Louisville’s three-day Forecastle Festival kicked off its 13th installment this weekend, a year after breaking its previous attendance records and joining the ranks of summer’s biggest multi-day music festivals. For this year’s lineup, Forecastle leaned heavily on new music, with little in the way of vintage names. Road warriors Widespread Panic are the closest the festival comes to a classic band, and once-indie big-leaguers Modest Mouse, My Morning Jacket, and Jeff Tweedy amount to this year’s heritage acts. Last year, some of the acts, like the Replacements and Dwight Yoakam, reached all the way back to the ancient ‘80s, but no such nostalgia exists for Forecastle this year. In fact, the top-billed headliner, Sam Smith, is touring in support of his debut album.
Smith took Louisville by storm this year–more on that in a bit. In fact, much of the talk of the fest coming in was weather-related: Louisville had been pounded in recent days by heavy rains, causing flooding along the waterfront, and the weekend’s forecast predicted temperatures in the upper 90s. With the festival’s four-stage layout, emphasis on bourbon, and relative lack of shade, Forecastle can lay waste to you, especially in triple-digit heat indexes. On opening day, a bit of cloud cover provided some relief to a long sweaty day that ended in dramatic, gale-force fashion.
Forecastle ‘15 kicked off with Empires on the Ocean Stage, tucked under an overpass near the festival’s entrance. The Chicago four-piece channeled reverb-sodden tones that ricocheted off the bridge. It was a mashup of indie-rock tropes–the smoldering Jesus-y singer, the ironically-mustachioed bassist, and the Mustang-rock hero guitarist. “Please Don’t Tell My Lover” came early, featuring singer Sean Van Vleet’s most carnal baritone, and “How Good Does It Feel” came late, a democratizing major-chord chug that mobilized a crowd starting to find its legs.
Parker Millsap led a trio of upright bass, fiddle, and Millsap’s own thumbpicked Martin guitar over on the small Port Stage. The Oklahoma singer-songwriter had a few girls in the crowd squealing as he moaned “The Morning Blues” like a young rockabilly stud with his shirt unbuttoned sub-sternum. He blew some scattershot harp over the fast-train choogle of “Take It to the End of the Line” and blended his falsetto with slide guitar on a slow-burn cover of Robert Johnson’s “Me and the Devil Blues” to cap a short and satisfying set.
If indie bands have evolved into a post-ironic embrace of ‘80s monoculturist dad-rock, no moment made it clearer that Milo Greene’s faithful cover of Phil Collins’ “Take Me Home”. It came mid-set on the festival’s main stage, squeezed among the quintet’s thick wash of wet-guitar and ocean-wave synth. With hazy four-part harmonies on highlights like “What’s the Matter” and “Lie to Me”, from this year’s Control, Milo’s willowy, rhythmic swirl recalled the summer of ‘84, right down to the band’s sensible, light cottonwear.
Speaking of sartorial flow, Cathedrals were led by unshod singer Brodie Jenkins, who writhed out tribal dance moves in a long generously-slit black dress in front of a drummer pounding out cartilage-dislodging bass-drum throbs. Thumb-selecting samples from her mic-stand while cohort Johnny Hwin played chiming figures on a black Stratocaster, Cathedrals blended trip-hop and dance pop for a crowd heating up as temps crept into the ’90s, although the guy in the full chicken suit in front of the stage didn’t seem to mind.
Back at the Port Stage, Sister Sparrow and the Dirty Birds led a different dance party in the band’s first-ever Louisville appearance. Arleigh Kincheloe shook it with boundless soul spirit in front of a six-piece band that transported the crowd with its mix of trumpet, bass sax, and harmonica. “We’re having a party in the sunshine, baby!” Kincheloe declared before launching into “Sugar”, an early peak, and really elevated the festivities with a slow, libidinous version of Michael Jackson’s “The Way You Make Me Feel”. Kincheloe danced hard but really impressed when flexing her soul-splitting squall, the perfect complement to all that wah-wah trumpet and filthy blues harp.
JEFF the Brotherhood singer/guitarist Jake Orrall complained about the heat after nearly every song, battling the rising temps by losing the shirt, cracking open another PBR tall boy, and leaning into the Nashville band’s stanky basement jams. Orrall’s stonewashed jeans looked great through his plexiglass guitar, even if the crowd couldn’t fully connect to JEFF’s maximum heaviosity. Still, puke-in-your-locker fuzz-rock like “In My Dreams” sent concussive waves through the midday crowd, who perked up for the band’s eff-yeah version of Neil Young’s “Cinnamon Girl”.
