It’s not an unlikely idea, bringing Midwest musicians, artists and environmentalists together for a weekend festival, but you’re not the one who thought of it; you’re not the one who has spent years trying to figure out how much an event as all-inclusive is possible, both musically and socially; you’re not the one who travels through the fall and winter networking in Midwest towns and colleges, and spends the spring and summer tracking down bands and speakers and delegating what you can’t do yourself.
Unless you happen to be J.K. McKnight, the 27-year-old founder of Louisville’s Forecastle Festival who has worked since 2002 to build his event from a Louisville-centric rock concert to a hub for artists and activists from 10 Midwest towns (including Indianapolis) and all spots in between. And if you are McKnight and happen to be reading this, I can only imagine you’re taking a break between planning for next year’s festival and wondering what happened to your fledging music career, thrown aside by 2005 in the quest to establish a vital and sustainable space for people to connect.
Not that McKnight would make himself the protagonist in this story, although he does admit that there’s no vice president capable of taking over his job, and that he directs or has directed all aspects of Forecastle. From another angle, every attendee can become a central character in this story about recognizing cultural and political leaders in our communities, and giving those leaders a chance to exchange ideas, tactics or creative output with others. It’s the tale of building a participatory, grass-roots festival that leads by example — with 100 percent organic food on site, two solar-powered stages, recycling since 2002 — and leaves a significant footprint that’s not material but ideological.
To make good on a slogan new this year — “Where the Midwest connects” — Forecastle is making a systemic attempt to include all corners of the region, giving performers and activist groups from each of 10 cities a spot to perform, showcase their work or spread their message. From Indianapolis, Margot and the Nuclear So & Sos and DJ Jackola are making the trip (as well as Otis Gibbs, who only recently moved from Indianapolis to Nashville), and a couple environmental groups, RESULTS Global Grassroots and Hoosier Heartland RC&D Council. NUVO also happens to be a Forecastle sponsor, along with other local organizations like Indy CD & Vinyl and My Old Kentucky Blog. Bloomington is also sending some participants: art-punk band Prizzy Prizzy Please, artist Alexis Culver and representatives from the Caldwell Eco-Center.
Headliners include jam bands Ekoostik Hookah and The Disco Buscuits, Chicago post-rockers Tortoise, bluegrass guitarist Del McCoury and Wu-Tang founder GZA. Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is this year’s keynote speaker.
McKnight found some time in the busy weeks prior to Forecastle to chat with NUVO.
NUVO: How did you come up with the idea to involve cities throughout the Midwest as equal partners in Forecastle?
McKnight: I look at it as kind of an outreach from all the touring and stuff that I did in my early 20s, when I was touring this region, playing different venues and different conferences and different events. I grew up in Cincinnati and I have real personal and family ties to a lot of the different cities … I also saw this region as very unique in having this concentration of 10 million-plus people within a 300-mile radius. It’s something you don’t really see beyond the Northeast and the Southwest. I remember having that specific thought maybe two or three years ago when I was driving around Murfreesboro doing some radio stuff. Just thinking about what an amazing networking opportunity it would be to get the cultural centers of all these cities here at one place at one time. So if you’re coming from Indianapolis, to see a representative from the Murphy Building and NUVO and WFYI, it’s a matter of having those representatives and creating a platform once a year, for not only businesses but cultural outlets, musicians, artists and environmentalists.
NUVO: Do you think the festival has a musical identity at this point, other than being based in the Midwest?
McKnight: If it did have a musical identity, we destroyed it this year. I completely think it does. Rolling Stone called it the wackiest festival lineup of the summer earlier this year. The lineup makes total sense to me, but I guess to them it didn’t. For so many years, we were just looked at as a rock festival. And then in 2007 I really wanted to change that: We booked hip-hop headliners for both nights, Girl Talk and De La Soul, both of which had never played here before. This year I think we upped the ante a little more, probably the most that we ever could have upped it. We’ve got hip-hop, this year, on Friday. Then we’ve got a lot of indie-rock this year on Saturday, with a huge jam band headliner and a huge electronica headliner. Then bluegrass and alt-country and folk and Triple A on Sunday. This was the year I wanted it to be accessible to everyone.
NUVO: What do you find rewarding about organizing Forecastle?
McKnight: We run this whole festival practically on volunteers. There were over 170 last year. Somebody asked me that last year — “How do you get volunteers?” — because none of the other festivals have these kind of volunteer numbers. I say, well, I try to keep that kind of transparency there. I want this to be a festival of the Midwest, built by the people of the Midwest. It’s not like some giant company like AEG coming in to a town and just taking over, doing something because they think it’s commercially viable. I want people to get involved because they think they can make a difference, that they believe in the vision of it like I do.
NUVO: Why is Robert F. Kennedy Jr. a good choice for Forecastle?
McKnight: I consider him one of the most recognizable environmental figures in the country. If you look at what Kennedy’s done with the river, he’s probably the most feared environmental lawyer in the country. Even though he primarily focuses now on water issues in the New York metropolitan area, he could, if he wanted to, go anywhere and fight on anyone’s behalf, and win. He’s just a good champion on environmental issues, and it’s good to see someone like that who’s really stood up for so many of the things that you’ve stood up for in your life, and fought for.
WHAT: Forecastle Festival and Summer Symposium
WHEN: July 25-27
WHERE: Riverfront Belvedere, Fifth and Main streets, Louisville, Ky.
TICKETS: $15-$20 daily (advance), $18-$23 daily (day of); $32-$35 two-day pass; $50 three-day pass. More information at www.forecastlefest.com. Tickets available locally at Indy CD & Vinyl or at the festival Web site.