Atlas Sound's Bradford Cox
Forecastle Festival 2012, Louisville, KY, July 13 - 15, 2012,
Jul 27, 2012 Web Exclusive
There's something about being able to walk through the familiar streets of a town you live in, the final destination a music festival. Parking in the same lot you do each day for work, walking toward the Ohio River, but knowing the familiar Waterfront Park will be transformed, decked out in a music lover's heavenly village. Five stages, a bourbon lounge (this is Kentucky, after all), and a slew of really ridiculous fish floats on sticks that a strange army of festival volunteers carries around throughout the day.
A forecastle is the part of a ship where the crew lives. The three-day festival in Louisville, Kentucky has a nautical feel, which feels appropriate because you can look beyond the two main stages into the river. A Joe's Crab Shack restaurant abuts the Boom Stage. The other stages are named accordingly: Mast, Red Bull Ocean, Starboard, and Port. Louisville's not exactly an exotic town—it's one steeped in steamboat history—but the idea for this dream-like theme for a festival is one that brings out the best of it.
This is Forecastle X. It's 11 years after the first Forecastle Festival played out in a tiny park at the end of my street. This year's festival was expected to bring 35,000 people to town. Considering it shared a weekend with Pitchfork Music Festival and Cincinnati's Bunbury Music Festival, the crowds were large, unstoppable, and the friendliest of any festival I've ever experienced.
Friday evening began with The Head and the Heart. The six-piece band was returning to town for their second time in a few months, and the crowd was fiercely loyal. The band did a lot less chatting this time, focusing on wooing their audience with songs from their self-titled debut. "Down in the Valley" and "Rivers and Roads" both began meagerly, growing into enormous, cathartic ballads.
Josiah Johnson and Jonathan Russell are the main songwriters in the band, and both alternate on vocals. The two could not be more different; Johnson rocked cut-off jean shorts and a T-shirt, while Russell was looking snazzy in a button-up and tie. But this feeling that each band member comes from such a different walk of life—yet work together to make some of the most beautiful folk-pop songs—is refreshing. With harmonies floating atop the rich sound of Charity Rose Thielen's violin and the generous sprinkling of keyboard, it's easy to feel completely swept away. Ben Sollee joining the band onstage with his cello elevating The Head and the Heart to an even more lush, orchestral sound. Many of their songs have a sense of traveling, the pains and joys of moving around the country, and the crowd sailed that journey during their set without leaving Waterfront Park.
Bradford Cox of Atlas Sound commanded a crowd at one of the side stages that evening. The setup was relatively simple; from what I could see it was Cox, a harmonica, an acoustic guitar, and some effects pedals on the small stage backed with long rectangular video screens covered with desert scenes. Many of the songs were tamer than those he plays with Deerhunter, and the show was much less immersive than those I've seen him play with a full band.
I was skeptical to see Beach House in an outdoor festival setting, on the huge stage next to the Joe's Crab Shack. The last time I caught them live was at a sold out show at Cleveland's Beachland Ballroom, a supreme indoor venue with the very best acoustics. What makes the duo (a three-piece live) so impressive is this heavy, dream-like atmosphere that surrounds the listeners in a haze. It's usually accentuated with a dark room and glowing, disco ball-like lighting effects. They blew my expectations to pieces, though, rocking just as hard in the light of day, the only thing altering the perception a thick wall of smoke machine haze.
While the Baltimore band littered the set with handfuls of gems from the Bloom, the most recent album, they also found time for favorites from the three previous full lengths. You could feel the tribal pulse of percussion in "Norway," which felt incredibly sedate and all encompassing.
"We don't do any cheesy crowd involvement stuff," explained guitarist Alex Scally. "But we'll do our best to take you somewhere." And travel we did, to a hypnotic state of bliss, the sort of strange other world to which dream pop alone can transport you. Vocalist Victoria Legrand played the organ with absolutely no facial expression. You realized she was indeed awake every now and then when her and Scally doubled in half, playing in unison with percussionist Daniel Franz while bobbing their heads like rag dolls, as if the power of the music was too much to handle standing up.
Before playing "Zebra," the opener on 2010's Teen Dream, Legrand explained that the next song they would play made people happy—even babies. They followed it with "Myth," the first track on Bloom, where every note floated into the next seamlessly. As the sun set behind them, the smoke swirled in front of them, and the percussion exploded into a thousand fireworks, I thought Forecastle had reached its peak.
