Summer Camp | 05.21 - 05.24 | Illinois

Words by: Cal Roach | Images by: Chad Smith & Norman Sands

Summer Camp :: 05.21.09 - 05.24.09 :: Three Sisters Park :: Chillicothe, IL

Summer Camp 2009 by Smith
Being a Bonnaroo veteran, I couldn't help being a little excited getting to Three Sisters Park last Thursday night for the pre-party and not having to wait for a single car. With our Radio Flyer and lots of duct tape, we pulled everything to the campsite in one trip, although the woodsy spots were mostly already taken. Having to lug everything from car to camp is a blessing and a curse, but there's something to be said for a big open field with no vehicles around, staking out as much space as you want and just relaxing.

The lack of organization lends a pleasant, adventurous vibe, but the pre-party policy ostensibly allowed free admission to the late-night barn sets from Future Rock and Lotus, however, the fact that there were ten times the people as the barn's capacity allowed made the whole thing far from ideal. We stood outside for a few minutes, enviously watching the bumpin' crowd inside, but not many people were leaving the party to allow for more to enter so we skipped it. It was a nice night to just wander around and soak in the beginning of fest season before hitting the sleeping bag.

Friday :: 05.22.09

I probably could've slept past nine but my instinct must've told me they'd be handing out a winning late-night lottery ticket around ten. The announced process was to hand out 750 lottery numbers, draw a random number and pass out wristbands in order, starting with the one drawn. As far as I could tell, that didn't happen; after my number, they skipped back to the beginning, apparently due to a bitchy crowd. I know there were numbers much higher than mine, so lots of people must've gotten screwed. Hopefully, they were all the folks who partied down with Lotus the previous night.

Macpodz :: Summer Camp 2009 by Smith
Back at camp, I could hear The Bridge loud and clear, as well as The Macpodz, a couple of funk-oriented bands, with the former more rock and the latter more Galactic-like. Half paying attention, neither of them really grabbed me, but no disrespect meant; it was a perfectly agreeable ambience for breakfast and easing into the day.

Thankfully, Thursday's late night stars were both playing Friday as well. First, Future Rock showed no sign of fatigue from the previous night. It's really not a prescient band name, considering the group has a very current, electro-jam sound, but these guys undoubtedly know how to make a body rock. Insistently percussive bass work by Felix Moreno occasionally abandoned the rhythm but not enough to distract, and the group displayed enough talent and charisma to potentially outlast the trendy sound it pumps out. A cover of Nirvana's "Breed" was a great finale to the set.

Lotus's set later in the day was significantly less convincing. Maybe it sounded great from outside the barn last night just because I couldn't get in, or maybe the band is just inconsistent live, but I've yet to see a truly outstanding Lotus show. The highlight was The Legend Of Zelda theme music sandwiched inside "Age Of Inexperience," which was sort of roughshod but came out sounding like a lost Iron Maiden instrumental - lots of fun. Otherwise, the set was largely based in a sound that's way too Charlie-Hitchcock-era Particle, but not as crisp or flowing. I've seen glimpses of possible progress from Lotus, but it's mostly lazy Sunday jam band fare mixed with mediocre beats.

Buckethead :: Summer Camp 2009 by Sands
A major Friday highlight was Toubab Krewe, who were highly evolved from the African-inflected, percussion-based band I'd first seen a few years ago into a true kitchen sink outfit. You will hear elements of European and Asian folk, reggae, electronic, Latin, rockabilly, bluegrass, surf rock, African and tons more, all stewed together much more seamlessly than seems likely for such an amalgam. It all made for a driven, exotic set of music. The five musicians onstage aren't always on the same page, but that just makes me hopeful that they're still perfecting the synthesis and that they might be totally unstoppable once they fully integrate everything they aspire to.

