River Road is one of Louisville’s stranger corridors. While backdropped by the natural beauty of a waterfront, this two-lane direct shot out of downtown serves as a home for scrapyards, boat dealers, retirement communities and motorists who like to injure bicyclists by driving too fast — apropos to a half century of development that saw Louisville actively rejecting its riverfront resource. So unless you’re over 65, or are really passionate about mediocre fried fish, you most likely don’t find yourself on this stretch too often. Yet this weekend through either happenstance or providence, it became a haven for music fans with two competing festivals within spitting distance of each other, obliterating everyone’s cell service and availability at the nearby Ramada Inn.
In this corner, the inaugural Bourbon & Beyond, the latest joint from LA-based Danny Wimmer, who is also responsible for Louder Than Life the following weekend, which shares the same infrastructure and festival grounds at Champions Park. While Louder Than Life’s MO skews toward metal, butt rock and the occasional wildcard that’s cool (Cheap Trick, Eagles of Death Metal), Bourbon & Beyond’s entertainment offerings venture more toward the tastes of moms and dads who own at least one Jim Morrison-related T-shirt. Louder Than Prairie Home Companion, if you will. And of course, the festival capitalizes hard on the booming bourbon industry and letting Fred Minnick rove about the park and do whatever he wants. Stevie Nicks, who can still twirl pushing 70 (and belted out a majestic rendition of “Gypsy”), referred to it on stage as “The Bourbon Fest.”
And in the other corner, Cropped Out. Now in its seventh year, Cropped Out has achieved nationwide notoriety as more of a punk rock summer camp than a festival proper, all while boasting wild and intriguing lineups (Jandek, Lil B, Sun Ra, Wolf Eyes, The Dead C, Bill Callahan and Kool Keith are all alums). Despite the ebb in press coverage this year, the festival saw its biggest ticket sales yet, coming close to capacity in attendance, according to organizer Ryan Davis. Cropped Out is DIY to the core. A spray-painted bed sheet depicting a gray alien flipping the bird greets guests on the way in. Signs and decor are (lovingly?) handmade. An old-school zine serves as the festival program. And it all takes place at a blue-collar country club with a divey billiard hall, a small campsite and a no-frills terrace offering pretty spectacular views of the Ohio River sparkling in the golden hour. Witnessing riverboats chug by to the soundtrack of free jazz and scuzz rock is one of Cropped Out’s many charms. Outsider comedian and Tim and Eric collaborator Neil Hamburger, in a bit about touring his act, jokingly lamented performing on a sheet of plywood on a dock at the muddy banks of the Ohio instead of an actual stage.
The former is a newcomer with a big budget, the latter has been holding court in its weird corner since 2010 with no budget. Basically, neither has anything to do with the other, while both made it difficult for diners, who just want some damn crispy oysters. And I was probably the very small minority of people who went to both. While it seemed star of “Twin Peaks” Edward Louis Severson III, known to some as Eddie Vedder, may have partaken in a little too much of the festival’s featured product before his twilight performance under a brilliant crescent moon, hearing classic Pearl Jam songs performed solo acoustic — and seeing Eddie in his final Neil Young form, hat and all — reverberating over the park reminded me that I’m not too cool to reminisce on how much I liked that band growing up. I heard someone describe it as a “really well-attended open mic.” I howled. Still a nice performance. And a 10-minute walk later, I was at Americans Turners Club enjoying what has become Cropped Out’s house band Shit & Shine (their fourth appearance!) on some culture jamming Negativland grooves. A enjoyable shock to the system. [Fun fact: The author of “Pearl Jam Twenty” lives in Louisville and was hanging out with Big Ed. There was an actual clear path to get Vedder to come to Cropped Out and check out Feedtime. Sadly, he had another engagement in Nashville and was whisked away by escort shortly after].
Of course, there’s no point in comparing the lineups between each festival — different approaches, different crowds. But some of the similarities and differences were pretty novel and worthy of note.
Food trucks rule everything around us. The biggest overlap between the two festivals was the abundance of food trucks. Like Louder Than Life’s Gourmet Man Food and Forecastle’s fairway, Bourbon & Beyond put most of the trucks in rows of kiosks, flanked by local restaurants like Gospel Bird and Milkwood. The festival’s entire setup is completely congruent to Louder Than Life’s, so presumably they’ll just leave everything up during the week. What they call in the industry “a twofer.” Gospel Bird’s Chicken Leg tacos were a scrumptious light meal, topped with cider slaw and a cilantro aioli. Of course, prices were jacked up vis-a-vis the festival premium, but it was nice seeing local representation while enjoying some satisfying food that wasn’t a million calories. I regret I didn’t get to check out the Southern Soul tent, as 610 Magnolia’s Kevin Ashworth is one of the best chefs in the city and seeing his creations over a smoking pit would’ve been a real treat.
Cropped Out featured Jolly Tamales, The KentuckyTaco Company, El Lobo Bailando (the truck you’ll find parked outside Kaiju most nights) and, most importantly, Pork Stand. It’s owned and operated by a high school buddy of Ryan Davis’. They sold me two ribs and a side of kale and carrot salad for $5. Five George Washingtons. And folks, the rib is not supposed to fall off the bone. That is a myth. The meat should have some chew. You’re not making a goddamn stew. Pork Stand got this.
