“Summercamp is a marathon, not a sprint” my newly-met young neighbor assures me as I offer him some goldfish crackers. It is 4:00pm on Thursday afternoon and he is trying to stave off “tipsyness” while his bratwurst are cooking. We have been on the festival grounds for about two hours (our entry having been delayed by flooding in Three Sisters Park the prior evening) and already people are starting to get wild. Over the next 120 hours more than 10,000 lucky attendees will have our choice of over 100 performers spread across five stages. That's a reason to celebrate, and for three amazing years in a row it's a reason to come back to Chillicothe, Illinois for Memorial day weekend.
Thursday is billed as a Pre-Party and features a lot of the local (read: greater Midwest) acts that will be spread throughout the festival over the course of the weekend. I had a chance to take in solid performances from Chicago natives Van Ghost and Cornmeal, as well as Family Groove Company who put on the best show I have ever seen from them. I was pleasantly surprised by new-to-me folk band The New Old Cavalry while visiting the new-to-this-year 312 Vibe Tent. The main draw to this year's Pre-Party for me, however, was the opportunity to see three different Umphrey's McGee side projects, two of which were new to me. Each side project showcased one of the different musical styles that falls under the UM fold. Ali Baba's Tahini features Guitarist Jake Cinninger in the band he played with prior to joining UM in 2002. It is easy to see how Cinninger got his chops in Ali Baba; they play the kind of dirty, heavy, deliciously self-indulgent rock and roll you would expect to hear at an all night truck stop somewhere on the Highway to Hell. Next up was Digital Tape Machine, a six piece electronica outfit featuring Keyboardist Joel Cummins and Drummer/Animal Kris Myers. At face value the songs that this group plays sound like most of UM's extended electronic jams, which is surprising when you consider that the melodic influence is only coming from Cummins. That being said, they put on a fun show that is very danceable and if you're going to see them you probably don't mind them sounding a little like Umphrey's anyways. On the other end of the musical spectrum, 30db treated us to an acoustic set on the Campfire Stage featuring Brendan Bayliss of UM and Jeff Austin of Yonder Mountain String Band. I've seen them several times before, and it doesn't really matter that they play pretty much the same songs every time. It's hard to watch the interplay of facial expressions and verbal sparring between Bayliss and Austin without cracking a smile. For those of us who did not stay in the at-capacity Red Barn following the Digital Tape Machine set, 30db was the end of the night. We would have to wait until Sunday to jam out with Future Rock.
With the official opening of the festival comes the official opening of the Mainstages. The Moonshine stage kicked it off at 12:30pm with moe. performing their traditional Friday afternoon set. I spent a portion of my afternoon in the Soulshine Tent which had introduced a hefty musical line-up this year to intersperse between their usual schedule of social action and environmental advocacy speakers. Several of the headlining acts teamed up with various social action groups for a series of intimate performances on the tiny stage. So it was that Bayliss and Cinninger of UM played a brief 30 minute acoustic set for Conscious Alliance featuring Resolution, Passing, Nothing Too Fancy (stellar!) and more as a teaser of what was to come. Then it was off to see The Mother Hips perform their first of four shows for the weekend, their only one on the outdoor Starshine Stage. These Northern California psychedelic blues rockers are a must see for any fan of down home rock and roll. Elegant vocals, powerful licks, and tight changes all contribute to making this band one of the most underrated acts on the festival scene today.
The schedule of musicians performing on Friday night between the hours of 7:00pm and 1:00am is the stuff that dreams are made of. Back to back sets from Yonder Mountain, Lotus, Umphrey's McGee, Sound Tribe Sector Nine and a second set from Umphrey's McGee equates to a six hour onslaught of four of my favorite acts currently active on the festival scene, and they all delivered in a big way. Yonder played a mellow and easy set that would have been a perfect accompaniment to the sunset had there been no clouds. The last time I saw Lotus was in 2007, playing to a crowd of about fifty people at the Hawthorne Theatre in Portland, Oregon. Watching them masterfully manipulate a glowing multitude of over 5,000 was amazing to say the least. They have clearly earned their place as one of the titans of live-band electronica. Umphrey's did not skip a beat during their first set; both 1348 and Red Tape featured lengthy digital jams. Pay The Snucka trilogy and the rare Senor Mouse were fast paced enough to keep the energy high and keep the crowd rolling into Sound Tribe's set. STS9 took a brief hiatus from touring early this year to allow Bassist/Frontman David “Murph” Murphy to recuperate from Nasal Cancer. If it has had an effect on their playing, it appears to be for the better. Summercamp saw them flexing their muscle as one of the most innovative and talented electronic acts on the scene. Following the best Sound Tribe show I have ever seen, UM returned to close out their stage with a high energy set featuring fan favorites like Rocker II and The Floor, the debut of the new tune Hourglass and a cover of Radiohead's National Anthem joined by Dominic Lalli of Big Gigantic on saxophone to bring the house down. Thoroughly exhausted I made my way back to camp to re-energize for the rest of the weekend.
