Shoe Fest, Camp Shaw-Waw-Nas-See, Manteno, IL- 9/6-8
Photo by Norman Sands
Ah, sweet September. A time when summer begins its shift into autumn and it’s back to business. For many, it marks a time of festy season slowing down or ending. Having been around the block this summer, I too was ready to retire to a more cozy and relaxing pace with less travelling. But first, I had the privilege to spend a weekend in a happy little gem of a festival called Shoe Fest.
Nestled deep in the hilly green countryside of Illinois lies a majestic campground called Camp Shaw-waw-nas-see, or Camp Shaw for short. The third annual festival is the brainchild of Americana roots rock band Old Shoe. Similar to Papadosio’s Rootwire Festival and Yonder Mountain String Band’s Harvest Music Festival, Old Shoe has taken their favorite aspects of festivals and live music and created their own haven for bluegrass, folk, funk, rock, and beyond.
Upon entering the festival, there was a parking lot on the left, RV camping on the right, and regular camping further ahead. Keep going and you’d bump into the main stage area as well as Shakedown Street. A peaceful tree-spotted area filled with sunshine and little cabins which could be rented out for the weekend. A staircase a few hundred yards back from the main stage took you down to a valley which over time had been carved out by a creek which is fed by the Kankakee River. Gorgeous boulders and rock walls line the water’s path, while overhanging trees and leaves shone bright green in the sun’s rays. A bridge crossed the creek which led you to the other stage. The words “Shoe Fest” were spelled out in rocks just under the bridge.
The second stage, which was set up under a pavilion, was where I saw my first show of the weekend. Frank F. Sidney’s Western Bandit Volunteers are a bluegrass group – fiddle, banjo, washboard and all. I sat in the shade and sipped on a beer while they played some down-home front porch style grass. After the set, it was time to further explore the ground. There was an expansive area behind and surrounding the pavilion which was where many chose to camp. There were trails weaving throughout the area, one of which ran right along the winding creek.
Henhouse Prowlers was the next show I caught, a rowdy yet classy bluegrass group who really got the party started. Dressed immaculately in suit and tie, the string band belted away melodies, the standup bass thumping. I meandered my way over to the fire dancer on stilts and positioned myself in the grass so that I could see both him and the Prowlers. As “One More Saturday Night” echoed through the valley, I couldn’t help but smile.
Cornmeal put on an impressive set as they always do. It was the first show I’ve seen since Allie Kral’s departure. Their guest fiddle player, Gina Romantini, is an established musician who did a phenomenal job and had sweet musical chemistry with the rest of the band. The group passed around a bottle of Maker’s Mark in between songs, two of which were Beatles and Led Zeppelin covers, and Allie Kral even joined for what felt like a family reunion of sorts. During this set I became all too familiar with the selection of craft beer the Bent River Brewery was slingin’. Jalapeno Ale, Apricot Wheat, Uncommon Stout, and my personal favorite Sweet Potato Ale (tasted almost like a pumpkin beer with a twist) all for $5. Yum!
The band Shoe Fest was built around, Old Shoe, played two fantastic sets on Friday and Saturday. They have a very diverse style that can range from twangy bluegrass to dancey, beat-driven songs. All in all a good time. Their energetic stage personas and the way they interact with each other is captivating.
This Must Be The Band – what an animated group of musicians. This Talking Heads tribute band from Chicago has mastered the art of the Heads and bring both the obscure tracks and fan favorites to life. Their 1:30 a.m. show on Friday night was the cherry on top of a perfect first day at Shoe.
The Giving Tree Band put on a great show Saturday afternoon. Each member of this group has a very distinct taste and style. This collage of personalities and assortment of musical instruments coalesces into a perfect finished product that is just too much fun. Allie Kral joined the festivities and even though the sun was warming the crowd a bit too much, we were all dancing and head bobbing too hard to care. We even got a sped-up bluegrassy version of “I Know You Rider.”
Progressive rock and funk band Zmick threw down a cheerful set with live painting on stage and Jaik Willis going hard in the front of the crowd. Chicago Farmer, a one-man acoustic act, serenaded with his folky, workingman ballads about women, bar fights, the meaning of life, and – quite appropriately – shoes.
Drew Emmitt Band was a favorite show of mine. The Leftover Salmon mandolin player and his band of merry musicians on guitar, banjo, and fiddle wowed the crowd with their crisp and clean sound. Some treats from the show include a “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” cover and radiant Allie Kral accompaniment.
Family Groove Company sure know how get a crowd rockin’ with their funky keys, upbeat melodies, and badass bass player Janis. They led the crowd through a delightful set of smooth groovy tunes including an exceptional “New Speedway Boogie.”
Brainchild gave us the pleasure of their funky jam band presence late Sunday afternoon. Roy, the lead guitarist, can shred a guitar like nobody’s business. Their catchy original tune “Moon Party, Dance Party” forced us to boogie hard despite our tired legs from a weekend of swimming, walking, and dancing. A boisterous rendition of George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic’s “We Want the Funk” drove the set home.
