[Words & Photos by Frazier, Tyler Sporer, and Greg Molitor]
Without a doubt, this has become one of the most memorable parts of Summer Camp. It feels like absolutely everyone who attends should experience this. But this brand of kickball is far too weird for your average American rube. Luckily, Summer Camp brings out the best & brightest of the weirdos and this game is a nonstop laugh convention, as entertaining as anything could be at 5:30am when you’ve got a head full of strange thoughts and a lust for depravity. There are rules to this game, roughly, and if they aren’t established at the outset, Ryan Stasik creates & enforces them like only a kimono-clad dictator could. But it’s not like these rules conduct the flow of the game. It’s pretty much a free-for-all of cutting in line, rolling mean spitballs with no repercussion, and rulings made from the sidelines by people who have only been paying attention for two to three minutes. This year was the biggest crowd yet, packing the outfield with so many people that the cumulative batting average for both teams was somewhere in the neighborhood of a buck twenty. But none of that matters. Hell, I didn’t even participate this year. I posted up on the sidelines with a bunch of other people far too wooked out for semi-organized sports and proceeded to nearly piss my pants laughing for a solid 90 minutes. Sunrise kickball is becoming the one of the hidden gems of Summer Camp and is something that I’ve vowed not to miss. Lest I want to miss out on the most hilarious shit of the weekend.
Strings ‘n’ Things
One thing that I love about Summer Camp is the variety. There are so many festivals these days that are geared towards such a specific group of people, targeting an audience that is so narrow in scope that anyone with even the slightest range of musical tastes is left thirsting for more. But at Summer Camp, you get the chance to taste it all. And one of my favorite flavors is bluegrass.
Floodwood’s Thursday night set at the unbelievably-well-placed-compared-to-2010’s Campfire Stage was a bit underwhelming for the most part. The relentless crowd shout-outs to moe.’s very own Al Schnier grew tiresome. This guy could have been playing a six string dildo, and these moe.rons would have still been cheering for him like crazy. Don’t get me wrong, Al plays a mean bluegrass guitar, but he is clearly more comfortable behind his electric, and his band Floodwood lacked a certain amount of fluidity in numerous categories, most notably the vocal department. Nevertheless, it’s great to see musicians pushing their boundaries and stepping outside of their comfort zone by taking their talents to an entirely different end of the musical spectrum… kudos to Al and Vinnie for branching out.
The Infamous Stringdusters
The Infamous Stringdusters took to the stage after Floodwood for the late night Campfire Stage jam session, a nightly bluegrass affair that has become a whiskey-swigging, foot-stomping Summer Camp tradition. This has become one of my favorite late night options at this festival. I was thoroughly enjoying these boys play, but knew the type of weekend that lay ahead of me. I needed my rest. So I wandered off into the woods… into the dark and strange habitat of the abnormal, in search of my tent. I rested well, knowing that I would have the chance to see the Stringdusters play again, a mere 8 hours from that point forward.
To all other bluegrass bands in the jam circuit: it’s time to step up your game. You might be thinking, “But music’s not a competition!” True story, but let’s be honest – the bluegrass world revolves around technically precise instrumentation, and Nashville’s The Infamous Stringdusters have ascended to the top by consistently making live performances their bitch. And beyond the individual talents of each member, The Stringdusters outwardly enjoyed their time onstage more than anyone else throughout the entire Summer Camp weekend. Closing the Thursday pre-party at the Campfire Stage, Banjoist Chris Pandolfi’s face says it all… The Infamous Stringdusters are the most talented bluegrass band currently performing within the jam scene.
I caught just enough of Keller Williams’ set to get pretty much the same impression I always get at his daytime festival sets. Don’t get me wrong, I love me some Keller, but when the sun is pouring down your neck like boiling oil, his music isn’t exactly captivating. That is, unless, you’re standing in close enough proximity to the stage to absorb some of the coolness that he radiates. His everlasting grin and smooth stage personality are infectious and you can’t help but smile along with him. He whipped up a really cool remix of “Freeker By The Speaker” that was all on the bass guitar, so it was deep, but he played in an almost bluegrassy rhythm that made the song completely unique. Keller’s quirky talent is always on display, but his style and energy seem to be better suited for the indoor performance.
