Forecastle

Five Things I LOVE About Forecastle: Kentucky's best-kept secret

You'll be hard-pressed to find a writer or editor at any alternative weekly who wasn't inspired by acclaimed gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, and I am no exception. Perhaps that's why I traveled five hours south to Thompson's hometown of Louisville, Kentucky for the annual Forecastle music festival. The annual three-day event features many of the same draws as larger festivals like Bonnaroo and Coachella—such as nationally renowned headlining acts on multiple stages—while offering a more intimate setting on the coast of the Ohio River.

The festival itself is a bit of a diamond in the rough. There's no camping, no wilderness and nowhere in the festival grounds to seek shelter from the nonstop musical performances. The I-71 overpass which slices the festival grounds in half, as well as the nearby skyline of downtown Louisville, make the setting too urban for those seeking a modern Woodstock emulator. Accordingly, the lineup doesn't feature any longform improvisational rock bands—frequently the bread and butter of such events. Nor does it have the attendance to draw any hugely popular bands aside from the headliners.

For my money, however, those restrictions work out in Forecastle's favor. For one, the fest boasts a diverse and unique lineup, one less focused on pop music than some of Forecastle's larger cousins. That means less pop divas and more singer-songwriters. Even though Louisville lies barely south of the Mason-Dixon, the fest skews toward the musical songs of the south—bluegrass, folk, blues, country and soul. Not the sounds I usually jam to, but that just makes Forecastle more of a divergence from everyday reality—and at the end of the day, that's as appealing as the fest itself. As far as weekend getaways go, Forecastle escapes both the stress of day-to-day life, as well as the stress of going to a pricey, overcrowded and scattershot music festival.

For my money, Forecastle 2014 was the best mainstream music festival this summer, for five reasons:

5-Bourbon

Kentucky is bourbon country, and the sweet-sour stuff flows in abundance there. Forecastle embraces this. The Bourbon Lounge, a covered, air-conditioned bar in the center of the festival grounds, dispenses the stuff at reasonable prices. Think of it as a sample-flight of The Kentucky Bourbon Trail, only about a football field away from Jack White. The knowledgeable distillers and bartenders inside were on-point with bourbon factoids for drinkers with inquisitive minds, and the tent even offered bourbon-inspired cuisine to snack on between groups. Meet-and-greets with master distillers there even held as prominent a place on the festival itinerary as many of the bands did. The focus, though, is the booze—mixed with ice and some lemonade or other mixer, it made for a better refreshing libation than the $6 PBR tallboys that normally keep my buxx afloat during such festivities. Of course all major music festivals offer liquor, but it's frequently mass-produced stuff shipped from states away (little more than colored grain alcohol, really). In Louisville, however, a little bourbon and lemonade just felt right, especially with a few moonshine-soaked cherries as garnish. Dr. Thompson would approve (then again, as far as mind altering substances, what didn't he approve of?)

4-The Ocean Stage

Sure, putting a stage underneath a highway overpass sounds like an awful idea on paper. In practice, however, The Ocean Stage turned out to be an invaluable shady respite from the sun, as well as one of the most intimate venues at the festival—The Ocean Stage positioned listeners at about ankle-height to the musicians. Electronic Dance artists mostly populated the stage, transforming the expanse of sand in front of it into a perpetual dance floor full of (mostly) young and energetic festivalgoers. I took a brief musical detour there to check out DJ Claude VonStroke, who made full use of the intricate lighting display behind him. Sometimes, however, The Ocean Stage would host more avant-garde fare, like percussive pop outfit tUnE-yArDs, (more on them later) as well as local math-rock outfit Slint, who sounded much more textured and heavy live than they do on their cult-classic album Spiderland.

3-The Main Stage

A music festival lives and dies by its headlining acts, and Forecastle is no exception. Hugely popular Atlanta hip-hop duo Outkast, who reunited for a festival run this summer, came out of the gates swinging with the double-hitter of classics “B.O.B. (Bombs over Baghdad)” and “Gasoline,” and refused to let up the pressure. The duo's in-fighting has been the stuff of hip-hop legend, and probably necessitated extended blocks of solo material in the middle of their set, and while Andre 300 went first, his stage presence collapsed without Big Boi to back him up. Later, Big Boi's more club-oriented solo material carried more dance-friendly charisma and raw sexual energy.