But we were long from discovering the X on our treasure maps. After all, Sleigh Bells had just begun. "Have a heart," sang Alexis Krauss repeatedly in "Rill, Rill," one of the highlights of set. But really, what this show made me think of was soul. Not in the sense of R&B. As in, if you didn't feel Derek Miller and Krauss' beats enough to shake your body mercilessly, you might not have a soul. The guitar shredding and viciously gritty beats might as well have stretched to the next city. Krauss flopped like a dying fish (in the best possible way, I swear), head-banging all through "A/B Machines." The scorching heat of the jagged, raw beats was almost too much to handle. But if you like your crowds wild, your guitar riffs earth-shattering, and your sound system crunchy, this was a whole new kind of heaven.
JEFF the Brotherhood rocked out through a scathing set of burning rockers. The two brothers made a lot of sound between a drum set and guitar, and the set only got better as it went on. A mix of garage rock, with the reverby psychedelia turned up slightly, this was the place to be to escape the synthy dance music that they were sandwiched between.
Here's the part where I talk about my newfound addiction to electronic dance music. I like a little Skrillex as much as the next dudebro (although David Guetta still can't get through to me—sorry!). I'd never listened to Bassnectar before. Let's face it. I just don't feel like listening to such bass-heavy music out of my tinny JBL speaker is going to do it any justice. I was absolutely right.
Standing in the front row of a Bassnectar show is an out-of-body, otherworldly experience. I can't breathe just thinking about it. The rumble of the bass was so overpowering, so incredibly moving that every organ shuddered and something was screaming inside of me, "this cannot be healthy!" And maybe because it felt so wrong, it was also one of the most powerfully thrilling feelings I've ever had. I am a self-proclaimed concert dancer (i.e. I'm one of those people who can't help but bobbing my knees even when I'm listening to some bummer acoustic guitar show where everyone surrounding me is at the peak of their too-cool-to-smile hipsterdom) and this was next-level for me. Not only could my knees not stay still, but I felt my whole body swaying unwillingly.
I wish I could describe the music itself a little better. I mean, how do you talk about dance music with no pattern? It continues to change and evolve with a similar tempo, and every now and then you get a huge bass drop that makes you want to die of happiness. And it just goes on like that for hours, until you're exhausted and you have no idea why your body didn't shut down hours ago. Bassnectar is Lorin Ashton, a California native with really long hair. He bounces around a bit, but mostly hides behind a huge video screen, where you see his head peaking on top. The real show is the crowd, thousands of people who waited for hours for a good spot where the bass goes straight to your head and your heart. Hands in the air, glowsticks everywhere, everyone just looked so happy.
The day was almost over, but not before a little Sleeper Agent action. The Bowling Green, Kentucky band has recently emerged from the college town, graduating to some radio play and media attention. They held their own on a stage across the park from Bassnectar, bouncing around with a brand of rock that's spiked with youthful rebellion. The traction they're gaining is sure to grow if they keep putting out music like their 2011 debut, Celebrasion.
A little rain couldn't spoil a festival literally named for people who live on a ship. Well, it was actually a lot of rain—enough to push back the start time for the second day by an hour and a half or so. Luckily, the rain let up quickly enough that each band just cut a couple songs from the set list, and nobody had to go home without taking the stage.
Wye Oak was the first stop of the day. Something about Jenn Wasner's voice has always reminded me of The Cranberries. It's got this really melancholy hurt to it, which came off as cripplingly depressing in a live setting. So much so that I found myself clenching my jaw without even noticing. But, as stated earlier, I find joy and an excuse to bounce my knees at even the most somber of sets, and this was no exception. The musicianship between Wasner and keyboardist/percussionist Andy Stack was impeccable. Stack plays the drums with one hand, the cymbals with his feet, and uses his other hand to play the keyboard. It's impressive.
The Baltimore duo (Have you noticed how many male/female duos played Forecastle this year? We're at three so far.) stepped out of their gloom pop to play a new song called "Spiral." Stack broke out a bass guitar, Wasner cranked up the reverb on her guitar, and they added a disco beat to the mix. It's probably what it would sound like if an Old Navy commercial was taken over by evil robots. Wye Oak closed the set with a rousing, feedback-drenched version of "Civilian," the title track on their latest album. It was as close as this band gets to a sing-a-long, with a more melodic chorus and chugging percussion. Surprisingly to me, this set was the one stuck in my head at the end of the festival.
