The Black Keys kicked off their first tour as arena and amphitheater headliners 16 months ago in Cincinnati, Ohio. Just 100 miles down the road – and 129 gigs later – the band ended its massive El Camino Tour on Saturday night, turning in a triumphant headlining set at the 11th annual Forecastle Festival in Louisville, Kentucky.
The three-day festival, which kicked off Friday and wrapped last night at Louisville's Downtown Waterfront Park, drew an estimated 20,000 concertgoers a day to the banks of the Ohio River for performances by the Black Keys, Robert Plant, the Avett Brothers, String Cheese Incident, Jim James, Big Boi, the Flaming Lips and more. The performances, for the most part, went off without a hitch, despite the loaming threat of severe thunderstorms that prompted organizers to briefly evacuate the venue on Saturday.
Judging by the sea of people packing the main "Mast" stage area, imbibing an array of boutique Kentucky bourbons and getting down to the Black Keys later that night, Forecastle belonged to the blues-rock duo. And the headliners – back in a more natural environment for live music than an arena – had cause to celebrate.
"We toured more this year than we've ever toured," Keys singer Dan Auerbach told Rolling Stone in January during a break in the grueling jaunt. "It's unbearable . . . Sometimes I wake up and I don't where I am. Seriously."
But Auerbach says the maddening, hamster-wheel repetition of logging date after date in an endless slew of cookie-cutter enormodomes actually brought the band closer to their audience.
"Because the buildings are [all] the exact same, you really get to see the difference in the character of [each] city," Auerbach says, explaining the equalizing effect of arena rock, and noting the band had its most scorching gig in 10 years in, of all places, Portland, Maine, on March 6th, 2012 – just the fourth date of the tour. "That was the most amazing show," he beams, still surprised. "The crowd was insane . . . They turned into one living organism. It was what I always thought a Glastonbury crowd would be like."
On paper, Forecastle – which is likely to be the Black Keys' last gig for a good while, as Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney retreat to prep their as-yet-untitled eighth LP – wasn't all that different from the insanely received Portland show, or for that matter, the 2012 Queen City kickoff. Save for slight variations noticeable only to obsessed super-fans, for the entire tour the band has played pretty much the same 90-plus-minute revue tilted heavily toward stand-outs from their multi-platinum-selling, multi-Grammy-winning recent pair of LPs, 2009's Brothers and its 2011 follow-up, El Camino.
And yet, at least for this festival crowd, after a year and a half spent honing the rock-radio-dominating nuances of hits like "Gold on the Ceiling," "Lonely Boy" and "Tighten Up" – and building bona-fide stadium-sized moments with dynamic gems like "Little Black Submarines," "Everlasting Light" and the underrated anthem "Nova Baby" – it was when the band cut their pair of stoic sidemen loose and amped up blues-infused indie stompers from their early days like "Thickfreakness," "Your Touch" and a closing "I Got Mine" as a duo, that they inspired the loudest, most Glastonbury-like response from the frenzied crowd.
A man of few words, what Auerbach lacks in stage banter he makes up for with big gestures and album-perfect pipes to match his massive riffs, in the process making what sounds dazzling look effortless. By contrast, drummer Carney pounds the skins with an abandon that both drives Auerbach in his most scorching moments and reigns him in where song is king with quirky, signature feel. And the stickman does so with all the cartoonish grace of an exasperated 10-year-old trying to teach himself how to swim, looking almost like a lanky, gawky answer to Lars Ulrich in the arena of outspoken drummer co-frontmen.
Forecastle dodged a bullet late Saturday afternoon, when an incoming storm of Titanic proportions threatened to sink the nautically themed riverside festival. The threat was so great organizers completely evacuated the park, imploring concertgoers to seek shelter and briefly throwing slated performances by the Keys, Alabama Shakes, the Flaming Lips, Jim James and others into jeopardy. The worst that happened, though, was Dawes having to cut short a roundly hailed set on the Mast Stage. The storm changed course without a drop of rain falling on the festival, and gates were back open as suddenly as they closed.
It turned out the storm warning was a day early as, in the only bummer moment of the festival, thunder, lightning, high winds and a punishing torrential downpour came out of nowhere yesterday evening, forcing Robert Plant and his Sensational Space Shifters to cut their set short by 25 minutes. They ended with a fitting "What Is and What Should Never Be," followed by a PSA to seek shelter in place of a planned "Rock and Roll" encore. Luckily those weren't the only Led Zeppelin classics the legendary frontman had up his sleeve. "Welcome to another Seventies nostalgia afternoon," Plant joked while the sun was still shining. "We're gonna give you something you'll never forget."
Before foreboding black clouds claimed the day, Plant and his ensemble managed to get in a solid handful of true-to-form and reimagined Led Zep crowd pleasers, including an opening "Babe, I'm Gonna Leave You" (during which Plant proved he's still got the pipes to pull off a deep, glass-shattering "ooooooooh"), a spellbinding, tender "Going to California" and a mid-set "Black Dog" adapted in a heady Malian style.
