Bourbon and Beyond is the company office party to Louder Than Life’s out-of-control raging kegger! Gone are the Hawaiian shirts and sundresses, the Crocs and the Birkenstocks, and the blues, bluegrass and lighter rock of Bourbon & Beyond. In their place are heavily tattooed people in various states of undress, many pushing the boundaries of public nudity. Those who are wearing clothes are dressed in all black, many wearing shirts featuring unreadable band logos and shockingly violent artwork; other shirts are emblazoned with some of the most vulgar sexual statements you could ever possibly imagine. Fishnets and leather are in abundance. Hair is dyed every shade of fluorescent under the sun. The music is loud and heavy, and I am right at home here!
Welcome to Louder Than Life, one of the biggest hard rock/heavy metal festivals in North America, and it just happens to take place right here in our town. And every year in September, the Loudmouths (that is, fans dedicated to this festival) and casual fans alike from all 50 states and many other countries, ranging in age from young kids experiencing their first concert to senior citizens reliving a part of their youth and every age in between, all descend on the Highland Festival Grounds for four days of music and controlled mayhem.
These are people from all walks of life: doctors, teachers, lawyers, Walmart cashiers, “Donald Trump” wearing a sexy red bra, a big “Cupid” wearing only tighty-whities and angel wings, a crowd-surfing Santa — they’re all here! And while you can always be certain that there will be assholes at any show or festival you go to, for the most part, people here are very respectful of one another, united by the love of the music.
Danny Wimmer Presents (DWP) has been doing this for over ten years now and currently produces nine festivals across the country, so they run a very well-oiled machine. Lines tend to move fast, portable toilets are plentiful, food and drink choices are numerous, and bands go on and off at their scheduled times like clockwork.
Regardless of what complaining neighbors say, this formerly empty tract of land is located next to a major airport, two expressways, numerous hotels and retail businesses, and one big-ass expo center that has a shitload of parking, making it an absolute perfect space for a major music festival (or, hopefully, three next year, with both Bourbon & Beyond and Hometown Rising set to return.)
And this year, apparently in an effort to better compete with Blue Ridge Rock Fest, Riot Fest and other similar festivals within driving distance from Louisville happening around the same time, Danny Wimmer Presents decided to show them all who the festival king is by adding three additional stages and nearly doubling the number of bands playing from 68 in 2021 to a staggering 116 bands this year.
You’ve heard the adage “You can never have too much of a good thing”? Well, that was certainly put to the test this year with bands’ sets overlapping each other multiple times per day, resulting in as many as three bands playing at the same time and forcing some festivalgoers to make very difficult choices as to which bands to see and which to miss. The headliners each night were the only ones with no overlap.
The layout was a bit different this year, too, but the two main stages up front, the Loudmouth Stage and the Space Zebra Stage, were still the main attractions. The schedule was set so that once one band finished on one stage, there was a five-minute break, then the next band began playing on the opposite stage.
Also returning was the smaller Disruptor Stage, but this year, they added a twin, the Revolver Stage, next to it. Both were tucked away in the far back corner of the festival and ran on the same principle as the main stages, with one band finishing on one stage, then the next band taking the stage next to it after a five-minute break.
Brand new this year was the addition of two even smaller stages just past the VIP section, the DWPresents Stage and the Chat Stage. The DWPresents Stage hosted bands and the Chat Stage hosted “That Space Zebra Show” and “The Power Hour,” live feeds on DWP’s Twitch channel, all festival long.
And let’s not forget the middle ground: an abyss of alcohol tents and food vendors. Most vendors at this year’s Bourbon & Beyond stayed put for Louder Than Life. This included the Kroger Big Bourbon Bar, which poured selections from pretty much every bourbon distillery in Kentucky.
Jack Daniel’s huge Char House tent was situated dead center to both main stages and far enough back to have great viewing for either stage, provided you could actually find a spot to stand in it.
Not surprisingly, the BLACKENED Whiskey Bar seemed to be far more popular at Louder Than Life than at Bourbon & Beyond, although many festivalgoers only seemed to be interested in taking selfies with the Metallica-logoed road cases and memorabilia out front.
Also on hand was the Bulleit Bourbon Arcade with its retro arcade games; Jim Beam’s fan-favorite Heavy Tiki Bar; The Silver Dollar Hunter’s Club with their amazing collection of rare bourbons from around the area; non-alcoholic vendor Parlor with their absolutely stunningly delicious root beer that I certainly hope will be distributed here soon; and bourbon tents for Knob Creek, Boone’s, and Jefferson’s, among others.
