Summer Camp Music Festival: A Newbie’s Guide

The Summer Camp Music Festival happens every year on Memorial Day weekend, in the village of Chillicothe, IL (near Peoria). Even though it’s only two hours from us, we’ve never made the trek until this year. Better late than never, right? We thought we’d share our experience as newbies to this event.

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Are you new to music festivals in general? Check out our article, Your Guide to Having an Amazing Music Festival.

Summer Camp Tickets

Summer Camp is a three-day festival, but you can buy one-day passes for any of the days if you’re not planning to stay for the whole weekend. We got the 3-day general admission passes for about $250 each (plus fees). About a week before, I got an email “suggesting” that we buy pre-show passes to get in on Thursday, so we’d get a better choice of camping spots. There were a handful of bands playing Thursday too, so we decided to buy a pair of $55 passes to get in a day early. We’re glad we did, as it was much easier to get in on Thursday than Friday, and we got a decent parking spot. That’s important, since we converted our minivan to a camper, so our campsite was wherever we parked. (We’ll have a post about the minivan-camper in a few weeks.)

They also sell VIP passes at various levels. For the lowest level of VIP, you’ll shell out an additional $275 each, on top of the $250 general admission pass. For that price, you get a closer parking spot, a campground that’s closer to the main stages, VIP viewing areas, indoor bathrooms, a shower facility, access to the VIP lounge, and drink specials.

View from the soundboard at the Moonshine Stage

The Scene

If you’ve been to other jam-band music fests, you’ll be right at home at Summer Camp (or SCamp, as they often call it.) The music is what brings us all together, but the festival turns into a small community, complete with neighbors, strangers (some stranger than others, if you know what I mean), workers, and businesses. Here’s a little run-down of the Summer Camp atmosphere.

Summer Camp newbies!
Good morning, campers!

Summer Campers

As soon as we parked and got out of our van, we met a cool couple in the parking spot next to us. Coincidentally, we kept running into them at the various stages. About 18,000 people attended – what are the odds that we’d keep seeing the same two people? (Kelly and Adam, if you’re reading this, hi from Lisa and Tom!)

We also met a few people in the parking lot who needed some assistance, so maybe this section will help you to be better prepared for your next music festival. (See our article Music Festival Camping Guide – Tips and Gear for more.)

Our Minivan Camper

When we arrived, we had a chance to chill by the van, enjoy a beverage, and watch other folks move in for the weekend. One group had a wagon filled with stuff, but their gear was stacked so high that things would fall off every time they hit a bump or turned. Lisa said, “They need some duct tape.” We keep a roll in the van, so I brought it over and helped them tie their stuff down. At least three other groups needed the same help and were very grateful for the Good Samaritan with the “handyman’s secret weapon.”

Remember Where You Parked!

On the third day, we saw a guy carrying a small 2×4, wandering around looking for something. Turned out, he forgot where he parked his motorcycle. Because of the rain, he was worried that the kickstand would sink into the ground, so he wanted to put a piece of wood under it (hence the 2×4). We asked what day he arrived, and when he said Friday, we knew that he was farther away than we were, so we let him know to look a few lanes over. (I saw him at the Moonshine stage later – he’d found his bike and he thanked me for pointing him in the right direction.)

Listen up, concert-goers: parking lots are sectioned and marked with labels. (e.g., we were in North lot, row 10.) As soon as you park, get your bearings. Figure out what section and row you’re in and look around for landmarks that can help you identify where you parked. Make sure they’re permanent landmarks, not someone else’s car.

Check Your Lights

On Friday we saw a guy who was parked a couple of cars away. He was on his phone, telling someone that his key fob wouldn’t unlock the car. The emergency key didn’t work either. Turned out it was a rental car and he was talking to the agency. Lisa told him that his hazard lights had been flashing all night, so we figured the battery died. The agency sent someone to jumpstart the car and recharge the battery for him. While he waited for help to arrive, he was hot and thirsty, and his cooler was locked in the car. We had an extra gallon of ice water, so Lisa gave it to him. She said, “You look about the same age as our son and if he were in need, I’d want someone to help him.” (She’s not only the coolest chick I know, she’s also one of the kindest.)

