Forecastle’s eleventh festival opens this weekend at Waterfront Park, and festival organizers are expecting to double last year’s attendance. Over the years, the once-diminutive event founded by “Captain” J.K. McKnight in 2002 has grown from humble beginnings in Louisville’s Tyler Park to a three-day rock festival boasting headliners like Widespread Panic, Flaming Lips and yes, My Morning Jacket.
Last year’s festival was Forecastle’s first partnered with Knoxville-based Bonnaroo veterans AC Entertainment, who produce about 750 concerts throughout the Southeast every year. (They took a year off from the main festival in 2011 to regroup with their new partners.) With a strong 2012 showing that garnered positive reviews from national outlets like Rolling Stone (one of their “31 Coolest Tours and Festivals of 2012″) and brisk ticket pre-sales that suggest a banner 2013, Forecastle is poised to step into the national spotlight as a notable destination on the crowded music festival circuit.
“Forecastle started small. We owe a lot of our growth to the local community and the local sponsors who saw what we were trying to do and wanted to foster that,” says spokesperson Holly Weyler, who also answers to “First Mate.”
“I think people who come to the festival see Forecastle as a very authentic event because it truly has grown from grassroots, and from a good part of what the city and everyone has put into it over the years. There’s a lot of blood, sweat and tears, and people really feel that when they come into the grounds,” she adds.
Weyler says she expects 65-75,000 music fans in attendance this weekend. That’s about double the attendance from last year. A little perspective: last year’s Lollapalooza festival brought about 270,000 fans to Chicago’s Grant Park, so while Forecastle isn’t quite in that league, it’s still remarkable growth for the second year after the festival’s reboot.
Positive press and word of mouth helped create a lot of pre-sale buzz, but Weyler also points to the line-up of headliners – jam band vets String Cheese Incident (Friday), The Black Keys (Saturday) and The Avett Bros. (Sunday) – that will anchor the festival.
“String Cheese Incident definitely doesn’t play a lot of shows, and they have their own built-in audience that travels with them,” she says. “The Black Keys and the Avett Bros. have both actually played the festival before in 2009, but since that time have gotten a lot of mainstream air play.”
The festival also boasts a strong undercard, especially on Saturday, when My Morning Jacket frontman Jim James joins Alabama Shakes and the Flaming Lips to lead up to The Black Keys’ headlining set. Dawes, Animal Collective, Old Crow Medicine Show and Robert Plant are also on the schedule. The late-night after-parties are intriguing. All told, four stages will play host to 57 acts.
Forecastle might be growing, but Weyler says it’s important for them to keep the original ideals of the festival in mind. They’ve kept the signature nautical theme (a “forecastle” is the structure on the bow of a ship that houses the crew) and maintained an emphasis on activism, with the Forecastle Foundation’s focus on global hot zones, and art. This year’s festival will feature some large-scale installations, including a large wooden ship that will be painted by a team of artists over the course of the weekend. Forecastle veterans will still encounter large-scale puppets by Louisville art scene stalwarts Squallis Puppeteers.
And the festival wants to pay homage to the state, too, especially now that the audience for the event is growing beyond the immediate region.
“What we’re finding now, as the festival grows, is a tremendous sense of place,” says Weyler.”We try to highlight our cultural heritage here in Kentucky.”
Weyler points to that most Kentucky of all cultural attractions at Forecastle, the Bourbon Lodge. It, too, started small last year with only three bourbon brands, but not for trying.
“One of the major brands actually said to us that nobody’s going to drink bourbon in the summer. We said, we don’t think so, we think bourbon can be a thing here. Bourbon is a real part of our culture and we want to display that,” she says. “This year, brands were literally knocking down the doors to get in.”
This year’s Bourbon Lodge will include eleven bourbon brands pouring about 30 varieties, including some limited editions. Chef Edward Lee (610 Magnolia and Milkwood) will cook up bourbon-inspired fare in a pop-up mini restaurant, too.
Gates open Friday at 3:45 p.m. Here’s a look at the full schedule.