Summer Camp 2011 | Review | Pics

Words by: Cal Roach | Images by: Brian Spady

Summer Camp Music Festival :: 05.26.11-05.29.11 :: Chillicothe, IL

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Summer Campers by Brian Spady
The most dominant player at every summer festival is Mother Nature. Sure, music can triumph over oppressive weather, but temperatures and storms can make or break the whole festival experience. Fortunately for attendees at this year’s Summer Camp Music Festival, it’s technically still spring, which meant mostly gorgeous weather for the weekend despite some brief periods of rain. Storms had ravaged the grounds in the days leading up to the fest causing a bit of a delay for early birds arriving Thursday for the pre-party, but all things considered, the crew did a magnificent job getting things cleaned up and traversable with minimal delay. After brutal lines for the first few hours, by evening, traffic into the fest was running smoothly and the party started off on the right foot.

There was only one persistent problem all weekend: just when it seemed as though the mud was going to dry up, a brief rainstorm would blow in and muck the grounds up again. Hiking through the sprawling tent city - tripping over abandoned flip-flops and broken sunglasses with sunburned ankles - these are the tenets of festival life, but following a fierce squall around midday on Sunday that uprooted quite a few tents and canceled a few of the day’s early sets, the whole place was a mud pit and there was no avoiding it. Fortunately, that was it for weather hassles, and while lots of fans are nursing sore feet and legs from fighting the suction of the ground all day and night, this year’s fest has to be considered one of the most successful yet.

Wildest Artist/Crowd Love-In - Bassnectar
There’s a reason the heavy-metal-dubstep DJ got the coveted right-before-headliner slot on the final night. This might have been the most packed the main stage was all weekend, and the gyrating, surging mass of people was a performance all its own. Bassnectar was visibly shaken and giddy, overcome by crowd love, and it was a seriously moving experience for others, too. Lots of musicians know how to work a crowd, but very few can just do exactly what they want to do and watch it become exactly what we want, too. The world is in for a letdown if this ever changes for Bassnectar, but right now he’s one of the most infectious, genuine performers on Planet Earth.

Gnome Icon by Brian Spady
Latest That-Guy Trend - Icons On Sticks
It was Andy Warhol’s dream come true at Summer Camp this year as Pee-wee Herman, Megaman, a Stormtrooper and the fish from The Cat In The Hat and all sorts of cute and/or humorous critters floated over the sea of heads. The bobbing, spinning mobile characters doubled as landmarks for keeping track of one’s crew, and you can be sure the people holding them aloft are combing the internet for videos of themselves today, right? I’m sure some folks were annoyed by this, but when Megaman fought and defeated the flamingo tied to a parrot, a monkey and a seahorse on his quest for high score during Widespread Panic’s set, I sure as hell smiled.

Best Guest Appearance - Jennifer Hartswick & Mad Dog's Filthy Little Secret Horns at Umphrey's McGee, Saturday night set
Remember when Guns N' Roses covered Paul McCartney ’s “Live And Let Die” and you thought, “Damn, that’s even better than the original?” You may be rethinking that rash statement now in your old age, but then along came this debut version from UM. Leave it to Umphrey’s to take that dinky little reggae-tinged interlude from the tune and turn it into an extended calypso horn workout. The song was way too short as it was, right? The horn arrangement plus Brendan Bayliss and Jake Cinninger’s metallic guitars gave us the musculature of the GN’R version with the symphonic melodrama of McCartney’s original, making the band’s Saturday night encore one of the indisputable highlights of the weekend.

Best Non-Musical Event - Jay Blakesberg’s Photography Workshop
The Q Music Unlimited Lounge was a cool little beanbag-strewn getaway that held artist photo shoots and autograph sessions as well as allowing fans to try out Sony’s new music subscription service. On Friday morning, renowned rock star photographer Jay Blakesberg showcased some of his best work over the years, shared tips on the business and technical aspects of the job, and most enthrallingly, regaled the crowd with tales of insane rock star behavior from folks like Tom Waits and Neil Young and the stories behind some of his best-known pictures.

Note: I did not participate in Field Day, a team-based series of events featuring everything from kickball to flip cup to Twister, but it was a popular new feature of the fest and deserves to be mentioned here as well.

Summer Campers by Brian Spady
Favorite New Discovery - The Mother Hips & Punch Brothers (tie)
Yeah, what can I say? I’m a little behind. The Mother Hips have only been around for twenty-odd years, building a substantial following on the West Coast with their blistering mixture of James Gang bluesy swagger and quirky Cracker-style, slightly proggy Americana. Bassist Scott Thunes is the band’s new secret weapon; the former Frank Zappa sideman was apparently coaxed out of semi-retirement in February, and he not only brings a unique stage presence to the group but his bass playing is remarkable, at once forceful and subtle. Together, they are the truly exceptional California bar band - American pub rock if there is such a thing, with traditional boogie playing straight man to the occasional Zappa-esque curveball and/or "Interstellar Overdrive" jam.

