Forecastle Festival | 07.10 - 07.12 | KY

Words by: Frank Etheridge | Images by: Ian Rawn

Forecastle Festival :: 07.10.09 – 07.12.09 :: Louisville, KY

Forecastle Festival 2009
Heading into the 8th Annual Forecastle Festival last weekend in Louisville, Kentucky, it seemed hardly anyone knew what to expect. From fans and bands to vendors and organizers, along with a slew of activists promoting myriad environmental causes, there were plenty of unknowns as this formerly small-scale festival made the jump to the big leagues in 2009. Thanks to the vision of producer JK McKnight, and due in large part to the sure-fire draw two nights of Widespread Panic guarantees and the traveling circus that accompanies it, this year's Forecastle was a success.

Typically a naval term pronounced 'fo'ksul' and defined as the forward part of the main deck of a ship, Forecastle the festival held an oddly executed aquatic theme (buoys and nets hung in trees, pirate emcees at BMX events) in a decidedly urban setting. Backed by the Ohio River and flanked on all sides by tall buildings, its sidewalks, stairways and fountains had a Mall of America feel, especially when you're tailgating in a parking garage and drawing comparisons to established festival grounds such as the Narnia feel that permeates the forested paths of Rothbury in Michigan or the majestic live oaks of the Spirit of the Suwanee in Florida. There was plenty of well-branded product marketing, but little access to water (though it was quite hot and humid at points over the weekend). These factors proved a bit jarring to many veteran fest-goers.

In addition to a stellar music lineup, a strong element of activism geared toward educating festivalgoers on the need for and means towards achieving sustainable environmental and agricultural practices was clearly an integral part of McKnight's concept for the revamped event. The activism area, given prominent placement in the center of the festival grounds, featured the Sustainable Living Roadshow, with its information booths on topics such as GMOs (genetically modified organisms) and an earth peace mandala (a concentric diagram that is used as a spiritual teaching tool in Buddhist and Hindu traditions) erected under the direction of artist Veronica Ramirez. Activists were also given plenty of stage time to voice their causes and concerns.

Yet, the info booths looked like lonely wallflowers, their pamphlets and brochures largely ignored, and the appearances on stage drew little reaction from the audience. Perhaps the activism element will mesh more smoothly with the overall festival vibe in years to come as it is more established. And if even one person became a believer in sustainable practices, then it would perhaps be worth the considerable effort.

Even though the crowd, roughly estimated at 9,000 on Saturday and Sunday, was dominated by Spreadheads, over the three days the three stages at Forecastle boasted a diverse offering of DJs, indie, punk, metal, Southern rock, bluegrass and more, featuring polished veterans and hungry up-and-comers. Panic was the icing on this cake, capping off the festival with a marathon show on Sunday of epic proportions.

Friday, 07.10

Cage the Elephant :: Forecastle Festival 2009
The energy surrounding the Galt House, the stately, historic hotel annexed to the festival, bubbled up from excited to electric early Friday afternoon. Clearly, the carnival was in town.

Cage the Elephant, a punk band from nearby Bowling Green that garnered the most attention in the local media, kicked off the large West Stage, delivering a fast and furious set at ear-splitting decibels, as frontman Matt Shultz moved about with an Iggy Pop-like swagger. Next on the smaller East Stage, Nashville's The Young Republic performed a solid set with a unique sound that moved on heavy percussion mixed with doses of psychedelic guitar, bluesy harmonic, violin, ragtime piano and crazed chord progressions.

The program had "Last Pick Promotion Winner" listed next on the East Stage. "Damn," I thought, "what an unfortunate name for such a kick-ass band." I soon found out the band's real name was The Last Straw, and their short set simply killed. A last-minute addition to the festival lineup, this fearsome five-piece from Murfreesboro, Tennessee played with the ferocity of a caged animal. The sweet slide guitar work of guitarist Quincey Meeks, who played and looked like a rock star with his mirrored aviator shades, is a perfect match for the soulful-yet-forceful, Southern-fried vocals of Kyle Daniel, and the entire band performed with a cohesive tightness. Expect them to be added to many festival lineups in the future.

