TVD Live: The Forecastle Festival, 7/18–7/20

When southern musical meccas are mentioned, Louisville is often overlooked and that’s a shame. The city has a very strong arts community, thriving live venues, and a world-class public radio dedicated to music, WFPK. Where music hubs like Memphis, Nashville, and New Orleans have a certain brash, in-your-face presence, Louisville presents itself in much more genteel manner, which may partially explain why it is not top of mind for many music aficionados. However, with the growth of the city’s Forecastle Festival, ignoring Louisville is destined to become a thing of the past.

The annual festival, located in Waterfront Park along the Ohio River, is extremely user-friendly. The spacious grounds feature large green spaces, great sitelines for all four stages and an extremely polite staff ready to assist you. Their eclectic approach to booking ensures that you will witness a wide variety of music and the 2014 edition was certainly no exception. EDM, bluegrass, indie rock, country, and many other genres were represented, offering the concert goer a rich experience. With four stages going simultaneously, it’s impossible to catch everything, but below are my highlights for each of the three days.

DAY ONE | Friday opened with a drizzle and remained that way for most of the day, in a perpetual “should I put the poncho on?” mode. It never turned into an all-out rain storm, though, so the main result was cooler temps, thankfully. If anyone was feeling sluggish due to the moisture, Against Me! burned through that immediately.

Too much recent press has focused on frontwoman Laura Jane Grace’s gender change and not nearly enough on the band’s music. They are one of the strongest American rock bands currently working and they proved that in spades with their incendiary set on the Boom Stage. It was an auspicious start to our festival experience and one that set bar very high.

I wandered over to the Mast Stage, Forecastle’s largest, just in time to see Gary Clark, Jr. Clark pulled off the deft task of making the blues seem fresh and not hackneyed. The large crowd obviously agreed as the grounds were packed from the first note. A tasteful guitar hero, Clark is poised for a long, rewarding career.

Next, it was back over to the Boom Stage for Local Natives. Their vaguely Talking Heads-ish music is pleasant enough but coming after two strong performances, it suffered by comparison. It was up to Austin’s Spoon to reboot the momentum and they had no trouble doing so. Familiar songs combined with frontman Britt Daniel’s energetic delivery pulled in a large Boom Stage crowd and kept them on their feet, inciting several sing-alongs on songs like “I Turn My Camera On” and “The Underdog.”

The evening’s headliners, Outkast, hit the Mast Stage just minutes after Spoon finished. Having not seen the group for several years, I was quickly reminded of the power and strength of Big Boi’s and Andre 3000’s ouerve. Fresh from a string of European tour dates, the duo along with their band and background singers were airtight. Seriously, it was one of the most exciting stage performances I’ve seen in a while and I think it bodes well for future Outkast endeavors.

DAY TWO | Saturday’s lineup was filled to the brim with artists I wanted to see, so the day became a stage-hopping marathon. First act of the day, New Orleans’ Hurray For the Riff Raff, created an intimate atmosphere with their music, making me wish I could see them in a small club. Australian folk duo Boy & Bear, one of the festival’s buzz bands, drew an enthusiastic audience to the Boom Stage and showed piles of promise. Lord Huron followed with their twangy brand of pop as the swelling crowd roared their approval.

Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings turned the Mast Stage field into one big dance party. You would never know that Jones had recently taken time off to battle pancreatic cancer, because she looked great and sounded fierce. The entire band seemed reenergized by break and made the most of their set time. Keep kicking cancer’s ass, Ms. Jones.

On the Boom Stage, Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit plunged into a set filled with songs from across his career. Smiling and playing copious slide guitar, Isbell fed off the crowd’s enthusiastic response. The good vibes were put on hold for a few minutes as Isbell delivered a semi-acoustic version of “Elephant,” a bleakly honest look at a cancer victim’s struggle to keep things normal when they are most definitely not. I’d stack that song up against anything in the catalogs of Prine, Kristofferson, or Earle. Yeah, it’s that good.

Band of Horses opened their set in acoustic trio mode before plugging in and bringing the rest of the band onto the Mast Stage. Meanwhile, honky-tonk hero Dwight Yoakam tweaked the Boom Stage crowd by making references to Lexington (Louisville’s cross-state collegiate rival) in between peeling off gems from his rich repertoire. As Yoakam was deep into his set, Louisville indie rock legends Slint began their Ocean Stage performance before an intensely devoted audience, some of whom, no doubt, were only at the festival to witness this reunion. Slowly building their music amid blue and red lights peering through the machine-generated fog, Slint pulled off the estimable feat of creating their own world within the carnival. Their tour takes them to Europe for several shows and then they are back in late August. Do not miss them if you have the opportunity.

And for the final set of the night? It was just Jack. Jack White has worn more hats than haberdasher over the last decade and he modeled many of them during his powerful presentation. Fronting a crack Nashville band that featured instrumentalist Fats Kaplan, White played a mix of White Stripes songs, Raconteurs cuts, and solo tracks, many of which were sourced from his new album, Lazeretto. He also inserted several covers, including Bill Monroe’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” which he dedicated to Dwight Yoakam. The stage was bathed in opaque blue light for most of the show, giving everything an eerie, dream-like quality. Love him or hate him, White proved once again that he is a showman of the first order.

DAY THREE | The sunniest day of Forecastle featured some of the most-anticipated performances of the weekend. Nashville transplants The Weeks tore through a high-energy set, with guitarist Samuel Williams supporting the home team by sporting a Diarrhea Planet t-shirt. Lucius played their fractured electro-pop for a loving throng, ready to dance in the midday sun.

An overflow crowd greeted fast-rising combo Trampled By Turtles, who delivered their tuneful newgrass songs with a self-deprecating, “aw shucks” demeanor. Should they return next year, they’ll be on the main stage for sure.

Jenny Lewis and the reunited Nickel Creek both dispatched entertaining blocs, but by that point, there was a half-ton Minneapolis gorilla on the grounds. The Replacements, continuing their reunion tour of major festivals, had fans of a certain age and outlook giddy with anticipation.

True to form, they did not enter with a fanfare and bombastic introduction. Rather, they casually walked on, with Paul Westerberg goofing around on drums for a minute while Tommy Stinson looked bemused. Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong was back in the third guitar slot, this time playing the entire set. The setlist was much the same as their Atlanta appearance at Shaky Knees, with Paul taking an audience request for “Valentine” for a welcome addition. A surprise performance of “Message to the Boys,” which, per Paul, they had never before played live drew knowing hoots from the more dedicated fans.

If anything the band was even tighter than at their Shaky Knees gig, letting a confident swagger show throughout. Paul even engaged in the time-honored act of guitar smashing when he slammed his First Act signature model axe onto the stage floor, sending pieces flying. “He’s gonna sell that on eBay!,” Paul said laughingly as guitarist Dave Minehan cleared the debris. Wrapping up with a litany of their best known tracks, The Replacements only had time for one encore selection, “I Don’t Know” before saying goodbye. What a band! Long may they rail.

The evening continued, with cranky auteur Ray Lamontagne ambling through a set and the Mast Stage crowd scrambling for good vantage points for the festival closer Beck. For me, however, the show was over. How do you follow one of the most influential bands of all time? As I headed south on I-65, I was sure Beck was asking himself the same question.

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