Summer Camp: Tried, True & Twelve

Written by Cal Roach / Photos by Amber Jennings

June 11, 2012

 

The give and take of festival life means sacrificing certain niceties in order to gorge on great music.  It’s not for everybody; if your eight hours of sleep, your clean toilet, your temperature-controlled shower, your air-conditioning or your not-being-covered-in-dirt-all-day are higher priorities than your four days of nonstop music, Summer Camp Festival 2012 would have been a terrible time for you.  Conditions like these–i.e., temps in the 90s and so dry that the grounds became a nonstop mild dust storm–will try even the seasoned festival-goer or tourhead, forcing folks to skip out on music for shade and/or crash early from exhaustion, and that’s not to mention the film of filth that had coated everyone and everything by Friday’s end.

 

Even after you’ve steeled yourself against the elements, you still have to deal with the human element, which becomes more distracting by the year.  Remember the first time you saw Megaman bouncing above the crowd at a festival?  That was kinda cool, eh?  Sort of like the first time you saw a glowstick war?  Nowadays you’ll see dozens of home-made talismans of varying degrees of complexity and size parading around over the crowd on sticks, and if you’re not careful, you’ll find yourself at some moment realizing you were so intent on trying to figure out what that thing is that you’ve forgotten what song you’re listening to.  In the post-Warhol world, the obsession with being known beyond those who know you is getting out of control, and the fan-interaction aspect of live music that gained so much momentum with Phish has now become a competition for attention.  Yes, we know you’re just making sure your crew can find you, but we’re trying to watch the band.  Couldn’t you just gab loudly like all the other rude people intent on taking away from others’ enjoyment of the show?

Of course, there’s a simple solution for those driven to the verge of jaded-vet status: close your eyes.  Do you really need to see another mind-blowing array of laser beams?  If the music is good enough, what’s the point of looking at the tiny guys standing on the stage?  As it turned out, in spite of all the distractions, the music was good enough at Summer Camp this year.  This festival more than any other has remained true to its original spirit, the one that many have abandoned many years ago in favor of hype (in the name of diversity, of course): a focus on danceable grooves and extended improvisation.  Some people call ‘em jams.

 

BOOKENDS: HEADLINERS & OUTLIERS

 

Unlike some sweltering festivals taking place in the middle of summer or in the South, it’s not usually too tough to get a decent night’s sleep in Chillicothe, so you have no excuse not to check out some of the early acts, especially if your tastes range to the exotic.  Summer Camp likes to stick weird bands that aren’t easily categorized in that not-coveted noon slot regardless of notability, and oftentimes these wind up being some of the most amazing sets of the weekend (see also: Secret Chiefs 3 in ’09).  Friday and Sunday proved true to form in this respect, both days starting with artists who would also play spectacular shows later on.  Noon, opening day, was unquestionably the least-easily-categorizable show of the weekend: The Dead Kenny G’s, featuring the inimitable Skerik on saxophone and keyboards, Mike Dillon on percussion and Brad Houser on bass and baritone sax.  After seeing this band, you can’t help feeling a little ripped off for the next couple of sets because the musicians only ever play one instrument at a time.  Resplendent in curly brown wigs, the guys bulldozed through a set that was loud, spastic, utterly engrossing and mind-bogglingly energetic.  A person could spend all day trying to determine what time signatures were used during this set, but for best results, just bob along disjointedly and take it as it comes.

Some were fortunate enough to gain access to the late-night set in the Red Barn for an encore performance by DKG’s that also featured Les Claypool and, for much of the set, Primus’s Jay Lane on drums.  Claypool isn’t one to surrender control of a performance, so it should have been a surprise to no one (and a delight to everyone) that this set was all Claypool tunes, particularly because this lineup is essentially a reunion of the initial incarnation of Claypool’s Fancy Band (minus Gabby LaLa).  As such, Houser played a minimal role, though he was essential for achieving “the brown note,” and for the most part Claypool and Skerik jousted with each other for an hour and a half whilst Lane and Dillon went nuts behind them, as though this group had never ceased touring together.  Start to finish, this was the most impressive set–and musically satisfying day–of the weekend.

