has finally broken a bit.  No matter how hot and miserable the days get here on the grounds, there’s just nothing better than when the sun finally sets and a cool breeze starts to blow.  Many of my enduring memories of the last 14 years involve sitting around somewhere close to where I’m at now (formerly near the Gallery, now the back of the Main Stage area) hanging out with friends that I usually only see here, at this time of year.  Lots of things have changed in those 14 years, but one thing remains the same: right here is one of my favorite places on earth.

If you’re reading this and you’re not (or weren’t) at the fest, I can sincerely say that I wish you were here so you could experience a night like this, right here, right now.

The Changing of the Guard

Deas Vail closed out Friday night at the Gallery, and it seemed a little like a passing-of-the-torch moment.  The late night slot on the Gallery has traditionally been filled with “old guard” Cornerstone bands like the Lost Dogs, Over the Rhine, and the Choir, but tonight an up-and-coming band got that coveted slot, following the Lost Dogs.  I’m closer to the core Lost Dogs demographic than the core Deas Vail demographic but I’m a fan of both bands, so it was kind of funny watching the older Lost Dogs crowd vacate the tent to be replaced with the younger Deas Vail crowd between sets.  I’m closer to the core Lost Dogs demographic than the core Deas Vail demographic.  It’s clear to me that the older folks don’t know what they’re missing.

Cornerstone has watched Deas Vail grow up as a band over the last 3 or 4 years, as they moved from a midday slot to a packed evening slot to a daytime Main Stage slot, and finally to a headlining slot on the Gallery.  Their songs and performances have gotten better each year, and that trend continued last night as they debuted a ton of new material from a new album coming in September.  As hard as it is to believe, it sounds like their sound has gotten even more expansive on the new material, and I can’t wait to hear the album.  They took full advantage of the Gallery’s excellent PA, filling the (finally) cool night air with beautiful melodies and harmonies.  They’re just a joy to listen to, and the energy and fun that they display while they’re playing is infectious.  The next generation is in good hands.

Good Times, Bad Times

If you look around the coverage here on the Cornerstone site, I think we’ve pretty well established that Cornerstone is awesome.  But when you’ve got this many moving parts (hundreds of bands coming and going, thousands of people spending the day out on a ridiculously hot farm), it’s inevitable that things are going to go wrong.  Yesterday was a good example.

Quiet Science, a band that first came onto my radar a couple of years ago at the fest, was setting up to play on the Anchor Stage.  They’d been promoting the set hard all week, walking around in the 95 degree heat in masks and long, red robes with a big sign, and putting up a ton of nice posters advertising the show.  A nice crowd was gathering for the set, but about 10 minutes before they were about to start, another power outage hit.  The power was out for over two hours this time, eventually forcing them to reschedule, and kind of wiping out all the hard work they put in during the week.  I wasn’t able to see the rescheduled show, but hopefully word got out and they still had a good crowd.

The power outage also impacted the Gallery stage, but a bit of ingenuity saved the day.  Kerosene Halo, a collaboration between Mike Roe and Derri Daugherty of the Lost Dogs, was scheduled to play.  Luckily, the owner of an RV parked near the stage offered up some power to set up a minimal PA for the stage, enough to support a minimal show.  Their set, consisting mostly of songs written by other people (including Steve Hindalong of the Choir, Terry Taylor of Daniel Amos, and Christian rock pioneer Larry Norman) performed acoustically, was a perfect fit for the makeshift sound system and was a soothing sound on a hot afternoon.  Thank goodness for long extension cords.

Even an established band like the Lost Dogs weren’t exempt from problems.  “Lead dog” (to the extent that there’s a leader of the band) Terry Taylor had to leave the fest early, leaving the band a man down.  Luckily, Paul Averitt, currently playing bass on tour for Daniel Amos, was able to step in to sing Terry’s parts.  He did a nice job, and even put on a credible impersonation of Terry’s voice.  The set was focused on the more serious side of the band’s catalog rather than their tongue-in-cheek material.  I assume Averitt had to learn his parts in a hurry, and they quickly ran through all the material that he knew, so they covered Dylan’s “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” for their encore.  The Lost Dogs probably get overlooked a little because they’ve been around, steadily releasing new material, for so long, but they’re still worth a listen.

