Monday, July 07, 2008

Back from the Circus

Kate and I are back from the circus that is Cornerstone. For those who may be unfamiliar with what goes on, Cornerstone is a week-long party/music and arts festival sponsored by Jesus People USA (JPUSA), a Chicago-based Christian community. I spoke six times from under the Big Top, but then again, everybody does almost everything at Cornerstone from under the Big Top. That’s because Cornerstone essentially consists of a bunch of big circus tents and food vendor stalls (elephant ears!) set up in the middle of a cornfield outside Bushnell, Illinois. 15,000 people show up for this. And now I understand why. It’s billed as a music festival, and it is (some 600 bands played over the course of the last week), but it’s so much more. And honestly, the “so much more” outweighed a lot of the mediocre music I heard. I’ve been challenged, amazed, boggled, bummed out, and many more things since last Wednesday when I showed up, and I’ll tell you a little bit about why. There were many, many good things, and a few not-so-good things. Here are a few impressions of Cornerstone 2008.

Goth Evangelist

Our trip from Ohio to Illinois, by air, took a mere 11 hours. Curse the very broken American airline industry. There were cancelled flights. There were weather delays. And by the time we finally arrived in the sprawling urban metropolis that is Peoria, Illinois, many hours late, on a different airline from which we were scheduled to arrive, none of our Cornerstone contacts were in sight. I tried calling the Cornerstone folks a few times along the way to let them know what was happening. No answer. They tried calling me a couple times when I was flying in an airplane, and where I wasn’t allowed to use my cell phone. The result: a couple of weary Ohioans sitting for a few hours outside a nearly deserted tiny midwestern airport, waiting for a ride, watching the sun go down.

The ride, when it turned up, turned out to be Scott. And Scott looked like Marilyn Manson. He was wearing a black veil. He had white makeup caked all over his face, and heavy black eyeliner. “My wife almost got fang implants,” he told us a couple minutes down the road. “But she decided against it because she thought it might scare some of the little kids at the preschool where she used to work.” Uh huh.

It started to rain, hard. We were on dark country roads, surrounded by tall standing corn. Do you know the scene in Annie Hall where Woody Allen is being driven by Annie’s suicidal brother, played by Christopher Walken? That scene flashed through my mind. I was ready to bail out at a second’s notice, and considered the proper way to exit a vehicle traveling at 55 MPH. I was trying to send non-verbal “this is how we’ll jump if we have to” signals to Kate, who was picking up on none of it.

But we kept listening to Scott. He talked about being misunderstood. I was guessing that the Dracula costume might have had something to do with that. He told me I was right. And so we all had an hour-and-a-half long conversation (those cornfields outside Bushnell are a long way from the bright lights of Peoria) about Goth culture, and how God has used that culture to enrich his life. He told us about his band, which was called Leper, and which was playing at Cornerstone. He invited us to the Goth tent, where he and his friends hung out, and he invited us to his concert. It was a good, enlightening conversation.

So we went. The next night we wandered over to the Goth tent, and met people who looked a lot like Scott and his wife Rachel, and who were wearing gas masks over their faces. And Saturday night we went to hear Leper. The music wasn’t nearly as foreign as I expected it to be. It was grating and melodic, pretty much the way I like it, and it sounded like music made by misunderstood teenagers, a farflung and omnipresent musical genre that goes back at least 50 years. And it was about Jesus, a guy who was misunderstood to the point of being crucified. I’m glad we went. And I’m glad we encountered Scott.


Everybody at Cornerstone wore a costume. There were the Goths, of course, who looked like radiation victims after Hiroshima. There were the old hippies from JPUSA, who looked like they were still taking their cues from Woodstock. There were the neo-hippies, hundreds of kids who wished they were alive in 1969. There were the punks. There were the indie hipsters, everywhere. There were the folks from Aradhna, Americans and Canadians who dressed as Indians. There were the Rastafarian wannabes with their dreadlocks. And there were a few folks like Kate and me, middle-aged, middle class farts wearing the official costume of suburbanites on vacation; chinos and sandals and Oxford cloth shortsleeve shirts.

