Words by: Herschel Concepcion | Images by: Norman Sands
Cornmeal :: 10.17.08 :: Three Sisters Park :: Chillicothe, IL
The Jay Goldberg Rock 'n' Roll Halloween Masquerade Ball was sure to attract all sorts of freakers, tweakers and self-proclaimed weirdos from afar. Set to take place at Three Sisters Park in Chillicothe, IL, site of the Summer Camp Music Festival (which Jay Goldberg's company also produces), the Masquerade Ball promised to be an evening filled with freakishly good live music. In the spirit of things, all of the acts set to perform would be assuming different personas for the evening, with Chicago-based jamgrass band Cornmeal scheduled to headline as The Doors. A slight departure from their typical shows, Cornmeal would be devoting their entire set to the dark, compelling music of the iconic 1960s rock group.
|Allie Kral - Cornmeal :: 10.17|
I couldn't help but feel a bit spooked as I pulled into Three Sisters Park and onto its vast, open parking area shortly after nightfall. The dark has a way of making the mind play tricks on itself, and as I crept through the lot in my Chevy Malibu I imagined freaks of all shapes and sizes rushing out from the cloak of night - dreadlocked monsters brandishing glowsticks and fistfuls of burning sage, demanding sacrifices of human flesh and soy products. It was a frightening thought and I shivered, quickly putting it out of my head as I found a spot and parked.
Waterstreet was playing when I finally made my way into the big tent where the evening's festivities took place. As purveyors of good old fashioned heavy rock 'n' roll, it came as no surprise that the four-piece outfit had taken on the guise of '70s rockers Led Zeppelin. Lead vocalist Evan Hand is also one of the band's two lead guitarists, but Waterstreet's performance that night saw him axe-less as he assumed the role of Robert Plant. He certainly dressed the part, and belted out the classic "Whole Lotta Love" as I walked in.
Moving past the bar, I was greeted by a vixen in a blue psychedelic superhero outfit that decked me out in glowsticks and led me up front. I was right by the speakers now – the perfect spot to let my eardrums explode. I watched as Joe Shadid, the other lead guitarist, shred his six-string Jimmy Page-style before the band launched into "Ramble On." Drummer Rob Gould and bassist Mike Crusen made for a solid, steady rhythm section as the band closed with the psychedelic tour de force "Dazed and Confused." Led Zeppelin is a tough act to cover. Their powerful sound will shake you right to the bone and leave you weak in the knees, and if it doesn't you're sure to be disappointed. But, the boys from Waterstreet hit it and hit it hard, and I was damn impressed. It's no wonder these guys are just one of six bands (out of nearly 8,000) that have been chosen as finalists to compete for the opening slot at an upcoming Mötley Crüe gig at the Whisky A Go Go in Hollywood. Going against bands from L.A., New York, San Antonio and Seattle, these four guys from the small town of Peoria, IL have earned their shot at taking the next big step in their careers. Good luck, guys.
Brainchild was another four-piece ensemble from Peoria on the bill, and featured the fancy dual guitar work of Roy Ponce and Jake Schultz, in addition to Brandon Mooberry's funky bass and Pony Boy on drum duty. Veterans of Summer Camp (they've played the last four festivals), the band chose to perform the music of Nirvana in tribute to late Nirvana frontman and grunge pioneer Kurt Cobain. They did a great cover of "Drain You" but in the end it was the band's own music that really made an impression.
|Brainchild :: 10.17|
While Waterstreet was straightforward rock 'n' roll, Brainchild was pure funky jams through and through. Their up-beat "Moon Party Dance Party" had the whole place shakin' and groovin' hard, myself included. Like the song's title suggests, Brainchild's music was a dance party that fused elements of funk, rock, jazz and disco. Their jams were well crafted and creative, incorporating shifting tempos while Ponce and Schultz traded licks on guitar.
After Brainchild's set I found myself milling about near the bonfire outside the tent. It was a cheerful scene - a mixture of youngbloods and old-timers relaxing and keeping warm, smoking and laughing and grinning at the flames. It was a great intermingling between the generations, an affirmation of the bond between our elders and the fresh-faced hope of tomorrow, all smiling and drinking and sharing wild stories. It felt like a gathering of some strange and isolated tribe, made up of all manner of odd individuals but all of the same people - rebels and outcasts, bright and colorful souls with a passion for life.
