The Forecastle Festival made a bit of a to-do about its former acts that had returned as its headliners this year, and with good reason.
Who among the under card playing at this year’s festival has the potential to become a future headliner isn’t clear. But what did seem to be a theme for the festival’s lineup, especially those playing earlier in the day, was fitting for the bluegrass state.
An emerging group of alt-country and bluegrass artists were featured early during each of the three days of the festival.
Ashley Capps, president of AC Entertainment and Forecastle Festival producer, said the organizers vision when booking the bands is to create a unique and multifaceted program of music.
“It really takes on a life of its own, it’s not really a clear-cut process,” he said. “It emerges from our passion for music and the artists that we love, and basically what we see going on around us during the course of the booking process. Already we’re talking about next year and the bands we would like to see out there.”
Two bands that played at the Forecastle Festival this year are hoping that the exposure will help earn them a spot closing the event in the future.
The Michigan-based five-piece bluegrass band arrived in Louisville on Sunday to play the Forecastle Festival for the first time.
The band — formed in 2000 and touring since 2005 — relishes the festival scene and feels like it is a unique act, no matter where they are playing.
“We’ve played a lot of festivals,” said Paul Hoffman, mandolin and vocals. “We’re blessed as a band, I think, because we get to do … bluegrass, acoustic style festivals … we get to sort of cross over into all this different festival territory, which is cool. We fit in well in a lot of different ways. I really like being at a festival like this where we’re sort of the token bluegrass band.”
The group blends bluegrass with progressive rock to create a sound that fits right in at a Kentucky festival.
“At a … bluegrass festival we tend to be the more token rock band since we have more of that sensibility,” Hoffman said. “I think that when we play this kind of style festival … we thrive on it a lot because, every artist and every musician wants to be different and unique and when there aren’t a bazillion mandolin/banjo players around, we truly are unique.”
But it has taken the group some time to fully develop that style.
“It’s been a progression,” Hoffman said. “When we were starting we were just learning how to play bluegrass.”
He added that to get their foot in the door, the band had to do some convincing.
“We’d be playing some bar and people that had never heard us before, they hear us play ‘When Doves Cry,’ they’re like, ‘I know this song, I like it,’” Hoffman said. “Everyone says that about their band, play songs people like and they’ll get into your band. But with us it was, play songs they recognize and they realize they like the banjo.”
And crowds started to show up for their music more and more, Greensky Bluegrass continued to refine its sound.
“I think as writing material came more into the picture, I think we started shifting because it was really hard for me to write really bluegrassy songs,” Hoffman said. “It was all coming out phony, or like I was trying to write these bluegrass songs. When I just wrote songs, and we play them, they become this bluegrass-esque thing.”
“We’ve developed our voice,” he added.
With their voice defined, the band continues to experiment and draw in new fans at each show.
“We’re like a one fan at a time band,” Hoffman said. “We … gain fans from our live show and from them telling their friends they’re coming [to see us]. I think the festivals are great for that,” he added. “When we started … this really didn’t exist. The multigenre … mash up festivals didn’t exist. I think for us, and for a lot of bands our age, it’s been pivotal.
“It just becomes whether or not the band can deliver consistently. [And] we’re ready. We can play in front of 10,000 people or 50 people and be the same band.”
Another band that played the Forecastle Festival is just starting to refine its voice.
Wild Feathers, an Austin, Texas, band, with its roots in Nashville is an amalgam of rock, country, with a pop sensibility and a blues influence.
Ricky Young, one of the frontmen in a band that shares the duties, put it more simply.
“We get asked that all the time in gas stations and elevators [what genre we are] we just say that we’re a rock ‘n’ roll band,” he said.
Forecastle is only the third or fourth festival at which the band has played, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have experience on a big stage.
Wild Feathers have been out on tour with some more-than-notable names, including Bob Dylan, Ryan Bingham and are about to enter another leg of a tour opening for Willie Nelson.
“At first it freaked us out … then, we were thinking, they don’t know who the hell we are, let’s go out and prove [ourselves],” Young said.
The band’s drummer Ben Jarvis, who has been with the group since October, said they have learned a lot opening for such household names.
“Especially when you’re an opening act, you better come out and be … good because the crowd, they don’t know us, so you’ve got to win them over,” he said. “Every night it was an uphill battle.”
And at a festival the group sees the goal laid out in front of them, a road traveled by this year’s Forecastle Festival headliners The Black Keys and The Avett Brothers.
“It’s been great, we love the festival environment,” Young said. “The culture of it, we’re all such big music fans, obviously, we like being a part of it where we’re actually performing.”
Jarvis added the goal for the band is to be playing later in the day and on a bigger stage the next time they hit the festival circuit.
At Forecastle, the band opened Sunday’s musical showcase on the Port Stage. While it was a smaller venue, the group attracted an energetic early crowd that seemed to walk away from their set wanting more than the half-an-hour worth of music the band played.
“I think we can do it in good time,” Young said of making the jump to the main stage. “If we didn’t believe that, I don’t know why we’re here in the first place. I guarantee if you asked The Black Keys how they felt back then, they were like, ‘we want to be playing on the … main stage.’”
It helps that Wild Feathers is appealing to a broad audience. They’ll get a chance to continue to impress and gain a new group of fans when their self-titled debut album comes out and they open their tour with Willie Nelson, which happens to be the same day.
“We’ll be in Las Vegas opening up for Willie Nelson August 13, the day our record comes out,” Jarvis said.
“If we make it to Aug. 14, we might have a pretty good year,” Young said with a laugh.
Both said they hope the record is well received and the crowds will continue to grow.
Hopefully, people will enjoy it enough to where they want to listen to it and then come see us play again,” Jarvis said.
Maybe next time, it will be on the main stage.