Summer Camp, Three Sisters Park, Chillicothe, IL- 5/26-28
In a world of overcrowded, over-hyped, and over-commercialized summer music festivals, Summer Camp remains a welcome exception. Located a mere 2 hours from Chicago, St. Louis, Madison, Champaign, and Iowa City, and touting a lineup of the best touring acts in the jamband community, Summer Camp has blossomed into a can’t miss Memorial Day weekend destination for music fans residing in the Midwest.
Those lucky enough and able to arrive on Thursday Night were treated to a festival pre-party hosted by the likes of New York-based up-and-comers U-Melt, fan favorites Assembly of Dust, Midwest circuit veterans Groovatron, 56 Hope Road, and San Francisco’s Tea Leaf Green capping off the Late Night set in the Red Barn till nearly 4 AM.
While heavy rain was in the forecast for Friday, this by no way dampened the spirits of the musicians. Chicago-based collective Drop-Q got things started on the main stage Friday morning followed by a strong set by the Animal Liberation Orchestra (ALO). Meanwhile, those just arriving on Friday afternoon and setting up camp for the weekend were treated to the country sounds of the Assembly of Dust. Another highlight included a Campground Stage set by U-Melt which got the weekend's multi-band collaborations started with moe.'s Chuck Garvey, who added guitar licks to an inspiring cover of the Beatles’ "Tomorrow Never Knows." Over the last two years, U-Melt’s trademark “organic progressive” sounds have garnered an ever increasing fan base, making this rare Midwest appearance a real treat.
The main stage really got started around 3 PM with reggae legends, The Wailers laying down familiar grooves led by Aston "Family Man" Martin. Few festival main stage acts have transitioned so well as did the Wailers to Keller Williams and his WMD's. Keller opened with a free form reggae improv jam melding the names of all of Friday's main-stage acts into a haunting groove that rang in my head all weekend.
Which brings me to one of the weekend’s most anticipated sets. I first got into Umphrey's McGee while still living in New York and on the tail end of Phish's final live performances and while I find few similarities between the groups, I will say that for some reason my transition from Phish-head to UmPhreak went as smoothly as a killer Mike's Song > Weekapaug Groove” jam.
Both UM sets proved to be quite cohesive. "Miss Tinkle's Overture" got things off and running and other early highlights included versions of "The Bottom Half" and "Pay the Snuka." The second set was centered around book-ending performances of complex rocker "Jajunk," which initially transitioned nicely into "Walletsworth." The band really hits its stride when out of "Alex's House,” the band dropped into their rock powerhouse, "Plunger" which featured fine moments from percussionist Andy Farag. The group slowed things down with a cover of Sade’s "No Ordinary Love," a somewhat cheesy early 90's tune that fits in with Umphrey's groovy comedy persona. Jennifer Hartswick joined the band to add female vocals while bassist Ryan Stasik kept the crowd grooving to a song that likely was unfamiliar to many in attendance. This set had definitely reached it climax half-way through, but still left the crowd eager for more that was to come.
By the time moe. took the stage and the crowd settled in, the band performed like true headliners. Their first night's set was as energetic as it was recognizable to even the most novice of moe.rons. Seamless transitions between classics such as “Rebubula,” “Not Coming Down,” and “St. Augustine” were then complemented by a Strangefolk cover, "Westerly" which featured members of the Assembly of Dust.
Saturday morning was rather subdued as heavy overnight rains soaked the festival grounds and slowed campers emergence from their tents. During this time Groovatron tried to get things started on the main stage, dressed in all white with faces painted to match. Mid way through an energetic set, the rain started up again and led me back to the campground to seek shelter under the tall trees. It was there that a catchy beat drew me toward the camping stage where Detroit-based Bump was gaining the attention of an ever-growing audience. Slightly shielded from the rain, those in range of Bump's hour- long set were feeling the groove of a highly focused group bent on fusing hip-hop and rock sounds into a highly enjoyable live performance.
