Live music still surprises me

Like I’ve mentioned in past years, my friends & I spend the months leading up to the fest previewing every single band playing Cornerstone. I, personally, listened to way more than half of this year’s bands. I thought I knew what to expect. Even so, there are still moments when live music surprises me. I had two such moments on Wednesday:

Oh Sister, Oh Brother

With apologies to the band, I must admit that when I previewed them online, I honestly thought that the music just wasn’t quite working. I thought it was a little too simple and stripped down and that the vocals didn’t work. Maybe I was having a bad day, or maybe I just didn’t see the real beauty. But, I most certainly saw it yesterday afternoon a the Gallery. The lead singer’s vocals are ephemeral & beautiful, the band is tight, their melodies are strong (the overall effect is Eisley-ish, as a rough comparison). I actually found myself thinking that this is a band we’d see on the Gallery at night in a year or two, before remembering that’s not to be. The live show captured something special, making this a band I’ll definitely be seeking out again.

David Curtis

David Curtis (and band) earned several new fans yesterday by filling the Gallery with Jesus-focused, musically-vibrant, solid rock & roll. He started & closed with the crowd wanting to sing along to an old Gaither line (“Jesus, Jesus, Jesus… there’s just something about that name), which morphed into a style all his own. I think the EP I picked up from this side-project of the lead singer of Run Kid Run will easily fit into my favorite playlists. Don’t discount this as just some side-project; David’s worshipful lyrics and solid musicianship are worth seeking out in many different forms.

Do you remember moments when live music surprised you at Cornerstone?



This is probably the last 4th of July that I will spend in Illinois. I’ve missed grilling burgers and watching fireworks with my family, but instead I get to drive through Macomb with its hundreds of American flags and listen to music. I’ll think about all of those flags and fireworks over the lake next year when I celebrate 4th of July with my family.

The heat is still here but I’m not jumping from stage to stage today. Since I’ve more or less settled into the Chelsea Gallery stage, I’m not having hallucinations and such in the middle of the afternoon and that’s probably a good thing. The first band I see today is David Curtis doing a solo show apart from his band, Run Kid Run. It’s not just a solo person on a guitar though, he has a nice sounding band behind him and do es some really nice music putting the crowd in the mood for worship. Oh Sister, Oh Brother plays next and they sound even better than I remember when I saw them at Cornerstone a couple years ago. They now remind me a little bit of Eisley with some nicely-structured songs.

The next show in the afternoon is not a concert but a celebration. Resurrection Band celebrates their 40th birthday with an open mike where people could come forward tell stories about how the band impacted their lives. Each of the band members milled about the crowd as a giant cake was cut up for the crowd. The celebration was a nice way to tie a bow on this part of Cornerstone. I’ve seen Resurrection Band in bits and pieces over my years here and I couldn’t help but think it’s probably the last time I’ll see them.

On into the evening it’s time for fun again. The Hollands (no relation to yours truly) start their show off with a cover of Over The Rhine’s “Poughkeepsie” which naturally has me hooked but then move into some original songs and some gospel spirituals performed on mandolin, banjo, guitar, and accordion. During one song, the band threw shakers, tambourines, and other noise makers into the crowd so they could participate. Pretty sure that’s the first time I’ve ever been pelted by something while taking photos at a show.

Taking a little break from the Chelsea Gallery Stage, I walked over to the Underground Stage where Ilia was cranking out some pretty strong rock. These three ladies worked extra hard to deliver as much music as twice as many men. Run Kid Run was the highlight of the night on the Underground Stage for me. A decent-sized crowd showed up and the band played a fun set of music that was a little more pop than what’s normally on the Underground Stage, but nonetheless really enjoyable.

Jerry posted a nice review of the 77’s show that closed down the Chelsea Gallery Stage for the evening. There was definitely a feeling of “let’s do this just one last time” that I think will get stronger as the week goes along. As John J Thompson noted from the stage, just because this festival is ending doesn’t mean these bands won’t continue working. We’ll have to work harder than ever to keep track of these bands and discover new ones without Cornerstone.

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.”

The work of God around us

Cornerstone signHi, I’m Becky Laswell, and I love Cornerstone Festival.

And, I know I’m not the only one. Judging from the comment on Cornerstone’s official facebook page, the fan-created Cornerstone Memories Group, the fan-created Cornerstone Guide on Tumblr, the blogs, articles, tweets, and so much more that I’ve read since the announcement came out, I know there are tons of people who love this event, this place, and these people.

Many of these people were able to make one final trek to the cornfields near Bushnell this week. If you’re not able to be at Cornerstone Farm with us, I hope you find your own ways to celebrate and remember all that the festival has meant to you — and even more — all that God has done to impact generations of people through it.

