My Day With Cornmeal
Words and Pictures by Rex Thomson
Writing this review of the Taste of Bloomington Festival, held last Saturday, June 19th, and the Cornmeal show directly following it Underscored a very important thing to me…I love my life. Let me please get that out of the way first and foremost. I may not have much by the way of regular riches, but the money I could swim like Scrooge McDuck through the money vaults of my spiritual wealth, my soul dividends! If I was to describe my personal nirvana, it would read like a giant music festival, and be full of the bands I love and I would be surrounded with those I love, the music fans. The devout. My people; my tribe. And you could bet your life that Cornmeal would be playing on that imagined line up, and doing a late night to boot! Where ever you are in the world whatever you are doing, find a way to make it work for you. Life is short my friends. Too short to waste any time with things that you don’t like doing. Some things must be done, to be certain, like standing in line at the DMV(And then no having to be stopped by security and everyone else in line form going over the counter when I was told that my social security card was not valid! I mean I had my passport and my social security card and my old drivers license, and she still wouldn’t believe I was who I said I was!!! And then I…wait…Calm down…return to your happy place. You’re at a Cornmeal show….calm….Okay). Everything else is up to you. Speaking of life being too short, it’s definitely too short to miss a chance to see Cornmeal and three other acts play for a grand total of 11 dollars. Thems American dollars, by the way! Since a good Cornmeal show is worth way more than eleven dollars, even twelve dollars, and there are no bad Cornmeal shows, (Just shorter ones!) that are a hell of a bargain.
Speaking of getting things out of the way, for Journalistic integrity’s sake, let me state that when it comes to Cornmeal, I have no integrity. Okay, like, I have integrity, but no objectivity I suppose would be the proper way to put that. See, I’m a fan. Not just of their incredible live shows, or their genre bending songwriting, but of them as people. Meeting Cornmeal is not some big elusive thing, they are the friendliest band on the scene, almost to a fault! They sit around after shows, and gab with their well wishers, and do this for the finest of all purposes, to connect with their fans. Manys a time when I have seen bands come out after concerts and treat meeting their fans like a victory lap, charging egos on the unbridled enthusiasm of their fans, while remaining aloof and self involved, then jetting after they had their gullets stuffed, metaphorically speaking. Not so with Cornmeal, they are there to learn about you the fan, not to tell you of them , the band! As a fan of the band, I noticed a lot of the same faces at their shows, from Florida to Arkansas, and many places in-between. As with many bands on the music scene, they have built a core of fans, myself included, who will go to see them wherever and whenever they can. They call themselves Cornstalkers, because an internet search of the term Cornlovers was far to horrifying to describe here in this writing. Hell, I still get the heebie-jeebies thinking of what I saw. Is there a form of bleach you can use on your brain? Please tell me there is!
So, after answering a call on the red phone (The line that tells me of Cornmeal shows within a couple of hundred miles of home) I laid plans to be there, at all costs. It’s been like five weeks since my last show and the shakes were starting to make it hard to type. I passed the word to my friends not lucky enough o have red phones of their own, and started to get antsy with anticipation. Then, out of nowhere, I learned that this was to be a twofer, as Cornmeal was also going to be playing an earlier set, that same day, three blocks away. Rubbing my hands in my best Mr.Burns, evil anticipatory fashion, I made my plans, called all I could think of and a few numbers at random from the phone book and spread the word.