I thought a lot about “identity” this weekend. Everybody was trying so hard to stake out their cultural space, complete with the right image and corresponding lifestyle choices. And everybody mingled together, listened to the same speakers and the same music, thought about what it was like to be a follower of Jesus Christ within their own local communities. It was good.

I am what I am, a 53-year-old aging, balding, paunchy old fart who loves rock ‘n roll, and who won’t pretend to be something I’m not. My costume is pretty much the same one worn by Donald Rumsfeld. Nobody seemed to care. I didn’t either. That may be the best thing about Cornerstone.

Oblivious American Idols

Glenn Kaiser, who is the lead singer and songwriter for The Resurrection Band, is my hero. At a time when Christian music utterly sucked, when I despaired of hearing a single worthwhile thing in the vast syrupy desert of over-emoting and cornpone, along came Glenn and The Resurrection Band, and they restored my faith that Christians with integrity could actually make music that was the equal of anything in the “secular” world, and that the rock ‘n roll gene wasn’t supernaturally removed upon Christian conversion.

So I told him that. He nodded politely, then started to talk about Jesus. And he talked with me about Jesus for about a half hour, and about the need to love people in their brokenness. He didn’t care that he was my idol. He let it wash over him, and then he moved on. I think I love him for that.

Under the Big Top

I spoke six times under the big top, twice per day on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. I rambled about a lot of different kinds of music, played about 20 different songs, and chatted with the folks who were there. I learned a few things that will serve me in good stead if I’m ever invited back, such as don’t play a six and a half minute Joni Mitchell jazz tune when you’re dealing with the multitude of sounds that bleed through from the other tents that surround you. But I had a blast, and as best I can tell, the folks who were there seemed to get what was I saying, and were engaged in the proceedings.

Music Roundup

There was music at Cornertone. Duh. Because I have been spectacularly unaware of the Christian music scene and its attendant stars for the past 25 years or so I’m probably not the best person to comment on what went on. But do you think that will stop me?

There were 600 bands, of whom about 500 seemed to play the emo/screamo Bellow For Christ form of pain management that I simply can’t abide. I can find something of value in about 98% of the musical world. Cornerstone seemed to focus on the 2% that simply gives me a headache. I’m told that former members of Anthrax and Korn were there. Good for them. I’ve never heard Anthrax or Korn either, to my knowledge.

I did hear some good music. Mike Farris, formerly of the Screamin’ Cheetah Willies, performed a great rootsy gospel set, and did a more than passable Al Green As White Boy impersonation. The 77’s and The Lost Dogs, comprised of old farts who hearken back to the days when I paid attention to CCM, were there, and they were solid. The 77’s, in particular, were pretty wonderful, and laid down a marvelous cover of Blind Willie Johnson’s (by way of Led Zeppelin) “Nobody’s Fault But Mine.” The Lee Boys performed an incendiary set of sacred steel music, a la Robert Randolph. A Toronto band called New World Son did Otis Redding proud, and resurrected an old style Stax/Volt soul revue in their set of original gospel songs. The Resurrection Band, God bless ‘em, reunited for the first time in many years and played the hits. Josh Garrels, from Muncie, Indiana, impressed me to no end, and delivered the best sets of the festival as far as I was concerned. Josh has the Ben Harper soulful folkie vibe down, and his songs were amazing; full of poetic imagery and internal rhymes.

There seems to have been a particularly virulent outbreak of worship music in the intervening years since I stopped paying attention. Don’t get me wrong. I like worship music. For worship. But the hyperventilating, hip MC with the shaved head and goatee kept whipping up the crowd as one earnest worship leader after another closed his eyes and sang his worship tunes. We all sat back on the grass and watched them strum their guitars and close their eyes. Kate and I left after a while. We couldn’t deal with it anymore.

