Story: Natty Morrison & Anand Harsh
Photos: Aaron Engler
Each and every Memorial Day weekend, the heartiest music-lovers from the Midwest and beyond descend upon Three Sister’s Park in Chillicothe, IL for the annual Summer Camp Festival. While Californians can have outdoor festivals in the middle of February, it don’t work like that in the heartland. Summer Camp is the ostensible start of festival season for thousands of entertainment-starved ruffians who have been buried under a sheet of ice a foot thick for the past couple of seasons. This is their chance to stretch their legs and go run around doing something stupid. That’s not to say that weather isn’t iffy this time of year, still, because it certainly turned out that way. But Scampers make do.
It’s also a chance for lovers of new and diverse sounds to get turned onto something different by the fine people of Jay Goldberg Events, who have certainly shown that they know what’s up since 2001. This year’s Summer Camp marked the greatest percentage of electronic acts the festival has ever seen, ranging from the Campfire Stage, to the 312 Vibe Tent, on up to the main Starshine and Moonshine stages. Acts big and small either cemented their name in the scene, or made a number of attendees turn to one another and say, “Who the hell is that? They’re awesome!” Sure, artists like STS9, EOTO, Big Gigantic, Skrillex, and Bassnectar had amazing sets and lived up to their hype, but we were just as impressed with the breakout acts—folks who had something to prove, and nailed it.
This year marked our fifth collective venture to Summer Camp, and every year it has gotten progressively hotter. And we don’t mean, “Oh brah, this band is so hot…It’s practically fire!” we mean “Oh brah, this sand is so hot…Oh wait this is fire!” The nice thing about this year was the cool, breezy, and overcast weather. Granted, we were evacuated from pre-festival setup on Wednesday evening due to a torrential downpour and tornado warnings. And granted, we were all evacuated to a high school gym. And granted, high school basketball practice was going on (Go Grey Ghosts!). But none of this could ruin the absolutely gorgeous temps that dominated the weekend: highs that never topped the 70-degree mark. That is, unless you count sleeping outside in 40-degree weather. Let’s say the chilliness of the nights was a mild bummer. And then the storms came again on Sunday and tried to wash us all away. Tornado warnings damn near put the kibosh on Huey Lewis—unacceptable!
Through it all, though, Summer Camp organizers remained sunny and upbeat, running around fixing this and that, throwing tarp over speakers, and playfully putting rain-themed mixes on the loudspeakers during sets delayed by drizzles (think lots of Blind Melon and covers of Johnny Nash’s “I Can See Clearly Now”). During scarier moments, security officials obliged rain-soaked fans by letting them seek shelter in staging areas and VIP sections. The real heroes of the weekend weren’t the bands or DJs, but the volunteers and the staff who made sure that while the grounds looked like the swamps of Dagobah, the spirits of the festival goers were not dampened.
Electronic artists started popping up after nightfall on Thursday. Within minutes of Digital Tape Machine’s late-night set in the Barn, one thing became abundantly clear: this is Kris Myers’ band. The Umphrey’s McGee drummer pushes and pulls the rhythm wherever he sees fit. Dropping IDM, tech-house, hard-house, drum and bass and even a few dubstep beats, Myers seemed to determine every direction in which the jams would head. It’s strange to so quickly declare him the leader, as the group is certainly not short on musical talent. Keyboard wizards Joel Cummins from Umphrey’s and Joe Hettinga provide lush textures and Land of Atlantis guitarist Dan Rucinski wrote nearly every song in the supergroup’s catalog. But in the end it is Myers who gives the songs a hard, rhythmic edge that effectively separates them from many of their livetronica peers.
Over in the 312 Vibe Tent, The Polish Ambassador kicked off his salacious and sexy dance party. All dressed up in his vintage Swiss ski suit, David Sugalski juked and jived with his retro-funk beats and his outrageous hip-hop grooves. He had the crowd eating out of his sweaty hand. Throwing out remixes, backing up with slo-jamz, hyping the crowd with up-tempo bangers—TPA was playing with people’s emotions. He had that poor crowd coming and going, begging for more. The craziest part was when he mentioned to us in passing before running off to catch a flight to New York, “Yeah, man, it’s cool… you know I only really started playing out last year…” What? This quintessential performer, with six albums to his name, the most recent, Future Sex Computers, out now on 1320 Records, has been performing live for less than 20 months. Unbelievable.
Before taking off, Sugalski got the chance to catch a bit of Future Rock in the late-night barn. It’s been interesting over the years watching this Chicago trio grow and evolve. When we first came across them some five years ago, they seemed to be an effective, if not predictable, New Deal tribute band. Sure, they had their own individual style, but in the genre of livetronica music, style doesn’t necessarily make you stand out. So when Future Rock took the stage late Thursday night in the Barn, we were taken aback by how much these guys rock. Not in a hyperbolic sense, either, we mean they played like a goddamn rock band. There were Quaalude Thunder drum fills and cymbal crashes galore from drummer Darren Heitz, and keyboardist Mickey Kellerman found some way to turn synth blasts into a wall of guitar distortion. Bassist Felix Moreno took his usual spot, one leg up on the monitors, in full rock-star splay, but this time there was a bit more head banging onstage, and a few more rock horns thrown up across the crowd. Being from Chicago gives Summer Camp a bit of a homey feel for the band. The crowd responded with enthused appreciation at the sweat sacrified by the hard-working hometown heroes.
