Thomas Wolfe said, “You can’t go home again.” I think what he meant was that when you return to the place of your roots years later the changes in that environment mean that it will never really be the same. My journey to Iowa for Camp Euforia is the epitome of this statement. Ten years ago a then local band bought ten kegs of beer, set up a modest stage, and put on an event forever known as the “Euforquestra Fan Appreciation Party.” For some unknown reason they asked me to be the Master of Ceremony. The concert consisted of a handful of Iowa City acts and around 200 music fans. Everything was free including beer and food. A decade later this event endures having evolved into a full blown two-day festival with both nationally touring and homegrown bands on the bill. Many of these bands have performed as Summer Camp throughout the years as well. They asked me to return this time as the official festival video producer. We culled together a small group of young, passionate videographers to help me with my endeavor and along the way we shot over thirty hours of content. Thusly I didn’t have much time to take stills; nonetheless I managed to snap a few shots on the farm.
I arrived Thursday prior to the start of Camp Euforia 2013 and set up my tent in Robert and Ritaville. Rob and Rita were and continue to be the honorary patriarchs of the musical scene in Iowa City. In college they could be found at most shows mingling with the students, music fans, and bar flies alike. They have always camped in the front lawn of the farm and that corner of the fest has since earned that prestigious moniker. The farm itself is a sprawling space of manicured grass and structures owned by festival promoter/founder Jerry Hotz. Together with Eric Quiner (former Euforquestra keyboardist) they have shepherded this event for ten years. Camp Euforia has resided here since the very beginning. Surrounded three hundred and sixty degrees by corn and soybean fields that stretch to the horizon, this is truly an Iowa landscape. The improvements to the amenities and infrastructure from that first year are immediately apparent. Gone are the truck beds and dilapidated barn that served as the various stages in the beginning and in its place is a professional setup rivaling any festival digs in the Midwest. The second stage has been built in the second barn that ten years ago was a dirt-floored hazard. Now complete with it’s own sound and light rig, it is yet another bastion of music in this palatial panorama. They have a quaint spot set up in front of the barn for late night acoustic jamming. Perhaps the biggest improvement this year is the massive bar they constructed opposite of the shed stage and made from salvaged wood panels giving it that classic Iowa look. The vibe at Camp Euforia is one of an extended family reunion. Everyone looks somewhat familiar. For an ex-Iowa City-ian I had numerous reconnections throughout the fest.
Camp Euforia is a unique experience by any standard. Perhaps the most compelling of which besides the locale is the fact that throughout both days there are no overlapping sets of music. Thursday was full of proficiently frenzied preparations that culminated with an extended sound check by Euforquestra for the crew and festival guests. Their crew is one of the best in the business and includes many who have been working this festival for years. Camp Euforia began in earnest on Friday afternoon with The Candymakers. This band is an uplifting breath of fresh soulful air steeped in quality musicianship and irreverent absurdity. They are a throwback to the days when Motown and R&B ruled the radio waves. Decked out in polyester suits the band played an hour of powerful original tunes. At one point lead singer Al Sweet spouted off about riding a unicorn into the sunset. I found out later this is an improvised segment to one of their original tunes. They have been well regarded in blues circles in the Midwest, but it is their vibrant soul that really got my attention. Their song “I Wanna Dip You In Chocolate” was a true highlight. They rounded out their set with a robust rendition of The Beatles, “Oh Darling.”
An unexpected schedule change put Pert Near Sandstone on the main stage next. They have a solid brand of string music, which they have been diligently spreading across the country for several years now. Hailing from Minneapolis this quintet deserves to be recognized for their contribution to Midwest bluegrass. From their humble beginnings as a boozy pick session, Pert Near Sandstone has blossomed into a full-blown bluegrass experience. Their set at Camp Euforia was truly impressive and a great way to get the fest into full swing.
