Santa came early this year. I must have been a good girl because Sept 6-9 2013, everything I asked for was left under the trees at Shoe Fest. I had a taste of Nederland CO here at Camp Shaw in Manteno IL. I saw some of the best dub stop music all weekend long. I had a song dedicated to me. If I was still a little girl and had asked for a pony, I got something better. I got fiddle.
Allie Kral was artist at large. She shredded horsehairs all over the place. She was fluttering like a butterfly through the sage and from stage to stage. She showed that a fiddle can take you farther than any pony ever could. She’s not a perfectionist, she is just perfect. She is an iconoclast. Her Suzuki style of playing is an absolute blast to add to any and every act. There wasn’t much that she didn’t take part in. Her hard work and long hours translated to an amazing weekend of joy and holiday merry making.
Bone Jugs n Harmony opened the festivities on Friday morning. The xylophone spirit was the opening theme to the circus. Their music is like my favorite Tom & Jerry cartoon and it cracked open the festivities, welcoming home the animaniacs. The tents popped up and the beverages from Bent River Brewery were flowing.
“Feeling good, my spirits up and the sun is shining down.” –Cornmeal
Shoe Fest is home to the best music of the Midwest, despite the concurrently running Hyperion Festival that was happening on the same weekend over east in Indiana. The difference being that Camp Shaw has a beautiful stairway to heaven and Shoe Fest holds no dub-steps. It was an easy choice for the 1600 members of the Shoe Fam. Goose Doctor carried on the good ol Rock n Roll onto Genome’s horns into the Magic Box of soul and grit. Friday night’s headliners were Henhouse Prowlers, Cornmeal, and the late night set of This Must Be The Band. The first night’s package was all grass, all sass, and truly a blast.
Saturday carried on with a performance from Jaik Willis that literally sacrificed blood to the ceremony. He hadn’t pulled out his dulcimer in quite a while and his gift of song was accompanied nicely with the steel stringed instrument. When it ripped his fingers open he kept on going and the crowd saw red. He was a matador to the bull like crowd. He left them hanging on his every word.
The Afternoon Mooners enjoyed the moonshine buzz through 4:20 until the showdown really began for the main event of a Saturday night at Shoe Fest. Last year The Giving Tree Band played Sunday, just before Elephant Revival. It was mellow. They are fresh PROduce. They should be used up earlier in the weekend. This year I thought they had much better timing at 5 o’clock on a Saturday. The potency and concentration of the GTB should be midstream to make the most of their infectious energy. Thus began my first top 5 moment of Shoe Fest 2013.
The Giving Tree Band opened with Rough Ride, an enchanting tune with electric guitar that is true to their roots style and a megaphone for that distant funk melody. (Monk felony) It was not too flashy and a simple way to start. The set steadily grew until about 4 songs later when they brought out the artist at large. Watching Philski & Allie Kral play is electrifying. It sure doesn’t hurt that E Fink dedicated the tune - I Know You Rider - to little ol’ me. I galloped on my imaginary pony thru the crowd for all 11 + minutes of it. The sun was glistening through the trees and the band literally melted at the close of I Know You Rider. Woodsy was in a complete back bend to the audience. E Fink was spread eagle as any good front man should. Where was Norm? Oh yes, he was on the floor, fingers still outreached to the keys. GTB has a captivating stage presence and the movement that is their music marks their performance as enthralling and continually charming. The close of the set brought me to almost heart attack status. That was when the flashy super group almost Traffic like sounding finale, Thief, stole my breath and set me correct to enjoy the rest of the splendid Saturday night at Shoe Fest. It was the new Derek and the Dominoes.
Camp Shaw has that feeling of your grandmother’s house. Downstairs was a rocking basement party of Zmick happening. We all gathered up and got together the troops, ready to rally for the main event: main stage Old Shoe night #2. Everyone was warmed up, the sun had just set. The stars were about to shine bright. The screens were melting faces and the stage held a performance that will be hard to top for our beloved Old Shoe boys. This was the show Old Shoe had been practicing for.
I think my friend Lahti said it best when he came out a few weeks earlier when Old Shoe opened up for Bruce Hornsby. He is a consummate Deadhead, so convincing him to come out and see Bruce was a no brainer. When I told him who the openers would be, he rearranged his schedule to be there. “Those are the guys I keep hearing so much about.” Yep. That show had about 100 less people than this entire festival. The late summer momentum has been snowballing for Old Shoe.