Buckethead brought his one-man-show to Summer Camp this year, accompanied only by a prerecorded backing track. His set started out a little rough, but after his first robot dance and "The Embalmer" (a new "Jowls" surrogate), he started to get into his groove, showcasing lots of newer material and not a lot of the typical classics. "Ghost Host" was a stunner, as well as the blistering metal blip that followed "Buckethead's Toy Store." Then, following an abbreviated "Foxy Lady," Bucket jammed with That 1 Guy, which was alternately fascinating and tedious, but they did coax some crazy shit out of each other. The set ended with a short but inspired solo rendition of "Soothsayer." Although it will probably never be as effective as "Nottingham Lace" as a finale, the man is invariably so impressive that it's a treat just to watch his fingers move.

Al Schnier - moe. :: Summer Camp 2009 by Sands
You can't really get the same thrill from Girl Talk, although his fingers are probably moving almost as fast at times. I guess it's okay if half the world thinks GT (aka Gregg Gillis) invented the mashup; I remember hearing "Highway To Mixed Biz" back around the dawn of Napster and imagining the possibilities, but obviously, Gillis is much more ambitious than whoever spliced AC/DC and Beck way back when. There is no doubt that the guy lights a fire under asses on a dance field, but his appeal stems mainly from the constant barrage of nostalgia that makes people in the audience cheer. As such, even though he claims not to be a DJ, his role is exactly that of a DJ. Nothing wrong with that, but the notion that he is creating new songs is absurd. Ultimately, best not to think too much, just bounce along and try not to let the arc of his bobbing head get burnt into your retina.

Personally, the Redman/Method Man dance party was more my style, although based almost as much on nostalgia. These two guys have developed an onstage rapport just as natural as Meth's other gig with the Wu-Tang Clan. It's interesting to note the performance gimmicks that jam bands and rappers share; the difference is that jam bands rarely vocalize them explicitly. Phish might bust out "Alumni Blues," but you won't hear Trey say, "Do y'all remember this one from way back?" Phishheads are now programmed to shout "Hood!" when they hear "Harry," whereas in rap you get, "When I say, 'Wu-Tang,' you say 'Clan!'" And while we can draw our own conclusions about "been you to have any spike, man?" it's a bit obscure compared with a chant of "Roll it up, light it up, smoke it up!" In the end, as hyped up as the crowd was for the lone hip-hop set of the weekend, it felt like one of the most essential hours of the festival rather than a token gesture.

Of course, the biggest draw of Summer Camp would be the epic showdown between headliners moe. and Umphrey's McGee. Whether the bands saw the weekend as a battle or not, one surely felt an old-guard vs. newcomer competitive spirit, and few in the audience were likely to skip sets from either band. UM took top billing Friday, as moe. played the afternoon slot, which was obviously no gauge of what was to come but was nevertheless underwhelming. Interesting to hear moe. tip the hat to Widespread Panic's "Space Wrangler," but seriously, the drum solo > add bass > add guitar jam is so county fair and a very inefficient use of time in a short set. So, Umphrey's was destined to grab the momentum for night one. Set One was tight and energetic but still felt like a warm-up, particularly in hindsight. Opening Set Two with "Baba O'Riley" (featuring Cornmeal's Allie Kral on violin) never hurts, but UM knows better than almost any band how to blow up the end of a show, and this performance of "Bridgeless," leading into the reprise of "Nothing Too Fancy" was one of the most impressive displays of twin-guitar sustained intensity that I've ever witnessed. The "Soul Food I" encore was equally impressive, and the "Mantis" finale was a real statement of purpose, furthering the band's reputation as the second coming of King Crimson. It was an astounding set, and an intimidating precursor to the set-for-set conflict scheduled for Saturday.

Method Man & Redman :: Summer Camp 2009 by Smith
Continue reading for Saturday coverage of Summer Camp...

