…and here I review the third FarmFest 450 (August, 2011)
The guy above is Nick LeRoy. I’m not for sure, so don’t quote me on this, but I heard that sometime during a tumultuous snowstorm in February of 2009, LeRoy awoke from the whirls and howls to envision a stage surrounded by cornfields and wind turbines, set somewhere outside Kinsman, Illinois (population 99). On this stage, his favorite regional bands played to a crowd of the same chill festival followers that he was so often a part of, and in this vision the organizer and promoter of the fest was none other than Nick himself. Sometime later, after coffee, he made some calls, found a friend willing to share his family’s farm for a weekend, and the first FarmFest 450 was born. Nick’s third FarmFest 450 was held at that same farm over the weekend of August 19 and 20, 2011, and I was fortunate enough to attend the latter half of the event. I had no idea what to expect. I knew that people would be camped out there for the weekend. I knew I would get to see some important musicians and bands. I knew there would be vegetarian options amongst the vendors. I brought Amanda, a blanket, my camera, a few other peaceful items and my desire to explore.
First, let me say something about the land around the festive. It is open countryside, with ground that rolls like a vacationer’s sea set to mild undulation. From this rising and falling cornscape sprout might gray wind turbines like those that are becoming so visible throughout middle Illinois. To drive on the single lane blacktop to FarmFest 450 is to travel amongst the turbines, and at one point, where one stood near the road, I had to stop and get out so I could see the mammoth object that cannot be reproduced by a photograph. The turbines are awesome to witness and hear in action, and when time fads away their utility, but not their structure, future generations that crossed the burning bridges will marvel at them and wonder what purpose they could have served. Or so I like to believe. Anyhow, they added to my sense of anticipation and excitement for what was to come.
FarmFest 450 had excellent logistics. To the north of the farm estate on which it was located was a large and level grass parking area, and parking was well-managed from entrance to our final designated parking spot—the good service was inviting. There were two camping settlements, each composed of a hodgepodge of tents and gear and relaxed sippers and fire pit cookers and yard game players. Past camping was the stage. It was set at the bottom of a long and wide yard that sloped east, so the western eye of the sun stared into the eyes of the musicians, rather than the audience (musicians accept this professional hazard). The goods that typically followed such festivals were there (you know jewelry, pottery, handcrafted apparel) along with a local bar selling cans of standardized American beer (most folks seemed to have brought their own) and there were many food options. The crowd we encountered upon our 4 o’clock arrival? It was set to a speed somewhere between koala bear and willow sloth. Which was perfect. Which was exactly what I hoped for. Amanda and I fit right in amongst the competitionless seating scheme, finding a great spot to pitch our blanket and offload our bags. As the sun descended behind us, past the farm’s flank of trees, we sat and shared Indian fry bread, drank a bit, listened a lot, intermingled with others between sets and were perfectly happy.
One of our intermingling moments involved meeting and talking with Ezra of Ezra’s Chameleon Kitchen. I would responsibly liken him to a contemporary gypsy, only his mule cart is way more fantastic than a vurdon made from wood and iron nails. Ezra is a studied chef who cooks on the road. His travel trailer is state of the art and partly run by solar panels and a small wind turbine that spins to power a battery bank during highway miles; his energy awareness is great, and his future plan involves him running his complete outfit on renewable resources; he also creates food that tastes local and lovingly prepared and he is health-conscious about his work. Vegan food that tastes like it’s from a small Chicago diner, only you procured it from a grassy oasis between farm fields? Right on. He had along with him the painter Andrew Nelson, who ingeniously designs paintings meant to be viewed and re-interpreted within different spectrums of light.
The first musician I heard was Chicago Farmer. I have a live John Prine album, simply called John Prine Live. It’s is a collection of songs Prine recorded during performances all throughout the seventies. It’s not just his artful, folk story-songs on the album that so engage me; it’s also the simple, short stories he tells on stage prior to starting each song that I love. The recordings make me feel “like I’m there” when I listen, yet rarely do I get out to see a folkish troubadour doing this kind of singing and story telling on stage (the last time was seeing Jeff Tweedy at the Vic). Therefore I was pleasantly thrilled when Chicago Farmer took the stage at 4:45 and like Prine, and in the vein of Tweedy as a solo artist, I found another Illinoisan with his acoustic guitar singing stories and telling stories live on stage. Chicago Farmer’s songs are about things you’d see through a pickup truck window; or through the window of Carl’s Diner in Nowhere Particular, Illinois as you drink your fourth cup of coffee; or through the window of several beers as you sit on a stool amongst a bar crowd. He told me he’d journeyed from a small town to Chicago and back to more small towns. He’s a working musician; his months are tied together with performances and festivals which put him in position to be continuously discovered. I purchased a t-shirt from his merchandise table because I identify with the artwork. I’m also from a small town. I too journeyed to Chicago for some years. I also later returned to my roots.
Chicago Farmer has an effective online presence. Listen to what he does, invest in a some songs because local folk will add depth to your collection and every man deserves a few coins for a song, and then get out of the house and go see him at a festival where he’s playing. You need the fresh air and you’ll like being a part of an engaged crowd.
I assumed there would be people milling about The Steepwater Band after their set, people who were meeting them or waiting to talk to them, so minutes after they finished playing I went down the sloped lawn and around the plastic fencing to the back of the stage, to the area where the bands mingled. I found myself in a spot boxed in by the back of the stage, a van, a porta potty, and a trailer that had been provided for the musicians. It turns out there were not throngs of people crowding Steepwater; on the contrary it was just the three band mates, each engaged in the humble act of breaking down gear before loading it back in the van. Their set was awesome. They are rockers, and the great leap from Chicago Farmer with his solo acoustic on goings and to an amplified three-piece was totally cool. The sudden jumps between genres and volumes is what I most like about local festivals.