Rolling into September, Old Shoe raised $15,000 on Kickstarter to release their new album, Family. The switch up with drummers has sent them soaring. Since courting Greg Fundis, Old Shoe has begun a romance with their audiences that is the main event for Shoe Fest. The new songs have a fresh feel and attraction to audiences. They have blended their highest influences into a formula all their own. They are bringing jam back to jam bands. The release party for the album Family is Oct 11th 2013 at Martyr’s in downtown Chicago.
The chemistry on stage was evident right from their opening tune Wouldstock. Then they went into an almost gospel rendition of Ramble On Rose and then the classic Old Shoe favorite, the smoky sultry tempting, Beer. A couple more tunes into their blazing hot set and they brought out the angel of the festival. Allie Kral ripped into Big River that put a location on the spinning audience. Bent River, Big River, Camp Shaw… This set was so raging, I was seeing spots. It was truly a utopian experience with smiling faces, beautiful nature and the harmony I like hearing amplified at just the right levels. As if it could get no better, they launched into a quick snappy 3 minute version of How Mountain Girls Can Love and then, HOLY SHIT! Diamonds on the Soles of her Shoes. Ironic, funny, fantastic. The time of my life was spinning all around me.
A conversation has two parts, sending and receiving. The signals that were coming off stage sent my mind to spinning as this is how this beautiful thing called music tends to do. They were singing the songs that have changed my life for the better. It brought feelings of amazing shows of the past to the forefront of now. Between seeing Paul Simon & Bob Dylan way back in 1999 or the time I got to see Ladysmith Black Mambazo, they both hold such importance to me. I wanted to tell them about how I met my lover. I was tired of my boyfriend being a jerk and hitting on other ladies so I wandered off. Now my fiancée and I always share that special memory of the time we first laid eyes on each other at the Paul Simon/ Bob Dylan show. Pretty girls never stay lonely for long. All the lessons, all the miles I’ve wandered… just to get here.
“Everybody here would know exactly what I’m talking about. He makes the sign of a teaspoon, she makes the sign of a wave.” - Diamonds on the Soles of her Shoes
I was marveling at this main stage performance with so much love and confidence coming from the Bent River Brewing Stage and the boys of Old Shoe, then I realized that a few weeks prior opening for Bruce Hornsby was not just a great honor. It was a warm up to this peak performance. Old Shoe answered right back in our “conversation.” I told them about meeting my lovah at a Paul Simon show, they told me about the radio stations they’ve listened to in their journey to become this band that they blessed us with tonight. They brought me from Jesus Christ Superstar to Bel Biv Devoe to the Beatles. These are the boy bands I have come to consciously choose to engage my adult intellect and fulfill my childhood joy.
My emotions were raw. My shoes were off. I had traveled through time and space to be here for this very special moment right now. And to close the set, Old Shoe with special angel Allie Kral finale’d with Dust Bowl. “Praying I can borrow time from tomorrow” That line has been in my head as I awoke many mornings since. “Drinking away my sorrows…” The meaning and the motion was all there. Old Shoe is the engine to this train. It chugged right on along the tracks, down the non-dub-steps, through the cornfields and onto a trailer ride with Chicago Farmer.
The production team at Shoe Fest just keeps getting better. There were beautiful lights, more than last year that adorned the river. The park had a sparkle at night that is only getting better every time too. They must love doing what they do. As we all walked back downstairs to catch Chicago Famer, I noticed most were engaged with what they love to do. It was an evening for artists to create, musicians to make music, and for lovers to love. Every time I attempted to capture this energy on stage through my camera, I was convinced I would need a different lens. It’s true, there must be a wide angle psychedelic lens that would take in all that beauty and light into one photograph. I just don’t happen to possess such an apparatus. I took it as a signal from the Shoe Fest Production Team that I was invited here to do what I love and that is to capture the magic moments. The best souvenirs are between the ears!
