Festival review: Justin Townes Earle, Dr. Dog, My Morning Jacket, Neko Case, Wilco (and more) light up Forecastle Festival, July 14-15

My Morning Jacket at Forecastle. Photo by Corey Woodruff.

The Louisville-based Forecastle Festival celebrated its 10th anniversary this year with a three-day event featuring some of the best and most popular acts in rock, pop, funk and electronic music.

The event began on Friday, but obligations at home prevented our group — myself and two friends — from arriving earlier than Saturday. Surely some good sets were missed; the Head and the Heart, JEFF the Brotherhood, Trixie Whitley and Abigail Washburn all performed Friday evening.

Saturday, July 14

2:20 p.m. Reaching Louisville in the rain provides a falsely ominous mood. While the rain would delay the scheduled 3 p.m. start by two hours, every act would play a full set and the rest of the weekend would remain dry.

5 p.m. Walking into Louisville’s Waterfront Park, the typical festival trappings are laid out before us: food vendors, beer stands, a water station and plenty of portable restrooms. This section of Waterfront Park, situated on the edge of downtown Louisville along the Ohio River, is flanked on the east and west by bridges, and is bisected by an elevated section if I-64, which would provide welcome shade and surprisingly little noise despite being an unsightly constant reminder of the festival’s urban setting.

North of the divide lay two large stages (Mast and Boom), while south side is home to two smaller stages (Port and Starboard), an assortment of local vendors and an activity area for kids, among other diversions. And I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t mention the Red Bull Ocean Stage, situated below the highway at the eastern edge of the grounds, which hosted various hip hop, electronic and DJ sets. This will, however, be it’s final mention.

5:06 p.m. Justin Townes Earle kicks off the day at the Boom Stage with “Harlem River Blues,” backed by a full band. He apologizes for starting late, as if anyone cares about 6 minutes when they’ve spent the past 2 hours huddled in hotel rooms and restaurants waiting for the rain to abate. Every one of his songs is a story, and while JTE awkwardly stumbles over the cynical introductions — “This one’s about an ex-girlfriend. She was the worst girlfriend ever. She wanted a song written about her, but I bet she didn’t bargain on it going like this” — the songs themselves are pleasant aperitifs for the rest of the fest.

6:15 p.m. The Ravenna Colt — fronted by former My Morning Jacket guitarist Johnny Quaid — is plagued by a poor sound mix at the Port Stage. I had hoped their set would serve as an access point to their music, which I’ve spent spare but hopeful time with, but the songs sound like they’re being piped through the waters of the Ohio.

6:38 p.m. Dr. Dog kicks into a set of poppy folk-funk at the Mast Stage. The Philadelphia-based group, whose members look like dive bar regulars from the cool side of town, hits its stride with the first note. The girls sway, the boys head-bob and within minutes the smoke of herbal supplements fills the air. Dr. Dog’s tunes bounce with a primitive appeal, but are often deceptively complex. “Lonesome,” for instance, splices a shout-along chorus with kinks and corners that add depth without distracting. Covering Architecture in Helsinki’s “Heart It Races,” the band manages to turn the jagged freak-pop melody of the original into a lonely slacker’s anthem.

7:29 p.m. After a trip to the press tent to fill up on water, I headed back to the Boom Stage, passing by two dudes shotgunning two 16-ounce PBRs each. Impressive. But what was going on on-stage was far more impressive. Galactic — the New Orleans jam funk veterans — were joined by Living Colour frontman Corey Glover. While the mildly oppressive sun was sinking, the giddy, pliable crowd had all eyes glued on Glover as he stalked the front of the stage, grabbing the sky above him and singing like the band behind him was his own.

8:15 p.m. My Morning Jacket, Saturday’s headliner, had promised a long, surprise-filled show. So in hope of not bonking halfway through their set, my friends and I depart from the festival to have dinner at a nearby pizza joint. Cheap beer, food, air conditioning and time off your feet are rare and sacred at events like this.