We weren’t, by the way, at a worship service. We were at a concert. And nothing fails more spectacularly than worship music at a concert. I hate it, hate the whole artificial Madison Avenue/Nashville hype machine surrounding this music, and couldn’t stand that f#&$ing MC for good measure. I don’t care who’s a rising star in the worship music field, and the whole approach strikes me as fundamentally, spectacularly wrong. I wish it would go away. Worship, by all means, and if you want to write original music to make that happen, then more power to you. But don’t stand up there in front of 15,000 people and peddle your latest (and best yet!) CD and sing your trite “apple of my eye/wind beneath my wings” rhymes to U2 accompaniment for the 20,000th time. Do something better for God. Just quit.

And while I’m at it, according to the breathless, relentlessly hyped video we witnessed multiple times, there’s apparently an upcoming preaching/rock ‘n roll tour where cute Christian guys tell all the 13-year-old Christian girls what Christian guys really want, and which features the music of latest Christian heartthrobs Hawk Nelson. You people have no shame. God, I hate the Christian music business.

People Roundup

I got to hang out with a lot of amazing people, some of whom were known to me before Cornerstone, some of whom I met for the first time. I spent time with my old Ohio University friends Keith and Darlene Wasserman (and son Timothy) from Athens, Ohio. Keith runs several shelters for the homeless in southeastern Ohio, and he was at Cornerstone speaking about his work with the homeless. It’s always a joy to reconnect with these folks.

I hung out with Chris Pyle, who runs a recording studio in Athens, Ohio as well as Donkey Coffee Shop; a quality guy who is very interested in quality in its caffeinated and non-caffeinated manifestations, and a fun rock ‘n roll bass player to boot.

I got to meet longtime e-friends Jim Eisenreich, Joe Kirk, and Mark Mayhle, and their families. These are folks I’ve “known” for twenty years. It was a joy to meet them face to face.

I got to spend good, challenging and stimulating time with Crystal Downing, who teaches English at Messiah College, and who was at the conference speaking about both post-modernism and the relationship between Dorothy Sayers and C.S. Lewis. I was able to spend about an hour with Charlie Peacock, watch him eat a corndog, and listen to him explain his work with the Art House in Nashville. I got to hang out briefly with theologian Miroslav Volf, a very smart man who wears his knowledge humbly, and who interrupted his work at Yale and in working toward Christian/Muslim reconciliation to speak at CStone. I hung out with Mike and Janey Hertenstein, the unsung heros of CStone, longtime JPUSA members who worked long and hard to coordinate the appearance of dozens of speakers in dozens of locations at the festival. And I met and connected briefly with dozens of other folks, and I wish I’d had more time to get to know them better.

I had a great time. It was exhausting. It was challenging. I’d do it again in a heartbeat.


James said...

Hey Andy,

Glad to have met you at Cornerstone, to have heard you speak about music, and to have had the chance to talk briefly with you and Kate.

Thanks for the CStone review sans kid gloves. I think you captured the essence of a lot of what is great/unsightly about both the fest and the Christian music industry--that is to say, broken people doing the best they know how. (And making most of their mistakes when money comes into play.) It goes much deeper, of course, but summaries of summaries can only do so much.

Glad you enjoyed NWS as you did. Those guys are doing the right thing the right way, I think, and making high art for the King. Would that everyone else could say the same.

Looking forward to keeping up with your blog.


James Harrington (Winston's friend)

Dad said...

I'm not a hard-core music fan. For example when you said, "The 77’s, in particular, were pretty wonderful, and laid down a marvelous cover of Blind Willie Johnson’s (by way of Led Zeppelin) 'Nobody’s Fault But Mine.'" it was Jabberwocky to me. I just don't have the vocabulary or the background to understand what that means.

