As the strains of their 1982 hit “I Melt With You” rang out across Waterfront Park in downtown Louisville on Saturday (July 10th), the weather was cooperating fully, as half clothed, sweating hippies danced away in the blazing heat to a band that in its heyday appealed mostly to the “Valley Girl” crowd. But today, among the environmental displays, the booths full of tie-dyes and one-hitters, the March Madness Marching Band that looked straight out of Barnum and/or Bailey’s acid trip, and the giant sculpture made entirely from empty water bottles, Robbie Grey and the mostly original Modern English lineup powered through their 80’s pop rock with an ageless energy. “I know what you bastards want…you look like you’re melting out there!”, Grey said with a sly grin. “Here it comes!”
The iconic 80’s pop-rockers were playing the early Saturday slot of The Forecastle Music Festival, held each July in Louisville. Thanks to The Forecastle Festival, I was fortunate enough to be granted an all weekend media/photo pass for the festival! This year’s lineup was populated with favorites like The Smashing Pumpkins, Cake, Widespread Panic, Umphrey’s McGee, The Flaming Lips, Spoon, DEVO, Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, among more than 90 others. Want to hear a jam band? Done. Want to hear a grind-core band? Got it. Want the answer to the question “are we not men?” DEVO provided it readily. Want to see painted up circus freaks light themselves on fire and get sandwiched between two beds of nails? That’s just over across the lawn in the Cirque Berzerk tent. Want to hear speakers talk about bio-fuel and conservation? They have that too.
Just don’t expect to find free or cheap water or much shade. It was a steep $3.00 for a bottle of Dasani, with limited or no options for refilling the empty bottle. Ironic, considering the enviro-preach that was occurring just inside the main gate about sustainable living and recycling. With not a misting tent or water hose in sight, it was nearly impossible to stay hydrated without spending an arm and a leg, and in the process creating all the necessary trash for next year’s water bottle sculpture, and then some. This was a bit disappointing considering the fact that you couldn’t carry in your own water to the festival, and things like camelback backpacks were specifically prohibited (though the rule on camelbacks seemed to be loosely enforced for the most part).
Assuming you didn’t pass out from dehydration and the oppressive afternoon heat, the five stages at Forecastle gave you more than 100 bands, DJ’s and artists to sample over the three days of the weekend. The all-ages, mostly white middle-class crowd could also sample a wide variety of food and drink from various food vendors, as well as shop for homemade jewelry, clothes and knicknacks at the dozens of festival booths. You could also satisfy the gamer in you by visiting the Coke Zero open-air trailer, get free samples of Coke Zero and play Wii on the dozen or so set-ups.
Musically, up and comers like Civil Twilight from South Africa (relocated to Nashville and now on Wind-up Records) brought their Oasis-inspired brand of rock-n-roll and brotherly love to Louisville for the first time and had the girls’ mouths agape at the front of the stage, panting from a different kind of heat. Umphrey’s McGee gave the jam-band fans reason to sway and twirl with their expressive music. Though to be honest, I’m not sure if they played one long song, or a series of very long songs back to back without stopping to designate a beginning or ending. Cake frontman John McCrea took the stage like Castro took Cuba (and with his beard and military style hat, looking just a bit too much like the communist dictator too!) and shook downtown with their syncopated indie-alt style of music, replete with horns and some sort of kazoo. Crowd favorites like “The Distance” and “Never There” dominated a set that also mixed in a few new songs from their upcoming new release. When McCrea mentioned the new album to a few boo’s from the densely packed crowd at the stage (who clearly would have preferred him to play Fashion Nugget from start to finish), he retorted “We already played one of the new ones and you f*ckers didn’t even notice!” I noticed, John.
Over on the second stage, bands like Bear Hands played rousing sets to strong crowds, some of the audience wearing large, furry, fake bear hands. Irony. Thanks, we get it, but they looked awfully hot and uncomfortable to be honest. On the third stage, Louisville artists Scanners rhymed and beat boxed their way through a surprisingly good set of hip hop and rap that, judging by the audience, was clearly “SFWB” (Safe for White Boys). Though, I’ll still take my man Chestah T. Ruckus in a beat box battle royale any day of the week, if given the choice.
The highlight of Saturday had to be DEVO. Well past their prime, much less their bed time, the purveyors of smash hits such as “Whip It” and “Freedom of Choice” bridged the generations and shook Louisville at its foundations. The original lineup of Mark and Bob Mothersbaugh and the Casale brothers had hippies hugging and dancing with yuppies, teenagers hugging and dancing with their parents, cats dancing with dogs, and I’m pretty sure that Satan and Jesus were bouncing in circles on some neutral turf somewhere shouting “CRACK THAT WHIP!” The energy and devotion to the art they’ve spent their lives creating flowed off the stage, enveloped the crowd and gave a true insight into what a festival like Forecastle is all about. Answering the question “Are we not men?”, the crowd shouted back in unison “WE ARE DEVO!” You’re damn right we are.
