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Review: 2013 Forecastle Music Festival in Louisville, KY

In the decade since it”s inception, the Forecastle Festival in Louisville, Kentucky has grown from a single small stage in the park into one of the premier music events of the year, with host band the String Cheese Incident joined by rap superstar Big Boi, rock gods The Black Keys, local hero Jim James and so many more. Born from founder J.K. McKnight”s wish to unite live music and the spirit of activism on the community level, this annual get together has found a home on the banks of the Ohio River with a widely varied slate of acts on the four stages from the biggest rock bands in the land to the homegrown sounds of bluegrass and everything in between. Partnering with Ashley Capps, one of the founders of Bonnaroo, the massive concert spectacle against which all other fests are measured, McKnight saw his seeded dream grow beyond his wildest imaginings and truly become a showcase for the city he loves, the causes he believes in and the music that has given his life joy.

Since its humble beginnings Forecastle”s focus has been squarely on giving a voice to roots and national level causes, in an effort to demonstrate what could be accomplished from working together. The music was the bait, but illustrating how easy it is for us all to pitch in and steer our lives away from the environmentally and philosophically self destructive course on which we have blithely followed for far too long. Environmentalism, fairness and a wide range of political causes from both sides of the aisle are given prime space along the main concert area, each booth filled with eager minds sparked by the exposure to new ideas, musical and social. With the largest attendance on record for the 2013 edition of Forecastle, more people than ever had the opportunity to learn about responsibility and the rewards of joining in to make the world a better place, and it”s hard to think of a better reason to gather together.

Friday

The Pimps of Joytime

To draw as wide a variety of souls as possible, nearly every musical taste was catered to over the three days of fun in the cities resurrected downtown and it”s green-space jewel, Waterfront Park. Slinky, percussive funksters Brooklynites The Pimps of Joytime opened the Mast Stage on Friday with a dancey sound that had the five o”clock on a Friday crowd ready to shake off their work week doldrums and boogie down.

On the second stage, DIY legend Bob Mould showed why, from his days of founding punk icons Husker Du to today”s hard charging solo work, he is a force to be reckoned with. Prowling the stage like a caged tiger, barely contained rage at the microphone Mould was constantly exploding into wild guitar bursts as he broke free from any tether and let his soul blare from his instrument.

Old Crow Medicine Show

Local rising stars Houndmouth, from just across the river, showed the songwriting and performing skill that earned them slots on the David Letterman show and top tier playlists across the country. While Moon Taxi showed that there are quality rock bands still forming across the country, Dj acts like Salva and Griz illustrated the power of modern machinery in the hands of minds that can compose and create in and of the moment, making reactionary beats that fed off the crowd.

Old Crow Medicine Show, known for their Americana feel and tight live performances brought the first taste of the Bluegrass state”s signature music, and had the crowd twirling an tapping their toes from front to back of the packed lawn at the main stage. Meanwhile Young The Giant poured every iota of energy the possessed into each and every song they played on the Boom Stage, amping the crowd into a frenzy just in time for the weekend”s host band, The String Cheese Incident.

Hailing from Colorado, the String Cheese Incident is a musical chameleon that perfectly represents the modern festival dynamic with a range of styles and influences that make each song both unique and somehow still of a whole. From wide open ballads, dense jams and even a organic homage to the modern dub/electronica movement, Cheese nimbly darts wherever their combined muses take them. The six members of the band, Billy Nershi on lead guitar, multi-instrumentalist Michael Kang on Mandolin, violin and guitar, Kyle Hollingsworth on piano, keyboards and organ, Keith Moseley on bass and the one-two percussive punch of Jason Hann and Michael Travis.

With each member actively involved in creating distinct music of their own, Cheese has become almost a clearing house for ideas distilled from each player”s personal sensibilities. The range of a modern SCI show features an almost relay race dynamic, with each member stepping up to lead tunes that showcase their personal sensibilities, which the rest of the band doing all they could to make each song as rich and diverse as possible. The final product is a blend of music that has led to the String Cheese Incident”s amazing enduring popularity which led them to being asked to play the role of “Host” over the weekend. Playing an epic closing set on Friday, performing a after show at the storied local venue the Louisville Palace, then bringing forth their bluegrass roots for a special Sunday set, Cheese owned the city and the festival itself over the weekend, and under their stewardship people reveled in a state of musical bliss, the best feeling in the world.

Saturday

The 23 String Band

With one of the strongest public radio platforms in the nation, Louisville is blessed to have three stations of music and information operating around the clock, with the wide ranging WFPK leading the way. Home to dozens of programs that showcase everything from blues to punk, as well as free ranging hours left up to their DJs, WFPK regularly hosts one of the stages, giving up and coming artists a chance to show the crowd what they do and how well they do it. Local bluegrass act The 23 String Band drew an impressive crowd to Saturday”s Port stage, some their faithful fans and some just eager to see what the buzz was about. Freakwater and the always artsy Rubblebucket added to their loyal following with fresh converts, all thanks to a station that works around the clock to keep the spirit of music alive in a time of commercialization and homogenization, a truly noble endeavor for which their listeners and the festival patrons thanked them with cheers and out stretched arms.

Alabama Shakes

All around the rest of the festival, Saturday”s line up featured everything from current music darlings like Dawes and Alabama Shakes, Kurt Vile and the Violators, and The UK”s The Joy Formidable all showed why those worried about the state of modern music should not be too concerned. While prepackaged pop does dominate the charts, original bands are working their way into the hearts and minds of the listening public, enticing them to go beyond the norm and seek out the new and original. And, closing out the Boom stage was a band that somehow, even after almost two decades, remains the newest and most original outfit on any platform…the Flaming Lips.

