Three Days In A Life: One Writer’s Forecastle 2014 Experience

“I feel like it’s one of those Kentucky nights… anything could happen.”

That was Beck near the end of his Sunday night headlining set at Forecastle Festival in Louisville. And, after three days and nights of near-nonstop music and memories that will inarguably last a lifetime, I was certainly inclined to agree with him. What’s strange is that, as late as Friday afternoon, I wasn’t so sure that would be the case.

I got in to Louisville Thursday evening with my roommate in tow. We were staying at his fraternity brother’s apartment, a mere 15-minute walk away from the Waterfront festival grounds. The three of us went to dinner, then spent about 30 minutes walking around the city. Louisville as a city is pretty nice. It’s not huge, not a lot of tall buildings, most of the old facades are well-preserved. We passed through Louisville’s well-known 4th Street Live! party plaza, which was, as expected, filled to the brim with all manner of partygoers. It was a curious place. We also saw an inordinate amount of middle school girls doing cartwheels across city intersections. I later learned that there was a gymnastics convention in town. In fact, according to our host, Louisville plays host to a number of conventions throughout the summer. An interesting fact, I suppose. But what struck me as most odd was the overall atmosphere of the city: I expected the air in Louisville to be positively cracking with excitement, everyone waiting in anticipation for the magic that would emanate from the Waterfront like an electrostatic charge from a Van de Graaff generator.

But that didn’t seem to be the case. And I had that same feeling when I woke up on Friday morning after a night of fitful sleep (even if it seemed like the city wasn’t excited, I felt like a kid on Christmas eve). I decided to masquerade as a journalist and walk around the city for a bit to again gauge the excitement level. Again, everything felt flat. Maybe it was the weather; both Friday and Saturday were cloudy, dreary days. Maybe it was the fact that it was Friday and people were still at work and had yet to arrive for the festival. Maybe it was the fact that it was still before the first day of the festival. Or maybe it was all the gymnasts running around doing flips on the sidewalks. Whatever it was, the whole atmosphere seemed off to me. I was hopeful that the feeling would be right by the time the music started.

So around 1:30, we finally made the short walk over to the Waterfront to catch our first act. What will follow is a day-by-day, act-by-act account of my first Forecastle experience.

FRIDAY, JULY 18th

Benjamin Booker (1:45, Mast Stage)

The first act we caught was Benjamin Booker, the leader of a young rock and roll power trio. I was fairly unfamiliar with his work, having only heard his Letterman performance of “Violent Shiver”. The band was extremely energetic, Booker’s raspy voice adding a degree of danger to the songs. Booker’s guitar tone was murky and fairly undefined, and it seemed as though the sound engineers were still working the kinks out of the overall sound. All-in-all, it was a fun set, if not enormously memorable. Still, we had arrived, and that sense of excitement heightened our perception of this young up-and-comer. Definitely someone to watch in the future.

MiM0SA (3:00, Ocean Stage)

We walked over to the southeastern corner of the festival to see MiM0SA, an electronic DJ. I decided that it wasn’t really my bag, so I decided to take a walk around the festival grounds and get a better idea of what was going on. I walked to the northwest corner to check out the WFPK Port stage, which was empty and very quiet (it was between acts). I then moved across the periphery of the Mast Stage lawn and over to the Boom Stage, where the Black Lips were wrapping up their set. I turned towards the southwestern corner of the festival where several art vendors had set up tents, displaying and selling their collection of concert posters and prints. It was a cool little enclave, and I ended up purchasing a Ray LaMontagne poster from one of the vendors.

It was around this time that I came across the Forecastle Media tent where, despite my status as “Media” (made evident by my yellow wristband), I felt completely out of place. Amongst the media personnel from various journalistic enterprises, and their cameras and microphones, I realized just how tenuous my claim to “press privileges” was and how incredibly fortunate I was to be at Forecastle as, more than anything else, an observer.

With that revelation, I made my way back over to find my friends and catch the last 30ish minutes of MiM0SA, who seems to specialize in getting crowds hype and taking swigs from an oversized bottle of Grey Goose. While that kind of music certainly isn’t my scene, I found that everyone, including myself, was having a very fun time, and I left that stage with a smile on my face.