It’s not uncommon to hear of bands enduring hardship on the road to Cornerstone – long, late night drives, flat tires, van breakdowns, and so forth.  Yesterday I talked to a band called Someone Like Tommy that actually made it to the fest before their problems started.  They drove up from Florida for their first Cornerstone to play some generator stage slots, only to find out when they arrived that the stage they were supposed to play had some issues and had to shut down, leaving them with no place to play.  When I talked to them, they were going around trying to secure an open slot somewhere so their trip wasn’t a total loss.  They describe themselves as a folk/bluegrass band that likes bands like Fleet Foxes, Mumford and Sons, and The Civil Wars, so if that sounds like your thing, go check them out.

Blackout!

OK, first things first.  It’s hot.  Like, circus hot.  Having daytime shows out in the open at Main Stage really hammers the point home, and today’s going to be worse, so remember to get out of the sun when you can, and drink more water than you think you need.  Cornerstone’s no fun if you’re passed out in the first aid trailer.

Day 2 of the festival, the first “official” day with all of the stages fully up and running, was eventful.  An hour-long power outage took down just about everything on the grounds (and, from what I hear, some stuff out in Bushnell, as well) except for the generator stages and Main Stage (which also runs off of some industrial strength generators).  That ensured that the schedules were in complete disarray on most of the stages.  Some artists soldiered on, like Mike Roe playing his set unplugged (literally).  Others, like Vinacious (whose sound is mostly keyboards and electric guitar), just had to call it a day when the power went out.  Even the giant inflatable water slide went flat.  But everybody took it in stride, the generator stages got a good boost, and eventually things got back to normal (or as close as it gets out here).

The big event for the day was the Jesus Rally on Main Stage, with a full day of classic Christian Rock pioneers (some of whom hadn’t played a show together in 20 years or more).  It, too, was on “Cornerstone Time,” running about an hour late all day due to some late arrivals and extra-long sound checks.  The older folks were out in force, braving the heat to see the bands of their youth, and there were a lot of younger fans there too, which was nice to see.  I fall somewhere in the middle of those two extremes, so for me, it was a mix of artists that I’m a big fan of but have rarely seen (Resurrection Band, Petra with Greg Volz, Daniel Amos) and artists that I’m aware of but had never really listened to (Barry McGuire, Phil Keaggy, Servant, and others).

Barry McGuire was my favorite out of the artists that I wasn’t that familiar with.  He was obviously enjoying himself, and his enthusiasm was infectious as he told the stories behind songs like “Bullfrogs and Butterflies” and “Eve of Destruction,” led the crowd in sing-alongs, and shared his testimony (which involved marijuana, the Mamas and the Papas, and Good News for Modern Man).  And I’m pretty sure he’ll win the award for the most unexpected cover of the week with his version of Madonna’s “Frozen.”

Daniel Amos, who have actually been out on the road for the last few weeks on their first tour in a decade or so, played a fun, tight, hit-laden 45 minute set that spanned their career, from the first song they ever recorded (“Ain’t Gonna Fight It”), to the last song on their latest album (“And So It Goes”).  In between, they hit a lot of favorites, like “Mall (All Over the World),” “Walls of Doubt,” “Sanctuary,” and “I Love You #19.”  It was fantastic seeing Terry, Jerry, Greg, and Ed playing together again, and bassist Tim Chandler (who couldn’t join the tour due to other commitments) was missed, but touring bassist Paul Averitt was incredibly fun to watch.  He played with authority, sang most of the background parts, and stomped around the stage like he was playing with Anberlin instead of DA.  My only complaint is that there wasn’t more of the set to love.

As John Thompson pointed out in his introduction, without Resurrection Band, there wouldn’t be a Cornerstone Wendi and Glenn Kaiser of Resurrection BandFestival.  Glenn and Wendi Kaiser and their cohorts were one of the first Christian hard rock bands, tackling issues in their lyrics that a lot of other bands wouldn’t touch.  The music and the message both still resonate today.  The band sounded great, and played with a lot of fire.  Wendi, in particular, gave it everything she had – at rehearsal the day before, she was using a cane to move around the stage, but during the Main Stage set, she had the crew bring her a wireless microphone so she could get out on the catwalk to speak and sing and get closer to the fans.  I’m thankful for every opportunity I get to see REZ play a show.

I literally ran from the Resurrection Band set to the Gallery to see Paper Route, who delivered my favorite set of last year’s festival.  After the departure of one member, they added a couple more, so they’re playing as a six-piece now.  Lead singer J.T. spoke about how hard the last year had been for him, and his gratitude for the support of the fans who packed the front of the stage was evident.  The set drew primarily from Absence, along with a sneak peek at a song from their forthcoming album.  The set was great, and I can’t wait to hear the new album.

