Forecastle went safe with its lineup this year, and it paid off in attendance … plus some other notes about last weekend’s festival

No matter how you might feel about the dominance of summer festivals and the culture therein, they certainly satisfy a few thirsts for the average music fan. There’s the shared experience, of course, and jubilant, sensory-overload atmosphere, the opportunity for discovery and the realization that, if it’s hot enough, you actually sweat out all the beer you poured down your gullet and can avoid the port-a-potty until dinner time (which I did the Sunday of last year).

But perhaps the biggest itch a festival scratches is the perennial excitement of: “Hey, who are they gonna bring?” You hear it murmured throughout the winter before the best festivals tease out their headliners, as rumors bounce across social media. Because music festivals are almost monolithic talent-buying entities at this point, your regional festival has the muscle and capital to rope in something truly special. Something you might’ve thought you’d never see in your town, or maybe even your lifetime. That once-in-a-lifetime reunion. Forecastle 2014 delivered the goods on that front with sets from Outkast, The Replacements and Slint, not to mention such festival royalty as Beck and Jack White on the headliner slots. Wowzers castle, right? Or perhaps the festival might drop some awesome gifts on the undercard — the artists featured in a bit smaller font size on the poster — who may have passed the market before, but then deliver a legendary performance during a creative zenith. I think back to Forecastle 2012 with Flying Lotus, Atlas Sound, Jeff the Brotherhood and Beach House on a single night — how awesome was that Friday? Or, in 2013, when Run the Jewels, on their ascent upward to become the most important hip-hop duo in the world, ignited tectonic rumblings around the Ocean Stage on Sunday afternoon? And last year, Forecastle packed some dark-horse surprises, like the perfect Friday evening breezy wind-down of Alvvays, a trenchant guitar assault from Diarrhea Planet, a tent revival from St. Paul & The Broken Bones, and, honestly, I had to appreciate at least in the abstract the curveball of throwing in Sam Smith as a Friday headliner, and the subsequent smiting of God, through whatever freak derecho storm cell that evacuated the grounds early that evening, for ripping off Tom Petty.

Forecastle 2016, however, was the year the organizers went full-safe. No alarms, and no surprises. The top two lines on the post read like David Dye’s iPod, the soundtrack of a cool dad’s drive to pick up the kids from Montessori school. The Avett Brothers, Alabama Shakes, Brandi Carlile and Ryan Adams are the sound of learning that the guacamole is extra at your local Chipotle, drinking artisanal tea from a mason jar or tailgating the “Prairie Home Companion” matinee, and Louisville just loves that stuff — any and all confessional or brooding singer-songwriters or rock acts with a slight twang, the staples of AAA radio. And that’s what moves tickets in this market.

And listen, despite me cracking on tote-bag rock, there’s not a thing wrong with any of those names — great artists with critical respect who are very familiar to and well-liked by the, ahem, anchor audience of Forecastle’s demographic. By festival logic, the approach makes total sense, but given Forecastle’s reach and ability to nab some of those “once-in-a-lifetime” engagements, it also really zapped any sense of mystery or intrigue that other festivals delivered this year and Forecastle has in the past, outside of two artists halfway down the lineup who have never played in Louisville before  — Danny Brown and Unknown Mortal Orchestra.

The fact is, the 2016 marquee headliners offered up no sense of urgency. If you missed ‘em this go round, hey, they’ll be back soon to Iroquois Amphitheater or The Louisville Palace soon. Ryan Adams, for instance, has played a major concert in the city three of the last four years (2012, 2015 and 2016). So has Death Cab For Cutie (2012, 2015 and 2016). So has The Alabama Shakes (2013, 2015 and 2016) and Brandi Carlile (2012, 2013, and 2016). The Avett Brothers have made five appearances in that same time span (2013, three nights in 2014 and 2015). So has Dr. Dog. You get the point. Forecastle 2016 put down their money on win, place, or show on low-odd steeds. Safe.

Bonnaroo, one of the country’s flagship festivals alongside Coachella and Austin City Limits, saw a 46-percent drop since 2011, and sold 28,000 fewer tickets this year than it did last. Bonnaroo was created the same year as Forecastle and shares the same parent company, AC Entertainment. Is it a smart move to go safe?  “Industry experts attributed the drop in ticket sales in part to what some viewed as a so-so slate of headlining artists – Pearl Jam, LCD Soundsystem and Dead & Company,” said The Tennesseean. It also went on to attribute “rising competition among summer music festivals” for the drop in sales, which also begs the question I asked last year after NiFi Festival pulled out of the Kentucky Speedway because of poor advance ticket sales: there are so many music festivals — will the festival bubble burst at some point? If so, who survives?