I like music the way most people enjoy nature. Most people look at pictures of nature, take walks around the park, or even take weekend camping trips once in a while. That's me with music. I like to listen to whatever comes my way, and I even like to play the guitar and sing to the walls. So i guess I really like the idea and the discipline of music, but I don't care much about music as art. I don't care enough to learn the names of bands and styles and seek out obscure albums.

I do, however, really appreciate reading your blog for some reason. I usually skim the posts that are strictly about music. Those that delve in to culture are more interesting to me. This one is particularly interesting because it gives me a glimpse of where music and Christian culture are intersecting. CStone seems like a physical manifestation of Christian culture.

Anyway, I have heard music insiders (and people who think they are insiders) talk about the backwardness of CCM. As an outsider I wonder if you or anyone could be specific and name names. I (as you describe) think it is pitiful that performers are hawking their "worship" albums and trying, in effect, to make the Holy Spirit a commodity. At the same time I like all of David Crowder's music. I also like some of Chris Tomlin's and others like them. But am I just a rube befuddled by the Nashville machine? Because of my lack of music appreciation skills am I naively buying in to snake oil pushers and being part of a culture that I would rather denounce?

What I need are some examples. When you urge, "don’t stand up there in front of 15,000 people and peddle your latest (and best yet!) CD and sing your trite “apple of my eye/wind beneath my wings” rhymes to U2 accompaniment for the 20,000th time" what sort of folks are you talking about? Because I do hear U2 influences in some of the music I listen to. Usually, I like it. And "apple of my eye" and "wind beneath my wings" are both, if I'm not mistaken, metaphors original to the Bible. So I get what you are saying, but I am genuinely scared that I am a part of it and just don't know it. I would guess that none of the bands you hated would want to be the way they are if they were aware of the way they are.

Andy Whitman said...

Hi, Bennett. Thanks for your comments. The "Blind Willie Johnson (by way of Led Zeppelin)" comments refer to a song written and originally recorded by bluesman Blind Willie Johnson in 1927, and later covered by Led Zeppelin. The arrangement I heard was based on Led Zeppelin (complete with Robert Plant banshee wail approximations) rather than Blind Willie Johnson.

As far as your main point, I certainly have a kneejerk reaction to the notion of marketing and hyping worship music. There's something fundamentally misguided about the whole approach, in my opinion, although clearly there's nothing wrong with singing and/or performing worship music.

But the Main Stage at Cornerstone left a bad taste in my mouth. The phrase "here's a hot new worship band" makes me want to stick sharp objects in my eye. It's bad enough to treat worship music as a commodity. But it's worse when it's marketed with all the trappings of facile, glib MCs who extol the wonders of this music as if they were selling laundry detergent.

That's my biggest concern. And I saw a lot of that on Friday night. As a secondary concern, much of this music isn't very good. It's bland and predictable lyrically and musically, full of sentiments that are best left to Hallmark Cards and Precious Moments figurines. I also like U2, but I don't need or want to hear another band, in any context, Christian or otherwise, who simply mimic what they've heard on countless older U2 albums. It's all been done. A thousand times. Move on.

But my primary concern is the marketing of what ought to be a holy encounter with the creator of the universe. For the sake of comparison, imagine a Top 10 list of the Best People of Prayer, and imagine a breathless pastor extolling, "You loved Francis of Assisi! Wait 'til you hear Martin Luther King and his hot petitions!"

I cordially can't stand the approach. I wish, and perhaps should fervently pray, that it would go away.

Andy Whitman said...

James, I was glad to meet you and Winston as well. Thanks for the tip on New World Son. They were wonderful.

I hope to see you again.

Living the Biblios said...

Wow! Your report-reflections stirred up a lot of my own memories. The cultural turf remark was spot on funny. Don't know about you, but what helped my Christian angst more than anything else was getting married!

I attended C-Stone in the late 80's. The best year was the first time Charlie Peacock came and also some guy named Tonio K. (BTW, what's he going these days?)I love Mike Roe, admire the Wassermans, and hate Hawk Nelson too.

hallga77 said...


