The rule of thumb for cultivating a music festival, and an audience sizeable enough to sustain it, has usually been to start with modest aims and build from there.
This weekend's HullabaLOU Music Festival in Louisville detours fully from that premise. With a lineup of more than 65 major acts, including a trio of stadium-size headliners, spread out on five stages over three days, the event will inaugurate itself as a fully grown entertainment beast.
And there's the setting to consider: Churchill Downs. It's hardly known as a music venue. But when you stage an event on the scale of the Kentucky Derby, you tend to know a bit about presenting big performances that draw even bigger crowds.
"Our discussion from the onset was, 'Let's start big. Let's make an impact. Let's make sure we establish a brand from day one," said Steve Sexton, president of Churchill Downs Entertainment.
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"We're pretty good at conducting large-scale events, obviously. The (Kentucky) Oaks and the Derby entail a lot of people and moving them around over consecutive days. We also felt the marketplace will support a large-scale music festival based on our experience."
That experience is limited largely to only two shows, although the scale of those performances — a 2006 concert by The Rolling Stones, which drew more than 44,000 people, and a 2007 outing with The Police — introduced in a substantial way the feasibility of employing one of the world's most historic and esteemed racetracks as a sort of king-size concert hall.
"The Stones and The Police were definitely the springboards to get us where we are," Sexton said. "But what we're doing with this festival is an investment in the future."
HullabaLOU will use much of the mammoth Churchill Downs grounds. The main stage will be set up in the infield to face the grandstand, with seating on the dirt and turf tracks as well as in the grandstand itself. That duplicates the stage and seating formats for the Stones and Police concerts. There will be second and third stages at each end of the infield and a fourth set up parallel to the backstretch. A fifth stage, which will spotlight bluegrass music, will be in the paddock area, near the Downs' main entrances.
And who, you might ask, is on the performance list for HullabaLOU? The main-stage headliners will be the veteran pop-rock troupe Bon Jovi (Friday night), country superstar Kenny Chesney (Saturday) and the jam-friendly Dave Matthews Band (Sunday). Main-stage support acts will include country crossover act Dierks Bentley, the alt-pop troupe Train and Jersey-bred soul-rockers Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes (Friday night); country chart-toppers Jason Aldean and Sara Evans (Saturday); and the country-rocking Zac Brown Band with the jam-savvy Avett Brothers (Sunday).
The music roster on the other stages was largely assembled by Festival Productions, which books numerous high-profile music events around the country, including New Orleans' famed Jazz Fest. Those acts include The Steve Miller Band, The Black Crowes, Al Green, Michael McDonald, Gov't Mule, Ben Folds, The B-52s, Gladys Knight, Huey Lewis and the News, Taj Mahal, The Doobie Brothers and more.
Kentucky's own musical heritage will be part of the party as well. Among the Kentucky-born artists at HullabaLOU will be Loretta Lynn, Dwight Yoakam, Ricky Skaggs, Exile, Joan Osborne, Sam Bush, The VilleBillies, Ben Sollee, Michael Johnathon, Hog Operation and Kentucky Blue.
That's a lot to pack in over three days. But then the Downs is used to a hosting a hearty crowd: The Kentucky Derby attracts more than 150,000 patrons each May. HullabaLOU isn't likely to hit anything like that in its inaugural year. But with tickets already bought by concertgoers in 47 states, Sexton said, the aim of HullabaLOU isn't just to start big. He hopes the festival will get even bigger in the years ahead.
"We've already learned a tremendous amount over the past six months," he said. " We're going to learn a lot more in the next few days."