Crowd-Watching

Festival-goers often wear interesting t-shirts. While we were watching Spafford, I saw a woman with this shirt, and she was gracious enough to pose for a photo. We have friends who hunt for morel mushrooms every spring, so they’ll appreciate this:

One of many cool T-shirts we saw at Summer Camp

Summer Camp Gates and Security

The entrance to the campground and concert venue was kind of a bottleneck since they were searching everyone thoroughly. We didn’t have any camping gear to bring in, so we took the “express” lane. We’d use that lane several times since we’d go back to the car for an occasional bite to eat, a change of clothes, or a beer. Sadly, we found times where the express lane wasn’t open, forcing us to walk an extra 200 feet and wait in line behind people with a lot of gear.

The search process was pretty sporadic, too. Sometimes they wouldn’t even look in Lisa’s purse; other times, they searched every corner, including the slots in her wallet. Meanwhile, I was wearing cargo shorts and they didn’t even check my pockets half the time. Other times they did, and they rifled through my wallet more than once. Very inconsistent.

C’mon, Man

This was the worst: One guy in front of me had a single serving, unopened bag of potato chips. The police officer searching his stuff picked up the bag and felt it thoroughly to make sure it didn’t have anything “funny” inside. Really? (A word of warning to any hippies who plan to open a bag of chips, stuff it with weed, and reseal it: don’t do it – they’re on to you!)

On the other hand…

We ran into a group who had VIP passes and they told us that at the VIP entrances, they hardly got searched at all. So there you have it: the rules are strictly enforced, but if you cough up some extra cash, they’ll look the other way for you. Everyone’s equal, but some are “more equal” than others, I guess.

I will say that most of the security people we encountered were very friendly … with the exception of the potato chip inspector.

Summer Camp Vendors

We saw a lot of good food available, with prices that weren’t too high as far as concert fare is concerned. (We visited the taco stand at the Moonshine stage a few times.) Vegans and omnivores had reasonable choices, running the gamut from healthy salads to deep-fried artery cloggers. On the adult beverage side, they had three varieties of Lagunitas ($10 for a 19 oz can) and for mainstream beer drinkers, Coors and Coors Light at $8 for a 16 oz can. You could also buy beer in 6-packs or 12-packs at a slightly better price per can. There was a limited variety of wines and mixed drinks, too.

They also provided an option to register your wristband, which includes an RFID chip, and tie it to your credit card account, allowing you to use the wristband to make purchases from official Summer Camp vendors. This is a convenience, but it’s also a ploy to get you to spend more money.

Summer Camp: The Music

One great thing about music fests is getting to hear a bunch of major bands that you like but maybe haven’t had a chance to see in person. We also like having the opportunity to see smaller, local bands who don’t get national attention but often put on just as good of a show as the big-name acts. This weekend was a nice mix of the two. I’ll embed a few videos in this post; you can check out our whole Summer Camp collection on our YouTube page.

Summer Camp: Thursday

Most of the acts on Thursday were bands that we hadn’t heard of, so we just wandered from stage to stage, getting a feel for the grounds, and staying wherever we found something we liked. A few highlights:

ZooFunkYou
Dog City Disco playing “Jellyfish” (String Cheese Incident cover)
Peoria-based Steady Flow

Of the Thursday bands, Steady Flow was my favorite.

Summer Camp: Friday

After a decent night’s sleep, some campsite coffee, and a light breakfast, we headed to the Moonshine stage to hear Brandon “Taz” Niederauer, a young guitar virtuoso who’s shared the stage with String Cheese Incident, Tedeschi Trucks Band, and other superstars. This kid is a great guitarist, and he seems to have a good head on his shoulders, too. He didn’t hog the spotlight and he paid due respect to the musicians who preceded him. Taz introduced this Beatles cover as “one of the greatest songs ever written” and during his solo, he ventured into the Grateful Dead’s Fire on the Mountain before coming back to Blackbird.