Back at Main Stage, a reunited “classic” Petra lineup (singer Greg Volz, drummer Louie Weaver, bassist Mark Kelley, keyboardist John Lawry, and guitar stalwart Bob Hartman) closed out the Jesus Rally.  If I’m honest, things didn’t go too well for them – Greg stumbled on a few lyrics, and not even Guitar Hero “Star Power” could keep them from failing out after they started “Clean” in about 3 different keys and had to have a band huddle to sort things out.  But I was a teenage Petra fanboy who never got to see the band with Volz, even though I always liked that era of the band the best, so even though the performance wasn’t great, it was still fun to have the chance (which I never thought I’d have) to sing along with the band on songs like “Bema Seat,” “Angel of Light,” “It Is Finished,” and “All Over Me.”  I wish they’d been a little tighter, but it was still really cool to see them play.

So I made it through the day without bursting into flames, I saw some of my favorite bands from back in the day, and I saw one of my favorite current bands.  That’s a win all around.

Things Are Heating Up

Dude crashed on the ground at the first band of the day.Admit it – we’ve all felt like the guy in the picture from time to time at Cornerstone.  Although not usually at the first band on the first day of the fest – dude, you’ve got to pace yourself!  It’s amazing to see what people (including myself) can manage to sleep through.  Brain-thumping dance music?  Check.  Two hardcore bands at the same time?  No problem.  I once saw a guy sleeping on the ground in the crowd outside a Flatfoot 56 show.  Everybody deftly avoided him, somehow – I almost felt like I should go kick him in the head (lovingly) just to get the inevitable over with.  Anyway, remember – Cornerstone is a marathon, not a sprint.

(Seriously, though, if the forecast that I’ve been seeing holds, it’s going to be hotter for the next couple of days than it’s been for several years at the fest, with a heat index of 110 on Saturday.  Wear sunscreen, get into some shade when you can, and drink more water than you think you need – if you’re not visiting the Little Blue Room a few times a day, you’re probably not drinking enough.  Take care of each other!)

“Day 0” of the festival is in the books.  I spent a lot of time catching up with friends (including some folks I wasn’t expecting to see, like Mark from Scotland, who came all the way from, well, Scotland for his second Cornerstone in a row).  Musically, the day was heavy on bands playing the generator stages, along with some unexpected surprises.  Some bands worth mentioning:

  • Tim Serdynski – Some nice acoustic music to kick off Cornerstone 2011.  Very pleasant stuff – if you’re looking for something to chill out to, he’s playing a ton of generator sets through the week.  There’s a trio playing similarly acoustic-driven worship music that usually plays before or after him (sorry, I didn’t catch the name) that’s also worth a listen.
  • Belair, Stone Throw Second, and Adelaine – Honestly, there’s a bit of a dearth of melodic but rocking bands at the festival this year if you’re not into the screaming.  Anberlin on Main Stage is going to be great, but a lot of other bands in that vein either aren’t here this year or have broken up.  All of these new-to-me bands filled that niche admirably, though.  They’re all playing several more generator sets this week, so if non-screamy melodic rock is your thing, check them out.
  • Rodent Emporium – OK, so the music (bizarre and occasionally indescribable Scottish punk) isn’t necessarily my thing, but this is still a must-see band.  They’re outrageously fun.  Just watching the crowd dance and enjoy themselves with reckless abandon is totally worth it.
  • Resurrection Band – So the on-again, off-again “open rehearsal” by Daniel Amos on the Gallery last night fell through (there are still rumblings of efforts to secure them another slot besides their all-too-brief Main Stage slot today, so keep your ear to the ground), but that meant we got an extra-long rehearsal set from REZ.  I admit that I’m a total fanboy for REZ – I only ever saw them once during their heyday, back in 1991, so every chance to see them is exciting.  Wendi, Glenn, and crew are parents and grandparents at this point, but they can still kick some butt when given the chance.

Today gives us some new bands worth checking out (Dead American Radio, Milano), some legendary artists that laid the foundation for literally all of the music that we’re listening to this week (Stonehill, Keaggy, DA, REZ, Petra), an agonizing choice (Paper Route versus Keaggy and Petra), and a Flatfoot 56 people-watching extravaganza to top it all off.  Should be great!