Last weekend I was in Grand Rapids for Calvin's Festival of Faith & Music. This is the younger little sibling of the writing festival they have every other year. My friends David Dark & Sarah Masen were participating in the festival again this time around, and it is always good to see them and take in the profoundly moving work that they create, as well as just getting the opportunity to talk with them a fair bit now and then throughout the weekend in between activities. David was the keynote Speaker on Saturday, and it was certainly one of the best talks I've heard him give yet. His seminar later that day was a nice continuation of sorts, bringing in bits that he didn't have a chance to get to that morning (the bit about Tom Waits saying there's no such thing as non-fiction being one of the best parts. Only God is capable of speaking in non-fiction. Whew, that's good!) . Unfortunately, one of the people who raised their hands to ask/share something during the Q&A somehow got the idea it was ok to take over the seminar and (ironically during a comment on "silence") just kept talking and talking and taking precious minutes away from the little time David had left. That's the chance you take I guess when you open things up to the floor. David's usually at his best in dialog with others, but a buzzer or a gong wouldn't have been a bad idea.
Sarah gave a rare late-night concert on Friday, and it was just good to hear her sing again. She even had some newly recorded music for us product-starved fans (her last CD came out around 6 or 7 years ago). In a display of obnoxious rudeness, the new band (Son Lux) that was on before her was only supposed to play for a half-hour, but instead decided to drag it out for well over an hour, putting Sarah after 11pm (which was fine for me, but a lot of people just can't hang that late, especially after a full day of festival goodness). I enjoyed talking to David during that in-between time, and enjoyed Sarah's set when she finally came on. "The River" was probably my favorite.
Lauren Winner was another favorite of mine speaking at the festival, giving a keynote on the first day (Friday), and a seminar right after. Lauren can be a bit hit-or-miss for me sometimes. When she's on, and taking things seriously, she can bring intelligence and unique insight to the discussion, but when she's off, or sidetracked, she can be downright annoyingly goofy (to me anyway). At last year's Writing festival, during her seminar entitled "My life as a reader" (which just sounded wonderful to me), she spent half the time talking about kids books, reading nearly an entire children's book to us, complete with pictures. Not exactly what I was hoping for (though the first-grade teacher sitting next to me was pretty stoked about it). This year's keynote got a little bogged down at the beginning with needless (pointless?) statistics regarding Christians and their participation in the Arts (though the overall speech turned out to be rather good). And at her seminar having to do with the music that is a part of her spiritual autobiography, she only shared 4 songs, 2 of which I found utterly annoying and somehow forcefully quirky. Like she just couldn't stand to be straightforward with the question. She did turn me on to an old Emmylou Harris CD though, when she started the session out with a song from Cowgirl's Prayer that was just the sort of thing I love in music that expresses one's faith (specifically, music that expresses faith in a non-CCM way). As a side note, I learned that Lauren is very hard of hearing, which I found interesting, especially since my own tinnitus has been acting up quite a bit lately (someone take the tea kettle off the stove already, the whistling's gonna drive me crazy). Hearing loss is probably just below blindness on my scale of panic-inducing fears.
Andrew Beaujon (author of "Body Piercing Saved My Life") was there as well, sharing with us his impressions of this whole christian music subculture from a non-Christian's viewpoint (a view we might do well to listen to more often, just to see if what we're doing is really something that can be called "Christian" in any meaningful sense of the word. "Christian" is something the people of the early church were called, not a label they applied to themselves). Something interesting he mentioned that I would also agree with is the fact that Christians need to take it easy sometimes, don't forget to enjoy life and have fun, and not beat themselves up all the time wondering if this or that bit of music or media is "ok" to listen to. Lauren Winner, in her keynote, said something to the effect that you have to ask the question, "is this truthful?", to which Andrew responds something like, "I don't know if Steve Miller Band's The Joker is truthful, but I do know that it's a kick-ass song!". He also talked about his experience at Cornerstone Festival while writing the article that became the book. James (webmaster extraordinaire for Sarah Masen and TimeBeing), who was sitting next to me for most of Beaujon's talk, mentioned to me that he went to Cornerstone once, and what an odd experience it was. when I asked him why, he said he had always heard it compared to Greenbelt fest, and when he got to Cstone, the first thing he asked was "ok, where's the bar?"
Sufjean Stephens was playing 2 concerts on Friday evening, the first of which was for festival attendees only. I'm not particularly fond of Sufjean (his music can grate on my nerves, actually, and I almost poked my eyes out and ran screaming the first 2 times I saw him in concert - at Calvin no less), and so I decided to sell my ticket. After the concert had started, and everyone was inside that could possibly want a ticket, I sat outside by the front steps and lamented the fact that I was unable to find a buyer (hoping to get 20 or 30 bucks for it. Both shows were sold out, and Sufjean is the big thing these days). As I sat there contemplating what to do, a guy in a fedora hat walks up the steps, by himself, I say hi, he asks "you wouldn't happen to have an extra ticket to the concert would you?", and my heart suddenly fills with gladness. "I do" I say with a grin dawning on my face. He stops actually a bit surprised at what I've just told him, expecting it to be a long shot at this point, even needing to verify what I just said. He then asks if 40 dollars would be alright… Yes. Yes it would. We exchange, and I walk away about as happy as I've been all weekend. I still have a hard time believing how perfectly that worked out, like God sent him right to me. the timing was just too weird (I would have left in another couple minutes, the concert already going for about 10, and had only sat down there a couple minutes prior, no one else really around). and that just about cut the cost of this weekend in half for me.
Saturday night my friends Lee and Carrie drove the 2 and a half hours to Calvin just to catch the last concert of the weekend, Neko Case and Emmylou Harris (who were both interviewed separately that afternoon on stage). We first ate at Panera's, then went to the packed auditorium for a great double bill. Unfortunately Calvin had to hold the show in the Fieldhouse (which is nothing more than a full-blown gymnasium). They have a legendary sounding stage at the Fine Arts Center, but it only holds about 2,000 people, and they couldn't financially afford to bring Neko and Emmylou in without being able to sell more tickets to the show (tickets were included with registration, which sold out, hence all tickets would have been for festival registrants only). Bleacher seats suck, even with the cushion things they were renting that Carrie got for us all. I never figured out how to work the damn thing (there's a back you're theoretically supposed to be able to lean back on), and I got a splinter straight under my fingernail trying.
After the show and fest were over, we went out to TGI Fridays with our friend Dave who lives out there (as we usually do after these Calvin events) and spent the late night hours eating unhealthy food and arguing about music. Good times. The next morning after checkout, we all met again at the IHOP for our traditional bon voyage breakfast. I stuck around and went to Schuller's books with Dave and Stacy after that for coffee, while Lee and Carrie headed home to fight Wrestlemania traffic downtown to see a show at the State Theater. Dave bought a big old stack of some of my favorite books, which was fun to pick out and watch him buy. Once the storm started to hit, I decided it was time to head home too, thus ending a great weekend at a Calvin Fest once again. Next year is the Writing Festival, and that's the one I look forward to the most.