My Trip to Cornerstone 2006
By Jim Sanders
Tents. Gyros. Dusty roads. Rows of port-a-potties. Why do I come back to this place over Fourth of July weekend every year? To this farm three and a half-hours north of St. Louis, three hours west of Chicago, and near nothing significant. Because this is the Cornerstone Festival, confluence of wonderful music, interesting films, a diverse array of people, assorted sundry weirdness, and a genuine spirit of creativity and Christians getting together to have a great time. So this past July I trekked here for the tenth time. It I go anywhere ten times in my life, it had better be someplace significant. But Cornerstone is a unique place unlike anything else, and certainly a lot more fun than getting lost in half a million people at the Fourth of July fair on the St. Louis riverfront, straining to catch a glimpse of Hootie and the Blowfish on a distant stage.
So it on the evening of July 4th, I pulled onto the familiar dirt road lined on both sides with tents and kids dressed in black wandering around. I found a camping spot next to the lake, and just down the hill from the main gathering of seminar tents, the barn that houses the Flickerings film festival, and the Gyros stand. After setting up my humble dome tent, I stood back satisfied at the air mattress and sleeping bag that would separate me from the hard ground as I slept. I hoped the shadow from the small tree standing sentinel over my campsite wouldn't totally disappear by the morning. But put those thoughts aside. The merchandise tent was calling. I always try to get my splurge of cheap CDs at Radrockers over with first thing when I get here. As I walked into the tent I heard a Servant CD playing in the tiny boom box sitting behind the cash register in the RadRockers corner. It brought back memories of youth groups in the early 1980s when I was taught to listen to Christian rock instead of "secular" music with lyrics glorifying sex and drugs. Now my musical tastes and discerning abilities have matured quite a bit since then. But "Heidelberg Blues" is a pretty cool song; the cheesy keyboard sounds on the rest of the Rocking Revival CD notwithstanding. I picked up a bag filled with the sounds of my Christian youth for less than thirty bucks, enough for many trips down memory lane. That will wait until after Cornerstone, though, because I have four days of music ahead of me.
I started to walk back toward my tent when saw the flicker of a movie screen through the opening of the Imaginarium tent. Curious, I walked in and entered the surreal world of the first Imaginarium Bad Movie Night. Tonight's film is Night of the Lepus, a 1970s horror film about a town attacked by genetically altered killer rabbits. Is that horror or horrible, I can't decide. But the dialogue is so atrocious and the effects of rabbits magnified through camera trickery, I had a good time listening to the Mystery Science Theater 3000-style commentary provided by the audience. But as I sauntered back to my tent that night, I hoped I didn't have any dreams about killer rabbits, or snakes on planes.
The next morning, I awoke early. Fortunately, unlike last year, I wasn't serenaded by AC/DC blasting from someone's stereo. I wandered through the grounds, which were quiet at this early hour of 10:00 AM. I stopped by Camp 77s to meet some Cornerstone regulars, and then met more old friends at the RMC BBQ. OK, RMC, an old Usenet newsgroup doesn't exist anymore. And it wasn't a BBQ. But I enjoyed the opportunity to dine on sandwiches and cake at the Cornerstone Press Tent with people I've known for a few years from the Daniel Amos Discussion List (DADL) and the Phantom Tollbooth. I pick up some rare Prodigal and Charlie Peacock cassettes from the grab bag, and then walk out to hear the unmistakable rumble of drums, roaring guitars, and growls that sound like a herd of constipated buffalo. Yes, Cornerstone is underway, with emo and screamo bands playing on makeshift stages set up among the campsites. After ten Cornerstones, I have learned to tune out the screamers. However, one band of group burly men in black T-shirts with hair hanging down to their navels gets my attention. They flung their hair violently back and forth like they are participating in a charismatic religious revival while high on speed. What's even better, instead of the standard screamo generic crunching guitar rhythm, they are playing some kind of 1980s speed metal riff. I feel like I've entered a time warp and it's 1989 all over again! All they need is for one of the guys to whirl his head in a circular motion and fling his hair like a pinwheel, and I'll swear I'm watching Vengeance Rising again. The hair flinging is entertaining to watch for a few minutes, and then I walk away, but not before noticing the name of this stage: the Lori Ann stage. I have no idea who Lori Ann is, but I'll have to ask her if she'll book Deliverance next year.
