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Summer Camp Music Festival, Three Sisters Park, Chillicothe, IL – 5/23-24

Friday

Summer Camp on Friday. Music lovers arose to the crispy, bluebird sky of central Illinois with a bright beautiful sun shinning down from above. As fans shook off the grogginess of Thursday’s pre-party they found that Summer Camp was beginning in earnest and the weather was perfect. The light rain of the prior day kept down the dust promising that attendees would not be blowing a Rorschach Test into their hankies. A light breeze blew across the fields making for a sweet balance of warm and cool as the day began. Chicago Summer Camp regulars Old Shoe got the music started with an 11 AM shotgun start.

This quintet is quintessential jam with an acoustic sensibility thrown in for good measure. As Matt Robinson donned his “Easy Scampin’” shirt it was clear that not only was Old Shoe ready to have fun, they were ready to play. This band has so much potential as their local fan base already knows, They are a blend of rock, funk, folk, and more, Old Shoe just seems to fit. As their name would insinuate there is a comfortable vibe that emulates from everything they do. Their hour-long set was a perfect way to officially start Friday at Summer Camp.

Just as Old Shoe was finishing up Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn band was getting warmed up on the Starshine Stage. These guys put the power in power trio. Their sound is reminiscent of a revving engine approaching the red line. They have a growl that would make a dire wolf question its masculinity. They opened with a roaring “That Train Song.”

The Rev. is as much of a storyteller as he is a rocker. Joined by his wife Breezy and drummer Ben “Bird Dog” Bussell, Reverend Peyton can rip on anything with a fret board. In fact during “Easy Come, Easy Go” he absolutely shredded on a cigar box guitar. I’ve never seen one let alone heard one sound like a Les Paul. Their hour on the stage went by far to quickly and ended with a rolling version of “Some Of These Days into a raucous version of “When The Saints Go Marching In” followed by a very untraditional take on “Glory, Glory.” Let’s just say it got spiritual.

Next up was Keller Williams in the VIP Lounge. This was the first year with an actual schedule set up for VIP, rather than just a few random sets throughout the weekend. Keller was running late, taking the stage a full twenty minutes after he was scheduled. The set began ceremoniously with an introduction from promoter and festival organizer Ian Goldberg. He is Jay’s son and basically runs the whole show. Keller began by saying, “I have no plan.” He performed an acoustic, loopless show, which is something I haven’t seen since 2005 at Summer Camp. Keller is always a sort of flow of conscience type show, but his loopless shows take it to another level. Strumming away we were treated to a set that was all K-Dub. The highlight was beautiful rendition of The Grateful Dead’s “Eyes Of The World.” I would have stayed longer, but it was time for moe.

2013 Camp Counselor Kyle Hess gave the intro, which was short but sweet. Having stood in his shoes, it’s a lot of pressure to announce your heroes to 15,000 or so people. He did so marvelously. moe. opened their festival with a huge “Captain America” into “Recreational Chemistry.” This was the equivalent of throwing down the gauntlet as far as I’m concerned.

moe. is one of the few jambands that has never broken up, never taken an extended hiatus, and never left their fans in the lurch. It absolutely shows in their live performances. They simply grind and for that reason I’ve been a fan for well over a decade. Their guitarists Al Schnier and Chuck Garvey are so dialed in, watching them is like witnessing a two-headed shred monster. They toss each other lead and rhythm parts like hot potatoes shot from a grenade launcher. This was a classic jam-filled set with a massive “Okayalright” to close. With five more sets on the horizon they set the bar pretty high with this show filled to the brim with badassery.

The Wailers were up next on the Sunshine Stage. I’ve always been a bit confused by The Wailers , The Original Wailers and were the two diverged. The fact that Bunny Wailer is still alive and not a member of either band is enough to make me question the namesake. Originally The Wailers was comprised of Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, and Bunny Livingston. Afterwards the band morphed into Bob Marley and The Wailers with Aston “Family Man” Barrett and his brother Cody Barrett on drums with the I Threes. Both of the Barretts were members of Lee “Scratch” Perry’s studio band The Upsetters. So basically Aston is the only real member of Bob’s band, but they continued performing after Bob’s death. They were lead by Koolant Brown on vocals who was like a bucket of jazzercise. His energy was infectious and his tone was spot on. The other notable member is Keith Sterling on keys who was also a part of The Upsetters among other Jamaican groups. They sounded solid with awesome versions of “Africa Unite” and “Stir It Up.” The highlight of their set was a mashup of “Waiting In Vain” with Tina Turner’s “What’s Love Got To Do With It.” As I was heading over to MMW I could hear them playing “I Shot The Sheriff” to an enthusiastic crowd.

Medeski Martin & Wood plays jazz with a jam mentality. It’s not so much about the groove because at times they go down the trail blazed by greats like Charlie Parker. Utilizing dissonance that to the untrained ear can be unsettling. However the fact is that MMW is capable of absolutely anything. Their most crowd-pleasing shows include funkiness, which was definitely present at points during their set at Summer Camp. They are simply one of the most incredible live acts touring today and it was a pleasure to see them on a beautiful day in central Illinois.

