I was a real nowhere lass, sitting on my nowhere ass, making all my nowhere plans for nobody. Memorial Day weekend is supposed to be spent at Three Sisters Park in Chillicothe, IL for Summer Camp Music Festival. Two years without my big blowout weekend left me a real blind bat. I had feared when they announced an August attempt, would it even happen? Would it be safe? Would it be the same? I was unperceptive to what I used to consider my thing, my scene, festivals were my jam.
Entering into a big music festival for the first time in 18 months, I popped like a corn kernel in the 73% humidity. We walked in right past Joe Hertler & the Rainbow Seekers. That stage has housed some of my favorite moments and the Rainbow Seekers were sounding real good but… there are people. And besides, we needed to get set up at camp in case of impending rain and of course, the sun was already starting to dip low in the sky so… We had things to do. We went off to make camp post haste!
We set up in close proximity to the Starshine stage and I silently reminded myself, you cannot pour from an empty cup. Take care of yourself and THEN take care of others. The past 18 months of fear-inducing propaganda made a very big impact, an impact on the world and our local communities that I take very seriously. I also seriously need to have some fun. Emancipator had the downtempo to lull me from the safety of our camp. I moved to the strings like a river flowing to the ocean.
The time to tread forward towards the Moonshine stage and getting a good seat for Billy Strings was already upon us. Locked in for two full sets of Billy Strings at an EDM heavy festival, the blend of Nashville and rave was quite the sight to see. Billy opened with Bound to Ride, a Peter Rowan tune. Watching the crowd react was half the fun. The band then ripped into Secrets and Fireline off the forthcoming new album, Renewal.
“My bitter ruthlessness is a beacon to behold…”
Fireline has a mellow vibe and to be honest, I need that at that moment. It’s intoxicating being back at a festival. The heat was overwhelming. The crowds were spacious but still the biggest crowd I have been in for a long while. It was a sweaty mess of a Friday night. Nothing could cool us down while keeping time to Billy Strings. I was thankful for the decelerated pace. And then it got trippy. That is the reason Billy Strings is so good. He is psychedelic and standard time all at the same time.
Nearing the end of the first set he played my favorite tune. Being a sentimental person, anything off his album Home really does it for me. I’ve been tuned into livestreams for months so to finally hear Away from the Mire live and direct set my soul flying.
“Let go of the pain and hold onto the rhythm it’s consciously held back in you.”
At this point, the crowd was in sync and fearless. Not many moved when the set concluded 2 songs later with Y’all Come. After almost an hour, Billy returned shirtless. It’s kind of hard to tell at first because he is completely covered with tattoos. I remember that young lad up there on stage in full Bluegrass regalia, vest, button-up shirt, and short hair. Look at him now, he has come so far. He just played Hoxeyville the weekend before and now this crowd has to be double that size here at Summer Camp. He definitely brought that Hoxeyville vibe with him. His witty banter was brief but he declared that his earholes were sweating. “All I can hear is the squish squish squish.” I felt that. Keenly aware of the bodily fluids everywhere, I have never been a hypochondriac so I shouldn’t start now, should I?
The squish must have fueled his 20-minute skat version of All Falls Down. Then all hell broke loose when they launched into Dust in a Baggie. Gazing back at the crowd, their eyes were wide with wonder and I’m pretty sure everyone here left a huge Billy Strings fan. Now they know undoubtedly why that Billy Strings is so hot right now.
The totems were waving, the poi was spinning, and I forgot how fantastic it felt to be in a big ol' field lost in the music surround by beautiful freaks. There were circles in the trees, the glow of vendors’ lights, and long lines for the porta-potties. It wasn’t a dream. We did use to do this all the time. We were actually doing it again. Goosebumps.