A stop by Wick-it the Instigator's stage was next. The mixologist took over the turntables to mash up everything from M.I.A.'s "Bad Girls" to '80s pop songs. He played a few different songs off The Brothers of Chico Dusty, which mixes The Black Keys and Big Boi. My favorite is "Black Bug," which combines "Tighten Up" with "Shutterbugg." Anyone who was seeing Girl Talk that night was probably warming up at this show.
For a guy with such a storied past, Justin Townes Earle comes off as a gentleman in his live show. Throughout his set of songs such as "One More Night in Brooklyn," he chatted with the crowd about everything from bad landlords to heartbreak. His tone was so easygoing, it's as if he was having a conversation with an old friend. At one point he dedicated a song to his mother. But he proceeded to make a snide remark about how she wasn't very good at her job, but she had to be when his dad, musician Steve Earle, wasn't around. Many of his songs reference his relationship with his absent father, and it was equally sad and interesting to get an inside glimpse at Earle's struggles.
The quality of the musicianship amongst Earle's bandmates was impeccable, further accentuating the raw edges of his imperfect growl. Full and round, the whole set shone with country twinge and rock 'n' roll heart. Earle finished the show with a cover of The Replacements' "Can't Hardly Wait" and the whole crowd got a taste of his happier moments.
The only thing that could have made the Real Estate show better was a stage surrounded by a huge swimming pool, where all the sweaty music lovers could wade while they bask in the sunshine that is their music. Gooey sound waves emanated from the New Jersey band from the first song, the instrumental "Kinder Blumen." The colors of their guitars—seafoam green, banana yellow—represented their sound, a pastel, sweet trip to the beach. The breeziness of these summery pop songs goes on for days, loopy and reverb-soaked and full of nothing objectionable and everything that gives you warm feelings.
Nobody in the band ever really looks excited. They gazed into the crowd blankly, and it looked like they had no idea how their music could be putting their audience in a trance. At times, songs such as "Easy" and "It's Real," off 2011's Days are jangly. With nondescript vocal melodies, this music can come off like The Beach Boys for the mumblecore generation. Adding to the coastal vibe, the crowd tossed around bright orange beach balls toward the end of the set. "All the Same" closed the show with guitar riffs that snaked around in circles, a shimmering jam that left listeners in a blissed out state.
Washed Out could aspire for the same state of mind, but the synths just seemed to fall short in a live setting. While the crowd danced to songs like "Amor Fati" and "Eyes Be Closed," some of the material felt a little too soft and sloppy to really be immersive on such a hot day with so many competing acts.
My Morning Jacket is a special kind of legend in Louisville. Though not all of them live here anymore, they claim the city as its hometown. And they are rewarded for it, looked upon as rock gods, the sort of legend that you only regard with the utmost respect. They sold out their last show at the Louisville Palace, and streamed the whole thing live for anyone in the world who didn't get tickets. And, lucky for you, you can catch their entire Forecastle performance on YouTube if this review doesn't sufficiently take you back in time to one of the most epic Saturday nights known to the commonwealth of Kentucky.
Things kicked off to a great start when Preservation Hall Jazz Band joined MMJ onstage for "Holdin On to Black Metal," the most vibrant song on Circuital. All the extra horns only made the band's huge sound richer. Covers of Elton John's "Rocket Man" and The Band's "Makes No Difference" added to the set, but MMJ outdid itself when it took on Wham!'s "Careless Whisper" in the encore. "George Michael gets a lot of shit," proclaimed frontman Jim James. "But he's a fucking genius."
Such classic MMJ hits as "Wordless Chorus" and "Mahgeetah" littered the set, but what impressed me was their ability to incorporate "Touch Me I'm Going to Scream, Pt. 2," an oddball musing off Evil Urges. It's the record that made me fall for MMJ, the 2008 breakthrough where they decided they could do whatever in the world they wanted with their music, and they could not be pigeonholed. They could do Prince falsettos and trippy electronic synth music, and the world would still love them. It's this sort of non-contrived, balls out, unafraid, genuine joy for music that makes them such an important band of the past decade.
Andrew Bird added violin to closer "Gideon," but the band came back for more, playing the first two tracks off Circuital, "Careless Whisper," and a rousing version of "One Big Holiday." It's the jam that goes on forever and ever, stretching so loud and so long it's a wonder that anyone in the band has the energy to close out the night with it. But they always do, and that's what keeps MMJ's fierce fan base coming back for more every time.
