Friday, 29 July 2016

Forecastle Festival - Louisville, Kentucky, Saturday 16th and Sunday 17th July 2016

Brandi Carlile
Music, Arts, Activism is the moniker of the eclectic Forecastle Festival which lights up downtown Louisville Kentucky for one weekend each July. Not your usual attraction for music fans in the UK, but when you’re on a Southern Road Trip and nearby, what better way to spend a few days lapping up the quality array of bands that were assigned to this year’s line-up.

When you first discover that the festival location is partly under an intersection of the I-64/I-65 curiosity is aroused, but the temporary shade this provides from the burning mid-afternoon sun is heaven sent. It is also more accurate to state that the site is on the banks of the Ohio River and has four conveniently located stages spilling out a range of diverse sounds from lunch time to late night across the three days.

The initial appeal of Forecastle was around half a dozen big name acts with loose connections to the Americana genre. Generally the line-up had the feel of a cool record store, mixing roots music with indie rock, hip hop and a touch of contemporary folk. Unfortunately travel constraints meant that Friday wasn’t attended and thus the opportunity to see the acclaimed Avett Brothers headlining was missed. Anyhow reports on social media were of thunder storms leading to a temporary evacuation of the festival site, so this inconvenience was avoided even if reports of the sets were generally positive.

Sarah Jarosz
There were no such weather concerns for Saturday unless you count the relentless sun and temperatures still in the mid-90s. The scene was set with no better way of getting things started on the main stage than a riveting performance from those old time roots exponents Pokey LaFarge. After impressing immensely at Cambridge Folk Festival two years ago, the journey from St. Louis for the band was a bit shorter this time with the same songs sounding just as good. A positive and healthy crowd reception from the early main stage gatherers lifted proceedings and the band duly responded with an excellent performance of songs such as ‘Something in the Water’ and ‘Goodbye, Barcelona’.

As three o’clock approached the first clash of the festival emerged. Sarah Jarosz just won the battle ahead of Shakey Graves, although the last ten minutes of the latter’s set was caught after Sarah had finished. She was scheduled to play the Boom Stage which could be construed as the second one; all stages were given a nautical name in common theme with the festival. Appearing in a trio format and with a brand new album in tow, Sarah showed once again how she is a blossoming artist merging her natural talent into engaging songs and an increasingly impressive stage presence. Songs from the new record UNDERCURRENT such as ‘House of Mercy’ and the Parker Millsap co-write ‘Comin’ Undone’ sounded supreme and matched up well against older tunes like ‘Build Me Up With Bones’ and the gospel inspired singalong ‘Come On Up to the House’. Jed Hughes ably assisted Sarah on lead guitar and the appetite was whetted for the new songs to get an airing in the UK when she visits later in the year.

Brandi Carlile
The rest of the afternoon was spent sampling some new bands, often out of the Americana comfort zone, and seeking the ‘concrete interstate shade’. One set of particular note was Louisville musician and band leader Teddy Abrams presenting an hour of music with his friends including guests from a variety of genres including rock, pop, hip hop and folk. Sarah Jarosz was one of his guests and also another American folk singer in Joan Shelley who was due to appear in a solo slot the following day.

The build up to the main event on Saturday evening gathered momentum as the hot sun dipped and dwindled before the ‘best live band in the world’ arrived on stage at 9:30 in the guise of the Brittany Howard-led Alabama Shakes. Just prior to the band taking the stage, there was a brief civic celebration of local Louisville pride based on the legacy of the city’s most loved citizen – the late Muhammed Ali. To the orchestrated chants of ‘Ali Ali’ and the call and response of ‘Float like a butterfly sting like a bee’ Alabama Shakes uncoiled into action to exhibit their credentials as the most passionate live rock ‘n’ soul band on the planet.

Alabama Shakes
This band has now been seen on three occasions, at three different venues in three separate countries. They rose to personal prominence at Calgary Folk Festival in 2013 and played an excellent show closer to home in Birmingham UK last year. This performance possibly eclipsed both shows as Brittany flung everything into each song to a back track of swirling soulful organ and gutsy guitars. Every song is delivered as her life is dependent on it and the vocals travel to places unheard of. Being fairly close up is a mesmerising experience and feeling the power of Alabama Shakes in full flow is a dip into an existential place. Saturday night at Forecastle was complete and in the memory mind bank forever.

Sunday brought a slight cloud cover but ultimately little temperature respite. While elevating above the Alabama Shakes experience would be tough, it did provide a more extensive offering of music to taste with the impressive Anderson East leading things off as the opening act on the ‘main’ Mast Stage. This Alabama artist has seen a significant rise in profile in recent times and his brand of soulful rock ‘n’ blues pours from the stage in sumptuous portions. Anderson cut a cool figure in his shades and posturing mode, mixing songs from his recent album with classic covers of ‘Stay With Me’ and ‘Rebel Rebel’. The set ended too quickly but raised the promise of an artist that has the potential to be relevant on the Americana circuit both sides of the pond for a very long time.

