This review is going to read more like a sci-fi story. Do not adjust your grammatical eyes or correct the run-on sentences. You are entering my Shoe Fest Vision. For only 72 hours, gates opened at 10 am on Friday and closed down at 10 am on Monday Labor Day. Once crossed into Shoe Fest 2018 at Camp Shaw-waw-nas-see (affectionately known as Camp Shaw) in Manteno IL, you were greeted with unexpected twists and left with a good moral learned. A fest like this is filled with instant karma.
In a land not too far from there, in a time not too far off from today, there lives a group of greedy people. Camp Shaw is a designated greed free zone. These greedy people wish to collect unobtainium to make profit off the unprofitable. The desired unobtainium comes from prophets and artists, mystics and gypsies. They are the dreamers of dreams, the makers of music. By the very definition of unobtainium, it is near impossible to obtain because it takes a perfect combination of energy, love and timing. It sounds like sweet music and it feels like a warm embrace. It feels like dancing and squishes soft between your toes like feathers in the wind.
Unobtainium has appeared throughout history but can not be exactly duplicated. Shoot, there were other festivals going on the same weekend as Woodstock, but we focus and remember the unobtainium from Woodstock as the quintessential birth of hippiedom. Since then we have digitized sound, made small computers to carry that sound around in our pockets, and have ever more increasing options to place our attention. The take away from Woodstock as far as I can tell is that when the art is amateur, it has a certain “I don’t give a fuck” about it. One component of unobtainium is to be wide eyed and open to new possibilities. After the amatuer stage wears off art becomes open to criticism and vulnerable to conformity.
“You are the music while it lasts.” -T.S. Eliott
As an antenna floating, remembering the tribal fires lit from mountainside to the valley where you could see from hundreds of miles away and know that their flames were still going. I floated from the breakfast hall at Camp Shaw and heard music dancing between the Bent River Stage up top and the Uncommon Pavilion Stage down below. Friday’s music began with the River Valley Rangers bluegrass sass and bounced into the blues of Packy Lundholm. While most of Chicagoland was drenched, the rain seeped into Camp Shaw and eventually forced a rain delay. The force was strong with this line-up. No music was canceled. It’s like true love. Not even death can stop true love, just delay it for a bit.
From the outer banks of the Nile to Rock Creek in Manteno Illinois, it all floated on. Another component of unobtainium is the collective consciousness. To be stuck in any sort of inclimate weather brings folks together. There has to be some part of the collective that desires connection. Connect with that child inside that is interested in hearing new songs, new bands, and finding new ways of being. Skip out on the regular orbit of your daily grind and head out into a beautiful place in nature where everybody knows your name. When Henhouse Prowlers took the stage, the raindrops receded and the gathering commenced. Lowdown Brass Band brought the boogie. The nymphs and fairies returned and the magic set aglow again.
"Music was the main poetic metaphor for that which could not be preserved." -Walter Murch
Blottopia of days gone by always chose an album in entirety to play. Old Shoe put on the Friday night party with an entire album. As is tradition at Shoe Fest since 2014, Old Shoe works in congruence with a band that has made a masterful album to present it to the Shoe Family. This year’s selection was Let It Be by the Beatles. If music is the main poetic metaphor for that which cannot be preserved, Shoe Fest has preserved the traditions and rituals of this midwest pocket.
I do believe Shoe Fest will keep the memory of Blottopia alive. Can we keep writing creating capturing and catching the sounds in our heads and in our hearts? Who knows if one day the grid goes down and all these electrical bites of information will go with it. We must merger these dreams. Let it Be was a fine selection for the way 2018 has gone. The last studio album of the Beatles, you can imagine they had transcended by then.
Two of Us Dig a Pony Across the Universe - Come on. Enduring the rain to commence the weekend drying off to “Across the Universe?” Who don’t love that? I Me Mine Dig It Let it Be Maggie May I’ve Got a Feeling After 909 The Long and Winding Road?! Talk about a tuned in radio receiver. That song is a prelogue-foreshadowing-suspense-building-song if I have ever heard one! For You Get Back (To Where You Once Belonged)
They brought the music into all the faceholes of fluttered Friday family when Lowdown Brass Band horns joined Old Shoe back on stage and did a spot on version of Paul Simon’s Late in the Evening.
