Friday night storms slammed Waterfront Park, home to Louisville’s Forecastle Festival, prematurely ending headliner Sam Smith’s set and sending festivalgoers scrambling out of the park. Evidence of Hurricane Sam was still visible in the park on Saturday morning, particularly at the main Mast Stage, which was now devoid of its banners and signs and, most crucially, its video screens. In fact, to continue prepping the area, gate-opening times were delayed for over an hour — forcing fans to stand in blazing sun while Forecastle staffers distributed water — and early-entry members of the media were treated to a five-song soundcheck by Saturday headliners My Morning Jacket.
The delays also played hell with Saturday’s schedule, as start times all day were pushed back at least an hour. Once Baltimore’s Lower Dens got started under the overpass on the Ocean Stage, they wasted little time forging the pop-leaning direction of their impressive new Escape From Evil. Lead single “To Die in L.A.” came just two songs in, singer/songwriter Jana Hunter easing into some languid dance sways and supplying her aching vocals over the song’s defining keyboard pattern, unfortunately supplied via canned sample rather than a live player. “Feels like a pretty high dew point today”, Hunter observed dryly before moving to the dark dancy pulse of “Ondine”, eschewing the band’s krautrock past for something closer to the ‘80s synthpop of the Human League. “I Get Nervous” came next, which worked even better as the four-piece built to a gorgeously blurred modern-rock pulse anchored by Hunter’s dead-eyed stare and bleary genderfluid vocals.
Arkansas upstarts Knox Hamilton, named after the most rockin’-looking guy they could find in a random ‘70s-era high school yearbook, have been talking to right folks. With only one single — the delightful “Work It Out” — to their name, they somehow commanded a slot on the festival’s second-largest stage. With a set of well-behaved, beachy, big-chorus-embracing pop-rock, the band had no trouble winning over the crowd. “We mean no disrespect, but we’re going to play some new songs”, beardy singer Boots Copeland told the crowd before launching into “By No Means”, which had the crowd dancing to Copeland’s impressive falsetto and his brother Cobo Copeland’s skittering Charlie Watts drumming. With time for only one more, Boots joked, “Do you want to hear ‘Work It Out’ or something you’ve never heard before?” They played their single, of course, but the nine-year-old kid in front of the stage was going to bust out breakdance moves no matter what.
It was terribly hot for dancing of any kind, but it didn’t stop the eight-piece Mariachi El Bronx from wearing their full black charro outfits for their mainstage set. Most of the band make up post-hardcore outfit The Bronx for their day job, but they moonlight as a traditional mariachi band, a better fit for this sun-drenched all-smiles festival crowd. With accordion, violin, dueling trumpets, guitarróns, and a swinging rhythm section, the ensemble produced plump peals of danceable polkas and waltzes to a crowd challenged by serious heat. Potty-mouthed singer Matt Caughthran admitted to coming off a three-day bender for this gig, and his voice indeed sounded a bit strained, but the big band still gave the crowd plenty to zapateado to, highlights of which were the romantic “Norteńo Lights” and the Cuban-flavored “Revolution Girls”.
Nashville band Earl Burrows played to a small crowd at the Port Stage, crunching through four-to-the-bar heartland rock that fit somewhere between Weezer and Foghat. A strutting cover of T. Rex’s “20th Century Boy” tells part of the story with this band, although they played a handful of tunes from Earl’s upcoming EP, due in September, including “Hey Me Israeli”, with its Prince-like vocals and Les Paul squawk, that indicate that the band is full of surprises.
Back on the Boom Stage, The Revivalists defended their reputation as one of America’s hardest-working live bands. Throwing a full-scale New Orleans-steeped soul-rock bash, singer David Shaw, all lean musculature and Sideshow Bob hair, sprinted around the stage and belted out jive that made the crowd nearly forget how dehydrated they were. The Revivalists are the kind of musical powerhouse in which the organ player takes trumpet solos, so the Dixieland grooves stitched to jam-minded rock are built for go-big festival sets. At one point, Shaw even divided the crowd in half, Paul Stanley style, for a giant sing-off. By the way, did we mention that it was hot? Estimates in the park were that each festivalgoer was producing enough sweat every hour to fill a galvanized washtub. In fact, a reporter could be forgiven if he had to, say, go back to the media tent and pour ice-water over his head to avoid heatstroke, as a result missing planned coverage of mainstage act Desaparecidos.
Once recovered, that reporter could take in throwback country killer Chris Stapleton on the Boom Stage. Touring behind his solo debut Traveller, Stapleton comes off like a hell-raising good-ol’-boy who wears his hair down to his nipples and sleeps in his jeans. But there’s no mistaking either Stapleton’s burly badass vocals — a combination of throaty power and Big-Four-Bridge-rattling range — and his remarkable songwriting prowess, both on impressive display in Louisville. Opening with three straight tunes from the new album, Stapleton sang with chainsaw timbre on top of Ronnie Turner’s pedal steel and his wife Morgan Stapleton’s rose-colored harmonies. Stapleton hit the covers halfway through — “You are My Sunshine”, Rodney Crowell’s “I Ain’t Living Long Like This”, Tom Petty’s “You Don’t Know How It Feels” — before finishing with the thunder jam of “Outlaw State of Mind” and “Might as Well Get Stoned”, advice which many in the crowd took to heart.
It was Forecastle in full swing on the Mast Stage as The Word — the sacred steel supergroup featuring Robert Randolph, the North Mississippi Allstars, and keyboardist John Medeski. An almost entirely instrumental set, this was music that many in the crowd let wash over them, a few thousand of them seeking shade under the overpass a few hundred yards away from the action. Even more lay supine on tarps and blankets on the sprawling main stage lawn. On the other hand, hearty hippies packed close to the stage, bending knees and oscillating necks to the busy jams pouring forth. Randolph, at center stage in customary black do-rag and red pedal steel, anchored most of the tunes, while Medeski burpled and shimmied through the grooves. Things got extra-trippy when Cody Dickinson broke out the electric washboard, playing a spacey soundscape solo ideal for flashback induction and heat hallucination.