As Keller Williams ages his projects become more and more sophisticated. No longer is he content playing alone. The last few years have seen numerous projects spring from his mind. The latest is Keller Williams and The More Than A Little. This is his most soulful endeavor incorporating two female vocalists and a full band. They started the set with the song from which they take their name. K-Dub hit the stage in a black suit, smacking his talking drum and looking pretty suave. I would have to say the man won best dressed for Friday if not the entire fest. There was smoothness to this group and a focus on the funkier side of Keller. This is probably my favorite band that Keller has formed and I hope this group actually tours rather than being just a flash in the pan. This was also the most painful overlap of the day with Yonder Mountain String Band starting just a half hour after Keller, so shortly after it started, it was time to mosey.

Colorado bluegrass ambassadors Yonder Mountain String Band have been a hallmark of Summer Camp for years now. Their main stage set this year was chocked full of stringy goodness. They started with an energetic “If You’re Ever In Oklahoma” into “East Nashville Easter.”

This set was a beautiful, rambunctious journey with one of my favorite bands. Jeff Austin’s face contorted as he wore the finish off his mandolin, by straight ripping it up. They invited Lee Boy, Roosevelt Collier to the stage to play the pedal steel with the band. This added a whole new dimension to their group. He wasn’t even on the official lineup, but he ended up being an artist at large of sorts playing around all weekend long. Their take on “Dear Prudence” with him was definitely memorable as was their set closing “Two Hits.”

Finally it was time for the main event with Umphrey’s McGee. Basically Summer Camp has become their home fest as they now share the bill with moe. They have such a dedicated following and are actually from the Midwest so it makes a lot of sense. They eased into a two set extravaganza with “There’s No Crying In Mexico.”

Umphrey’s is the most technical band in jam and this show demonstrated just that. The boys let us know that they are still Death Metal with “All In Time.” “Nothing Too Fancy” into “Ringo” was the climax of their first set and again raised the bar from a band that might as well be professional bar raisers. “Eat” actually had me a little frightened as again their Metal was showing, before the progressive “Believe The Lie” eased the tension. Umphrey’s is not an easy band to watch. They don’t just give it to you. They make their fans concentrate in a way that no other member of the jam community does. You have to work to understand what this band is doing. They are the opposite of dubstep in that regard. They ended their first set by going back into “Nothing Too Fancy.”

Their second set was bookended by “Puppet String” and included a sit in from Big Gigantic’s Dominic Lalli. It was a little more reserved than the blowout that was set one. “The Bright Lights, Big City” on which Lalli sat in was a definite highlight of a set full of technical turns and rage heavy jam. Umphrey’s is a big part of what makes Summer Camp so great and this was their night to blow it all out. They did so marvelously. During “Glory” they teased The Smashing Pumpkin’s “Rhinoceros” which got fans hopeful, but I’m glad they stuck to the script. This is one my favorite UM tunes and really demonstrates a different side of their sound. With a little bit of the theatrical moe. came to the stage for the encore. The Umph boys gave them a look like, “We got this,” and proceeded to bust out a highly mechanical “Rebubula.” It was a nice touch to show the interconnectivity of these two groups at this particular festival.

After Umphrey’s I opted to nap it out for bit to be ready for the late night in the Red Barn with moe. and YMSB. I arrived at the Barn around 12:45 and made my way inside. The Barn is 400-person shell complete with lasers and a high ceiling. moe. opened with “Mar-Dema.”

Their hour and fifteen minute set left fans wishing they would play until the sun came up. This was classic moe. with a wonderful “Kyle’s Song” as well as a bust out on “Big Country” which hadn’t been played in 929 shows. Before playing “Sensory Deprivation Bank” Rob said, “This is the most downloaded song in the history of porn… it’s true.” I’m not sure if that’s actually a fact but it was absolutely huge. The set closing “Waiting For The Punchline” whipped the crowd up into a frenzy. This was solid moe. and a fun way to spend a late night.

After a stage swap that went a little too long Yonder took to the boards. They got going with a solid sandwich in the form of “New Horizons“ into “Blue Collar Blues” back into “New Horizons.”

Yonder took us on a late night bluegrass romp that saw classics flirting with a few new tunes. It was simply a great day of music and YMSB was the perfect end to it all playing well into the wee hours of the morning. Additional highlights of their set included “Let Me In A Hole,” “New Deal,” and “Ten.” They encored with an awesome “Southern Flavor.”

As I walked down the trail back to my tent the birds were beginning to chirp and I knew that Saturday would be coming all too soon. Summer Camp is non-stop run and if you do take a break you are going to miss something. That’s just the nature of the beast. It’s always important to pace yourself, but it’s even more important to see as much live music as possible. Two down, two to go.

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