Yes, it’s an event that serves to promote environmental issues, but If there’s one prevailing takeaway from Forecastle Festival, Friday-Sunday, July 14th-16th, now in it’s 16th year and 7th in its now presumably permanent home on the banks of the Ohio River, it’s this:
To borrow from the state’s most visible millennial-targeted marketing campaign: Kentucky loves the shit out of Kentucky. Far beyond just putting a few local acts on the lineup, Forecastle’s organizers stay true to their DIY roots year after year. Look in any direction and one would see a member of local art nonprofit Squallis Puppeteers piloting a giant, cartoonish, hand-made sea creatures in keeping with the nautical visual theme of the festival (because, I mean, there’s a damn river right over there, dude) and giant mobile marionettes of Kentucky luminaries Col. Sanders and Hunter S. Thompson. A trip to the common areas of the festival featured prominent placement for local food vendors and artists, as well as breweries from both Louisville and neighboring Lexington. Hell, one of the most popular (and unfortunately, separately ticketed) attractions of the festival was the “Bourbon Lodge”, which served as dispensary/museum/shrine to one of the bluegrass state’s most noteworthy exports, as well as a much-needed respite from the heat.
The heat. My sweet day-drunk christ, the heat. This is summer in Kentucky, in which the only reprieve from oppressive humidity is that storm that comes to your place unannounced, throws all your shit in the floor, pegs the thermostat and leaves all within the span of ten minutes. Thankfully, this year Forecastle attendees were spared the schedule-upending severe weather of years past. And after 35 years of living in this state, I should be used to the volatility of summers in the bluegrass state. But it still hits me like a ton of bricks, and I’ll be damned if I call it “normal”. This is not normal.
What is normal, however, is the gamut-covering lineup that Forecastle’s organizers cull together year after year. With four stages (five, if you count the target market dance club grotto given a horror-movie invoking moniker “Party Cove”), chances were good that there was something going on at any given time that was going to be in ones wheelhouse.
A hell of a lot can transpire in four years. The last time Run The Jewels graced the Forecastle stage back in 2013, their set was buried in the unfavorable position of being in the relatively early afternoon, at a stage located under a freeway overpass (more on this later) and with only one album to their name, they nonetheless stole the weekend with the raw energy of their performance. This year’s set, to close out Friday night’s “Boom Stage” (still not on the main stage, despite being one of the highest-profile names on the lineup) El-P and Killer Mike worked the stage like two guys who cant believe they get to do this for a living, tearing through a cross-section of all three of their albums with the ferocity that not only ignored the ridiculous heat, but seem to feed off of it. They just keep topping themselves.
I thought ODESZA was a strange selection for the closing set of night 1 rather than the aforementioned Run the Jewels (cue the horde of festival kids mocking me for being out of touch which, yes, noted) but I have to say, they won me over through sheer visual spectacle. Aggressive live precussion, neon lights aplenty, and some live damn pyro, king, even. Electronic acts are always such a toss-up for me in a live setting , so to see one deliver in one of the festival’s biggest slots to one of its biggest audiences, well, I walked away impressed and, as a guy who always felt I missed out by being born in the wrong place and time for “big beat” culture, if this is as close as I’m going to get, it’ll more than do.
Playing a midday set on a main stage (or, in keeping with the nautical theme, the “Mast” stage) on day two of a festival strikes me as being a tough task. Weekend pass holders trying to shake play through the fallout from the previous night’s festivities, coupled with single-day attendees easing into the day, could easily make for a sterile experience. To the credit of the organizers’ scheduling, the big afternoon slots were all devoted to tight, high-energy acts who would get that crowd going whether they wanted it or not. Oklahoma’s JD McPherson delivered with his form of barroom blues rock with a dash of sonic playfulness that felt as much of a nod to the likes of Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe (the latter of which McPherson covered) as the American troubadours to whom he’s frequently compared. Plus, a quick trip to his Wikipedia page revealed that he was wearing the same shirt in the header photo that he had on during this set. So props to him for synergy. Following him was Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats, who tore through their set as if on a mission to deliver anyone still feeling that bit of heat/hangover malaise right back into the moment. When a musician or band manages to get asses moving that have ever environmental and physiological reason to stay put, that’s a praiseworthy achievement.
Between the absolutely deserved critical praise and Grammy recognition of his masterpiece 2016 release A Sailors Guide to Earth, and subsequently setting the SNL stage alight, Sturgill Simpson has had a hell of a year in the span of seven months. Seriously, if you haven’t seen that SNL performance, open a new tab and fix that immediately. The man almost seems sent by a higher power to save Nashville from its excess and banality, reviving country music by pulling it apart, and rebuilding it from the ground up through his own genius, intuition, and earnestness. To Kentuckians, especially those old enough to remember his earlier work fronting Lexington’s alt-country powder-keg Sunday Valley, he’s a conquering hero. And his set, just as the sun began to tire slightly from the constant abuse it had spent the previous ten hours inflicting upon everyone in attendance, had a triumphant feel about it. In spite of some technical gremlins (“Come on man, he’s just doing his fuckin’ job,” he bellowed to a few idiot bros giving a stage tech the business between songs), his performance somehow seemed understated and huge, intricate and breezy, humble and confident. Sturgill Simpson is the rare genre-defining, even genre-bending, musician that seems to have not the first ounce of pretense about him. What you see is what you get. Have you watched that SNL clip yet?