Chicago Farmer was harvesting more of his magical seeds that have grown into amazing songs. His time has come. He is the story telling charismatic creator of love in a rural gone industrial land. At a beautiful fest with so much appreciation pulsing through the river, it was as if we passed over the bridge and into the Church of Chicago Farmer. His hour long set reached a crowd that stretched well past sound booth. “Woke up this morning with the last night’s blues…Tied one on but I lost my shoes.” Cody Diekhoff, aka Chicago Farmer’s voice was purring with the perfect whine. He knows “everybody knows everybody in this campground…” Amen! Hallelujah! He has that Keller-esque wide eyed appreciation of his fellow musicians. By the time this landscapist musician neared the end of his set he was controlling the crowd with upbeat folk singing that crowned this Saturday night with an unforgettable performance of one man, a lil’ King of sorts, getting by with the help of his friends. Illinois Anthem after Drinking Dark Whiskey was an elixir of musical harmonies that washed over the sweaty crowd.
“This isn’t Florida, s’not California… It’s IlliNOISE”
Dan Andree from the Henhouse Prowlers in a more comfortable outfit joined the overall (and nothing else?) wearing Pat Fiddle on stage for Angel from Montgomery. We all tossed arms around one another for a warm family hug. Again, that song was a staple when I was on a trail crew. Brought me back to digging in the dirt every day a decade ago. Ah memories.
“Just give me one thing… that I can hold on to…” - Angel from Mongomery
That was a gut-wrenching, moving, tender, top 5 moment number 2.
I have often compared nature to my church. At this point, the 1599 other amazing souls and I had meditated ourselves a steeple with amazing stained glass stars. The catharsis was pouring through the crowd knowing the evening’s music would only keep getting better. The phenomenal Ben Miller Band wouldn’t be going on until 3 am. If you were at Shoe Fest last year you know not to miss the dynamic force that is Ben Miller Band.
Enter in Drew Emmitt Band. It was like a youth group lock-in of back in the day CCD classes. We were floating in the Ray Graham Retreat’s recreated version of Heaven. We were singing Ku Bah Yah and hoping to sneak away later. He brought with him some of the Mountain Counsel of roots music to define the groove we were all feeling. Gold Hill Line and Drew’s version of the mountains west of Denver always includes that NedFest story telling feel. Andy Thorne and Pete Kartsounes were giving it their all and again appeared the angel. I felt like a child again. How Allie could keep shape shifting flawlessly into any stage arrangement was beyond me. At times she was like a mockingbird, then a butterfly. Now she was here as a hummingbird, sucking the sweet sugar from the river and spitting it out over the audience. I was caught slack jawed just realizingjust how badly I miss those hills of Colorado and how lucky I was to have them come here to Illinois for a night. My childhood dream of being Joni Mitchell was almost played out right there on stage. It was my very own version of seeing Joni sing back-up vocals for Neil Young at The Last Waltz. Andy Thorne took over on singing vocals for Shady Grove, swoon! Andy can take you from the Rockies to the Appalachia and hover in mid-air on a cloud of banjo. Pete Kartsounes soulfully sung his heart out for Norwegian Wood and broke 2 strings doing it.
This was our own little version of Red Rocks. This is Illinois little valley of soft and goodness. This was an amazing time of getting to know people face to face and not on Facebook. Some really great people hide doing their work behind a computer screen. Welcome to the forbidden city of Shoe Fest. We like you here. Thank you to everyone for being there Saturday night. It was everything that it was supposed to be. The feelings were flowing like the river. I wonder who was a part of the rock writing in the river? After the lights were turned on and the evening got darker, it had changed from “Shoe Fest” to “Shoe Love.” That was the third top 5 moment for me. Awwww!
Speaking of top 5 moments, next up in top five moments was Family Groove Company’s performance. Long time tight friends, FGC & Old Shoe have a synergy that is unmistakable. They both played for the Bruce Hornsby show and that was a great energy that day too. I have been seeing FGC for a long time and they are all very talented to be sure. Like any veteran band, not every show will be your best. They have some shows that are just off. This show was NOT one of them. Nerds Unite!
