HOPKINS COUNTY, KY (7/24/13) - I got the news that I'd be covering the Forecastle Festival in Louisville, KY a week before the three-day event via email from festival "first mate" Holly Weyler. I was barely awake and still had one eye closed, so I didn't fully believe that I was reading it correctly. It had been a long-time goal of mine to cover a major music event and the Forecastle Festival happened to be headlined by one of my favorite bands, The Black Keys. The annual music fest also featured many more bands that I desperately wanted to see. Ranging from talented up and comers to a legendary frontman, Forecastle was expected to draw an estimated 75,000 fans over a three-day weekend.
A visit to the official Forecastle Festival website tells you all about the history of the event:
Founded in 2002 by Louisville native JK McKnight, Forecastle has grown from a community event to one of the country’s most anticipated summer festivals, which now draws tens of thousands of fans from across the world to Louisville’s scenic 85-acre Waterfront Park. In addition to featuring a who’s who of musical acts such as The Black Keys, Widespread Panic, My Morning Jacket, Bassnectar, the Flaming Lips, Band of Horses, Sleater-Kinney, and The Avett Brothers, Forecastle has consistently promoted local artists as well as focusing on environmental activism and outdoor recreation. Past Forecastles have featured prominent organizations, industry leaders, and distinguished speakers, such as Robert F. Kennedy Jr. (Riverkeepers), Rob Caughlan (Surfrider Foundation) and Christopher Childs (Greenpeace International). Forecastle is co-produced by Knoxville-based AC Entertainment, one of the country’s premiere independent concert promoters, putting on more than 750 concerts throughout the Southeast as well as producing major events such as Bonnaroo, Gentlemen of the Road and Mountain Oasis.
The big day arrived. With my media bracelet on my wrist, the gates opened and an incredibly entertaining weekend commenced. I'm not a music critic or a writer, I don't have the gift of being able to tell you why I love a performance or what makes a song good, and, honestly, I went to the festival to document it with my camera. That being said, here you'll find in no particular order, my top memories of the weekend, as well as a few photos of the sights and sounds of Forecastle 2013.
Before he started the first song, Plant promised a day of 1970's nostalgia, he waved puffs of incense over the crowd, and entertained us with witty banter between songs. With a set that included old Zeppelin favorites, as well as his new material with the Sensational Space Shifters, he proved that the pipes were still strong and the Golden God could still let loose. In putting the mic to the crowd to help sing “Black Dog,” Plant also showed he could engage a crowd as good as ever. However, what really made it memorable was when ominous clouds began to roll in and in his English accent he apologized for bringing the "naughty, naughty, clouds" and began a powerful version of “What Is and What Should Never Be.” Not far into the song, the rain began. What was at first a sprinkle, turned quickly into a full-blown downpour and rained onto us like a magic potion turning us into a crowd worthy of Woodstock. All while Plant sang fitting lyrics:
Catch the wind, see us spin, sail away, leave today, way up high in the sky.
But the wind won't blow, you really shouldn't go, it only goes to show
That you will be mine, by takin' our time.
With the rain in his face and thunder booming in the background like an extra member of the band, it felt surreal; it's how I imagine being a fan felt back in the day. Security ran around worriedly telling each other, "We gotta get him off the stage!" With coverings breaking loose and flapping in the wind, the crowd went crazy until Plant finished his set (sadly, earlier than planned) and we, soaking wet and muddy, were told to take cover under the overpass for the duration of the storm. It truly was as if Plant somehow conjured us up a 1970's experience.
The Black Keys (and crowd):
If you take a band that can fill an arena and stick them on a river bank, you can expect a bit of a crowd. As the headliners, I knew I'd see the biggest crowd at the Keys’ show, but I didn't fully realize how big until I was in that massive hoard. Forecastle tweeted an aerial shot of the crowd and it speaks for itself.