Anderson East 
In between Anderson finishing and a set by the Heartless Bastards starting, a brief glimpse of Joan Shelley playing the outer WFPK Port Stage was viewed, complete with tree shade. She was definitely the most folk oriented artist on the bill and a few numbers caught will surely go down well in listening venues. Joan is due to visit the UK in August and is worth catching live. The Heartless Bastards is an Austin- based roots rock band, who once hit their groove, gives a very accomplished performance. Like Alabama Shakes, they were first witnessed in Calgary a couple of years ago and were well worth seeing in this Forecastle line –up.

The Boom Stage was proving the place to be on this Sunday afternoon. Prior to Anderson East playing the main arena, a few minutes of The Suffers was enjoyed with the added frustration of not being omnipresent. Anyhow after the Heartless Bastards, camp at the ‘Boom’ was set up for White Denim, Blackberry Smoke and Brandi Carlile, with the occasional beer, bite to eat and little bit of shade.

Blackberry Smoke
White Denim gave a first class performance in the late afternoon slot to show why Austin is a hot bed of high quality rock ‘n’ roll music. Whereas some bands find their groove and settle, White Denim continued to evolve over the hour on stage and proved to be an extremely accomplished outfit generating an energetic guitar and drum mix to impressive effect. Blackberry Smoke were next up on this stage and provided a break from the more indie sound with a set infused by a dose of straight up Southern Rock. In a festival which generally steered clear of country music this year (although Chris Stapleton and Sturgill Simpson were on the bill last year), the slower parts of the Blackberry Smoke set was perhaps the closest we got. Overall they were probably the surprise act seen over the weekend with a starting point of just taking a look to giving them a rousing applause after a pulsating hour on stage.

The two days at Forecastle were now coming to a close but not before two of the most anticipated moments of the visit – a full set by Brandi Carlile and the last hour of Ryan Adams on the main stage before festival closure. Damn the slight overlap.

A good half hour before Brandi appeared, the front of the stage became packed with fans which were clear in who they wanted to see. This throng grew right up until Brandi and her band kicked straight into gear with ‘Again Today’. The massed gathering at the front was now in Brandi Carlile heaven singing word for word on ‘Hard Way Home’, ‘The Story’ and ‘Keep Your Heart Young’. In fact each one of the twelve Brandi songs on the set list, prior to the band signing off with covers of Led Zeppelin’s ‘Going to California’ and Johnny Cash’s ‘Folsom Prison Blues’.

Brandi Carlile with Tim and Phil Hanseroth
Brandi was in awe of the reception Kentucky was giving her and the numbers choosing her set over the one by Death Cab for Cutie on the main stage. She praised the fifteen year association with Tim and Phil Hanseroth along with the eventual decision to celebrate the work of the great harmony acts by recording their own song in a three part format. ‘The Eye’ was totally stunning standing barely yards from the trio singing it and who can fail to marvel at the line ‘you can dance in a hurricane, but only if you’re standing in the eye’. Alabama Shakes may have edged it in the performance stakes, but Brandi Carlile won clearly hands down in honesty, sincerity and the sheer ability to communicate heart, emotion and feelings through the art of song and music.

If some of the acts were of high quality, but generally straight down the middle, the same couldn’t be said of Ryan Adams. The quality was certainly there but mixed with the usual bout of eccentricity and rambling chat. This heady quirky mix has served him well over many years and the thousands who flocked to the main stage for the Forecastle finale were going to enjoy every minute of it. Joining the set fifteen minutes in meant standing at the back, but even observing most of the stage action via the screen didn’t diminish the experience of catching this enigmatic performer for the first time. Among the random musings was plenty of classic Ryan Adams material with many waiting patiently for the penultimate song and the reference to Kentucky in ‘Oh My Sweet Carolina’. It was pure bliss hearing this song live on a warm summer’s evening and topped a great couple of days at this truly urban festival. Inevitably Ryan had the ‘Summer of ‘69’ heckle and dealt with it superbly with an improvised song of his own designed to provide a suitable response.

Forecastle serves Louisville Kentucky proud each year and its many peripheral attractions and activities celebrate the cultural heartbeat of a flourishing city. The music they present is top class and it was a honour to attend for a couple of days assuming the role of honorary Kentuckian. It also confirmed the status of Alabama Shakes as the best live band in the world and Brandi Carlile as a truly inspiring performer.

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