Billy kept it going strong with a Jeff Austin/ YMSB tune, Sorrow is a Highway. Billy Strings has been a huge advocate for suicide awareness and mental health matters by keeping Jeff Austin’s spirit alive through the darkness. It’s amazing to watch Billy, this 28-year-old performer, take on the heavy stuff with a smile. I am so impressed with his keen ability to ride the wave of fame and popularity with such humility and grace. If sorrow is a highway, Billy turned it into a roundabout or a cul-de-sac. Like the petals? Leave the rose alone. It is not better to burn out than it is to fade away. I pray Billy Strings will live long into his third act. Billy definitely has the creativity to keep on going long into his 90s. I pray he will keep making music like Del Dawg or Doc Watson. He is too good to ever quit.
Keep on going y’all. We came here for friendship, fine music, and a fatty Wargasm. The whole second act would have even given Jimmy Page himself a screaming hard delight. It was so tribal and raw as if someone broke me free of this cage. Acoustic mayhem was coming from the stage as disorientation and distortion along with a few blessed raindrops came from the sky. The Led Zepplin tune Four Sticks really got the crowd going until Billy docked the boat nearing the conclusion. The band played Sweet Revenge by John Prine, Pyramind Country from his 2017 album Turmoil & Tinfoil, and rolled into the station with Thunder. Thunder is the tune penned by Robert Hunter and given over to Billy to make something with. That would have been a fitting end but when Billy looked off stage and got the nod, we were treated to just one more. After panning through covers and grammy-winning albums and legendary inheritances, it seemed the perfect way to go out with one more tune that is Billy Strings heart and soul, Long Gone. Long live that sweet country boy Billy Strings.
Just outside town past Three Sisters Park, I saw a lil' community church with a marquee that read, “Live stream services 10:30 am” except there were a few letters missing. It looked disheveled and disheartened. Covid has ravaged communities. They are half-lit and isolated. Waking up on a Saturday morning at Summer Camp was a renewal. The wafts of porta potties being cleaned were filtered with the delightful smell of nitrates cooking, time for bacon and bourbon. If only that lil church could live stream this feeling. The show must go on!
There were some rearrangements and replacements for acts that couldn’t make it. I started the day with Neal Frances stepping in for Big Something. It was still sweaty hot but Neal brought the heat to match. It was like Leon Russell meets P Funk, the Dramatics mixed with Dr. John. I had to ditch the coffee drink because this set called for something more refreshing, like a colada. There has been a lot of buzz around Neal Frances because in a time of not much live music going on, he is squeezing in shows wherever he can. He was just starting to tour hard when the shutdown order came into play so he is bursting at the seams to still do that. He jumped right into the stream of Saturday at Summer Camp with jazzy gusto.
Coping with isolation is not Andy Frasco’s forte. If you’ve joined one of his “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” dance parties you know he made the most of zoom meetings. Seriously, Andy Frasco kept my soul shining during these dark months. You hook into his show and also his zoom meeting and he flashes all of us around the world dancing with him. My re-immersion has begun and ended with Andy Frasco. Would he crowd surf? Is that okay to do? I found a spot just left of the stage and watched the shit show unfold.
Perhaps production kept the bottle of Jameson ON stage so that Andy wouldn’t crowd surf to get it. Instead Andy Frasco invited everyone on stage with him. First was Saxsquatch. “Ladies and gentlemen, please give it up from the Appalachian mountains, Saxsqatch! We found him hopped up on DMT. We said, come on we’re going to Summer Camp. He said, sure, why not?” Then Doom Flamingo with Ryan Stasik and Kanika Moore came out too. Neal Frances? Chris Gelbuda? Yep, all there on stage with the crew too. There is a reason Andy Frasco & the U.N.’s acronym is FUN. Andy pops up and directs the action and before you know it there were naked people on stage doing acro-yoga too.
I once asked Andy, what is art? I believe art is the applied skill of innate talent. Andy replied, “Art is the vessel inside all of us that we must learn to navigate.” When they launched into Keep on Keeping on, all the goosebumps and hairs stood up on my arms. It is the kind of song and performance that brings me to tears and then makes me laugh before the tear swells out of my eyelid.
“Even the people in the back, high on ketamine, I love ya! Through the good, through the bad, through all the titties. Keep on keeping on. Just in case we get locked back down. Remember this. Remember all the weirdos having fun. Promise me that. Stay Strong. Stay optimistic. Life is too short to stay shitty all the time.”