While we’re at it, Claypool’s other band headlined the main stage Friday, and this was no ordinary Primus show.  Lane is far more open to Les’s jamband tendencies than any of Primus’s previous drummers, and as a result, the band’s psychedelic tendencies tend to dominate its metal roots these days.  Some nights are all Les, but this set’s mind-blowings were split evenly between him and guitarist Larry LaLonde, who after three decades playing in this band never loses a step.  The way these two string-pickers create tapestries of sound (including their omnipresent jams that sound just like Pink Floyd’s “On The Run”) is unique in musicdom.  A guest appearance by members of Gogol Bordello transformed “Over The Falls” into a totally unpredictable series of musical detours complete with a peculiar scat-battle between Les and Eugene Hütz, but by far the most talked-about jam of the night (if not the whole festival) happened when Bob Weir came onstage as the band steered out of “The Eyes Of The Squirrel” and into a full-on “The Other One.”  It’s one thing to see Weir play slow versions of Dead tunes on acoustic guitar, but what we all really want is to see him onstage with an electric guitar and a band that knows how to jam, right?  Yep, this is the stuff that festival dreams are made of.

Sunday started off with a performance by Banyan, a somewhat obscure but beloved side project of Jane’s Addiction drummer Stephen Perkins.  A motley drum circle paraded Perkins across the field to the Moonshine Stage shortly past noon, and the band played an hour-plus set of mostly improvisation, including several intense, layered walls of noise that threatened to flatten the sparse crowd.  Particularly impressive was saxophonist Herman Green (celebrating his 82nd birthday!); he and trumpeter Willie Waldman provided the most interesting solos and most of the cacophony.  Moe.’s Rob Derhak filled in on bass, anchoring the grooves admirably with Perkins’ universally superb drumming.  The only relative weak link was guitarist/violinist Clint Wagner; although he was undeniably impressive, he favored speed and dexterity over musicality for his solos, and his violin work particularly was somewhat distracting in that he soloed on it with such a guitar sensibility that he might as well have just been playing a guitar.  Marco Villarreal of Freek Johnson joined in for the last couple of jams and honestly provided much more interesting guitar textures, but to be fair, Wagner was great when he wasn’t taking the spotlight, and the peculiar set overall was a very danceable, occasionally esoteric highlight of the day.

Perkins returned to the stage that night with Jane’s Addiction, of course, and although his improvisational abilities weren’t utilized nearly as much, his distinctive style powered a surprisingly vital and genuine set by the influential alt-rockers.  Singer Perry Farrell has had a tendency to spout obviously recycled and frequently awkward (for a 53-year-old) banter at shows during his band’s current reunion phase, but while there were certainly a few premeditated bon-mots, he was generally engaged with the crowd and laid-back, sounding more like the Perry of the 80s.  Okay, he may be a bit out of touch; he marveled at what he called “dayglo sticks” bombarding the stage and reacted to them with some hilarious vulgarities, but in general he was affable in his interactions with the crowd, and his singing was unassailably powerful.  Guitarist Dave Navarro was also much looser and more inclined to improvise than he seemed a couple of years ago; even beyond soloing, he stuck a lot of alternative effects and styles into the riffs on such classics as “Mountain Song,” “Ain’t No Right” and “Ted, Just Admit It…”  The whole band was phenomenal on “Three Days;” original bassist Eric Avery was missed but what can ya do?  And the encore of “Chip Away” was unexpected and delightful, featuring Perry screeching and everybody else on percussion.  The new songs lacked spark and the scantily-clad dancers and other visual stimuli were a bit tacky, but it was a monster of a performance, heavier and less subtly fascinating than the band was in the old days but by no means the stale rehash one might expect.

 

THE DECADE CLUB

 

Two Chicago bands were celebrating their tenth year at Summer Camp in 2012, and both made a strong case for their continued presence here.  Cornmeal was the easy choice for pre-party highlight; those who arrived on Thursday were treated to an excellent set at the Starshine Stage that night.  Plenty of groups in the past decade or so have made the predictable transition from bluegrassy styles to full-blown jamband, but few have done it in a more naturalistic or ultimately successful fashion than Cornmeal.  The band showed a true proclivity for radical departure from song structure, stretching out into darker and stranger territory than most bands of its ilk a few times while never losing direction.  The band also got a deserved prime spot on the main stage Friday evening, playing a more straightforward, less scary set in the waning daylight.  It was perhaps less intriguing than Thursday’s set, but it did give Allie Kral more opportunities to wow the crowd with her superb fiddle playing.  (The band also played a super late-night set on the Campfire Stage Friday night which we regretfully can’t comment on.)  It’s safe to say that Summer Camp wouldn’t feel quite right without Cornmeal.

Since its first year here in 2003, Umphrey’s McGee has gone from upstart/late-night hero to co-curator of the event, and in five sets this weekend (not including the super-exclusive VIP something-or-other that happened in the church on Saturday) these guys proved to be the most consistently excellent performers of the fest.  The thing that sticks out the most about Umphrey’s is a clear dedication to being well-rehearsed that can’t be faked.  The precision and cohesion with which these cats play their instruments immediately makes most other bands seem sloppy by comparison, regardless of how you might feel about their music.  Guitarists Jake Cinninger and Brendan Bayliss have taken the Thin Lizzy notion of twin lead guitars to its most blistering extreme, and the cozy interplay bleeds from intricate composition into the supreme peaks of their improvisation with a proficiency not seen in any other band.  As Summer Campers might hope, it’s the full-band excursions as much as the prog-rock delicacies that set UM above the pack.

