The key ingredients for any great music fest include a stellar and eclectic lineup and a scenic venue, and the 2018 edition of Forecastle Festival in Louisville, Kentucky, checked both those boxes. Situated on the banks of the Ohio River, where the views at sunset are worth a ticket price alone, Waterfront Park hosted the largest crowd in the festival’s 16-year year history, as fans assembled to see headliners Chris Stapleton, Arcade Fire and Modest Mouse. Rolling Stone was on-site, putting together this list of the 15 best things we witnessed over the weekend.
Best Beat-the-Heat Set: Margo Price
A happy accident came early in Margo Price’s midday Saturday Boom Stage set when the singer’s vocals weren’t showing up in the mix for the first two minutes of opener “Don’t Say It.” When they finally kicked in, it elevated the energy immediately and she and her five-piece band pretty much went from there. From Nashville but having spent most of the last two-plus years on infinitour behind her pair of sleeper hit albums for Third Man, Price and her band are living inside these songs at this point, with the clarion call “Tennessee Song” and savage “Cocaine Cowboys” — one of two in the set where she jumps behind an auxiliary kit alongside drummer Dillon Napier for some crackling dual-drum action — sounding especially spirited here. The crowd drew nearer and nearer as the set wore on, trying in vain to budget their time out in the unforgiving sun but unable to resist Price’s laid-back charm, timeless, straight-talking tunes and the killer players delivering them. C.Z.
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Best Boggler of Minds: Father John Misty
There was hardly a moment during Father John Misty’s (né Josh Tillman) mainstage set on Friday where the whimsically inscrutable, dandily unkempt singer-songwriter didn’t look like he was hamming it up for a music video. With his Prince-gone-scruffy-lounge-lizard sex appeal and dry witted non-sequitur banter, it’s hard to tell how much of this act is, to use one of FJM’s clever song titles, “Pure Comedy.” Fastidiously arranged baroque-pop soundscapes like “Please Don’t Die” and the dire folk of “Hangout at the Gallows” show Tillman is serious about his music, but it’s hard to pinpoint where his sentimentality ends and his cynicism begins. Is he lovably lampooning Elton John? Trying in earnest to be the second coming of Scott Walker? Both? At times Tillman seems like he’s entertaining himself as much as the crowd, one divided by festivalgoers who are or aren’t in on the joke. A.G.
Best Guitar Hero: Mike Harris
Brent Cobb’s infectious country-funk live show just wouldn’t be the same without the slippery licks of Mike Harris. The Nashville guitarist is one nimble player, whether he’s delivering blistering solos or adding tasty fills in between Cobb’s Georgia drawl. On Saturday, Harris won the day, turning songs like “King of Alabama” and “Ain’t a Road Too Long,” off Cobb’s fantastic new album Providence Canyon, into transcendent jams, all the while engaging the crowd with a warm smile. They noticed too: after the set, Harris welcomed a steady stream of well-wishers, fresh converts to a guy who has been wowing in-the-know Nashville fans since his days in much-missed local faves the Apache Relay. J.H.
Best Keyboard Hero: White Reaper’s Ryan Hater
Each of the five members of young Louisville crew White Reaper boasts the energy of a frontman, dynamo drummer Nick Wilkerson especially. Keyboardist Ryan Hater’s musical contribution isn’t quite as critical – he kind of just seems to bang on the keys when the mood strikes him. But the dude is a full-fledged hesher hero in the mold of David Lee Roth or Andrew W.K., his boundless energy kicking White Reaper’s turbo-charged, riff-tastic sound into even higher gear. At any moment during the group’s revelatory main-stage set Sunday one could look up and catch Hater doing something outrageous, be it shotgunning a beer, leaning down into the pit to give someone a kiss, or high-kicking like party-rock granddad Robert Pollard of Guided By Voices in his Nineties heyday. C.Z.
Best Face-Melting: The War on Drugs
“Can’t wait to watch War on Drugs!” Jenny Lewis announced at the end of her own performance, prepping the crowd of sunburnt millennials for a sundown set by the Reagan-rock revivalists. When Adam Granduciel and his bandmates launched into their opening song one hour later, the Boom Stage was bathed with fog and gauzy pink light, like the set of some big-budget 1980s action movie. The War on Drugs spent an hour whipping up an appropriate soundtrack for that setting, mixing guitar heroics, synthesized shimmer and a steady percussive pulse into a sound that targeted virtually every Forecastle demographic, from the college coeds looking to dance to the Gen-Xers who preferred banging their heads. R.C.