A special Sunday treat was hot new group on the jam band circuit, Floodwood. Comprised of Al Schnier and Vinnie Amico of moe., along with experienced and award-winning members in the world of bluegrass, Jason Barady, Nick Piccininni, and Zachary Fleitz. These five men have incredible chemistry and a unique multi-dimensional sound. They played an impressive Bob Marley “Waiting in Vain” cover in which each member took turns jamming mini solos on their instrument in between verses. If you can believe it, Allie Kral joined the boys for a bit and really brought down the house. Floodwood are on tour this fall making appearances with the likes of the Allman Brothers, Mumford and Sons, Leftover Salmon, and Keller Williams. Their debut album “This is Life” was just released on September 10. I highly recommend catching one of their shows if you can.
Top 5 Highlights of the Weekend
There are always those sights that catch your attention as you are casually strolling through a music festival’s grounds. At Shoefest, it was an enormous, authentic teepee. The owner, Dave, makes and sells hand drums made from horse hide. Therefore, as he says, “when you play it, you’re beating a dead a horse.” This man was full of stories from the road and welcomed anyone who came by into his lair. And a lair it was indeed. In the center of the teepee was a small fire which he tended, using aromatic wood such as cedar. Surrounding the fire and piling up around the walls of the structure were nearly 100 furs – wolverines, otters, buffalo, foxes, and even Lou the Caribou. It was impossible not feel like some sort of Native American chief lounging among the fur and soaking up the good vibes that filled this place.
Ben Miller Band
How to describe these fellows, who blew me away during their 2:00 a.m. set Saturday night. First of all, the dudes look like MMA fighters. They are three badass musicians that have turned bluegrass on its head. See in this band, Scott Leeper the bass player’s instrument is a washtub bass, comprised of a weedeater string attached to a wooden pole. Doug Dicharry, the bald and heavily-bearded percussionist, plays an electric washboard, blows minds with his sultry trombone solos, and smacks some mean spoons in addition to to killing it on drums, trumpet, and mandolin. And then good ol’ Ben Miller; a harmonica virtuoso and slide guitar genius with a smooth, dynamic voice that has the perfect amount of twang. Sporting a mohawk and also heavily bearded, he often uses a telephone mic which distorts his voice just the right amount. The band has taken such menial junky objects and uses them make some of the best music I’ve heard in awhile. Goosebumps are materializing as I think about this show. To me, the best moment of their set was an outrageous rendition of “Black Betty.” Bam-A-Lam.
Many of us adventurers were up for the challenge of finding the rumored waterfall. To get there, you had to walk along the winding creek, stumbling over large slabs of limestone, rock climbing along areas with very little foothold, or just kicking off your shoes and walking in the water itself. Whichever way you chose to travel, it was not the easiest trip. However, the treacherous journey was more than worth it when you finally saw where the creek dropped off up ahead, with people swimming and laughing down below. The rocks underneath the waterfall were dark and smooth from years of water erosion, creating a natural water slide of sorts. The creek was relatively shallow past the waterfall, but just underneath it there was a pool of water at least six feet deep so when your butt slid off the waterfall slide you were submerged into a cool, crisp pool. Suddenly the hot sun didn’t bother you as much and you felt refreshed as can be. This was a great hangout spot, both for festivalgoers and band members looking to explore before or after their sets. Good times all around.
Bears vs. Bengals Game
That’s right. Football season is upon us. And when you are deep in Illinois, you have some serious Chicago Bears fans to deal with. Many were trying to figure out how they were going to watch the opening game of the regular season on Sunday morning. Do we leave and find a nearby bar? Do we try to listen to it on the radio? Never fear, because the wonderful organizers at Shoe Fest decided to haul a big screen TV, a buttload of equipment, and a Blueberry Stout keg down to the valley so we could all get our fix. Despite a few technical difficulties, it was a pretty cool experience to watch a football game deep in the woods beside a beautiful creek. Cheers, Shoe Fest. You guys know how to throw a damn festival.
This woman takes the cake. Previously the fiddle player for Cornmeal, she has ventured out on her own as a solo artist and has captured the ears of many in the industry. Having been charmed by her many sit ins with the likes of moe. and Umphrey’s McGee at Summer Camp Music Festival, I was pleased to learn she was Shoe Fest’s “Artist at Large.” This is a great thing festivals have been doing more and more and it allows some incredible (and rare) artist collaborations.
I attempted to keep track of all the sets in which Allie made appearances, but literally lost count. She is a bluegrass powerhouse and her energy and musical talent was the icing on the cake for many amazing acts throughout the weekend. Her sparkling presence always drew a level of rowdiness from the crowd and the fact that Drew Emmitt Band had her onstage for every song they played speaks for itself.
Props to the soundboard crew and lighting director – phenomenal production quality. Shout out to the festival organizers and Camp Shaw staff – you guys rock. It was hard to pack up on Sunday night and get on the road back to reality.
Friendly security, family style atmosphere, breathtaking natural setting, incredible musical acts, lots of puns about shoes, and countless Grateful Dead covers summarize this festival. As Shoe Fest’s motto states, it was a stupendous “one more dance before summer turns to fall.”