We here in Upstate NY have more than our share of music festivals, from the large (Mountain Jam, Camp Bisco, moe.down) to the small (Great Heron, Backwoods Pondfest). There is little reason to venture out of Upstate when festival season rolls around. But when Upstate bands branch out and hit off festivals outside the region, we take note and follow them for an adventure. Summer Camp Music Festival, located in central Illinois, is one of the better produced festivals out there, with an enormous lineup that encompasses bands both big and small on seven stages, bringing together a wide variety of genres that broaden the experience for even the most die-hard music fan. Here’s our take on Summer Camp, simply the best festival in the Midwest.
After spending Wednesday night in Chicago, we ventured down I-55 to Peoria and arrived in Chillicothe, a small town on the Illinois River. The flat layout of the festival was immediately appealing. Anyone who has attended a festival in NY can attest – lugging your stuff up hills and through a menagerie of inclines can be off-putting. With a slight breeze in the air, camp was set up in the middle of four stages – Sunshine, Starshine, Camping and the Vibe Tent. This proved to be a number one reason why you arrive at a festival early – prime location for camping is hard to come by after Day One. The first band for the weekend was Chicago’s Family Groove Company, who kicked things off with “The Charmer”, invited up Allie Kral from Cornmeal for “One Eye Dreaming”, followed by a well-placed cover of Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers’ “American Girl,”, quite apt for the talented Kral.
Around 8 p.m., one of the great staples of Summer Camp took the stage: Cornmeal. This Illinois-based blue collar band has seen their popularity rise slowly but surely over the years as they’ve vigorously delivered their own special blend of bluegrass and folk music throughout the country. This marks the band’s 11th appearance at Summer Camp and they did nothing to disappoint the revelers that were ready to go on this first day of the festival. This weekend was also a sendoff of sorts for the band who were saying good bye to their longtime and supremely talented fiddler, Allie Kral, who earned MVP honors this weekend by sitting in on multiple bands’ sets and blowing the house down each and every time.
After Cornmeal’s initial set of the weekend, the musical mood on the Starshine stage shifted to electronica as Digital Tape Machine delivered a pulsating set that set the stage beautifully for some of the late night acts this weekend. Featuring Joel Cummins and Kris Myers from Umphrey’s McGee, it seems this side project of sorts is really starting to find its niche as they displayed a powerful cohesiveness that only comes after time and multiple gigs. Their unique version of IDM with elements of tech house, dance house and drum and bass kept the Thursday night crowd dancing and wanting more. Out in the Camping Stage was a band from Minnesota, Roster McCabe – the Midwest is heavily represented out in these parts, as one would suspect – and they showed some gravitas and fervor during a power-charged set of originals that brought to mind Umphrey’s McGee and Dopapod. A well played version of Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” caught the crowd off guard and resulted in a dance party in the woods, making for the first of many covers of the popular disco/dance tune that we will all be hearing this summer.
In the Vibe Tent, UV Hippo from Michigan was laying down jams that built on top of each other, culminating in a breathtaking climax and showing mastery of their craft. A solid “Square Pegs, Round Holes” preceded Roster McCabe’s Alex Steele joining the group for Stevie Wonder’s “I Wish”, a well placed cover and one of those late night moments you love to catch.
The dance party continued well into the night with Future Rock, a band that’s seemingly designed specifically for a late night time slot at any festival. The Chicago rockers kept the action fast and furious in the Red Barn which was open to everyone this evening. A unique aspect of the Summer Camp festival is that late night acts at this location required an extra ticket that had to be purchased ahead of time, and depending on your musical tastes, will compel you to plan ahead or seek out new and unknown acts amid the general late night sets.
At the same time, Dopapod was throwing down more of the late night goodness this band has become known for at the Vibe Tent. There seemed to be an even bigger crowd here which speaks somewhat to the fact that not everyone knew the Red Barn was open tonight to the general public, but more to the reputation this band is developing within the jamband and festival circuits. As usual, they delivered a fun, high intensity set, punctuated by “Braindead” off their latest album Redivider, playing nearly until sunrise and sent Summer Campers home spent, but with smiles on their faces.
With good locations for stages and campground layout, plus an option for the forest, RVs and VIP experiences, Summer Camp felt a bit like Mountain Jam, and is about the same size, just… flatter. The grounds were laid out on a grid much like the Midwest and they offered regional foods and had a few carnival rides and the like, seemingly giving in to the universality of music festivals in the 21st Century. Friday’s action got underway with the help of two of the better band names currently out there. Cosby Sweater, another Umphrey’s side project of sorts featuring the ever busy Mr. Joel Cummins, played on the Camping stage and surely played a part in waking up nearby campers. This stage was literally located within woods containing tents and campsites in the general vicinity and it played host to some of the better ‘under the radar’ acts of the weekend (see: Roster McCabe). Over on the Starshine stage, Pimps of Joytime threw down a fun and memorable set that surely garnered them a few new fans. If you haven’t heard this group’s blend of funk, rock, afrobeats and electronic elements, you should really do so as soon as possible. It was nice to see this primarily East Coast band on the bill of one of the most successful Midwest musical festivals going right now.