Coming off a few shows in Europe, Cincinnati's Walk the Moon started the day off with an incredible energy that threatened to swallow the crowd full. Covered in their signature face paint, the band danced and stomped through a quick set of vibrant synthy pop songs. Popular songs included "Anna Sun" and "Tightrope," but they took us back a couple decades for "Lisa Baby," a disco-infused number with bouncy bass and a rocking motion.
No stage chatter was going to slow down Cloud Nothings. The Cleveland natives were on a rampage to play hard and fast, no interruptions allowed. Dylan Baldi seems like a quiet guy who just happens to front an insanely loud rock band. Most of the songs in the set came from 2012's Attack on Memory. "Fall In" sounded great live, a rush of melodic garage rock that urges the body to jerk back and forth. Bass player, TJ Duke, added crucial rhythm to a very feedback-heavy set.
The band stretched "Wasted Days" from a nine-minute song into a 20-minute assault. Speed-of-sound riffs slowed down and stretched out into druggy interludes that gave the band a break from the heavy shredding. It was hard to distinguish whether some of it was part of the song, or just ambient musings. It may have lost a little traction with the crowd, but Cloud Nothings pushed into the next song without a problem. Anyone with a tolerance for walls of sound kept up just fine.
Deer Tick was next to take the same stage. Starting with my personal favorite, "Art Isn't Real (City of Sin)," off their debut record, we were in for a varied set full of country, folk, and rock 'n' roll. Every member of the band started the show with a pink cowboy hat. "We're full grown men, but we act like kids," John McCauley howls in the country swinger, "The Bump," a pretty apt description of their behavior. He's known for getting naked and lighting dollar bills on fire inside his mouth in the middle of shows, but he must have been in the mood to behave at Forecastle.
"Main Street" and "Miss K." added nicely to the set. The band alternates singers, so when the drummer took the mic, McCauley jabbed, "He can do more than drum. He's also really good at Scrabble." The whole attitude of the show was easygoing like that. It was a welcoming atmosphere for fans and new listeners alike, the perfect kind of band to see outdoors on a hot day.
Fruit Bats seem to be the perfect example of easy living. Such Fruit Bats songs as "When U Love Somebody" have the carefree feeling of a night under the stars with that special someone. It's hard to not just drift off during the set, taken away by the acoustic musings to that favorite daydream. Eric Johnson's distinctive vocals cut through intricate pop songs with just the right amount of reverb to take the edge away.
Budding singer-songwriter Cheyenne Marie Mize was given an unfortunate slot competing with Neko Case, so not nearly enough people got to hear her powerful set. "Wishing Well," a favorite, is an a cappella swampy folk song with tribal-like percussion. Her voice is incredible, a soulful, smoky tone that truly shines. Some of her songs tiptoed into a murky area, but as soon as she found her edge, her crowd was drawn to her.
And then it was a waiting game for Wilco, a band that I had seen live, but never in the festival setting. While Forecastle reached so many peaks throughout the weekend, this was the real treasure. "Poor Places" opened the set, one of the five songs that they played from their classic record, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. It was a slow start, warming up for the feedback-drenched "Art of Almost," where Nels Cline displayed his first insane guitar breakdown of many. "Impossible Germany" was mind-blowingly euphoric; a revelation that maybe the right guitar solo can change the world. (Maybe I'm being hyperbolic? But let me be. It's Wilco.)
More songs off last year's The Whole Love included "I Might" and "Born Alone." "At Least That's What You Said" started as a tiny acoustic number, but erupted into monster riffs and a sound so huge it could knock you down. Wilco grooved on it for what seemed like forever, in the best possible way.
The keyboards twinkled so gently on "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart" that it seemed to allude to the delicacy of the song's subject. Like many of the band's best songs, it ends in a mess of feedback and twisted emotions. "Heavy Metal Drummer" transitioned fluidly into "I'm the Man Who Loves You," in the same order as the album.
While Wilco walked away without an encore, at least we can chalk it up to them ending with an enthusiastic "A Shot in the Arm." The Summerteeth song was the ultimate closer; I was actually in such a state of happiness that I was jumping up and down like a fool. I know the song is almost certainly about heroin, but I couldn't help but think that Wilco was really all I needed to keep living.
And living we did this weekend. Forecastle 2012 actually brought me back to life, woke something inside of me that's been desperately missing. Waterfront Park has since been cleaned, the stages removed, but the memories... those stay there. The figurative ship has sailed, but if we're lucky, it will dock again in the same place, at the same time next year. And we can only hope that it lives up to this 10th anniversary, a landmark for both the festival and the city of Louisville.