Shovels and Rope
On the Boom Stage, folkacana duo and PopMatters fave Shovels & Rope locked into formation — Cary Ann Hearst on her tattered Gibson acoustic and her husband Michael Trent on a three-piece drumkit and harmonica. It was the penultimate show of their current tour, and the band drew the crowd in like rustic Southern storytellers, opening with “Swimmin’ Time”, which evoked the flooding river waters just behind the stage, followed by “Stone River Blues”, the kind of drum-’n’-strum stomper that got them here. The duo switched places on “Bridge on Fire”, with Hearst simultaneously playing drums and doo-wop piano, and a John Hartford-nicking “Evil” rose to a screamy, clashing finish. The set hit a peak when Hearst addressed the tragedy in their hometown of Charleston, referring to the “sorry son of a bitch” who “cracked our heart in a thousand pieces” and expressing relief that South Carolina “finally took down that tacky-ass flag”. They dedicated “The Thread” to the victims, an emotional moment that held a massive audience in rapt attention.
Every now and then the War on Drugs frontman Adam Granduciel punctuates his lines with a cleansing “Whoo!”, a sentiment echoed by the crowd gathered for the night’s pre-headliner slot. His band opened on the main stage to “Arms Like Brothers” from 2008’s Wagonwheel Blues before the band turned its attention to last year’s Lost in the Dream, playing the bulk of that album. Granduciel strangled out guitar leads as the steady bass figure wove within the guitar riff, creating the band’s signature heartbeat. The elegant blend was embroidered with bass saxophone and mellophone for “An Ocean in Between the Waves”, and “Suffering” called to mind ‘85 Dylan with its slow-simmering harmonica and vocal register. The band lets the songs settle into a good long groove, with an arrangement of instruments and melodies that your uncle would have no problem with, and The War finished its winning set with a final witching-hour run of “Red Eyes”, “In Reverse”, and “Under the Pressure”, promoting communal euphoria from a grateful crowd. Whoo!
First Chris Stapleton earlier in the day, and later Sturgill Simpson, making for a trucker-craze-era country party for the ages. Comparisons to Outlaw legends are inevitable, and Simpson, one of this summer’s most ubiquitous festival figures, sang hard-twang versions of “Long White Line” and “A Little Light”, brimming with Telecaster snap and organ swamp. Sturgill dug out “Medicine Springs”, an old Stanley Brothers song, to play some bluegrass for Kentucky and took some hare-footed runs on his acoustic. Sturge slowed things down on his cover of “The Promise” which had folks reaching for the bourbon flasks because, hey, When In Rome. And a falcon-fast run through “Railroad of Sin” was spitting chicken-pickin’ guitar and Sister-Bobbyesque piano runs everywhere. The last third of the set was a jammier, druggier affair, stretching out “Some Days” with bass lines that suggest Waylon Jennings playing Electric Zoo, before capping the set with “Turtles All the Way Down” for a crowd who knew all the words and a final bluegrass rip through the Osborne Brothers’ “Listening to the Rain”.
My Morning Jacket
Hometown heroes My Morning Jacket played to the weekend’s largest crowd. The homecoming excitement for these guys was palpable in both the audience and on stage as an epic setlist was a guarantee, and only the city’s hard midnight curfew held Jacket to a 2.5 hour running time. Kicking off with “Believe”, which also opens this year’s The Waterfall, Jim James jogged around the stage with arms raised in the triumphant gesture of fellow Louisvillian Cassius Clay. Members of the Louisville Orchestra supplied strings on a handful of songs, as MMJ went on a barnstorming tour of its career, getting to “Mahgeetah” just two songs in, sounding like the Ohio River is where power pop, hair metal, and Skynyrd all meet up. “Off the Record”’s reggaeton grooves gave way to a long psychedelic outro that led to another Z track, “Wordless Chorus”, which prompted coordinated glowstick chucking during James’s dogwhistle-high falsetto shrieks. James was a force in Fly shades and Gene Simmons hair, teased to flyaway splendor, and brought all his best guises — the cape-wearing vamp, the hooded oh-how-they-danced druid, the towel-topped sound-fx wizard. (All which made the lack of video monitor on Saturday one of the weekend’s only bummers; why they never went back up was unclear and frustrating.) James offered some spread-the-love platitudes, just as guest vocalist Conor Oberst ambled out for a snuggly duet on “Wonderful”. “Gideon” found the band starting to rock even harder when drummer Patrick Hallahan pulled out his biggest, city-quaking hitting, strong enough concussions to threaten to evacuate the grounds once again.
The slow build of “Circuital” was a wonder, featuring James’s acoustic strumming and some of his best singing of the night. A main-set-closing “Lay Low” was a nod to old fans, with James in full hood-up Flying-V mode and second guitarist Carl Broemel playing searing leads. A long, five-song jam-heavy encore was a Louisville special as the band brought out former guitarist Johnny Quaid (who left in 2004), making for a triple-guitar attack that had fans reaching for their loved ones. Both “Steam Engine” and “Phone Went West” crossed the 12-minute marks, while “Touch Me I’m Going to Scream Pt. 2” brought waves of shroomy reverb guitar ambiance into a final, thrilling “One Big Holiday”, a crazy three-way guitar cage match that finally sent the audience to the showers, rocked to ear-splitting exhaustion after a long, sweaty day on the banks of the Ohio.