TVD Live: Forecastle Festival 2015, 7/17–7/19

PHOTOS: ELENA HIBBS | This year’s edition of Forecastle Festival proved yet again that it is one of the country’s most enjoyable, user-friendly musical gatherings. Part of that is due to host city Louisville, Kentucky, an art-friendly upper South enclave huddled along the Ohio River. Its Waterfront Park, the festival’s location, is an inviting 85-acre greenspace that lends itself perfectly to Forecastle’s four stage set-up.

The majority of the festival’s success can be attributed to the excellent staff who, in partnership with AC Entertainment (the folks who bring you Bonnaroo), are focused on producing a unique cultural experience. This land-locked Love Boat keeps good vibes and good music flowing throughout its annual three-day cruise.

Heavy rains and flooding in the area over the last few weeks had caused the Ohio River to reach near-record heights, requiring some of the stages to be moved a little further inland from the river bank. The heat also played a bigger than usual role this year, with temps getting into the upper 90s. Forecastle handled the climate conditions in stride, providing free water refilling stations and multiple points offering free sunscreen.

If you needed a break from solar assault, there were plenty of shaded areas in which to cool down, including the circus tent-sized Bourbon Lodge. Speaking of which, I accidentally discovered that Four Roses Single Barrel and Gatorade Lemon-Lime makes a surprisingly refreshing cocktail. But I digress.

FRIDAY, 7/17 | Nashville’s Jeff the Brotherhood was blasting forth from the festival’s Boom Stage as we entered the grounds. I should explain at this point that the four Forecastle stages rank as follows: Mast Stage = Papa Bear; Boom Stage = Mama Bear; Ocean Stage = Baby Bear; and WFPK Port Stage = Goldilocks on a three-day mushroom binge.

The stages are far enough apart to avoid soundbleed but close enough to encourage roaming between sets. From experience, I think a festival should be looked at as a collection of tapas plates, not single entrees. Don’t fill up on one thing to the exclusion of all the other flavors on offer. At least until your legs get tired or you find the perfect shady spot that you’re unwilling to relinquish.

Cold War Kids followed on the Boom Stage and did that thing that they do. While I was never a huge fan, plenty of people are as verified by the large crowd filling the viewing area.

Much more satisfying for me was the next set on the Mast Stage by Alabama’s St. Paul and the Broken Bones. Though it is a cliche to say so at this point, Paul Janeway simply does not look like he sounds. Neither, at first glance, does he look like a man capable of cutting multiple James Brown-esque moves during a single song. And therein, I’m guessing, lies the source of great joy for them.

Taking the stage in Trojan horse of white-boy nerdiness, they absolutely tear apart those preconceptions and channel the deep well of southern soul. Consistently making jaws drop and eyes go colorblind? That’s got to feel good.

Having spent seven years living in the Garden State, I can feel Gaslight Anthem’s compelling SpringsteEmo right down to my virtual gold chains. YOUGOTAPROBLEMWHITTHAT? Well, no one at the Boom Stage did, as they sang/shouted along to the band’s stirring repertoire. Refreshingly stylist-free, these are regular guys playing extraordinary songs.

Cage the Elephant, from nearby Bowling Green, KY (“Corvette Capitol of the World!”), whipped the home state crowd into near delirium with their frenzied Mast Stage performance. Frontman Matt Shultz did the dervish to perfection, hopping off-stage to work the front barrier crowd like a donation-starved TV evangelist. If you underestimate this band, as I have done in the past, you do so at your peril. This is one pachyderm that will never be contained.

From the CtE frenzy, we transitioned to the cool Midwestern soulfulness of Houndmouth. Walking onstage to “Margaritaville” (?), they gave an assured performance, low on stage calisthenics but high on direct musical communication. Seeing these last two bands back-to-back was a timely reminder that there is no one way to do this thing. Spicy life, and all that.

Leaving the grounds for a late dinner, we were stopped in our tracks by the lyrical flow of Big K.R.I.T., holding court on the Ocean Stage. Listening to him perform, I was reminded of Billy Joe Shaver’s assessment of rap: “You’ve really got to be great to do it and sustain.” Let it be known that Big K.R.I.T. sustains.

SATURDAY, 7/18 | Mariachi El Bronx started Saturday’s lineup in festive fashion, wearing full embroidered suits despite the heat. Their hipster take on traditional Mexican music goes down easy and had the crowd dancing and cheering for more.

Over on the Boom Stage, Chris Stapleton greeted a capacity crowd who sang along with almost every song and made the East Kentucky native feel right at home. In addition to featuring songs from his debut LP, Traveller, Chris also played a new song that interpolated the central riff of “Life’s Been Good” to great effect. (Look for a full-length interview with Chris coming soon to TVD.)

