We adapted to the sludge, we sweated a bit, we put on sleeves as the sun went down, and we wondered why all music festivals aren’t scheduled for this most ideal turn for fall weather.
It seems like every city has a music festival these days. St. Louis loves live music, and we are willing to travel for it. We go to great lengths to attend Coachella, Lock’n, and Electric Daisy Carnival. A more regional jaunt gets you to Riot Fest or Lollapalooza or Memphis in May. So with all these options, why LouFest? Well, there are the obvious facts that you don’t have to coordinate a thing—no caravans or roadside rendezvous points, no fretting over the perfect pair of shoes or extra case of bottled water that you should’ve packed—and none of the added expenses: gas for your weighted-down car, re-upping your camping supplies, or reserving a hotel. This means most of your friends have no excuse but to attend, filtered down only by the price of a weekend ticket and the stiff competition of another big-ticket show, like, say, Beyoncé. For my part, we had a record-setting crew of everyone we know who has ever managed a festival.
While they have their charms, big out-of-town festivals put a lot of effort and planning between you and the music. LouFest, on the other hand, brings an opportunity for a 48-hour music party with all your local friends and maybe a few lucky out-of-towners who can crash at your place for free, all basking in a full weekend of exceptional talent and festival atmosphere, with the unprecedented convenience of hosing off the mud and sweat in your own shower, passing out in your own bed, and regrouping for Round 2 with coffee from your own kitchen. Some of us can even bike into the festival, which is hands-down the most liberating and hassle-free mode of transportation in and out of our beautiful Forest Park.
Plus, LouFest is ours. This year featured some great local acts—iLLPHONiCS, Bruiser Queen, Aaron Kamm & the One Drops—along with a diverse blend of travelling acts that well represent the many and varied musical tastes of our proud city. The Heavy came in all the way from Bath, England; The Kills graced our city for the first time in their near-15-year career; LCD Soundsystem brought big-city sound and vision to our little Midwestern haven. The infamous Ms. Lauren Hill committed and delivered despite expectations to the contrary. Off Broadway regulars Diarrhea Planet as well as Chris Stapleton, who recently sold out The Fox, brought the familiar grit our city always welcomes and supports. So while some festivals specialize in a particular flavor of music, and some years past have offered a rather myopic lineup (we unofficially dubbed 2015 the Year of Sad, Beardy Brothers), this year’s LouFest reflected the eclectic, happy consequences of living in a music-rich, so-called flyover zone.
And you could not have asked for nicer weather for a music festival. Well, you might have wished for a bit less mud, but it lent just enough touch of roughing-it vibe to make the weekend seem more fest-y. We adapted to the sludge, we sweated a bit, we put on sleeves as the sun went down, and we wondered why all music festivals aren’t scheduled for this most ideal turn for fall weather. We celebrated the beauty of music in our very own major fest writ small, executing the best practices that we’ve learned from our destination festivals and brought back to our fair city, hooping and totems and all.
The scheduled offered just enough variety to strike that sweet spot of music in masses, laughing and dancing and reliving for years to come, along with solo experiences that you recount to friends who missed the show of a lifetime when you eventually regroup. Not everyone follows the same path, and therein lies the beauty of the festival! What follows a rundown of my picks, in two parts.
These guys had an early slot on Saturday afternoon at 1:30, but the band showed up ready to party, and the crowd obliged. “We didn’t think there’d be so many people out this early! We’ve only got a little time with you. We’re gonna make the most of it!” Lined across the front of the stage in muscle shirts and unbuttoned button-downs, the guys formed a wall of strings with epic rocker moves and even more epic guitar solos. “You guys still awake? Prove it, tough guy! This is a fast one!” Their brand of pop-garage-punk is reminiscent of the Black Lips, expanded with a penchant for southern guitar solos that harken their Nashville brethren, JEFF the Brotherhood, making them a perfect choice to set the tone for a weekend of disorderly conduct and riotous good times. “I don’t think we’re loud enough! We need more speakers!” they shouted from between towering stacks. They wailed on riffs dedicated to “Bruce Springsteen and a lot of pot,” and dedicated a song to Nashville, which they claimed was “slowly dying to gentrification,” concluding with a raucous “AND STAY OUT!!” Their Thin Lizzy pace and bravado, with coordinated backbends and guitar raises, in pairs or in trios, made this a fitting kickoff to the weekend.
