Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Landmark Concert Anniversaries and such: A Reflection on some music of yesteryear.

It is remarkable that two significant concert anniversaries are about to transpire next week as the July 4th Holiday descends on us. That day will mark the 25th Anniversary of Mark Heard’s final live concert performance, the 20th Anniversary of perhaps the most memorable concert in the career of the fantastic 90’s band The Vigilantes of Love. It also will mark, though two days off, the 20th Anniversary of what would become Adam Again’s final concert. All three of these shows took place at the Cornerstone Festival in Illinois farm country outside of Chicago.

The Cornerstone Festival began in 1984 and was put on by Jesus People USA, a Christian community that emphasized the importance of the Church’s role in redeeming Creation. One of the biggest ways they promoted this message was to organize and put on the Cornerstone Music Festival every summer, generally centered around the days leading up to and just after the 4th of July Holiday. They often booked artists on the fringes of the Christian Music world, artists who may not have always been blatantly evangelistic in their lyrics, but were still open about being Christians making music.

Mark Heard was perhaps the definition of a Christian artist in that sense. His lyrics were never what most would consider worship, but they rang out strongly with a worldview that was very Christ focused. He had toiled in the fringes of Christian music, becoming a favorite songwriter of other songwriters including distinguished names like Bruce Cockburn and Bono from U2. That July 4th evening in 1992, when Heard took the stage for the Midnight set on the smaller Encore stage, he had just completed and released his 12th studio album titled “Satellite Sky.” Backing him up on accoustic guitar and harmonica was Pierce Pettis, and on vocals was Pam Dwindell Miner.

Heard played through a full 12 song set, complete with a lot of between song banter with the audience, said “Goodnight” and “God Bless” and exited to a standing ovation, where he collapsed into a chair suffering from a heart attack. Apparently he had not been feeling well during the end of his set, and had whispered to Pierce Pettis during a musical break that ‘I think I am having a heart attack.” Heard was known for his off-beat and snarky humor, and Pettis assumed he was joking. It was no joke sadly this time, and Heard was rushed to the nearby hospital, where he was diagnosed with severe artery blockage. The doctors decided Heard could be released and fly home to California where he should have heart surgery. Sadly, Heard would never make it back to Los Angeles, as he suffered a far more severe heart attack in his hotel room hours after being released from the hospital, leaving him in a coma that he would never come out of, passing away on August 16th, 1992.

That is why that concert, which we will commemorate the 25th anniversary of next week, is memorable. Video cameras were present that night at the Encore stage and captured rough footage of the show, which has since been released in audio form on CD, and here in this Youtube video.

Five years later to the day, at the same Cornerstone Festival, at the same time (Midnight) the best fringe band of the 90’s, The Vigilantes of Love, led by Bill Mallonee, took the stage to perform a full out rootsy rock and roll concert touring in support of their “Slow Dark Train” album.
The band kicked off into their set and were ramped up to full speed when the entire soundboard failed during their performance of “Black Crow” leaving them unable to hear their in-ear monitors or for their amplifiers to work properly. As the tech crew fumbled to repair the sound board and restore power to all of the equipment, band members Mallonee and bassist Chris Bland began telling stories and reading off a long list of thank you’s from the band. Then as power slowly began to be restored, the band reworked their set-list on the spot to accommodate some quieter, acoustic songs until all equipment was back up to full power. The band then proceeded to play for over two and half more hours, ending their show at just after 3am. Fans still regard this as the finest live concert the Vigilantes ever performed at Cornerstone, and having heard the bootlegs I can see why. It was a night that lives in immortality now as the both the band and the festival are no longer in existence (more on that last part a little later).

Couple of songs from that show (full show not available) here and here

Cornerstone 1997 also would mark the final concert from Christian Alternative Rock aficionados Adam Again, led by guitarist and songwriter Gene Eugene (real last name Androsco, though he never used it professionally). Eugene was instrumental to the southern California late 80’s alternative rock explosion, founding what was initially Broken Records, which later became Brainstorm Artists International (BAI). Through both his label, and his home/recording studio known as “The Green Room,”  alternative albums were produced and recorded over the next 12 years by Starflyer 59,  L. S. U., The Choir, The 77’s, The Lost Dogs, Fold Zandura, Plankeye, Dead Artist Syndrome and many, many, others. Eugene’s influence on 90’s fringe Christian art cannot be understated. His songwriting and lead vocals with Adam Again are still ranked as some of the best ever in rock and roll. In 1997, Adam Again played a late night set two nights prior the aforementioned Vigilantes of Love concert. Eugene actually had some amp and guitar issues throughout the show, but soldiered forward undaunted. Perhaps the most memorable part of the show is how during the encore performance of “So Long,” fans actually climb up on stage to dance around to the music. Eugene can be seen with a grin on his face as he sings the final verse, witnessing this all unfold, stating as he bid the audience goodnight, ‘hey, get off the stage, you bums!”

The stories go that soon after this performance, Eugene and bandmate Greg Lawless went back to The Green Room, where they demoed and jammed new material that they had hopes to use for the next Adam Again album. However, due to scheduling constraints and Eugene’s high demand as a producer, the band went on a hiatus, that ultimately became permanent in March of 2000, when Gene Eugene Androsco passed away from an undiagnosed brain aneurysm.

The Christian music world was stunned. Similar to when Mark Heard died, Eugene left a huge hole in the all important cult following world of the “Christian Music Underground.” The surviving members of Adam Again came to Cornerstone 2000 to pay tribute to Eugene. Various friends as diverse as Karin Berquist from Over The Rhine, Sim Wilson from Undercover, Michael Roe from The 77’s and Michael Knott from L.S.U., took turns singing lead vocals.

The Cornerstone Festival continued until 2012, when Jesus People USA chose to end the 28 year run of festivals, citing dwindling recent attendance, and increasing financial burden being the main causes. While I never had the chance to attend a festival, I had always hoped to one day be able to, and felt the sadness of knowing that that window of opportunity was now passed. As a Christian Music Historian I knew the importance this festival had had to the history of the genre, and their willingness to embrace the fringe artists was unprecedented. I couldn’t argue with the folks at JPUSA’s decision, as they are an organization that believes in helping the poor in Chicago and showing the light of Jesus to dark places. If putting on a music festival was hindering that, then they made the right decision.