Saturday was mostly recovery day for me, so I took the opportunity to see a few bands I was less familiar with. I stumbled upon the self-described “strange funk” band Savvy at the Camping stage early in the day. I was grooving on their dark, psychedelic and oddly soothing tunes for about fifteen minutes before they announced that several members of their band also played with This Must Be The Band, the excellent Talking Heads cover band that I had seen play Summercamp in 2009. It's good to know that these talented musicians are working on some original material and I look forward to hearing more from Savvy in the future. Moving along, I was able to take in energetic and well executed sets from Irish-rockers Gaelic Storm (on the Sunshine Stage) and reggae-giants Soldiers Of Jah Army/SOJA (on the Moonshine stage). Nothing too fancy, but good ear-food to pass the afternoon along. Future Rock played a higly anticipated late afternoon set that was hot enough to bring the sunshine out from behind the omni-present clouds, at least for a little while. I swear those guys are getting better at their tasty blend of rock stylings and electronic know-how every time I see them. I caught another excellent set from the Mother Hips as I sampled a 22 oz of the Boulder Brewing Company-Kyle Hollingsworth (of SCI) collaborative brew Hoopla; most definitely a winning combination.
A little bit of dinner and then off to round two of Umphrey's McGee. What a firestorm they brought to the table! Fan favorites 40's Theme, Divisions, Bridgeless, and Hurt Bird Bath played against newer tunes such as Conduit, (the thunderous debut of) Puppet String, No Comment and (the debut of) Forks. For the encore, Bayliss invited Mad Dog's Filthy Little Secret horn section to join the band onstage with special guest trumpeter Jennifer Hartswick. The combined ensemble performed a rendition of Booth Love and a cover of Paul McCartney's Live and Let Die. This was, in my humble opinion, the peak musical event of the weekend. With a little energy left to burn I made my way over to moe's. late evening set on the Moonshine stage. Not to be outdone by relative-festival-newcomer Umphrey's, moe. performed a powerful, experimental, and relevant showcase of music to remind those of us who may have lapsed in faith that they are still a force to be reckoned with. Energy spent, I returned to camp and settled down for the night.
...And then came the rains...Sunday morning saw dangerous looking clouds moving quickly over the park, complete with gusty winds that claimed several staked-down and un-staked tents alike. An hour of torrential downpour reduced whatever grass may have remained on the festival grounds to a viscous muddy mess roughly the color and consistency of a chocolate malt. Any illusions anyone had about remaining clean quickly evaporated in favor of mud painting, mud sliding, and the occasional proclamation of “screw it I'm just gonna roll around in the mud.” As quickly as the storm came, however, it was gone and replaced by sunshine, heat and humidity. The storm-related delay caused a few of the schedules to be switched around, most notably the loss of forty-five minutes from Umphrey's afternoon set which was pushed back so it could be in direct conflict with the Bela Fleck and the Flecktones concert on the Moonshine Stage.
With no outdoor music happening, I took in a third and equally pleasing final set from the Mother Hips while the storm died down. I did manage to catch about thirty minutes of the always-pleasing Flecktones who were touring under their original line-up featuring Keyboardist Howard Levy (and sans Saxophonist Jeff Coffin). Thirty minutes was all I could afford as there was no way I would be missing Huey Lewis backed by Umphrey's McGee and their horns as The rUMors. The rUMors took the stage without horns to play All In Time and debut Room To Breathe before inviting their guests onstage to help them tackle a set of covers and collaborations. Highlights included Wilson Pickett's Don't Fight It; The Band's Cripple Creek and The Weight; blues classic She Caught The Katy; UM's own Women, Wine, and Song and Partying Peeps (surprise!); and Huey's own Working For A Living and the inevitable set closer I Want A New Drug. Why UM would spend an hour on stage with Huey Lewis without playing the hit track Power Of Love from Back To The Future is beyond me, but it was an incredibly satisfying set nonetheless.
Following The rUMors I headed to the Red Barn to see Summercamp's installment of the Everyone Orchestra featuring Kyle Hollingsworth. Talented musicians, bottomless jams, and Matt Butler's unconquerable enthusiasm never fails to keep me entertained. I returned to camp with every intention of making it over to watch Bruce Hornsby and his Noisemakers on the Sunshine stage but my motivation failed me. It was not until I heard the phrase “I've always wondered what it would sound like if Bela Fleck jammed with Jimmy Herring” floated across my tent that I mustered the curiosity to go check out this once in a lifetime pairing. Thanks for wondering Bruce, it was well worth the walk. Electronic improvisers EOTO made their scheduled set time with only minutes to spare and launched right into rocking the socks off of everyone within earshot. They played like they were making up for lost time but everyone who stuck around was treated to a full show. Then came my favorite moment of Summercamp, the bittersweet Sunday Sunshine Stage Sunset Show which was played by the Widespread Panic this year. I've heard rumblings that WSP will not be touring beyond this year, but if they are true it has nothing to do with any lack of ability or energy from the band. I've never gotten much from their concerts but have to say I was impressed with what they had to offer the short-term residents of Three Sisters Park. I drifted comfortably off to sleep in my camp chair somewhere towards the end of their set, and that was it. No more music for me. I called it a night and settled in while my cohorts danced the night away at the EOTO/STS9 late night in the Red Barn. No disappointments though, just happy memories and more reasons to look forward to coming back next year.