Dudes came strolling out of the pit in front of the stage with mud up to their knees, demonstrating one of many options for handling the muddy terrain: Fuck it. Some entirely-too-organized festivalgoers packed up their plastic tarp and lawn chairs, demonstrating yet another option: Resistance (which is futile). The hidden estuaries dotting the grounds were inevitably going to foil all your efforts to stay tidy and clean. Day 1 was sloppy, splashy mud kicked up by yourself and your dancing neighbors. Day 2 was quicksand mud, with fewer but more menacing threats to swallow your shoes, after you reclaimed your feet from the recesses. Other options included: covering your feet in plastic bags (I can’t see how this would be easy or safe to walk in) or taking off your shoes (aka Fuck It Extreme). If you came on Day 1 in flip-flops, this might have been the only available option, though I feel like there must be some kind of disease risk in exposing your soles to that sticky, stinky substance. By Day 2, more people took advantage of the privilege of prepping from your closet rather than your trunk or suitcase and showed up in rain boots.
So with all these options, it was hard to tell if the guy was tiptoeing through the mud or frolicking to the sound of the trumpet or both, but I followed him all the way to—
Preservation Hall Jazz Band
“Shallow Water, Oh Mama” was a perfect pick for the conditions surrounding the first touring act on the main stage. Lots of trombone and cowbell acted as a siren song calling to the New Orleans–loving people of St. Louis. I danced myself into a trench to the sounds of a sweet walking bass line opening “Popo.” The audience was ebulliently chatty between songs, as groups of friends convened and coalesced in a rare shared festival experience. Mr. Charlie Gabriel, whom we later learned just celebrated his 84th birthday, sang “I Think I Love You” before the Sousaphone came out for a rousing medley of Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder songs. What began as the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back” got the crowd riled up again at the end of the set, giving way to the opening horns of “Sir Duke,” and ending the set with a singalong to the chorus “You can feel it all over!” The band lined up for their bow and touched their hearts while the audience roared in a mutual showing of much love.
These self-described “boys from England” seemed downright pleased with how familiar the audience was with their music and our aptitude for interactivity. Looking like modern-day Lennies and Squiggies, their predominantly black outfits with rolled-up sleeves and exposed white undershirts gave a noir greaser look to the soulful rock band, complete with a stellar female backup singer who enjoyed a few feature moments, like closing out Curtis Be Good. The set list ranged from offerings like “The Apology,” from their newest album, Hurt & the Merciless, released in April 2016, to old favorites like 2009’s “This Ain’t No Place for No Hero,” which sent at least one lady in the audience into bloody murder–shrieking hysterics. Impressed with the familiarity of the crowd with their catalog and our ability to finish their lyrics, singer Kelvin Swaby got a taste of audience participation and was hooked. He held the mic out to the crowd to finish his lines on command, with surprising success. Switching between mic models and spanning a range of vocal styles, from screeching to growling to smooth talking, the band concluded with a rousing classic “How You Like Me Now?” so thrilling that a few brave souls even managed to jump around that treacherous mudpit.
Attempting to maximize the festival schedule requires careful planning. Time-blocks must be
analyzed, breaks plotted precisely in the interstices between must-sees, strategizing the john, water, and beer runs to flow in a seamless circuit around the venue, landing you at the next must-see act with enough time to worm your way to a suitable space in the crowd. Well, St. Lucia totally blew my strategy. As a responsible festival-goer, I’d researched the unfamiliar acts and found the band intriguing, but not enough to break my stride between The Heavy and Chicano Batman, the two sure-shots on my list. But as is wont to happen with an exciting local debut ready to impress, the energy of St. Lucia rose above the heads of the kids who knew exactly what they were doing there, stoked for their own must-see, and beckoned the rest of us to the big stage. And there they were, radiant in cool whites and sunglasses, spinning and hair-flipping in spot-on Wham! glory.
What appeared to be frosted tips on frontman Jean-Philip Grobler’s hair was actually just his fringe billowing in front of a fan under the yellow stage lights. Slick and polished in preppy ’80s cool, reflective glasses shining, Grobler shifted his head side to side with expert finger snapping somewhere between Carlton Banks and vintage George Michael. “Rescue Me” brought interpretive dance to the “keep on pushing” chorus, while keyboardist (also Grobler’s wife) Patti Beranek alternated between keys and tambourine. The bassline on “Dancing on Glass” conjured on the best features of Twin Shadow, who played LouFest in 2012, while the synth player brought a Trans Siberian Orchestra quality A-game drama to the stage. Grobler hopped off stage and disappeared into the crowd for “Love Somebody.”