I looked around me again surrounded by beautiful freaks and I knew it was time to trust the magic of new beginnings. Even if we do get locked back down, ya gotta live! The whole crowd sang along to Dancing Around my Grave. NO BRAKES ALL GAS! Kanika Moore’s shining vocals rang out like a firework straight to Gawd above.
“To all my great-grandchildren, LOVE WHAT YOU DO!”
The stage imitated the concert field and the big old mess of people were all shining, smiling, and singing along. I still get goosebumps thinking about us all singing ‘Celebrate what we have!’ together in unity. Neal Frances on piano with Andy Frasco, Ernie Chang on sax with Saxsquatch, Shawn Eckles with Ryan Stasik, Kanika Moore, and a buttload of glittered naked fishnets rainbow spandex, and Chris Gelbuta to boot, altogether creating art, immersed in art, loving what they do. It was good to be alive!
One phrase can be reiterated throughout this Summer Camp weekend: “Let's go back to camp to refuel.” Again, you can’t pour from an empty cup so there was a lot of refilling that had to happen. Next up was KellerSquabi, a one-time collaboration that had to be a non-negotiable. We had to be there for that set.
The visuals blended with Keller’s songs and the trance dance hydro EDM of SunSquabi combined together to make the night right. The sun was dropping in the sky as nature and technology blended into one blissful set. The web of life was alive as it wasn’t so much about the notes they were playing but the notes they didn’t play. It made it seem as if they had played this set before even though you know it’s an improvised common language between the two entities. Cheesy interludes in a secret code of musical resonance resounded off the stage. My only criticism would be that I didn’t get enough of the Keller sound but it was intriguing enough and unique enough to keep me interested. Did I mention those crazy awesome visuals?
The crowd was gassed up and ready to run a marathon. Keller’s downbeat was Squabi’s ‘Fuck Yeah!’ and away they would run into white lightning. It was the sounds that make a novice want to tinker with guitars and start learning the craft because when you are watching Keller you can’t help but realize that guitars are fun. Music is neat. Making sounds and expressing yourself is what it is all about. With Josh Fairman on bass, Kevin Donohue on guitar, Chris Anderson on drums plus Keller, for just four dudes on stage... They made a big noise. They were electric cowboys riding a rodeo of lasers in the sky.
The sun was nearly set as Mack Glass was doing a glass pendant demonstration. The Dirty Heads were on the Moonshine stage. Chorizo bread was baking. Intimate VIP shows were happening. People were swinging on swings at the geodome. The Soul Patch sustainable agriculture area was in full bloom, much different than the Memorial Day weekend new sprouts I’m used to at Summer Camp. There was a beautiful lit-up iron sculpture of a fairy blowing in the wind. The Illumination Woods were lighting up.
If you’ve ever been to Electric Forest, you know they light that sucker up with trippy glowing designs to the max. Well, now Summer Camp has revamped the “wookie woods” into the Illumination Woods. It’s like Summer Camp was visited by Marie Kondo. It’s so much more zen, clean, spacious, and interactive (or not, please don’t touch the strings) art surrounding the newly named Illumination Stage.
If you long for the dimly lit (dirty) wookie woods, Summer Camp provided the Frick Frack Blackjack casino. It gave you all the thrills of Vegas without the high-stakes losing streaks. People gambled away purple stuffed llamas and dabs. Shit, you could even win a dildo if you played your cards right. Frick Frack was a welcome addition to Summer Camp, just good clean but filthy nasty fun.
Like the yin and yang of a piano, the day was filled with keys and whatever ya please. Neil Frances, Andy Frasco, and then Joe Day of Old Shoe ripping it up in the Soulshine Tent, the piano is and will always be my favorite instrument. I came rushing around the corner to hear Country Home. “I left home, it never left me.” These lyrics could not contain my excitement. I had hoped that re-immersion would be at Shoe Fest, a smaller type midwest fest that features much more shade and a creek to play in but soon enough. Old Shoe hosts that over Labor Day weekend. The most loving band in the land, Old Shoe performed to a tight crowd of loyalists but damn. Dancing inside that tent got real hot real fast. We skedaddled over to the Moonshine stage to get back in the saddle for real and be with the hosts of this fest, Moe. I know it’s a double bill co-host thing, but Summer Camp will always be all about Moe. for me.