Future Rock’s Saturday afternoon set featured some repeats from the Thursday night set for the fans who couldn’t make the pre-party. Crowd favorites from their latest EP Nights like “Ode to a Droid” and the title track (featuring vocal support from Van Ghost’s Michael Berg) got the late-afternoon, rain-delayed set hopping. As the sun broke free during the former cut’s dubstep breakdown, Moreno got the crowd doing a synchronized hip-hop chop. That’s what it’s called, right?
Certainly the breakout artist of the year is Papadosio. In such a short amount of time, this Asheville-based quintet (now with the addition of live producer Nala, brother of keyboardist Billy Brouse) has broken wide open, reeling in fans from both the worlds of electronica and jam. Thursday night’s heater set featured big bad bass from Rob McConnell, who took advantage of the powerful acoustics in the Red Barn to turn up the subs. Lead singer, and guitarist-producer Anthony Thogmartin shined brightest on Saturday afternoon with his silky vocals riding waves of ambient goodness. The outdoor set took the edge off of the brutish battery, and let the three-headed melodic masters come out and play. There is no telling what lies in store for Papadosio, but the five-piece is most definitely on the upward arc of their career.
Probably the biggest electronic surprise of the festival was Daedelus’s noon set on the Starshine Stage. Alfred Darlington may have not had the prime slot for an electronic extravaganza, but you would have never guessed. Limbs flailing as wildly as his genres, Daedelus dropped some of the smoothest beat scene beats, jazziest glitch-hop, and filthiest dubstep of the entire weekend. Fans were mesmerized by his precise deployment of drops and what appeared to be some sort of controlled chaos behind the monomer. Kids were exploding out of their tents, pulling up their pants, and rubbing the sleep out of their eyes trying to figure out who/what was making these sounds. Friday’s early-morning arrivals were dragging their possessions down the main thoroughfare with their jaws dropped, as sober, bright-eyed, and bushy-tailed fans crammed the third biggest stage for Daedelus’s official coming out party. He’s been embraced in the Chicagoland scene, playing late-night after-parties for Umphrey’s New Year’s runs, but this set, at this time of day, on this slot… Mr. Darlington was the darling of the ball. Look for bigger and better spots next year. Guaranteed.
It’s taken Lotus some time to get to where they wanted, but after their Friday evening set on the main stage, it was apparent that they have arrived. The notion of playing instrumental live electronic music, or “jamtronica,” as it’s become known amongst the scenesters, can be tricky; the New Deal obviously nailed it, but it can be difficult to keep listeners engaged. During the group’s entire set we couldn’t help but notice the fists bursting into the air from fellow listeners, all of them on cue with every change. It was as though they had figured out a way to write sing-along songs without ever saying a word.
Friday night belonged to DJ Thibault. With banging electro somewhat underrepresented at Summer Camp amidst the predominantly Chicago-based dubstep zombies (don’t get mad, we’re the same way), Brooklyn-via-Austin’s Tibaut Bowman took the stage at the 312 Vibe Tent as a man on a mission. Backed by a dandy LCD screen run Herm Productions’ Alex Schneider and Brent Nixon (who snatched them up from Pretty Lights), DJ Thibault sweated the crowd out with pounding beats and huge synth washes. Not tied exclusively to bangers, Bowman slipped in some funky house and some glitchy interstitial sections, but the highlight was the unveiling of his brand new “Air Jaws,” a dangerous beast full of thumping bass and earsplitting downbeats. People are right about Texas, everything is bigger!
As the Asheville, North Carolina glitch-hop group Two Fresh began its Saturday afternoon set, chants of “Swag! Swag! Swag!” echoed across the Starshine Stage. They certainly deserved it. We were first introduced to Two Fresh as a late-night party act a couple years ago, and since then they’ve turned from an underground beat band to an insane, high energy, glitchtastic live group. For lack of a better word, they’re fucking Swag. And as the trio, made up of twin brothers Sherwyn and Kendrick Nichols and live drummer Colby Buckler, finished its electrifying hour long set to an electro rendition of the Cheers theme song, we couldn’t help but feel like Ted Danson was smiling from above. Wait, Ted Danson’s not dead. We meant it metaphorically. We repeat: Ted Danson is not dead.
If Daedelus took the cake for breakout performance, then MiMOSA has just plain arrived. The two performances put on by Tigran Mimosa were well beyond his 24 years. The young dubstep prodigy maced the crowd with bombastic drops and soul-crushing bass. Only stopping to yell “Make some motherfucking noise!” MiMOSA bobbed and weaved, throwing down bass bomb after bass bomb, hitting the crowd with tracks from his new EP 58 Degrees, as well as bass-driven hits like MartyParty’s “Bee My Fucking Boyfriend” remix and some well-placed Odd Future choruses. The youth came out in full force, jamming their way into the Starshine Stages circle, pushing back past the outer ring of vendors into the crisp night air. When he was done laying down a hurting on the crowd, he packed up his gear, and moved over to the Vibe Tent for a late-night bass crusade that lasted into the wee hours of the early morning. You could tell which fans had witness the previous night’s atrocities, and bruised and battered kids staggered around Sunday morning with smiles half-plastered on their faces.
The big acts delivered. Skrillex was a monster, Bassnectar was life changing, and EOTO crushed it, as they normally do, even after hopping a private jet when their flight was cancelled on the way in. However, Summer Camp breaks artists in the Midwest, and a whole new generation of electronic music fans was exposed to the new crop of superstars. Look for these names at the top of the bill in the coming years. And don’t forget to pack a poncho.
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