Summer Camp wouldn’t be complete without multiple helpings of bluegrass, and the Punch Brothers served up some of that but so much more. Yeah, it’s the traditional double bass/banjo/guitar/fiddle/mandolin setup, but these guys play several folkie styles, some of which can’t be clearly defined. There are frequent Celtic flavors in the arrangements, and significant shades of Flecktones-like complex-yet-sonorous weirdness, but then there are moments when the music gets all twisty-turny, barely existing within an actual key, yet the instruments are all somehow in tune. Punch Brothers possess a crazy group improv prowess as well as individual talents that will seriously bowl you right over if you’re not expecting it. In terms of sheer instrumental skill, they might have everyone else at the fest beat.

Biggest Problem That Needs To Be Addressed - The Barn
At Digital Tape Machine on Thursday night in the fest’s late night venue, a tiny red barn-like structure, the half-full room was already filling up with smoke, even though smoking isn’t allowed inside. By the time Papadosio finished its soundcheck, I could.not.breath, and I could not bring myself to go back in there the rest of the weekend. Something’s got to be done about the ventilation in that building, as even diehard STS9 fans were choked out and had to flee Sunday’s late-night show. And while we’re on the subject, the ploy of giving out late-night passes with VIP tickets to make more VIP money and wedge out regular fans is crap. Two different public sales of the late-nighters were downright impossible. If you’re going to put some of your biggest draws (STS9, moe., Lotus) up on the exclusive stage, you need to build a bigger barn. ‘Nuff said. And put some doggone windows on the thing while you’re at it.

moe. by Brian Spady
Weirdest Stunt - moe. performing an entire song on iPads
This is a band that’s not afraid to try anything. Fans squinted at the stage Saturday night when Al Schnier, Rob Derhak and Chuck Garvey came onstage for their second set and hunched over little tablets rather than playing instruments. Sure enough, the opening strains of “Crab Eyes” rang out, pretty disjointed at first but it didn’t take them long to sync up. I have no idea how it actually worked, but by the peak of the tune this was a legitimate piece of music. It was short, but even beyond its novelty it was a highlight of the set, which also included a pretty stellar 20-plus-minute “Recreational Chemistry” to close out the night.

Best First Set of the Day - Chicago Farmer
On the small Campfire Stage near The Barn, Cody Diekhoff came out at 11 o’clock Saturday morning to a pretty sizable crowd. Summer Camp does a good job of promoting local talent and Diekhoff - aka Chicago Farmer - continues to win fans across his home state of Illinois and draw in more people from all over. His plan is simple: play traditional folk songs and tell stories in a strong Arlo Guthrie vein, but with his own Midwestern twist. Humor is a big part of Diekhoff’s charm. “Like I always say, I hope you guys like songs,” he offered before playing a couple of his best, “Workin’ On It” and “26 Cops.” By this point he had the audience eating out of his hand, but a double shot of John Prine covers (“Angel From Montgomery” and “Spanish Pipedream”) never hurts. This was the perfect way to ease into your Saturday.

Umphrey's McGee by Brian Spady
Most Impressive Overall Set - STS9 (Friday)
Tough to call a BEST overall set, but what’s most exciting about this pocket of live improvisational music – i.e. the thing that keeps us all coming back over and over - is evolution. There’s no denying the impact STS9 has had on the jam band scene. The prevalence of electronic beats continues to grow, not just at Summer Camp but at every festival in the country, and that fusion with organic rock elements is something that STS9 has always done better than almost anybody else. But the band’s showcase 90-minute slot between Umphrey’s sets was far different from any I’d seen the band play before. Guitarist Hunter Brown has never been the most technically proficient axeman on the scene, but on Friday night I got the impression he was onto something, perhaps something akin to a truly distinct style, something he’s been lacking all these years. The band as a whole was more improvisational than I’ve ever witnessed, taking “Rent” on an incredible journey, tearing apart “Grizzly Bear” almost beyond recognition, and clearly jazzed up as they ended the set with new track “Scheme.” They were abrasive, they were forbidding, and they kinda stole the night.

Fest MVP - Umphrey’s McGee
I can only think of one band I honestly prefer to see outdoors, and it’s Umphrey’s. Maybe it’s wrong, maybe it indicates narcissism or egotism or a desperate hunger for fame, but the bigger the crowd, the better Umphrey’s seems to play. In more intimate settings I’ve been disappointed, but UM never disappoints at festivals, and the guys rose to the occasion again this weekend. Even before any UM sets, Cinninger was having a ball shredding with his old band Ali Baba's Tahini, and Joel Cummins and Kris Myers performed with Digital Tape Machine, while Bayliss was put on the spot for moe.’s encore Friday afternoon, a rousing cover of Jimmy Cliff’s classic “The Harder They Come.” Cinninger and Bayliss’s acoustic set in the Soulshine Tent was easily the most packed tent set of the fest, and through five full-band sets - including one as Huey Lewis’ backing band, The rUMors - there was scarcely a dull moment. Sure, a couple of the new tracks debuted came off pretty cheesy (“Hourglass” sounded disturbingly like a lost Extreme outtake, and “All In Time” was a bit rote), but time and again, you just couldn’t help but be astounded by the wizardry being performed on the Sunshine Stage.

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