Janis was letting it all hang out. The Uncommon Pavilion Stage with it reconfigured layout was framing them in just right and the echo of FGC’s drums and bass were packing a wallop of which Jordan’s keys were dancing all over. Adam was so rock star, Slash would have been jealous. The mid-set Wrath of the Solids > Hold Fast to the Line reminded me of that jazzy smooth Steely Dan cover they did at River Edge Park. Then they brought the crowd back to hopping around with Allie Kral on I’ve Just Seen a Face Beatles cover. That was a nice pick to get the crowd sweating again. Then they brought the crowd to an outer space funk for 10 minutes before again launching the crowd back into a frenzy. Janis held down a Michael Jackson street jazz style bass line. Keeping the funk simple, the crowd kept up nicely. When the snare drum cut through and a new melody began, Jordan announced yet another special treat for us. Joe Day and his “smooth vocal styling from Alaska” came out in his schnazziest threads. He did the most spot on Cee Lo impression in his sparkly shirt. FGC tore the house up when he sang out loud, “Does that make me crazy?! Do you think I’m crazy?! Possibly!” Who knew a white choir boy from Alaska could sing like a phat black funkateer?! The ridiculously, fun, crazy, bad-ass event was a festival done right according to Jordan Wilkow. Family Groove Company’s set was done right in my humble opinion. Their encore Through with Tomorrow is definitely a stand out quintessential FGC jam. I walked away feeling good and exhausted. I had no juice left to give when the raging Ben Miller Band raged their 2 am set hard. My body collapsed in good time slumber.
Sunday morning brought me right back to Bears Country. I love that Shoe Fest falls on the Bears season opener every year. Mackey’s Hide Out graciously provided a tent and TV. It’s better than any bar for watching sports. Outdoors? All my friends? It’s priceless! The game started at noon and pre-gaming began much earlier. I heard some folks that had driven from Wisconsin complaining. There was some shit about “We’re here for the music, not a Bears game.” Whatever. This is Bears Country. There was a bit of a technical difficulty and true to the die-hard fans Chicago has, it didn’t deter any attention from the game.
For my final top 5 moment of Shoe Fest 2013, I caught Under the Willow at 11. If I could draft a fantasy league of Shoe Fest, I’d have Erin Donovan as my quarterback. She brings back the Joni Mitchell loving, Tori Amos raging, and Natalie Merchant sounding voice with a delicate charm that makes the entire band so enduring.
“We’ll have our time” – Time Speaks by Under the Willow
With no drums, their songs sound light as air. This was the strings to sing like sirens as they made sounds with haunting echo like quality. With all this talk of Miley Cyrus in mainstream music, I recall again why I choose to ignore mainstream music and go to see bands like Under the Willow. They stand for something. They won’t fall for just anything. Matt Robinson from Old Shoe joined them on stage and dancing man went crazy! He was a real life superhero and this was like witnessing Superman taking Lois Lane on a flight around the festival and back. It was the perfect way to begin the last day at Shoe Fest. Their energy interplay was as warming as the late summer sun.
The beauty lingered for onward and upward Sunday at Shoe Fest. Jack Avery’s Kin that is now stripped down to one man, John Till, soulfully sang his heart out on the sage furthest from the Bears game. That ought to have satisfied the cheese heads. I wandered to the breakfast hall for some warm sandwiches and hot coffee. There were showers available and clean flushing toilets. It was a real life radio dial everywhere you went. You could change the station according to whatever suited your mood.
The hyper local fan-Fiddling-tastic Shoe Fest was a success. Sunday’s headliners Floodwood are no strangers to playing with Allie Kral. There were strings everywhere. Camp Shaw is a beautiful place for a festival, especially a slow cooked festival like this. Strings n slow cookers aren't readily availble in New York. After speaking with volunteers I got a sense of maturity and willingness to make this festival a good one. They won’t skip any steps and they are here to make sure everyone has a great time. The air hung heavy with potential for all this fest will become. The good news is that Shoe Fest will return to Camp Shaw again for the next couple years at least. That is amazing news for a festival in the Midwest. It seems that any good festivals around here have been quickly swallowed up by greedy land owners. The sense of reverence for Camp Shaw is returned by a sense of respect for what Old Shoe has achieved with their very own festival.
Shoe Fest takes their festival very seriously. This is about family, fun times and all of it that comes from the music. I hope the cheese heads understand. They put the stop to dub step music but they can’t stop the love of the Bears. Naturally the fun times come from the music but we are Chicagoans. Mr. Blotto rules our world. That is always debatable depending on which sports season we are in. We may travel but we’ll always come home to the Great Lakes.
I’ll always return to the family reunion that is Shoe Fest. It is the fan-Fiddle-tastic fest for the flatlander. I hope I have illuminated the experience that is Shoe Fest for you. If I left something out I hope you will let me know. I have been talking about my experience so much, I should have gone live with the written version much earlier. There was no proper and entire way to capture all the madness. But the music never stopped rocking… See you for the Family release party October 11th at Martyrs!