Of the band’s three shows, Saturday was the top of the heap, stringing together so many UM heavy-hitters it was almost oppressive.  Number one was a classic “Bridgeless” set, bringing to mind the band’s last show at the main stage back in 2009 before officially making the Sunshine Stage home base.  Tonight’s version was perhaps less fiery, more based on precision staccato funk and several fruitful melodic themes prior to dissolving into “Utopian Fir.”  This beast took a bit long to develop, and Joel Cummings’ contributions on keyboard were at times cheesy and incongruous (throughout the set, actually), but once the jam got going in earnest it was unstoppable, rising and falling with an almost digitally precise tension/release swagger.  The set only gained momentum from here with the anthemic “August” and then “1348,” which has truly come into its own as a vehicle, body-slamming its way brilliantly into the “Bridgeless” reprise and its glittery climax.

Set two got going with a sparkling, garagey “Hurt Bird Bath,” Jake and Brendan carving out mesmerizing competing licks over and over.  Then “Nothing Too Fancy” seemed about to fizzle when the band basically tacked on a supercharged mega-rock jam.  The walloping continued with “The Triple Wide,” probably the jam of the night, which wound its way through various textures of moody electrofunk, ambient slow metal and disco twang before grinding way down and surrendering to “Hangover.”  For folks who can appreciate the conceptual compositional nature of Umphrey’s shows, the return to “1348” that spewed out of this latter jam was sublime.  By this point Cummings had totally redeemed himself; he very nearly dominated this set, and the band was on such a tear that even the predictable “All In Time” encore roared.  Friday night’s two sets were excellent as well, but front to back it’s tough to beat the onslaught Umphrey’s laid down on Saturday.

 

OFF THE BEATEN PATH

 

It wouldn’t be a festival without a below-the-radar discovery or two; if you don’t check out the small stages you’re bound to miss out on some potential breakout artists.  This year the nod goes to Grand Rapids quintet Ultraviolet Hippopotamus, and keyboardist Dave Sanders in particular.  In one of the most outright impressive jams of the weekend, UVHippo’s Saturday evening Camping Stage set ended with a song called “Tugboat” in which Sanders was constantly playing wildly varying lead and rhythm parts at once and making it look easy.  The band’s funk/prog/jam combination is nothing new in itself, but the musicianship is top notch and has its own peculiar humor and feel to it, very much in debt equally to Zappa and King Crimson (fine antecedents, no?).

Also impressive was L.A. funk/soul combo Orgone, who managed to inspire a surprising amount of energy out of the Campfire Stage crowd on a sweltering Saturday afternoon.  Singer Nikki Crawford (who replaced founding vocalist, Fanny Franklin, in 2011) is the star, only appearing for select tunes but injecting a silky smooth yet kinetic stage presence whenever she’s out there.  The band came off as a decidedly modern, more R&B-inflected update on the Galactic platform.  The only problem was that guitarist Sergio Rios was hard to hear, even barely audible at times;  but he had some great original riffs in his arsenal, reminiscent of G.E. Smith at times.  Despite this issue, the band exuded much-needed stamina and clearly inspired some second-wind action for the crowd.

Finally, if the names Chicago Farmer and Cody Diekhoff aren’t familiar to you yet, you are missing out.  Summer Camp’s resident folk singer is developing a sizable following thanks to his instantly memorable tunes and unforgettable stage persona, reminiscent of a young Arlo Guthrie, but his Sunday afternoon set at the Campfire Stage–one of the biggest gatherings there all weekend–will be immortalized in the minds of those who caught it less for the songs and more for the sheer awesomeness of its ending.  Cody set down his acoustic guitar and plugged in a laptop, and in an inspired zeitgeist capture, proceeded to set a “dubstep” beat in motion and then pummel the laptop with a baseball bat.  There was not a soul in the crowd who didn’t wish this symbolic slaughter of dubstep would translate to real life.

 

THE WEEKEND IN COVERS

 

Topping this writer’s list in the covers category: Keller Williams, joined by the venerable Al Schnier on guitar for a loopy extended take on “Born To Be Wild.”  Keller has been busy with various band projects for a good part of the past decade but none has been nearly as entertaining as his one-man band oeuvre, and it was a true thrill to see this return-to-form performance from the scene’s resident jack of all trades.  Even for those who are sick to death of bluegrass co-opting every song ever written (AHEM), this grass-tinged version of the Steppenwolf hit felt like a warm embrace from an old friend in Keller’s capable hands, and the sheer delight he and Al expressed in tandem was the perfect encapsulation of what Summer Camp is all about.

