Live Review: Summer Camp 2008

This review originally appeared on Ink19

There are several ways to start the 8th year of Summer Camp. One way is to stare at the jumbo screen mounted behind the Flaming Lips and closely examine the dental work of lead singer Wayne Coyne during their Friday night show. I went with this first option immediately, and then slowly realized I had never been to real summer camp before. And then I thought, “What better way than to have the Flaming Lips usher in, not one, but two, first-time summer camp experiences simultaneously with a psychedelic fuzz-bath filled with ‘Do You Realize,’ ‘She Don’t Use Jelly’ and the ‘Yeah Yeah Yeah song’?” Of course, camp did start without me, as earlier in the day pop music collagist Girl Talk, metal-dub rockers Dub Trio, moe. and others started rocking campers two hours south of Chicago around 11am.

This year, around ten thousand fans came to pitch their tents and chill to the vibe of 45 bands geared up to deliver a joyous jam-friendly vibe and gladly kiss the nasty non-spring good-bye. At any given moment, around any of the four stages, hula-hoopers wiggled about and Frisbees whizzed around while other fans flung flaming Devil Sticks into the air, enjoying the weekend’s laid back atmosphere at Three Sisters Park, where “just like real summer camp” faces were painted and bubble machines spewed bubbles that floated on the cool breeze.

Under a warm blanket of Saturday afternoon sunshine, Chicago quartet Family Groove Company laid down one of the weekend’s most versatile combinations of jazz, soul, and funk rhythms. Mattias Blanck (drums) and Janis Wallin (bass) merged soulfully underneath the crisp current of funky roads laid by front man Jordan Wilkow, who led the way through a collage of instrumental jams that transformed the grooving stage vibes into carefree crowd gyrations. Wilkow proudly explained they needed to jet, as he was the best man in a wedding set to start as soon as he arrived; he then dedicated a song to his engaged best friend and squeezed in a smooth cover of Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay.”

Chicago-based bluegrass stalwarts Cornmeal served up a tasty dish of good-times nostalgia for most of the set. During “Traveling On,” however, they slapped on the spurs with the gorgeously firm fiddle work of Allie Kral and a galloping rhythm section provided by Chris Gangi (stand-up string bass) and JP Nowak (drums). Along with the golden harmonies of the rest of the band, they plastered jubilation on faces and provoked pleasure-hollering from the crowd. Even though it was well past mid-day, Cornmeal seemed ready for a serious country throw-down, high-noon draw.

In a festival like Summer Camp’s, where instrumental jamming is plentiful, almost gluttonous, after a day it can be hard to separate one band from another. But I had no problem setting Chicago’s jamming veterans Umphrey’s McGee apart from the rest of the pack. Mixing in a playfully endearing dedication to Axl Rose, the band admonished Rose to put out Chinese Democracy already — “We’ve heard it and it’s good.” Their live fusion of rock, reggae, funk, and electronic keyboard noodling gleaned and purred in and out of all genres, but it was the addition of a guest pedal steel player that created the perfect summertime atmosphere for a late afternoon inner-transcendence during which you could wonder what that GN’R album might sound like.

Then it was time to check out the new incarnation of Blind Melon, who reformed in 2006 when new lead vocalist Travis Warren joined the band. I had doubts whether or not the band could pull off the difficult task of contributing something new to contemporary rock and live up to past expectations after Shannon Hoon died in 1995 just as the band was growing in popularity.

For the most part, Warren and the remaining members did pull it off, but it took a few songs for me to get used to the feel of Warren’s raspy wail, a full-throttled combination of Chris Cornell and Robert Plant spliced with hints of Hoon. Warren successfully threaded the line between paying tribute to Hoon and old Blind Melon songs, while also showing off his own singing and songwriting chops, heavily influenced by the Hoon-era Blind Melon. Wasting no time getting to new material, Warren charged into the title track from the new album For My Friends, mixing in older tracks and the hit song “No Rain” during which the band seemed to be pulling from a deep emotional well. Both old and new songs sounded fresh and revitalized.

