May 16, 2012

The Cornerstone Festival Is Shutting Its Doors

The storied Christian music and arts festival is shutting its doors after this year’s festival, marking the end of an era.

Earlier this week, the Cornerstone Festival — arguably one of the most influential Christian music and arts festivals of all time — announced on Facebook that the 2012 festival would be its last.

Through our peak years in the 90s when tens of thousands celebrated this festival’s amazing unity-in-diversity amid the Midwestern countryside, to more recent belt-tightening days, we’ve traveled our ups and downs together in a way that will be a part of our lives forever.

In 2012, we’ll be celebrating one final Cornerstone Festival together. Based on a range of factors — including changes in the market and a difficult economy — the timing seems right. This was obviously a hard decision, wrestled with over years and particularly over recent months. But with the decision made, we have the opportunity to come together one last time and bring to a happy, grateful — if tearful — close to this chapter of our lives.

Read the full statement, and if you’ve ever attended the festival even just once, try not to get a little misty-eyed.

Long-time readers of Opus will know that, for many years, this site consisted primarily of three things: music and movie reviews, and Cornerstone coverage. Come the first week of July, I would make the trek to Bushnell, Illinois along with a group of Nebraska friends. We’d invariably meet up with a host of new and old friends from around the world once we got there, and spend the next week hanging out, seeing awesome concerts, and generally enjoying what several of us came to consider a true slice of heaven on earth.

As I reflect back on my Cornerstone attendance — I made it to the festival eight times, if I remember correctly — I’m quickly overwhelmed with memories and nostalgia. There were, of course, so many memorable concerts: the legendary S.S. Bountyhunter performances in 2000 and 2001; Ester Drang’s worshipful July 4, 2001 set; Havalina’s marathon midnight shows; and Velour 100’s unplugged set in 1997. And there are so many more: Starflyer 59, Fine China, Unwed Sailor, Fold Zandura, Joy Electric, Professor Small, Busker Kibbutznik, Farquar Muckenfuss, The Elevator Division, The People… the list goes on.

Many of these bands no longer exist, but the memories do. What’s more, the festival became so identified with all that was awesome in music that when I was in a band — remember A Dim Halo, anyone? — performing in the “New Band Showcase” would’ve been a clear sign to me that we’d “made it,” even moreso than a record contract.

Another highlight was in 2007, when I was asked to be a speaker and presenter at the festival’s “Flickerings” film program. That year’s theme was Japanese pop culture, and it was a privilege to go up front every night and discuss beloved anime films and series. The screening of Haibane Renmei, and the subsequent discussion, certainly ranks among my favorite Cornerstone moments.

But, above all else, there were the people. Names and faces come racing back to me and I could try and list them all, but there are just too many for a simple blog entry. It was always a thrill to return to Cornerstone and see familiar faces, faces that I’d only see once a year at that festival ground in the middle of nowhere. Sadly, I haven’t spoken to some of them in a decade or more and I doubt we’d recognize each other now — such is the cruel passage of time. But I vividly remember the countless campsite and post-concert conversations, many of which took place until the wee hours of the morning and sometimes during some pretty nasty weather. Sometimes the conversations were deep and thoughtful, but oftentimes, they were just silly and fun, a group of kids hanging out and enjoying everybody else’s company to the utmost.

Indeed, these faces were so integral to my Cornerstone experience that the 2007 festival was somewhat bittersweet. I was attending with my wife — it was her first Cornerstone festival — and as I showed her around the festival grounds, I sadly came to realize that only a very small handful of familiar faces were present. But without everyone who I had come to consider friends despite only seeing them once a year, how could my wife hope to really and truly experience Cornerstone? How could I?

Of course, none of this would’ve been possible without the unceasing prayers and efforts of Jesus People USA. I can only imagine the sort of pressure and stress that they were under every year to put on the festival — which, from what I’ve gathered, often broke the bank. But they clearly saw it as a ministry and an outreach (and maybe even an act of worship), they poured their hearts and souls into it, and I never had anything but a safe and wonderful time there.

I have always imagined one last Cornerstone hurrah, that some time in the not-too-distant future, my friends and I would once again descend on Bushnell, Illinois in our mid-life glory, our families in tow. We’d see lots of great bands and enjoy even more late night campsite conversations (the sillier the better). We’d regale each other with stories from Cornerstones past. Our kids would nerd out at the Imaginarium, we’d enjoy steak sandwiches and cheap ice cream at the food court, and we’d once again brave the outhouses and unpredictable weather. In hindsight, that was always a fantasy, and even moreso now. But therein lies the festival’s legacy. It is so deeply ingrained that I can’t imagine any such gathering happening at any other place but Cornerstone… or heaven.

Earlier, I described the festival as a “true slice of heaven on earth,” and I say that with all sincerity. I have written previously of my view of heaven as a place of reunion, and that is what Cornerstone has always represented for me, smelly outhouses and rank showers notwithstanding. The end of the Cornerstone Festival truly marks the end of an era, and there will never be another like it. Not on this side of eternity, anyways.

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