10:08 p.m. Back at the Mast Stage, My Morning Jacket receives a hometown hero’s welcome and rips right into their set, with Jim James stomping and heaving, cape and hair flapping behind him. Near the end of the first song, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band — bass drum, trumpet, tenor sax and two sousaphones — joins them, enlarging an already massive sound as the gloomy majesty of “Holdin’ on to Black Metal” kicks off. This is the only song that Preservation Hall Jazz Band will be on stage for, and despite the dissonance between the music being performed at this moment and a that of a few hours previous — when the jazz band performed their own set on the same stage — the synthesis of sounds and styles is complete.

The momentum is remarkable. Through two and a half hours, My Morning Jacket rummaged through their entire catalogue, playing tunes including “The Bear,” “Wordless Chorus,” “Outta My System” and “Cobra.” More guest musicians — Andrew Bird and Galaxy 500′s Dean Wareham — and several covers — George Harrison’s “Isn’t It a Pity,” Elton John’s “Rocket Man” and the Band’s “It Makes No Difference” — helped pace and balance the performance so well that it never dulled nor dragged.

During the band’s encore, the zany and fantastical also entered the dynamic. My Morning Jacket covered Wham!’s “Careless Whisper,” and near the end of the song James began the refrain, “Ooh ooh bananas, nanas,” while chucking bananas into the crowd. A man donning a pirate suit walked on stage and began throwing even more bananas into the crowd. The band joined in, pulling the fruit from boxes sitting on the stage; dozens and dozens of bananas flying through the air. James then launched into a (certainly fictional) story about speaking to George Michael on the phone, gradually falling into a poor but endearing British accent: “George Michael called me on the phone today and said, ‘Jim, I’m so happy that you’re going to play the “Carless Whisper” for the fine people of Louisville, Kentucky today.’ … The one thing he wanted people to take away from that song was health. Everybody should be healthy and enjoy fresh, delicious bananas. That’s why he put that line in the song.” The absurdity was wonderful, despite my reaction — shared with many others, I imagine — of pure puzzlement. Huh? Why?

There was a final surprise, this one of a playful nature. For the final song of their encore, MMJ tore into “One Big Holiday” while a troupe of giant puppets walked onto the stage behind the band, bouncing, dancing, clapping along. These puppets — representing an owl, a fox, a geisha, Abraham Lincoln, a horse, a cyclops and more — had been individually roaming the festival grounds throughout the day, interacting with people and dancing to the music on the various stages. Johnny Quaid also joined in on guitar for the riotous, joyful closing track. To see this otherworldly closing sequence, you can watch an unofficial rip of the set, (navigate to the 2:10 mark).

Sunday, July 15

11:30 a.m. Brunch at the Silver Dollar, an establishment inspired by Bakersfield juke joints circa 1935. The Mexican-inspired homestyle food is killer. But what isn’t is Kentucky liquor laws, which don’t allow restaurants to serve alcohol until 1 p.m. on Sundays. A mimosa would’ve been really nice with my chilaquiles verdes.

3:02 p.m. Entering the festival gates, the sound of Mike Doughty’s set in the distance is drowned out by the March Madness Marching Band, which is performing just inside the gate. Hastening past the band — who wants to watch hipsters in circus garb playing trombones when Mike Doughty is on stage? — we settle in amongst the thin early afternoon crowd. Performing as a trio, Doughty’s set is sharp, even at this early hour, with the sun likely the hottest it’ll be all day. His funky, soulful alt-pop is refreshing, and songs like “27 Jennifers” and “Rational Man” have me wondering why I don’t listen to this man’s music more often. On the latter song, he stands up from his seated position to play some sort of app on his smartphone, tapping at the screen to add blips and squees that are not a bit cheesy.