This is starting to feel right.

Gary Clark Jr. (5:15, Mast Stage)

Gary was the first act of the festival that I really wanted to see. Since I discovered his music back in 2012, I’ve missed seeing him at the Vogue in Indy (because I’m not 21) and at the Bluebird in Bloomington (again, because I’m not 21). I was raised on classic rock and blues, guitar heroes and histrionics, musicians pulling something meaningful out of their instruments. Gary Clark Jr. embodies all of these things while managing to put a fresh, youthful spin on it. He walked onto the Mast Stage and came out swinging. I’ve never heard his voice sound so smooth and soulful, or his band sound so tight, or his guitar playing sound so fluid and expressive. It was a masterful performance, culminating in a barnburning version of his signature song “Bright Lights” that featured the hottest and brightest guitar pyrotechnics of the set. I found myself wishing he would just play for the rest of the evening.

Then I remembered what was to come.

Outkast (9:20, Mast Stage)

Photo by Ciaran McQuiston. Outkast continues their cross-country reunion tour at Forecastle.

Photo by Ciaran McQuiston. Outkast continues their cross-country reunion tour at Forecastle.

After retreating back to the apartment to recharge our phones and stomachs, we made our way back to the Waterfront. We missed Twenty One Pilots at the Mast Stage, and ended up having to miss Spoon at the Boom Stage. Missing Spoon was particularly disappointing; I’m a big fan. We knew that was a possibility. Festivals always feature heartbreaking decisions. “Do we see this act or this act? If we see this act, will we be able to get good spots for this other act?” and so on. It takes strategy, and at the heart of our Friday night strategy was Outkast. Reunited this summer after nearly a decade of silence, the pioneering hip-hop duo made Forecastle the latest stop on their summer-long festival blowout and they certainly delivered. Emerging from a huge transparent cube in the middle of the stage, Big Boi and Andre 3000 kicked off their set with a searing rendition of “Bombs Over Baghdad” and proceeded to charge through an electrifying, crowd-pleasing set. Any animosity that may remain between the two melted away onstage. They were having fun, as much fun as the enormous crowd that had gathered to see them. With the closing strains of “The Whole World” lingering in the air, it seemed as though Forecastle was living up to the skyscraping expectations I had created. And after very little sleep the night before, I passed out immediately while wondering what Saturday would have to offer.

Saturday, July 19th

Boy & Bear (2:45, Boom Stage)

Despite a later-than-desired start to the day, we were still able to catch a smaller act we were very anxious to see. We managed to get a good spot for Boy & Bear’s set, which found the Australian group running through the highlights of their first two albums. More Shins and My Morning Jacket than Mumford & Sons (as many critics have suggested), the band’s early-afternoon set was well-performed and energetic, and served as the perfect beginning to our second day of the festival.

Spanish Gold/Lord Huron (3:30, Mast/Boom Stage)

After Boy & Bear, we made our way over to the edge of the Mast Stage crowd to watch Spanish Gold, a group comprising MMJ drummer Patrick Hallahan, amongst others. Playing songs from their debut album, Spanish Gold’s tight, blues and R&B-influenced brand of rock proved captivating and enjoyable. It was a shame we didn’t have better spots, and because of that we decided to walk back over to the Boom Stage to catch a small portion of Lord Huron’s set. None of us really knew their music that well, but Lord Huron’s energy and enthusiasm more than made up for that. Again, despite my lack of familiarity with them, I caught notes of bands like Of Monsters & Men and the Lumineers in their uptempo indie-folk sound. Definitely a group to watch out for in the future.

Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings (5:15, Mast Stage)

We made our way BACK over towards the Mast Stage around 5pm in order to get good spots for R&B dynamo Sharon Jones. A member of the Daptone Records family (Charles Bradley, Menahan Street Band, etc.), Jones has been delivering lively, period-correct soul and R&B records for over a decade. Her career was nearly cut short when in 2013 she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Chemotherapy followed, and kept her out of music for several months before a triumphant return to the scene with 2014’s terrific Give the People What They Want. Sharon Jones live is something to see. She moved and danced with the energy of a woman half her age, her timeless voice at once soaring and gritty. When she soul-sang her way through her tale of cancer diagnosis and subsequent recovery, the crowd roared and applauded with a kind of appreciation and respect I’d yet to hear at Forecastle. It was truly a magical moment, and Sharon and the band put on a hell of a show.

