I forgot that today was the first day of the Cornerstone Music Festival until a trending hashtag for #Cornerstone reminded me this morning. Assuming the hashtag was about the festival I used to love, I was surprised when I was greeted not with 140-character or less dispatches from a middle-of-nowhere field in Bushnell, Illinois, but chatter about a new live worship album by a prolific worship group from Hillsong, a church in Australia.
There was once a time when I would count down the days to Cornerstone’s first day, a time when overnight travel through Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois was filled with anticipation for a week in the July heat and the kind of camping where showers were hard to find and junebugs sometimes found themselves lodged in the ears of indie rock drummers. As a teenager and college student Cornerstone was the highlight of the summer and a source not only of a quarter of my wedding party but a place where the friendships made and deepened were as important as the discovery of a new band.
Cornerstone 2012 is the swan song for the festival that, according to a notice on their website, peaked in the years I made the trek. Birthed in a fairgrounds outside Chicago in 1984 by the inner city church and community known as Jesus People USA, the festival grew from 5,000 the first year to numbers in the ten thousands in the years I attended, only to dwindle down to the kind of numbers that have made continuing the annual event a financial impossibility for an organization whose primary focus is on serving the people of uptown Chicago.
Shortly after posting a message on Twitter sharing my sadness over the first day of the last day of the festival, I looked at the lineup of bands – something I used to do annually for some odd reason even when I ended up actually seeing very few bands – and noticed only a few holdovers from those heydays of the ’90s. Danielson of course is there along with names like the Violet Burning, Squad 5-0 and Glenn Kaiser, but so few other mainstays are on the list it’s not surprising that moments after my post on Twitter an account with the handle @CstoneWhiner and the tagline “Skipping cornerstone 2012. Nobody good is playing anyways” started following me. Maybe the time is just right for ending it, after all.
As fond as the memories I have of those summer trips to Bushnell, I couldn’t imagine going to the festival again. In fact, I haven’t felt the urge to go to the festival in almost a decade so in a way it’s comforting to know that Cornerstone will be preserved as a really awesome festival that used to be instead of just one of the way-too-many festivals that now happen in every corner of the country.
When I went to Cornerstone for the first time, I couldn’t discover bands online and I didn’t have five other music festivals less than a day’s drive away from which to choose. The fact that Cornerstone was faith-based and NOT Creation (now known as Creation Northeast) was even more of a reason to make the trip. Where my attendance at Creation was mainly romantically and socially motivated and involved seeing one or two concerts in four days, going to Cornerstone meant seeing bands I didn’t have to pretend I liked. It meant trading zines and meeting other zine editors, connecting with pen pals and meeting band members face-to-face after they played a show at a campsite with a generator.
The heat and the sound quality didn’t matter much to me then. I missed more good concerts than I saw most of the time because I was having too good of a time hanging out with friends I had made. Cornerstone was my Twitter, Facebook and iPhone all rolled into one. Saying this makes me feel old, particularly as I recall my first conversation with a good friend I still talk to on a regular basis while waiting in line for the payphone.
Now the thought of seeing even an incredible lineup like Wilco, Dr. Dog and Avett Brothers sours when I hear that it’s outside and look up the ticket prices. But back then I was willing to fork over four times that from my meager earnings as a college student and spend four days camping out in a corn field an 18-hour drive away. I’m not nostalgic for nothing looking back; it was a crazy time I will always look back on with fondness, appreciation and a little bit of arrogance as I quietly scold to myself a band I otherwise enjoy for stealing the festival’s moment on Twitter, an act that perhaps is an appropriate ushering in of a new era that unbenownst to too many (in the Christian world at least) Cornerstone played a part in making possible.