On the main stage (The Mast Stage, keeping with the festival’s nautical theme), ZZ Ward showed off a polished stage strut and razorblade three-piece rock band. “This is so fun!” she yelled, as she flirted with the crowd in a Liza-like black vest, shorts, and fedora. Her three-piece band’s caustic rock assault threatened to overwhelm the set at times, but Ward worked it nonstop: She belted out the blues while sitting on a stool, slithered into deep-squat seduction on “Criminal”, blew some chirping harmonica on “Mary Well”, and got the biggest crowd response on the sample-abetted banger “Blue Eyes Blind”.
People Under the Stairs
Over at the Ocean Stage, the fest’s designated hip-hop and EDM stage, People Under the Stairs body-rocked the large crowd who appreciated PUTS’ old-school hip-hop boogie. These L.A.-based rap lifers kept it simple–Double K punched in the tracks and joined Thes One on a tandem, toggling MC attack. The insanely infectious “Trippin’ at the Disco” was the set’s high point, but the crowd also roared when Double K broke into his beatbox moment and during “Beer”, which prompted the crowd to hoist their cups. The size and wide demographic of the crowd for The P offer proof at Forecastle that old-school rap has become the new classic rock.
A small crowd checking out Fly Golden Eagle was rewarded with the Nashville outfit’s groovy weirdness. Singer Ben Trimble’s helium tenor adorned a psychedelic goulash of dark-ride organ, hopscotching bass, and leisure-slacks gospel-funk. At times, Trimble took some mystical leads, stepping on the flanger pedal out of consideration for the jam-minded in the audience. “This is your day; make the most of it!” Trimble advised. Fly Golden Eagle did their share to further that cause.
Cold War Kids
One of the day’s largest, most-enthusiastic crowds gathered for Cold War Kids at the Boom Stage, the fest’s second-largest venuet. The band didn’t waste a lot of time getting to the haymakers, opening with “All This Could Be Yours” and leading massive singalongs on “First” and “Hang Me Out to Dry”. The band put aside any indie-cool detachment, going for unabashed crowd-pleasing and clapalongs on songs like “Drive Desperate” and “Hospital Beds”, complete with singer Nathan Willett’s pounding piano. The band finished big–amid blue backlights and the fog machine dialed all the way up — with “Something is Not Right With Me”. The Kids’ piled a dual tamborine attack, a scratchy Telecaster, and a slamming bass drum–a percussive charge that turned the portapotties into wobbling weebles.
St. Paul and the Broken Bones
The day after the All-Star Game isn’t typically great suit weather, but St. Paul and the Broken Bones pulled it off. Paul Janeway looks like a comic-book clerk, but when he lets loose with his brassy gargle, he becomes an unlikely soul hero. Coming off of recent opening gigs for the Rolling Stones, Paul and the BBs are hitting a stride, evidenced by the sprawling crowd who put their hands in the air with holy-revival testaments of soul-fever faith. Janeway claimed he’d been fighting a throat infection, but you’d never know it by the way his voice sailed on a set-closing “Call Me”, riding high over the Bones’ three-piece horn section. At the far back of the mainstage lawn, fans can play games like ping-pong or cornhole, but even those folks stopped their games to check out the Memphis-style soul party that St. Paul was dealing.
Meanwhile on the Port Stage, Brooklyn’s San Fermin created their stylish ensemble pieces. The Brooklyn band squeezed eight musicians onto the small stage, making room for trumpet, violin, and bass saxophone. Singer Allen Tate murmured in his smoldering baritone on “Emily” from the terrific new Jackrabbit, a choice display of the group’s elegant orchestral pop. The band’s calling card, however, is Charlene Kay’s mercurial voice, able to lift above San Fermin’s layered potpourri, and Kay, keeping with the band’s none-more-black fashion sense, went for baroque on those high notes on a crowd-galvanizing “Sonsick,” played late in the set.
It was off to the Ocean Stage for one of the day’s most high-energy dance parties: Kiesza. With a live drummer, a keyboard/laptop player, and two backup dancers, the Canadian spitfire hit the stage in ripped black jeans and a knotted shirt. It was Kiesza’s first time in Kentucky, and she made it count, whipping her shock of red hair on jazzercize dance moves and twirling a mic stand covered in red LED lights. Kiesza also flexed a potent soprano on “Vietnam”, sounding remarkable amid all the aerobics, and when she stayed still on the soaring “Sound of a Woman”, she turned in one of the day’s best vocal performance. By the time she got to her hit Jack Ü duet “Take Ü There” and the set-closing “Hideaway”, the jubilant crowd was sweaty and slayed.
