In less than two decades, the Forecastle Festival has grown from a small, neighborhood event into a national happening that annually makes lists like best and coolest music fests in the country. Given that kind of notoriety, Forecastle can still manage to feel very Kentucky, from features such as the bourbon lodge and a bouncy horse race called the Forecastle Derby to some of the biggest acts on its stages.
The penultimate slots on Forecastle’s main stage Friday and Saturday were devoted to Kentucky-grown artists that are the reigning Grammy Award winners for best album in their respective generes: Bowling Green’s Cage the Elephant, which won best rock album for “Tell Me I’m Pretty,” Friday and Versailles-raised Sturgill Simpson, who won best country album and was nominated for album of the year for “A Sailor’s Guide to Earth,” Saturday.
Simpson emerged as a guitar hero in this outing. By jettisoning the horn section that backed him onstage following the release of “Sailor’s Guide” and trimming what remained of his band to a lean quartet, the country renegade opened his evening set with a reading of “Brace for Impact (Live a Little)” that roared on for 10 minutes, over half of which was devoted to long, winding guitar jams Simpson played over a thick, deliberate Southern groove. After that, the performance wound its way through psychedelic blues (“It Ain’t All Flowers”), Merle Haggard-level country reflection (“Breakers Roar”), a quietly ambient meditation that ignited into hotwired, churchy soul (“Welcome to Earth”) and a Prince-worthy guitar grind that opened out into a potent cover of the blues-boogie chestnut “Going Down.” All in all, a typically mighty and wonderfully combustible Simpson outing.
Friday night, Cage’s frontman Matt Shultz took the stage like a young Mick Jagger, singing the bluesy “Cry Baby.” Dancing, vamping, jumping on risers to play to the crowd, and quickly losing the jacket to his bright green suit, sans shirt underneath, Shultz was a model of frontman charisma and energy that translated to the rest of the band; particularly guitarist and brother Brad Shultz, who went and played in the crowd for a while.
Cage last visited Forecastle in 2015, with a similarly scorching set. But this time, the catalog was enhanced with the Grammy Award-winning album “Tell Me I’m Pretty,” which was generously sampled Friday, along with classics like “Spiderhead.” Cage topped a very Kentucky day at Forecastle that started with Louisville trio Twin Limb christening the 2017 main stage with a haunting, electric set.
The band returned in the evening over at the Port Stage as part of Teddy Abrams & Friends or the Forecastle Symphony. Whichever moniker you like — Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer seemed to like Forecastle Symphony, if that makes any difference to you — this is the second year for the group, a collective of Derby City musicians organized by Abrams, music director of the Louisville Orchestra. Abrams promised the crowd “every genre of music” at the outset of the show and delivered, offering up doses of jazz, blues, indie rock, hip-hop and bluegrass, to name a few.
The Port Stage, which is run by Louisville public radio outlet WFPK, launched earlier in the day with hometown band Quiet Hollers, which has been building a reputation for introspective and inventive rock, like what you hear on the group’s brand new album, “Amen Breaks.” One-time Northern Kentuckian John Moreland played the evening set at the Port stage, producing a torrent of acoustic guitar in the service of gut-wrenching songs such as “Oh Julia.” Echoing classic American songwriters, it was easy to understand the hype about Moreland.
But you didn’t have to be a Kentuckian or expat to put on great performances at Forecastle, this year.
Saturday officially kicked into high gear with a typically rocking set by J.D. McPherson. The Oklahoma singer and guitarist again operated from a largely traditional playbook of retro-inclined pop, soul, blues and roots rock inspirations.
Other standouts the first two days included Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats whose Saturday set was buoyed by a guitar sound and vocal lead that were beautifully ragged, South Carolina’s Needtobreathe with a surprisingly strong Forecastle debut and Chicano Batman, whose live show was much more funky and energetic than its latest album, the decidedly smooth “Freedom is Free.”
Forecastle’s Saturday closer, LCD Soundsystem, offered a familiar groove sound built around a fascinating mix of programmed beats, analog synths, percussion and the wild range of James Murphy’s potent vocals. With Nancy Whang still adding to the synth orchestration from centerstage, tunes like the set-opening “Yr City’s a Sucker” and the quirkily animated “Daft Punk is Playing at My House” emerged as densely arranged electronic rock pieces that heavily recalled the early ’80s music of Roxy Music, Talking Heads, Devo and, in Murphy’s vocals, The Cure. But hits or no hits, the ensemble’s resulting music sounded proudly modern.
The fest continued Sunday with a lineup topped by Weezer and P.J. Harvey.