Summer Camp | 05.21 - 05.24 | Illinois

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
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