MUD LEVEL COVENTRY: A Recap of Summer Camp Music Festival

For the first time since the festival was founded over a decade ago, I was finally able to hit off Summer Camp Music Festival in Chillicothe, Illinois. I have slowly been checking off festivals around the country that have been established for a number of years, partially because I want to see what each one offers compared to the others, and partially because I am working on a book on music festivals, making for the best research topic ever. My good friend and editor, Tim O’Shea, planned out this journey with me for many months, and we headed out for Chicago on the evening of Tuesday, May 22nd. The two of us were covering for UpstateLIVE.com, where you can read a more formal review this week.

The drive out was nothing special, other than a first for me – driving the length of Pennsylvania, which was exciting if you like windy roads and counting dead deer on the side of the road, but having driven all across America, somehow I hadn’t driven much of I-80. Ohio was a smooth drive where we switched drivers and got into Indiana and admired the Amish at the rest stop, as well as Hee Haw CDs in the gift shop. The drive into Chicago felt like it started an hour before you actually get into the heart of the city, somewhat like New York City. We found our way to LSD (no, not that, Lake Shore Drive) and wound around the road as we ended up in Lakeview East where we were staying for the evening with good friend Barry Brown. After some chatting about Summer Camp, Cornmeal, Umphrey’s and expectations at the festival, while Barry made his famous Chex Mix and White Cheddar dip, naps were in order since neither of us fully slept in the car on the way out. Before we knew it, it was 6pm and Barry was off to bartend.

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Tim and I hit off Kuma’s Too, a GREAT burger joint nearby – Tim said it was the best burger he had ever had, and I can second that one. Good service, good fried pickles and a GREAT beer selection – a French Country Style Ale was a perfect match to a Cheddar, Bacon & Egg Burger. For some reason, people were saying “Go to the Original Kuma’s!”, which has an hour to two hour wait. Not sure how that’s better, but when I go to the Northerly Island shows in July, I’ll be back at Kuma’s Too for lunch one of those days. We snagged a cab over to Windy City Inn for even more great beer and darts, as well as Old Style, a personal favorite of mine; few regional beers are this tasty. With a 7 am departure time scheduled, we had to head home early, but it was fully worth it; a late night before a festival doesn’t help matters when you are trying to setup a campsite, let alone lug gear in a half mile.

Thursday

Leaving early for a festival has never been such a great idea! Once we got breakfast, we made a pit stop for an elusive Trader Joe’s that turned out to be right across from Kuma’s Too. Navigating our way out of Chicago felt like The Griswold’s heading to Wally World in Vacation, but we found our way back to I-80, then to I-55, cutting out potential traffic and the storied police presence that an out of stater with vanity plates (PHANART) didn’t need to deal with. We drove a quite calm and flat I-55 until we reached SR 24 and headed west, sticking to the speed limit and catching some light rain on the way in. Spending an extra hour and a half in the car to prevent headaches from overzealous cops was well worth it, and led to seeing a part of the country that we normally wouldn’t be experiencing. Driving into Peoria and up SR 29 to Chillicothe, we toed the line even closer, but there were virtually NO cops on this route, a well planned drive that led to an easy entrance to the festival.

Picking up media passes and bracelets at the barn, we drove into the festival parking lot and somehow ended up with prime parking, right at the end of the row within 50 yards of the search tent. I had heard the search was intense at Three Sisters Park, as they allow ZERO alcohol into the grounds, so we left the booze in the car for now, packed our gear up as best as we could and worked out way into the line, but we had to prepared to lug our gear in a potential 1/2 mile.

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Eagle Scouts know how to pack a dolly heading into a festival

Once we got into line, a few familiar faces were already there, and two guys from Chicago that I had met at the UIC Poster Show in 2011 were in line with us. We chatted briefly and talked about setting up camp together. This led to the first of many good omens over the course of the weekend. Zach and Sam were good hosts who knew where the best spot to camp was (between Sunshine and Starshine) and over the weekend, brought with them a sociological dream come true – 18-21 year olds who were attending their first or second festival, new to the whole experience and full of youthful exuberance. In all, the campsite was one of the best we had, especially due to the rain but also for the atmosphere it created for all of us. On top of the campsite, the Vibe Tent was right near us so we could hear four stages clearly – Sunshine, Starshine, Vibe and Camping – with a less than 5 minute walk to each.

