Written by Michelle Lesch
Photography by Kristan Whitlow Hughes/KristanRVA
As we pulled into Three Sisters Park on Friday morning, dark skies loomed above and the forecast was ominous. Severe thunderstorms were predicted for the entire weekend, but, as we learned by the end of our journey, the SCampers are a dedicated tribe, and not easily discouraged by a couple of mere “possible tornados” indicated by the weather apps. The days ahead would prove to be transforming, as we explored new artists, new friendships, and new perspectives. The generosity of strangers and the magical power of art was evident all around. The festival quickly filled up with people from all corners of the continent who joined and grew this thriving community, and would be forever connected through this experience.
Set in Chillicothe, Illinois, the 19th annual Summer Camp Music Festival takes place over Memorial Day weekend every year and attracts artists and music lovers from all over the world. The festival started in 2001 with just over 1,000 attendees and has since grown to about 20,000 patrons who come for the stellar lineup, eclectic artists and vendors, and the beautiful people that reside here for this one sublime weekend a year.
The heavy hitters in this year’s lineup were of course Umphrey’s McGee and moe. (who have headlined the show together every year since 2003), STS9, Ben Harper & the Innocent Criminals, Zeds Dead, and Big Gigantic. Further driving the anticipation of this heavenly weekend, was the juxtaposition of music legends such as Blues Traveler, Yonder Mountain String Band, and Toots & the Maytals alongside current beloved jam scene acts like Pigeons Playing Ping Pong, Lotus, Papadosio, and Tauk. With over 180 bands playing on seven stages over the weekend, Summer Camp seemed to have representation from just about every performing style you could think of, from hip-hop to bluegrass, and ska to electronica. Walking from stage to stage, there were plenty of new favorite artists to be discovered.
Strolling through Summer Camp’s festival grounds, it was delightful and refreshing to see how much more there was to this festival besides the tantalizing musical lineup. There was the Soulpatch, which was a gorgeous area along the treeline, housing workshops and displays that highlighted permaculture practices, sustainability, and meditation. The Soulshine tent in the morning was another area where you could pause to come back to life after last night’s party and have a chance to expand your mind and awaken your body. In addition to the morning yoga classes, there was a 3-part body hooping course lovingly taught by Lee Jeffries and Mike Hancock (also of Hanzo Art). Other incredible artists that we met were Vincent Gordon and Jerika Renee.
Entering the festival grounds on Day One, I was impressed by the camping spot that our Festi-Cab directed us to. In fact, Summer Camp is unique in this aspect for a large festival. Campgrounds are centrally located, with the stages surrounding in all directions, leaving each musical destination just a quick walk from your tent, no matter where you are posted.
Friday’s lineup consisted of nonstop must-see acts that set the tone for the rest of the weekend. This was no warm-up. Brandon “Taz” Niederauer, Keller Williams’ Pettygrass, and an afternoon moe. set kicked off the day. Mihali on the Campfire Stage in the afternoon began just as the sun started to break through the gray sky that hung over us all morning, sending those rain clouds on their way. His performance was both beautiful and light, looping beats and melodies together while singing lyrics of introspection and putting his whole soul into each guitar solo. A mashup of “Glycerine/No Woman No Cry/Wagon Wheel/One Day/Farmhouse” was a particularly delightful treat that had the crowd belting the words to these old familiar favorites. His new tune, “Heart Song” was the perfect way to close out the set, leaving us inspired to pursue the rest of this weekend with a fire lit inside us.
Spafford, Tropidelic, Pigeons Playing Ping Pong, and infamously anonymous funk group Here Come the Mummies kept the energy flowing through the early evening. Unfortunately, Rebelution was unable to make their scheduled performance, so we received a buoyant collaboration from moe. + Pigeons Playing Ping Pong and Friends. A highlight of the evening was Umphrey’s McGee’s second set, which consisted of the group’s 2004 album, “Anchor Drops”, being played in its entirety to commemorate the 15th anniversary of its release. Tierinii Jackson, of Southern Avenue, sat in for a blissful rendition of “Bullhead City”, and “Mrs. Tinkle’s Overture” was a particularly fiery jam that got everybody in the crowd jumping and playing the air-piano right on cue. Friday night closed out with ragers from Mungion and STS9, as well as moe. and Pigeons Playing Ping Pong playing once more in the Red Barn until 4am.