Best Country Grunge: Chris Stapleton
One of the most compelling elements of Chris Stapleton’s live show, besides the obvious superhuman vocal chops, is the stoic darkness of the country singer, one of the few mainstream artists in his genre that can headline a pan-genre music festival. And it’s on the big, brooding finishes of songs like “Nobody to Blame” and “Outlaw State of Mind,” with his often down-tuned, slow-walked guitar lines, where the Kentucky native reveals the subtle strains of Kurt Cobain and Soundgarden’s Kim Thayil that are in his musical DNA. He also has more in common with Australian grunge-pop savior Courtney Barnett than his fans may realize: on Sunday, Barnett bashed out fuzzy shards of melancholia from her latest LP Tell Me How You Really Feel, evoking shades of Stapleton’s set from the night before. A.G.
Best Real Talk: Jason Isbell
The thoughtful, blunt yin to Saturday headliner Chris Stapleton’s stoic yang (and the exact opposite of Forecastle closers Arcade Fire in terms of stage show, which he made sure to point out), Jason Isbell is the rare kind of guy who can sing about uncomfortable subjects on a Sunday afternoon – privilege (“White Man’s World”), poverty (“Cumberland Gap”), divorce (“24 Frames”) – and do it without killing the vibe. Soulful, succinct and bracingly honest, Isbell’s 11-song main-stage set – which got underway after a brief rainstorm that had threatened all afternoon thankfully passed – mirrored much about the festival itself; things so thoughtfully considered and well-executed are hard to find. At 39, it’s evident Isbell’s squarely in his prime. His voice sounded clear as a bell, his band (including guitar ace Sadler Vaden) was as pro as it gets, the weather was perfect and the crowd was hanging on his every word. C.Z.
Best Singalong Kings: Arcade Fire, Jimmy Eat World, Jason Isbell
When Jimmy Eat World frontman Jim Adkins shout-sang “Are you listening,” the opening line of his band’s endearing 2002 emo-pop hit “Sweetness,” folks just across the Ohio River in Indiana probably heard the crowd respond with a resounding “whoa-oh-oh oh-oh-oh.” The Kentucky crowd was even louder singing back the whoas and ohs of Arcade Fire’s 2004 signature, youth-affirming aspirational anthem “Wake Up,” which closed their set and the festival in indie-rock communal “Kumbaya” style. And what would a Jason Isbell show in the Bluegrass State be without fans raising their bourbons and belting out, “I sobered up and I swore off that stuff,” in the singer’s show-stopping sobriety ballad “Cover Me Up”? A.G.
Best Showman: T-Pain
There was one question on the mind of at least two Louisville Lyft drivers taxiing attendees to and from Forecastle this weekend: “How lit was the crowd for T-Pain?” Answer: Pretty fuckin’ lit. Whether he was deftly moonwalking across the stage or milking call-and-response moments, it seemed there was no distance the lovably ebullient MC wouldn’t travel to turn this crowd up. The Unofficial Global Ambassador of Auto-Tune had thousands of kids losing their collective shit to bangers like “Buy U a Drank (Shawty Snappin)” and “I’m N Luv (Wit a Stripper),” performing on the festival’s EDM- and hip-hop-heavy Ocean Stage. The stage, erected below an Interstate 64 overpass that cuts through the festival grounds, creates a hair-raising reverberation. Pro tip: if you ever get the chance to see T Pain get consummate under a freeway, don’t miss it. A.G.
Best Jam: Hiss Golden Messenger
Temperatures at Waterfront Park were peaking in the neighborhood of 95 degrees late Saturday afternoon, but that didn’t stop North Carolina folk-rockers Hiss Golden Messenger from bringing the heat. Frontman M.C. Taylor and his backing band of riff-roaring R&B assassins built their sweltering 45-minute set to a scorching crescendo: jamming out on a show-closing “Southern Grammar,” off 2014’s Lateness of Dancers. It was an utterly transfixing performance, putting an exclamation point on one of Forecastle’s all-around most dynamic sets. A.G.
