Festivals, Music
May 31, 2012

SUMMER CAMP KICKS OFF FESTIVAL SEASON

PPLA attended the first music festival of the summer season, Summer Camp, which kicks off over Memorial Day weekend and is three days of music mayhem and pure fun. Here’s our little note home to Mom & Dad!

Friday

We arrived Friday afternoon and the party was already deep into the second day. Casualties were strewn about the grounds: some still sleeping off the 4 a.m. dance party, some trying to fall back asleep to avoid the blistering heat, and others not sure what state of consciousness they were in, but desperate to get their hands on something to further confuse the situation.

Every year, over the holiday weekend, millions of people take over Three Sisters Park, a small pocket of woods amidst the soy fields of Chillicothe, Illinois. Hippies and hipsters, neo-beats and burners and all manner of dancers and trippers descend on the festival thrown by Jay Goldberg and Jam productions.

Twelve years ago the festival started primarily as an event to showcase the band moe., although over the years it has grown to three large outdoor stages, the largest of which host five sets of Chicago jammers Umphrey’s McGee over the course of the weekend. In addition to the stages, there is also the Vibe tent, where dubsteppers can grind their teeth away pounding the dirt all hours of the day and night. It is impossible to see every act over the weekend – the stages are too far apart and the schedule overlaps – but I did my best.

Friday afternoon I skipped moe.’s first set. They have mastered the art of aimless noodling, and muddy jams that you wish would end sooner than they do. I have seen them more times than I would care to remember in the past, and they had four more sets ahead so I was sure to see at least one.

Keller Williams and his one-man show are always entertaining, if you have never seen his show you should. He is an incredible picker, and extremely talented at sampling and looping his various instruments live. I ran from Williams to catch the end of the Leftover Salmon’s set. The first time I saw Salmon was at Summercamp in 2004, playing a late night show in the Barn. I remember standing outside the door because I didn’t have a ticket, (tickets to the late night barn shows are sold separately in limited quantity, scarce and coveted at the fest). They are just as memorizing now as they were then, and the world is a better place now that they are touring again – Vince Harmon (guitar) and Drew Emmitt (mandolin) are an unmatched in their picking ferocity.

The next act on my hit list was the Weir, Robinson, Greene Acoustic trio. Jackie Greene is amazing but Bob Weir has gotten old. After their set, and getting Greene to pose with me for a guilty fan pic, I ran back to the Moonshine stage as quickly as I could to catch most of Cornmeal’s set. (The stages are named “Moonshine”, “Sunshine”, and “Starshine”… sometimes hippies aren’t as creative as they would have you think.) Cornmeal is phenomenal. Even if you don’t like bluegrass, you will most likely be musically aroused by Allie Kral’s fiddle. The sun started to dip behind the trees but it seemed to keep getting hotter as the set progressed and the crowd danced faster and harder; I dancing with them. After the set there was a rumor floating around the Cornstalkers, the band’s official fanclub, that some of the members were going to leave the band. I hope it isn’t true. The night went on in a blur: the first two Umphrey’s sets – Les Claypool and Primus playing as well as they ever do, but no better; Lotus fueling the dancing into the night as I drifted back to my tent.

Saturday

Saturday, I awoke on the surface of the sun. Soaking wet, swimming in my sleeping bag, not knowing where my skin ended and the soggy nylon began, sweat stinging my eyes – I finally clawed my way out of the tent and instinctively crawled across the ground for the nearest patch of shade. Panting, I collected myself and my thoughts. Remembering where I was, I asked the nearest passerby if they had the time. It was only 10 a.m., and already it had to be 90 degrees.

Of all the years I have been to Summercamp, it has always rained.  Every year I had wished for dryness to avoid the mud – giant swaths of mud that would cover the grounds after the drenching Midwest rains, stealing shoes and boots from passersby, never to be seen again. Now, scanning the clear blue sky, I desperately hoped for rain. I trudged off to break my fast with a five dollar breakfast burrito, and then decided to wander backstage to see if there was anyone interesting loitering around to interview.

There wasn’t, everyone was obviously seeking shelter from the blistering heat, and I dozed off waiting in the cool shade of the hospitality tent. I awoke in time to make it to Family Groove Company, and then Rebelution, and then ALO. None of the sets memorable; it’s a tough gig playing the early shows in the scorching sun.

