Each covered the ground with ample linen and staked a territory just outside the gates under the shade of leafy trees. Last year, the same view was had. Clumps of humans stationed outside the gates unwilling to pay but stoked to listen to the sounds leaking out from Central Field.
For these non-paying fans it was clear Ra Ra Riot's boisterous dance mantras were coming across picture perfect in the afternoon sun -- even without the visuals. Legions of fans were spread out across Central Field. In its fourth year, LouFest has doubled in size and the acts scheduled represent facets of a festival line-up that were just out of founder Brian Cohen's reach years before. C3 Presents has taken over to produce a festival looking to hold its own after the likes of Coachella and Bonnaroo, but tucked safely within the St. Louis City limits. The result was an uneven 2013 line-up of festival veterans and the next generation of festival acts still ripe with excitement and bleary enthusiasm from a day's worth of silly smoke inhalation and heat exhaustion.
Across the field and looking towards the Bud Light Stage, a jittery, jiggly mass of salt-sweat soaked shoulders glinted in the descending sun's light. They wiggled to Fitz and the Tantrums, who squeezed out every bit of stage and attention given to them to spearhead a maelstrom of neo-soul and new-wave sounds. Fitz's co-vocalist, Noelle Scaggs, bopped around stage, swaying her hips in Caribbean fashion -- think hip rolls and booty bumps that were rhythmic and self-possessed, not there for titillation -- and played coy to the attention from vocalist Michael Fitzpatrick. Scaggs appeared at home and eager to cajole the loosey-goosey audience into a frenzy. "I want to see how St. Louis parties!" she hollered before bolting into "House on Fire." The icy soul tones in her voice never left her timbre.
We (my omnipresent companion and I) jogged down to the small BMI stage for Desert Noises. The last time I had seen the boys of Desert Noises they were playing the Heavy Anchor. Clearly, incessant touring and physical growth has shaped the Utahns into a rock band less hypnotized by the puzzling frenzy of young adult emotional stampedes, but eager to throttle classic-rock inspired compositions. The most apparent aspect of this transition was the sophisticated reworking of "Tell Me You Love Me"'s back half. Desert Noises stayed true to the songs humble beginning -- a woeful purr towards the need to feel validated by lover -- then kicked the song into a jangled blur of jovial, gypsy-folk rock. Newer songs like "Keys on the Table" illustrated Desert Noises' move into an aggressive sound. Lead guitarist Pat Boyer tore through the song without an ostentatious solo, but his skill was as inescapable as the rest of the band's palpable pleasure to play LouFest. Bassist Tyler Osmond, a good-looking amalgamation of actor Cary Elwes and Youth Lagoon's Logan Hyde, threw a spur-of-the-moment "Fuck yeah!" into a song or two while he and vocalist/rhythm guitarist Kyle Henderson wore out their jawbones with wide, stoked smiles. At one point, Henderson took a good look at the crowd and geeked out with the foggy comprehension of a stoned beatnik, "Whoa. Whoa now. This is good really good," he said.
As Desert Noises grooved and goofed through an enchanting set, Chaz Bundick of Toro Y Moi filled his revered studio shoes with live musicians who added girth to his songs which always manage to tingle -- whether amplified over a dusty St. Louis tundra or through a Mac notebook. But here is where the night starts to drift away from the magic of Ra Ra Riot's flawless delivery and Desert Noises' wonderful insouciance. The National began after Toro y Moi ended its set 12 minutes early and failed to inspire this reviewer. The National co-headlined with Jim James and Wilco and were part of C3's bid for victory over attendance numbers. Although the sound of the band's horn section was becoming and its visuals -- iridescent washes and ricocheting space imagery -- were enjoyable, the band itself seemed a bit flat. Vocalist Matt Berninger's voice sounded bleak and too low to supply the kind of energy needed in the twilight hours of an outdoor festival. I was, however, entertained, enthralled actually, in watching festival opener Kentucky Knife Fight's Curt Brewer sashay with a cell phone and twirl his shirt around with the sass of Bill Hader's Stefon character of "Saturday Night Live" fame.
Thankfully, Jim James and Wild Belle relieved me of my temporary ennui. Wild Belle played a sexy set that saw vocalist Natalie Bergman prowl around stage and hiss with the pissed growl of a famished lioness. Across the lawn at the Forest Park stage, Jim James conjured a fever dream as the rain began to splatter the ground and everyone's now-dirty skin. The static hiss of his fuzz pedal clicked like nail clippers as he spanned genres, from 1915 French lounge to Arabian dirges. It felt cinematic and it felt like James, the frontman from My Morning Jacket, knew what he was doing.
In contrast, Wilco played a set that was mixed low and had a hard time traveling the distance of Central Field. They relied heavily on make-shift jam sessions and tempo shifts, but the sound failed to translate well. The set focused on some of the band's best-known and loved songs: "Misunderstood," "Via Chicago," "California Stars" (with a guest appearance by members of the National), "Heavy Metal Drummer," "Impossible Germany," "Passenger Side" and even "Box of Letters," dedicated to "the Wilco early adopters." Jeff Tweedy also dedicated "Born Alone" to his brother Greg Tweedy (who died earlier this week at the age of 59) and to St. Louis musician and KDHX DJ Bob Reuter, who died in a tragic accident on August 3 of this year. For many, it was the most moving moment of the first day of LouFest 2013.