As the sun went down, the inevitable “Sophie’s Choice” of multi-stage festivals reared its ugly head. And alas, as much as I wanted to make it over to Phantogram’s set at the “Boom Stage” Vince Staples at the “Watching a set at this stage probably burned a few days off of everyone’s life” stage, I decided to take a gamble and try to post up (it’s Kentucky, to deny us basketball euphemism is to render us mute) for Saturday’s Mast Stage closer, LCD Soundsystem. As soon as the Forecastle lineup dropped earlier in the year, a day now entrenched in the Kentucky social media consciousness for the amount of arguments it sparks, this was the name that jumped off the page to many people, myself included. The performance not only lived up to that hype, but absolutely torched it and drowned it in the river for good measure. Working their way through the entire catalog (including a much more generous helping of their self-titled album than I expected), every song was immaculate yet somehow just on the verge of exploding from the palpable tension, only to finally combust right when you know it should, yet the magnitude somehow still shocks you. Every bit of energy building up to this set seemed to be released, little by little, and as master of ceremonies James Murphy gave the perfunctory “I love this town” speech before, predictably, “NY I love you but you’re bringing me down” (revealing even that he had considered moving to Louisville at one point), even if you weren’t convinced he felt it even an hour ago, you felt like he did at that moment. As the final line of set closer “All My Friends” rang out, one needed only to look around to find affirmation of the point.
And their walk-up song? Sleazy-ass dark disco juggernaut “Walk The Night” by the Skatt Brothers. That’s how you set a goddamn tone.
Remember that thing I said above about mid-day sets and how they can quickly go the way of total sterility? Well, if anyone was still feeling a little sluggish or trying to ease their way into Sunday’s proceedings after the heaviness of Saturday night or feeling self-pity at the oppression of the sun, well, the second Charles Bradley & His Extraodinaires hit the Mast Sage Sunday afternoon, it was high time to get the hell over it, because he went through hell to be right there, in that moment, throwing every ounce of himself into said moment, while wearing a leather jumpsuit. That’s right, goddamn leather, in 90 degree heat. I have to admit ignorance to the amazing backstory of Mr. Bradley, and thankfully, Whitney’s last minute cancellation (the only no-show of the entire festival, to my knowledge) gave a lot of people who may have passed over this set (like my dipshit self) the chance to witness what was easily one of the best performances of the festival.
The Port Stage, tucked into the corner of Waterfront Park, generally serves as the up-and-coming artists of the lineup. Big Thief took to this stage in the late afternoon, and frontwoman Adrianne Lenker, when not wisely seeking the counsel of the locals in the crowd on whether or not taking a dip in the Ohio River to cool off was a good idea (it most certainly was and is not), delivered on every bit of the captivating emotional vulnerability of their songs with a wide-eyed yet commanding, assured presence, with the rest of the band in lock-step, closing with the track “Mythological Beauty”, that has a climbing yet breezy melody that punctuated one of the most pleasant surprises of the weekend . This band won’t be playing to 50-100 people on 2nd/3rd festival stages much longer.
I’ve never been a PJ Harvey fan. PJ Harvey ruled. PJ Harvey should’ve closed the festival. I wish I had something of more resonance to say here. But dear god, she ruled. How does all of your band wear solid black in 90 degree heat? How do you translate an album with such difficult subject matter as The Hope Six Demolition Project completely work in a festival context? I don’t know why I’m asking these questions of one of the most thematically, stylistically versatile artists of our time. But when you can absolutely tear through a song in which the chorus is literally a call-and-response bemoaning the death of multiple thousands of children, and the guy next to me in the YETI hat, completely unironically, yells “PLAY IT TWO MORE TIMES!”, well, I can’t think of a more massive compliment. It almost felt inappropriate to catch another set after that performance. Reverence seemed like the only acceptable response.
Tycho closed the proceedings at the “This stuff we’re standing on feels just enough like sand to be uncomfortably UNLIKE sand, and we’ll all be blowing it out of our nasal passages for the remainder of the summer” stage. Actually, it’s easy to poke fun at the setup of this stage, but it is a resourceful, inventive use of the space that’s available. Spanning the underside of two interstate bridges, the relatively low ceiling can provide an intimacy that’s rare for an outdoor festival. And with the sun setting, this was the perfect context with which to see Tycho perform. There’s an all-encompassing coherence to Scott Hansen’s work (in Tycho, as a visual artist/designer, etc.) that is as inescapable as it is impressive. Vibrance, simplicity, order, intricacy, scale, breezy rigidity. Make no mistake, there was energy to spare in Tycho’s performance, but also a sense of balance, and honestly, as far as I was concerned, it was the best mindset with which to close Forecastle 2017.
-words: Jon Psimer
photos: Carpenter, Caroline Knight, C Michael Stewart, Kara Smash (courtesy of Forecastle Media Team) and Jon Psimer