Four Days And Seven Nights In Illinois

Sun Jun 02 2013

At some point in the future, Honest Tune might get around to publishing my review of Summer Camp.  If not, I don’t really care.  It’s a load of crap that required only slightly more energy as the staff at Honest Tune put into helping me set it up, and it’s not like it was going to garner me any pay.  But I couldn’t leave it at that, so here’s what actually happened during my end-of-May marathon seven-of-eight consecutive nights of live music in Illinois.

I set myself up for a massive disappointment at Summer Camp, but I could never have predicted how massive.  Or rather, Secret Chiefs 3 and their former members set me up for the letdown.  That's my favorite band on Earth, and the bastards scheduled a two-night residency in Chicago for the two nights prior to Summer Camp, during which they would play four completely different sets incorporating their separate satellite bands and basically do everything musically for me personally that I have ever dreamed of.

That's not really fair to moe.

Night one at Schubas was the more accessible and eclectic night, featuring epic swaths of surf-rock (UR), cinematic vignettes and moodscapes (Traditionalists) and dizzying stylistic obstacle courses (FORMS).  It was the first time I'd witnessed a performance by drummer Kenny Grohowski, and my first impression is that…he might not necessarily be better than predecessors Ches Smith or Danny Heifetz, but he is more perfectly suited to the current trajectory of this band, and pants-shittingly good.  It wasn't just his adaptability between completely different genres with nanosecond accuracy; it was more his improv than anything.  Again and again he took control of songs I know every nuance of and altered them to his liking amidst an ensemble of improvisational virtuosos.  Keyboard player Matt Lebofski was similarly adaptable and adept, a fusion player at heart who has incorporated the metallic and Middle-eastern leanings of mastermind Trey Spruance in much more impressive fashion than any previous ivory-tickler.  Timb Harris on violin has always been immensely talented, but he was more aggressive and experimental at these shows than I've ever heard him before.  Last time I saw Secret Chiefs, he was the weak link; for these shows there was no weak link.  And Trey, what can I say?  I realized he is my favorite player of stringed instruments, ever.  On electric guitar and saz, a combination of Zappa, Fripp and an ancient Persian mystic/warrior.

The band ended the first night with a rip-roaringly heavy rendition of "Stars And Stripes Forever", if that gives you any inkling as to how totally unpredictable this band is.  Night two would prove to be the more cohesive and ultimately more powerful show (plus it was bookended on the drive with conversation just as inspired as the music), moved from Beat Kitchen (which is apparently run by "dicks" in the words of Timb) to a little bar called Township.  The first set was all material from the band's album of John Zorn material, Xaphan: Book Of Angels Volume 9, and it was impressive.  (I love that there was an establishment called Masada two doors down.)  But set two was my dream come true: a full set of Ishraqiyun, the band's Middle-eastern folk/metal incarnation and my personal favorite.  It was during this set that I realized this band can bend time.  Western brains aren't predisposed to absorbing the sorts of cadences and liquid tempo shifts that SC3 pull off with some of their Ishraqiyun material, and it was during this monumental set that I realized I couldn't definitively say whether Trey has actually been altering the rhythms in some places with each successive tour, or if I was just learning to comprehend the complexities that had been there all along.  My head spun.

The improv was once again unbelievably good, with more of a focus on pointed collaborative jams than ever before, reaching sonic intensity akin to Bitches Brew at times.  But more than anything, it's the intrinsic spiritual origin of this music that rips my soul out of my body when I see these guys.  The rich Jewish and Muslim imagery of darkness and uplift and the pagan mysteries that predate them all swirl together in a disconcerting brew of ecstatic revelry and damnation.  There's no other music like this out there, and no other band that would ever presume to attempt playing it.  I never saw a single telephone held aloft either night, and rarely an audible sentence from the crowds during the music other than an occasional "JEsus CHRIST!" or "HOly SHIT!"  Everything. Was. Perfect.

The next morning, despite two consecutive days of work>home>Chicago>home>sleep for four hours, I was in great spirits.  Then en route to Chillicothe, we were singled out by some intrepid fascist from the Tri-county Drug Enforcement Narcotics Team (Tri-DENT, naturally), presumably for having mildly countercultural stickers on our Thule box.  One car whipped out in pursuit, and another zoomed up behind it once we pulled over.  One officer approached the vehicle and quickly manufactured an excuse for pulling us over: the inch-diameter Hello Kitty bobblehead dangling from the rear view mirror and "obstructing the windshield" (or, as checked on the warning citation, "Other").  Up walked the other officer, who circled our vehicle hopefully a half-dozen times with a drug-sniffing German Shepherd.  This blatant episode of harassment lasted only about ten minutes, but it left me feeling a little less secure than I'd ever felt before about the supposed freedoms I take for granted living in a civilized part of the country altogether unlike Nazi Germany or rural Illinois.  How this sort of profiling and oppression can be legal I'll never know, but it cast a sour shadow over the whole adventure.

