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Slow down as you approach the gate, and have your change ready....
JUNE 30 - TUESDAY
"What do you MEAN, camp 'wherever'?"
After driving more than 2500 miles from the West Coast over three days, the last thing my wife and I were prepared for was the casual, planned-but-unplanned "pitch your tent wherever" nature of Cornerstone 2009. After all, it was our first time, we're both slightly OCD and SERIOUSLY WHAT DO YOU MEAN CAMP WHEREVER?
Somehow, we found a spot where we felt comfortable pitching our tent in a sea of nylon and poles. In one word, our first Cornerstone was OVERWHELMING. We wandered the grounds, tried to make sense of our surroundings, caught snippets of sets here and there, met some people, and then went to bed.
Not very rock & roll, but our fried brains needed rest.
JULY 1 - WEDNESDAY
Wednesday started off meeting up with the crew representing Phantom Tollbooth at the Press Tent. The wife found her own entertainment at seminars and the merch tent while I listened to press conferences by Traa from P.O.D., The Letter Black, the delightfully in-costume zombie Christian punk group Grave Robber, those tight short wearing kids in Family Force 5 and Red. Then it was time for EPIC RUNNING FROM STAGE TO STAVE. At seven p.m., THE SHOWDOWN took to the HM Magazine stage and brought the HEAVY METAL. Awesome, awesome set that was - in a word - "tough." So tough that in the final song, the vocalist brought a shirtless, bleeding from the side fan up from the pit, headbanged with him, screamed out the chorus, then headlocked him and threw him back down. So metal. Immediately after Showdown, I started legging it towards main stage (which is close to a mile from the main festival area). Stopped and caught a couple songs of Grave Robber's "cover set" - they did a zombie punk rendition of "Love Hurts." Nice, but time was a-wasting. I met back up with the wife at our tent and we headed to our first main stage show, catching the final twenty minutes of Red. I've never been drawn to their music, but they put on a great live show with tons of energy and attitude. I'm a sucker for the "I-Grab-You-You-Scream-In-My-Face" routine, at any rate.
As the sun set, Family Force 5 took the stage... clad in silver high-tops, bare calves, tight (TIGHT) black shorts to the knee, mesh shirts, and gold football pads. I don't even know how to rightly describe FF5. It's like... Justin Timberlake meets Beck meets Marilyn Manson. They are incredibly tight; they have to be or their sound would quickly turn into a cacophony of irritation. FF5 is something unique in "Christian" music; fun party music. Now BACK to the main festival where Showbread was hitting the HM Magazine stage. Good set, energetic but seemed to be lacking a real audience connection. My unfamiliarity with their first two albums (I love Anorexia/Nervosa) probably contributed to that sensation.
With Showbread done, I hustled back to the main stage (another mile!) on increasingly protesting feet to meet back up with the wife and catch the end of Relient K. The group has come a long way since the deplorable "Marilyn Manson Ate My Girlfriend" tune, and that maturity showed through in their performance and the new songs they played. "I Don't Need a Soul" in particular was very good. Somewhere over the years, Matt Thiessen has escaped the trap of pop culture witticisms, becoming a tremendous author of melancholy pop. Playing "Sadie Hawkins Dance," however, shows they haven't lost their sense of fun. For the encore, Thiessen came out alone, sat at the piano, and began the epic, eleven-minute opus "Deathbed."
Then I laid on the grass by our tent with no shoes on, cooling my sore hobbit feet.
JULY 2 - THURSDAY
After spending the day swimming in the lake and making a trip into Macomb for supplies and an oil change, Thursday evening started off with Project 86 on the main stage. As per usual, frontman Andrew Schwab was "the show" while the band seemed content to rock out in the background. The pit went crazy during "Safe Haven," however, and came unglued for "Stein's Theme" and "The Spy Hunter." Wisely, Project only did a few new songs, since the album was not yet out (it released a week after Cornerstone). They sounded good live, especially the super-fast "Cold & Calculating." Great to hear tracks from ...And The Rest Will Follow ("OFF WITH YOUR HEADS!"), and "The Forces of Radio..." is AMAZING live. Had a good time, even if the crowd didn't quite seem to be there for all of it.