We awoke to the sounds of cicadas and the bugs of monsanto making new more annoying squeaks. They planted new crops but this land is the same. My frequency was tuned in at the complete contrast from the stage past the river down below and back to the front gate open lawn area. My radio receiver was dialing in the sounds of the universe. I found it easiest to do when I stayed in one place to really dial it in. From the horns and funk of Fuzzlove I decided to head into the wide open space instead.
Pups, poochies, babies and lots of “good job!”s filled that open space. This was the place. Home for where I wanted to be as the Bashful Youngens brough sweet sounds of country and western. Inside their vibe was a riotous hip hop act dying to come out to play. When they covered Fight for Your Right (to Party) by the Beastie Boys, it was unclear that it was a cover at all. Never heard a version like that before. The anti-rain dance harmonies kept the clouds white and fluffy as no one knew if we would indeed be covered by the ominous red spots on the radar.
Still the grills were kicking out whiffs of garlic as the view included dancing guy, dogs getting along, cool breezes, and kiddos collecting ground scores. It was amazing to see beagles, shepards, and pit bulls all getting along, cruising the crowds, searching for some snuggles. A golden retriever named Avett seemed to be the true Buddha for the dog pack. He would sniff, snout to snout, and bashfully bow down to the other dogs. I could hear him whisper, “May you piss on many hydrants.”
Bashful Youngens provided the soundtrack to sightsee the many men wearing skirts here on a fine Saturday afternoon. There was no unisex, nor gender fluidity here by the river. Just people being free with no questions to pose or judgments to pass. It all floated on by easily. The focus was on encouragement: clapping for the music, high fives for the kids playing, and the cutest part was the curiosity. Encouragement like musical notes were in abundant supply. Echoed off stage and on, kids jumped through hoops, pretended they were lions, while musicians bent the genres to come out on the other side. Big thrills in small packages were a feast for the eye to behold.
Hawks flew overhead as a reminder to always look up. With a gush of fresh air in your lungs you could almost smell the espresso in the air. Saturday was the juicy middle. As lead singer for the Bashful Youngens, Carrie Chandler Harrison, sang, “don’t feel right in my own skin” it resonated inside the core of my motherboard. It’s amazing how long you can wait for an event and still in the middle of this joyous event the aches and pains can creep up. You wait so long for a moment and still can’t get into that moment. Irritations float in and out to the sound of the guitar frenzy. Sticky and sweaty, bugs, cold wet, whatever…. Back n forth back n forth.
If you couldn’t get into what was happening at the time, wait just a few minutes and a refreshing artist will come to revive you at Shoe Fest. Can’t find a vibe? Butterflies will show you how to dance. Dan Andree popped up on stage and they bust into Margo Price’s Hurting (On the Bottle). Whiskey songs always do the trick to whip me back onto the good foot.
The good foot carried on through the thicket of a Saturday night at Shoe Fest. Once the FDR fireside chats of Chicago Farmer begin, there ain’t no looking back. The kids kept swinging, the bocce games subsided, the wagon races came to park. Telluride was on tongues and tee shirts as it amazed me how much this mini version of a mountain town called Manteno can beckon all home all of us for one intimate weekend of music. Or how similar the vibes are to Electric Forest, just with much less glitter and neon colors.
“Everybody knows everybody in this town!” - Chicago Farmer
Sweet rebel songs compelled the crowd on this labor day weekend. Arms slipped into arms and the crowd got comfortable with each other. When the downstroke of Chicago Farmer’s guitar hit the note of John Lennon’s Working Class Hero it became a union march. Not much to protest here at Shoe Fest but so much bonding to be had. The minor key drop had me shouting not singing, “A working class hero IS SOMETHING TO BE!” Amidst Cody’s clambering voice, then energy rose and fell with lyrics resonating within this group. “...sex on TV. You think you’re so clever classless and free… but we’re all fucking peasants as far as I can see”
We refuse to be robots still. We are not a part of the rule driven scripted society. We are artists, each one of us, even if all we produce is the air from our lungs. You could feel the closeness of this knit together group. They breathed in the the stage where Chicago Farmer spun the wool. Suddenly the crowd shifted and the dancing room has left a bigger space behind it with room in front of the lawn chairs. There was room for more to join and they did. With music, the doors never shut and the ceiling is not glass. It is a ceiling of stars and galaxies.
