If Larry Norman was the Old Testament prophet and Randy Stonehill was the silly, sentimental one, then Mark Heard was the wry observer of the pioneering musicians in Christian music. Heard often focused on the sad human condition and the hope of renewal someday, interspersing it with Applachian and folk influences. He associated himself with lot of great Southern artists such as Bill Mallonee, Peter Buck of R.E.M., Pierce Pettis and also bands like the The Choir. Heard quietly knocked out a string of solid albums in the 80’s before becoming a producer. In the 90’s he returned with some of his finest works.
There are a couple of clips from Heard’s final show at Cornerstone 1992 on YouTube that I had trouble picking one. I settled on “Satellite Sky” because it seems pretty emblematic of Mark Heard:
Heard’s show in 1992 at Cornerstone was his last because sometime during the show while performing with Pierce Pettis and Kate Miner he suffered a heart attack. After finishing the show, Heard was transported to the hospital. Two weeks after being released, he suffered cardiac arrest and passed away.
Two years later at Cornerstone Festival 1994, some of Heard’s friends, including Ashley Cleveland, Rich Mullins, and Randy Stonehill performed a tribute show to Heard at the Gallery Stage. Some of these songs were later recorded for a tribute album called Strong Hand of Love
Mastedon wasn’t the only band to make its one and only appearance at Cornerstone Festival in 1991. Steve Taylor (featured earlier in our video from 1984) attempting to move into more mainstream music joined the band Chagall Guevara. Chagall Guevara was a slight departure from Taylor’s sound, but still resonated roots of bands like The Clash with Taylor’s pointed lyrics, though not as overtly evangelistic. The band with the difficult to pronounce name secured a contract with MCA and produced their self-titled album in 1991. However, MCA gave the band no support and the album was out-of-print almost as fast as it was released. Beset with finanicial difficulties from low album sales and no promotion, the band disappeared into the ether before it ever got off the ground.
The band did make one round of festival appearances, though, playing on the Main Stage at Cornerstone Festival 1991.
Before the days of iTunes and MP3’s when music was still a scarce commodity, the Chagall Guevara CD was something of a Holy Grail for collectors as so few were printed. I can remember internet posts with people selling and buying the CD for as much as $100 and that’s what I remember most about Chagall Guevara. It’s a good CD, to be sure (I had it on cassette…not as valuable as the CD, but nonetheless, still a prized item), but I don’t know that it’s $100 good. Audio quality for this video is okay with some flutter from video tape, but otherwise, it gives a nice perspective of what’s it’s like to see a band on the main stage from the crowd, complete with goobers crowd surfing and even a nice cartwheel from Steve Taylor on stage.
There’s not a lot of good footage from the 80’s from Cornerstone Festival that I can find… so we’re going to skip ahead a couple of years. By 1990, the festival had outgrown it’s original location at the Lake County Fairgrounds. The area around the grounds had grown and changed from open fields to suburban homes and often concerts were ended early due to noise complains from neighbors. JPUSA decided to purchase farmland in western Illinois and move the festival there. In 1991, Cornerstone Festival made it’s debut in Bushnell, Illinois, which allowed the festival to expand even further. Let’s skip ahead then to 1991
Oh my goodness! So much about this video is incredible! The fashion! The cheesy synthesizers! The hair! If you listened to Christian music in 1991, you probably knew who John Elefante was. He was ubiquitous, producing scores of albums and singing background vocals on even more albums. Elefante was primarily a producer for many rock bands, but he also had his own studio band project called Mastedon (not to be confused with the current heavy metal band called Mastodon.) Mastedon did not tour, but they made a rare live appearance at Cornerstone Festival. I have no idea if the audio for this was dubbed in after the performance or whether Elefante was lip-syncing, though it does seem a little off… still the visual aspect of this video is like a virtual time capsule of Christian rock music in 1991.
The fascinating thing about this video and how much things changed in just a year or two after this. When Kurt Cobain started strumming barre chords and caterwauled, the impact sent waves even into Christian music if a little delayed, much of this style of music disappeared and guitarists with flashy guitar solos and big hair faded away.
There’s been so much written about the controversial and eccentric life of Larry Norman that I don’t even think I can adequately scratch the surface here. Norman has often been described as “the father of Christian rock music” and whether or not that title is accurate I’ll leave to historians. What we do know is that Norman was one of the first artists to perform rock music with a decidedly evangelistic tone. His albums in the late 60’s and early 70’s were a foothold into a culture that believed it was impossible to both follow Jesus and have long hair and play an electric guitar.
Norman appeared at Cornerstone from time to time. Here’s some footage of the start of his show at Cornerstone Festival 1985.
Larry Norman played a couple of times at the festival in the 80’s before taking a lower profile in the 90’s. He returned one last time to Cornerstone Festival 2001 for a mainstage appearance and a surprise reunion with Randy Stonehill. Norman, in failing health due to a heart condition, passed away in 2008. I don’t know that I would say I’m a huge fan of his music, but I am glad I got to see him in concert once before his death. I’ll discuss his performances at 2001 more when we reach that era.
So, in the words of The Urban Sophisticates let’s “take it back like Cosby sweaters” and start with the very first Cornerstone Festival in 1984. A Chicago-based organization called Jesus People USA put on a music festival at the Lake County Fairgrounds in suburban Chicago. Resurrection Band (called REZ in the 80’s) was one of the musical outgrowths of the organization and JPUSA sought to bring together like-minded artists for a summer festival. Cornerstone was not the first Christian music festival, but it did take a little different approach than many festivals, selecting from a wider variety of artists including a growing nucleus of New Wave artists from southern California to complement some of JPUSA’s own musicians. Cornerstone’s coup in the very first year was getting Kansas guitarist Kerry Livgren, who had just left Kansas and was starting his own band. Livgren’s negotiations with his label and the festival were such that even up to the festival Cornerstone had him billed as a very special surprise artist.
One of the other artists booked for the first Cornerstone was a new musician named Steve Taylor:
Steve Taylor gained a reputation of a satirical wit where he showed no fear of attacking Christianity’s sacred cows, while drawing from such 80’s musical influences as David Bowie and The Talking Heads. Here’s a clip of his performance of his early signature song “I Want To Be A Clone” Later in this performance, Taylor decided to jump off the stage into the crowd but ended up breaking his ankle in the process. “The show must go on” and Taylor, in great pain yet unaware that he had broken his ankle, dragged himself back up on stage and finished the show hopping on one leg. The rest of his band, thinking he was starting some sort of new dance move, imitated him. Taylor finished the rest of his tour performing from an electric wheelchair which sometimes malfunctioned which Taylor recalled as “Dr. Strangelove”-like performances.
Taylor’s sharp wit would not fail. At Cornerstone Festival next year, he sold t-shirts that said “Did he fall? Or was he pushed?”