On the way back to festival main, we caught fifteen minutes of Children 18:3 at the Fat Calf Stage --- fun! Good punk rock with a wildcat of a female bass player nearly spilling off the stage. Changing gears completely, David Bazan (solo with just an acoustic guitar) opened up with, shockingly, a sad mid-tempo song, a concept Bazan even poked fun at: "I've been writing sad, mid-tempo songs for ten years now." Stopping regularly to take questions from the audience, Bazan displayed his sense of humour and the engaging conversational quality that makes him such a good storyteller. That Cornerstone would invite a man who currently identifies as agnostic (I hesitate to put any sort of 'label' on a man I do not know personally) speaks volumes of the grace and community the JPUSA have. Bazan's presence at Cornerstone was challenging, heartbreaking, and beautiful.
Killing time between Bazan and Stavesacre, I came across White Collar Sideshow.
I never got a chance to catch a full set, but the fifteen minutes I saw was mind-blowing. Percussive art rock set to visuals and sound effects, performed by a sinister ringmaster, a pig-man, a woman with a blank face, and a gas-mask wearing dude. It was spectacular. I was mesmerized for a good fifteen minutes as top hat bashed the hell out of what looked like a gothic wrought iron fence piece. They are on the list of bands to check out when I get home...
But it was nearly midnight, and Stavesacre was about to take the stage.
I could and will write hundreds of words about this one performance. The short version is:
The 2500 miles were worth it.
JULY 3 - FRIDAY
Another beautiful day at Cornerstone, warm (and humid), but not so hot as to drain all energy. Friday shaped up to be the most interesting and entertaining (for various reason) day at the Phantom Tollbooth press tent. Grandfather Rock interrogated "spirit-filled hardcore" (what.) group For Today, forcing them to give real answers to his questions rather than the cliché response of "Jesus." They responded well, although I can't imagine anybody in the band would sign up for a second round. Shiny Toy Guns engaged in some quality conversation during their press conference. Terry Taylor was next, accompanied by his son Andrew and percussion legend Steve Hindalong, followed by the entire Lost Dogs --- a press conference that pretty quickly deteriorated into a "roast" of Michael Roe. Oh, they did talk about their upcoming disc _Route 66_ between zingers. The Crucified finished off the 2009 Press Tent. The band explained what brought them back together and went into some detail on why the group broke up/never "made it." Mark Salomon even talked about the enigmatic Neon Horse!
After dinner and some relaxation, the wife and I headed to main stage for mewithoutYou. Wow! What a band! Aaron Weiss, shocking me by being completely clean-shaven, had the biggest smile on his face throughout the set, which consisted of many new songs from their latest disc and a mix of older material - all of which had the crowd singing along. The bearded drummer was crazy, the rest of the band looking happy and into what they were playing. It's hard to convey the specific qualities of a mewithoutYou set, but in many ways it reminded me of summer camp, singing simple worship songs around the fire (if those simple songs were musically rich and complex). To close off the set, they had an actual harpist perform during "In a Sweater Poorly Knit." Aaron Weiss was a curious, charming man, with the seeming energy of a five-year-old and a childlike wonder, coupled with a genuine seeming humility.
We headed to the gallery stage and caught the last few songs of Bill Malonee, another great singer-songwriter. Then it was time for the Lost Dogs, and I have to say I loved it. These men who've been around for so long, well before my time, core pieces of the "history of Christian rock," are simply GREAT musicians. It struck me that the Lost Dogs aren't just good Christian music, they were good music - I think they would hold their own against any great Americana rockers in music today. Which makes it a double shame that both the Christian and general market seem to have no idea they exist. I remember thinking, "my step-dad would love these guys." I like how the Dogs' faith comes out in their music, not as a statement or challenge, but naturally, as part of the narrative and storytelling, similar to Johnny Cash. During the set, we stepped out to the nearby Jesus Village and caught a couple songs from Allan Aguirre's new group, the worship-oriented Men as Trees Walking. Peaceful, percussive, eclectic praise. I wasn't entirely in the mood for that, though, and we went back to the Dogs.
Next up was Grave Robber! The band promised that THERE WOULD BE BLOOD for their Friday night set in the Underground tent and they delivered, soaking the crowd in icky red stuff. Not quite GWAR level, but these Misfits-inspired zombies brought the horror punk and the message of the "Re-animator." Blood and sweat weren't the only fluids dispersed in the tent either! Grave Robber challenged two tough fans to a "zombie bile chugging contest." I don't know what was more impressive, that the winner vomited three times, or that he kept chugging after each spew. Glorious.
