What's weird is that this hasn't always been happening: a music festival in Forest Park or anywhere in St. Louis. When I saw the two huge stages hunched on the hill, it was like déjà vu.
The air warbled in the heat, and there was still plenty of space when St. Louis' Troubadour Dali unwound their tight, gaze-into-the-sun concoction of stinging rock 'n' roll and psychedelia. (And I apologize to Jon Hardy & the Public for missing their kick-off performance.) Their set was nearly perfect with enough energy and inertia in the music to heave the ball forward, draw the crowd in -- something about that shoe-gazey sound makes for a great immersive music, but Dali's sound is also rough around the edges, trading space for the electrifying, cathartic downstroke.
It was also an acid test for the way the day would sound through the speakers, because Dali had one of the most balanced sounds of the day -- their through-the-cracks harmonies and tremolo and Drew Bailey's fresh, rolling percussion. While most people showed up later in the day for the headlining acts, Troubadour Dali's set stuck with me through the rest of the day, palimpsestic as a good dream.
After their set, singer and guitarist Ben Hinn directed the crowd over to the east stage to see Sleepy Sun, whom he described as "freakin' awesome." LouFest already had kind of an all-ages feel about it: plenty of 8-year-old kids milling around, infants on their parents shoulders, a monotonous, hip sea of sunglassed 20-somethings shoulder to shoulder with men and women who'd smoked weed at Monterey Pop or who at least had read the headlines about Altamont. It's another reason that Dali's set was important and relevant, their set like a tribute to the era and the events inseparable from that psychedelic sound.
Sleepy Sun offered more of the same, but with a little more blues at stake, a little more fire in their bellies. Led by singer Bret Constantino (a great frontman for a great band, some perfect conflation of Country Joe and all the members of Canned Heat transplanted into modern day San Francisco, and here playing for us), the band ripped and roared through the sometimes brooding, always noisy guts of their songs. Their set ended just short of 3 p.m., and the crowd was steadily growing in volume and responsiveness. LouFest was 2 for 2, but no one was ready for what came next.
The crowd spaced out, went to the many food booths and trucks, maybe bought some records or met band members at the Euclid Records tent. At the west stage, you could hear Band of Gypsys over the speakers. I bought a cold beer and wandered around a while. It was that heavy part of the day that threatens a festival, the dead of St. Louis afternoon, the sun bearing down now, the evidence of near-heat-stroke on everyone's faces. Kings Go Forth had their work cut out for them. Materializing onstage wearing blinding white silk yoga clothes/dashikis, the band giddily broke into a textured groove. Slowly the crowd migrated over to the band as if toward an oasis. But if you've ever listened to this monster of a soul/funk band from Milwaukee, I don't have to tell you that this shit was real.
It was an arsenal of soul, deep grooves and some of the freshest harmonies I've heard ever. Their song "I Don't Love You No More" was perhaps the highlight, actually implicating the crowd without force, getting us moving. Jeremy Kuzniar's soul-correct yet distinct drumming throttles their sound forward, but like any great soul band, the sound revolves around the singer. Or in this case, singers. Black Wolf (who sports the most bizarre haircut in soul) and Matt Norberg are the perfect complements to one another. Norberg, the straight man, the reedy pillar of voice; Black Wolf, the instigator, falsetto warrior, skulking around the stage like a hypnotized, well, wolf. Maybe the best moment of the day: Norbert yells, "St. Louis has soul!" Thank you, sir. This group did it all for me -- the act of the day -- yet, of course there was more.
I grabbed a pulled pork sandwich from the Pappy's BBQ booth and watched Dom from a ways off. Their set was a little more predictable than anything I'd heard so far, complete with a cover of the Cure's "Boys Don't Cry". The crowd was nodding and constantly growing as Dom's infectious, nasally punk-pop took root.
By the time Surfer Blood played, just about everyone who had a ticket for the day was there. What amazed about LouFest so far was the that the sonic transition from one band to the next was always appropriate -- even if you crossed over from genre to genre as you swayed between stages, the right energy was happening, never too much going on at once.
Surfer Blood's set garnered the largest crowd and most appreciative crowd yet. Their brand of illusively simply, sometimes surprisingly off-kilter rock did the trick for the audience, but I felt a little bored. I can attribute that some to the booze and the sun, but even so, their set felt flat. Lead singer/guitarist John Paul Pitts' dry, nonchalant temperament fit the music, but undermined my enthusiasm. Bands playing festivals always benefit from the attitude that this is a singular event, that they should do something a little special. I don't mean that Surfer Blood should've hammed it up, but I needed something more in the sound or in the arc of their set.
At some point in the day, my friend Brian had told me that the Roots had cancelled due to the hurricane conditions in New York, and of course there were people asking for refunds and complaining. ?uestlove still made his way down from Chicago to do a DJ set -- a real generous gesture. His spin dragged on and on though, mashing up Grease tunes with the most predictable soul. It sort of bummed me out: Did he think St. Louisans only toe-tested their music? Why give me an hour plus of stuff I can hear on any Clear Channel radio station? Soon though, the sun started moving below the trees and Deerhunter took the stage in the magic hour light.
As far as making a set matter, giving it weight and stakes, Deerhunter frontman Bradford Cox set us up with a tone of finality: "This is our last set for a while." And they played like it, laying out an intense and sinewy soundscape as the night came on. Their set was super tasteful, creating a story line, pushing and pulling at the crowd with 10-minute kraut-rockers, jaggy noise and expansive versions of crowd-pleasers like "Desire Lines." The crowd that would next go fist pump to an extended Hold Steady set to end the night, was giving Deerhunter everything. They cheered them back onstage to encore, maybe even convinced the band to come back to St. Louis on their next tour.
After the broad and manifold sounds and tones of Deerhunter, the Hold Steady's set ended the night on a tiresome note. I've never doubted the sincerity of the band's sensibilities, their love of classic rock & roll, of words and story, but when Craig Finn said, "We're more than happy to take the extra-long set," I knew it would be too long. Finn's lyrical delivery and subject matter become a chore after a while, and the band's emphasis on familiar power-chords and surging 4/4 flattens out their set even for diehard fans. They did give everything they had to their audience though, pulling out all the stops, even if this reviewer was bored after a while. Deerhunter should've closed the night, but at a festival, not everyone can have his or her way.