With a long history of epic shows full of weirdness, any chance to see the Flaming Lips perform is an opportunity to peer into the raw, creative world of the band”s off-putting but heartfelt vibe. Their music is a wild mish-mash of crashing drums, layered synthesizers and effect, sub sonic bass and melodic acoustic guitars. The legends and lore that have sprung up around them and their challenging presentation, including entire shows performed to short wave broadcast”s only listenable on headphone, recording a CD that was sectioned off and could only be heard by listening to four separate sound systems at the same time, precede them and make the anticipation build to a fever pitch for their devoted followers.

The Flaming Lips

Eschewing what has, of late, become their trademarks, such as the dancing girls, confetti and day-glo insanity, the band toned down not only their visuals, but offered a few stripped down versions of their songs as well, notably their most anthemic tune, “Do You Realize.” “Realize” went from a bubbly pop ditty with a deeper meaning to a plaintive begging…urging the crowd to make the most of every moment. Tracks from their new release, The Terror were prominently featured in the set list, and were as well received as classics like “She Don”t Use Jelly.” For the initiated true believers who lined up as soon as the gates opened and held down their spots all day to the interested onlookers who wandered towards the show to see what the hype was all there was a wide variety of reactions, from instant love to disdain. From a darkened, mirror ball and smoke filled stage a sense shredding overload was emitted, and those who observed it were changed for the experience, a result provacateurs like the Flaming Lips couldn”t help but appreciate.

Sunday

Tift Merrit

It would be hard to find two more different opening acts than the home spun rock stylings of songstress Tift Merrit and Nigerian born Goumar Almoctar”s Bombino. Though born worlds apart, both acts shared a spirit and underlying theme of overcoming adversity that linked them philosophically, if not musically. NYC rapper El-P and his partner Killer Mike led the folks at the Ocean stage into a furious state, fists pumping in time to their serious rhymes about the state of the world.

Due to an unfortunate cancellation, the schedule for Sunday was remixed, and a more natural paring of styles resulted with masters of the new breed of modern, rock influenced bluegrass Greensky Bluegrass no opening for festival hosts String Cheese Incident”s much hyped instrumental “Bluegrass Incident” set on the Boom Stage. Greensky has built themselves into one of the most well regarded bluegrass bands in the field through their mastery of their respective instruments, with Anders Beck leading the way on his drop steel guitar, heart felt and emotive songwriting by mandolinist Paul Hoffman and a willingness to explore the darker territories of the musical spectrum.

The Bluegrass Incident

You”d be hard put to find any band willing or capable of following the show put on by Greensky Bluegrass, but, as luck would have it, the guys from String Cheese brought a few friends along to help them in their cause. True pioneer of the seventies wave of mixing modern music with classic bluegrass trapping, Sam Bush joined the Incident, banjo player and all around happiest guy at the festival Andy Thorn from Leftover Salmon, along with multi-year award winning “Mandolinist of the Year” Ronnie McCoury and fiddle virtuoso and Kentucky born and bred Jason Carter. Running through classic from both Cheese”s catalog like “Rivertrance” and the bluegrass songbook, the joy of sharing one of the oldest traditions in music, the picking party, was plain to see and a joy to watch, as well as a testament to the competence and confidence of the band. A fitting tribute to the state and the music it has spawned.

Grace Potter & the Nocturnals

Over on the main stage, we were treated to a burst of old school rock with a heap of sex appeal, with the next two acts. First up was Grace Potter and the Nocturnals, bringing their high energy mix of classic rock stylings and satisfyingly original takes on genre conventions, all while being fronted by one of the most beguiling figures to lead a band since the likes of Tina Turner and Janis Joplin. Grace Potter”s charisma and beauty belie her talent, and her comfort onstage in any situation, be it at her organ, with a guitar in her hand s or simply belting out her songs from some unknowable depths kept all eyes riveted to her, a power she used to playfully toy with the fans with a smile and a wink. Potter was following in the wake of a classic archetype, that of a singer using a mix of raw sex appeal and talent to take over a show that was perfected years ago by the man who followed her on the main stage, rock and roll legend Robert Plant.

Robert Plant

Robert Plant“s career is as storied and well known as any in the modern era of music. From fronting Led Zeppelin to his solo career in the eighties, small scale reunion tours with Zep guitarist Jimmy Page, to recent collaborations with Allison Krauss and his current band, The Strange Sensation Plant has shown a longevity that defies logic. Tales of his partying in the past have moved into folklore territory, while his new clean living lifestyle has shown him to be in a healthier state than men half his age marking him as a man more than capable of delighting crowds beyond simple nostalgia. Though Zep classics were on hand, they blended seamlessly with hits from his solo career, world music infused new material and a playful smile and spirit that echoed his most famous of questions…”Does anyone remember laughter?” Forecastle closed with a short rain delayed set from the Avett Brothers, another of many returning acts like the Black Keys, who in the past were part of the daytime festivities now grown to the point of headliners. McKnight openly remarked that bands enthusiasm for returning to the festival made him positive he was doing something right, and the filled sign up sheets in the variety of activists booths bode well for the next generation and their commitment to taking the reigns in the fight to make the world a better place.

Click the thumbnail(s) to view more photos from the show by Rex Thomson…

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