At the presser Thursday evening before Forecastle, founder JK McKnight revealed that 65,000 people will attend this year, meaning Forecastle continues to grow, while other premier festivals witness dips in attendance. And this is in the face of the numbers crunched above and while existing within a day’s drive of Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza, Bunberry, Shaky Knees, and a lot of other massive festivals held in the warmer months. AC Entertainment hasn’t gone on record yet about official numbers, but having covered the past five Forecastle Festivals, last Saturday seemed to be the largest crowd I’ve seen at Waterfront Park. By most qualitative and quantitative metrics, Forecastle seems to be doing very OK.

And while raising the point of headliner recycling is a relevant and honest dialogue, it’s possible that it may not even matter if the lineup feels pedestrian or “so-so.” Perhaps Louisville, and maybe to a larger degree the sovereign summer festival culture, appreciates the familiar, as evidenced by this year’s attendance.

And maybe some of the intangibles contribute to this as well. A few of the points I addressed in my essay last year bear repeating. Forecastle grew naturally over time, it wasn’t reared from a production giant out the gate to be a huge destination weekend. Forecastle maintains a sense of place — it’s not a farm or a desertscape that could be Anywhere USA. It’s downtown Louisville and its golden Ohio River sunsets. The city is woven into the fabric of the fest, and symbiotically, the city supports it every year. I have no way to empirically prove it, save for perhaps following the Early Bird pre-sales (which is data I don’t have access to), but I think it’s a very safe hypothesis that a significant percentage of attendees come every year regardless of which artists are playing. It’s a place to be seen and a getaway. Some attractions grow and some festival grounds aesthetics change, but many of the staples remain — the gargantuan Squallis Puppeteers facsimiles of Kentucky legends like Colonel Sanders and Hunter S. Thompson, live-art installations that include the painting of a yacht, environmental stewardship, reasonable prices on food and drink, and seriously happy, generally considerate people. One of the organizers I chatted with in the media area this weekend described Forecastle as a “happy weekend oasis,” and I agree with that. A palpable joyfulness truly pierces the air of the weekend at the Waterfront, not to mention a relatively low douche quotient, compared to other summer festivals. Forecastle cultivates a specific and distinct environment. In this regard, sometimes the familiar is OK too.

Some side notes:

  • Curiously no jam bands this year. Fine with me, but, every year that comes to my mind, included at least one major artist appealing to folks with an affinity for incense and talking about “the real problem, man.”
  • The food was particularly good this year, mixing up local fare like Red Top Gourmet and Longshot Lobsta with contracted vendors, offering a wide swath of cuisine options. Burgers and fries are boring — gyros, jambalaya, kimchi bowls and gator tails are much more exciting.
  • No one was playing Pokémon. As the first major American music festival after the app became a culture phenomenon, I expected to enjoy with an anthropological remove — a dystopian vision of phone slaves, the new opiate of the masses. The only person I caught all weekend playing the game was my dumb ass.
  • The presence of a TSA pre-check brand activation, while wholly benevolent, still felt odd for a festival that values saving the Earth and feelin’ fine. A fighter jet flew by as I passed through the TSA entrance on the second day, which felt ominous. Death from Above 1984. It was later replaced with a twin engine dragging a giant “Kentucky Kicks Ass” banner through the brilliant blue Saturday sky. Vibes re-centered.
  • The pride of Detroit, Danny Brown, summoned the largest audience under the I-71 overpass Ocean Stage I’ve ever seen. Perhaps larger than Slint in 2014. So yes, Louisville is obviously hungry for some more idiosyncratic hip-hop at the festival.

About the Author

Forecastle went safe with its lineup this year, and it paid off in attendance … plus some other notes about last weekend’s festival

Michael C. Powell keeps his spear sharp in many creative endeavors, freelancing as a writer, designer, and photographer whose work has appeared in VICE, The Guardian, PASTE Magazine, The Daily Swarm, IMPOSE, Consequence of Sound, and many others. Michael, who sometimes authors under the nom de plume Kenny Bloggins, loves Twitter and actively abuses the platform at @kbloggins. He is the creator of Welp!, LEO Weekly’s food features gone gonzo.

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