Note to future SCampers: Pony up for the "primitive RV pass".  We were just in a station wagon but the two-hour wait to get in is waaaaay worth the non-search that allowed us to easily smuggle in tons of booze and beers.  After setting up camp, the first music we actively sought out was Cornmeal, whose fiddle player Allie Kral had announced that these festival sets would be her last with the band.  I had every intention of saying nice things about her and the band who had played this fest every year since its inception, but even for hippie bluegrass this band is just not tight or instrumentally skilled.  Kral is definitely the most impressive player and a damn sight better than, say, Boyd Tinsley, but a rank amateur compared to Timb.  This occasionally interesting but overall sloppy set of music made me realize that I was going to have problems this weekend.

See, I like going to festivals for MUSIC.  Once upon a time in the early years of Bonnaroo, I also liked going for the feelings of community and adventure, but those elements are 98% gone now from festival life, or maybe I'm just not a part of them any more.  Some folks go for relaxation, for a change of pace, to let their freak flags fly.  I had already told myself that I was here to take it easy and have fun with my friends (work? This isn't work.), but it was clear that I was gonna have to work at having fun if the music didn’t improve drastically.

The next band we saw (by accident) gave us hope: Caravan Of Thieves is pretty tame and palatable for its thematic spookiness, like The Scarring Party gone pop, but the musicians (particularly acoustic guitarist Fuzz Sangiovanni) are quite good, and they played a uniquely entertaining cover of "Thriller" (thank God it wasn't "Billie Jean"!) taboot.  (They were just as impressive the following afternoon.)

By this point my fatigued brain started playing tricks on me.  We went to help the rest of our crew cart in the rest of the gear, and by the time we got back to camp I was feeling like I was on a different planet from everyone else.  Not an uncommon thing for me at all, so I decided to crash in the tent for a very restless and cold night of sleep rather than risk getting ornery.  Good job, me!

The weather got progressively worse as the weekend wore on; the music had its ups and downs.  The dicey proposition of an early sunlit Medeski, Martin & Wood set on Friday proved way better than expected thanks to a feisty John Medeski, a far cry from his jazz-lite persona at Rothbury 2008.  Diplo put on one of the best sets of the weekend Saturday, locking up the award for Best Use Of Tracks From That Inescapable New Daft Punk Album, and Thievery Corporation was also excellent.  UV Hippo put on a pretty stellar little set in the vibe tent as well.  Umphrey's McGee came through as usual with some solid stuff, particularly the stuff with the horns on Saturday and the awesome "Debra" cover, but nothing like the mind-blowing stuff I've seen from them in years past, reigniting my fear that the more I "figure them out" the less they captivate me (opposite of what happens with Phish...).

That was about it for highlights that stuck with me.  Except the Avett Brothers, who sucked at Summerfest last year but were downright fantastic in the rain on Sunday; their energy and especially lyrics just KILL me sometimes.  So considering the weather as the primo factor, Summer Camp 2013 could be deemed an unmitigated disaster, as I'm sure thousands of mud-sunk hippies would readily attest to.  My most-anticipated sets of the weekend were sabotaged--STS9 by my poor judgment and an ill-timed Oskar Blues Gubna that resulted in my not remembering very much from the portions of it that I did catch, and Trey Anastasio by Mother Nature.  (Yes, I worship at the altars of two different Treys.)

We didn't even venture out for his abbreviated first set 'cause it was raining, and then when TAB came out for a scorching "Mr. Completely" to start the second set, that was all she wrote.  I've seen Phish (among other bands) play in much worse conditions than these, so I had high hopes that he'd return to the stage, but said stage was obviously not designed to withstand a downpour, despite the fact that this shit happens EVERY FUCKING YEAR.  But whatever; the one doggone jam we did catch had it all, key and tempo changes, chaotic horns, a little shredding, a hot peak; best TAB jam I've seen since Phish came out of retirement, Trey bursting with energy, but it just wasn't meant to be.

So we slogged back to camp, soaked and sorely unsatisfied, through streams running over waterlogged paths that had no loose dirt left to make into mud.  What a pisser.

Strangely enough, I didn't feel all that bummed.  My favorite memory of the weekend occurred just prior to Trey coming onstage, when the monsoon began again in earnest and our ponchoed crew of five huddled together like penguins with our heads together, standing like an impervious obelisk to the ravages of the rain.  It was a goofy and ultimately futile gesture of defiance to be sure, and one that probably meant nothing to anybody else, but it was the closest thing to an adventure I could recall at a festival in a long time.  It made me very briefly giddy and connected to people, and even though it only lasted a few minutes it felt good.