Bourbon & Beyond was not joking around about making the bourbon the star. One bartender I spoke with mentioned that the vendors were more packed than the main stages before Eddie Vedder on Saturday. I believe that. Workshops and tastings were at capacity. The massive bourbon tent, known colloquially as the Big Bourbon Bar, never boasted short lines. There was a Tiki Bar replete with an LCD aquarium, and cocktail bars featuring exposed brick painted over malleable plastic canopy tent walls, if you ever want to have the sensation of a brick wall pushing back. The Mash Stage hosted bourbon-related discussions that was… the same size as the music stages. Obviously this was retrofitted for Louder Than Life’s three-ring setup, but it was wild watching a roundtable of middle-aged white guys (which is the vast majority of the industry’s figures) on a huge, GE-branded setup with hundreds of watts of volume behind them. The whole thing’s absurd. I know bourbon is a billion dollar industry, but I guess I didn’t realize you really could convince folks to pay $120 to stand around and sip fermented corn.
I would be remiss to not mention visiting my buddy Eric at the Haymarket Hunters’ Club activation, in which the Market Street establishment packed up a bunch of their rarer varietals and set up a satellite bar at the festival. He poured me their private Elijah Craig. Silky and sweet and smooth, it was one of the finest bourbons I’ve ever had. They call it the “10 Year Creamsicle.” Thank you for the recommendation, Eric. Cropped Out had some Against the Grain, PBRs, and Tito’s served by the friendly folks of Turners. Really all you need.
Bourbon and Beyond featured two large “experiences” — The Music Experience and The Fan Experience. The former was literally a Guitar Center — full MSRP Fenders, awkward teens sloppily shredding some Randy Rhodes and a guy on the mic telling you to step right up and win a Bourbon & Beyond painted axe that looked like a Gibson at first, but was actually a Paul Reed Smith (boo!). And before y’all put me on blast, it’s nothing against PRS Guitars, they’re just a little dad blues for my taste, and I prefer the craftsmanship of Gibson. Just saying, I would’ve more likely entered the raffle in that event.
Where was I? Oh yeah, The Fan Experience. That was an FYE. They sold CDs. I haven’t been to the mall in a while, but it turns out those are still a thing. On the bourbon side, adjacent to the tasting workshops, Carmichaels Bookstore set up a stand of all their bourbon-related literature. Far and away the coolest booth at the fest came from FirstBuild, an innovation arm of GE that boasts a popular and novel nugget ice machine. It also provided ultra-clear spirits ice and upcycle a variety of products, such as a barbecue smoker out of an old refrigerator and bourbon barrel coolers.
One of my favorite festival vendors, Shitty Tattoos, returned to Cropped Out this year. You can spring for a Stussy S, sad clown, skull or something else on the cheap. And you get exactly what you pay for. More importantly, Cropped Out’s record fair is a vinyl fiend’s dream. Here you’ll find mostly private sellers offering selections from their extremely deep crates at very fair prices. A double Neil Michael Hagerty LP for $12? Bear In Heaven’s debut on mint condition limited edition red wax for $10? Now that’s what I call value!
So many guitar solos at Bourbon & Beyond. Starting with the guy from 24 to Jonny Lang to Glove and His Good Sauce to Paul Rodgers of Bad Company dredging up every classic rock radio cliche to Joe Bonamassa… it was a veritable scorchin’ white blues smorgasbord. Save for Gary Clark Jr., who always approaches riffage much more tastefully, these folks really could stand to dial it back a bit and try out some chords. Chords are great! They sound great and complement a chorus real nicely, like Stevie Nicks did at the end of the night. Let this be a lesson to the teens at The Music Experience — you don’t have to wank off on pentatonic scales as the day is long to be a fine player. Check out Johnny Marr, Corin Tucker, the guy in U2 who hasn’t been seen publicly without a hat since 1983, etc. After Sunday, I think I heard enough 12-bar licks to last me until North Korea annihilates us. Cropped Out’s lineup featured little to no discernible soloing. Royal Trux squeezed some riffs out I think.
Festival As Experience
The other shared component between River Road’s two weekend events is the overall trend of music festivals as, well, just festivals. High early-bird ticket sales for Forecastle suggest that a lot of folks appreciate the environment and vibe regardless of whose playing. In a previous interview did I with Cropped Out co-organizer James Ardery, he said, “No one expects anyone to watch all the bands. If you wanna go play horseshoes or basketball, we want you to do that. If you want to stick on the dock and watch the boats, we want you to do that.” And Bourbon & Beyond provided the most strident example. Save for a few headliners, the music seemed like a backdrop to the bourbon, both in the festival’s design and execution, and the behavior patterns in the crowd. Often it was easier to get in front of the stage than it was to get a rip of rare whiskey in the Big Bourbon Bar. Festivals that create a strong identity tend to succeed, even as the market becomes more saturated. This has served the continued growth of Cropped Out — there’s truly nothing like it. Given the sizable attendance this weekend, Bourbon & Beyond may have also found its character too, though some of the ingredients are a bit strange.
It’s also refreshing to see more citywide festivals popping up in the fall instead of the blistering summer when the weather, is in theory, nice. Or used to be. I’m old enough to remember the first few Cropped Out Fests got chilly at night. That’s climate change, baby. So for Christ’s sake, please recycle that plastic whiskey cup.