Hailing from Athens, Georgia, The Whigs' heavy rock-pop, mixed with just a hint of Pink Floyd, came next on the West Stage and was followed by the orchestral madness of Zappa Plays Zappa, with the late Frank Zappa's son, Dweezil Zappa, leading his band through a set of his father's music. Considering the compositional complexity of the music and the fact that it's drawing from such an extensive catalogue of more than 80 albums, this is no small task. But lead guitarist Dweezil, who thrilled the crowd with a number of deft solos, has amassed a band up to the challenge, featuring the excellent work of saxophonist and keyboardist Scheila Gonzalez and lightning fast vibes play of Billy Hulting. This set was more like a seamless symphony than a rock show. Judging from the thrilled audience reaction, Zappa Plays Zappa seems to be the perfect vehicle to keep the timeless music of Frank Zappa alive.

Hackensaw Boys :: Forecastle Festival 2009
The Hackensaw Boys crossed the Appalachian Mountains from their Virginia home to the Bluegrass State to deliver some rowdy, foot-stompin' bluegrass as the sun set on the East Stage. Those that have listened to the Hackensaws only via their studio albums, where their superb musicianship and reverence for old-time traditions are readily apparent, are not quite prepared for the balls-to-the-wall frenzy that marks their live show. Fiddler Ferd "Four" Moyse was in fine form, frenetically working his instrument and securing the crowd's affection by the time they hit "Oh, Girl." The band never took their foot off the gas and went full tilt into "Blue Eyed Girl," "Look Out Dog, Slow Down Train" and the raucous "Cannonball" to close their set.

I'll admit to being a bit close-minded when it comes to DJ music, ignorantly wanting to dismiss musicians in this genre merely as "button pushers." Pretty Lights, which by virtue of featuring drummer Cory Eberhard doesn't qualify as purely DJ music, has been tearing up the South in 2009 and earning rave reviews from almost everyone who has seen them. The first impression I had was, "Pretty Lights has... pretty lights." The light show was nice, sure, but the level of energy Eberhard and DJ/producer Derek Vincent Smith created during their set was blissful, accessible and alive, qualities I'd never thought I could experience with electronic music. Eberhard proved top-notch in keeping time with Smith's deep, penetrating grooves. As the band wound down "Cold Feeling," Smith threw out a deep bass reverb that shook the festival grounds and rattled the bones of everyone there. An excellent show, and those that attended their late night Saturday set aboard the Belle of Louisville reported an amazing time.

Dan Auerbach - The Black Keys :: Forecastle Festival 2009
Jason Isbell appeared as his own version of the Man in Black during his set with his 400 Unit band, pouring his soul into both heartbreaking ballads and up-tempo rockers on the East Stage. After "Never Gonna Change" and a rollicking cover of the Talking Heads' "Psycho Killer," a staple of the band's sets, "Goddamn Lonely Love," a brilliant, piercing bit of disheveled poetry that is perhaps the best song Isbell has ever written (recorded with the Drive-By Truckers on The Dirty South album), came next. The opening lines, "I got green and I got blues/ and everyday there's a little less difference between the two," have been the only companion for a man that has sat, heartbroken and depressed on a living room floor with this song on repeat amidst a graveyard of empty bottles and cashed bowls. So soothing and saddening, what more could you possibly ask for in a ballad? This tune alone should cement Isbell's reputation as one of the finest songwriters performing today. The band continued with a number of rockers, with enough expert jamming to throw in a Zeppelin riff at one point, and finished with another incredible piece of songwriting, "Outfit."

The Black Keys were electrifying as they closed out the West Stage Friday night, their raw blues still intact from their Fat Possum label days and now rounded out well with distorted rock accents. Guitarist-singer Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney never slowed for a second during this set, hitting a sweet stride as they closed with the bouncy, rocking "Till I Get My Way."

Continue reading for Saturday's coverage of Forecastle...


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