There were no life-changing occurrences at this festival that I'm currently aware of.  There were no legendary bits of music.  The bullshit separation of peon and VIP grew wider as the trademarked Jay Goldberg greed inspired actual private SETS OF MUSIC for those enticed into forking over the extra VIP dough, while regular folk couldn't even come by late-night barn tickets if their lives depended on it, just like every year.  We (one step up from peon with our RV pass) snuck in a shitload of alcohol while folks on foot not only got a virtual cavity search but doubly screwed trying to haul their muddied gear back to their vehicles and then triply screwed getting stuck and having to cough up $60 more to get dragged to the exit and pray their cars’ suspensions weren't ruined by the violent methods of the 4x4 drivers.  The Summer Camp ethos, way more than any other comparable festival, goes like this: Don't like some aspect of your festival experience?  Just fork over some more money to Goldberg and he'll start pampering you.  Otherwise, fuck off, dirtbag.

At this point I'm walking away from this fest totally soured.  Can't see myself going back.  This was the best lineup ever and it was a shitshow.  Can't see supporting increasingly boring perennial performers like Cornmeal, Family Groove Company and moe. any more while the overall lineup never changes much and the whole endeavor seems way too risky now.  I'd wish I hadn't gone at all, except I actually did relax and have some fun, which I have an extremely difficult time doing.  I think back on it now and wonder if that was genuine or if I was just trying to fit in, sort of a constant mental battle I suppose.  I can't even get my intentions straight in my head.  Generally speaking, I'm questing after spiritual and emotional uplift and enlightenment--that’s fun for me.  When you're a kid, you go to a festival, you go through four days or so of highly unusual circumstances, you form deep bonds based on these shared experiences.  When you're in your 30s, everything just goes back to normal as soon as you start packing up the car.  But I guess as long as I didn't do anything irreparably damaging or stupid, it was worth it.

Of course you have to write off Memorial Day; that's pack up>brunch>travel>unpack>Chinese takeout and movie day.  Believe me, I would have been strongly tempted to detour by my lonesome into Chicago for the free Ceramic Dog show at Millennium Park that day, but then the show at Constellation the following night was announced.  So down to Chicago I drove one more time Tuesday evening, just in time for the flash flood warnings, because I just can’t get enough rain in my life.  Constellation is easy to drive right by on your first try, but there's plenty of parking that you'd consider nearby if it weren't pouring rain.  The joint served three kinds of beer, but ran out of Two-Hearted before the show started, despite the slowest bar service I've ever experienced at a music club.  The dancefloor was virtually empty when we walked in, but a respectable crowd foresook the seats when Marc Ribot walked out.

I've been wanting to see this asshole live for like a decade but he NEVER FUCKING TOURS the Midwest; the opportunity to see him with my favorite of his many projects was un-pass-uppable, even given my ridiculous prior schedule and absurd fatigue.  Believe me, I wear myself out plenty trying to justify this sort of behavior to myself and my wife; I won't bother with it here because there is no justification except this is my life.

The other two members of this trio used to be Secret Chiefs; go figure that this is my favorite Ribot band, eh?  And Ches Smith (drums/electronics) and Shahzad Ismaily (bass/guitar/percussion) still comprise one of the greatest rhythm sections on the planet.  Shahzad was so completely in control of the pace and tone of this show it sort of blew my mind.  He rarely even looked up from his instruments, so when a jam was in freefall and Ribot was changing key every couple of measures Shahzad would just listen intently and pick up the new theme within seconds.  Otherwise he kept a miraculously steady beat with his Buckethead-like fingers even amidst Ches's relentlessly unhinged thrashing, and during the various free-jazz interludes, whichever instrument he happened to be hammering at the time, it was almost always his decision whether to reenter the song or stretch on or fade out.

Ceramic Dog, like Secret Chiefs, is heavily indebted to Zorn, and the overall sound of the band in its most natural state is like a cross between Masada and Fugazi.  Marc left out most of the band's quirky stylistic one-offs (I was a little sad about this; could’ve totally gone for “Todo El Mundo Es Kitsch” or “For Malena”), concentrating mostly on the new Your Turn album and specifically its blistering jam songs, although of course "Masters Of The Internet" got a sizzling treatment.  "Prayer" was an obvious highlight; they even returned to its themes a couple times in later jams, almost as if the whole second half of the set was comprised of vignettes within that one song.  Given that Jimi Hendrix is in fact dead, I feel confident that I saw the most mind-bogglingly awesome rendition of "The Wind Cries Mary" that I will ever see, and the encore was a real treat of tunes from the first Ceramic Dog record: a wicked version of "Girlfriend" and then wrapping up with "Digital Handshake", the song that initially defined the essence of the band.

So much better than anything I saw at Summer Camp.  Seeing three cats that good at playing indefinable music is a soul-cleansing experience.  Plus spiritually transcendent lyrics like "I'm with my girlfriend/She's really into me/But I don't like her/I'd really rather/Fuck her best friend/But she won't let me".  Sure sounds like fun, doesn't it?

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