No luck in corresponding schedules, Joy is flying in to Midway airport at 11:00 AM while I'm flying into O'Hare at 11:00 AM also. I'm counting on a ride from O'Hare, so I can't promise any help in getting her to Bushnell. She decides to find her own way there. How Bohemian. "You'll look for me, right?", she asks.
"Meet me by the Soundboard during the Third Day concert, we'll see what we can do.", I answer.
Time to pack. It's less than eight hours before I hop on a plane.
Wednesday, July 1, 1998
As luck would have it, a fraternity brother is flying out of Hartsfield airport at the same time. Sublime. I catch a ride with him down to the airport where after a short wait and a Starbuck's hot chocolate, I'm looking out the window my plane rolls down the runway and pushes into the air. I try to sleep, but I can't. Too much is going through my mind about the days to come. I settle down and read Dallas Willard's The Spirit of the Disciplines for a while. After an hour or so, I'm in Chicago. A short wait later and I'm meeting my good friend Joel, also from Boca Raton and his friend Elaine. The three of us will get to know each other very well in the coming days, after all we've got about 80 square feet between us to share for the next week.
We waste no time, after all there are concerts to see. We blow by Midway airport on the Chicago freeways and I wonder if Joy found a way to Bushnell for the festival. I certainly hope so. Elaine is making good time in her Ford Probe, I enjoy my time watching the Chicago scenery pass me. In no time, we are out of the city and passing open farmland. Illinois is flat, very flat. All I can think of is my days in Florida, except corn doesn't grow in Florida.
We stop for lunch at a combination gas station and
Burger King. How quaint. After lunch is through,
I stop by the Coke machine for a drink for the road. "Y'all want a Coke?", I ask.
Elaine laughs, "You said it! I've been waiting for you to say that for over an hour!"
"Y'all want a Coke?", I ask again.
"You said it again! You said y'all! I've been waiting for over an hour for you to say y'all."
I respond to her, "So, how exactly would you say it?"
"Anyone want any pop?"
I see. I guess I really am in the North.
Well, we finally arrive in the small farm town of Bushnell at 3:00PM after stopping by our hotel room in nearby Macomb. It's a Super 8 motel, not exactly the Hilton, but it beats sleeping in a hot tent for five days. We wait in a long line of cars on a dusty dirt road with crops on each side. Joel and Elaine have declared that I'm a "Cornerstone Virgin." I haven't had the dust of Cornerstone farm infiltrate all of my clothing and I haven't yet developed a healthy dose of cynicism about the festival. After waiting a while, we get our infamous wristbands. These will be our passes for the days ahead, our entrance into this bizarre little world.
4:00PM: The car is parked and the sunglasses are donned. The temperature is hot, but we all look sharp. It's early in the festival and everyone is still relatively clean. We roam around the central area of the festival and I experience for the first time all of the elements of Cornerstone, the dust kicking up beneath my feet, the kids racing around on golf carts, the crowds, and that odd ground bouncing beneath my feet. This will be my home for the next week. After dinner, courtesy of Pizza Hut there at the festival we go to our first concert, sitting at a table to watch Sherri Youngward who plays a short set of folk songs while we dine. Afterwards, we take a chance to visit the exhibition tent, a combination of artist's booths, peddlers selling Jesus junk, and stands promoting charitable causes. The tent is soon dubbed "The Moneychanger's Tent." Here I meet up with Jerry Ray and Glenn Harper, friends from back home in the South and I also get to meet Matt Laswell, Danny Durr, and Lisa Reid, fellow members of a little electronic community that I participate in. Funny how you imagine what people look like before you actually meet them face-to-face. Sometimes they look almost exactly like you imagined they would. More about them later. Soon, it's time to split, Joel and Elaine want to see some of the bands in smaller tents while I want to head out to mainstage.
"Where is it?", I ask.
Joel responds, "Just follow the crowds, they're all heading down the road."
So down the road I go. Following dirt roads,
I find myself circling Wildwood Lake and then standing above the large
bowl shaped amphitheater where people mill about like ants at a Sunday
picnic. Three Crosses is finishing up their set as the echoes
resound off the lake. By the time I get there, they are done and
the Vigilantes of Love are getting ready to take the stage.
The band performs many of their well-known songs, notably "Blister Soul",
"Driving the Nails", "Double Cure", and "Welcome to Struggleville."