Saturday :: 05.23.09

Summer Camp 2009 by Sands
The heat in the tent got me up pretty early Saturday morning. It was so nice not to ever end up waiting more than five minutes in line for ice (or any vendor, for that matter), to be able to run back to camp at any point and not have to miss a set, to pretty much go anywhere with a beverage in hand and not be asked to guzzle it or toss it. The grounds were getting pretty dusty, though, as I headed to the Moonshine Stage at noon for Secret Chiefs 3. After an extended soundcheck, the band reemerged in their trademark black cloaks, and I was shocked to see original drummer Danny Heifetz behind the kit! Also, new to the lineup was bassist Toby Driver. The crowd was sparse but awestruck as the band absolutely nailed an unbelievable set of its trademark hodgepodge of Middle-Eastern folk spliced with metal, surf and sweeping ambience. New arrangements of "The 3" and "Vajra" particularly showcased Heifetz's ludicrous prowess and the awesome power of the band as a whole. Trey Spruance was a magician on both guitar and electric saz, playing off Timb Harris' violin on an extended "Zulfikar" to truly momentous effect. As the set rushed to its climax, the thin clouds above began a short, welcome downpour. It might seem ridiculous in print but the whole proceedings felt like a ritual, and when "Renunciation" was finished I doubted I'd see anything that would quite compare for the rest of the weekend.

The rest of the day was not terribly eventful for this scribe. The only real highlight prior to the title bout was Les Claypool's set, which opened strong with "Up On The Roof" and closed with an exuberant yet heavy "Booneville Stomp" jam and "Fisticuffs," during which Les busted out one of the most memorable bass solos I've heard him play in years. I have to admit that purely in this context, Sam Bass comes off like he's trying to be the Skerik of cellists, but that doesn't take away from his talent or his obvious camaraderie with Claypool. The set felt a bit rushed, but it was a rush all the same, the new songs (particularly "Booneville" and "Mushroom Men") really coming into their own as vehicles.

Les Claypool :: Summer Camp 2009 by Sands
Umphrey's opened the battle with another excellent set, complete with a Claypool cameo on Whamola during "Mulche's Odyssey" to end the set. After years of watching this band evolve, it wasn't until this set that I recognized the beginnings of a truly distinctive jam swell, guitarists Brendan Bayliss and Jake Cinninger in battle mode, surging in a technical frenzy while becoming progressively chaotic, yet never letting things fall apart. The prog and jam band personalities of UM are simultaneously becoming more individually unique yet symbiotically distinctive, and the growth of the band is almost blatant every time I see them live. Either the band is on a major hot streak or I've just been hitting the right shows, but this night proved a revelation.

moe. started strong with "Wind It Up" and a consistently interesting "Okayalright" with a triumphant return, but the set began to sink into repetitive jamming after this point. Admittedly, almost anything would seem repetitive following UM, who for better or worse, caters to an increasingly ADD world, while moe. demands more patience from its audience. But moe. is one of the first bands to inject a modern-prog sensibility into the jam scene while retaining the laid-back whimsy of The Dead, and the group's first set relied too much on mellow good will to stand out over Umphrey's ballistic attack.

Umphrey's McGee :: Summer Camp 2009 by Smith
UM's second set opened with fireworks and "1348;" there was enough energy here for a whole set by most bands. Little did I know that this was about to become by far the heaviest set of music I'd ever seen at a jam band festival. The truth is, for many years I've dreamed of seeing a band combine true improvisational exploration with actual heavy metal, but I didn't realize to what extent it is already happening. This was my first experience with "The Floor" or the "Sad But True/Clint Eastwood" mashup, and by set-closer "Miss Tinkle's Overture" I was absolutely blown away. But, none of this prepared me for the encore. A thrilling "Cemetery Walk" led to "Wizard Burial Ground" in an honest-to-God thrash, ending the show with more fireworks blasting, literally and figuratively, from the direction of the stage. I can't think about this set in any terms other than legendary. It was an even-if-all-the-shirts-suck-I'm-buying-one set, and a turning point in my appreciation for the band.