I shook my bones as the now expected set of Moe. was so appreciated as well. It was so good to be home again. Moe. brings it all together. Al Shier’s solo in Kids was elegant and poetic. The synchronicity of Summer Camp can never be denied. The polished and purposeful experience sounded so crisp and decidedly dry like gold bond cooling the chaffing in the August air. Each shriek of Al’s guitar kinda sounded like, “We did it!” It’s a whole new landscape but we unified together and we made this beautiful experience happen. We missed the first set and the ever-loving favorite Fearless cover but we did get an over 15-minute version of Kids and an Akimbo closer. My Moe. cherry popped, I was starting to think I may survive this festival after all.
I really didn’t know how I would do. I kept telling myself to try more and do all the things I used to do before this global mess we’re living in. I also knew that if the red flags went up inside my mind, I’m only an hour from home and I could leave whenever I needed to. Well, I am proud to report that my safety and comfort levels were well intact. I even went out past my bedtime and saw CloZee at 1:15 am. I’m so glad I did.
I wish I was from France. Oh la la CloZee has style and grace. She brought inner peace to my extrovert world. I’d never seen her live before and I’m so glad that I did. She is beautiful and graceful mixed with dirty and filthy and she dropped t f out of that bass. I think I found a reserve of energy to see her just to support a woman out there doing it. I’m not trying to eliminate the male-dominated music scene, just illuminate more space for the sounds of the ladies. CloZee’s set was a sound bath of surreal signals and a sonic wash over me until I couldn’t stand it any longer and folded myself back into the confines of my sleeping bag. What a perfect ending to my Saturday night.
On the final day of Summer Camp, I felt triumphant! I knew I couldn’t leave now. I had one main mission: Ween. Wafts of the poopship destroyer intermingled with more scents of bacon. I knew this was going to be the brownest Sunday I had in a good long while. Today would bring fresh faces of the Sunday-only passes. Here we were looking like Lt Dan when Forrest Gump gives him some ice cream. We figured it out, found a place to shit, shower and barely found a place decent enough for sweater removal from my teeth. We were refueled enough to head off into the blazing hot sun to see Keller Williams on the Moonshine stage.
There is nothing like Sunday morning with some fresh coffee and Keller. Anything I had been lacking from the KellerSquabi set was abundantly available at this set. He orchestrated the crowd and created the connection. He covered the Rolling Stones’ Under my Thumb and he gave us the ever classic Gate Crashers Suck. His looping beatboxing barefoot self is all I need to get me in a good mood. One request? Could you do a Keller version of Summertime by DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince? Ya never know unless you try.
We headed back to camp to refuel and escape the flaming hot rays of the sun. Chicago Farmer & the Fieldnotes were nearby so it was a win-win. Do you remember that world in Super Mario 3 where Mario has to escape the angry sun and quicksand only to have to leap over the twister? It was almost as fulfilling as that, besides you have GOTTA see what Jaik Willis is wearing. Today’s show included his leopard print bright yellow from his toes to his cowboy hat fine-looking feline outfit. The outfit has to be custom-created for him. It’s almost as custom as his guitar. Jaik was feeling it today too. He was dancing and shredding and generally the funky fresh dude I always want to see more of. Every ounce of him is totally original. This band is Chicago Farmer, but amplified and electric with Jaik Willis.
“Hold on to your hats, your belongings, and your children ladies and gentlemen!”
A mini-tornado, a dust devil, whipped right thru the crowd lifting off a tent as the band played. No joke. Just a tiny lil burst that got unusually strong and only happened right in front of the stage. These Harry Potter sorcerers made magic happen at Summer Camp and I’m happy to report that no one was hurt in this microburst. It just made for one helluva show.
“Everybody knows all about your shares of ups and downs.”