Behind the hair flingers an actual tent is set up, which means I can grab some shade! There I saw some real music: acoustic sets by Darren Oliver and by Jeff Elbel and some members of Ping. Only for this afternoon only, he has changed the name of his band to the best name I've ever seen at Cornerstone: Pilate Error. If I knew how to play guitar, I would steal that name for my own band. They played a few Ping songs before closing with a classic American song: Kenny Rogers' The Gambler. After basking in the glory of this inspiring tale of instruction in the sport of Texas Hold 'Em, I followed some friends to the Cornerstone Press Tent to see the Lost Dogs and the 77s give press conferences. Only one dog was present, Mike Roe, along with Steve Hindalong, but they had a good rapport with the folks from the Phantom Tollbooth. The thing that was pretty neat was meeting a guy who had waited his whole life to finally make it to Cornerstone and see his favorite bands, the Lost Dogs and the '77s. I remember the first time I saw the '77s at Cornerstone '92, and the euphoria of seeing live the band I had been listening to on CD and cheap cassettes for years. I knew this guy was going to have the time of his life.
After some Gyros for dinner, I sauntered over the to Flickerings barn to introduce myself to the film festival. I missed the first afternoon screening to watch Jeff Elbel's Kenny Rogers' impersonation, so I was happy to catch up with Mike Hertenstein and Doug Cummings, whom I met at last year's Flickerings festival. Tonight's film was a French documentary called The Gleaners and I. It was a look at the people who pick the leftovers of crop harvests, picking up what is missed by the machinery. I enjoyed the warm and whimsical tribute to the people who get left behind by modern progress. But I have to admit; I was distracted, looking ahead to the highlight of every year's Cornerstone, The Lost Dogs! And as a bonus this year, the 77s were scheduled to appear for the first time since 2003. And the show was every bit as incredible as these bands always deliver. The Lost Dogs played an energized set due to having a new CD out, and their new songs were terrific. Their harmonies evoked the great vocal groups like Crosby Stills Nash and Young. (Kids, if you don't know who those guys are, ask your dad. He was jamming on them in 1970). And during the show, Terry Taylor did some of his classic shtick. He displayed a collection of barely edible collections of disgusting sugar snacks sold in gas station convenience stores. He pulled out an unlit cigar like he was having his picture taken for the cover of Cigar Aficionado magazine. A cigar at a Christian Music festival, what a scandal? What's next, a Lynrd Skynrd cover? Finally, Terry shared the story of going to a Barry McGuire concert in the 1970s, and hearing an uptight Christian couple behind him comment on whether Barry was anointed or "in the flesh" depending on whether he sung his Christian songs or one of his oldies from his days in the clean cut but still "secular" New Christy Minstrels. In that spirit, Terry produced a cardboard meter with a pointer that displayed whether he and his band mates were "in the flesh" or "anointed". Of course, Derri and Mike were "in the flesh" and Terry was always "anointed." After finishing with "Eleanor It's Raining", featuring a Mike Roe guitar solo that could bring tears to ones eyes (very "anointed" despite what the Throne-o-Meter might say), the 77s took the stage and rocked the midnight gathering. Even when Mike Roe tried to tell a joke, causing Derri to walk across the stage with the Throne-o-meter pegged on "in the flesh", it couldn't eclipse his guitar prowess. Another thing that was special was seeing a guy in the audience who I met at the press conference, who had waited all his life to make it to Cornerstone and finally see his favorite bands, the Lost Dogs and 77s. As he stared at the band in awe like a young girl seeing the Beatles for the first time in 1966, I thought, "that's what rock and roll can do." Things got even sweeter at the end of the set when the 77s ended with two classic songs from the '80s: "Can't Get Over It" and "Do it for Love" that evoked memories of the band closing their '92 set with the song, where I joined the audience in singing the chorus for fifteen minutes after the band left the stage.