Bill Mallonee sets off the first controversy of the festival. Apparently,
the singer of Three Crosses made some strong statements regarding the dangers
of alcohol and addiction. "While all due respect to the previous
band," Bill disagreed and stated that he believed in the moderate use of
alcohol and warned against the danger of mixing "fuzzy theology" with the
Gospel. How odd, I mused, sandwiching the Viggies between two bands,
Three Crosses and Third Day, both bands that appeal more to the
youth group crowd. The Viggies have always favored taking their message
straight to the bars and clubs, giving them a dirtier, yet more real image.
Early on, I can tell that's what Cornerstone is all about. Every
style flourishes here, God's message is spread through every medium.
Every band has their own musical style and approach, but each band wants
to share what's going on in their lives and how God is working in it.
The sun finally begins to set as the Viggies finish up their set. The headliner band, Third Day takes the stage next. I can't help but be a little smug. So far, two of the mainstage bands are from back home in Atlanta and it makes me glad to see Third Day attracting such a large crowd here at Cornerstone. Almost two years ago, I saw them in the crowded Roxy as they introduced their new album. My, how the times have changed. The set consists of most of their songs from their two albums and a surprise encore including Rich Mullin's song "Creed." During "Consuming Fire", I notice the tall brunette standing in front of me. Sure enough, it's Joy Harwood. We missed each other at the soundboard, but here we are, watching Third Day tear through my favorite song. I get to catch up with her and meet her friends who are here with her. I was glad to find out she had made her way down here.
Third Day finishes their Southern-fried rock and roll and I return to the tents in the center of the farm. The number of campers here simply blows my mind. I've camped many years at Atlanta Fest and have seen lots of tents, but this was a virtual city. People had come from around the nation to this festival and it showed on the license plates and the various tacky material used to decorate the campsites. A virtual kaleidoscope of American youth.
I chose the Gallery stage so I could see a band I was curious about, Havalina Rail Company. When I arrived, the place was packed out. I began to notice that at Cornerstone, everything is crowded. Every concert has a huge crowd, often filling up the tent and causing people to stand outside the tent to catch the show. Quite a difference from the causal small shows at the Edge or a late night AtlantaFest. No matter where you went, the crowds were there. Havalina was quite the outfit, showing up on stage in Country-Western outfits and playing much of their new album. They are quite the band. I'm not sure if I like them, but they are definitely original. The crowd loved them and called them out for two encores. They oblige, playing late into the night.
By the time the show is finished, it's nearly 2:00AM. I trudge back to the car, hoping that Joel and Elaine are back. They're not. The Israelites show must be running late. I contemplate walking back to the show when Joel arrives. We get in the car and wait for Elaine. We wait some more. I finally become tired and curl into a ball in the back seat of the Probe and try to sleep, no luck. Joel goes out looking for Elaine. While waiting for them to return, I hear what may be the most frightening noise in my entire life. It's impossible to duplicate or imitate, but it sounds like a cow in pain, yelping or screaming or whatever cows do that's more than a moo. It's downright scary. Not only that, but it's cold! Whoever has heard of shivering in July?? Well, that's what I'm doing. You ain't in Dixie anymore, Cornpone. Finally, Joel and Elaine return, the silly girl couldn't find her own car. Finally, FINALLY, we drive back to Macomb and crash in our hotel room. I crawl into bed around 3:00AM, that's 4:00AM for the kids back home. I'm asleep before my face hits the pillow.
Thursday, July 2, 1998
I slept a little late this morning. That would be an understatement. I think I open my eyes sometime around 1:00PM. After washing up and getting ready for another attack on that festival known as Cornerstone, we decide its time for breakfast/lunch/dinner, whatever it is . A nearby Chinese restaurant is sounding good, so we hit it. Another trip across the rolling flat lands of Illinois and down the dusty roads and we're parked again. "Everybody remember where we parked!" This time, I borrow Elaine's watch and one of her long-sleeved shirts to keep warm during the late night concerts. I really feel like some adventurer as I carry everything I need in my backpack around the festival. It's all there, sunglasses, eyeglasses for the night, warm clothes, water, poncho, schedule, and notes. Like a modern day Indiana Jones, or something.
I arrive at the PRISM tent in time to see the Vigilantes of Love once again. This time, they are playing an acoustic show. First, however, we are treated to a surprise opener by Phil Maidera. This session veteran has played instruments with some of my favorite artists, most notably Phil Keaggy to doing session work with CCM big names like Amy Grant, Carman and others. Phil is entertaining, relaying stories about his trips to Europe and relating how different Christians are in Europe. It's a fair warning to those of us who have come to embrace American Conservatism as the only way of life for Christianity. God embraces much more than our narrow culture. The setting is a little more intimate as more of the crowd here are familiar with the work of the Viggies. Bill is in a much more comfortable mood, still feeling uneasy about some of his comments from last night and making it clear that no, he's not a drunk, and no, he doesn't have any problems with Three Crosses. Bill is feeling a little more daring here, playing some lesser known songs and even playing the racy "Love Cocoon." Married couples may embrace this song, but this single boy finds it nauseating.
