Monday, July 30, 2012

Forecastle Festival X -- Day One

Here's a little something I wrote for Under the Radar:

There's something about being able to walk through the familiar streets of a town you live in, the final destination a music festival. Parking in the same lot you do each day for work, walking toward the Ohio River, but knowing the familiar Waterfront Park will be transformed, decked out in a music lover's heavenly village. Five stages, a bourbon lounge (this is Kentucky, after all), and a slew of really ridiculous fish floats on sticks that a strange army of festival volunteers carries around throughout the day.

A forecastle is the part of a ship where the crew lives. The three-day festival in Louisville, Kentucky has a nautical feel, which feels appropriate because you can look beyond the two main stages into the river. A Joe's Crab Shack restaurant abuts the Boom Stage. The other stages are named accordingly: Mast, Red Bull Ocean, Starboard, and Port. Louisville's not exactly an exotic townit's one steeped in steamboat historybut the idea for this dream-like theme for a festival is one that brings out the best of it.

This is Forecastle X. It's 11 years after the first Forecastle Festival played out in a tiny park at the end of my street. This year's festival was expected to bring 35,000 people to town. Considering it shared a weekend with Pitchfork Music Festival and Cincinnati's Bunbury Music Festival, the crowds were large, unstoppable, and the friendliest of any festival I've ever experienced.


Friday evening began with The Head and the Heart. The six-piece band was returning to town for their second time in a few months, and the crowd was fiercely loyal. The band did a lot less chatting this time, focusing on wooing their audience with songs from their self-titled debut. "Down in the Valley" and "Rivers and Roads" both began meagerly, growing into enormous, cathartic ballads.

Josiah Johnson and Jonathan Russell are the main songwriters in the band, and both alternate on vocals. The two could not be more different; Johnson rocked cut-off jean shorts and a T-shirt, while Russell was looking snazzy in a button-up and tie. But this feeling that each band member comes from such a different walk of lifeyet work together to make some of the most beautiful folk-pop songsis refreshing. With harmonies floating atop the rich sound of Charity Rose Thielen's violin and the generous sprinkling of keyboard, it's easy to feel completely swept away. Ben Sollee joining the band onstage with his cello elevating The Head and the Heart to an even more lush, orchestral sound. Many of their songs have a sense of traveling, the pains and joys of moving around the country, and the crowd sailed that journey during their set without leaving Waterfront Park.

Bradford Cox of Atlas Sound commanded a crowd at one of the side stages that evening. The setup was relatively simple; from what I could see it was Cox, a harmonica, an acoustic guitar, and some effects pedals on the small stage backed with long rectangular video screens covered with desert scenes. Many of the songs were tamer than those he plays with Deerhunter, and the show was much less immersive than those I've seen him play with a full band.

 I was skeptical to see Beach House in an outdoor festival setting, on the huge stage next to the Joe's Crab Shack. The last time I caught them live was at a sold out show at Cleveland's Beachland Ballroom, a supreme indoor venue with the very best acoustics. What makes the duo (a three-piece live) so impressive is this heavy, dream-like atmosphere that surrounds the listeners in a haze. It's usually accentuated with a dark room and glowing, disco ball-like lighting effects. They blew my expectations to pieces, though, rocking just as hard in the light of day, the only thing altering the perception a thick wall of smoke machine haze.

While the Baltimore band littered the set with handfuls of gems from the Bloom, the most recent album, they also found time for favorites from the three previous full lengths. You could feel the tribal pulse of percussion in "Norway," which felt incredibly sedate and all encompassing.

"We don't do any cheesy crowd involvement stuff," explained guitarist Alex Scally. "But we'll do our best to take you somewhere." And travel we did, to a hypnotic state of bliss, the sort of strange other world to which dream pop alone can transport you. Vocalist Victoria Legrand played the organ with absolutely no facial expression. You realized she was indeed awake every now and then when her and Scally doubled in half, playing in unison with percussionist Daniel Franz while bobbing their heads like rag dolls, as if the power of the music was too much to handle standing up.