New this year was the Headbangers Hall, which proved to be a very popular place to grab a seat. It featured occasional guest band bartenders, a large bar, a DJ, a few arcade and pinball machines, higher-scale food, and, above all else, shade!
Budweiser seemed to have shelled out a bit more sponsorship money this year with their Macro Bar, complete with an upper viewing deck facing the Loudmouth Stage, and AB InBev products ruling the beer selection throughout the festival.
Also great to see on hand were the two Wellness Retreat Tents sponsored by 1 Million Strong, where sober attendees and their crews could relax with non-alcoholic drinks and meet up with other like-minded people to support each other while at the festival.
There were so many great under-the-radar bands playing this year that it’d be impossible to name them all without taking up the rest of this article. But a few of note: all-female rockers Plush; Nashville-based female power trio The Dead Deads, who were joined onstage by Lzzy Hale of Halestorm for the ballad “Dead Inside”; alt-rockers Superbloom; teenage metalcore band Nail Bite, death-thrashers Orbit Culture; the all-female circus sideshow/daredevil/dance troupe Cherry Bombs; throwback grunge-rockers Radkey; classic hard-rockers Dirty Honey; alt-rockers-with-an-‘80s-flair The Joy Formidable; and last but certainly not least, the thrash-meets-bluegrass sounds of The Native Howl.
Thursday night saw a commanding set by Halestorm on the Loudmouth Stage, with vocalist/guitarist Lzzy Hale proving why she is a modern metal icon. The set itself leaned heavily on their latest album Back From The Dead and 2012’s The Strange Case Of… while largely ignoring their other works.
Evanescence and their equally-iconic frontwoman Amy Lee immediately followed on the Space Zebra Stage with what was equally as commanding of a performance, judging from the first few songs. However, I opted to go to the Revolver Stage to catch Ministry, who started 25 minutes into Evanescence’s set.
Industrial pioneers Ministry, led by the always formidable Al Jourgensen, was backed by an almost all-star lineup featuring ex-members of Tool, Hellyeah, Stone Sour, and Prong. Oddly, the band only played songs from their earlier albums The Land of Rape and Honey, The Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Taste, and Psalm 69, completely ignoring their last ten records. “Uncle Al” proved that even at 63 years of age, he can still belt these classics just as well now as he ever could!
The next acts proved to be most festivalgoers’ biggest choice for Thursday night: catch Bring Me The Horizon on the Loudmouth Stage or Tenacious D on the smaller Disruptor Stage? Both bands’ sets started within 15 minutes of each other. Not being particularly familiar with BMTH’s stuff, this was a no-brainer for me. At least half the other guests made the same choice as I did, as the area around the Disruptor Stage was packed shoulder-to-shoulder, proving that DWP had indeed made a rare mistake in not including Tenacious D in a mainstage spot. Still, the musician/actor duo of Jack Black and Kyle Gass, with a full backing band, were everything you’d expect them to be! From the penis-castle backdrop to the between-song skits and banter, the band simultaneously rocked and cracked up the crowd during their 50-minute set. The highlight came when Evanescence vocalist Amy Lee joined the band onstage during “Kyle Quit the Band” and “Lee” (with altered lyrics featuring her as the subject.)
If you’ve ever seen Nine Inch Nails’ legendary Woodstock ‘94 performance, the Thursday night headliners’ set was on that level. Trent Reznor sounded and played every bit as good as he did in the mid-’90s. For two straight hours, Trent and the band put on a masterclass in musicianship and stage presence with a 23-song set that left most of us with our jaws firmly on the floor. It heavily favored The Downward Spiral, with eight songs from the breakthrough album, including set opener “Mr. Self-Destruct,” smash hit “Closer,” and set closer “Hurt,” among numerous tracks from other albums. I do feel bad for anyone suffering from epilepsy, as there was no warning beforehand of the rapidly flashing light show that took place during almost every song.
Friday night started for me with my umpteenth time seeing Clutch live. The great thing about Clutch is you never know what you’re going to hear at any given show. The setlist differs greatly from night to night, and there is no such thing as a deep cut for them. But their latest album, Sunrise on Slaughter Beach, came out only a week prior, so it wasn’t surprising to hear several songs from it during their all-too-short 40-minute set on the Loudmouth Stage.
Being unfamiliar with In This Moment, who followed Clutch on the opposite Space Zebra stage, I wasn’t sure what to expect. What I got was a spectacular stage show full of grand pageantry and artistic synchronized dance, backed by a very tight band of musicians led by amazingly talented vocalist Maria Brink. Obviously, this show translates much better in dark arenas than in 6 p.m. Friday sunlight. Nevertheless, this was an impressive show, to say the least!