A blast from the past came in the form of Public Property in the barn. PP came up around the same time as Euforquestra in Iowa City. In fact their festival Exodus was a huge influence on the nascent beginnings of Camp Euforia. They played their harmony-backed brand of Roots Rock Reggae led by singer songwriter Dave Bess. Dave continues to play select Public Property dates, but primarily performs as a solo artist. Their set was jam packed with classic PP with Matt Wright and sitting in on keys and Adam Grosso on bass. They were a lot of fun and another wonderful addition to the hometown lineup.
A funksplosion occurred in the form of Dumpstaphunk. This heavily anticipated act is brimming with talent, which includes Ian and Ivan Neville (heirs to the NOLA funk scene), Tony Hall, Nikki Glaspie, and Nick Daniels III. Nikki who is the most recent addition to the group is a monster on the kit and one who definitely commands attention. They eased into the show building their songs organically with lots of collaboration. It was like entering the Church of Funk and getting an hour and half sermon. They are one of if not the best funk band touring today, and they sounded magnificent live. They primarily performed originals, however they closed out their time at Camp Euforia with an incredible version of “One Nation Under A Groove.”
Dead Larry played an hour and fifteen minute set of vibrant rock before Euforquestra took to the stage with their original lineup. This was a reunion born out of necessity. Their current drummer Craig Babineau hyper extended his shoulder so they have had a rotating cast of percussionists filling in for him in his absence. Original drummer Jos Foley suggested getting Matt Grundstad, Ryan Moris-Jeter, and Eric Quiner back in the mix for a set of classic Euforquestra. What followed was the most heartwarming and compelling Euforquestra show in quite some time. For fans that have witnessed the growth of this group, this lineup was the most cohesive of its versions. The current lineup is solid but there is something utterly nostalgic and touching about seeing these seven back together again. Even many including myself. Their two-hour set was a nod to an earlier time with spectacular renditions of “Sea Miner,” “Penny,” and “Naive Melody.” They even referenced some of their early theme shows with “Life During Wartime” and a “Pure Imagination” jam from their Charlie and The Chocolate Factory show. They encored with a powerful “Tramba.”
Family Groove Company started the late night festivities in the barn immediately following Euforquestra’s encore. They shredded late into the evening eventually wrapping up around 2 AM. They invited Chris and Wavy from Cornmeal to sit in, which was their initial appearance as the festival’s first ever artists at large. They played a stellar version of “Subterranean Homesick Blues” as well. I opted to call it a night as Dave Zollo was starting on the small stage and playing until the wee hours. Dave Bess also played a solo acoustic set.
The sun came up early, immediately turning my once shade covered tent into a burning furnace. I took it as an opportunity to get an early start and continued with my duties as the festival video producer. The music of the day started at 10:30 AM with coffee with the Grosso Family Band. Adam Grosso comes from a musical ilk and his family band included his brother and father on guitar and vocals, his mother on the upright bass, and Adam himself on kit. It really did feel like a spiritual family gathering as the Family Band went through a flurry of covers. Playing everything from The Beatles to traditional bluegrass, this Camp Euforia tradition was a welcomed start to the day. The highlight was a spot on version of “Man Of Constant Sorrow.”
Maximilian Eubank played a solo acoustic set on the main stage. Max has been a member of the Euforia family since the beginning. He played a lot with Mike Tallman in their high school days and continues to perform live, mostly in Des Moines where he currently resides. His sound is a punch you in the face acoustic detonation. Utilizing hip-hop lyrical hooks combined with stunning strum-heavy guitar riffs, Max made for a great live experience. His set included an awesome version of Widespread Panic’s “Climb To Safety” as well as an impeccable mash up of his original “Chemical Imbalances” and Martin Sexton’s “Hallelujah.”