Band of Horses (7:00, Mast Stage)

I managed to worm my way further into the crowd after Sharon Jones (there’s always a mass exodus after every act) and found myself four rows back of the center of the stage. Turns out Ciaran and a couple of her friends had gotten there for Sharon Jones and were determined to retain their spots throughout the night. So we waited the 45 minutes between Sharon and BoH, missing out on Jason Isbell over at the Boom Stage. Again, the heartbreaking tradeoffs of the festival scene. Finally 7 p.m. rolled around and lead singer Ben Bridwell came out with an acoustic guitar to open with “St. Augustine” from the band’s debut album. Slowly, over the course of the next couple songs, the rest of the band emerged and exploded with a showstopping performance of “The First Song”. The band then roared through a career-spanning set that had the whole crowd in awe. I’ve wanted to see this band for years, and it was certainly something akin to a religious experience. When the band left the stage after closing their set with the immortal “The Funeral,” I felt like I was completely spent. I’d been standing for several hours (not even including the day before) and my knees (always an issue for me) were sore and locking up on me. I didn’t know how much more I’d be able to take that night. But I steeled myself and tried to find ways to pass the time before Saturday’s headliner.

There is no way I’m missing what’s about to come next.

Jack White (9:30)

A week later and I still can’t believe what I saw. All I know for sure is that Jack White was like nothing I’ve ever seen before. It was so aggressive, so angry. His band was ultra-tight, turning songs inside-out on Jack’s every whim. And it was LOUD. Three songs in and my brain just shut down. I’ll let Ciaran take the lead on this segment of the festival, she’s got a great article on it. Let me put it this way: Jack White was more than just incredible. His performance was face-melting, brain-frying, heart-stopping, and shell-shocking. When it ended, I was shaking. I was delirious. I wasn’t really sure what had happened. All I knew is that it was one of the most unbelievable things I have ever seen, and proved to be the ultimate capper to a day full of unbelievable moments.

Sunday, July 20th

Trampled By Turtles (4:45)

We got a much later start Sunday than we wanted, mostly due to how extraordinarily draining Saturday had been. We made our way into the Waterfront right as Sharon Von Etten was finishing up her set on the Boom Stage and took up our spots to watch Trampled By Turtles. Sunday definitely had more of a bluegrass, Americana vibe to it than Friday or Saturday, and TbT certainly kicked that theme off the right way. The five-piece group featured as many virtuosos, who all traded off hot solos while singing in close harmonies. Unfortunately, the sun had come out for the first time all festival and we had to retreat into the shade before the set was finished. Most of my group went back to the apartment, leaving me to hydrate and plan the rest of my Sunday on my own.

Nickel Creek (6:30)

6 p.m. rolled around and I got hungry. So I walked over to the southwest corner of the Waterfront to check out this taco truck I’d heard so much about. Ended up taking me 45 minutes to get my tacos. They were good, but not 45 minutes good. I’m telling you this because it cut into Nickel Creek’s set on the Ocean Stage and I found that frustrating. Following the bluegrass precedent set by Trampled By Turtles before them, Nickel Creek specialized in the kind of pleasant, rootsy sort of Americana that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on O Brother, Where Art Though? Led by violinist Sara Watkins and mandolin player Chris Thile, the group set the Boom Stage ablaze into a frenzied hoedown, featuring plenty of close harmonies and several bursts of virtuosity. More importantly, it was during their set that I was able to creep closer to the stage to help secure my spot for the final Boom Stage act of the festival.