The city of Bloomington was celebrating its local cuisine and culture with a “Taste of Bloomington Festival”, which is a nigh perfectly named opportunity to sample foodstuffs and beverages from local restaurants and area confectioners. A perfect way to sample the vibe of a city, with a mixture of local and regional bands, the food of the city itself and its peoples gathered in one place at one time for one reason; to have a good time! It seemed like such a good idea that the sun itself, that pesky ball of fusion in the sky decided to turn its full attention on us. I know I have been in hotter places before, but wowee zowee was it hot! As I approached the Bluebird I saw a choice spot in front of the club. Upon careful studying of the rules of parking, I realized that the two hour limit on the spot would go beyond the five o’clock cut off and happily left my car four doors down from the club, in plain sight for free! A fine omen to start the day. I walked in the general direction and came across a cluster of easy ups around a government building, and figured “This must be the place!” Hi-yo! I walked around the booths marveling at the art work on display, and the fine craftsmanship involved in the various sculptures and such. Being an art buff, I was lost in wonder for a moment, then it hit me…There was no music! I asked the nearest artist where the stage was and he said “All the world’s a stage man!” Granted, metaphorically accurate, but I needed something a wee bit more concrete. So I found someone with a little more are knowledge and found that the “Taste of Bloomington” festival was a couple of blocks away. With the sun keeping me company, peeking at me through every window and around every corner I found the entrance and quickly got my hand stamp. When the helpful stampers saw my gear and asked me why I was there, they gave me a second, different handstamp, which I assumed to be some sort f media thing. Doing this photojournalist bit I have been given laminate cards, handstamps and one place had a monkey I had to carry around, to denote my being press. Though I miss Chauncey the Bonobos monkey, and still correspond with him often (Yo Chauncy! OOOk OOK my brother!) , I generally don’t like anything that obvious. But this stamp would prove to be the exception to the rule!
Sadly, I missed the waiter and waitress races. We have a similar race in my hometown of Louisville, and being a bartender, I love to see the server bartender war put aside for these things! The first band I got to see was hometown favorites, Coyaba, a reggae/world music band whose island beats fit the scorching temperatures perfectly. There is a fine line in my mind between embracing another cultures idiosyncrasies and exploiting them. That said, rather than being a bunch of white kids from the Midwest trying to sound like Caribbean troubadours, Coyaba came off as musicians in love with the open sound and skittle guitar riffs of island music, adding in a fierce percussionist named Laura. Though there were more prominent members, none stood out in the mix like she did; her variety of hand drums and percussion toys adding a depth and confidence that copy cat bands lack. In fact, that was the essence of my experience with them, their overwhelming realness. Coyaba may take their sonic influences from a far away land, but they make music in the here and now, and do it with honesty, which is all I ever ask from a band!
Upon the conclusion of their set, the band took refuge back stage to avoid the heat, a wise move that sadly I could not emulate. As a journalist, my gig is o cover the event, and you can’t do that hiding in the shade. But I was thirsty, and as I looked around for a water fountain or vendor I spied something that made my heart jump! There was someone drinking a glass bottle of Coca-Cola! An old school full size bottle of Coke! Rarely in my life have I ever coveted something that much. After he was assured I wasn’t trying to take his beverage, he bemusedly directed me to the local Mexican restraints booth, which made perfect sense. Mexico is a country that has coke exported to it in its original formula, well, okay, minus the cocaine, and is still sold in bottles. I bought on and had the longest, nostalgia inducingest drink ever. Then I was asked the question that would change my entire gastro intestinal day…”Would you like a taco?” I said no, as I was trying the whole, live on a budget thing for a change when he said “No…free!” handed me a taco on a plate. From the first bite I was in heaven. I thanked him and moved on. Taking pictures of the pizza booth, I spoke with the vendor and he pulled a pepperoni slice of the pie he had just removed from the onsite oven and plated it up and handed it to me! When I started to protest he was adamant about my trying it. Again, local made, and delicious. Next was the Chinese food booth, where I was presented an egg roll. A damn tasty egg roll. Finally I walked up to the last booth on the strip, a pita and hummus place. Accepting my obviously now standard free sample, I managed to get a few bites down as I was approaching my personal stuffed point, when the proprietor asked me how I liked it.
“It’s great”, I said, “But I’m so full!”
He smiled and said “Thanks, be sure to give me a good score. Hey, where’s your scorecard?”