The Gaslight Anthem
The Gaslight Anthem played the Boom Stage and got a rise from the crowd on the American Slang nugget “The Spirit of Jazz” during a set that was both surprisingly chilled out and lightly attended. There were some highlights, including a percolating mashup of Gashlight’s “Red at Night” and Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire”, a nod to Jersey kinship and an appropriate sentiment since singer Brian Fallon went with long-sleeves on a 92-degree day. Not all the songs worked as well. “Too Much Blood” was sludgy, with Fallon’s voice lost in the mix, and the band only really captured the festival crowd with a spirited “‘59 Sound”, a case of too little, too late.
Cage the Elephant
It was clear where all the people were. On the big Mast Stage, Cage the Elephant was demonstrating the proper way to play to a summertime festival crowd. Singer Matt Shultz snaked and bashed around the stage, shed his shirt, and body-surfed the crowd, all during the first minute of “No Rest for the Wicked”. As the waning sun started to provide some relief, the band was locked into silvery, funk-laced arrangements of their best-loved songs–adding more zip compared to the studio versions — as the band was clearly having a blast with a juiced-up, beach-ball-batting crowd. The star of the show was Shultz’s voice, a gleaming tenor that was sinewy and athletic for an hour-fifteen, reaching supreme elevation on a stellar, cathartic reading of “Telescope” midway through the set.
A schedule change earlier in the day moved Toronto indie-rockers Alvvays to an 8 p.m. slot. Good thing, as the dusk was an ideal backdrop to the four-piece band’s romantic jangle. Keyboardist Kerri MacKellan supplied mismatched clothes and nervy synth lines, while singer Molly Rankin’s sweet, lithe vocals made for sonically faithful version of songs from the band’s excellent self-titled debut album. Alvvays played last year’s buzz song “Archie, Marry Me” early on before getting shoegazey on a fuzzy version of Deerhunter’s “Nosebleed” at the halfway mark. Rankin sounded most vulnerable on “Dives”, radiating innocence and warmth, and “Party Police” and “Adult Diversion” at set’s end created a swirling, yearning finale to one of the day’s most satisfying showcases.
As the sun finally set, Houndmouth took the stage bathed in the orange glow of the band’s neon logo. The crowd swelled to bursting as Cage fans streamed over throughout the set, and Houndmouth, from state-next-door Indiana, played with last-chance passion, delivering a string of Americana killers and shimmery soul-country romps. On “Comin Around Again”, singer-guitarist Matt Myers let it rip on a bladder-destabilizing solo that suggested he isn’t kidding with his Bon Jovi t-shirt. Myers also wore a purple Opry jacket and hip-hugging Summer-of-Love pants, which indicated a range of influence that gave rise to a smoky-blue guitar solo on “Palmyra” and the desert-glow twang of “Sedona.” Bassist Zak Appleby and keyboardist Katie Toupin each took turns on lead vocals, on “Hey Rose” and “Casino (Bad Things)”, respectively, and the band slipped around each other on the stage during an extra sweaty final run of a stuttery “Say It” and a grease-slinging “My Cousin Greg”. “If this is the first time you’re seeing us, welcome to the party!” Myers told the crowd. With the size and enthusiasm of this particular party at Forcastle, Houndmouth proved to be a band not so much on the verge but one in fully-formed command.
The first notes of “I’m Not the Only One” rang out on the main stage and Sam Smith strolled out a few minutes early of his planned start time. It turns out, he needed every bit of that extra time as his set would be cut off after just 35 minutes. The good news is that, in his first U.S. show after his well-publicized throat surgery forced him to cancel several shows, Smith’s thermospheric voice sounded stronger than ever. Smith was in fine form all around, doing sliding dance moves with his backup singers and leading one singalong after another with the crowd, including a rapturous “Like I Can.” His band, a horn-and-synth-drunk affair, could follow Smith anywhere, and they helped tickle the crowd by backing Smith on covers of Amy Winehouse’s “Tears Dry on Their Own”, which morphed into a thumping “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” Smith also sang a gorgeous acapella snippet of Elvis’s “Can’t Help Falling in Love” just as a grand fireworks display lit up the sky. “Not in the Way” was a piano-only ballad, and “Can I Lay” showed off the full extent of Smith’s vocal power. Soon after, a temperature-plummeting breeze hit the crowd, prompting squeals of delight. It became immediately clear that these winds were gaining speed dramatically–up to 60 mph. Suddenly, the music came to an abrupt mid-song stop, Smith was whisked off stage, and a shaken-sounding announcer told the crowd to exit the park, safely but quickly. As a dangerous storm approached the festival grounds, the air was a howl of gale-force winds and the panicked din of 50,000 people booking it for shelter. It was a disappointing Day 1 finish for Smith’s fans and the singer’s big comeback, but it’s safe to say that Smith blew this audience away just before the weather did, capping a busy, memorable first day of Forecastle 2015.