Photography by Mark Manary
In its twelfth year, Louisville’s nautical-themed Forecastle Festival, held on the city’s sprawling Waterfront Park, offering backdrops of both the skyline and the Ohio River, has gone big. With mega-headliners OutKast and Jack White and an impressive roots-heavy undercard, the festival expects record crowds this year, most of whom showed up early on Friday to kickstart the weekend as a steady mist did little to dampen the crowd’s spirits.
Benjamin Booker, the 22-year-old singer-guitarist and his raw-blues trio, got things going on the festival’s main stage, smoldering through lean, pickless guitar grease on his Epiphone 335. Booker drank a PBR tallboy and applied his raspy fire-flue vocals through an hour of jump tunes and stanky-basement jams. No guitar solos for this kid, just Chuck Berry chords and tremolo honey. Things got sleazier as they warmed up, even when the bassist played the fiddle and the drummer switched to mandolin.
Irish troubadour Foy Vance held court on one of the fest’s side stages, playing solo acoustic, fingerpicking on a Gibson hollow-body and belting alley-cat ballads like “You and I” and floating into a potboiled falsetto on a gorgeous “Joy of Nothing”. In a newsboy cap and you-must-pay-the-rent mustache, Vance got playful deep into the set, first by offering a stunning cover INXS’s “Never Tear Us Apart” and then switching to keys to lead the crowd in a singalong of Bruno Mars’ “Locked Out of Heaven”, of all things.
Against Me! came to Forecastle to rock the audience’s brains out as Laura Jane Grace sang herself hoarse and drummer Atom Willard went at it hammer and tongs during a blistering, none-more-black hour and fifteen. “I Was a Teenage Anarchist” and “Unconditional Love” led to ardent fist-pumping as the drizzling rain continued to fall throughout. Grace was a rock stud, singing “Black Me Out” in a full-throttled yowl and person-handling her guitar on a razorblade version of “Thrash Unreal”. Grace gave a shout-out to the LBGT community after “Transgender Dysphoria Blues” and got the crowd galloping to “Pint of Guinness Make You Strong” as the rain picked up during a the final run of a set that would prove to be one the day’s strongest.
St. Lucia, the New York by way of South Africa synth-popper, headed up a dance party on a small stage underneath the downtown overpass, the driest and hardest-drinking stage of the afternoon. Sporting neon ‘80s Hobie-wear, the band pummeled snare drums and keyboards, and frontman Sean-Phillip Grobler, moaned over “All Eyes on You” and the throbbing “September” as the crowd packed tight to the stage.
Meanwhile, half-pint folkie Willie Watson played an acoustic solo show on the Port Stage, toggling among clawhammered banjo and guitar, highlighting songs from the terrific new Folk Singer, Vol. 1. The former Old Crow Medicine Show multi-instrumentalist is all about folk authenticity, with his dust-bowl denim and hillbilly whine. He’s a deft player and vocalist, tapping and frailing like John Hartford on “Long John Dean” (on banjo) and “Keep It Clean” (on guitar).
Watson had plenty of sonic competition over on the main stage as wet peals of Gary Clark Jr’s guitar spilled across the lawn. Wearing a white t-shirt and Lil Abner hat and slinging a Gibson SG, Clark prowled the stage with nonchalant runs and thunder-thumb fingerpicking. “You Saved Me” was a highlight, with Clark scaling up and down filthily and crosscutting with his rhythm section’s ocean-groove beats. “It’s been real fun”, Clark drawled before launching into a set-closing “Bright Lights”, wearing out his guitar’s fifth fret with a series of fox-in-the-hole solos.
Local Natives played to a capacity audience on the Boom Stage, the fest’s second-largest, as attendance started swelling for the band’s percussion giddyup and three-part-harmony pop attack. Fresh from 12-hours of flight travel, the band hit the stage with worker-bee intensity. Hit singles “Airplanes” and “Wide Eyes” came late in the set, getting a bit overdainty at times with all the cymbal-and-keys affectations, but their thick blend of instrumental clatter and airy melodic singing won over an audience ready to bust loose on the fest’s opening night.
Spoon was next on the Boom Stage, opening with the one-two punch of “Rent I Pay” and “Don’t You Evah” before getting the crowd percolating with “Small Stakes” and setting a relentless pace that resulted in a career-spanning 22-song set. The band threw in a handful of cuts from their upcoming new album but otherwise stuck to their classics, hitting a run in the middle of sharply played fan favorites “I Turn My Camera On”, “You Got Yr Cherry Bomb”, and “Got Nuffin”. With rotating spotlights behind each of the five band members and a backdrop of a woman’s red fingernails looming over them, Spoon played their stlylish popsmart rock with precision and considerable thump. Britt Daniel’s straight-razor vocals were in fine shape for this show, his best moment coming during “I Summon You”, even when his acoustic guitar cut out, and a tambourine-infested “Trouble Comes Running”.
Everyone on the riverfront had been waiting all day for OutKast—Benjamin Booker, Local Natives, and Black Lips had all expressed their excitement for the headliners earlier in the day—and the classic rap duo didn’t disappoint. Continuing in its role as the festival-hoppers of the summer, the band has honed their set into a fierce 25-song onslaught. Andre 3000 and Big Boi sounded terrific, backed by live bass and drums (generously augmented by the DJ’s backing tracks), two horns, two backup singers, and sixty-thousand fans who knew all the words. Thankfully, OutKast performed full, faithful versions of their songs, opening with “B.O.B.” and “Gasoline Dreams”, an earthquaking beginning that announced their intentions for full-immersion ass-kicking. The duo played five straight cuts from Aquemini early on, the best of which was “Da Art of Storytelling, Part 1” with Andre cruising charismatically on his verse.
It was impossible to take your eyes of Dre all evening, in fact—sporting a white wig and a black body suit that read “Obvioulsy Obvious”, Dre sashayed around the stage, flirting with the audience, and providing the evening’s most electrifying vocal performances, particular on a mid-set solo turn of the slow-burning “She Lives in My Lap” and a fever-pitched “Hey Ya!” that was abetted by a stagefull of Daisy Duke-wearing girls plucked from the crowd. Big Boi’s solo spot was tougher, setting a flamethrower to the audience on “Kryptonite” and the soul-daddy punch of “The Way You Move”. Toward the end of the set, “Roses”, “So Fresh, So Clean” (featuring a backdrop of cows, strangely), and “The Whole World” sent the big crowd into the night, capping a long and misty day of music in Louisville.