Witnessing forty-five hours of music, one-hundred and twelve miles from my home, over three days, from five stages, two tents, and the pop-up shows in the forest remind me of the following exchange in the film Field of Dreams. Ray Kinsella: “Is there a heaven? “John Kinsella “Oh yeah, it’s the place where dreams come true.” Ray Kinsella: “Maybe this is heaven.”
I couldn’t agree more Ray.
With 20,000 people in attendance at Summer Camp, you have many opportunities to make friends, but “it’s not an experience if they can’t bring someone along.” Spending the majority of my time within the local music industry, most of my friends are musicians or music lovers. Like other festivals in the area, Camp Euphoria in Lone Tree, Iowa, and Shoe Fest in Manteno, Illinois, Summer Camp has a large Quad Cities contingent that regularly attends. It feels like a family reunion each year. Experiencing what I enjoy the most surrounded by so many of my favorite people is everything to me.
Anyone who has attended the festival deserves an award for dealing with the weather that exists in this alternative universe we call Summer Camp. Mother Nature must be dabbling in recreational chemistry along with the attendees. It rained this year. It pretty much always rains at some point during the festival. Your tent may resemble a leaking houseboat, or looking on the bright side, you can tell people you recently installed an indoor pool in your tent. That is if you are not busy haggling with the ATV or tow truck drivers over the cost of getting your car unstuck from the parking lot.
It is not always so dreary though. The sun does make an appearance at Summer Camp. It becomes so hot; you feel like you are running around with Lawrence of Arabia in the Nefud Desert. You may think you are melting. I promise you, that is not the LSD. The heat is really that brutal. You would be able to see mirages, also not the LSD, if you were able to see. You will be busy wiping the steady stream of dust out of your eyes or staring at the ground as you are bent over coughing up dirt. However, we got lucky this year. It only rained Thursday, and I spent three days in glorious 70° weather. I stayed dry and did not get a sunburn. It was a Summer Camp miracle.
I could write a novel about all of the bands I saw that weekend, but I will keep it closer to short-story length and discuss my three favorite performances.
When I think of Summer Camp, I think of Moe. The Buffalo, New York band have played the main stage every year since the festival’s inception in 2001. Moe has had a rough go health-wise the last couple of years. Bassist Rob Derhak was diagnosed with oropharyngeal cancer in July 2017. In November of last year, guitarist Chuck Garvey suffered a stroke. He has regained the ability to speak but has not been able to retrieve full control of his muscles. Unable to play guitar in this condition, Moe brought along a couple of worthy substitutes.
Nate Wilson, a piano prodigy at an early age, attended the University of New Hampshire where he studied classical and jazz piano. He formed the band Percy Hill in 1993, and the group released Color in Bloom in 1998. The album, a mix of funk, rock, and R&B, won the Studio Album of the Year award in 2000 at the first annual “Jammy” awards. His playing added depths and layers to Moe’s sound that has me hoping they will keep him on when Chuck comes back.
Playing guitar alongside founding member Al Schnier was Suke Cerulo. This guy was a beast. His shredding reminded me of my favorite guitar player Jimmy Herring. A graduate of the Berklee College of Music, and current director of the lead guitar program at the New York City Guitar School, Suke has played with the New York funk and jazz outfit, Schleigho, for the past twenty-five years. This guy was so good, as soon as I got home, I downloaded all of his music I could find. His jazzy style of playing, so different from Chuck, still managed to fit seamlessly with Schnier. It seemed like Al was enjoying the collaboration, as he was all over the stage, jumping up on monitors, and just letting her rip.
Moe’s sets were stellar the whole weekend, but the one that stood out the most, was the first set they played Friday afternoon. This set opened with “Wormwood,” “Not Coming Down,” and “Okayalright,” the first three tracks off Wormwood. The Moe album won the 2004 “Jammy” award for best studio album, and the tracks were brief but feisty. The set closed with an almost hour-long run of songs bookended with rowdy 20-minute versions of my two favorite Moe songs, “Timmy Tucker” and “Recreational Chemistry” from 1994’s Headseed. In between, were runs through “Mar De Ma” from 2014’s No Gut, No Glory and “Captain America.” from 2001’s Dither. The set also included “Jazz Cigarette” and “Crushing,” a couple of tracks from the band’s latest release, 2020’s This Is Not, We Are. It is an album I enjoyed more than I expected to as I am a snob for older material. The whole set was brilliant, leaving goosebumps across my skin.