A strategically-placed tent adjacent to the Sunshine stage provided shelter for some relaxing enjoyment with Al and the Transamericans followed by the musical melting pot know as Toubab Krewe. I have seen Toubab a few times before, but never have they seemed so focused. Despite the driving rain, it was hard to resist throwing your hands up in the air and stomping your feet in the mud to the smooth sounds of West African-influenced rock grooves.
With the heavy rain now falling more steadily, those brave enough to leave their tents ventured over to the main stage for Les Claypool's highly anticipated afternoon set. Claypool's funky bass kept the waterlogged crowd in great spirits as Les' Fancy Band pumped out a highly cohesive performance with Gabby La La complementing Colonel Claypool's futuristic lead bass performance. The set as well as the weather reached its peak as Claypool chanted "Rain, Rain, Rain, Rain, Rain," in sync with a slapping bass and a heavy deluge. The set closed out with a spirited “Dee's Diner” where Les and Gabby traded verses with the crowd and concluding their performance with its highest level of energy.
Before the Umphrey's McGee set to follow, I attempted to cycle in some dryer clothes but remained focused on returning for the entirety of their set despite any inconvenience the weather wanted to play. Then, through some kind of divine intervention, right as Umphrey's McGee took the stage, the rain stopped. What’s more, during a rare cover of "Black Sabbath," the skies cleared and the sun emerged for the remainder of the group’s single set show. "Black Sabbath" fell right into a personal favorite "All in Time," which featured Umphrey's at their energetic best while ponchos were shed and the energy of the crowd hit a high for the weekend. "Great American" then followed, slowing things down slightly, before the group dropped into a medley of "Ringo" > "2X2" > "Bridgeless" > "Much Obliged" > and back into "Ringo," which featured Jim Loughlin from moe. on percussion. “Nemo” then capped off a great set and solidified Umphrey's McGee’s position as a Midwest powerhouse capable of headlining their own festival at some point in the near future.
In the context of this weekend, if you only had come to Chillicothe for either of the two-set moe. performances on Saturday and Sunday evenings, you have received more than your fix for a great live show on either night. Both also offered a steady selection of guest artists, exemplifying moe.'s unselfish nature even at their own festivals. Inviting fiddler Allie Kral from Cornmeal to the stage on Saturday for the start of the second set with rocker “McBain” > “George” gave a nice twist of a couple classic tunes. On Sunday, moe. returned the drumming sit-in favor extended to Jim Loughlin, as Umphrey’s Kris Myers added percussion to a first-set offering of “Y.O.Y.” The most surprising guest appearance occurred in Sunday's second set, when trumpet player Ross Huff, from the little known Ann Arbor-based, disco bebop group MacPodz, added brass licks to “Yodelittle” in an unconventional manner.
Sunday also featured such acts as New Monsoon, Galactic, MMW, Brothers Past, and Chicago hip-hop group Treologic, making the last day of Summer Camp just as solid as the two which preceded it. While Brothers Past often appears as a late night act at many festivals, their afternoon Sunshine stage performance showed a side of the group I have never seen live before. After a number of captivating rock offerings, lead guitarist Tom Hamilton stepped down into the crowd where he finished things off sitting down amongst many entranced newfound fans. This intriguing set was potentially the peak to Sunday's live offerings until Medeski, Martin and Wood took the Main Stage by storm at 4:30 Sunday evening. Exemplifying both the past and future of live music in every show, it is a wonder how this NY based trio remains as accessible and original for over 15 years writing and playing together.
As with any multi-day festival, it is hard to really pinpoint any one single highlight of a long weekend. It is often a collection of exciting experiences shared with good friends, great fans, and your favorite bands. One thing can be said about Summer Camp: if you’re not about sitting in traffic or waiting on long lines to see your favorite bands, then you should come enjoy some true Midwest hospitality and kick off your summer in grand fashion with many groups you love and many others you will be sure to seek out next time they roll through your own hometown.