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.
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.”