Personally, my husband & I had the privilege of arriving early (before the gates opened) for a special event. Pulling up to the front gate on Sunday night, and bypassing the die-hards already in line to enter on Monday was an experience we’d never had before. Driving around a nearly empty (and still very pristine) Cornerstone Farm was also an experience we’d never had before. But, being greeted warmly by a friends, spending the evening listening to a very talented musician (in this case, Glenn Kaiser), and laughing a lot is an experience I’ve had many times on these grounds. And, that’s an experience I want to re-live as much as possible over the next few days.

During this particular special event on Sunday Night, Glenn Kaiser talked a bit while playing songs (including one on his home-made cigar box guitar), and a few things he said really struck me. I can’t remember his exact quotes, but he told a few stories of what Cornerstone has meant to others, with an attitude of being privileged to be part of what God has done, is doing, and will keep on doing through all that’s happened through 29 years of Cornerstone festival.

As I’ve read the memories posted online by so many who love Cornerstone, between the stories of favorite concerts, funny moments around campsites, and meeting “celebs” (if this industry really has any), there’s a grand theme of people encountering Jesus and also encountering a diverse but united community of people-who-love Jesus. That sort of work is something that doesn’t end just because the festival is ending. The work of God goes on.

And, that, too, is something I love.



Maybe I’m just in denial (I wonder if I will go through the other stages of grieving during the week, I’ll make sure to unleash anger at a hardcore show), but Cornerstone is off and running and it sort of feels like normal. There is a smaller crowd than normal, but many of the regulars are here. It’s funny how I see some of the same people year after year. I don’t know them very well but I can count on seeing wandering around the grounds almost as much a part of the festival as the tents. The tents are here too and if anything they look better than ever. The photographer in me loves the nice white tents. Maybe all of my concert photos this year won’t have that familiar red tint to them.

There aren’t as many bands that I want to see on Tuesday, most of the bands I want to see come later in the week. There are only two “official” stages, the Underground and the combined Chelsea and Gallery stage. Kiros starts off the day on the Underground stage and they are actually a lot of fun, much better than expected. Fun rock with a guitarist leaping across the stage, even hitting the light rack (oops). Little Brother has been forced to change their name so they are now Like Brothers. A little lighter but still a little bit of rock, they are pretty good also.

Triple Stitch started their show off with the doxology and then broke into some quality punk music. Loads of fun even in the heat. From there I walked over to the generator stages. The Generator stages this year are a little more “professional” and there are only about half of year’s present, but the do-it-yourself vibe is still there. Fight the Fade played some nice rock and we stayed to see She Said, but they never showed up. That’s generator stages for you.

The highlight of the afternoon shows so far was the return of Noah Reimer to the Gallery Stage. Some ten years ago he performed quite a few shows with his band Ticklepenny Corner. This year he was back with Duke Otherwise, his children’s band. His folk inspired fun songs about lions, monkeys, butterflies, and other animals had kids and their parents dancing, shouting, and having fun.

The late afternoon is for the generator stages for me today. We’re checking out a couple of bands and started with Carielle on the Michigan Stage and then Vice on Victory on the Impact Stage. The best band of the late afternoon for me was La De Les on the Gallery Stage. They were more of an abstract band, sort of like a more electronica Ester Drang for older Cornerstone days.

The heat has been unrelenting and I was swooning, so I laid low for a little while until the sun went down. I watch Ember Days, but I was still feeling pretty bad and then finally started to feel better during Good Luck Varsity. Of all the bands I saw on the first day, I think I enjoyed Good Luck Varsity the most. They were really active and were genuinely surprised when the crowd called them out for an encore. Rapper Da MAC joined them for their last song of the evening.

It doesn’t look like the heat is going away soon so hopefully we will acclimate to it. There’s only four days of Cornerstone left so fight through it!

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.

Cornerstone Festival 2012 Is Underway!

We’re here! Our car pulled into Illinois today, but Cornerstone Festival is already off and running. It’s going to be a hot one this year, so stay cool, drink lots of water, and pace yourself.

This is going to be an unusual Cornestone, what with the announcement that this is the last one. We’re going to have a lot of fun, but there will be a lot of memories, a lot of introspection, and hopefully some fond farewells. I’m looking forward to not only reporting about this year’s festival, but sharing some of my great memories from festivals past. Everyone I’ve talked to has so many stories and we’ll try to share some of them during the week.

It’s the last dance, so let’s make it a good one. Here we go with Cornerstone 2012


Identity of a Girl Rocker

The Coverage Team posted an interview,  Are you in a band? * Most of the “yes” responses came from guys. As I’ve noted on this blog before, it seems that rock & roll is a man’s world.