“I don’t try to get political, I just like to complain about how expensive beer has gotten.” -Chicago Farmer
The breathing turned into laughs and the mood got lighter again. Which is good because you can’t take Jaik Willis too seriously. If you do, you won’t know what to do with his beatboxing and bungled up bouts of perfectionism within absurdism. You have to buy the ticket and take the ride along with Jaik Willis. He will take his tribe wherever he goes and connect all of the dots with his funky style.
Chicago Farmer > Jaik Willis > Old Shoe > Oh Ma Gawd! It painted the sky into a glorious sunset and we haven’t even gotten to Allie Kral yet. As artist at large, the midwest crowd couldn’t contain their love for a good ol hometown girl gone onto a western sunset of her career. Just like the western skies of a sunset, Allie Kral can paint a stage luminous colors with her fiddle anytime, anywhere. It’s especially excellent to see the kinship Allie creates with her hometown allys.
Reticulation like the unobtainium of the Last Waltz - the net and system of unknown and known coming together in anticipation for the headliners. Everyone here knows the headliners as the all star jam that Saturday night at Shoe Fest brought. Somewhere around hour 42, Old Shoe took the stage for the wind up of the dial that creates unobtainium. To unlock this door with the key of imagination, they began with original tunes Rhett and Mouth of the Lion. They slowly intermingled their showcase of through the decades music, even slipping some Have a Cigar into the middle of It Never Left Me. The chugging motion of the steam engine was off the chain but still on the rails until they pulled into the station with Danny’s Song with Joe Day on vocals and keys holding it down while the party primed to step out on stage as royalty of Shoe Fest. Of course, that isn’t royalty because there is no greed or hierarchy at Shoe Fest. It was the official ribbon cutting of the weekend, this creation is ready for lift off. Prepare for lift-off by making your best Jeff Austin face was basically Joe’s advice to the crowd. They shred three more original tunes to etch a sketch them into your open eyed mind, Still here on a Sunday off their latest album Country Home, Country Home, and Bayou Honey. Matt Robinson took to the mic to announce what was about to happen.
“We’d like to bring out some of our friends, Allie Kral and Chicago Farmer cuz this is a family fest. You should do things together.”
Have you ever seen Allie Kral rip the fiddle in a rock n roll version of Baba O'Riley? She shreds the violin AND the bow strings, I swear! With Chicago Farmer on vocals, Old Shoe at his back and shredding Sally over on the fiddle, Dare I say this was better than the time she did it with Moe.?
“I played for an hour earlier and sweat more in that 6 minutes than that entire hour!” - Chicago Farmer
Next up they brought out Wavy Dave and they bust into John Hartford’s Get No Better. Timelessness ensued. Brought back to the Cornmeal shows of 15 years ago, at the same time not in the smoky sweaty club of the city. Where was not When was not With and the Who but the How now still remained! Nothing stays the same, good leadership is change, but old time is the right time and musical nostalgia kept feeding the FOMO inside us all. It is rare and special to find something these days that will remain the same through the tunnels of tubes we seemed to be squeezed through with each new day. All is knot lost. When you feel like you can’t go on, tie a knot and hang on. Be the wind bend don’t break, all that.
And they played on into what I would consider the climax for the Shoe Family, Dustbowl.
“Praying I can borrow time…. From tomorrow!” Allie Kral added her talents to this track in the studio on the Old Shoe album Family. To blend the challenge of old and familiar with new and original was precipitated into this Saturday night at Shoe Fest. The best of old and new, studio and live, bands and super jams… worlds were colliding on stage for the crowds highest good. (Collusion of the highest order!)
Paul Priest was belting out lyrics and standing firmly in his shred while audience’s skirts went flying. That girl that normally plays in a band is vending this weekend and there she is beside us in her yoga bottom jeans. Overheard in the crowd: What is the opposite of ‘misery loves company’? Because that is what this is! White lotuses were everywhere both in spirit and in the lighting that danced along the tree tops. I felt like a girl working it, doing what I was made to do, dance! I dream of living a life where I don’t have to pretend to be anything but what I am. I don’t have to be as strong as a man, I can just be a great friend, mom, sister, a good person adding to good things. That was what the music unlocked in me at that moment.
“If this is your first year, welcome to the family!” - Matt Robinson
His words jerked me back to the reality that this was their last song. Don’t Let Me Down by the Beatles. Those crazy transcendentalists! Is the music coming from another place, as in the songwriter is bringing forth the music using themselves as a channel or is it from the heart - or ego- depending on how you look at it? Music is the architecture. It is the home for the human soul to find comfort. Everyone has different tastes in architecture. I myself, prefer a country home.