No time to stop, the Waiting is taking the stage over on mainstage! A long hike down by the lake and down the hill and I join another Atlanta band starting into their set. Atlanta is everywhere at this Cornerstone. I find Joy and her friends there and we bounce along to their jangly rock set. I remember this band's humble beginning from a concert with my good friend David at a ballroom in a hotel turned into a college dorm. You think my life has changed since that Roxy concert, I lived a different life back when I saw the Waiting the first time. During the concert, a girl dressed up as Psalty the Songbook surfed the crowd in front of us. If I haven't seen it all by now, there's some funky stuff awaiting me in the future.
The main act, Sixpence None the Richer, finished the evening by covering most of their new self-titled album and even a cover of "There She Goes." Sixpence put on perhaps the best show that I've seen since their fantastic bass player, JJ Plasencio, left. Leigh Bingham Nash put on a graceful performance, despite the large inflated beach balls flying at her on onstage and the vicious bugs dive-bombing her whilst she sang. My only disappointment, the fantastic bass intro to "Love, Salvation, the Fear of Death" was left out, played instead by guitarist Matt Slocum. It just wasn't the same. Even with such a missing hole in the concert, I still managed to appreciate the well-done set. When I arrived back at the circle of tents, I found an exhausted Joel and Elaine sitting at a table. We decided to call it an early evening, yesterday had taken its toll on us.
Friday, July 3, 1998
We actually pushed ourselves to get out of the motel room early this morning. Well, to us early was before 10:00AM. Somehow, I don't think I'm going to make the Cornerstone 5K run at 6:00AM tomorrow morning. I don't think I will care tomorrow morning at six. The reason we had to hot-tail it back to Cornerstone Farm was that Joel and Elaine had to meet a friend there and I had lunch scheduled with that zany online bunch known simply as "RMC." Gathering from around the nation with the common quality that, well, we like to talk. We like to talk about music, and we talk about tangential things related to music. I met lots of people, laughed at a lot of inside jokes, and snacked on some chips and burgers. I had a wonderful opportunity to talk with Bill and Brenda Mallonee from the Vigilantes of Love. They are such a friendly couple, deeply in love with each other. Bill is so knowledgeable, talking fluently about politics, science, past concerts, and even specific subjects in the Bible. During perhaps my favorite scene at Cornerstone, we are discussing the wonders of Sprecher Root Beer (from a keg, no less!) and the evils of saccharine and Nutra-Sweet. Bill adds to the conversation, "Did you know that the atom of NutraSweet is the mirror opposite of natural sugar?" All I can think of is the scene from Wayne's World where the heroes meet Alice Cooper. "Does this guy know how to party, or what?" We shamelessly honored him with the ARMCHAIR awards which we voted on earlier in the year. He graciously accepted them, hoping that he could return next year after his "controversial" comments on stage. Everything should be settled out between him and Cornerstone by now.
After talking for a while with my networked friends, I decide to roam around for a while and check out some of the rest of the 'fest. I arrived for a seminar about relating Kierkegaard to our current philosophies of post-modernism. My timing was fantastic because as soon as I stepped under the tent, the heavens opened. The rain poured and poured and nearly over-powered the speaker in sheer volume. Soon after the speaker had finished, the rain subsided. I hung around for a while to hear the next speaker, who talked about "Courtship, Love, and Staying in Love." Well, my attention quickly drifted (imagine that) and I left to meet Joel and Elaine. By now, all of that dust had now become Cornerstone mud. Well, I wouldn't have gotten the complete Cornerstone experience without the ubiquitous mud. I'm sure it will still be on my shoes weeks from now. (It is.)