It was hopeless for moe. to try and top this, but the band was clearly pulling out all the stops, particularly guitarist Al Schnier. "The Road" started things off with a hot jam, and "One Of These Days" was a very welcome spooky, spacey blast. So, why did it have to devolve into a dull bass solo? "Ricky Marten" was magnificent, and Schnier absolutely poured every ounce of himself into "Lazarus," even though the jam extended a few minutes past its prime. Not coincidentally, the band embraced a relative heaviness to cap the set, particularly with a scorching "Tailspin" encore. There's no doubt that UM's road to success was partially paved by moe., and in the end I was left feeling grateful for the chance to be present for what seemed like a passing of the baton.

Sexy Bitches :: Summer Camp 2009 by Sands
I am a Big Lebowski fan, and I can honestly say that Family Groove Company pulled off a really enjoyable, campy set, complete with costumes, movie clips and the essential songs from the soundtrack, including CCR's "Lookin' Out My Back Door," Kenny Rogers & The First Edition's "Just Dropped In," Santana's "Oye Como Va" and The Eagles' "Hotel California" sung in Spanish. But as fun as the show was, it allowed me to put my finger on what has been bugging me about this band: this sort of campy display suits the band well, except for guitarist Adam Lewis. It's not that the rest of the band can't hack it as serious musicians, but Lewis projects a totally different intensity from the other three members, and he really seemed out of place up there in his Walter costume, even though his playing was great. I just fear that the differences in attitude could be holding them all back from reaching the next level as a band and as individuals.

One thing Summer Camp lacks is the potential for the truly monstrous, epic late-nighter since every set is relegated to an hour or so, which obviously allows for more artists to have a go, but it also leaves time for fatigue to set in during the lull between sets. I really had planned on powering through the Sexy Bitches, but even before they started, I was literally nodding off out of sheer exhaustion, and while I can appreciate Keller Williams' desire to experiment with the band format, he has thus far bored me to tears both with WMDs and this new supergroup, featuring Schnier and Rob Derhak from moe. and Joel Cummins from UM. Maybe the set heated up in the end (although not according to anyone I talked to), but it was doing me no good, so I bailed.

Al Schnier - moe. :: Summer Camp 2009 by Smith
Continue reading for Sunday coverage of Summer Camp...

Sunday :: 05.24.09

Willie Nelson :: Summer Camp 2009 by Sands
Through the years, Saturday has traditionally been the balls-out day of most festivals, and a mellow Sunday comes as a relief for most fans. The weather was damn near perfect all weekend, but pretty hot at times; the blazing sun at noon made the enthusiastic rock of Backyard Tire Fire somewhat difficult for me to really get into, but the Wood Brothers wound up being the perfect recuperation set to get me through the midday sunshine/final day queasiness. Chris Wood (also of MMW) retains his jazzy style in this folk duo with his brother Oliver, who sings with a countrified, gravelly twang that brings the characters in his songs to life with pronounced, bluesy grit. "Postcards From Hell" stood out, as well as a brilliant cover of The Beatles' "Fixing A Hole," which stripped the song to a mellow, jazzy essence that was completely natural.

Later on, Willie Nelson (the king of laid-back) came through with a set of all classics, including the relatively new "Superman" and at least three songs with references to whiskey, to keep the crowd cheering. You can't sing-along with Willie, and he doesn't want you to - these are his damn words, not yours. Like Paul Simon or Bob Dylan, he spits the words out as they occur to him, regardless of rhythm, never the same way twice, and how better to keep people listening to words they've heard a hundred times before? And he plays guitar just like he sings - like nobody else - still able to pull off a gorgeous solo in "Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain." But, the highlight for me was "Always On My Mind." Even when they're not his words, they're his words, and I can't quite keep it together when I hear him sing this one. A rousing version of Hank Williams' "I Saw The Light" ended things, and the 76-year-old icon waved graciously as his band played him offstage.