Still Outkast didn't hold a candle to Detroit's own Jack White, mastermind behind defunct punk-blues duo The White Stripes, who showed up at Forecastle promoting his new solo record, Lazaretto, with a full band in tow. White stuck to the hits, exploring what his seminal White Stripes material sounds like with a full backing band, including bass, keys, fiddle, lap-steel guitar and even a theremin. His solo band exploded like a rock and roll bunker-buster, employing loud feedback, dissonant noise and an absolutely bloodthirsty drum performance into their set. White's as heavy as Metallica and just as charismatic, turning Hank Williams Jr. classic “You Know That I Know” as well as Jay-Z's “99 Problems” into noise rock tracks that might make Buzz Osbourne of The Melvins nod with appreciation. His set stretched a half hour over its allotted time, closing with “Seven Nation Army,” the best AC/DC riff that band never wrote, which swelled into a sing-along football chant. White's a living guitar legend already, and his current solo tour felt like a victory lap for the career that preceded it.

2-Reignwolf

“I think Reignwolf just won Forecastle,” I tweeted directly following the Canadian blues-rock trio's explosive sunday afternoon set. It's the most popular tweet I've composed up until this point and for good reason: Reignwolf might be so new that they don't even have a Wikipedia page, but their legion of fans grows with every show. I consider myself among their number. Think of his band as Wolfmother, just less wussy. Singer and multi-instrumentalist Jordan Cook is a human dynamo, jumping off drum kits and his loosely-assembled stack of beat-up vintage amps. His sound is loud and his energy boundless. His voice, smoky and rich, recalls a younger Tom Waits. For some of the set, he played the drums and guitar himself, at once, while singing. I've rarely seen a performer to equal him—maybe Ben Weinman of The Dillinger Escape Plan? On record, Reignwolf might fall flat—their recently released single, “Lonely Sunday” is only alright, and their debut LP has been delayed many times, but these boys are first-rate performers already. Don't believe me? The Pixies and Black Sabbath have already brought them on tour. One of the great joys of huge music festivals is the act of discovering new music, and I'm very glad I found Reignwolf indeed.

1-Women in Music

There's no contesting that rock and roll has been a boy's club by and large for most of its existence—for every Joni Mitchell, Suzi Quatro or Fiona Apple there's a hundred would-be Bob Dylans and Tom Pettys. Proof? Out of all the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inductees in the performance category, only 23 groups include women or are solo female performers.

At Forecastle, however, the playing field seemed much more level, and many of the most moving and charismatic shows positioned women at the fulcrum of their music. On the first day, Laura Jane Grace (once Tom Gabel), maybe the bravest woman in rock music, led the crowd through a barn-burning punk set as the lead singer/guitarist of Against Me!. The band's new album, Transgender Dysphoria Blues, is my favorite loud rock album of 2014 so far.

On Sunday, Sharon Van Etten proved herself by pulling off several dark and brooding ballads in a midday slot on the Boom Stage, unaware that her performance on Letterman would go viral a week later (Van Etten's latest album, Are We There, was released to critical acclaim this May).

Later, on the same stage, Sara Watkins led newly-reformed Grammy-winning prog-bluegrass band Nickel Creek to victory with fiddle in hand in front of a huge, adoring audience. Meanwhile, on the Mast Stage, singer-songwriter Jenny Lewis melded folk, country and power-pop with wry and witty lyricisms. On the Ocean Stage, Merrill Garbus, singer and mastermind behind tUnE-yArDs, split the difference between scholar and diva while showcasing her danceable blend of world music percussion and pop-electronic textures—Garbus spent a year studying drums in Haiti before recording her new record Nikki Nack.

Perhaps most powerfully, soul revivalist and recent cancer survivor Sharon Jones made a midday set on the Mast Stage seem like both a dirt-floor dance party and a window in time to the prime days of Chess Records. When Jones took the microphone a cappella, pushing her vocal cords to their absolute brink, she evoked the ghost of James Brown. When she screamed “I am cancer-free and I feel good!” the joi de vivre could not be ignored.

So, while the only women in headlining groups turned out to be sidemen to commercially-proven male songwriters, I can't envision a male-dominated headliner list lasting much longer. The earlier sets belonged to women, as the future of music likewise belongs to women. Bravo keeping ahead of the curve, Forecastle.