Yonder Mountain String Band
Yonder Mountain String Band was their usual, incredible self on Sunday afternoon. They opened the set up with a mean “Traffic Jam” that really set the tone. It was blazing hot. Literally and figuratively. But that didn’t stop Jeff Austin from rocking out as hard as he does every single time he sets foot on that stage. A couple of the guys had those big, carpet-drying fans blasting air straight into their faces, so I’m sure that helped. One thing that has really been bothering me about this band the past couple times I’ve had the chance to see them is the discrepancy between the Jeff Austin songs, and the everyone-else songs. Ben, Adam, and Dave are all very good at their respective instruments, but when ANY of these guys step up to the microphone (and they all sort of sound the same to me in many ways), I can’t help but lose interest. Often times I hear nothing but whiney, pop-sounding vocals with some very “radio friendly” tunes to go with it. I love the hard, driving, jam-infused instrumentals along with Jeff Austin’s aggressive, powerful voice. Sometimes a band needs to recognize it’s strengths, and stick with them.
Over at the Moonshine Stage hospitality tent, they had what was easily the tastiest beer at Summer Camp – Figure Eight Brewing out of Valparaiso was pouring some of the most crisp, refreshing suds that I could have asked for on a hot day like this. The combination of available shade, great beer, and incredible music gave me no choice but to linger around Moonshine for what ended up being the vast majority of Sunday afternoon. By the time Greensky Bluegrass rolled around, I had guzzled my fair share of Figure Eights… in fact, I’m having a bit of a difficult time recalling the set list. What I do remember, though, is how phenomenal it sounded. In my eyes, this band is the king of
bluegrass rock ‘n’ roll. I could write for hours trying to explain their sound, but in the end, you just have to see it for yourself. Steeped in tradition yet undeniably progressive, these guys span the bluegrass genre like no string band I’ve ever heard. Their live performances have consistently ranked among my favorite shows in all of live music for many years now, and I don’t see that changing any time soon. This band is the real deal. From tiny gigs in Kalamazoo, Michigan to sold out shows at some of the coolest venues all around the nation, Greensky Bluegrass is on a mission to spread their sound, and there’s no doubt in my mind that they’ve succeeded.
Weir, Robinson, and Greene Trio
Just about everyone walks away from their favorite festival feeling at least somewhat regretful for missing certain sets over the course of the weekend. Although I caught a little piece of this trio in passing, this ended up being one of those shows for me that I wished I had witnessed in full. Especially after seeing the setlist. With classic Dead tunes like “Truckin’,” “Deep Elem Blues,” “West L.A. Fadeaway,” and “New Speedway Boogie,” this must have been a real treat. For me, Bob Weir is one of those incredibly distinct, familiar voices that brings about a feeling of comfort and nostalgia. Jackie Greene on the other hand, brings to the table a fresh new sound with crisp, high-end vocals and a clean guitar. Together with Chris Robinson (The Black Crowes), these three weave a beautiful and texturally thick rendition of one of the most famous bands in rock history. Their harmonies were on point, their guitars were complimentary, and their message was powerful.
Caravan of Thieves
Are the Caravan of Thieves serious? This was far and away the worst music I heard all weekend. Every note that came off of that Campfire stage was this poisonous, infected type of carnival music like something straight out of a bad dream. Disharmonious key changes and intentional mis-notes for the sake of sounding weird. The whole thing was just off, like a pint of sour milk. Frazier and I looked at each other simultaneously with an utterly confused expression and pretty much high-tailed it in a direction far away from the stage, obviously not stopping long enough to take any photos whatsoever. Perhaps we were the victims of an incredibly long, exhausting weekend, but we walked away from that show on Sunday night feeling unfulfilled and ready to self-destruct. This set was a nightmare.
This was one of those ‘hit-and-run’ deals where I was drawn in by a wonderful sound in the midst of transit. I had somewhere I meant to be but it was going to have to wait, because Elephant Revival snagged my attention. They caught me with a great blend of folk and bluegrass that seemed to never lean too far in either direction while paying homage to both beautifully. Plus, I’m a sucker for the washboard — it’s just such an aurally interesting method of percussion. I stuck around for a handful of songs to get my fill but my feet would not stop moving, so it was onto the next stage, in full wander mode.
Wookies love traditional bluegrass. You know wookies, right? If they’re nearby, you can’t miss ‘em. Wookies come in all shapes and sizes – the type of person that if your Grandparents drove by and saw one on the side of the road, they’d have no choice but to yell,” Look at that hippie!” I’m not sure where they came from and I sure as hell didn’t follow them after the show, but holy shit did they make their presence known during The Henhouse Prowlers set Friday night at the Camping Stage.
Now for the irony – this greased up concentration of wooks gathered for… a group of clean cut men wearing suits? I don’t blame ‘em. Breezing through originals and standards, Chicago-based The Henhouse Prowlers made playing traditional ‘grass look incredibly easy. The band’s lineup has changed multiple times over the past few years, yet they keep churning out the old time magic wherever they go. This set brought added excitement for me, marking the first time I’d seen them with their newest members — guitarist Starr Moss and violinist Dan Andree — and they sounded better than ever.