I meet up with Joel, Elaine, and her friend, Lisa. Lisa is here to see the tribute to her main man, Rich Mullins. It's good to hear that there are women out there with good taste in music. We venture out to Taco Bell for dinner. "Viva Gorditas" sez Joel. I tackle something safer like some Tacos and Cinnimon Twists. We hurry back to the festival so as not to miss the Rich Mullins Tribute. Elaine and Lisa hung around with me to see the concert while Joel wanders around. Sixpence starts the tribute with a couple of songs from Rich's work Canticle of the Plains and also play some of their own songs. This Train follows Sixpence with their entertaining Rock-a-billy set and Mark Robertson's antics on double bass. Even former member Becki Hemmingway joins for a song. "Becky never really left the band, she just doesn't tour with us or sing on our albums anymore." Next, Greg and Rebecca Sparks took the stage to play some of their own songs. Rebecca is very entertaining, "Cornerstone RULES!" Following their set, Mitch McVicker and the Kid Brothers of St. Frank played a set. It was good to see Mitch again, I'm sure the last months have been very hard on him. He looked like he had recovered well from the accident, but he still hadn't completely recovered. Hopefully, his singing voice will returning fully. The concert begins with the dulcimer piece "Calling Out Your Name." I had wondered if I would ever hear that piece live again. Last, but certainly not least, Rich's old band, the Ragamuffins perform. The Ragamuffins are a all-star lineup themselves with guitarists Rick Elias and Jimmy Abegg. Mark Robertson plays bass and the A-train, Aaron Smith handles the pounding and thrashing. Guest vocalist Ashley Cleveland joins the group for a stellar performance on some of the songs on Rich's final album, The Jesus Record. In the end, the whole event was totally emotional, but never sorrowful. Even though everyone there missed Rich, there was a joy that was simply impossible to understand without God's peace. Everyone there recalled Rich's antics with a smile, perhaps it was a chance to crack some jokes about the old Ragamuffin knowing they were safe from his retorts. I left the concert with a beaming smile. How couldn't I?
On to Hammer time! Yes, that's right. MC Hammer would be taking the main stage tonight. Cornerstone was known for taking bold chances with unusual Christian artists, but this one takes the cake. As I approach the top of the hill, I am amazed. I don't think I've ever seen a crowd this big in my life. The natural amphitheater is filled with people as it appears everyone is curious what the Hammer is going to bring. Even artists scheduled at the same time as Hammer's concert are fearful. "Please Hammer, don't hurt us." says a poster for the Echoing Green's concert that is occurring at the same time as this spectacle. Oddly enough, it's now 10:30pm and there is no music. Someone comes to the stage and tells us that the choir is late and their tour bus is on the way, so we wait. An hour later, I'm still waiting with Elaine and Lisa, the curiosity is killing us. We are standing next to some of the members of Living Sacrifice. We keep each other entertained with jokes about MC Hammer and also our common bond, the beautiful South. They are from Arkansas and we make jokes about our redneck backgrounds. Finally, the tour bus slowly snakes its way down the dirt path! Delayed by the crowds around it and security parading in front of it, the bus finally pulls behind the stage. "Two minutes!!!", promises the man on stage. A couple minutes later, the show begins and Hammer emerges with his choir. The whole thing reminds me of a Kirk Franklin concert. This isn't the same man that performed "U Can't Touch This." Gone are the pompous, erotic shows that Hammer was famous for. Instead, the man I see far away on the stage below cries for racial reconciliation and repentance. Sometimes God slowly turns a heart towards Him and sometimes he yanks the heart's owner into a totally different direction.
The crowds curiosity has been satisfied and after two songs a mass exodus begins up the hill. I stay for a couple more songs, but then I realize that I don't want to be late for the encore concert at the Gallery. After being mildly impressed with the new band, Burlap to Cashmere, I wanted to take another chance to check them out and solidify my opinion of them. We trudge back up the hill through the droves of people. Here, Lisa bids us farewell as she must drive back to Peoria. Elaine and I stop for a Funnel Cake an "Elephant Ear", which is a big doughnut. Must be a Midwestern thing. We take our seats for the Burlap to Cashmere concert. This time around, the band simply knocks my socks off. Burlap to Cashmere combines the Jars of Clay acoustic sound with Eastern European rhythms and tight interplay to rocket through their set. The lyrics are simplistic, but the music is incredible. The crowd begs for an encore, but the band apologizes, they are out of songs!
Following the concert, Elaine and I search for Joel. Our first guess is that he's at the MxPx concert, so we stroll over there. As we approach the Encore tent, another Cornerstone memory imprints itself on me. All of the power on the farm cuts out and lights and sound from the concert stop. Left with nothing but the raw polka beat from the drums, the large group of fans at the concert finish the song, singing out the rest of the lyrics. Quite the sight to see. We find Joel and decide to call it a night. The day was most certainly a full one.