That line has never actually shown ups and downs quite as literally as this set did. Covering the dustbowl lands is Chicago Farmer & the Fieldnotes thing. I’m just glad the Canton crew, the Quad City Squad and Joe Comisky, and the South Side Irish folks were all unharmed during this cyclone set. Thoughts and prayers.
Yonder Mountain String Band was also a non-negotiable for Summer Camp. For no other reason than Allie Kral, because you gotta see Allie Kral at Summer Camp. This is her turf. This is the place we all fell in love with her so many moons ago. She will always be the high-energy bluegrass that attracts a crowd even after all the band has gone through. Damn, that girl always puts on a great show. New to YMSB was Nick Piccinni. He looked great up there. It has to be a daunting task to pick up the mandolin in YMSB now. It seems to me that they are carrying the torch quietly. There was no encore, there were no Jeff songs. There was, however, an amazing version of Deal and as I said, it’s all about seeing Allie perform for her hometown homies. It made me miss Henhouse Prowlers. It made me miss old Cornmeal. There is so much good bluegrass here in Illinois. All the same, we had a good dose of grass and we were on our way back to camp to refuel.
This year at Summer Camp felt kind of exotic. There was that sense of displacement, both for the fact that I haven’t been here in two Memorial Day weekends and that it was a mix-up of artists and campers. There is no Cornmeal. Those days are gone. Someone dipped into our EZ up area and asked if we smoked dope. Smoke dope? Who says that? That guy was a narc. Even in this wonder-filled park of enchantment, there are still narcs. Gotta beware of the buzzkills out there. If what a person is wearing looks like it was straight off the mannequin at Walmart, I will judge you. I prefer to say I have a sense of discernment but whatever. Just be wary. That’s a tip from me to you. Believe if you need it, if you don’t just pass it on.
The guys in our group needed more male bonding time so off they went. That left the ladies to refresh and do girl stuff. As if the synchronicities were strong enough at this Summer Camp, it all seemed to make sense when Dopapod from the neighboring stage ripped into their version of You Oughta Know. Now I don’t ascribe to the angry female too often so I never really got into Alanis Morisette’s Jagged Little Pill album but come on! Five of us, decked out in glitter tattoos, sipping cocktails on a Sunday, sweaty but sexy and fierce, screaming at the top of our lungs every single lyric to that song? That 3 minutes of bonding with these beautiful women beside me was worth the ticket price alone. Oh! How I longed for commingling and commiseration. I never knew how badly I needed the energy of people. When the fellas returned, wouldn’t ya know they had been rail riding for that very moment? My whole group was on cloud 9 and the main event was about to begin: Ween.
The Royal rumble, the Sunday showdown just past sunset, did you go to Tipper, or did you go to Ween? It was a hard choice for some of my friends but for me, the answer will always be Ween. I’m brown and getting browner. Every time I see Ween, I want to see them again, more, louder, and again. Even if the set wasn’t exactly what I wanted at least one piece of ear candy will remain with me and make that show last all week inside my mind. Ween, hands down, WEEEEEN.
Since some of my friends had never seen Ween live, I acted as if I knew all there was to know and explained that it would be a good set if they didn’t open with Buckingham Green. They opened with Did Ya See Me? which is not a bad way to open but I also knew that this set was about to get very brown and I really hoped my friends could keep up. Deaner really whipped it out for this set opener. I could smell some of the weird stuff coming up like Awesome Sound or Poopship Destroyer and I hoped my friends would not abort the mission to head over to see Tipper instead. Luckily, Ween then went into a cut off of their album Chocolate and Cheese which was good. Spinal Meningitis is a fun tune that anyone can bop along with. Plus it’s just funny. “Smile on might Jesus, Spinal Meningitis got me down.” Fingers crossed Summer Camp doesn’t turn into some crazy super spreader event but it’s too late now. Sometimes ya gotta just laugh at the fears. Can we re-work Spinal Meningitis into some Covid parody?
