LOUISVILLE — At the Forecastle festival tent of Lexington-based Cricket Press late Saturday, owners Brian and Sara Turner said it was the hottest edition of the event they had ever worked.
They were referring to the weather, with temperatures topping 90 degrees each of Forecastle's three days. But they could have been referring to the state of Kentucky music, which this year had a generous representation on Forecastle's main stages.
Ramping up to Friday's opening day, there was lingering nostalgia for last year's headlining lineup of Outkast, Beck and Jack White, who had tremendous appeal to music fans. But this year showed you can put on a national-caliber festival in Kentucky while giving lots of stage time to homegrown acts, including one of the headlining slots.
Louisville's My Morning Jacket was easily the most prominent Kentucky act on the bill and rewarded a crowd that had baked in the Saturday afternoon heat with a set rich in summery sentiment, from the chiming guitars that propelled Mahgeetah to the mix of psychedelia and reggae-fied groove underscoring Off the Record to the almost militaristic strut of Compound Fracture. The latter, along with Believe, was pulled from the critically acclaimed newest MMJ album, The Waterfall.
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Logistics were in the audience's favor Saturday night. Jackson native and one time Lexingtonian Sturgill Simpson wound up a far-reaching country-rooted set on the second stage just minutes before MMJ launched its mainstage set.
Simpson's performance came with plenty of roots-savvy ingenuity. The set-opening Sitting Here Without You summoned the spirit of Waylon Jennings, both in the rumbling tenor of Simpson's vocals and the tune's sense of rambling fortitude. A few stabs at what the singer termed "bluegrass" were really jet-speed honky tonk romps (including the sly Railroad of Sin), while later tunes (Some Days and the Sunday Valley favorite Sometimes Wine) strayed from concise country parameters into generous electric jams.
The country set late Saturday afternoon by Lexington-born and Paintsville-raised Chris Stapleton was even more roots-hearty than Simpson's performance.
Stapleton pens tunes of hard country sentiment with regularly subtle melodies. The title tune to his recent debut solo album Traveller — along with the record's highlight tune, the proudly assertive Fire Away — were fine examples that distinguished his performance. The songs' quiet intensity made them curious picks for a large outdoor festival. But Stapleton enforced them, along with his popular cover of Tennessee Whiskey and the more robustly rockish original Drinkin' Dark Whiskey (cut when Stapleton was with his former band, The Steeldrivers, which performed Sunday at Forecastle) with singing that owed as much to vintage soul as hard-bitten country.
Friday afternoon saw a much different flavor of Kentucky music, with Bowling Green rockers Cage the Elephant's intense main stage performance.
"We're going to have some family time," guitarist Brad Shultz told the crowd before he and fellow guitarist Nick Bockrath played an abbreviated version of My Old Kentucky Home to start the set.
Between the band and the audience, it was difficult to tell who was energizing whom. Fans crushed to the front of the barricade of the main stage were deliriously singing along to every word and kept frontman Matt Shultz afloat during numerous crowd-surfing sessions.
Houndmouth, which is based in New Albany, Ind., and exploded out of the Louisville scene, took the second stage late Friday, resplendent in colorful, far-from-matching bell bottoms. It was clear in dress and demeanor that Houndmouth was treating this gig as a special event, with rousing renditions of everything from set-opening Black Gold to a plaintive late-set rendition of For No One.
In addition to obvious Kentucky connections, there were under-the-radar ones, such as Brooklyn-based San Fermin's Ellis Ludwig-Leone, whose father hails from Lexington, and Louisville native John Medeski, part of the supergroup The Word.
The Word, a sacred steel-jam band hybrid, also featured pedal steel star Robert Randolph and North Mississippi All-Star guitarist Luther Dickinson. One of the highlights for keyboardist Medeski — known for being one third of the trio Medeski, Martin and Wood — was his Rhodes-style colors during Glory Glory, one of only two vocal tunes, sung ably by bassist Chris Chew, in an otherwise instrumental performance.
Of course, Forecastle did not make lists of top festivals in the country by just programming home-state bands.
A particularly auspicious event was Friday night's headlining set by multi-Grammy Award winner Sam Smith in his first concert since taking a three-month break for throat surgery. He sounded strong in the embrace of fans singing along to every word, but the set was cut short by severe thunderstorms that tore into Louisville. The festival was set to close Sunday night with Athens, Ga., jam band veterans Widespread Panic.
All-in-all, the 14th annual Forecastle festival reasserted that Kentucky can put on great music festivals and produce great musicians.