Finally, we headed over to Encore 1 for another Salomon/Bellew midnight set... The Crucified tent was packed. Awesome Pantera/Slayer sound, the crowd going crazy, and like with Stavesacre the night before, the band members seemed to be having a lot of FUN, just enjoying being up on the stage playing songs. The drummer, Jim, was awesome - insane blast beats and SO FAST. As we headed back to our tent, a light rain was falling...
JULY 4 - SATURDAY
It rained on Saturday.
It rained ALL DAY.
To be perfectly honest, there weren't too many bands playing Saturday that I really wanted to see, so the wife and I spent the morning in the tent playing Scrabble and reading (I was going through the Lord of the Rings again). Also? We lost our camera. That was a downer.
There was good to the day, however. I'd heard about a Circle of Dust-inspired industrial metal act called Coriolis and had to check them out. Turns out they were great! A three-piece with guitar, drums, and keys (running loops), Coriolis were everything an old school Klay Scott and Trent Reznor fan could ask for. The show was "indie" in a sense, not as "polished" as many of the bands I'd checked out during the fest, but man. I had a giant grin plastered across my face the entire set. I made sure to pick up a CD and chatted with the band afterwards, possibly babbling in my excitement for their music.
A few hours later, I checked out another "back from the dead band" (seemed to be a recurring theme for the festival) - metalcore legends (and an influence on every single Solid State Record band EVER) LIVING SACRIFICE. Their set was moved to one of the big tents since Main Stage was totally rained out. The band was tight, heavy and heavier still, but I was just simply "metalled out" and left after five songs. With no other bands interesting us that evening and the weather sapping all our energy, we relaxed and went to sleep early. The next morning while driving through the gate we encountered a trio of punks asking for money - dude had lost his wallet and they had no money for gas to get home to Florida. We gave 'em 20 because seriously, it's CORNERSTONE FESTIVAL... I hope they got home safe and sound. If you're reading this guys, drop me a line! As for us, we were off to Chicago!
Between the epic road trip through mid-western America and the festival itself, Cornerstone 2009 was an adventure to be remembered. The relaxed, casual atmosphere made an event full of several thousand people feel like a giant community/church camp-out.
With 17 bands playing at any given time.
So not entirely like that.
Cornerstone came with an incredible sense of community. Christians from all walks of life mingled side by side, sharing sweat and song. I imagine there were also some non-christians at Cornerstone there for the bands. Christians of all different stripes, from conservative to liberal, Baptist to Orthodox, with beliefs varying from one extreme to the other. There were goths, scenesters, people who looked like my mom and dad, aging hippies, emo kids, punks. Perhaps in places these differences came to light in a negative manner, but everywhere I looked, people were engrossed in music, not caring what the person standing next to them in the crowd for whatever band thought.
Me personally, I felt like I belonged. I haven't felt like I "belonged" in a Christian setting for many years. Cornerstone seems... open. Artists like David Bazan, Los Lonely Boys and Shiny Toy Guns who otherwise have nothing to do with the "Christian music industry" contribute to this sense of openness. I do not mean that Cornerstone feels like a place that presents a Jesus who doesn't care about repentance or sin, but that Cornerstone feels like a place that accepts people where they're at.
I also found a spiritual "middle-ground" at Cornerstone. When I left, my mind, my soul, my heart felt affected, but not in an over-emotional fashion sure to pass when back in the "real world." If God worked in me through the community of his disciples at this hot, sticky festival at some former pig farm in south-western Illinois, He did so in a subtle, mature fashion. It's difficult for me to not be frustrated by much I see as "wrong" in American Evangelical Christianity. I left not just trying to be less condescending or angry, but actually being less condescending or angry. Again, I did not become a completely new person, I did not become a slobbering overwhelmed weeping mess of false sorrow. It's just living, and God is part of that.
The music was pretty damn great, too. For the past four years, I've been unable to muster up a great deal of passion for music, my own guitar playing and songwriting becoming a "once in a while" thing. It has only been recently that the idea of putting together a band and performing has not left me feeling completely exhausted. Cornerstone 2009 came at the right time ("Keep waiting, I'll be right on time") in my musical and emotional recovery. I loved every minute of it! Most importantly, I felt inspired to create. I feel comfortable now with my ambitions: I just want to have a band, gig locally, and finally record some of my songs. No pressure to try to "make it." It's a good feeling.
Lastly, for the first time I feel that I am "part" of something by writing for the Phantom Tollbooth. Linda, Shari, David and the other folks who came to Cornerstone made my wife and I feel incredibly welcomed.
Long story short, Cornerstone was fantastic.