Truly, a 'before' picture of the campsite
Truly, a ‘before’ picture of the campsite

Music-wise, I finally got to see Family Groove Company, who played a stellar version of “American Girl” after an Allie Kral sit in, then some Cornmeal, who were losing longtime member Allie after the weekend was over. Digital Tape Machine showed some impressive growth since the last time I saw them in 2011. Some wine and vodka later, we caught Roster McCabe covering ‘Get Lucky’, some acts in the Vibe Tent – DJ Solo, Sun Stereo, UV Hippo, and personal favorite Dopapod, plus some late night in the Red Barn with Future Rock. I’m glad I didn’t buy tickets to the other shows in the Red Barn, because the smell, cig smoke and ground in there was a nightmare, even on Day 1. But Future Rock put on a great show, a rare act to see for east-coasters.

Friday

Day 2 kicked off with some moe., as Tim and I walked into a top notch “Recreational Chemistry”, followed by some time in the Media ‘Church’. I shouldn’t use quotes there: it was an actual church, and a sweet setup for all of us. I sat in on an interview with Dumpstaphunk on their new album and other aspects of the band; a band with two bassists is continually interesting for even an avid fan of the funk. I headed back to Moonshine Stage for Yonder Mountain String Band, since this might be the only time I see them all year. I got there  just as Roosevelt Collier was joining them to sit in for “Kentucky Mandolin”, “Dear Prudence” “Raleigh and Spencer” and “2 Hits and the Joint Turned Brown”. Collier should sit in with everyone – he’s incredible no matter the venue or style of music.

Weather-wise, this weekend was warm and with the breeze, dusty like Bonnaroo – this is why a bandana comes in incredibly handy, despite looking like you may hold up a stagecoach. Saturday and Sunday were a different story – rain and more rain, mud and more mud. We had all four seasons of the Midwest in one weekend: Warm, Wind, Rain, Mud.

I caught up with Tim for the first of many Umphrey’s sets of the weekend. You couldn’t ask for a better band to play co-host to the festival and they put one a helluva show for every set. A split up “All in Time” and “Puppet String” was an ideal start to their music of the night, plus bringing up Dominic Lalli from Big Gigantic for “Bright Lights, Big City” was one of the best sit-ins of the weekend. The encore of moe.’s “Rebubula” caught most off guard and made me wonder what moe. might cover of Umphrey’s the next night.

Late night relegated us to the Campfire Stage, where our Chicago host Barry sat in to sing “Friend of the Devil” with Allie Kral and Friends, featuring various members of Cornmeal and Yonder Mountain. That set was a nice start to the rest of the night, which we punctuated with a stop in the Vibe Tent, simply because it was so close and there was some great music in there to be seen. I didn’t want to miss Team Bayside High, simply because if you choose a name like that for a pair of DJs, then you have my full support, Hook, Line and Spano. Alvin Risk was good too, but after 3am, the music is always good and blending together. Still, fun times. Fun times.

Team Bayside High
Team Bayside High in the Vibe Tent

However, there was no adventure at Summer Camp yet, in the sense that nothing was out of the ordinary. Beyond the trip out, it was just like any other festival for me. So with that in mind, Tim and I took a wander through what I dubbed ‘Sherw00k Forest”, a place I would have camped 10 years ago, but now I just wander through wondering what each turn down the path will bring. In there we stumbled across a surprise set from an unknown band, Big Gigantic’s lighting guy, a few w00ks passed out on the side of the pathway, and a never-ending path that somehow dumped us out near the Moonshine Stage. By the time dawn rolled around and the first drops of rain fell, we knew we had a successful festival so far, with two more days to go.

Saturday

Waking up to the rain meant it was time to put on my full body Orange rainsuit and stay bone dry while others dealt with flimsy ponchos and more garbage bags than I have ever seen utilized at a festival. I took a trip to the Media Church for a recharge of batteries and update on the days events, followed by breakfast/lunch and a well earned shower, which led me to skip Cornmeal’s final show, but it was good to see them at least once that weekend. Plus, the band members were not done performing with other bands, so it’s not like it was a final hurrah for the individual musicians. I made it back to see music around 4pm, starting with Diplo. I like a good DJ like the next guy and have seen my fair share of them at Camp Bisco over the years, but I had yet to see a big name like Diplo play an otherwise jamband festival. So Tim and I worked our way to the photo pit just in time to see Diplo invite a group of, what I presume are Midwestern girls in all their glory, on stage to dance and twerk. I do not know why this is a fad, but it is. It was hilarious to watch it from the front row, then turn around and see a captivated audience grinding and jumping to every beat, an ocean of Antelope Gregs, if you will. They wanted their pictures taken, they wanted to dance and they were loving every second of it.