Brandon “Taz” Niederauer

When Taz finished we went to the Sunshine stage to see Keller Williams’ Pettygrass, a bluegrass tribute to Tom Petty’s life and music. Unfortunately, his scheduled hour-long set was cut in half because of lightning in the area. But at least we got to hear a few great songs, including Yer So Bad (one of my favorites).

The thunderstorm was brief, and shortly after it ended we caught the second half of a set by moe, who played several sets over the weekend, some of which were also cut because of weather.

moe.

We saw Spafford last fall and really enjoyed their show, so we were excited to see them again at Summer Camp. About 25 minutes into their set, I overheard someone say, “This is only their second song.” (Dude, is this your first time seeing a jam band?) As their excellent performance came to a close, someone told them that they had 3 minutes left. I’m not sure Spafford has any 3-minute songs in their catalog, so they played this Doobie Brothers cover instead:

What Spafford plays when they only have 3 minutes left

Back to the Moonshine stage to see Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe, who we saw back in 2002 at the first Bonnaroo festival.

Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe

We’ve enjoyed a few live streams of Pigeons Playing Ping Pong, so we were looking forward to their set. Here’s a clip of a song that included guest guitarist Taz:

Pigeons and Taz

We closed out Friday with one set of Lunar Ticks, who we also enjoyed at Hotel Blotto, and a performance by Umphrey’s McGee.

You better watch out. There may be Lunar Ticks about!
Umphrey’s McGee

Summer Camp: Saturday

Saturday’s music began at the Campfire stage with Electric Orange Peel, followed by keyboardist Neal Francis and his band. We took a walk to the Sunshine stage to catch SunSquabi, a funky outfit out of Denver, and then to the Moonshine stage, where we stayed for the rest of the evening. There, we caught Trampled by Turtles, Blues Traveler, and moe.

Blues Traveler

Moe was supposed to play two sets that night, but shortly after their first set ended, a storm headed in. We got back to our van just before the heavy rain started to fall, and it poured all night, along with heavy thunder and lightning. We’ve tent-camped through thunderstorms before; van-camping is much better!

It’s dry in here!

Summer Camp: Sunday

Steady Flow, who we saw on Thursday, was playing another set on Sunday at 12:30, so that’s where I planned to go first. Lisa was interested in seeing Chicago Farmer, who was playing at the same time at another stage, so we planned to split and meet up for Umphrey’s McGee at 1:30.

While standing in line (no express lane this time), we met a couple who told us that Chicago Farmer was a folksy story-teller, similar to Arlo Guthrie and Todd Snider. I like that kind of performer, and he was playing at a closer stage anyway, so we both watched his set. At one point he told us that when he was a college student, his friends told him about Summer Camp in Chillicothe, and asked him if he wanted to go. He did, and it was a life-changing event for him. He’s been back ever since, first as a festival-goer and later as a performer.

Chicago Farmer

After another set of Umphrey’s McGee, we caught the Yonder Mountain String Band. I stayed at the same stage for the Chris Robinson Brotherhood, while Lisa went over to see the Family Groove Company (featuring Leo Pellegrino, the sax player from Too Many Zooz).

Chris Robinson Brotherhood
Family Groove Company with Leo Pellegrino on sax

At the Moonshine stage, we saw the tail end of Papadosio’s performance. Lisa then headed over to the Sunshine stage to see Toots and the Maytals. I was interested in seeing them too, but they overlapped with Oteil and Friends, so I stayed. She came back as Oteil and Friends were taking the stage (they started about 15 minutes late), just in time to hear them open with the Allman Brothers’ classic, In Memory of Elizabeth Reed. (Oteil Burbridge was a touring member of the Allman Brothers Band for several years. Deadheads also know his work with Dead and Company.)

When Oteil finished, I went over to see Ben Harper & the Innocent Criminals before catching moe, who closed out the evening.

Ben Harper
Audience member giving a visual enhancement to moe.

Happy SCamp!

We had a great time at Summer Camp, although in general, we prefer smaller festivals like the Great Blue Heron. We hope to hit one or two big festivals every year, and I’m sure Summer Camp will make it into the rotation.

Summer Camp website

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