First off, note the date listed above: Forecastle was an all-weekend event, but I only made it on Saturday. My apologies to all that expected a full weekend recap. More time to catch the Cousin Brothers Friday night — “President Bush, please blow some sunshine up my ass,” is their plea for help with gas prices — and a terrific show of vintage Bloomington-area bands (The Vulgar Boatmen, Gentleman Caller and a solo set by Jake Smith from the Mysteries of Life). I say vintage, but new material by the Mysteries of Life is on sale (home recordings) and an album is due from Gentleman Caller this fall on Musical Family Tree. Anyhow, more about that in Nora Spitznogle’s review. To the riverfront!
Louisville’s Riverfront Belvedere is as close to the Ohio as possible on the south side. Unfortunately, urban planners, or urban industrial anarchists, thought it fit to build the superhighway right on the banks, meaning that the park overlooks the river only if you overlook the highway. But, some clever folks got around that problem by building a concrete ledge over the highway, so that the smaller second, or east, stage at Forecastle directly overlooked the river. Just lovely, really. Actually, a festival the size of Forecastle has some pretty fancy digs: one of the nicer parks in town directly behind the Kentucky Center, with a very cool fountain integrated into the sidewalk directly in the front of the park, a larger old-style concrete fountain within the grounds, some public sculpture. Volunteers dressed up the grounds with antique boating paraphernalia, which while consistent with the theme, made me feel like I was at a giant outdoor Applebee’s.
Starting with the best: Tortoise’s sound hasn’t changed a whole lot since they came out nearly fully-formed in 1994, but their prog-rock/cool jazz blend is still more lively, inventive and musically complex than just about anything else that hits the stage during an indie-rock festival. Saying that might betray a prejudice on my part: I’m impressed by those with chops, especially those with chops that can play in a lyrical way, and I also love to hear when rock and jazz intersect.
John Herndon stuck to one of the sets for much of the show, addressing the crowd with a nod after each tune. Since the band is all-instrumental, there’s no clear frontman, and, at least for this show, no one felt compelled to chat. John McEntire occasionally joined Herndon on the other set, affording crisp polyrhythms and flawless unison drumming, but he was also the busiest dude on stage, running between bells, keyboards, miscellaneous percussion and those drums up front. The drums were foregrounded: two drum sets facing each other, with Jeff Parker on bass to the right, Dan Bitney on a riser behind the sets on keyboards and Doug McCombs to the back left on bass.
The opening and closing tunes were perhaps the most straightforward, with funk bass edging into jam band territory and easy melodies repeated throughout. But at the close of that first tune, things got a little more difficult: Herndon clapped out a complicated rhythm for the crowd, challenging them to engage with a band that’s not afraid of complicated syncopation and shifting key signatures.
The second piece was more characteristic Tortoise, opening with a melody shared between three players on three bells (vibes and marimba) and then settling into a tune that slowly warped that opening phrase. The band does occasionally play what might be considered a jazz structure — statement of theme then soloing over chords — but most often they’re a bit closer to minimalism, taking that initial theme and then deconstructing, repeating in a slightly different form throughout the tune, in a piece that sounds fully-composed.
Maybe it’s the crispness of Tortoise’s sound that’s so appealing, and it’s a credit to the sound guys at Forecastle that nothing was lost outdoors — after all, cool jazz traditionally sounds best in a club. It’s a surprise, and a welcome change, when the band plays full chords, with McEntire doubling on guitar instead of drums. Regardless, it’s been too long since the last Tortoise studio album — 2004’s “It’s All Around You” — and I wonder if the band couldn’t push its sound in different territories, adding horns, for instance, or working in collaboration with another artist, like on “The Brave and the Bold” in 2004.
Those first riffs played by Chicago’s Extra Golden when they took the stage sure sounded like “La Bamba,” so I was pleased when they settled into more recognizable Afrobeat territory, or more properly, Benga territory, the Kenyan music on which the band’s sound is based. Three guitars, bass, drums and a lead singer make up the band, giving the music a sort of muscular hard rock sound that lacks the melody and keyboards most recognizable in Afropop.
Bloomington’s Prizzy Prizzy Please had the loudest mix of any of the bands on the much smaller east stage. The mic was so hot that you could easily hear stage chatter between the songs, and everything took on a low-fi, distortion-coated sheen. “Can we get more of this [points] and this [points] and this [vaguely gestures],” asked lead singer and saxophonist Mark Pallman of the sound guy after a couple songs. A headshake in the negative.