It hit me instantly. All of these vendors had looked at my hand first, and seen my camera. They thought I was one of the judges or something! Since I am known for being quick on my feet I lied and promised him a top mark, and went away chuckling to myself. But the Karma wheel, it does turn, and I was faced with a near instant universe reckoning. My stomach made plain obvious that breaking my usual no food during super hot outdoor shoots rule was not a good idea. In fact, my stomach decided it may just be for the best to evacuate the area. Not wanting to throw up in a porta can in 100 degree weather, I started the long negotiation process with my stomach that we have all had at one time or another. For the record and as a warning, if you ever see me stock still lost in thought, I am probably arguing with the cymbal clanging monkeys that reside in my head, and probably should not be disturbed. Finally quelling the uprising, I wandered back over to the main stage, only to find out that another internal bet, that I wouldn’t see much by the way of dancing in all that heat was lost, as Polka Boy started up. Apparently the one thing more powerful that the sun is the power of the Polka!
There is a strong German population in Indiana, and the favored Teutonic Toonage is the accordion accompanied polka! No ordinary Polka tunes were theses, as they were also no ordinary polka-ists! A wide range of covers and influences were on display, from comical Lawrence Welk influenced intros and Tank yous, to the wild covers of songs , including a rip roaring cover of one of my recently overplayed old school favorites “Istanbul (Not Consantinople)” by They Might Be Giants! Their accordion players were top notch and went wireless, going out into the crowd, inspiring wild twirling dancing. An uproarious “Roll out the barrel” got about a hundred dancers going in nigh ridiculous heat.
The Polka boys set ended and it was time to get to it. The Cornstalkers, Ronnie, David and Jamie, Amber and the rest, along with me congregated near the front of the stage. The day before had been Allie’s Birthday, and I had earlier asked her if her celebration had been extreme. “It was a bit late” she said, “but I’m fine”. The tired smile belied the twinkle in her eyes at the prospect of taking the stage. She is a trooper, and a bouncing in place whirlybird dynamo from which Conmeal draws raw energy by the mega watt! I wondered to myself what sort of set we were in for. In all the times I have seen them, I have noticed a few trends, like day sets usually being a little more up-tempo, and night sets featuring long extended psychedelic jams. Trends are just that, and this set was a fine mixture of up and down tempo, of ebb and flow. There was even a long Psychedelic break. The Cornstalkers danced and swirled, Allie was presented with gifts of Bourbon and flowers from a comely fem photog, and there was much rejoicing. I have a practice I keep at Cornmeal shows, as I walk the crowd, shooting them from every angle conceivable (Still looking to be suspended from the lighting rigs!) where I seek out faces of folks whom I spoke with prior to the set. It’s fun to find folks who haven’t seen the band before, and then find them during the show, to see their reactions. Afterwards you will find them astounded, and in line to buy cds and shirts. Chris Gangi, the Bassist, got off luckiest at the day show, his side of the stage sheltered from the sun. He plucked and thumped away, his deep resounding tone providing an excellent counterpoint to JP Nowak ‘s precision drumming. An aside from a veteran of many shows, JP is quickly growing in power and presence. Many was the time I found myself lost in rhythmic slapping of the stage, keeping time along with him, feeling his passion thru his playing. Banjoist Wavy Dave Burlingame held forth with his slippery finger picking and his wry delivery of lyrics. His sideways smile says it all for him, he’s having a ball. JP’s brother Chris Nowak, gets an astounding variety of sounds from his guitars, from the natural acoustic tone, to full on Pink Floydesque explorations. When he pulls out a glass slide and start stretching notes to absolute limits, and pulling licks from seemingly thin air you wonder why you took so long to see this band, and when you can see them again! Then the deal breaker kicks in, the magic sparkplug, Allie Kral.