I had only listened to a few Steepwater songs online prior to seeing them, when I was previewing who I would see at FarmFest. What I heard in the song “Revelation Sunday” inspired me to find them on YouTube, where I watched a few videos that only confirmed how good they are. Jeff Massey sounds like a cool guy yelling across the tool shed at 7 am because he thinks you misplaced his 5/8” box end wrench; at times his Gibson sounds like the idling engine of a 1978 Camaro; at other times it sounds like the same car peeling out; many songs inspire loud volume listening. A scan through the band’s archived tour schedule from the past decade is crazy; they seemingly play nonstop, with the breaks between shows probably reserved for travel time and limb recuperation.
Backstage I introduced myself to drummer Joe Winters as he broke down drum components. I told him I was an online writer, that I liked their work and I liked that they ended with an excellent version of “Boom Boom” by John Lee Hooker. I told him I read they played with Gov’t Mule and Buddy Guy and Wilco and a crowd of other national acts and how I thought that must be cool; Winters told me they recently opened for Tesla at the House of Blues and the New York Dolls at Double Door. He told me they toured Europe and were going again soon. I told him I was reviewing the fest and would mention them. Then I talked to Massey and told him how excellent I thought his guitar playing was during the whole show and how much I liked the John Lee Hooker ending. I got all three of them and the porta potty to poise for a very fine photograph and right as I was about to go catch the guys from Backyard Tire Fire, Winters appeared with a CD of a live performance Steepwater recorded at Double Door and also a copy of their just released album Clava. They were fantastic gifts.
I want to mention their latest album Clava because I listened to it like twenty times in six days. The first three songs compliment one another to make an excellent opening triptych (as a matter of fact I would encourage them to open some shows with these three back to back). Other songs on the album continue Massey’s punctuated riffs played under the influence of the previously described tones; and there is a divergent and reverberating song called “Bury the Burden Deep” that you must listen to loud and through headphones; it works. And it also shows how as a hard-working band they write with a spirit of diversity, because hard-working bands know diversity keeps multiple listener types engaged.
It was exactly the divergent and less guitar-centered songs on Clava that kept sending me back to my past. “What,” I kept thinking, “am I hearing?”
It took me a few days to get to the closing song “Meet Me in the Aftermath,” and when I listened to it, it triggered the synoptic connection. I was hearing Paul Westerberg on Pleased to Meet Me (1987), an album I once totally liked and listened to on cassette tape. So the leap from Chicago Farmer to Steepwater continued to The Replacements. Excellent. I don’t know where you live, but if it’s somewhere, probably Steepwater’s coming within range. See them live, that’s how they best like playing. Add a few tunes or all of Clava to your digital music rotation, because the album will make you pedal your mountain bike harder.
Miles Nielsen and the Rusted Hearts, I did not get to meet you due to the storm that blew up and threatened the entire festival right after your set, which was when I planned to say hello. Most of what I found of you online involved your quest to find backers to pledge for the vinyl album you want to record. Even as great as it will be, I believe your album will be an arrow pointing towards the requirement that you are seen and heard live. On stage there’s movement, microphone switching, instrument switching, songs that climb upwards to stop at little cabins so everyone can catch up, and then when everyone’s accounted for you take them back outside and climb higher. I didn’t catch the name of the song, but you have one with lyrics: “…if I go, crawling back to you, would you take me as I am, or would you take me for a fool…” That song is like looking at a small, sturdy oak tree. You see it’s a good tree, and you imagine how given the right conditions, it could be huge.
Your lineup was right on, giving you the advantage of five talented musicians offering five points of view on the same thing. And then you said goodnight. And left the stage. And then a minute later you all came back on. “Sorry,” you said, noting that you actually had more time. So you just picked up your instruments and at the same exact time burst into the next song like there had been no interruption. And finally at the end, Miles put down his guitar and picked up the microphone, stand and all. He said since it was a festival, he’d end with a true festival closer. I swear when he began to sway about the stage like a man on rough seas I guessed it. They closed their set with Joe Cocker’s festival megastar version of The Beatle’s “With a Little Help from My Friends.” It was so cool, and Miles was a notch more coherent than Cocker (no disrespect, Joe) while his band was note for note alive and raw with the song, even immaculately singing the high parts. Those who weren’t present will have no way to appreciate the whole-band genius that I am describing.
Backyard Tire Fire was scheduled to perform next (sorry if, when I met you, I offended you with the comment about your tiny piano; please know I like the Kink.FM performance of “Good to Be.” The tiny piano apparently stuck out. It was something I felt comfortable referencing when I introduced myself. You told me it was played by Steve Berlin from Los Lobos. Sometimes I’m ridiculous).
But Backyard Tire Fire didn’t play because of the stereostrobic forboding of an approaching storm. A dark mountain, from which came thunder and light, appeared in the west and moved towards Kinsman; people got glued to the satellite images on their hand-held internet interfaces, Amanda didn’t want to stay any longer, and Nick LeRoy came on stage and told us not to panic but that they were covering the stage equipment because of the coming storm so a little bit after 10:00 pm Amanda and I headed out to the truck (with an order of gravy fires from Ezra’s Chameleon Kitchen to eat) and then begin the drive home, staying just ahead of the storm (I did hear that Herbert Wiser Band, the festival closers, got to play a bit after the storm in the garage and that it was a good time).
If you’re up for a great time, if you want to drop in for a day, or lounge through the weekend in a tent pitched at a beautiful grain farm environment while great bands play, then periodically google “FarmFest 450 2012″ to see if Nick LeRoy has the energy and inspiration to put on the festival for the fourth year. I hope he does. The location is a prime spot for a festival and the bands that he’s connected with are hard-working regionals worthy of catching live.