Female singers are never hard to find at Cornerstone. Visit the Gallery or sit at the Chelsea Cafe, and you’ll find some amazingly talented women like Timbre, Lauren Mann & the Fairly Odd Folk, Maron Gaffron, Brooke Waggoner, SHEL, etc. Finding girls in bands that totally rock your face off is less common. Yet, they’re here, too in acts like Quiet Science, Deas Vail, Don’t Wake Aislin, Adelaine, The Rendition, etc.

I talked to a bunch of the women in these bands last week. They readily admit that there are some things they love about being a girl in a rock band:

  • Able to connect with just about any other girl in any other band, regardless of style of music.
  • Easy opportunities to meet fans, who are often very friendly.
  • Connecting with female fans. So many girl rockers I talked to mentioned that ministering to other women made the hard work of being in a band worth it.
  • Using their gifts and talents to make others smile.

These women admitted some downsides too:

  • The smell of the guys in the van.
  • Fighting to be seen as a real person and not just a stereotype.
  • Occasionally having to clean up after the guys when on tour.
  • Having confidence that you belong on the stage, in what seems like a man’s world.
  • The confusion of relationships if you date someone in the band.

Many of these women talked about identity. They brought up how they struggle to know who they are in the spotlight vs. who they feel like the rest of the time. For girl-rockers wondering this, I want to share a bit of wisdom I heard from Sandie Brock, who just played her first show in 20 years with Servant (but who has never really stopped singing): When you’re in a band, that’s who you are, but when the band is done, you need to remember that the God who was at work in you is still at work in you.

I think that’s good advice for the rest of us who aren’t in a band, too. And, it’s a good reminder to pray for the women – and men – who make the music we love so much – pray for them to see God at work in them.

Rock on, girls!

*If they asked me for that video, I’d have to say “only on xBox.” My Rock Band group is called “The Rotary Cutters.”

Preaching Giant

I am not even slightly within the target demographic of the typical hardcore band. I fully admit that I usually just don’t get it, and my friends & I go to great lengths to figure out what bands playing Cornerstone fit this genre, so we can let others enjoy these shows without us being in the way (yeah, that’s the nice way of saying it…). Yet, Sleeping Giant is becoming a must-see show for me at Cornerstone. People who know me and who hear their intense music may find that shocking… until I explain why.

These guys consistently lead the audience into amazingly authentic and passionate worship of God. The music isn’t even remotely what you hear on Sunday mornings across America. The lyrics (after I put in earplugs and train my ears to decipher them) seem very solid and manage to rise far above the emotionally-driven or me-centered lyrics too often found in the modern worship scene.

Listen, and you may hear things like this:

You are worthy Oh Jesus you paid with your blood,
You redeemed us a people that live in the flood of your grace Lord.
Oh Praise Him. He is Holy. He Is Worthy.

(from “Oh Praise Him”)

Oh we exalt Your name Oh God
We exalt You now Lord
You will reign forevermore
Take my life and make it Yours
You will reign forevermore

(from “He Will Reign”)

I made my way to the Underground Stage on Sunday night after one of the videographers on the coverage team told me that Tommy Green of Sleeping Giant had just laid out a phenomenal testimony (read about his story here – the paragraph under the first bold title gives you the basics), then led the men in the audience in mass confession of ultra-personal sins (think pornography & the like) and the women to pray for their brothers in Christ.

So, instead of staying at Main Stage to see the worship set that was likely intended more for my demographic (Gungor), I put in my earplugs and stood in back at the Underground. The barn-like odor became the last thing on my mind as I joined the sweaty crowds lifting our hands and singing “You are holy… You are holy…” I was physically exhausted, and couldn’t stand for the whole show, but I stayed long enough to encounter God breaking through to people who need Him (the band even baptized a few people during the show!) and being praised passionately by people who love Him. Once again, as with the 2 Sleeping Giant shows I’ve visited previously at Cornerstone, I was reminded that God is a whole lot bigger than a particular genre of music. And, I realized again that we humans are a whole lot more alike than our music, fashion, and tattoo choices may imply.

I’m glad that Sleeping Giant and Cornerstone exist to introduce me (again & again) to people authentically worshiping the one true God.

As often happens at Cornerstone, I not only saw a great rock show, but I got a new view of hope. Thanks.


(BTW, thanks to Megan Sontag, fest-photographer, for a) liking other people despite the fact that we don’t love the same music, and b) inspiring me to go to my first Sleeping Giant show a few years ago. The band photo included here is one she took for the Cornerstone coverage site.)

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.