Other Plant highlights included a spacey, very un-bluesy take on Howlin' Wolf's "Spoonful" and a spooky "Tin Pan Valley," which sounded more like Radiohead meets The X-Filesthan Led Zeppelin. The song might have challenged the nostalgia-starved crowd, but it still rocked.
Par for the course in Kentucky, the flash-flooding storm passed quickly, and remaining Sunday night performances from Datsik, Purity Ring and closing headliners the Avett Brothers went ahead as planned.
The brief moment of tension following the evacuation Saturday seemed only to drive the critically massive crowd's hankering for a balmy day of badass music. No band benefitted better from the collective enthusiasm than the Alabama Shakes, who once again proved their mettle as main-stage festival rockers. In a display of cocksure confidence, the band coolly eased in to their early evening set with a groove rather than a bang, opening with a chilled-out "Rise to the Sun." But by the band's third song – the fast-rising Alabama band's 2012 sleeper hit "Hold On" – singer Brittany Howard had thousands convinced they were seeing a performance worthy of Otis Redding at Monterey Pop, while her bandmates matched her emotion, laying down their winning brand of throwback Muscle Shoals R&B crossed with Pixies-style loud-quiet-loud dynamics.
An attentive Jim James could be seen watching the Shakes from a side-stage vantage. And maybe the My Morning Jacket frontman and local native would be afraid to follow the band were he not already the de facto Duke of Kentucky and Musical Mayor of Louisville. Appearing as a solo artist (and on a brief hometown sabbatical from his band, which is currently playing support on Bob Dylan's Americanarama package tour), the almost-iconically unkempt singer turned in a haunting, rocked-out sundown set of high-pitched, spacey psych jams, mostly culled from his 2013 solo debut Regions of Light and Sound of God, for a crowd seemingly still reeling from last year's mind-blowing, rarities-rife MMJ headlining set.
Outside the confines of an ensemble, James is free to act weirder and more whimsical than he does fronting MMJ. He playfully stalked the stage with a black towel draped across his forehead and gazed into the crowd with a wily but affable glare. As a further treat, James peppered his encore with Monsters of Folk gems like "Losing Your Head" and bookend tracks "Dear God (Sincerely M.O.F.)" and "His Master's Voice."
Overlapping with James' encore, fellow alt-psych Forecastle returning champions the Flaming Lips took the Boom stage Saturday night with a darker, cosmic-colored disco-womb stage show they've been honing at festivals and opening dates for the Black Keys since debuting at SXSW in March. Having nailed down the live sonics of cuts from the band's dark, dense, uncharacteristically pessimistic recent effort The Terror, the band have started integrating reworked war horses like "Race for the Prize" and "Do You Realize??" – each stripped of their neon, confetti-fueled spectacle and wall of sound in favor of sparse, vulnerable synth-and-vocal arrangements. They also featured some long-lost pre-Soft Bulletin art-punk experiments such as "Moth in the Incubator" and the nearly quarter-century-old riff-and-reverb-fest "Unconsciously Screamin'," which the band played alongside an out-of-left-field cover of Devo's New Wave victory anthem "Gates of Steel."
"We just thought we should [re-learn] more of these songs and change [them] here and there," Coyne told Rolling Stone. "I think we're definitely in another phase now. It doesn't diminish embracing the new stuff."
It's unlikely the Lips' ever-upbeat frontman – who, clad in a tight-fitting silver suit and clear blue shades, sang from atop an elevated mound at center stage – knew of the controversial acquittal of George Zimmerman in the death of Trayvon Martin, but the news was being whispered across the crowd as Coyne begged the crowd, "Don't be sad . . . This is good news" before "Race for the Prize." Strange coincidence?
Though Forecastle is more parts Bonnaroo than Pitchfork Festival (Case in point: Friday night headliners String Cheese Incident jamming out on a countrified-polka rendition of Aerosmith's "Walk This Way," a much-discussed highlight), the festival did boast a top-notch bouquet of blogger favorites like Baauer, Bombino and Boys Noize on the undercard. Unfortunately, Animal Collective canceled their Forecastle appearance, one of a string of dates the band had to bail on due to co-frontman David "Avery Tare" Porter suffering from strep throat. Bummer.
Hippie-haired, rail-thin Philadelphia art-folkie Kurt Vile and his similarly coiffed and clad Violators, who hit the boom stage Saturday, were a much-anticipated highlight. On hypnotically propulsive shamble-fests like "Jesus Fever" and "Was All Talk," Vile channeled his slow burn through a chasm of reverb, crooning gorgeous poisoned pop melodies over lopsided chord progressions with Lou Reed-like delivery.
Underground hip-hop's Tango and Cash, El-P and Killer Mike, delivered yesterday’s most galvanizing set on the EDM- and hip-hop-heavy Red Bull stage. With the Red Bull stage positioned beneath an interstate overpass cutting through the park, the crushing sound of the set reverberated all the way down to the river. If you stood in the right sweet spot, you could hear the heavy-hitting hip-hop set make for quite the mashup opposite Grace Potter and the Nocturnals' trad-bluegrass arrangement of Hank Williams' "Devil's Train" over on the Mast Stage.