Saturday, we awoke to a peaceful morning, with overcast skies and another full day of musical and personal discovery ahead of us. Today’s killer schedule included acts such as bluegrass quintet Horseshoes and Hand Grenades, local hip-hop duo Trouble Chasin’, and electronic group Nobide. The afternoon really started to heat up with the incredibly groovy Sunsquabi, performing on the Sunshine stage. Their sound is a unique one, full of energy and body-igniting beats that compelled every person in the crowd to dance. They were so fun to watch; their drive and pure love of the music they were playing was infectious. As soon as you thought you had figured out where the jam was headed, they would seamlessly reroute the course, taking the audience on a spectacular journey into unknown territory.
Unfortunately, Black Star was unable to make it to the grounds in time for their set, which gave us an opportunity to take a walk through the wooded camping and vendor area, getting out of the sun and rejuvenating before the absolutely packed schedule ahead that had us excitedly bouncing from stage to stage in order to be able to really take it all in. The Minnesota bluegrass band Trampled by Turtles delivered a hauntingly beautiful performance to a large crowd at the Moonshine stage. Next up, funklordz Chromeo, performing with a live band, enjoyed playful banter with the crowd, teasing us for not showing them our best dance moves and, stopping the song and restarting, giving us another chance to impress them. Legends Blues Traveler welcomed sit-ins from Al Schnier and Mihali; and Big Gigantic performed at sunset, setting the tone for the kind of evening we were in for. Moe. was an exceptional experience as always, with an unforgettable rendition of Buster, where they turned on high powered bubble machines under a set of black lights over the audience. We were giddy as we were enveloped in a blanket of glowing bubbles; like children again, desperate to catch as many as possible.
Around 11pm, we were notified that Mother Nature was indeed going to finally hit us with one of the thunderstorms that, so far, she had managed to divert around us. All of the outdoor shows were cancelled, leaving only the Red Barn Late Night sets from Chromeo and Lotus, as well as the Soulshine Tent stage, ending with Brass Against.
The rain and wind endured through the night and well into Sunday morning, causing giant sloshy mud pits down at the Moonshine stage, and along the walkways throughout the camping area. However, as campers began to wake up throughout the morning, there was nothing but smiles and positivity all around. It was a bummer that so much music had been cancelled, but given the forecasts that we had been reading in the days leading up to the festival, one rainy night was really quite a blessing. Today was going to clear up and deliver a bright and beautiful ending to this magical weekend.
Umphrey’s McGee ripped their final set of the fest, finishing with Kris Myers declaring that they wanted to do a “muddy song” for us, and launching into an electrifying cover of Soundgarden’s “Outshined”. The rest of the day was packed with many of the bands that people had driven hours for and waited all weekend to see. Aqueous, Papadosio, Ben Harper & the Innocent Criminals, and two more sets of moe. were all in store for us. Progressive bluegrass legends Yonder Mountain String Band provided us with an unforgettable performance, covering Metallica’s “Fade to Black”. Gramatik, round two of Sunsquabi, and Manic Science were among the late night performances that wrapped up this beautiful Memorial Day weekend.
Summer Camp 2019 was a splendid weekend, unlocking the hearts and minds of its attendees and forming new friendships all around. Our neighbors, a group of guys who hysterically named their homebase “Camp Shitshine”, had built a scaffolding overlooking the Sunshine Stage, and graciously allowed me to climb up to take in the views that they were able to enjoy all weekend. Adel, one of the friends, told me that he and his buddies have been coming for 9 years together and that building this perch had been a goal of theirs that they were finally able to make a reality. As the sun set to the right of the stage, and I reflected on the weekend I had just experienced, and the relationships I had formed, I knew why this festival is just so special to so many people like Adel. I understood why a couple such as Nashville newlyweds Tyler and Amy, whom I spoke with in the campground, chose to come here as part of their honeymoon in celebration of their love. It’s more than the big headliners, and the party scene. It’s the camaraderie, the magic, the artists, the positivity that radiates through the campground and permeates everyone who has the opportunity to experience it, leaving us all just a little bit lighter and joyous as we hit the road to head home.