Best Shreds: Modest Mouse
The career of Friday headliners Modest Mouse is a tale of two bands: pre- and post-“Float On,” the 2004 megahit where some of the group’s more indie-leaning fans got off and many more new ones came on. But one thing has stayed constant from Modest Mouse’s scrappy beginnings to the veteran festival-act status it now enjoys: its hit-and-miss live shows. Friday’s, while more the latter, certainly wasn’t boring. You could make a drinking game out of mercurial singer-guitarist Isaac Brock’s frequent yelps of his favorite word “Well!” (itself the subject of a fan-made super-cut). And at times the scene onstage started to resemble a “shreds” video, between Brock getting lost in the sonic wilderness (one older track, “King Rat” – which features 20 utterances of “well!” alone – had to be aborted midsong) and the screens flanking the stage cutting seemingly at random to different members of his comically oversized seven-piece ensemble. Still, Modest Mouse’s deep catalog offered plenty of ways to pull the crowd back in, with the disco-punk freakout “Tiny Cities Made of Ashes” making for a wonderfully weird set closer and “Float On” resonating like the feel-good classic it is. C.Z.
Best Nostalgia: Jimmy Eat World
It’s been 17 years since Jimmy Eat World crossed the no-man’s land between cult status and mainstream success, thanks to an enduring power-pop gem – “The Middle” – that sounded just as irresistible during the band’s Saturday-afternoon set as it did in 2001. Once the major-label poster children for emo music, the guys positioned themselves as rock & roll journeyman at this year’s festival, waving the flag for anthemic, guitar-driven music while DJs hypnotized a younger generation with electronic music on an adjacent stage. The afternoon sun battered the audience with 90-degree temperatures during most of the band, but the heat had broken by the time frontman Jim Adkins kicked into the opening chords of “The Middle,” kickstarting a crowd singalong along the way. R.C.
Best Eclectic Spirit: Ron Gallo
Ron Gallo works with an oddly compatible mix of influences – Devo, Andy Kaufman and Paul Metzler, the sweet, dumb jock played by Chris Klein in late-Nineties cult classic Election all came to mind watching him perform. The Nashville-by-way-of-Philly singer-songwriter and his band treated early arrivals Sunday to a mix of deadpan punk originals (“Always Elsewhere” off their forthcoming second album, Stardust Birthday Party, was a highlight) and screwball covers including Frank Sinatra’s “Something Stupid” and Nineties one-hit wonder Des’ree’s “You Gotta Be.” Moments after wrapping up, the wiry Gallo was spotted posted up by the main stage rocking out enthusiastically while Louisville locals White Reaper proceeded to level the place, taking a sheepish bow upon getting props on his set from WR singer-guitarist Tony Esposito and setting the tone for one last full day of great tunes and camaraderie. C.Z.
Best Art-Rock Stadium Show: Arcade Fire
Playing direct support to headliners Arcade Fire, self-proclaimed fan Jason Isbell jokingly threw the nine-piece Canadian indie-rockers a little shade for bringing a massive backline and stage production that forced him and the 400 Unit into a confined space. “Just imagine I’m running across the stage,” Isbell quipped. Quite a few major artists have pulled into the ports of the nautical-themed Forecastle over the years, but when it came to delivering the theater kids’ equivalent of a U2 or Coldplay show – complete with lasers, video walls and a music store’s worth of musical instruments – Arcade Fire is an aircraft carrier. And all that production didn’t go to waste, as Win Butler, Régine Chassagne and company manufactured moment after moment of sonic and visual spectacle over the course of a nearly two-hour set. Among the standouts: coming-of-age anthems “Rebellion (Lies)” and “Intervention”; the rarely played “Half Light II (No Celebration)”; and the Caribbean disco-rock of Reflektor’s “Afterlife.” A.G.
Best Bourbon Experience: Old Forester
The presence (and scent) of bourbon looms large over Forecastle, with the centerpiece the annual Bourbon Lodge. A massive tent located on the festival grounds, the refuge is stocked with enough booze to turn the already muddy Ohio River an even deeper brown. Iconic Kentucky brands Wild Turkey, Jim Beam and Maker’s Mark all represent, but this year it was the 148-year-old Old Forester that had the most buzz, thanks in part to the June opening of a new distillery on Louisville’s Whiskey Row. It’s a bourbon fan’s dream, and even features its own on-site team of coopers building, charring and rolling out the barrels. J.H.