The guys from Akron gave an energetic set for their last stop of the 129-show-long El Camino tour. I was lucky enough to attend the opener in Cincinnati as well, and comparing the two shows, it was clear The Black Keys didn't lose any enthusiasm during their grueling schedule. Keeping the setlist mostly the same, minus the popular disco ball-lit performance of “Everlasting Light,” they finished strong with the classic “I Got Mine” that only reinforced for me that my favorite Black Keys performances only have two people on the stage.
Seriously, all of them—the crowd, the staff, security, photographers, media…everyone. I don't know whether I should chalk it up to southern hospitality or the general lighthearted vibe of Forecastle, but I loved everyone I met: the lady who held my spot in the crowd while I was in the photo pit; the guy who shared his water with me after we'd been standing in a crowd for hours and hours; the fellow photog who helped me sneak into a pit I wasn't supposed to be in; the roadie who came out of nowhere and gave me a setlist; the media guy that took me under his wing when I first arrived, fighting a serious case of nerves and feeling out of place; the seasoned photographer who helped me get a tough shot of Jim James and gave me pointers on my camera settings; the security guards that chatted with me while I waited for the shows to start; and even the festival “bigwigs” that treated all the media people the same and answered every question so equally that I still don't know which one of the guys was the one from Rolling Stone magazine.
You could see the passion and pride the vendors had for their art in every booth. Artisans peddled jewelry, clothing, hammocks, delicious foods, and t-shirts. The poster alley held the works of many of the best in the gig poster world, most of whom had clients that were performing as you browsed. In the center of the venue, being overlooked by a lifeguard, a solid white boat sat like a blank canvas, which was exactly the intention. A group of artists gathered around to spend the weekend making the "S.S. Freebird" into something amazing. There was also the wall, where graffiti artists spent the duration of the festival tagging and creating a beautiful mural that, at festival close, they cut into pieces that you could buy for $10 a square foot. In fact, the festival itself was a work of art. It isn't easy to blend nautical and Kentucky roots themes successfully, but they did it. The bourbon lounge was a tent where you relaxed on burlap-covered hay bales surrounded by barrels while sampling Kentucky's finest bourbons. Step outside the lounge and you see "waves" that doubled as chairs, which were rarely unoccupied. The motto of Forecastle was, "Music. Art. Activism," and that's exactly what they provided.
Ok, this is a cop-out, but I mean it. I loved everything. I had to spend two of the three days of the festival without my friends there and I was worried about being bored, but that never happened. Everywhere I looked there was a stage, canvas, booth, or person whose purpose seemed to be to entertain me. People tossed footballs around and hula hooped. There were cornhole tournaments and games of giant Connect Four. The lesser known performers mingled with the crowds, and had such a lack of pretension that the only way you could tell they were going to be on stage was the pale wristband embroidered with 'ARTIST' and the occasional super-fan getting their picture made with them. Everyone shared an enthusiasm for being there, and during nearly every set you could see one of the other bands in the wings watching with as much excitement as the crowd. In most of my pictures of Old Crow Medicine Show, you can see the members of Houndmouth grinning widely behind them. It was a weekend made for laid back, free-spirited fun.
Well, there they are, the top things that pop into my head when someone asks, "So how was it?" I'm sure critics and the like have completely different moments to recount, but that's the beauty of music festivals. You get to customize your experience. They take a broad range of musical talents and combine them to expose people to old favorites and new discoveries. You take from it what you want and have as much fun as you let yourself.
Now I'll leave you with the last photo I took at Forecastle. As I walked to the exit with the sound of The Avett Brothers' excellent set finale filling the air, this guy stopped to tell me I’d dropped something, and when he found out I was taking pictures for Sugg Street Post in western Kentucky, he asked me to take his picture because his mom lives in Princeton and might see it. So here you go cute guy on the hay bales, I hope she does.
Scroll below to see more photos taken at Forecastle Festival 2013.
Sugg Street Post
Written by Jessi Smith
Photos by Jessi Smith