Forecastle Music Festival Hits Louisville

Jim James bringing it with heart in his home town | American Songwriter

Jim James bringing it with heart in his home town | American Songwriter

Finally I am recovered, rested, and back in my groove from going to see Forecastle two weeks back. I only went to the Saturday shows, but had friends in town Thursday through Tuesday, which had me in entertainment mode. The event itself was fun, not amazing, just fun, but going to this kind of event, now that I have a baby, isn’t exactly carefree. It takes a lot more logistical planning and consciousness.

I had an A+ crew of folks attending, as two of my oldest and dearest friends, Ave and Murphy, had driven up from Orlando. We’ve known each other since college at Iowa. Ave and I used to hit the Grateful Dead shows together in Chicago and Alpine Valley when Jerry Garcia was still alive and picking.

They came up to meet my baby daughter Isabella, and turned the trip into a vacation, by bringing along their 13-year old daughter Mia, and picking up passes for all three days of Forecastle.

From L to R: Billy, Eric and the Llama.

From L to R: Billy, Eric and the Llama.

My Lexington buddies Eric and Billy also were hitting the Saturday shows. Eric and I have known each other since he was probably in first grade. He works Lollapalooza in Chicago, where we’ve both had fabulous times, and Austin City Limits. All three of us are music heads, and see a ton of live music.

Riding with me from Frankfort was Maia, and an old acquaintance that I ran into again recently, Jonathan, who like me, is from Frankfort but has lived away from Kentucky for a long while.

The point being this is a crew that has all seen each other at our best and in our less than proud moments, so we can let loose in comfort around each other, plus we’re all veterans of these kind of big music events, and this was the first time for all of us at Forecastle.

That alone was reason to get amped.

It’s arguable that Forecastle shot its proverbial wad on Saturday. I get that this is the easiest day for everyone to attend, and it makes sense to load that day up, and they did.

The Black Keys were headlining a two-hour closing set, then you had The Flaming Lips, Jim James (from My Morning Jacket – which is a Louisville band), the Alabama Shakes, The Joy Formidable, Dawes, Kurt Vile & the Violators, Matt & Kim and Foxygen.

Of course Hunter S. Thompson was at Forecastle.

Of course Hunter S. Thompson was at Forecastle.

There was still plenty of talent spread around the other days, but neither Friday nor Sunday had the same buzz-quality as Saturday. I’ve heard that Houndmouth (another Louisville band) killed on the main stage Friday, and Night Beds was notable. Old Crow Medicine Show, Big Boi, the Pimps of Joytime were in the house, and Bob Mould (from Husker Du) rocked hard. The String Cheese Incident did their jam band thing Friday at the fest, late night Saturday at the Palace, and again played Forecastle Sunday under the name The Forecastle Incident (which was more of a bluegrass all-star show), but that is kind of a specialty act – and not for everyone.

You had The Avett Brothers, Robert Plant and Grace Potter & the Nocturnals Sunday. There was plenty of talent this year, but something was one-off about this event, and I’m still not sure what it was.

Ave and Murph hit town Thursday, and came by our house to meet Isabella and hang out some, then rolled up to Louisville where they were staying at the Brown Hotel for the fest. I was ready mentally to kick into weekend mode, but we desperately needed to find a babysitter. Everybody was doing something this weekend because it was supposed to be the first true nice summer weekend of the year. And I needed to cover a big block of time, from like 10AM till 2AM. Thankfully Aubrey ably stepped up and took the early shift with Peanut till my mom could get home later in the afternoon.

Problem solved, let the good times roll.

We hit Louisville and met up with Eric and Billy at the Garage. We discovered this spot in NuLu a couple weeks back when I had some friends in town from DC. It’s a cool joint that is housed in an old garage.

They have a stacked craft-beer menu, excellent bourbon and a superb kitchen. The place was swamped with people, but we had a table. The five of us got our drink on. I went with the High Heat again, which is a bourbon and absinthe combination. That will take you places. I also ordered some really tasty oysters on the half shell.

From L to R: Pedro, Mia and Murph.

From L to R: Pedro, Mia and Murph.

Once fed and fuzzed up, we opted to leave our vehicles right there, because that is a safe part of downtown and walkable to Waterfront Park. We all made pit stops at our cars to tap our coolers for to-go beverages, then headed towards Forecastle.

Ave, Murph and Mia were already inside, and I found them over by where Foxygen was playing. I only know their “San Francisco” and “Shuggie” songs, but they seemed to be getting after it harder than either of those tunes.

We hung for a bit then went to meet up with the rest of our crowd.

Forecastle is held in a rather confined space. It suits its overall purpose, but it doesn’t take but a few minutes to truck from one end to the other, which immediately made me think, “is this it?”

Life under the overpass.

Life under the overpass.

Much of Forecastle revolves around what is occurring under the interstate overpasses, which gives off a subterranean urban feel. Grey concrete overpasses, two bridges that connect Kentucky and Indiana, along with the Ohio River itself are the three primary elements that stand out about the setting where Forecastle is held.

There is a sweet water element, where a drainage canal cuts through the festival grounds beneath the overpasses. A makeshift bridge is in place for attendees to use when marching back and forth between the Boom and Mast Stages. Stair-step walls on the canal make for a natural seating option, and many who were seeking a spot out of the sun or who were tripping a bit too hard found this area a welcomed respite away from the open crowds, but within earshot of the music.

Considering the close proximity to all the stages, the sound was fantastic. The organizers did a great job of cutting the angles off on the stages so the line of sound stayed with those who are at the individual stages. There was no sound bleed, so major kudos to everyone involved at Forecastle.

