For over a century, our country has honored our nation’s fallen defenders on Memorial Day. For the past decade, Memorial Day weekend has seen people from across our amber waves of grain flock to Illinois for Summer Camp Music Festival.
With a deadly trio of hosts – Cornmeal, Umphrey’s McGee and moe. – leading the way, a monster weekend of music was assured.Â But the hosts were only the beginning of a long list of notables that included Widespread Panic, Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, The Avett Brothers and Girl Talk, all of whom put on shows that had people dancing in the sun, the rain and the midnight moonlight.
Yes, Summer Camp had something for everyone, especially fans of various types of weather. Minus a blizzard, there was every type of atmospheric condition known – periods of bright sunshine, downpours and temperatures that ranged from bikini heat to drawn-tight hoodie weather.
With six stages and dozens of bands, the weather proved, as always, to be a unifier. The sun shone on dubsteppers dancing to the mad beats of Big Gigantic and Bassnecter, and rain fell on folks jamming to The Wood Brothers and the 7 Walkers.Â In the most basic of ways, the meteorological conditions united the fest-goers, but at the end of the day, the crowd drew in to the campfire to dance and share the warmth of open flame and open hearts.
Starting the party off with a bang, the Midwestern music scene was well represented, with a mix of world percussion and Americana: theRagbirds, Umphrey’s McGee precursor Ali Baba’s Tahini and Van Ghost.
Van Ghost was one of a few acts to really work the festival by playing three sets, all featuring Cornmeal’s Allie Kral on fiddle.
The brainchild of Michael Berg, Van Ghost’s sound is a refreshingly nuanced blend of rock and atmosphere, and the inclusion of Kral alongside Trey Anastasio Band veteransÂ Natalie Cressman and Jen Hartswick, gave the proceedings a sultry, powerful feminine touch – something that is much obliged in a jam scene that often resembles a sausagefest.
Hailing from Chicago, Summer Camp can be considered home court for Cornmeal and they took advantage to the fullest – they played five sets and took the stage on Thursday as theÂ headliner.
With an eager cheering section that followed them from stage to stage, the band was able to showcase exactly how expansive their catalog is by playing a total of seven hours without a repeat. The ensemble was more than up to the challenge, throwing in a few covers like Peter Gabriel’s “Solsberry Hill” alongisde more up-tempo numbers like “Girl with Short Brown Hair” and “Johnny Put Down Your Gun.”
Crashing through a two hour set and bringing it to a riotous conclusion, Cornmeal firmly stated their case for the “Summer Camp All Stars” with their tireless embrace of the stage, whether unplugged and picking or loud and proud.
Late night shows at Summer Camp are held in a couple of places – a small, lightly amplified stage next to the campfire, and inside a midsized permanent structure known as the Barn.Â In the former was the duo of Brendan Bayliss (Umphrey’s McGee) and Jeff Austin (Yonder Mountain String Band) who performed as 30db, with cuts from their album, One Man Show, as well as bluegrass standards and acoustic renditions of tunes from their respective catalogs.
The complete opposite was inside the Barn, where jamtronica acts Papadosio and Future Rock had the room on fire, as a steamy dance party went long into the wee hours, sending their sweaty masses scattering into the night in need of sleep (but probably not getting it.)
Sunrise yoga gave way to the first set of music from the band of the hour, or weekend…moe.Â It was their cache that got this party started, and as their influence has grown, so has the festival.Â While bands like Umphrey’s McGee and Cornmeal have made themselves at home at Summer Camp, it’s still moe.‘s house.
Playing with a confidence born from decades of touring, they take any stage with confidence, but at Summer Camp they actually own the place and their sets proved it. Mixing classic songs such as “Akimbo” in with new tunes like “Puebla,” the sunshine kickoff to the opening of the main stage was well received by the sea of smiling faces.
The second stage served as a bluegrass showcase for the day, welcoming Greensky Bluegrass’ first set of the event, The Punch BrothersÂ and their frenetic brand of songwriting, Cornmeal wailing in the daylight andÂ Yonder Mountain String Band closing out the run of mountain music with their typical charm and energy, and in turn, giving the themed run a properly bombastic send off.