This is when the unobtainium was cooled and set to form. It had been heated, melted and now was time to form it and give it a glaze. The perfect conductors for this process was the Travelin McCourys. How do they know?! Years of learning from a master like their dad Del obviously has something to do with it. There must be nothing less than satisfaction to see your kids carry on the circus that you have learned to perform in. Growing up like that you probably see so many mixed up couples uncoupling and cross mojonation throwing the right people into the wrong time and the right time lacking the right people. But I bet you see a lot of love too.
Beyond the creation of unobtainium is a dimension of sound, a dimension of sight, a dimension of mind. Beyond that you move into a land of both shadow and substance, substance of instruments, ideas and music. When the Travelin McCourys hit the stage they bring with them that history and the gift of living in the moment. They are touring in support of their debut album which is funny to think considering they have been playing this kind of music all their lives. The self titled album was on display for the taking after they blew through a mind numbing instrumental. After playing Lonesome, Lonesome, On’ry and Mean and The Shaker from the new album, Ronnie gave us all a history lesson. That mind numbing instrumental was written by Don Reno. Don Reno is also the songwriter for that infamous tune from the movie Deliverance. It felt like an inside joke we could all appreciate. In the real world if I mention that I like bluegrass to one of the greedy fools, the only bluegrass they know is that stupid banjo lick. But damn, that guy could shred. And he probably made a nice nickel writing a song for a movie, despite it’s derogatory nature. More for us. They can keep their Kardashians. No greed allowed at Shoe Fest.
Ronnie McCoury is a true reel time old time connoisseur. With each song he would introduce a member of the band, saving the jabs and good natured ribbing for his brother. They did their own version of an Eagles tune, Midnight Flyer, and picked back up into more tunes off the new album. It was that part of the evening where my cardiovascular system appreciated a cool down song and by far the most tender song of the night, I Live on a Battlefield. Lyrics like, “Bits of broken heart - looking for another survivor” felt so right.
OOOOH OOOH OOOH Sweet child o mine - so much belly laughter. If the main mission is to find unobtainium - it's here in this moment. But it is unobtainable without participation. On stage in mid air between us all, it is only available now in limited supply. Energy, pure desire, emotion, want, propellant, confluent - better than a dating site with the swipe right mentality still happening. Believe it if you need it, if you don’t just pass it on. With that zip of hydration and a calenstentic vacation, Ronnie introduced Cody Kilby, “the best for last.” A child virtuoso, he had no problem taking advantage of the crowd standing still as he whipped through scales in the style of Django Reinhardt. They picked up the pace into a Scottish two step tempo and back down into spell binding narratives. Included on the new album is a Passenger song they covered called Let Her Go. It was a tranquilizing tune to be sure. My radio receiver had gone off the charts. The signal had been hijacked, scrambled into unobtainium production. The system went into restore mode with this glitch before it potentially overheated. Nothing like an elevator tune in twang to opiate my frequency.
Tunes took away the evening as a subdued Jeff Austin joined them on stage for the Grateful Ball. Illinois native son Jeff Austin has always been our kind of crazy. One could not contain the curiosity if Allie would sit in with Jeff on stage thereby creating another mix and twist of bands gone by. Alas, it did not happen. The Grateful Ball got down with some dirty bluegrass as Jeff contained himself to show off his skills and not just his facial expressions.
Althea> Friend of the Devil New Speedway Boogie If I Had the World to Give (favorite Shakedown classic) Loser>Spanish Jam> Loser (16 minutes worth of McCoury jam!) E: Franklin’s Tower
“If you get confused, listen to the music play”
No truer words spoken than that. Creating unobtainium is not without its squeeze. We were spun into another dimension and squeezed of our juice. It was time to shake into the boogie and find solid ground again. The gearshift of our souls had taken a grinding as we set off into the night to blast into The People’s Brothers Band from Madison WI. They had sent their finest funk to keep cranking out soul satisfaction. It got me all keyed up again. Back to the in and out of the signal... I was no longer in the moment and ready for the funk to be brought out to the people!