After enjoying your column in Paste it was good to meet you in person. Kate is a delight as well.

I enjoyed your seminar and plan to seek out some of the music you played so I can give it a fair listen without the distractions.

It was funny how you mentioned the line from Love Story as I have used that as an example of a false statement about love for years.

I am in agreement with you in not understanding people who don't make music an important part of their life. I am blessed to have a wife that shares/indulges my passion for music.

I hope our paths cross again.

If you get a chance the Tall Stacks festival in Cincy is usually a great event that has featured an incredible lineup of performers in past years. It doesn't happen but every 3 or 4 years and is due around '09 or '10

Thanks Again,

Tim (& Deb)

bukiewicz said...

really great roundup. i was at your workshops (the 4 that i could make, having two kids with us) and they were each fantastic. i've been listening to son lux all day. thanks again for sharing what you did (then and now). i'll be sure to continue to check back!

Anonymous said...

I've been a fan of your column in Paste for a while, but only recently discovered your blog here. While I wasn't at Cornerstone, I enjoyed reading the roundup, and in particular the couple-paragraph rant on the "worship" music, which struck a nerve. I agree wholeheartedly. It is neither hot nor cold, so, you know...

Tyler said...

Glad to see the shout-out to Josh Garrels. Our lives and friends are intertwined. (Just 3 weeks ago he officiated my best friend's wedding, and I was the best man.) He's the real deal in every sense. I love that he has no interest in going the CCM route.

That said, I've been working in the center of the Christian music world for the last few years (until getting laid off in April), and I think that a lot of your assessments are correct. As someone who wants to support Christians who make good art, I went in hoping to help change the industry. Instead, it changed me.

The sad thing is that the Christian music industry isn’t interested in changing or being excellent. The industry is actually full of great (if distracted) people, but it’s a broken system. They can’t support good music, because good music usually doesn’t sell. And their overhead doesn’t allow them to create a product that doesn’t sell. So their stuck making crap that panders to idiots who think that Hawk Nelson is a good band. Most people in the industry are so concerned with not being laid off—“perhaps I should have been more”, I say from the unemployment line—and conditioned to accept mediocrity as brilliance that they don’t even care anymore.

It’s a sad state of affairs.

While I don’t want more people to be out of work, I honestly hope that the major labels continue to decline. This whole thing needs to be dismantled and built over from scratch.

Anonymous said...

z and i were really rooting for josh garrels during the calvin college ffm (although son lux is the real deal). we actually built a wedding anniversary around a trip to see him play in muncie. he's astounding.

amy said...

i went to cornerstone once, in college. it sounds like it's pretty much the same. :-) i'm also thrilled that you were introduced to josh garrels and his music. his wife is one of my dear friends from college, and it's been great to see the word of mouth spread...

Anonymous said...

I've been to Cornerstone a few times with Chagall Guevara and Steve Taylor. I'd say you pretty much described the scene as I remember it.

However, I have to disagree with the vehemence of your "kneejerk reaction to the notion of marketing and hyping worship music." I think comments like Tyler's "idiots who think that Hawk Nelson is a good band" are elitist and self-serving.

Obviously, calling someone an "idiot" for their taste in music is unnecessary and unwise. In addition, I think it's probably not a good idea to be denigrating someone who is dedicating themselves to spreading the gospel even if it's in a form you find less than palatable.

You and I have had enough conversations that you know I really don't like MOST Christian music. However, I do know that the body of Christ has some pretty divergent members and there's no accounting for taste. My young nieces wouldn't listen to 30 seconds of Chagall Guevara or The 77s or The Choir, or Rez... but they'd probably love Hawk Nelson. And I say that's a helluva lot better than them listening to Blackeyed Peas or whatever else kids their age are into. The values inherent in the music are important.