The day was chocked full of local acts including Chasing Shade from Iowa City. The members of the band have headed up the Green Team at Camp Euforia for the last few years. After their dedication they were finally asked to play a set at the festival. Last year they diverted over 800 pounds of compost from landfills and this year they continued their hard work. Their music has a bluesy rock feel and they were definitely entertaining. Next on the main stage was The Breaker Brother Band. Comprised of highly regarded musical educators, many of who gave lessons to the members of Euforquestra in the early days. They are primarily a cover band, but the better description would be that they are paying homage to the music that sparked their passion for teaching and performing. Amazing versions of Santana’s “Black Magic Woman” as well as Eric Clapton’s “White Room.”
Recently off their performance at Summer Camp, Zeta June was on the lineup in the barn. They are a young group of musicians, with a heavy sound, and a commanding stage presence. They did a massive cover of “Comfortably Numb” during their 60-minute slot. Des Moines favorites Mr. Baber’s Neighbors and The Solar String Band, which included Mike Tallman on mandolin, represented the first bluegrass band of the day. Tallman joined the band when he was 19 and continues to play with them from time to time. They focus on a traditional styling, with an original twist. Lead by Jeff Blanchard who looks like a grizzled vet from Ice Road Truckers. He was actually very nice and spoke eloquently about the music scene in Iowa and Camp Euphoria, which they have performed at numerous times. They are absolutely some astonishing homegrown Iowa pickers, so check them out if you find yourself in that neck of the woods.
I spent much of the afternoon wrapping up interviews so I missed Fire Sale and The Uniphonics. I’m almost exaggerating with the term “missing” as the music from all of the stages is completely audible from anywhere onsite. The Pimps of Joytime hit the main stage around 5:30 and annihilated the audience with their funky assault. Blending elements of blues, jazz, rock, soul, and electronic music with their funk-focused sound the Pimps Of Joytime are a sight to see. They emerged from the murky waters of Brooklyn and have bounced around the country and festival circuit spreading their stellar approach to live music. Two incredible female vocalists and percussionists flank Brian J their bandleader; their show was a non-stop blast to the senses.
Finally it was time for the heavily anticipated Greensky Bluegrass. These guys tour relentlessly. They basically made a pit stop at Camp Euforia after playing Red Rocks the previous evening and heading to Forecastle Music Festival in Kentucky for a Sunday night show. What band does that? They wadded into the show with “Double Overtures.” Their set felt like going to an extended picking session around the campfire.
The regaled the audience with an almost silly version of John Hartford‘s “Steam Powered Aeroplane” again with Chris and Wavy from Cornmeal.
“It’s good to find brethren every once in a while… like the good, Midwestern, shit-talking, diesel drinking kind of people that Cornmeal are.” –Anders Beck
Greensky also did a bluegrass breakdown on String Cheese Incident’s “Can’t Stop Now,” before they closed with “Atlantic City.” Greenksky always pleases whenever they play live and I’m happy that they went the extra miles to peform at Camp Euforia.
Michiganders Ultraviolet Hippopotamus stormed the barn stage prior to Euforquestra’s final headlining set. On Saturday they performed with the regular lineup minus Craig who was replaced by Tallgrass’s Adam Morford on kit and Robert Espe on sax. Songs like “Wasted” and “Free” invigorated the crowd who was out in full force for this set. With around 800 people in attendance the farm looked its fullest at this point. Maximilian Eubank and Eric Quiner sat in for one of Max’s originals. The highlight of the show was Kim Dawson’s appearance for most of the second half of the set. She adds a vibrancy and beauty to Euforquestra’s wide-ranging sound. It was a solid show that rounded out the festival nicely.
The late night was filled with some rowdiness from That 1 Guy, Jaik Willis, and Tallgrass. The fans stayed up late and partied hard not wanting this great event to end. There was a combined energy of joy in the air as this special festival came to a close. It was like the end of a family reunion where no one really wants to go back to their day-to-day. Camp Euforia is unique to say the least and deserves to be recognized as such. In an era of cookie-cutter festivals Camp Euforia stands out in the crowd.
Stay tuned for the multitude of video I will be sharing on Camp Euforia’s Facebook page. – https://www.facebook.com/campeuforia