Before playing "Zebra," the opener on 2010's Teen Dream, Legrand explained that the next song they would play made people happyeven babies. They followed it with "Myth," the first track on Bloom, where every note floated into the next seamlessly. As the sun set behind them, the smoke swirled in front of them, and the percussion exploded into a thousand fireworks, I thought Forecastle had reached its peak.

 But we were long from discovering the X on our treasure maps. After all, Sleigh Bells had just begun. "Have a heart," sang Alexis Krauss repeatedly in "Rill, Rill," one of the highlights of set. But really, what this show made me think of was soul. Not in the sense of R&B. As in, if you didn't feel Derek Miller and Krauss' beats enough to shake your body mercilessly, you might not have a soul. The guitar shredding and viciously gritty beats might as well have stretched to the next city. Krauss flopped like a dying fish (in the best possible way, I swear), head-banging all through "A/B Machines." The scorching heat of the jagged, raw beats was almost too much to handle. But if you like your crowds wild, your guitar riffs earth-shattering, and your sound system crunchy, this was a whole new kind of heaven.

JEFF the Brotherhood rocked out through a scathing set of burning rockers. The two brothers made a lot of sound between a drum set and guitar, and the set only got better as it went on. A mix of garage rock, with the reverby psychedelia turned up slightly, this was the place to be to escape the synthy dance music that they were sandwiched between.

Here's the part where I talk about my newfound addiction to electronic dance music. I like a little Skrillex as much as the next dudebro (although David Guetta still can't get through to mesorry!). I'd never listened to Bassnectar before. Let's face it. I just don't feel like listening to such bass-heavy music out of my tinny JBL speaker is going to do it any justice. I was absolutely right.

Standing in the front row of a Bassnectar show is an out-of-body, otherworldly experience. I can't breathe just thinking about it. The rumble of the bass was so overpowering, so incredibly moving that every organ shuddered and something was screaming inside of me, "this cannot be healthy!" And maybe because it felt so wrong, it was also one of the most powerfully thrilling feelings I've ever had. I am a self-proclaimed concert dancer (i.e. I'm one of those people who can't help but bobbing my knees even when I'm listening to some bummer acoustic guitar show where everyone surrounding me is at the peak of their too-cool-to-smile hipsterdom) and this was next-level for me. Not only could my knees not stay still, but I felt my whole body swaying unwillingly.

I wish I could describe the music itself a little better. I mean, how do you talk about dance music with no pattern? It continues to change and evolve with a similar tempo, and every now and then you get a huge bass drop that makes you want to die of happiness. And it just goes on like that for hours, until you're exhausted and you have no idea why your body didn't shut down hours ago. Bassnectar is Lorin Ashton, a California native with really long hair. He bounces around a bit, but mostly hides behind a huge video screen, where you see his head peaking on top. The real show is the crowd, thousands of people who waited for hours for a good spot where the bass goes straight to your head and your heart. Hands in the air, glowsticks everywhere, everyone just looked so happy.

The day was almost over, but not before a little Sleeper Agent action. The Bowling Green, Kentucky band has recently emerged from the college town, graduating to some radio play and media attention. They held their own on a stage across the park from Bassnectar, bouncing around with a brand of rock that's spiked with youthful rebellion. The traction they're gaining is sure to grow if they keep putting out music like their 2011 debut, Celebrasion.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Conveyor - Tonight at Zanzabar

No, they’re not just your average psych-rock band from Brooklyn. Ok, so they are that. But they also use synthesizers that sound like old-school video games, and when they’re not jamming on druggy interludes, their shiny pop choruses are pretty bouncy. It’s like John Vanderslice on depressants or Aqueduct after therapy. This summer’s tour is all about playing off their newly released debut, Conveyor. The album opener, “Woolgatherer” teeters between weirdo ambience and summer driving soundtrack, with odd tribal calls that overlap beachy calypso twinkling. If this is what summer in the city feels like, we’re in for a treat. Let’s not forget to mention, they’re sharing the stage with Louisville’s favorite power poppers, The Deloreans. It should be a night filled with all the best kinds of sticky guitar licks and synthesizer loving.