Next was my first big choice of the night: Mastodon on the Loudmouth Stage, or Helmet on the Revolver Stage? Both bands’ sets started at the exact same time. Having seen Mastodon before but never Helmet, I opted for the latter. After seeing them, I do not regret that choice. Page Hamilton and company made the most of their 30-minute set, keeping the crowd moving with a setlist composed mostly of tracks from the 1992 album Meantime and the 1994 album Betty.
Thankfully, Mastodon’s set ran longer than Helmet’s, and I was able to catch the last couple songs. This included Clutch vocalist Neil Fallon making a guest vocal appearance during their final song “Blood and Thunder” off their masterpiece album Leviathan.
When I brought up the choice between watching Lamb Of God or GWAR, I was told I should go with Lamb Of God, as GWAR didn’t translate as well to festivals as they do to indoor venues. Thankfully, the set overlap time gave me a little bit of a window to do both. First, I went to Lamb Of God on the Space Zebra Stage, who opened with the absolute burner “Memento Mori,” followed by “Walk With Me In Hell.” This was the first band of the festival I’d seen use pyrotechnics during their set, using flame pots pretty liberally during the first few minutes. Lamb Of God is, for me, a “get as close to the stage as you can, jump in the pit” kind of band, not a “watch from the back of the crowd” kind of band, which is exactly where I was. Rather than spend the rest of Lamb Of God’s set fighting my way through the crowd, I opted to catch GWAR on the Revolver Stage.
What’s not to love about GWAR? Completely over-the-top, campy, tongue-in-cheek horror that is still every bit as fun now as it was 30-plus years ago! I mean, who doesn’t love a good blast to the face of colored water shot from a pressurized tank via a hose attached to a giant rubber alien penis? I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve seen GWAR at this point — it’s somewhere around 20-23 times now. There is no such thing as a disappointing GWAR show, even in a festival setting! Although it’s been eight years since Dave Brockie’s passing, it’s still odd to me not seeing Oderus Urungus up there out front, broadsword in one hand, big rubber cuttlefish in the other. But I must say, the band sounded as tight as ever, with a good portion of their 45-minute set dedicated to their latest album The New Dark Ages.
Swedish technical death/thrash/progressive metal band Meshuggah followed GWAR on the adjoining Disruptor Stage. Generally cited as one of the most important bands in metal, this exceedingly talented band sends time changes and polyrhythms flying at you fast and often! And Meshuggah is loud! Very loud! Quite possibly the only band at Louder Than Life that actually was louder than life! Loud as in, I felt like my internal organs were being sonically re-arranged! Loud as in, my wife texted me from our house a mile away asking what the hell was going on! But they were on point, delivering a blistering 50-minute, eight-song set to close out the smaller stages for the night.
Friday night headliner Slipknot had the shortest set time of any headliner at Louder Than Life this year, clocking in at an hour and 15 minutes, so they did not fuck around with what little time they had, launching into “Disasterpiece” from 2001’s Iowa and never letting up from there. They ripped through a 13-song set spanning their career, including the track “The Dying Song (Time to Sing)” from their upcoming album The End, So Far, and ending with an encore of “People = Shit” and their signature track “Surfacing.”
Saturday night saw shock rock’s inventor and reigning king Alice Cooper proving that even at 74 years old, he is still on top of his game. Playing all the hits you’d expect to hear, Alice kept the crowd on their feet throughout the entire hourlong, 14-song set — he even did the infamous live guillotine scene during the “Steven”/“Dead Babies”/“I Love the Dead” medley before coming back for the encore “School’s Out.”
Now another major decision had to be made: Rob Zombie on the Loudmouth Stage or Body Count on the Disruptor Stage? Even though Rob Zombie is great, there was no question here: I had to go see Body Count, Ice-T’s band. This was my top must-see of the entire festival! And, like Friday during Lamb Of God, poor planning on my part left me stuck in the back of the crowd, which killed the vibe for me. This was all too apparent from the get-go, as Body Count opened with a much-needed cover of Slayer’s “Raining Blood”! If ever there were a song most appropriate for Louder Than Life, it would be that one! And it killed me to have to listen to it standing way in the back. This is not a band to stand around to. This is hardcore metal! This is Ice-muthafuckin’-T! This is one of the most perfect mosh bands of all time! And I wasn’t up there in it.
