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If there was one place where the Underground Christian Rock scene called home it was Cornerstone. On a large farm near Macomb, IL I spent a few 4th of July weeks of my youth listening to hundreds of bands. The last time I went to the festival was nearly 9 years ago.
As a kid whose parents were saved as part of the Jesus Movement, I went to Cornerstone in Grayslake, IL at the fairgrounds sometime around 1990. I was too young to have enjoyed any of the bands though. Before I went to Cornerstone I went to Jesus Midwest a few times. It was another festival with Jesus Movement era CCM artists such as Matthew Ward.
Around 1995 I started to get into bands like The Prayer Chain, Steve Taylor, MxPx and Poor Old Lu. In 1996 in the summer before high school I got a youth leader and three friends together and organized a trip to Cornerstone. Our youth leader had drummed for a few different Christian alternative bands, so he was happy to take us back to his old stomping grounds.
It was a blast seeing a ton of bands you would never see anywhere else like Saviour Machine. I bought a Crux T-shirt that I ended up losing. I also saw Joy Electric have a terrible time with their live show. I also got autographs from Value Pac, whose singer wrote about not having a girlfriend, when he didn’t seem to have any problem having girl fans. Around that time Christian ska or skacore was also starting to take off. It was a very different time because they had moshpits and stage diving and a girl I knew broke her ankle in the MxPx moshpit on the main stage.
Every year since my last visit I have the habit of looking at the Cornerstone lineup and guessing how many bands I know of. Usually I only know maybe a third of the bands and a lot of them are hardcore. What is different now is they didn’t used to allow heavy bands on the main stage. It was more for CCM mainstream acts such as Jars of Clay, Sixpence None the Richer, PFR, DC Talk, etc. What you find know is Underoath on the main stage with a band not considered to be a Christian act such as Shiny Toy Guns. So somewhere in the last 10 to 15 years there’s been a shift in which type of bands they allow.
The best thing about Cornerstone in those days was the community. You could go there with a group of friends and it was such a blast to hang out. What separates Cornerstone from a Warped Tour or Woodstock is that I wouldn’t want to camp out with those people. Could I even trust my stuff would be there if I walked away from my tent? Most of the Cornerstone people are church kids and so there is a sense of family with other Christians. A lot of the people there can be really polite. And what a lot of the punk and hardcore kids would find there is a place to belong if only for one week out of the year. It was also great to meet the musicians who seem more like regular people sitting at the tables in the merch tents.
The festival has always been about high school kids. In fact so much so that they sent out surveys asking about when the high schools went on summer break in my area. The date has remained around the 4th of July for some time despite the heat every year. Although the ticket prices have jumped up significantly in that time. I think it was around $60 or $70 the first time I went and it’s at least $130 at the gate. Unfortunately, it seems like no matter how high they raise the prices they say they never make any money. With bands charging a fortune for their appearance I can believe that.
I avoided going back to the festival because I don’t want to feel sad about leaving all those memories behind. Honestly, the thought of camping out in the heat to see bands I’m not crazy about doesn’t get me motivated to drive down there. If you think about gas being $4.50 a gallon this summer the cost of the trip with admission for someone from my area is $250 and that does not include any food. With the increase in gas and ticket prices it makes me wonder how long the festival can go on.
I’m sure there will always be some form of a Christian Rock scene as long as there are Christians. Cornerstone and the friends from those days have gone and passed me by. But the one thing I still hold dear is the memories of praying for a guy who got hurt in a Living Sacrifice most pit or taking a dry shower at the Macomb Wal-Mart. Warped Tour or any other secular music festival can never compare to the glory days of Cornerstone Festival because those festivals don’t have any sense of Christian community.