Inside at the costume contest, there was quite a cast of characters lined up: a giant frosty mug of beer, a half-assed Burger King (who looked like he'd just crawled out of a garbage can in some dark alley), a drunk Spartan and a busty Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, among others. It was like something out of a bad dream. My friend Liz was decked out in a full pimp outfit, complete with tiger stripe coat, shades and excessive bling. Each contestant was presented to the audience in a process of elimination, with the winner to be determined by whoever received the loudest reception for their costume. In the end, it was the guy dressed as a Grateful Dead bear that took first place and received the $500 gift certificate that came with the title.
|Masquerade Ball :: 10.17|
Everyone was in high spirits and cheers erupted from the intoxicated throng of freaks when Cornmeal took the stage, dressed in black and donning various masks – probably to avoid recognition in the event of a whiskey-induced hippie riot. Anticipation had been running high for this show, and Cornmeal hit the ground running. Chris Gangi (bass) approached the mic and, fueled by the dedicated, dark charisma of Jim Morrison, silenced the crowd with one of the Lizard King's rants. "You can't remember where it was!" he shouted, his booming voice carrying to every corner of the hushed room. "Has the dream stopped?"
The silence was short-lived, however, as drummer J.P. Nowak began laying down the subtle yet unmistakable intro to "Break On Through." Kris Nowak (lead guitar, vocals), looking like a true rock star behind his dark shades, joined in with the song's signature riff before singing the first lines of the classic tune. "You know the day destroys the night/ night divides the day/ trying to run, trying to hide/ break on through to the other side!" I couldn't help but smile as the band blasted us with this great rebellion anthem, the perfect choice to open a set of Doors' music.
"Love Her Madly" was a fifteen-minute jam that featured some slick soloing by Nowak – who, with Gangi, had gone electric for the set – before he handed it over to the lovely Allie Kral (fiddle, vocals), who lulled the fanatical crowd into a trance with her sultry playing. The band's tight improvisation flowed nicely, eventually making a smooth transition into the funky "Soul Kitchen." I recognized it instantly when Wavy Dave Burlingame (banjo, vocals), rocking a feathered masquerade mask, began plucking the intro on his banjo. After the second chorus, Nowak ripped another searing solo, followed immediately by Ms. Kral's sharp fiddle.
|Cornmeal :: 10.17|
"Soul Kitchen" segued into "Awake," another groovy Doors number that stands as a shining example of Jim Morrison's lyrical prowess. Driven by a funky beat, the song is more like poetry set to music, a mystical ballad that offers a glimpse into the mind of a tortured genius that left this world too soon. It was a great cover, and had Wavy Dave and Nowak adding solid instrumental work at the end.
Things were really heating up. The crowd knew the songs so it was pretty much just one big sing-a-long after another. The energy in the room was palpable, building to new heights with each solo and each chorus. I was still near the stage, about six or seven rows back, and turning around I looked out over the sea of smiling faces, joined together in collective bliss. Some had their eyes closed as they danced, lost in that all-consuming feeling of musical euphoria.
Cornmeal decided to keep up the funk and went into "Peace Frog," a surefire crowd-pleaser that had the whole place moving before they slowed it down with Morrison's love ballad "The Crystal Ship." This was followed by whiskey ballad "Alabama Song," which had scores of sloppy drunkards shouting and slurring the inspirational chorus, as beer sloshed and spilled from the sides of cups held high above their heads. "Well, show me the way to the next whiskey bar! Oh don't ask why, oh don't ask why!"
|Cornmeal :: 10.17|
What came next was what I had been waiting for, namely "Five to One." This was Morrison's call-to-arms, a battle cry for a whole generation of disenchanted youths fed up with the rules and expectations of a society they wanted no part of, a society run by control freaks and faceless suits who had no understanding – much less sympathy – for them.
After closing out their set with a lively "L.A. Woman", Cornmeal left the stage as the crowd cheered, whistled and called out for more. It was like a pack of wild animals under the tent, and they were making a lot of noise. "One more!" they shouted, hoping for an encore to top off what had already been a killer set. And of course, Cornmeal, ever appreciative of their fans, returned to the stage for not one but two more songs to close out the night.
"When The Music's Over" resonates deeply with me and many others, a spark of rebellion rising once again as the crowd roared, "We want the world and we want it NOW!" It's a good feeling knowing you're not alone. "Gloria" was a great end to a night of fine music, and brought everyone together for one more sing-a-long. It was clear that Cornmeal had put a lot of thought into this performance, and it paid off. They had managed to capture the rebel spirit of The Doors and used it to effectively reinterpret some of the most influential music to ever come out of the '60s. Playing The Doors' music the way it's meant to be played is no small task but Cornmeal nailed it, and then some.
Cornmeal as The Doors - 10/17/08 - "Peace Frog"
Cornmeal :: 10.17.08 :: Three Sisters Park :: Chillicothe, IL
Break On Through, Love Her Madly > Soul Kitchen> Awake, Love Me Two Times, Peace Frog > Crystal Ship, Alabama Song, 5 to 1, L.A. Woman
E: When The Music's Over, Gloria
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