Easy Star All-Stars :: Summer Camp 2009 by Smith
So, for the final day, it was UM's turn for an early, one-set show, and they chose to call this one an "acoustic" set. That term is pretty pointless in this setting, but yes, Bayliss and Cinninger did refrain from playing "electric" guitars. All weekend, Umphrey's showcased its ability to switch smoothly from style to style, which made me suddenly realize how each of those styles sounds more like Umphrey's McGee all the time. If UM is a jam band, then it's a jam band that never gets lost, which I'm not sure is possible. Yet these guys seem to jam more every time I see them. This was obviously the most low-key of their five sets, but still a blast. It only remained for moe. to put the exclamation point on the weekend.

Their first set was cut short out of respect for Willie, ending with a lengthy, exuberant "32 Things," electric speedgrass that is surely one of moe.'s best tunes, with a jam that was joyous, then shoegaze-eerie and triumphant in the end, and better than anything I'd heard from moe. up to that point. The second set began with the popular "Plane Crash," and the band was really going from strength to strength. "Runaway Overlude" was another highlight, but it honestly brought a point home to me that I'd been failing to elucidate all weekend: moe. is still great, still able to blow minds, and has left its indelible mark on the scene... but it has evidently evolved as far as it can. Its peak progression has become its comfort zone. It happens to virtually any band that sticks around long enough, and fans will continue to champion moe. until its death, and rightfully so. But, just as few people would argue that The Dead are still evolving (although after this tour there are signs of serious life), moe. seems to be content with what it is rather than what it might yet be, and this may be the crux of why Umphrey's was the clear champion of Summer Camp 2009 - future potential adds incalculable excitement to any present greatness.

UM's sets were dominated by new material, while moe.'s old favorites are what the fans want to hear. One thing is clear to me: the dynamic of the unstated competition between the two bands drove each to greater heights of performance, and it elevated the excitement of Summer Camp all around. It will be interesting to see if UM eventually takes the reins of its home state's biggest festival, but it didn't really make any difference who played last; the elders generally get the place of honor, and moe. has certainly earned it.

As I capped my night with the very entertaining "Dub Side Of The Moon" set by the Easy Star All-Stars, a little more up-beat than I was expecting but every bit as cool as I'd hoped, I realized that I'd already gotten everything I could out of Summer Camp, and being in no mood to dance up a storm, called it a weekend, and a really good one at that. All you can hope for from any fest is a hassle-free experience and lots of great music, with the memory of a legendary set beyond all expectation being the real treasure of the weekend, at least for those who will remember it that way.

Brendan Bayliss - Umphrey's McGee :: Summer Camp 2009 by Smith
Continue reading for more pics of Summer Camp...

Images by: Chad Smith

Farag & Stasik - Umphrey's McGee
Toubab Krewe
Future Rock
56 Hope Road
Family Groove Company
Family Groove Company with Allie Kral (Cornmeal)

Check out these panoramic shots by Chad Smith as well:

Umphrey's Daytime set at The Sunshine Stage

EOTO Daytime Set at The Starshine Stage

Umphrey's Daytime Acoustic set

Continue reading for more pics of Summer Camp...

Images by: Chad Smith

Keller Williams
Mike Dillon
Los Lobos
Jon Scofield (MMSW)
Willie Nelson
Umphrey's McGee (acoustic)
Kris Myers - Umphrey's McGee
Chuck Garvey - moe.
Jim Loughlin - moe.
Rob Derhak - moe.

Continue reading for more pics of Summer Camp...

Images by: Norman Sands

That 1 Guy
Chicago Farmers
Easy Star All-Stars
Family Groove Company - Lebowski Set
Jaik Willis
Kris Nowak (Cornmeal)
Greensky Bluegrass
Girl Talk
Girl Talk
Keller Williams
Junior Brown

Continue reading for more pics of Summer Camp...

Images by: Norman Sands

Los Lobos
Willie Nelson
Umphrey's McGee
Brendan Bayliss - Umphrey's McGee
Rob Derhak - moe.
Chuck Garvey - moe.

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