Sunday began with a massive headache which was only cured by a large helping of a Louisville favorite, Moby Dick fried fish (and a huge Gatorade!). That task out of the way, I returned to Forecastle armed with not only a press pass from Forecastle, but now a backstage pass courtesy of my good friend Lee Stanley, and a desire to abuse its privileges. Free food, free beer, celebrity sightings, the chance to sneak on stage and watch from the stage-side monitor booth; all of these are good things. As we stood watching She and Him bounce around the main stage, I turned to my friend Lee and said “Hey, she looks a lot like Zooey Deschanel”, to which he replied “Good, that’s because it is, dumbass!”
OK, so I didn’t do my homework on all the bands playing, and haven’t heard her music before, but come on, I didn’t rush right out and buy Don Johnson’s album either. Actors-turned-musicians don’t generally inspire my musical sensibilities, but She and Him was quirky, clever and just darn cute! As the diminutive Zooey filled a giant platter full of chips and salsa backstage after the set, I got the opportunity to chat briefly with her and told her that I was surprisingly pleased that I liked their set so much. I’m pretty sure that it didn’t come out quite right, and probably sounded a bit musically snobbish, but she was courteous, smiled and shook my hand and said “Thank you” through a mouthful of chips. She tolerated well the gawking eyes of my cadre and all of the secretive picture snapping. It’s just possible that I have a new star crush, because the girl can sing, play her instruments, and is cute and talented enough to redefine my thoughts about actors-turned-musician.
Another artist I developed a new liking for is Sara Watkins (of Nickel Creek fame). Short, spunky, sexy and amazingly talented are just a few words that could describe this muse. I love bluegrass, but had somehow missed this treasure. Her set was a whirling dervish of fiddle, mandolin, acoustic and banjo. As she sat in the catering tent after her set, she was approachable and generous with her time. I faked my way through my ignorance of her prior to the festival, told her how much I really liked her music, took some pictures with her and my cadre of drooling idiots, and was duly impressed as she loaded out their equipment with her duo partner, climbed into the driver’s seat of the tour van and drove them out of Louisville and onto their next performance. That experience, in a nutshell, defines the true existence of a traveling musician.
Later, as we consumed yet more free food courtesy of Mastersons Catering, and possibly our 100th free beer courtesy of Bluegrass Brewing Company, we were joined by the likes of Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips, Brit Daniels of Spoon, and the boys from Minus the Bear, as well as a steady stream of their ridiculously “one hotter than the next” girlfriends. Testifying to the joys of backstage life, Minus the Bear finished their set of indie/electronic/funky rock-n-roll and immediately proceeded to sit bus-side for hours in lawn chairs listening to Spoon and The Flaming Lips while partaking generously in herbal-like substances that would make Snoop Dog proud. I really, really hope that one of them wasn’t going to be driving the bus later. The upside to being at a festival like this is that if one of their “tobacco” pipes broke, there were 800,000 new ones out front for purchase.
As Spoon played a great set to a packed house, the time came for me to get over to the East Stage for Ted Leo and the Pharmacists. If you haven’t heard Ted Leo, I humbly recommend you get the hell out of your hole and pick up a copy of Shake the Sheets to start. Ted’s live show is pure distilled rock energy, with Ted’s guitar acting as the catalyst. It is three minute rock glory perfected. There are rumors (mostly started by Ted) that after 2010, they’ll be re-assessing their priorities and moving in different directions. If you get the chance (such as at this years Midpoint Music Festival in Cincinnati in September!), get out and see one of today’s great indie artists and a purveyor of simply great rock-n-roll. If you don’t, you will regret it.
I closed out Forecastle like very few others; on stage with The Flaming Lips. Well, technically. As Coyne and crew emerged from their gaping digital vagina, I was in the photo pit (courtesy of my media pass from Forecastle and Randomville.com!) with a horde of cameramen who were wielding some very expensive cameras. I whipped out my 10 year old digital Olympus and proudly snapped pics of Wayne and crew as he shot confetti and streamers into the audience, and as dozens of giant balloons were tossed about on stage and in the crowd. Wayne then climbed into his blow-up gerbil ball and rolled himself off stage into the waiting arms of the adoring audience who gladly bounced him around Waterfront Park and then back to the stage. I think they were even playing music while all this stage craft occurred. I moved from the photo pit to the backstage area and climbed stage left into the monitor and lighting booth for the rest of the show. Watching the coordinated chaos of the stage hands as they brought out one prop after another in perfect unison and perfectly timed to the musical mayhem that was occurring on stage was truly a sight to behold. The Lips’ show is one that is difficult to describe. You either love it or hate it. Musically they’re a mix between psychedelic jam and alternative rock, but mostly they’re just fun to watch. With hits like “Yoshemi Battles the Pink Robots” and “Do You Realize” they’ve managed to develop and maintain a loyal and devoted following, judging by the thronging masses who knew every word and every choreographed stage move Coyne and crew threw at them.
As The Lips burst into their encore, I exited stage left and walked up the drive where Sara Watkins and Zooey Deschanel and DEVO and all the other artists had previously exited Forecastle via car, bus and van. With the echoes of Coyne and 10,000 or more fans shouting “Do you realize?” into the Louisville night, I most certainly realized that I have been missing an amazing festival, and that I would definitely be coming back to Louisville for Forecastle next year.