While the sweet strummed sounds dominated one stage, the other main stage was calling to the dance crowd, as a trio of electronic/acid jazz acts were laying down irresistible beats that could not be denied. Colorado’s aptly-named duo Big Gigantic shook the ground with their layers of sound, LotusÂ provided live beats that twisted people into pretzels and STS9Â mesmerized the crowd into a hypnotized bouncing collective.
Sandwiched between the electronic was headliner, Umphrey’s McGee, and their presence was felt nearly every moment of the weekend. With sit-ins and side projects, special sets and even a blast from the past (Huey Lewis) the sextet had a bag of multiple tricks in store for their faithful Umphreaks. As they dazzled their audience with whip-sharp direction and tempo shifts, it was clear that this band has entered a prime era with fans who were willing to wait for hours in advance in order to secure prime viewing real estate.
Awash in sound and light, the mesmerized faces and screams of approval from their faithful told the tale better than any words could and though the sets collectively totaled three hours, the exhausted base still stood in the cool night, arms outstretched and begging for more.
One of the pleasures of Summer Camp is getting to catch some of the finest regional acts. With acts such as singer/songwriter supreme,Â Chicago Farmer andÂ the personal blend of world music and Americana fromÂ Michigan mainstays The Ragbirds, it becomes clear that festival bills are definitely not just about who is at the top.
Another portion of the festival experience is that it gives familiar names the chance to launch something new to a wide audience. Keller Williams explored yet another facet of his talent by adding in Mark D and Jay Starling on drums and keyboards while confining himself to the bass guitar, thereby giving old tracks like “Best Feeling” and “Freeker By the Speaker” new life as syrupy dance numbers. The set also brought out moe.’s Chuck Garvey for a slab of 70’s funk and typical Keller hilarity.
Using the dueling main stages to maximum effect, Umphrey’s McGee played two sets with an extended middle set break, while moe. played two sets on the other stage, lining up one after the other with little overlap.
moe.’s first set was a daylight affair with the shadows stretching farther and farther as they played. The jacked up closing of “Wind It Up” went straight into the carpet bombing guitar work of “The Pit,” with the first set ending in a “Haze.”
Choosing to have a little fun, they played their opener, “Crab Eyes” on iPads placed on podiums at the front of the stage.Â Whether on a lark or to make a point about technology overtaking the need for talent, moe. worked as a team, making even fully electronic music sound organic and truthful.Â Thankfully, they promptly returned to the old standard, laying down a fierce “Buster” as the laser splitting light show kicked into overdrive. Â Closing with an uproarious “Captain America,” moe. left the stage as conquerors and the crowd left confounded and ready for their next adventure.
While the Barn had a one two punch of Big Gigantic and Lotus, Cornmeal stepped up for their Campfire set.Â There were two stages, not a hundred yards apart, playing completely different music with the same result…mad dancing late into the night.
The weather was the overwhelming story of the day on Sunday. Early acts had their sets cut short and Fareed Hague’s new project, Mathgames, was sadly lost completely.
With some hasty resetting of schedules and swapping of set times, Cornmeal blew in for their last big push of the weekend while The Wood Brothers laid down some dense roots rock on the main stage. Meanwhile, banjoist supreme Bela Fleck and his original Flecktones wowed the soaked but jubilant fans with their jazz bluegrass fusion, and if one sprinted just right, he was able to also encounter the New Mastersounds who delivered a decidedly British funk invasion to the throng of Illinois’ temporary and permanent residents.
Two genuine music legends made the afternoon a nostalgic one for older fans in attendance, as 80s rock mainstay Huey Lewis fronted Umphrey’s McGee members for a set of classic rock covers (notably, a stirring cover of The Band’s “The Weight”) and his own classics like “Workin’ For A Livin'” and “I Want a New Drug.”
