Summer Camp Music festival, taking place Memorial Day weekend in Three Sisters Park, located just outside of Chillicothe, Illinois, is a vibrant and deeply weird place to spend a weekend, drawing jam rock disciples just as easily as blissed-out bassheads. Boasting six stages, each with its own diverse lineup of acts, the festival, while small in comparison to giants like Lollapalooza and Bonnaroo, is able to grow consistently and bring in a steadily larger stream of celebrants each year, a phenomenon due largely to their acceptance and recognition of the constantly evolving commonalities between the jam and Electronic Dance Music (EDM) scenes. Over the course of our weekend in Chillicothe we witnessed top-flight performances by artists on both ends of this spectrum, and quite a few sets that landed in a strange and beautiful grey are a between the two.
We made our way to the Starshine stage to begin our Summer Camp mostly because we were curious as to what a band called the Pimps of Joytime would sound like. As it would happen, they made music exactly like one would expect from a bunch of pimps of joytime. Appearing early in the day, but by no means a band to write off, the Pimps pushed out their percussion-heavy, latin-influenced, afrobeat funk from the Starshine Stage. The undeniable groove of the act as well as their sample-heavy but still live-feeling performance set a standard for the energy and sound the rest of the weekend would have in store. The Pimps of Joytime, in the best spirit of Summer Camp, made party music for party people, a theme which would repeatedly define the best acts of the weekend.
Next stop, Medeski, Martin and Wood. Coming off of the in-your-face effervescence of The Pimps of Joytime, this jazzy trio took a step away from the dance floor in order to showcase the true virtuosity present in the jam vets on stage. The crowd response was considerably more sedate than what we’d seen earlier, but it was by no means an unappreciative scene. Rather, the talent on display was occasionally of such caliber that the audience gathered at the Moonshine stage took a break from dancing to simply sit and appreciate the tight yet abstract, organ-led funk emanating from center stage.
One of the absolute highlights of Friday, if not the whole weekend, was the early evening performance by Ohio via North Carolina quintet Papadosio. A band that brings together elements of funk, EDM, rock music and classic psychedelia, Papadosio rests a driving and nuanced sense of rhythm, courtesy of drummer Mike Healy, on a thick and diverse bed of keyboard sounds with tasteful support from the guitar and bass. Incorporating some musical tools more commonly seen onstage with crowd-crushing DJs rather than live bands, the five-piece took the crowd to the outer reaches of dance-rock experimentation and back as the sun set over the first day at Summer Camp.
Following Papadosio was a stop over at Campfire stage to catch indie rockers Maps and Atlases. Hailing from Chicago, this quartet, while hitting all of the marks expected of modern indie rock, came across as lacking originality and presence when compared to the other sets at the festival. By no means poor sounding, their set was devoid of the live inventiveness which was so abundant on the other stages and was one of the few we witnessed over the course of the festival at which the crowd seemed either bored or unappreciative. So we left, unimpressed, and made our way over to the Vibe Tent to catch…
Cherub. This was not a mistake. Beginning with an onstage marriage proposal from a member of the audience (she said yes), the duo kicked off with a sound like an eighties electro-funk group that was kidnapped by hard-partying aliens and given the technology of the future. Cherub brought the live excitement of truly great jam rock and the infallible, ear-blistering energy of a grade-A DJ set to the Vibe Tent. Pairing actual guitar chops with an impeccable ear for dance-pop songcraft, Cherub’s set had potential to become one of the must-attend events of the festival, although they undoubtedly lost a few potential converts by playing opposite of perennial headliners Umphrey’s McGee, whose second set of the day we would catch later that night.
The Soul Rebels are a classic New Orleans horn band, backed up by an ace second-line rhythm section, covering percussion with marching bass drum and snare and featuring Edward Lee Jr. masterfully holding down the bassline of his sousaphone. Like many other acts of the weekend, the Soul Rebels’ greatest strength is their ability to bring the already formidable musicianship of their component parts together into a greater–and intoxicatingly exciting–live ensemble. While their set was short in terms of the number of actual songs played, each piece stretched and expanded itself into a revelatory party jam that often ran longer than ten minutes. Extended soloing, especially in a horn-oriented setting, has the somewhat-deserved popular reputation of being a mostly masturbatory exercise. The Soul Rebels, on the other hand, kept the groove alive and the crowd excited throughout multiple solos by each member of the band. Groups like this lives and dies on its ability to put together a spectacular live show. The Soul Rebels are alive and well, a reminder for all who listen that there is a reason New Orleans horn music is such a vibrant and important part of American music history.
After the Soul Rebels, we made the trek over to the Sunshine Stage to catch the tail end of Umphrey’s Mcgee second set. This band, along with moe., is a primary reason for the existence of Summer Camp itself. Since the festival’s inception, Umphrey’s has appeared every year and played multiple sets per day. The festival is reliant upon the fervent discipleship of this core group of fans, who are easily comparable to the deadheads of decades past. Despite their status at the head of the festival pyramid, and the potential for fatigue after playing five sets over the three days of the festival, Umphrey’s is not a band to phone it in. The combination of pure prog-rock improv with a world class light show makes them one of the most mesmerizing and enjoyable shows to catch during the fest. The opportunity to sidle by a set of theirs at ones own leisure is a true luxury afforded by the frequency of their performances, although there are plenty of die-hards who spend the entirety of the weekend front and center wherever Umphrey’s is playing.
As the festival devolved into a whirlwind of light, color and uninhibited revelry, the last show of the night, Big Gigantic, comes to you from the bowels of a memory interrupted. All that can be said with any great degree of certainty is that Big G’s jam/dance influenced “livetronica” sound fell perfectly, if bizarrely, between the bass-heaviness expected of a modern dance floor and stellar jazz saxophone work, giving Campers another taste of the melding of EDM and jam sounds that we’d seen earlier at Papadosio and Cherub. Spiked with a light display that would dazzle even Michael Bay, this party of a show felt like it brought down the sky. A few hours later the rain which would do its best to define the rest of the weekend began and the festival denizens, for the most part, headed back to their tents.
Cowritten with Kirby Jayes
All photography by Kirby Jayes