Body Count, which also featured original member and main songwriter Ernie C on guitar, followed up “Raining Blood” with “Bowels of the Devil” from their notorious 1992 self-titled album. It certainly and swiftly brought the energy back to this worn-out, sun-beaten crowd! However, feeling rather dejected stuck in the back and knowing that Rob Zombie always puts on a great show, I gave in and went back up to the main stage. I now know that Body Count closed with “Cop Killer” and I wasn’t there for it, making this by far my greatest regret for this year’s LTL.
But if you’re going to miss most of your must-see band for anyone, Rob Zombie is certainly a great one to do it for! I got to the main stage area right as “Meet The Creeper” was finishing, just before the band played the wonderfully titled “Shake Your Ass – Smoke Your Grass.” Rob kept the masses entertained with tracks like “Living Dead Girl,” “House of 1,000 Corpses,” the equally wonderfully titled “Well, Everybody’s Fucking in a U.F.O.,” and former band White Zombie’s hits “More Human Than Human” and “Thunder Kiss ‘65,” before ending the set with a lengthy preview of his new movie “The Munsters,” then launching into his hit song “Dragula.”
Saturday’s lineup also brought what DWP is calling the largest single-day crowd in Louder Than Life history, although numbers aren’t in as of this writing. Having KISS headlining the bill was a huge part of that! The KISS Army is legion, and they were certainly in force Saturday night.
I have a long history with KISS. And when I say long, I mean literally my entire life. This was the first band I ever liked. Their larger-than-life characters were superheroes to me. I even hung in there for them during the “Dynasty” disco phase. This is why it was so wonderful to see so many kids there rocking out to them. Many were painted up like their heroes, just like I was some 40 years beforehand. However, I never got to see them live until their 1996 Reunion tour stop here in Louisville, which is still, to this day, the best show I’ve ever been to!
Opening with “Detroit Rock City,” KISS, who are quite possibly North America’s largest purchaser of propane and gunpowder, ran through a two-hour, 19-song set covering their classics while setting the night on fire with a pyrotechnic show rivaled only by that of Thunder Over Louisville. KISS proved once again, as they have every show they’ve played over the past 49 years, that there is no band that can follow them! Gene Simmons was in fine blood-spitting, fire-breathing demon form. Not-Ace-Frehley Tommy Thayer, arguably, seemed to be phoning it in a bit on guitar, and drummer Eric Singer just seemed to be going through the motions. Paul Stanley, who has been accused of lip-synching on this tour, seemed to be doing anything but on Saturday night as he struggled with a now-strained voice from almost 50 years of hard work from being one of rock’s greatest frontmen! Still, with the stage show doing the bulk of the work, KISS was an absolute spectacle to behold and honestly would have been better suited to close out the entire festival, as Sunday night kind of closed out on a whimper.
Sunday night brought one of my favorites, Bad Religion, to town for the first time in their 40-plus year career! The band wasted no time in their 50-minute set, playing 17 songs that damn near covered every album they’ve ever released.
Sunday night co-headliners Alice In Chains knew exactly what the crowd wanted to hear and gave it to them during their one-hour set on the Space Zebra Stage, cranking out six tracks from their album Dirt among the 11-song set. I personally would have loved to have heard more songs from Facelift than just “Man in the Box,” but with their hit-heavy setlist, I have no room to complain.
Sunday night headliners Red Hot Chili Peppers were all set to blow the crowd away and end the festival on a high note, but that didn’t really happen. Ongoing sound problems that had plagued the Loudmouth Stage most of the day carried over into the Chili Peppers’ set. Several songs ended in long-winded jam sessions that didn’t really go anywhere in what I assume was an attempt to stall so sound issues could attempt to be addressed. And, by most accounts, the crowd near the stage became unruly, groping women, crowdsurfing, and throwing things — most notably, when singer Anthony Kiedis got hit with a beer bottle near the end of the band’s set, prompting the band to ask several times for the crowd to calm down and take care of one another. Not that the Chili Peppers had a bad set at all. In fact, given the circumstances, they played a great 16-song set! Flea, being Flea, jumped around the stage. Drummer Chad Smith put on an outstanding performance as well! Although Anthony Kiedis, even before being hit with a bottle, was very obviously annoyed and not feeling it throughout the set, he still sounded great vocally but completely lacking in energy, at one point even taking a seat on the stage in the middle of a song. Guitarist John Frusciante also sounded great, but he was seemingly sleepwalking through the performance. The biggest surprise happened when, after the encore of “By The Way,” the set ended a full 20 minutes early, leaving many attendees bewildered and angry.
And just like that, it was over. After four beautiful, mostly rain-free days of damn near perfect temperatures, that was it. Arguably a bit of a let-down on the ending, but this was certainly one of the best, most successful Louder Than Life festivals to date. And I can’t wait to do it all over again next year.
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