#2 The Infamous Stringdusters
I am a huge bluegrass fan, and even though my favorite band in the genre, Leftover Salmon, was in attendance playing some of their flawless “polyethniccajunslamgrass;” they were not my choice for the best bluegrass set. That would be the Infamous Stringdusters. (The crew out of Nashville, Tennessee has been at the top of my list of best current bluegrass artists for a while now. This is in large part due to their incredible fiddle player, Jeremy Garrett, and extraordinary dobro master, Andy Hall. )These dudes supply much of the band’s energy with their fast picking, supplying a perfect example of why I call bluegrass country metal. The band’s guitar player, Andy Falco, did not make the festival as he was home with a newborn baby boy, so the Stringdusters brought one hell of a ringer.
Jon Stickley, the guitar player for the Jon Stickley Trio, is one of the best acoustic guitar players I have ever listened to. The man is an insane picker and I have no clue how he gets half the sounds he does out of his instrument. His style is as much jazz as it is bluegrass. His band, the Jon Stickley Trio, has more of a bluegrass fusion sound, akin to the legendary Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, than what the kids call “newgrass” or “slamgrass” these days. Joining forces with the Infamous Stringdusters resulted in lightning-quick finger picking and wicked shredding that just blew my mind. They played an absolutely magnificent set with blistering versions of their original tunes. My favorite songs of the set were their rowdy covers of the Grateful Dead’s “Black Peter” and John Hartford’s “Steam Powered Aereo Plane.”
#3 Little Feat
Finally, we have the legends. I do not have many opportunities left to see certain bands, so it was with anticipation and excitement, that I made my way to the Moonshine Stage to watch Little Feat. The Los Angeles band who has been doing their thing for 53 years, played their seminal 1977 live album, Waiting for Columbus, in its entirety. It was simply incredible. Bill Payne, Sam Clayton, and Kenny Gradney were as virtuosic in their playing as they were 46 years ago.
Scott Sharrad, who joined the band in 2019; ably filled the huge hole left by guitarists Lowell George and Paul Barrere who passed away in 1979 and 2019, respectively. Scott has played guitar with The Doobie Brothers the last couple of years and was Gregg Allman’s guitarist and musical director. He provided a nice counterpoint to Fred Tackett, whose fluid moves have been in play since 1987.
Tony Leone came to the band in 2020 after playing with musicians Amy Helm and Chris Robinson. He took over the drums after the loss of founding member Richie Hayward who died in 2010. He was suggested to the band by the Midnight Ramble Horns. These gentlemen, who most certainly know their way around a horn, have been playing with Little Feat since 2017. They had been playing with The Band’s Levon Helm at his house in Woodstock, New York every Saturday night at the anything-goes “Midnight Rambles” parties until the legendary drummer passed away. These cats more than held their own and Leone even took over vocal duties for “Old Folks Boogie.”
The most memorable moments of the two-hour set were the songs “Day or Night,” which they took for a 15-minute cosmic ride that flew all over the musical map, and then there was Dixie Chicken. For one of their most popular songs, the band was joined by Andy Frasco. I love the guy, he is as entertaining as they come and a good musician, but I have no idea how he found his way on stage with Little Feat. I am sure they were wondering that as well. They could not have known him that well since they called him “Andy Franco.” It worked out though with Frasco keeping his crazy shenanigans to a minimum, and nicely accompanying them on vocals and sweet dance moves. I am sure he was as humbled to be in Little Feat’s presence as anyone would be.
It was also nice to hear their version of “Sailin’ Shoes” since the last two hundred times I have heard the song has been with Sam Bush singing it. I swear he plays it like three times a set. I also enjoyed extended versions of my favorite songs from the record, “Time Loves a Hero,” “Rocket in my Pocket,” and “Spanish Moon;” not to mention the set-closing, rowdy as hell, version of “Feats Don’t Fail Me Now” If you are reading this, I highly recommend checking out the album on your favorite streaming service, or preferably, dropping the records on a turntable. You will not be disappointed.
I will never forget the experience and I am glad I had it. After the set, I grabbed some vendor food, which now costs $20 for just about anything. I did not even complain that time, since I was so satisfied with what I had witnessed. The Summer Camp Music Festival was the same as it ever was, and better, and worse. I would not miss it for the world.
Music is life. My life. Every week, Monday through Wednesday, I host an open mic. On Fridays and Saturdays, I play shows with one, or multiple bands, I am a part of. I also weasel my way onto stage to jam with bands I am not a part of. Thursdays and Sundays are my days off. Sometimes. Thursday is generally the pre-party day for a festival I am attending, and Sunday is usually the last day of the three-day runs from bands I follow around the country. There are weeks where I am playing or attending concerts every day of the week. I have seen shows in forty of our states, and recently travelled to Iceland for a weekend to see a concert. Lady Music is the love of my life and my drug of choice.