But there is a lack of stimulation for folks when they aren’t watching music. It would be one thing if this was a one-day fest, but at three days, with limited space, the sites around the neighborhood get tired fast. There was some contrived eye candy, and for those not used to hitting bigger festivals or large shows, it might be amusing for a minute, but needs work.

The other detraction I will mention about Forecastle is once inside there is very little to distinguish this event from it being held anywhere else in America. There was the Bourbon Lodge, where master distillers were lingering, but otherwise there was no telling where this event was being hosted. Louisville is a very DIY kind of weird community – get more of Louisville’s strangeness inside this venue. Give the artists a platform, set up temporary canvasses or structures for them and others to express their river city sentiments. Make this thing feel like we are in Louisville.

The birdman travels his or her own path at Forecastle.

The birdman travels his or her own path at Forecastle.

That being said, we all had a fun time. There are a lot of folks around this area that are odd ducks and don’t have the option of traveling outside the metro area, so Forecastle is where they can let their freak flags fly. There was a ton of cool ink on display, piercings, costumes and people celebrating the rare chance to express themselves without judgment.

Saturday was cooking up beautifully. Everybody had a good buzz on, the weather was clear but not too hot, and folks were elevated by 4:00 PM. Then came the weather.

The music stopped around 4:50, and we were told to evacuate the venue.

The National Weather Service issued a severe thunderstorm warning, with gusts of 60 mph and nickel-sized hail. That would sting out in the open.

We all took this seriously considering the crazy weather hitting places these days, and the tragedy at the Indiana State Fair in 2011, when a gust from an approaching storm collapsed a stage where Sugarland was playing, killing seven and injuring 58.

It didn’t last long. The anticipated weather glanced off the Louisville area and hit Indiana, with no impact locally. Still, the call to evacuate was correct and handled orderly.

But you can’t just get 25,000 plus people back immediately. Folks walked all over the place. Thank god for social media and cell phones, so alerts could go out.

About 5:30 the gates reopened.

They reset the lineup, dropped a few acts, and we all came back fired up to witness the Alabama Shakes. What Forecastle couldn’t get back was the same level of enthusiasm. The extra walking, the long day, drinks and such – by the time everyone was back the excitement level was tempered.

Maia and the Llama.

Maia and the Llama.

I went up front to where Eric and Billy were standing, stage right under the big blue “Team Fun” flag, to chat with those guys when the Alabama Shakes went on. Brittany Howard and company lived up to their hype, by delivering a booming hybrid mixture of soul, gospel, and Southern rock that was akin to a revival.

There was plenty of trouble to be had that far up in the crowd, so I dropped back at the end of the set to where Ave, Murph, Mia and Maia had set up a camp with some blankets, mid-way back on the field. We still had good sight lines, but room to breathe.

We ended up chilling there the rest of the night. Jim James came on with much anticipation, and played a great set of his new material – but it’s not exactly up-tempo. Everyone was hoping for a My Morning Jacket scenario or other guests, and that failed to materialize. The band played enthusiastically but the crowd needed raw energy and this wasn’t the set to produce it. I will add that James closed with “Let It Be” by the Beatles, and that was outstanding.

This left it up to The Black Keys, who are straight rock-n-roll energy, but even they couldn’t rescue this adrenaline-sapped crowd. We could have gone over to the Flaming Lips, but I’ve seen them a bit recently, and they are doing a darker set these days to go with their new disc “The Terror,” and Mia and Ave checked out Matt & Kim, with moderate reviews – so I stayed put till the Akron boys showed.

Ironically, Eric and I saw the first show of the “El Camino” tour on March 02, 2012, in Cincinnati. Forecastle marked the last show on the tour. These guys have played 131 shows since then and basically their set list has remained unchanged.

Considering the soul-based acts that played prior to The Black Keys, when Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney hit the stage it was a huge rush of energy, but quickly you could tell they were mailing in the set.

Literally, there wasn’t a song in their set that they hadn’t played over 100 times in the last year and a half. In fact “Howling for You,” “Tighten Up,” “Lonely Boy,” and “Gold on the Ceiling,” have all been played 129 times.

It’s impossible for them to come out with any sincere enthusiasm and play that set of songs now, and it showed.

Our vantage point from the field for the closing set.

Our vantage point from the field for the closing set.

They looked good. You can tell Dan and Patrick now get their hair styled, are buff and on workout programs, their clothes are clearly designer, but appear thrift shop-ish. Good for them, they deserve the spoils, but after a long day it would have been cool to see a band hungry to turn out a crowd.

The Black Keys played a confident, safe set, that with the rain delay, ended at 12:30.

That was my Forecastle experience. I’m a little jaded, and our crew is hard to please. We know what good is, and that is a hard level of expectation to meet. I would say Louisville and Forecastle are paired well. Both the city and this event are trying, and that is more than can be said for what was going on around this area 20 years before.

This was the 11th edition of Forecastle, and it keeps getting better. It’s far from perfect, but JK McKnight, the festival founder, does continue striving to improve the quality of the event and the experience for those attending.

Forecastle had 65 bands playing on four stages over three days, with an estimated 65,000 in attendance. That’s double the record crowd from last year. Nice job JK!

This is more a celebration of youth and expression. It was great people watching and a relaxed crowd. Right now trust is being built between McKnight and those who attend this event. Forecastle’s reputation is positively building, city leaders in Louisville are embracing what clearly is a money-making endeavor in the dead of summer, and folks respect the talent and diversity of artists McKnight continues to book on a yearly basis.

This is definitely worth checking out, and when the early bird tickets for 2014 become available later this year, it would be financially sound to just snatch up passes before the talent is announced. Forecastle is worth the price of admission.

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