Later on that same stage, virtuoso pianist Bruce HornsbyÂ sat behind a grand piano and led his band in grand style. The clean tone and ringing notes were a sound unheard to that point in the weekend, and their rarity carried extra weight. Hornsby, who had a major 80s hit with “That’s Just the Way it is,” played with the Grateful Dead in the 90s and he stepped back to that era of his career when performing Huey Lewis’ #1 hit (that Hornsby wrote) “Jacob’s Ladder” (with Hornsby on accordion) and the Dead’s “Little Sadie.” Both numbers featured guests Jimmy Herring (Widespread Panic) and Bela Fleck. The jams that ensued in these numbers proved to be two of the biggest of the weekend, showcasing the three different yet equally amazing artists who were spewing the sounds forth.
Over on the Main Stage, The Avett Brothers had the crowd in the palm of its hand. They brought emotion that they have a knack for, through stripped down songs and singing with an end of the world passion. Offering a take on John Prine’s “Spanish Pipedream” with a distinctly new ending, The Avetts did what they do…amaze.
moe.’s first set of the evening had a quick guest spot by Kyle Hollingsworth (String Cheese Incident) for “Happy Hour Hero,” a brand spanking new tune, “Rain Shine,” and percussionist Jim Loughlin’s departure from behind the kit to rap “Farmer Ben.”
After an abrupt “Moth,” moe. made way for the surest sign of Summer Camp’s ascendancy up the festival ladder, a massive two hour plus set of Widespread Panic.
With their announced hiatus looming, Widespread is pulling out all the stops and bringing the music to festivals and arenas across the country. Playing to a sea of faces, as they do whenever they come to play, Panic made the most of the opportunity and performed with relish for a particularly grand “Airplane”>”Protein Drink” and cheerful glances amongst themselves throughout the set.
A study in contrast followed, for on the main stage Bassnectar had the entire field moving in lockstep to his rhythm, dropping bombs to the howls of the beat-crazed mud encrusted faces before him; a wild, anything goes spirit permeated the crowd, all forged into a uniformity by the mud.
Across the way, a funky time was being indulged in by all of those lucky enough to be able to hear the peels of sax being blown by the mighty Karl Denson and his Tiny Universe. While guitarist Brian Jordan played as if his life depended on being the slinkiest funkster on the planet, the rest of the band followed their leader down the funk rabbit hole, taking us all on a journey of call and response and a real old time good time.
Finally, it was time for moe. to put the whole thing to bed, and to do it big.
Welcoming Bela Fleck to the stage, the band played an epic spaghetti western rendition of “Shoot First” with Chuck Garvey’s big sky leads counterpointed by Fleck’s down home resonance and crispness.Â Trotting out two of their biggest crowd favorites, “Plane Crash” and “Seat Of My Pants,” the crowd was primed to explode.
After the traditional “Al.Nouncments,” where guitarist Al Schnier reads dedications and missives from the audience, the requests began pouring in, with bassist Rob Derhak looking up at calls for “Rebubula.” With that trademark twinkle firmly in his eye and a quick glance to all the band members, Derhak dropped the bass line intro to the crowd demand, and the cheer was deafening.Â A long track to begin with, it stretched out to an ambitious 20 minutes, and the song’s ode to passion bringing the whole crowd to its feet, raging as one. With the crescendo come and gone and the transcendent moment now past them all, the crowd slowly sank back to reality.
After a final campfire set from the last truly organic act of the weekend,Â The Wood Brothers –Â oppositeÂ EOTO and STS9, who took the beat-loving legions into their fold – it was time to blow out the Summer Camp candles.
Dozens of bands made hundreds of hours of music over four days in the great outdoors, with almost every weather scenario Mother Nature had to exhibit – Summer Camp made for a complete experience for all the senses. With the balance they have found and the impressive additions to this year’s lineup, Summer Camp proclaimed itself big time – and no one who was there would dare say any different.
Click the thumbnail to view the photo gallery From The Fest by Amber Jennings
Click the thumbnail to view the photo gallery From The fest by Rex Thomson