Next, it was time for the opening salvo from one of the festival’s musical co-hosts, moe. Their set featured a blistering ‘Captain America” opener that segued nicely into ‘‘Recreational Chemistry”, a song that many felt wouldn’t appear until later in the weekend. The band seemed energetic and on point from the get go as they closed the set with the always entertaining ‘Seat of My Pants’ and the encore of “Okayalright” seemed to sum up the general sentiment that the 2013 version of Summer Camp was officially in full gear.
Over at the Media Center, located in the Church, Dumpstaphunk gave an interview to an attentive audience curious about a little bit of everything: their new album, Dirty Word, featuring Skerik, Flea, Trombone Shorty and Rebirth Brass Band, the experience of playing two festivals in the same weekend with each one a time zone away from the other (Summer Camp and StrangeCreek) and the importance of bassist Nick Daniels who quit the Neville Brothers to get Dumpstaphunk to where they are now.
After a quick trip to the Sunshine stage to catch some of the reggae music dished out by the legendary Wailers, it was back to the Moonshine stage for some heady jazz improv as only Medeski, Martin and Wood can deliver. Highlights included a fantastic Billy Martin drum solo that flowed right into “Night Marchers”. This trio never disappoints and John Medeski seemed extra energized towards the end of this hour long set and showed off his chops on the set closing “Heaven on Earth”. With any big music festival there inevitably comes a time when you have to make a tough decision on which act you see and which one you miss. Summer campers were now faced with such a decision as Keller Williams with More Than a Little played on the Sunshine Stage and Yonder Mountain String Band took the reigns back down on the Moonshine Stage. These two stages were pretty much at opposite ends of ThreeSistersPark so the chance of seeing significant portions of each was pretty slim.
Down at Moonshine, Yonder was in full form, tearing through “Pretty Daughter” midway into their set, and a hoe-down worth “Casualty”. Roosevelt Collier of The Lee Boys sat in with the Yonder boys for versions of “Kentucky Mandolin”, “Dear Prudence” and “Raleigh and Spencer,” playing on same level and adding a soulful slide guitar to each tune. A return for and encore of “Two Hits and the Joint Turned Brown” had accents of that steel sound, and with Jeff Austin’s breakneck speed on mandolin, the crowd was kept dancing along to a phenomenal sit in.
On the other main stage, Sunshine, this was not your typical Keller Williams set. The ever evolving artist decided to get himself a backing 6-piece funk band for this go round and, just for good measure, added Victor Wooten as a second bass player. This group was tight, in tune and delivered some truly memorable versions of Keller classics like “Let’s Jam” and “Freeker by the Speaker”. Hearing these tunes with female backup singers and a tight rhythm section gave each a real different feel, in a good way. Perhaps more impressive was the covers they tackled as well. These included The Talking Heads’ classic “Once in a Lifetime” and Keller also invited Jake Cinninger from Umphrey’s McGee to join them on a truly remarkable take of The Grateful Dead’s “West L.A. Fadeaway”. This closed out the set and was met by a raucous crowd’s approval. There’s no reason to think Keller won’t continue to bring this outfit of funk and soul out on the road from the time to time.
Umphrey’s McGee kicked off their first set of the weekend with the walk-on instrumental “No Crying in Mexico,” a unique start to a show as the band arrives on stage to join pre-recorded music. “All in Time” kicked things off with the first half of the song, which later found its second half mid second set. Conversely, “Nothing Too Fancy” appeared midway through the first set and closed the set, after a dirty “Comma Later”. “Bright Lights, Big City” featured Dominic Lalli of Big Gigantic, blowing the song up amid Jeff Waful’s light show. “Puppet String”, yet another true Umph-rocker, was split between the sets and closed out the evening, but not before Umphrey’s played a first in more than a decade version of moe.’s classic “Rebubula,”, leading many to speculate on what song moe. may cover of Umphrey’s that weekend.
Later on Friday night, things began to get electronic again as Sound Tribe Sector 9 took the stage and got the dance party started once again. A well-established act at this point, STS9 delivered 90 minutes of inventive and inspirational electronica. If you weren’t in the mood for this, over on the Campfire stage was Allie Kral and Friends who treated all to a fun set of bluegrass staples and covers. The set even included an impromptu version of “Friend of the Devil” with Chicago’s own Barry Brown sitting in on vocals, followed by spirited versions of “Graceland” and “Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band.” Over in the Vibe Tent, a pair of DJs known as Team Bayside High put on an incredibly fun set, utilizing house samples and remixes in the Belding style of late night while Alvin Risk took the tent past 4 a.m. Once you are up so close to dawn, it’s a simple task to make it to 5 a.m. Kickball, the official start of Field Day. Think Camp Bisco’s Color Wars with some slight variation. Team Purple was well represented during the game, led by Umphrey’s bassist Ryan Stasik, although Team Red pulled out the victory during the rain on Saturday afternoon. Purple will be back…
Stay tuned tomorrow for Pete and Tim’s recap of Saturday and Sunday at Summer Camp Music Festival!