3:36 p.m. Scrambling to the opposite corner of the festival grounds to see Kelly Hogan, I catch only two songs at the end of her set, “I Like to Keep Myself in Pain” and a cover of Cheap Trick’s “Southern Girls.” Hogan prefaces the latter: “I’ve been wanting to cover this since 1981 when somebody put it on a mix tape for me. It’s about a girl, but it doesn’t talk about her boobs or her butt, but her way with words.” It’s a fun way to end the set, and though I would’ve liked to see more of her performance, any day with a Kelly Hogan song in it is inherently a better day. And I’ll get to hear her back up Neko Case later in the day, besides.

3:52 p.m. Walk the Moon are on the Mast Stage. Apparently these kids from Cincinnati are a thing. A few hundred fans are packed up against the stage, bouncing to the beat with hands in the air. Many know all of the words, and a handful share the band’s trademark flair — a single stripe of face paint just below one or both eyes. And the band is great. Their jaunty dance-pop is fun, if not totally original, and seems capable of following the vapor trail of acts like Foster the People.

4:04 p.m. A friend texts me frantically from the Port Stage, where Louisville-based progressive pianist Rachel Grimes is performing. I had recommended her set to him, but had forgotten to attend myself, and apparently she had won him over. Though I see only the last 10 minutes of her set — the end of an extended, multi-movement piece — the pull of her nebulous, textural melodies is enough to make my ears and mind feel washed clean after a day and a half full of 57 shades of rock. Were Thom Yorke a chamber pianist, I imagine his music would sound much like the stunning work of Rachel Grimes. There are only about 100 people on hand for her set, but they all seem similarly affected, drifting away afterward as if having just woken from a pleasant dream.

4:26 p.m. Lower Dens take the stage at the neighboring Starboard Stage, with their propulsive noise drone that swells and then exhales. This is nighttime music, the kind of stuff that conjures images of stars and galaxies and such when you close your eyes, but it still sounds great in the afternoon sun.

4:53 p.m. Cloud Nothing are roaring on the Mast Stage. They pull sounds from late ’80s and early ’90s underground rock — Nirvana, Husker Du and Sonic Youth are obvious touchstones — fusing angry, paint-peeling guitar with an often exploratory approach to arrangements. “Wasted Days” is the centerpiece of their set. It’s nearly nine minutes long on record, but on this day it easily reaches into double digits (13 minutes is my best guess). It nearly lost me in the middle, when the repetitive crescendo seemingly plateaued, but this was by design. The repetition counterintuitively continued to build tension, even in absence of much dynamic variation. The eventual release left much of the crowd, myself included, happily catatonic.

5:45 p.m. We take a rest on the edge of the river-like fountain that bisects the grounds (at a right angle to the interstate, if you’re keeping score at home). A cool beer with bare toes — very tired and tender toes, and ankles — in the water couldn’t feel better.

6:18 p.m. Deer Tick is on the Mast Stage in pink cowboy hats. While the crowd seems to enjoy them, I’m overwhelmed by the fact that even though they carry great energy on stage, they have written very few good songs in recent years. This is obvious when they occasionally play an older tune, such as “Easy,” that throws a harsh spotlight on the thin, vapid bar rock that has been their staple of late.

7:04 p.m. The Fruit Bats lay down their Dead-influenced, sunburnt indie rock, which is nothing short of joyful to hear in the summer sun.

7:54 p.m. As the sun drops below the buildings, the air above us noticeably cools and the festival seems to make one giant exhale of relief. This doesn’t stop Neko Case from proclaiming, “It’s hot as balls.” Ms. Case’s expansive voice, backed by the equally large pipes of Kelly Hogan, fills the large field. The set focuses on upbeat fan favorites — “Tiger,” “Favorite,” “Hold On,” “Animal” — which is fine by me. At the weary end of a festival, feeling good and refreshed is no small thing, and Neko’s set takes me there.

9:32 p.m. Wilco closes out with the festival with a tight 90-minute set (sans encore, presumably due to curfew). At this point in their career — with a six-piece lineup of some of the best musicians around, rock or otherwise, which perform as a single machine — the band’s performances are consistently of very high quality, if not a bit too predictable. The set sits in stark contrast to the loose and surprise-laden closing set from My Morning Jacket the previous evening, but on a Sunday evening it works.