The last day of the festival, and unlike previous years, I was actually relieved to see it come. A week of excessive heat and humidity was enough to batter the senses and resolve of any festgoer, regardless of how ardent a music fan they were. But I was also feeling battered in another way.
I was tired of seeing (or hearing) countless bands that all sounded just alike. Much of the diversity that I had loved in previous festivals was either absent, or hidden behind a heat-induced haze. Nevertheless, today promised to be one of the redeeming moments of the week.
As always, the day kicked off at the New Band Stage, this time to catch The Elevator Division. Given that they’re friends of mine, I feel less than objective when I say their set knocked me on my butt. This was the first time I had seen them with their new guitarist (Jeremiah), who did a great deal to adding more depth and intensity to their music (despite being out of tune for part of the first song).
Their set featured material from their new Whatever Makes You Happy EP (the one with the crazy cardboard packaging). Building on the sound of their Movement album, the new songs got downright anthemic at times, and Jeremiah’s solo in “Whatever Makes You Happy” was one of the coolest things I heard all week.
Great band, great guys… why aren’t they signed yet?
I had not planned to catch Unwed Sailor’s set today (their second of the festival), due to a film screening at that time. And besides, I’ve seen Unwed Sailor so many times… but when I found out they’d be joined by members of Ester Drang… well, I’d be stupid to pass that up. What I got was an unexpected treat, as the band played music from their upcoming The Marionette and the Musicbox album.
It was very sparse and subtle, with a great deal of samples, keyboards, and sound collages. At times I was even reminded of Lucid and After The Flood, and I’m really looking forward to the new album to see how they develop this sound. If nothing else, it made for a very welcome change of pace, and seemed at odds with much of what had assaulted my ears this week.
Back to the New Band stage to catch a bit of Antifany, an acoustic/folk act out of Tulsa, Oklahoma. The singer’s voice really hit me, with its waifish quality and beauty. Although not completely my cup of tea, it would be fine music for a more indoors setting, such as a coffeehouse or bookstore.
Before heading down to the Main Stage to catch Pedro The Lion, we all decided to head over to the Silent Planet stage to catch some of the Over The Rhine’s acoustic set. We caught the last 1/3 or so of Riki Michele, which became one of the fest’s hidden gems for me. Michele’s blend of trip-hop, electronica, and downtempo music completely caught me off guard, and after only a couple songs, I had to get the CD. What I was hearing felt like it belonged in some trendy club in SoHo or San Francisco, not the middle of Illinois… but I wasn’t about to complain.
Over the Rhine began playing at the same time as a hardcore band on the Underground Stage, which just happened to be right next to the Silent Planet stage. You have to love that sense of timing. Since we were sitting just outside the tent, Over The Rhine’s music was effectively drowned out for us.
Now, I wasn’t sure if I was going to head over to the Main Stage. I was tired, didn’t want to walk that far, and besides, I’ve seen Pedro the Lion so many times. But after some cajoling from my friends (who threatened to disown me for life if I didn’t go), I walked down there. And as soon as I got there, I was ready to leave, as a peppy missionary was trying to convince the crowd to get more active in world missions… just before proclaiming Pedro the Lion was one of her favorite bands and tossing out the beach ball. I felt like I was back in Junior High, and as I looked at my friends, I sensed I wasn’t the only one.
But as soon as Pedro the Lion started playing, all of that was forgotten. Yes, it seemed strange to see David Bazan playing the Main Stage, simple because his music is about as un-Main Stage as it gets. But it was still one of the best shows of the year, sound-wise, crowd-wise, and Spirit-wise.
Thanks to some guitar problems, Bazan had time for his famous Q and A sessions. Some questions were dumb (one crowdmember asked if he should shave his beard), but most were good, solid questions. Someone asked about the rough language on the new album, another asked about Bazan’s (in)famous essay, and another asked why Bazan had changed his mind about playing Cornerstone this year. I’d heard his answer a few months back in Kansas City, but I still loved hearing his response because it just revealed how solidly and seriously Bazan takes his art.
Then, perhaps one of the fest’s biggest miracles happened for me. I was videotaping as much of the set as I could, right up until the moment my battery died during “Secret of the Easy Yoke.” Normally, I’d be a little pissed, but something happened right there… I experienced one of truest moments of worship I’d experienced in a long time. The words of the song (“Could someone please tell me the story/Of sinners ransomed from the Fall/I still have never seen you/And sometimes I don’t love you at all”) seemed more relevant than they ever have. I’d forgotten how amazing, how real, and how personal that song was.
And so I stood there, a dead camera hanging by my side, my head tilted back and tears streaming down my face as I sang words that I’d been meaning to say for a long time.
But the cold reality smacked me in the face as soon as the song was over, as a comedian came running out before the sound had died down, pumping up the crowd for the rest of the night. It seemed like such a shame. One minute, I was experiencing true worship for the first time in I don’t know how long, the next I was listening to gender and racial jokes. But I still hold onto that fleeting moment.
I had some time to kill until the final show of the night, so I wondered around the grounds with Jesse, a guy from Idaho and one of the regulars on the Vagrant Cafe. I caught the tail end of the Lost Dogs, and then made my way to the front for Woven Hand, only to find some friends waiting for me. Together, we experienced the festival’s best show, one that closed the festival on a perfect note for me.
Woven Hand is a side-project of David Eugene Edwards, better known as the leader of Sixteen Horsepower, a band whose music I love. Woven Hand delves into the same roots as Sixteen Horsepower — dark American folk music mixed with haunting lyrics of fire, brimstone, and redemption (like a Southern Gothic rendition of O Brother Where Art Thou?). I honestly don’t think that many in the crowd knew what to expect that night, but I don’t think anyone who was there will soon forget it.
I’ve heard that Edwards was an intense performer, but what I experienced that night held me transfixed. Edwards looked like a mad prophet, singing with a passion that was almost strange to look at and a gaze that could burn holes in the tent. He’d stomp his feet, gaze off into space, and mumble things under his breath… as if he was hearing things that noone else could. And the music… Oh my Lord. It was beautiful, haunting, moving, frightening… all at once.
As I walked away from the tent that night, I felt like I had experienced something special. This was what Cornerstone was about for me, seeing an artist truly on the edge of the Christian “culture” that permeates our lives so much share his unique and haunted view on matters of faith. After dealing with one too many punk bands, after seeing all of the subcultures strut around attempting to be as “rebellious” as possible, Woven Hand delivered perhaps the most “rebellious” show of them all. And, as always, 99% of the people at the fest didn’t even know it happened.
*Sigh* Oh well… there’s always next year. Thanks to the likes of Rosie Thomas, Pedro the Lion, and Woven Hand, I have hope again.