Ray LaMontagne (8:30)

As the crowd dispersed and opened up after Nickel Creek, I found myself three rows back from the stage for Ray’s set. Ray LaMontagne’s importance and influence on my life cannot be overstated. His music has helped me through some of the more difficult times of my late-adolescence and early-adulthood. It’s all there: the singular, smoky, soulful voice, the truly heartwrenching songs, a sense of intimacy with his music and his audience. Many of Ray’s songs feel like the person you care most about is ripping your heart out of your chest. However, in the wake of his most recent album Supernova, Ray came to rock. He played several songs I never thought I’d hear live (“Gossip in the Grain,” “God Willin’ & the Creek Don’t Rise”) and roared through several songs from the new album. It was only during a brief two-song interlude that his band left the stage to leave Ray with his acoustic guitar and bass player (a true virtuoso with a villain mustache that gave him constant bass-face) to play “Jolene” and “Trouble” from his debut album. I was enthralled by his performance. It was probably the most emotional set of the festival for me. I had to miss a portion of that night’s headliner, but it was all worth it. Ray treated the crowd by having Nickel Creek’s Chris Thile come onstage to play mandolin on set-close “Hey Me, Hey Mama,” and just as quickly as he came on, the set was over, so I bolted from the crowd and ran as fast as I could to the mast stage to try and get a good spot for Forecastle’s closing act.

Beck (9:45)

Photo by Ciaran McQuiston. Beck plays an unforgettable set at Forecastle Festival

Photo by Ciaran McQuiston. Beck plays an unforgettable set at Forecastle Festival

I made it into the crowd right as “Think I’m In Love” was starting. I’ll admit, I am not as familiar with Beck’s material as I should be. But, having seen 30+ concerts in my time, I like to think I can tell when an act is bringing their A game. And Beck brought it. After showstopping performances from fellow headliners Outkast and Jack White, Beck was merely himself; and that was more than enough to satisfy the Forecastle crowd. Beck ripped through “Loser” in the middle of the set and closed with a ripping version of “E-Pro,” even sectioning off the stage with yellow DO NOT CROSS tape as he walked off. The night wasn’t over, though. Shortly thereafter, the band came back out to perform “Sexx Laws,” “Debra” (about a three-way), and an epic 10-minute version of “Where It’s At” which featured a heavy dose of psychedelic lights and band introductions, all while driving along on its heavy groove. Finally, after the last chord had drifted away across the river, we made our way back to the apartment, and from there back to Bloomington. It was hard to really assess what all had transpired that weekend, but I’m going to give it my best.

The Final Say

Every bit of doubt I might’ve had walking into Forecastle on Friday had been completely obliterated by the time I left Louisville on Sunday. That buzz I was searching for, that kind of electrifying atmosphere that I had expected hit me all at once, for three consecutive days. It was magical. There was a spirit that existed on every stage, in every act, in every member of the audience that was unspoken yet completely shared.

That spirit was there when Outkast brought a bunch of girls from the audience up onstage to dance around during “Hey Ya!”

It was there when Sharon Jones shared her story of survival with an appreciative crowd while the Dap-Kings vamped like hell.

It was there when Band of Horses took the audience into a sense of pure nirvana.

It was there when Jack White played “Blue Moon of Kentucky”.

“You know a thing or two about a fiddle down here in Kentucky” –Jack White

It was there when Jack White covered “You Know That I Know” by Hank Williams.

It was there when Jack White covered Jay-Z’s “99 Problems” AND Dick Dale’s “Miserlou” during a crackling rendition of “Icky Thump”.

It was in the close harmonies and frontporch appeal of Tramped By Turtles and Nickel Creek.

It was there when Ray LaMontagne transformed from unassuming, heartbreaking singer-songwriter to full-on rock n’ roller before our very eyes.

And it was certainly there when Beck played snippets of MJ’s “Billie Jean” and the Stones’ “Miss You” while generally holding the crowd in the palm of his hand.

All that being said, Forecastle 2014 was a resounding success. It was something I will surely never forget, a memory I will cherish for the rest of my life. I cannot begin to express how grateful I am to both Forecastle and WIUX for allowing me the opportunity to attend such an incredible event. We’ll have pictures up, and hopefully this account gives readers some semblance of an idea of what happened in Louisville, Kentucky on one summer weekend in July. I entered Forecastle with a lot of unanswered questions. I left Forecastle with a Jack White t-shirt, a Ray LaMontagne poster, and memories that will last a lifetime.

It certainly was one of those Kentucky nights. Three of them, in fact.