After Diplo, I met up with artist Tim Ripley, Jason, Debbie and Jim and talked about the fest from a Chicago-viewpoint, as they are regulars at Summer Camp. We popped into the VIP tent for a Victor Wooten set and saw how the other half lives – pretty damn well at Summer Camp. Wandering back to the campsite, it was time for more Umphrey’s, who dropped one of the best versions ever of “Booth Love”, accompanied by Mad Dog’s Filthy Little Secret Horns. A walk to moe. meant a stop at the campsite to beer up, then down to Moonshine where we caught Allie Kral sit in on “Plane Crash”, then back to Umphrey’s,  then back to moe., for one of the greatest sequences ever: McBain>George>Spine of a Dog>Buster>McBain. From the pit and then the top of the hill, it was one of the highlights of this festival and all moe. shows I have seen in the last 10 years. The encore of Umphrey’s “In the Kitchen” was both hilarious and well played, with an added moe. touch to the song with shredding guitar work by Al and Chuck.

By this point the mud and rain had gotten to my feet, and despite wearing Vibram Five Finger Shoes, they were cold as hell. Mud was ankle deep, people were falling in, there was no hay or wood chips or gravel that was going to help, but none was put down either. When I say ankle deep, I mean it – and that was on average. Some spots you could lose a foot and twist an ankle with ease. So, with late night options a little paltry this evening, I chose to clean off my feet and get warm, thanks in part to TRiPP selling me a 3XL Black Chicago Blackhawks Stealie Hoodie. This was the LAST piece of warm clothing he had, and I had to have it, simply because I needed something fresh to get warm in for sleep. The fact that this was the last hoodie he had – one made for a large Grateful Dead and Blackhawks fan, led to laughs at his booth. Still, it was worth it.

Sunday

I awoke on Sunday to the rest of the campsite still going from the night before. I admire their ability to do that, because by this point, I can’t manage it anymore. I gotta have sleep, but more power to them. Just as I awoke, the rain started to come down, so I started an initial haul to the car of clothes and whatever I could carry. It proved to be a good decision because there was really no other option when your dolly would get stuck in the mud when loaded up with 50-75 pounds of gear.

After the haul I caught Albany’s own Timbre Coup, who played my favorite song, “June”, just as I walked up the path to the Campfire Stage. I saw friendly faces from back home as I got to the crowd and enjoyed some great music, followed by Project Weather Machine from Syracuse.  An interview with Brooklyn band Tauk was enlightening and made me more of a fan than I already was. Admittedly, I didn’t see much more music Sunday because the rain and storms were threatening and the campsite needed to be attended to if we wanted to get on the road after Trey’s set.

Another trip to the car preceded Trey and we saw that the search had still not let up! A couple guys were getting arrested and tossed to the ground when we went in for the final time – apparently central Illinois does not fuck around. We made it to Trey, just in time to get to the photo pit and enjoy three extended first songs – “First Tube”, “Mozambique” and “Last Tube”. It was a treat to be that close to Big Red, who I still have yet to meet and thank him for everything his music has done for me.

Big Red
Big Red

We packed up the last gear around 10pm, deciding that Trey’s second set in a downpour wasn’t a great option (it was cut short after 20 minutes anyway), and JUST as the canopy came down, the skies opened up. I stayed dry, but the rain made it far more difficult to get our gear and get out. We packed the car in the rain, kept pillows and the front seats dry, and slept for four hours while we waited for the rain to taper off – the mud in the row of cars was not going to let us get out without a tow, so we waited. When 4 am rolled around and I chanced it, the car got stuck on the first try; ankle deep mud will do that to you. A tow truck came by within moments, purely by happenstance, and we got towed out for $20 that I was not going to argue over.

Towed out, we got out of there and onto I-74 headed east. A nap somewhere in Eastern Illinois got me rested us to drive all the way into Western Pennsylvania, with a stop at Steak n Shake near Columbus. Tim took over the rest of the way home and I booked it back up to Albany. I enjoyed my day off my unpacking and de-mudding my gear, reveling in my first true Midwest festival, one of the best there is.

2 thoughts on “MUD LEVEL COVENTRY: A Recap of Summer Camp Music Festival”

  1. Surprise set in the “sherw00k” was probably by a local Chicago band called indigo sun. However, great review and I was wondering if you knew who else played with Victor Wooten and friends in the VIP tent? Unfortunately, I missed that one but I cannot complain since there were so many great private sets in the VIP tent. Definitely recommend it!

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