Saturday, July 4, 1998
My last day of Cornerstone and I'm already becoming sentimental. The ground is now a combination of mud and dust. Good to see that I got the best of both worlds. After the supreme disappointment of discovering that the Golden Corral had closed in Macomb, we were at a quandary as to where to eat. "Viva Gorditas!" sez Joel again, but I vote down Taco Bell. We finally agree on Wendy's. Macomb is decorated like a small town would be on Fourth of July. American flags are everywhere. We searched around Macomb to find the house of a chapter of my fraternity here at the local college, but no such luck. Lunch is done and now its time to drive back to Bushnell.
On the way in, I make a sarcastic comment about staff children driving around like hellions on the golf carts. Joel and Elaine proclaim me an official "Cornerstone Veteran." Now, today's concerts didn't hold much interest for me. In fact, they were just there to pass the time until the big one for me. The encore show, the last concert of Cornerstone was what I was here for today. I decide to go catch Steve Hindalong, Kevin Clay, and Terry Taylor at the PRISM tent. I show up early to hear a lecture on "Why Christians must listen to Secular Music" which confirms most of my beliefs about keeping relevant to pop culture to relate to the lost world around us. Afterwards, Steve Hindalong takes the stage to perform some of his album Skinny, plus some Choir songs. Kevin Clay plays next and they are followed up by Terry Taylor, drawing from his long history of music, amazed that the crowd hadn't gotten enough at his marathon three-hour concert on Thursday night. Afterwards, I stroll over to the mainstage to hear Plankeye and Grammatrain. Plankeye was a shadow of its former self. Earlier on the tour, two members had left the band and the remaining three members are trying to finish up the tour. Wayne Everett subs in to play drums and the band makes a valiant effort, but things just aren't the same. Grammatrain is next, ripping through their material and even bringing out veteran performer Larry Norman to perform their cover of his song "Six O' Clock News." During the concert, the band announces that this will be their final tour. Between this concert and the previous show by Plankeye, there was a feeling of mortality hanging over the main stage. We are witnessing the end of the grunge era of Christian music.
Finally, it is time to make my way to the Gallery stage. I'm getting there good and early for this show for a good seat. You see, it's time to see Over the Rhine, a band that snatched my heart up about a year ago this time. They performed during the highly emotional end of 1997 and ushered in a new era of my life. Now, as I step into another new era in my life, I will see them in concert again. Fireworks light up the sky as rockets are launched from the other side of the lake and everyone around me "oohs" and "ahhs." While waiting for the concert, I scrawl down some notes to reflect on the days gone by. Once again, they walk away with my heart as I sing, smile, and get those little goose-bumps on the back of the neck. "Down by the river we'll cry awhile, down by the river we'll dance awhile, down by the river just you and I...."
When the concert finished, I sat back down in my chair. (I had been standing during both of the encores, quite a rare sight since Rhine fans tend be like symphony-goers, quietly seated and listening intently to the music, but by the encores we were quite rowdy.) The festival was over. I slowly get up and take one last look at everything before meeting Joel and Elaine again. Goodbye Cornerstone, what memories you've left for me.
Just when you thought the day was over, we make our way to Hy-Vee for one last run for late night snacks. I am informed that a Cornerstone trip is far from complete until a late night run to Hy-Vee is made. Far be it from me to interrupt a Cornerstone tradition and ruin the entire week! It's 1:30AM, I think that counts as a late night run.
Before leaving, we fulfill one last tradition and stop at a family diner in Bushnell before leaving. When Elaine and Joel first went to Cornerstone, one egg cost thirty-five cents. The prices have risen a little since then, but I still have a huge lunch for less than five bucks. Yes, I agree, our waitress is cute, if a little young. Apparently I agree while she is directly behind us as she passes us blushing. Now, we are back on the road again and the Illinois countryside is flying around me. Wait! We have to stop! There is a live bait vending machine in this town! I've got to get a picture of this! Hopefully, it will turn out. Next stop, the Chicago suburb of Elmhurst. We cap the day off with dinner at an Ethiopian restaurant and then an elevator ride to the top of the John Hancock building. Apparently the city of Chicago had some fireworks left over from yesterday and launched them. We were fortunate to be on top of the Hancock building as they lit up the city. Never before have I ever seen fireworks explode beneath me. The next day, we stop for Chicago pizza, a must when visiting the city, and then I'm rushed off to the airport because I'm late!! No fear, I'm on the plane with plenty of time to spare and I'm jetting back to Atlanta with a bag full of memories.
In Atlanta I jump onto MARTA, the city subway and ride back to Tech. It's hot again, a reassurance that I'm back home in the South. Soon I'm seeing familiar faces and life is resuming it's normal pace. With a smile, I tuck my memories in my pocket, and step back into the real world.