The recorded version of St. Lucia really doesn’t do justice the emphasis that those fist pumps and sweeping gestures à la Cut Copy lend to the music. Watching the drummer precisely pound out such odd new-wave rhythms highlighted what a treat it is to see club music, more typically pumped through house speakers, when performed by a live band. And just as soon as Grobler announced “Shit’s about to get real turnt up!” he took off skipping across the stage on one foot. The uplifting “Reach for the Sun” landed Grobler laying on the stage, followed by a few playful rounds of the jumpsuit-clad percussionist chasing him in laps around the stage, then the bassist took a turn joining the drummer on the big drums. The whole escapade concluded with appropriately dramatic flourish as Grobler gave a final spin, fell to the stage with one ankle perfectly placed over the opposite knee, preppy boat shoes tapping the air. The extravagantly theatrical performance was worth every minute of thirst and holding it en route to the john.
After a sprint to relieve and refresh, a mad dash to the shady side stage landed me easily in front for Chicano Batman, as they apparently were not on many others’ must-see lists. Too bad, because the fascinating and talented act from Los Angeles has a unique sound that falls somewhere in the realm of Santana-Zappa-Patton psychedelic lounge music, enhanced by the fact that all five fellows perform in matching blue tuxedos and brown work boots. The opening song played up the Zappa and Patton aspects, with Bardo Martinez’s vocals guiding the band through frequent, carefully placed time changes, narrating the travel through time and space—“But I’m in the future now/ With feet on the earth and hands on the branches that I climb” in “Cycles of Existential Rhyme.” A few well-versed fans in the sparse crowd sang along in favorites like “Black Lipstick” and basked in the occasional falsetto and bouts of hippie Latin jazz guitar solos. At the back of the stage, looking most at home out of the four in his getup, the drummer snapped away on his low-set kit and seemed to be calling most of the time signature shots. Martinez crooned away and explained the origins of the song “Para Agradecer” (to give thanks), dedicated to his firstborn, now two years old. After “Freedom Is Free,” the band broke from their sunny sounds “Itotiani” for a brief moment to lament the dangers that fracking poses to crucial and precious water water, presumably expressing support for the Dakota Pipeline Water Protectors. The charming set concluded with the sweet sounds of “Magma” and the feeling that “you melted my bones and my brains.”
The long-awaited break was supposed to take place during Band of Horses and Twin Limb, but I couldn’t resist drifting over for a piece of the latter three-piece band from Louisville, Kentucky (though the drummer claimed to originate from St. Louis). The sounds were compelling enough, with haunting bass-y reverb and bewitching vocals, “This is hard sometimes, this is hard sometimes” in “Gold from Teeth.” Come to find out, that bass sound came from the lead vocalist’s accordion, squeezed while staring across at the drummer, while the third member, a male guitarist, stood between the two, strumming away on a striking Dean Z (though their Facebook page officially describes his role as including, but not limited to, “sonic sorcery, magical buttons and pedals, guitar”). At times tranquil and harmonic, other times powerful and gutsy like Florence Welch, the lesser-known side stage billing proved an apt billing for the dusky setting sun on a stellar daytime lineup.
The big closer for the evening came from Charles Bradley, the hardest working man when not in showbiz, now reveling in a younger generation’s adoration of his James Brown stylings. “Ladies and gentlemen, do you wanna go to church?!” cried out the backing band to announce his arrival. And then, in a sequined three-piece suit, Bradley sparkled to the front of the stage with practiced JB pomp and circumstance, taking the mic stand down to the ground as he pleaded for mercy. Bradley has been working on this act for some time, though it was only after his uniquely beseeching take on Black Sabbath’s “Changes” caught critical attention for his newest album of the same name, as well as back catalog. More familiar with the legend than the material, my friends and I exchanged surprised and puzzled glances: “Is that…Seals and Crofts’ ‘Summer Breeze’?” Yes. It was. This nod was yet another piece to receive the transformative Charles Bradley treatment. After a brief departure, in true JB fashion, the band play hype man urged the audience to cheer Bradley back to the stage. Where I half-expected to see him return draped in a cape, he instead appeared sans sleeves, muscling through the final songs of the set. He’s a little more Lee Fields in his heart-wrenching and lovelorn tone than shrieking James Brown, but continued the showmanship, now putting his own appreciable mark on a borrowed style. Duly noted, a few more “Charles Bradley for President” t-shirts could be seen floating around the crowd on Day 2.