Segueing on the name of classic blues artist Blind Lemon Jefferson, I traveled across the Summer Camp grounds to enjoy the folky, hip hop, spastic blues tunes of G. Love and Special Sauce. Instantly, I was sucked in like a camper to the candy trading post, as G. Love sat solo on a folding chair, cradling his guitar for the first song and somehow squeezing Osama bin Laden, Britney Spears, and child labor into the lyrics of the humorously grandiose title track off his upcoming album Superhero Brother. As expected, the set was all tongue-in-cheek and quirky funk, confirming that G. Love has nearly mastered his live show and is just as fun to watch jitter and shake as he is to hear rap and roll.

My expectations were sky-high for the Saturday night Roots set — and maybe that was part of the problem. The legendary Philadelphia crew opened strong with the furious “The World is a Ghetto” from this year’s Rising Down, but then in un-Roots like fashion, the set started to fizzle and lose energy. Drummer-centerpiece Questlove held the rhythms tight, but it was Black Thought who seemed off. Guitarist Captain Kirk played his live standard, melodic, revamped version of “Masters of War” in the melody of the “Star-Spangled Banner” and then Black Thought, like a live DJ digging frantically into a crate of classic hip hop vinyl searching for the perfect beat, must have sensed the emotional disconnect with the crowd and led the Roots through a roughly stitched together medley of standard classics, tossing in bits of Kanye West’s glittery “Flashing Lights.” Even including a few snappy James Brown-styled choreographed twirls led by Captain Kirk, the set still fell short of what the Roots are capable of, lacking the usual unpredictable explosive energy; instead most moves were sadly predictable. But with the Roots, an average show is still far better than most live hip hop groups at their best. The Roots can’t put on a amazing show every time, right?

About twenty three hours later, on Sunday afternoon, the mothership of psychedelic funk (and Godfather of many a hip hop sample) invaded Summer Camp as George Clinton and the P-Funk Allstars dropped gobs of gooey space funk on the masses gathered in the sunshine. Led in a roaring chant of “We want the funk!” by the P-Funk All Stars, we got what we asked for as guitarist Gary “Diaperman” Shider funked it up, and really showed us who’s daddy, even though he was the one wearing the cloth diaper.

Half of what P-Funk does so well is create a perpetually rotating carousel of funk-orchestrated chaos, a constant stream of on-stage stimuli, as your ears get blasted with slippery soul guitar licks and your eyes are ambushed with sights and images not normally heard in music or on planet Earth. I didn’t think the music would have been as fun to soak up if not for all the chaos on stage, but then I closed my eyes to test my theory. A strange echoing space voice, a surreal combination of Malcom X, Rod Serling, and William S. Burroughs spoke to me through the speakers, rapping verses filled with silly word association rhymes about talking shit and cleansing us of our “mental diarrhea.” Halfway through the two-hour set, a stoically funkafied red-mohawked George Clinton joined his band to conduct the chaos. Slamming home a pulsating “Cosmic Slop” and a neck-snapping version of “Give Up the Funk (Tear the Roof Off the Sucker).” Aside from a face that showed his 30-plus years as Funk’s Godfather, and a lessened range of lateral grooving, Clinton still controlled his band and the crowd with a wave of his hand and the charismatic thrill of Dr. Funkenstein personality, pointing out the truth that “It would be ludicrous to think we are new to this, this is what we do.”

An hour later, on the same stage, New Pornographers lead singer A.C. Newman began by humbly saying, “We’d like to thank P-Funk for opening for us.” In a festival full of meandering funky jazz rhythms, the shimmering, sleek melodies of the Canadian indie-rock quartet stood out beautifully as a fresh blast of straight-forward pop-rock. Not even a small crowd (a quarter of P-Funk’s) or pesky sound issues fazed them as Newman confessed with a smile, “This may sound really stupid, but this is my kind of crowd.” The New Pornographers carried on, flinging their sparkling pop-melodies into the air, mixing them with the whizzing Frisbees and twirling hula hoops as the setting sun lit the faces of campers whose Summer Camp was ending, just as their summer was beginning.

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