Common put on the first memorable show of the day. He’s a powerful performer who owns the stage. I was less impressed by G. Love. What was impressive was Gigantic Underground Conspiracy: a super group made up of Big Gigantic and a couple members of the Disco Biscuits. They play a blend of rock/funk/electronica, and it’s hot, definitely worth the price of admission if they make an appearance near you. After that I caught a little of Gov’t Mule, and Warren Haynes did not fail to get my blood flowing. Warren’s mastery of the blues guitar stirs the soul of any music lover. Then back to Sunshine for two sets of Umphrey’s.

There are many things I love about Umphrey’s, most notably Jake Cinniger’s guitar riffs and Ryan Stasik’s bass thunder (and epic mustache.) I used to think that Brendan Bayliss was pretty terrible, but my opinion has changed. His voice has dramatically improved over the years and now his vocals do his poetic and thoughtful lyrics the musical justice they deserve.

However, Umphrey’s McGee unquestionably has one superlative on absolute lockdown: Best Cover Band Ever. Absolutely pitch-perfect when they bust out a classic rock cover, this night they did not disappoint. Their rendition of Rush’s Tom Sawyer was totally amazing. The two sets of UM Saturday night were the highlight of the festival weekend. After Umphreys I wandered back to Moonshine where moe.’s set was in progress. Maybe I was still riding the UM wave, maybe it was moe.’s lasers… maybe it was just something in the air, but moe.’s set wasn’t completely terrible. Tent – sleep – dream.
Sunday

Sunday I woke just as hot, but not covered in sweat because I had learned my lesson and not used the sleeping bag. I climbed out of my tent, and into the dust bowl; one of the effects of thousands of people trampling a field with no rain in extreme heat over the course of a weekend is that the dirt turns to dust, which continues to turn into a finer and finer powder until it hangs in a choking cloud. I tied my bandana over my mouth as a respirator and wandered out into the woods to examine the world of the woods.

Soon into my journey, I was surrounded by trash knee deep in some places: empty cans and bottles and cartons, expired glow sticks, discarded clothing, the arms of a mannequin, a broken wheel from a wagon, sheets of plywood spray painted with unfinished graffiti. Echoes of erratic laughter and deranged conversations came from all directions. I wondered: if the world ended, and men and women were left to rebuild society from scratch, is this what we would end up with? An amphetamine fueled cookout/slumber party that had gone on for too long, where men were searching the ground for unbroken cigarettes to barter with? What would aliens think of this if they heard the music and decided to land here and investigate: would they turn around and go home, or would they eradicate us all to prevent us from spreading out into the galaxy? Music from the Moonshine stage broke my contemplative trance, and left my questions in the woods.

I loved Greensky Bluegrass, I never like Yonder Mountain String Band, (something about Jeff Austin just rubs me the wrong way,) and Tedeschi Trucks set was pure bliss. Susan Tedeschi is totally hot. She has a golden voice, she plays the guitar, and she does it in high heels. Derek Trucks is great with that slide guitar of his too. I went over and checked out Shpongle. I don’t really get the draw of a DJ surrounded by a giant light show set piece, but kids are drawn to both Shpongle and Pretty Lights in large numbers.

Finally, for the finale of the weekend, Jane’s Addiction. It wasn’t like anything I’d ever seen before at Summercamp: it was dark, and scary, and there were practically naked chicks on swings, and leather pants and shirtless dudes and tattoos. Perry Farrell is an absolute raving maniac, he got hit in the head with a glow stick and went on a ten minute tirade about how day-glow sticks reminded him of the thermometer his mom used to insert rectally when he was a kid. He also spoke about how he was going to jump into the crowd and choke to death the next punk kid that threw one, and he screamed his heart out on every note of every word of the lyrics. Dave Navarro is also a complete madman, playing furiously fast hellacious licks on his PRS until everyone’s eardrums were bleeding. In short, it was totally awesome, just like Summercamp. The perfect mind-bending, earsplitting end to the weekend.

In the words of one camper, “I like variety,” which is why I think I enjoy Summercamp so much… that and the free beer backstage.