From the get go, it was a hot, dry, and dusty weekend, but shaded camping in the woods vastly improved that situation over those in the open fields. With an estimated attendance of over 15,000 festivalgoers, Summer Camp maintains a size that keeps it from being the gigantic swarm of humanity at festivals like Bonnaroo or Rothbury, but large enough to bring in some big acts and draw fans from near and far. Late night acts raged into the wee hours of the morning, with some sets starting at 2am, as well as ‘secret’ collaborative sets that took place on small stages hidden in the forest. With music ranging from bluegrass to funk to dubstep and electronica to rock and blues, there truly was something for everyone. Given the heat of the weekend, trucks sprayed the main dirt roads in a vain attempt to keep the dirt at bay as festival staff golf carts cruised through the grounds. The smaller campground trails received no such treatment as many were seen with bandanas covering mouths and noses to minimize the volumes of dirt inhaled as wheels and feet seemed to kick up an inexhaustible supply. Something new to the festival scene is a new beachhead for Big Brother in the form of RFID tags in festival wristbands. Albeit a good way to maximize security and reduce the number of wooks (festival/hippie lingo for dirty, dready, often wasted kids who tend to sell drugs, steal, beg, or sponge off others) sneaking into the festival, there’s definitely something Orwellian about the potential of having one’s movements tracked that way.
An early-bird Thursday saw a great set by two acts out of Chicago, including the supergroup live jamtronica act Digital Tape Machine and the homespun Americana psycho-grass outfit known as Cornmeal, both of which had the audience dancing in a fevered pitch early on – but to completely different styles of music. Friday morning brought cooler temperatures as the Dead Kenny G’s brought their funked out weirdness of tenor sax, bass, and percussion to a noontime slot. Festival fave Keller Williams thrilled the crowd at one of the main stages with his one man act of songs built from looped samples, but I jetted out to see Leftover Salmon bring their mix of rock, blues, bluegrass, and zydeco to the second stage. Having not seen Salmon in several years, it was a high energy set and I reveled at electric guitarist and mandolin player Drew Emmitt’s mastery and banjo player Andy Thorn as he worked the hell out of those four strings.
Other Friday highlights included an incredible acoustic set by Bob Weir (Grateful Dead), Chris Robinson (Black Crowes), and Jackie Green (Phil & Friends) coving Dead tunes to the delight of a large crowd, and a rocking set by Chicago jam/prog rock band Umphrey’s McGee. In one of the most fun sets of the weekend, Ukranian-Gypsy band Gogol Bordello threw down with a feverish intensity at the main stage. Primus also impressed the crowd as Bob Weir joined them for a cover of The Other One by the Grateful Dead – one of the most talked about sit ins of the weekend.
The real heat wave came Saturday as performers told fans to drink plenty of water, and at the noon set by Fareed Haque and Mathgames, it was already a scorcher. Now featuring keyboard player Jesse Clayton from Ann Arbor’s Macpodz, Mathgames is a delight of spaced out jazz, danceable beats, and exquisite musicianship.
I hadn’t seen California’s Animal Liberation Orchestra or ALO since 2007, and their set brought a smile to my face with old favorites like Barbeque that we not only well played but seemed to impart their infectious family vibe to the whole crowd who smiled and sang along with a lot of the numbers. Similarly, the Saturday performance by hip hop star Common had people talking for the rest of the weekend as his enlightened and powerful lyrics and commanding stage presence captivated the audience. Southern psychedelic rockers Gov’t Mule also melted faces with their Saturday evening performance as they sandwiched songs The Other One (instrumental jam) > Hunger Strike (Temple of the Dog) > Dear Mr. Fantasy > Hunger Strike in Warren Haynes’ inimitable style. Michigan’s The Ragbirds imported their sweet Ypsi-A2 sounds to a well-attended late night set, perfect for the long weekend. In addition to the amazing music, and incredibly fun vibe, Summer Camp also featured a Saturday ‘Field Day’ with color war events like Flip Cup, beanbag toss, and even a spelling bee (and yes, being the geek I am, I helped lead Team Blue to a spelling bee win – chalk up one for the D).
Sunday, I camped out for a while at the main stage - which for me was the icing on the cake with two of the hottest bluegrass acts around – Kalamazoo’s Greensky Bluegrass and Colorado’s Yonder Mountain String Band who played old and newer tunes for enthusiastic fans. Greensky opened with their newer tune Demons that featured mandolin player Paul Hoffman’s impressive songwriting and skillful playing by all five musicians. Yonder Mountain also started their Sunday set off with a kick and the song Traffic Jam that had mandolin player Jeff Austin rocking with characteristic frenetic abandon. After a trip across the festival site to the indoor and air conditioned Red Barn I was treated to a special performance by Matt Butler’s Everyone Orchestra – featuring an ever changing lineup of musicians that perform in response to cues Butler writes on a small whiteboard as he conducts both musicians and audience alike in a truly collaborative effort. Featuring artists from moe., Van Ghost, Hot Buttered Rum, and more, the Everyone Orchestra set was a wonderful (and cool) way to spend the late afternoon, reveling in some of the best improvisational music to be found. Then it was back to the main stage for the Tedeschi Trucks Band whose blend of soul, blues, jazz, and rock simply blew my mind. Husband-wife team Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi lead an all star lineup of talent who could seamlessly transition from straight up blues to spaced out jazz noise, all to the crowd’s delight. After checking out the electronic set by Shpongle, whose sunset timeslot didn’t allow for the impressive light stage display, I got down to the sounds of New Orleans funk/jazz band Galactic featuring vocalist Corey Glover of In Living Color.
And then it was back to a main stage for Jane’s Addiction, a band I haven’t seen in almost 20 years. Playing a ‘best of’ set, Perry Farrell and Co. rocked the hell out of that place featuring songs like Summertime Rolls, Stop, and Three Days, capping it off with an acoustic rendition of Jane Says and a percussion tribute to the American Indians of Illinois. Late night sets by Greensky Bluegrass and Pretty Lights had people dancing until daybreak on Memorial Day. But, by 10am the festival was already strongly encouraging people to pack up and go home – despite the fact that some were likely still intoxicated from the night before. Such is the festival life.