With Shovels & Rope and Sturgill Simpson following Stapleton, the Boom Stage afternoon lineup amounted to a mini-Americana Festival.

Performing one of their last shows before taking a break, Shovels & Rope gleefully tore through their repertoire despite Cary Ann Hearst being very pregnant (hence, the forthcoming break).

Cary did pause during the set for a somber reflection on the recent murders in their hometown of Charleston, SC: “Something horrible happened, but then something beautiful happened when the people of our town refused to stand with the ugliness. We also got that tacky-ass flag down from the state capitol.” This last line prompted a huge cheer from the crowd as the band began to play “The Thread Chords.”

After Cary’s opening comments, the song’s lyrics hit hard: “We’re hangin’ here within an inch of our lives, From the day we’re born till the day we die, Don’t it make you want to take your time, Are you gonna let it pass you by?”

Headlining the Mast Stage for the evening’s closing set were hometown heroes My Morning Jacket. Having watched the band grow from local phenom to international standard bearers of rock, it was a thrill to see them play for this massive audience.

It also reminded me of how vital independent music retail was in nurturing and building the band’s fame, starting with Louisville’s late great record emporium, ear-X-tacy. On this sultry evening, the band proved they are wholly deserving of this admiration.

SUNDAY, 7/19 | The festival’s final day was jammed with bands we wanted to see, so we did quick samples for the first half. Noah Gunderson’s doom-n-feedback vibe was enticing, though I imagine it was better suited to a dark club at midnight than outdoors in unyielding sunlight.

Over The Rhine, veterans of cerebral acoustic-based music, rocked their crowd oh so gently in what became a fever dream lullaby.

Meanwhile, on the Mast Stage, First Aid Kit played during the hottest part of the afternoon and did their utmost to bring a peaceful Swedish feeling to the sun-baked crowd. Elder Söderberg sister Johanna, a vision in white, exclaimed, “It’s so hot! We’re used to polar bears and ice storms, not this.”

Despite the heat, Johanna and Klara, accompanied by drummer Scott Simpson and pedal steel guitarist Melvin “The Tiger” Duffy, delivered one of the festival’s most satisfying performances.

Tweedy followed First Aid Kit on the Mast, and it was a bit of a letdown, honestly. Their Wilco-on-melatonin delivery was all fuel, no spark. At least it was for me; there were plenty of people hanging on Jeff & Son’s every note. I left them to it and headed for a shady spot.

Sitting under a tree by the WFPK Port stage, I watched as station DJ/former ear-X-tacy owner John Timmons took the mic and puckishly asked, “What’s in a name?” When that name is Diarrhea Planet, the answer is “Plenty.”

This Music City-based, maximum rock-and-roll band brings a three-guitar attack that filters Replacements-style attitude through Allman-esque chops. The band poured its collected adrenaline all over the Port in front of a massive audience. These guys deserve to sail up to a bigger space next Forecastle.

Watching Portugal. the Man over on the Boom, I pondered the perplexing fate of being a big cult band. On the one hand, they have fixated fans at every performance, studying each line like it was a Alaskan sea scroll. But ask your mom or your casual music fan co-worker about PtM and you’ll likely draw a blank stare.

Not that this appeared to bother the band in the least, so I tossed that thought like a water bottle into the recycling bin.

Speaking of recycling, for the last two years, the festival has featured a tent sponsored by Pabst Brewing wherein you can trade collected trash for prizes. I’m not sure how many cigarette butts it takes to score a PBR mesh hat, but plenty of people did, apparently.

If you can get people competing for trash in exchange for a tall-boy koozie, more power to ya. I tip my (non-mesh) hat to you, Pabst.

As the late afternoon sun finally began to cast some long shadows, Modest Mouse took the crowd assembled at the Mast on an hour-long journey into their unique worldview.

While they worked through their repertoire, a two-person sign language team took turns translating the band’s lyrics. This was no stand-still-and-sign thing, though; it was a full body, dance-passionately-while-signing throwdown. Far from being distracting, they truly enhanced the performance. Two thumbs up, MM!

Time was getting tight as Tallest Man on Earth hit the Boom. Admittedly, I was pondering hitting the highway early but I’m so glad I didn’t. TMoE, aka Kristian Mattson, is a Swedish singer-songwriter and solid fingerpicking guitarist with a knack for penning sweet-and-sour melodies.

He is also a thrilling performer, bent on drawing in the crowd. While I walked over to catch a couple of songs by King Tuff on the Port, I missed Kristian bringing out fellow Swedes First Aid Kit for a song. Alas, you can’t catch everything.

Thoroughly sated after TMoE, we climbed in the car for the drive down to Nashville. Thanks, Forecastle, for an uplifting musical and cultural experience.

We’ll be back.

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