In Praise of the Cornerstone Festival
by Wendy Lee Nentwig | June 6, 2012
Maybe it's a sign of the apocalypse. Maybe it's just a sign of the times. Either way, the Cornerstone Festival is gasping its last few breaths. In May 2012, organizers announced that this iconic alternative-Christian gathering will come to an end after this year's edition in July. At least they're planning to go out with a bang.
From its humble beginnings in 1984 (when it drew a crowd of 5,000 to a small fairground outside Chicago) to its '90s heyday and continuing presence at Cornerstone Farm in Bushnell, Illinois, this has been an event like no other. It became a sort of Christian Woodstock with a harder edge, complete with copious amounts of mud (why does it always rain at music festivals?), unwashed music fans, and rows and rows of those dreaded port-a-potties.
Cornerstone started as a labor of love that grew out of Jesus People USA's Cornerstone magazine and Resurrection Band. The initial goal was to provide a festival that showcased quality alternative-Christian music that wasn't getting recognition at more mainstream Christian festivals. It's never been a money-making proposition; instead, it's staffed year-round by members of JPUSA's Covenant Church, who volunteer their time, live together communally, run one of Chicago's largest homeless shelters and do not receive a paycheck.
Cornerstone quickly gained a reputation for launching artists and drawing bands that usually wouldn't be caught dead at Christian gatherings. There were also more piercings and tattoos per capita than usual. Sure, many of these modified bodies belonged to suburban dwellers engaging in a little "rebellion lite," but it still made for a refreshingly diverse crowd that isn't always the norm in evangelical circles. Meanwhile, bands like Sixpence None the Richer, MxPx, P.O.D. and Jeremy Camp played Cornerstone before they hit it big. Others, like Pedro the Lion and One Bad Pig, wouldn't necessarily fit in or feel comfortable at more squeaky-clean Christian fests.
The unique lineups and unsigned-artist stages aren't the only things that set Cornerstone apart, though. The speakers and hands-on approach to the arts were also always wonderfully left of center. Between music sets, this year's festivalgoers will have the opportunity to attend workshops like "Build Your Own Cigar Box or Found Object Guitars with Glenn Kaiser," "Wool Drop Spindle Spinning," "Art Journaling," "Yarn Bombing," "Poetry Slam" and "Packing Tape Sculptures." I think I can say with certainty you won't find that mix anywhere else this summer.
Of course, Cornerstone is really all about the bands. Those already confirmed to play Cornerstone 2012 include The Echoing Green, 77s Unplugged, Ashley Cleveland, Run Kid Run, The Violet Burning, The Farewell Drifters, Norma Jean, The Blamed and more. Not bad, considering many of these acts are paying their own way: Perennial Cornerstone faves The Choir posted a note on their Facebook page, asking fans if they thought they should play this year, despite the $700-$800 they'd need to pull from their own pockets to cover gas, food and lodging. They received more than 100 responses, almost unanimously in the affirmative.
Cornerstone's final run will take place July 2-7 -- a six-day pass (Monday-Saturday) will set you back $120-$125, or $95-$100 if you're part of a group. Single-day tickets run $40. For those who can't make it out to Cornerstone Farm for the fond farewell, other fests - including Creation Northeast, Creation Northwest, Atlanta Fest, Spirit West Coast and newcomers like Cantinas -- are ready and waiting to fill the music gap. But it's a big one.