The rain had held off, we had done our jobs, I wanted more Lowdown Brass Band. I wanted some dixieland, umbrella dance, upbeat procession to bring the music to the people. I guess George Carlin inside me had taken over. It was time to call it quits for the evening. Passive consumption of music had set in. I read somewhere that John Philip Sousa had a distrust of phonographs. I could see the risky business there. Rather than active creators of marching music, people would sit back and just listen to the music?! What a notion to consider. However, that Saturday night at Shoe Fest what I found was a more intimate act of creation. I was craving to be with them, marching alongside the tuba. But in reality I was creating it. The divine cycle of sending and receiving was in full effect. I was creating it, not just watching it being created. What a reflection. In the moment I was a petulant spoiled brat. I know better but I couldn't help but want more! In the end the weather was beautiful and all I was protesting was a canopy. They brought the music to the people and the people brought themselves to the music.
Sunday brought sentimental soulful sets power packed with female performers to break open the last 24 hours of Shoe Fest. Kara Cavanaugh put herself out there with pretty poetic original tunes. She did not do the Joni Mitchell cover I was hoping for but she played her original tunes and some covers done originally by her thoughtful rearrangement. On stage with her was both electric guitar and violin played by the ever talented Illinois own Philip Roach. It took ¾ of the song to figure out that she had covered Don’t Know Why by Norah Jones. I love when the music creeps into your musical intellect, driving you to find out the source of the lullaby - lovely and so familiar...
Althea Grace was the new never before heard artist of Shoe Fest 2018. She was backed up on stage by Jaik Willis, Janis Wallin, Rick King, and artist at large back at it again, Allie Kral. You can tell that she is young and I hate when people glaze over artists just because they are young. As if to say, there is time to catch that act another day. Watching her shred blues as a young woman filled the crowd with pride for this Sunday morning. The future is female and this young lady may lead the revolution. Someday we will compare how much we used to pay for a ticket to see her. I just hope she doesn’t become too expensive for me to afford!
Overheard as I left the bathrooms were two precious maybe 8-10 year old girls, chatting. One was explaining to the other what inhaling vs. exhaling was. We all know the exhaling when you go into a festival bathroom trick is. To be lucky enough to witness the teachable moment at that tender age. That was a treat. Back to a good place in my mind. “And…. they put the weight back on me” Take a load off. Althea Grace was hosting an all star version of the Band’s The Weight on stage. Blissfully wandered around and caught up with friends. Member that time at Bonnaroo? Yes my donkey killing friend. I could never forget the first time I met you. One of my favorite things to say when I part company with these friends is, “I couldn’t lose you if I tried” Why is that? Is there a certain frequency that we all gravitate towards?
The frequency of a bow on a saw sounded like the sweet sirens song from the rock creek. Most of Sunday I sat quietly gazing at the life in the creek bed. The water felt so good, clear and crisp along my sunburned skin. An ancient scene unfolded as all of life has lived near a river just like this. As if Mesopotamia was here in Manteno, IL I searched for signs of struggle. There were none to be found: simply children laughing, light beams dancing through the canopy of the trees, bouncing to the rhythm of the river rocks that spelled out Shoe Fest 2018.
Enion Pelter- Tiller and Bonnie Paine with Taarka sang tones of love while the strings’ serendipity caressed the souls of each radio receiver that walked by. Watching tender men mindful of the children, a dragonfly family reunion buzzing overhead, folks shaking their shakers along with the music coming from the canyon down below was how this labor day unfolded. Swipe left on all that is happening here in that moment. Taarka playing on the Bent River Stage was like watermelon lemonade. The limited supply of unobtainium had been preserved again, safe under the trees at Shoe Fest.
Mr. Blotto played some rock n roll Sunday night. The pulse was still flowing as not much can stop the power of rock. The parting gift came with a rare sighting of 30db. A warm bottle of red wine was shared between Brendan Bayliss (Umphrey’s McGee) and Jeff Austin. They shared their stories and songs while indulging in some water turned to a delirious potion. Later in the evening as things were wrapping up Jeff Austin reminded the crowd that things may not always be as they appear. His sentiment was much appreciated, “When you get off the highway in fields of corn you think this is the kind of place where you may get murdered. But nah man, just keep driving. At the end of this road is an awesome party.”
Funny, when we all emerged from Shoe Fest, the greedy folks were all burning their Nike shoes. I guess they were angry they couldn’t capture the love we made that Labor Day weekend in Manteno. That kind of magic will never be obtained by those with impure hearts. The unobtainium is safe and the greedy people were foiled again!