Summer Camp Festival is an outgrowth of the successful Summer Sessions, a 1999 traveling tour called launched by Jay Goldberg Events and Entertainment. The concerts included moe., Galactic, String Cheese Incident and Gov’t Mule, with shorter sets by Keller Williams and Gibb Droll. It made a stop at Three Sisters Park and two years later, in June 2001, the first Summer Camp festival took place. The jam-based fest drew somewhere between 1,000-1,500 people who enjoyed more than 20 bands on just two stages in as many days.
Don Sullivan, festival organizer and producer, describes it as “one of the first jam band festivals,” predating Bonnaroo. In its first year, moe. appeared, along with the Samples and Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey. In 2002, it expanded to three days (July 5-7) and the following year the festival moved to Memorial Day weekend, where it’s remained ever since. Jay Goldberg runs the event with his son Ian, and Don Sullivan, both of whom united early on over their love of the Grateful Dead.
The Grounds, The Bands, The Scene
Since its inception, the festival has taken place at Three Sisters Park in Chillicothe, Illinois. As for the set-up, the seven stages are in close proximity to one another and the primitive camping, for which most festival-goers opt, makes for a loose, intimate vibe. Some of the stages are tucked away in the woods, while some are in big open fields or natural amphitheaters, and others are under tents. The close proximity among stages makes for short walks and helps facilitate surprise guests on the various stages. Artists often sit in on each other’s sets at Summer Camp, as G. Love did with the Flaming Lips in 2008 and Avett Brothers in 2011, along with Bob Weir with Primus in 2012. The grassroots nature of this fest pretty much guarantees you’re likely to see some artists before their careers take off—the ultimate discovery for fans. Umphrey’s McGee first appeared in 2003 and exploded on the national level shortly after Summer Camp, as did the Lumineers in 2012, among others.
Over the years, the festival has grown. By 2003, 3000 people were showing up, with steady upticks in attendance to 10,000 in 2010 for its tenth anniversary, and hitting more than 20,000 in 2014. Part of that expansion has included EDM; however, you could easily spend the entire event listening to just jam bands or only EDM—or a check out a little bit of both, and then some. In the past 15 years, artists such as Flaming Lips, Medeski, Martin & Wood, The Roots, Widespread Panic, Willie Nelson, Les Claypool, G. Love and Special Sauce, the Avett Brothers and Andrew Bird have all graced its stages. Moe., Umphrey’s McGee and Keller Williams are festival mainstays, having appeared for many consecutive years—a testament to the convivial, family vibe. It’s a three-day affair—four if you count those who shell out a little extra for Thursday early arrival privileges—with more than 100 bands across seven stages.
Young Campers-and the Young at Heart
Parents, don’t fret. If you want to bring the kids, there’s a substance-free camping area that may suit the whole family, and a dedicated spot called Kids Camp, complete with face painting, arts and crafts, music workshops and balloon artists. Elsewhere, spread throughout the grounds, you can get in touch with your inner child and experience rides and other amusements. Finally, it wouldn’t be a festival called Summer Camp without color wars and a Field Day. Pledge your allegiance to a team during a day of nostalgic competitions, complete with a party for the victorious team.
Sharing is Caring
There’s also a whole section called Make a Difference, which the fest calls a “space for collective consciousness” and a way to have “socially-charged conversations” that will then inspire you to make a difference in your own community. You’ll encounter nonprofits, artists and activists speaking about their work—and demonstrating it, as in the case of a crew of glassblowers in 2014. Offerings often include activities such as yoga, hooping and artists painting to live music. The Soulshine Tent is worth investigating; you’re likely to find workshops or acoustic performances from one of the many non-profit companies at the event. The area also includes a Treasure Hunt; past prizes have included concert tickets and more.