So talented is the band, that I at times find my attention riveted to a member as they launch into a solo or particularly tight auditory turn. And in those moments, the thing that shakes that spell is more often than not a long beauteous squeal of a violin being bowed by its mistress, a demon on the fiddle capable of stealing the soul of any would be step toer, Ms.Allie Kral! Attention is paid to her for so many reasons, her mastery of the violin, the gajillion candle light power smile, the glamour magazine beauty she embodies and her overall friendliness. But in the end she is sum of all those arts and so much more! After the set finished, the band, having blown minds and converted the few remaining first timers, hopped the bus and made the three block ride to the Bluebird, the night’s venue, and a wonderful bar in it’s own right. Walking back to the bar with a few of the Cornstalkers, I Hung in fornt f the venue, and watched the band and their soundman load in. Sitting and resting myself for the evening festivities, I noticed Allie wandering towards the bus. I called to her and she came and sat with us on the bench, greeting fans and well wishers, and sharing tales of the road and life. She even offered to step up her aid in a political endeavor I have under way, more on that to come another day.
As I sat, soaking up the love on display from both the fans and the artists I began to fell charged up, electric. I could feel the floor ground thump and pulse as if alive! Then someone walking past said “Hurry up, Fresh hops is starting!” Okay, good deal, I am not losing my mind! Allie went to eat with the band and I went to work, and what fun work it is! I get to see all kinds of bands at different stages in their careers, like the up and coming The Fresh Hops. They mix funk and soul with guitar jams, and have a bit of a merry prankster at the forefront on violin. Now, usually I feel sorry for any fiddler sharing a stage with Allie, but he trod the boards with a fun efficiency! The denseness f their sound bespoke a range of sonic possibilities, and I can’t wait for my chance to see them play a full show, so I can hear the explorations first hand!
Another thing I love about the bluebird is the proximity to the Home of Herm, hands down one of the best lighting men on the scene. Using a stack of computers and personalized programs, he becomes one with his equipment and the music. Seriously, that he is not like Lady GaGa’s light guy or something equally huge is beyond me, and I can’t wait for that day!
Now the stage was set, everyone was primed and the members of Cornmeal eyed each other tensely. From the crowd a yell of “Get to work” was heard, followed quickly by the follow up “Lazy rock stars” A smile spread on Allie’s face and they launched in to the opening of a 3 hour plus set, silencing me, I mean the random fan who had dared question their work ethic. The ebb and flow of a Cornmeal show is like an intimate encounter set to music, the set rises and falls, with moments of rest needed after instances of wild abandon. The crowd was in perfect tune, leaping into the air when the music quickened, swaying as if in a trance when they took on almost Middle Eastern droning tones and dancing arm in arm when the simple Bluegrass roots from which their sound was born shine through. I even caught the bartenders bobbing to the beat as they poured drink for the thirsty attendees. Two full sets later the show was winding up for a big conclusion. The band is fond of featuring a fun cover or two, but had kept the night free of most of that til this point, before pulling out Paul Simon’s ‘I know what I know” a personal fave cover by them, a perfect blend of band and song! As usual, I sang my voice raw, and danced till my knee wouldn’t bend. While the band took a much needed break before coming out for their encore, the foot stomping started. Those, like myself on the stage lip began beating in time. Someone had a pair of empty pitchers, and began beating them on the stage in time, adding staccato flourishes that rang above all. Wild mad energy was being unleashed, the pure love of a crowd wowed and begging for more! A rare two song encore followed, thankfully slightly less crazed than the set closer, keeping me from working myself into an emergency room visit state of exhaustion.
After the stage the band came out and sent a few minutes meting and greeting the sweat drenched remaining fans. Allie, all traces of tiredness gone from her smile radiated enrgy, and said “I think I could go for another hour!” I wish they had. The drive home took two hours, and I arrived at 5:30 in the morning, still sing along! It’s going to be about eight weeks til my next show, and it may sound crazy but that sound like an eternity! Oh well, at least the show was recorded! When that recording is published, we will do an update to this review and add a link. Til then, here’s a clip of Cornmeal Performing “I know what I know”.
And a here’s their appearance on CNN from their Atlanta show, opening for moe. And you better believe I was there for that!