Part of the appeal of the Forecastle Festival is seeing bands on the Louisville waterfront. But there is something about the midafternoon sun in July that can make an Interstate overpass very attractive.
As temperatures soared well into the high 80s Saturday afternoon, fans found their ways out of the sun and under sections of I-64 that fly over a portion of Louisville’s Waterfront Park where they could buy food, fill their water bottles, use portable bathrooms and even see the bands that play on the Ocean Stage, all in the shade … with a breeze to boot. But the sun was by no means a deterrent to fans of the festival that annually draws 60,000 to 70,000 people to the Louisville waterfront.
This year’s lineup was topped by a trio of A-listers in name, and otherwise: The Avett Brothers on Friday, Alabama Shakes on Saturday and Ryan Adams, scheduled to perform Sunday.
Alabama Shakes designed an earthshaking kaleidoscope of soul sounds that used the piercing falsetto of Brittany Howard and the opening number “Future People” as its commanding greeting. From there, the set was all atomic testimony, from the locomotive gospel-soul of “Always Alright” to the vocal coo and lurch of “Miss You.” It was nothing for the Shakes to shift from R&B chill to grudge match intensity that let the love and fury of Howard’s singing run loose. But the killer was “Heartbreaker,” a take-no-prisoners torch song that began with Howard lit alone onstage amid waves of purple and blue. What she summoned from there was churchy in its conviction and full tilt monster soul in its patient, potent delivery.
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The day started on the main stage shortly after lunchtime with Pokey LaFarge mining vintage sources for a revue-oriented, dance hall-derived set that allowed his animated tenor singing to serve as ringmaster for the gospel soul swing of “Something in the Water,” while the castanet clicking, clarinet moaning stride of “Goodbye, Barcelona” solidified the slow broil of the Waterfront Park environment. But it was the suitably border town feel of the Warren Zevon classic “Carmelita” that best suited Forecastle’s summertime, riverside feel.
Bridging multiple folk generations was Sarah Jarosz. Her all-too-brief Boom Stage set with guitarist Jedd Hughes and bassist Jeff Picker began with the banjo-led clarity of “Annabelle Lee” and sifted through the years to the fragile, autumnal reflection of “Built Up from Bones” before reaching the gorgeous, atmospheric glow of the new “Green Lights.” To show she had not forsaken her roots, Jarosz delivered Bob Dylan’s “Ring Them Bells” as an affirmation of lovely poetic ambiance.
The Arcs, the psychedelic soul-leaning side project of Black Keys guitarist Dan Auerbach, delivered a carnival sound to the main stage late in the afternoon, anchored by the sharp R&B grooves instigated by the band’s twin guitar/twin drum charge. In a twilight set, the Los Angeles troupe Local Natives delivered a considerably more elemental and yet still appealing pop sound with a decidedly 1980s slant, like U2 in its chiming, riff-fortified sound.
A local highlight of the afternoon was on the smaller Port Stage, where Louisville Orchestra music director Teddy Abrams assembled a diverse group of local musicians to lead the “Forecastle Symphony,” boasting guests such as fiddle master Michael Cleveland and Jarosz to show the thrill of music unbounded by genre.
Friday afternoon, the festival took a brief break for severe weather that did not materialize. Grouplove was first on the main stage after the break, with frontwoman Hannah Hooper a gyrating force of neck-to-ankle leopard print and frontman Christian Zucconi bouncing between keys and sea blue guitar. And it was Grouplove’s crowd, as they sang along to every word of hits such as “Itchin’ on a Photograph.”
Later in the day, when Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals and then The Avett Brothers came out, there were different crowds hanging on the rail, all totally tuned into their artists’ boundless performances. Harper took the stage with a raucous rendition of “When Sex Was Dirty,” and gave each of his extremely capable bandmates the spotlight. The Avetts, veterans of several Rupp Arena stands, attack what is essentially roots music with the verve and energy of P-Funk. “Ain’t No Man” was rife with electricity, even though it was just four singers accompanied by bass and drums.
Though a Louisville event, Lexington had an influence, including the presence of local business Kentucky for Kentucky, selling Commonwealth-centric merchandise, hosting the bouncy-horse Kentucky for Kentucky Derby for fest fans and flying a plane around the site.
Fans could cool off browsing numerous vendors, including Lexington-based Cricket Press, or at the Bourbon Lodge, where samples, demonstrations and talks such as “How to Speak Bourbon Geek” were offered.
Cooling off on a hot afternoon with a Bourbon — what could be more Kentucky than that?