I'd say there are a lot more "Bennetts" in the world who would say "I like music the way most people enjoy nature." It's background noise and a pretty soundtrack to their life. And if someone can reach out and connect to God listening to yet another U2 variant while singing about deers panting or windy wings or apples and eyes... well, good for them! I don't think we need to convince them the music they're enjoying is crap!

And if the MC seems a little too glib for our tastes, well, it's likely that is the only form of "entertainment" that some of those folks will get. I mean, they're not likely hanging out in clubs listening to "real" bands. Besides, they are not likely to be "sophisticated" enough to hear folks like The Hold Steady and separate out that he's "wrong on some big issues" but otherwise a damn good songwriter. And it's not wrong for them to want to hear words that reinforce their belief systems and make them feel closer to God.

All of that to say it's OK for you and me to dislike their music and even be suspect of their motives. But it's between them and God and if He chooses to use that fascile glib MC to speak to some kid, it wouldn't be the first time He's spoken through an ass!

Andy Whitman said...

Amy, thanks for your comments, and congratulations to you and Dan on the birth of Alexandra Joy.

Hayseed/Christopher, I hear what you're saying, and I certainly understand that peoples' tastes vary, that God uses all kinds of music to reach all kinds of people, etc. All true.

My concerns are not so much musical ones as they are marketing ones. What does it say about an industry that sponsors a tour where preachers promote sexual abstinence, and that features a cutesy Boy Band that is designed to get the young girls squealing? What's wrong with this pretty picture? No wonder the kids are confused. The whole industry is confused.

And I have a mixed reaction to the "it's the only form of entertainment that some of these folks will get" argument. It's probably true, and sure, a little wholesome, vapid entertainment is probably marginally better than a little unwholesome, vapid entertainment. But there's a big part of me that still wants to insist that not all entertainment (or even all "art" if I want to be somewhat pretentious about snarling guys with guitars) is created equal. People can survive, for a while, by eating nothing but Big Macs and Biggie Fries, too. But maybe they shouldn't. Maybe there's something better. And maybe there's something better in the music world, too. I want to keep pushing for that.

Anonymous said...

Let's agree that they should all be listening to Keith Green and Mark Heard, shall we?

Dad said...

Tee hee. You said "Martin Luther King."

I guess he had some hot petitions too. I try to tell my non-church history friends about ML posting his theses on the door of the church. For some reason they always think I said "feces." So they come away with an entirely inaccurate picture of the father of protestantism.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the great post, I agree with most of what you've said.

As a veteran of 23 Cornerstones, I can give you a slightly different perspective:

1) You get out of Cornerstone what you put into it... the closer you are to the stage, the more you converse with the people, the less you pay attention to the hype-- that's when you get the real value.

2) The styles of music have changed over the years, no doubt, but there are always new bands and styles that arrive. Sure, the 77's are my favorite band, but Over The Rhine an Savior Machine and Scaterd Few are totally different styles that all were introduced to me at Cornerstone. No, I don't like the all-night dance-hall... so I don't go. BUT NOTHING anywhere else compares to the quality you do get if you pay attention to the artists. In general, you can't go wrong at the Gallery tent (and the coffee refills are a quarter!)

3) The abomination of the video boards at main stage is the work of Satan (in monetary form, like usual). They wanted to be able to show the bands on video and sold our collective souls to the marketing harlot. I rue that decision and have written JPUSA about it several times. You should too.

4) Please, PLEASE come back and let's hang out in the food court and talk sometime. I just discovered your blog today and in the process have found a kindred spirit.

I remember in 1986 watching the urban punks from downtown Chicago jumping the festival grounds fences to see that "ripping band" One Bad Pig. Setting themselves on fire and slam-dancing each other out was a huge eye opener for the Sandi Patty faithful. Thing is, several of those heathen punks meet up with me every Cornerstone and talk about how much God has been working in our lives.

Jesus can speak through all kinds of music...