Gene Ween was in great form for this damn near 2 hours, no breaks, no stops performance. He emerged from the smoke and humid sweat behind the mic doing his Gener dances and making me smile like he always does. That Gener affinity for the microphone is the showmanship that really sets Ween on fire. Ween is the summer’s eve that keeps me clean. The next tune, Now I’m Freaking Out is a classic from the late 90s. I felt like I was at a Bollweevils show but surrounded with all my crunchy hippy friends. It was pure bliss. The dirty hippy inside me hopes that I didn’t offend anyone as I screamed along to My Own Bare Hands. “She’s gonna be my cock professor studying my dick! She’s gonna get a master’s degree in fucking me! I can do so many things… with my own bare hands!” The Ween fan in me doesn’t give a shit if I did offend anybody.
They played a lot of scary music, the old shit like Touch my Tooter, Squelch the Weasel, The Grobe, and the very best classic moldy oldie, Waving My Dick In The Wind. They also played some of the lighter brown - beige, tan, khaki hits, if you will, like Tear for Eddie, Freedom of 76, Exactly Where I’m At, and Mister Would You Please Help my Pony. It was a beautiful mess of both. When they played You Fucked Up, all my dreams came true. It was like a very well-worn comfortable pair of jeans that fit just right. I felt oh so good.
When I came back down my friends herded me back to the Moonshine Stage for our final moe. set of the weekend, I had to be sure I was not at OzzFest and this was still indeed Summer Camp. For the most part, I think my friends liked Ween. I mean, they played Roses are Free so they had to like it, right? We had the best time at that party. The hubs and I thank you very much. The succulent juices were dripping down my chin as I tried to explain how kewl it was that we got a Stallion pt 3 AND Stallion pt 5 but unless you’re brown at heart you may never understand. We had already missed Moe. doing Fearless and Karma Police and Happy Hour Hero. We couldn’t afford to miss anymoe.
Flying by the Seat of my Pants, away we went! It was all so bittersweet but super heavy on the sweet part. The last time I heard moe. playing this song I had a very dear friend beside me. After this hell that has been Covid times, sadly she is no longer with us. At that moment, we had a lil of her ashes with us, so I took her out and danced with her. It was cathartic. Moe. bust into Sensory Deprivation Tank and by the time we got to St Augustine, I realized that we are all together under this beautiful full moon. Wherever heaven is, Gwen is there and I’m there too if only for this final set of Moe.
Every time I think about you, I think about you, you…
Every time I think about Rob, think about Al, I think about you. I think of Rob’s leisure suit and a buddha belly full of laughs. I think of the time Al joined Pigeons Playing Ping Pong under a magnificent double rainbow in 2018. I think so many thoughts all the time. Al burst into those thoughts like a champagne bottle ready to pop! He was going off and I looked in wide-eyed wonder to the stage, then back at the audience. I looked at the stage then back at the audience. This is what the Grateful Dead meant when they said, “You weren’t there but I saw you anyway.” Crazy enough, right then, a random stranger joyfully hugged me, then bounced off into the crowd. The bubbles in the air were like all the spirits of people I have loved. It was in happy harmony. 32 Things and one million reasons why the power of live music compels me.
It doesn’t really matter where or when it matters who you are with and the way you feel when you are around them. When you’re waiting in line to get into Summer Camp, remember that you are dragging that heavy load of hopes and optimism and pure positivity. It ain’t always easy to keep on the sunny side of life. Summer Camp is this deserted island in the middle of Illinois cornfields. Sometimes I calm myself by thinking about what crazy weird shit I will bring to Summer Camp next year. Bring the stuff that matters! Leave the fears and worries locked up inside the car.
We did the dang thing. It’s 2 weeks later and a couple of negative Covid tests reveal that it was all for the good of my soul. I raged, released, and rested. I refilled my empty vessel thanks to Billy Strings, Andy Frasco, Moe, and of course, Ween. New favorites like CloZee, Neil Francis, SaxSquatch will be gifts to dig into when the winter dreary days bum me out. I thought I recognized so many people and I felt recognized in all the right ways. I got to have a full-on ladies’ lot where we were safe and secure to be free as we wanted to be! It was everything I could have hoped for and now that the post-Covid festival cherry is broken, I am ready to rejoin the musical family as safely and as quickly as we can. Let’s GO!
For more photos from the weekend CLICK HERE