Gov’t Mule, well-known for prolific cover versions, failed similarly to capture the grandiosity of Led Zeppelin’s “Trampled Underfoot” Saturday evening, although Warren Haynes & co. shone brightly on a “Hunger Strike”/”Dear Mr. Fantasy” sandwich that developed out of a “The Other One” jam; perhaps Warren was in attendance for the Primus set the previous night?  Galactic pulled off a much sweeter Zep cover on Sunday with a rousing “Kashmir” as well as a frenzied take on Living Colour’s “Cult Of Personality.”  It seemed to take forever, but Corey Glover has finally grown into his role as House Man’s successor in a way none of the band’s previous part-time vocalists ever managed.  Aside from a curiously subdued performance by drummer Stanton Moore, this was the most energetic Galactic has been in ages, highlighted also by a couple Dirty Dozen Brass Band cameos for “Who Took The Happiness.”

A close second favorite cover of the weekend was the sax-driven barrage of Dead Kennedys’ “Kill The Poor” by The Dead Kenny G’s (natch) on Friday–and in fact, a slew of punk rock covers that peppered the bizarre set.  Umphrey’s also threw in a couple of humdingers, manhandling Tool’s “Forty Six & 2” on Friday and careening through Rush’s “Tom Sawyer” on Saturday (a heroic effort on the Geddy Lee vox, but ultimately kind of hilarious).  Also entertaining was Family Groove Company’s rollicking version of Wilco’s “I’m The Man Who Loves You,” showing a little Chi-town solidarity.  FGC is another perennial fave at Summer Camp; after eight straight years here, the Chicago trio has become a quintessential element, reliably sunny and upbeat and always a good time.

 

VETERANS OR DINOSAURS?

 

This year’s festival featured a generous array of jam-scene legends, but when all was said and done the old guard couldn’t compete musically with the younger generation.  High on the anticipation list was the Weir, Robinson, Greene Acoustic Trio, which was certainly worth checking out because, well, it’s a guy from The Dead singing Dead songs, but at what point does singing this bad make the endeavor no longer worthwhile?  Chris Robinson has a fine voice on his own, but so many of his attempts to harmonize with Weir wound up as woefully imprecise notes clashing against the feeble sense of key that the three acoustic guitars provided.  The set was an uneasy mixture of sentimental pleasure and cringing.

Leftover Salmon fared much better with its laid-back, summery stroll through music that makes it impossible not to imagine that the group’s name is a tribute to Hot Tuna.  Undoubtedly, Salmon gives the impression of a band that only gets up the gumption to play shows on rare occasions these days, but these lazy, nonthreatening grooves were perfect for the energy-sapping Friday afternoon heat, and the ease with which these guys blend their various shades of twang, Zydeco and rock and roll remind you that they were playing “Americana” way before the word became a genre tag.

It’s safe to say that moe. has earned its elder-statesmen badge at this point, which isn’t to say that the band is outdated or irrelevant, but Al and Rob have surely reached the point where their new songs sound like songs written by old men.  Such is life; while the band’s process of evolution has clearly slowed, there are still marquee jams going on at moe. shows.  One of the best things about this festival is tracing paths of influence, and with the leapfrogging sets throughout the weekend it’s easy to recognize the fact that moe. invented the style that Umphrey’s now plays.  But as Umphrey’s has diversified and gotten more aggressive over the years, moe. has mellowed, so it was particularly satisfying when the band followed its muse into some fascinating dark places during Saturday night’s “Moth” and epic “Meat.”  This was not only the longest but by far the most dynamic and thoroughly captivating moe. jam of the festival, and the whole second set Saturday night was enough to earn the respect of any skeptics.

Sunday night was a different story, though.  Despite crowd favorites like “Rebubula” and “Captain America” and a very well-constructed set on paper, the band seemed out of gas, content to coast on vanilla grooves.  No danger, no bustouts, and very little fiery improv aside from a few trademark smokin’ Schnier solos.  The interaction between the lasers and the ever-present swirling dust was the most captivating aspect of this festival-closing frame, although really, nobody expects the final performance of any fest to be the best.  Everybody’s worn out, and almost everybody has already heard what they came to hear, so this isn’t a complaint about moe., just an observation.  The band was in familiar territory anyway, one of their home bases to be precise– and the throng of tired admirers danced and cheered their beloved band on in a manner that suggested that either they didn’t notice the lackluster or simply did not care. One standout set is all you can demand of any band at a fest, and the hosts certainly came through for their part.

 

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