Of course, Prizzy sounds best amplified. They need a little help without carrying a guitar, and cheap-sounding keyboard and sax need a little distortion to sound properly aggressive. “Shorgasm” is awfully funny when you take the band’s interpretation — referring to something akin to Dan Savage’s definition of “santorum,” if you get my drift — and gives a narrative to the song’s slow build. Scott McNiece continues to propel the band on drums, with an energy that makes you take songs about Ron Artest seriously. Speaking of that, maybe it’s time to pick a new professional sports star to sing about?
After clocking 150-plus at Locals Only two weeks ago, Film School played to a slightly smaller crowd at Forecastle — the afternoon was dead, and a lot of people seemed content to wander around the grounds, disinterested in seeing even the bands on the main stage. Too bad. While Film School’s sound may work best in a club, they still gave their all, a five-piece noise-pop band with keyboard lines typically prominent and duties shared between a male and female vocalist. They opened with the opening track, “Dear Me,” from their latest, “Hideout,” and played a few more that I recognized from that release. I tend to prefer the tunes on which Lorelei Plotczyk sings: Her soft and unassuming voice works well against a bedrock of bass-heavy noise.
I was impressed by the well-travelled math rock of Unwed Sailor, all packed into one long song (which coincidentally was the name of the band that played before, which actually played a series of songs). In typically minimalist style, phrases were passed between the band (a four-piece with one guitarist doubling on keys), with ideas or rhythms changing every eight or 16 bars and some room for improvisation. Nothing new, necessarily, and the individual parts weren’t that complex, but it’s always impressive to see a band sustain themselves for so long without a break; the band’s been around for 10 years, and it shows in their wordless communication on stage.
A short interlude to talk about the Ocean Stage, Forecastle’s forum for electronic performers, set up in a tent beside the hotel pool at the Galt House, which also served as band loading area and headquarters for the festival. I’m not sure if there was a better place on the event grounds for DJs, but they were hidden at the hotel pool. Press, volunteers and other such folk entered through the hotel entrance, but all others came in through an outdoor entrance off of the nearest road to the Riverfront Belvedere, so the common ticket-payer (and by common, I mean vulgar) might not have even thought she was allowed to walk into the hotel pool. And there wasn’t room to dance. And there were a lot of random hotel guests that weren’t too keen on swimming beside filthy indie-rockers (I overheard a hotel guest complaining, although evidently the Galt House does not check hotel IDs, which is something I will keep in mind next time I’m walking around downtown Louisville and need to take a dip). It just seemed like an afterthought to place the DJs there, and they weren’t providing anything more than background music. Perhaps a tent on the event grounds would make more sense — it would be readily accessible to all attendees, and if they set up a bunch of fans (the oscillating kind), it could be a place for the overheated to relax and chill (downtempo or trance in the middle of the day). Or maybe a scuba DJ (DJ Barnacle) equipped with waterproof turntables. That would make for a true Ocean (Hotel Pool) stage.
But back to the main stage, just in time for Margot & the Nuclear So and Sos. Just an aside, I still think the Margots are working with a somewhat drab musical palette. There’s enough folks on stage, enough talented musicians, to switch up tempos a bit more, give more time to those somewhat atypical rock instruments (violin, trumpet), and generally work up more musically complex arrangements. Working with a mix of stuff destined for the new albums, “Animal!”/“Not Animal,” and the best from “The Dust of Retreat,” Margot sounds as good as ever, and can pack quite a bit into 30 minutes (a much more well-organized ensemble than a few bands that played early in the day).
Otherwise, the grounds were nearly empty early in the day, although most activists and vendors were already tabling, and most artists had their work up, so I’ll briefly describe those openers. D.W. Box and One Long Song may have brought one too many performers along with them for the small east stage: a couple drummers (one set), keyboardist, bassist, guitarist, two violinists, slide guitarist and the lead singer and guitarist, Ms. D.W. Box. Still, once they got through that first number on the second try (after a broken string and apparently less than serviceable mix), things settled down to a series of roots-rock numbers that landed somewhere between Lambchop and Patti Smith. Patti because D.W. half-sung, half-spoke her vocals with more than a little aggression. Lambchop because, well, it’s a big old country band from Nashville, although Lambchop writes much more complex funky arrangements.
The Pomegranates didn’t impress me much — they seemed an amalgamation of a lot of recent emo and indie-rock, including Vampire Weekend and the ubiquitous Bright Eyes. The songwriting wasn’t strong enough to support all the thin arrangements, which never quite cohered, and the lead singer’s voice was just way too precious for me. Finally, the Seedy Seeds were the first band I caught: a really fun duo with a guy (Mike) on banjo, a lady (Margaret) on guitar and occasional electronic backing floating from the ether (or a backing tape). Observational vocals from both, sometimes funny; Margaret’s voice sounds a bit like Rilo Kiley’s Jenny Lewis, clear and plain-spoken, and I was impressed when she picked up the accordion for a tune.