St. Louis is mostly known for beer and baseball– and those few years in a row where it was ranked as the country’s most dangerous city, but Detroit took that title from them recently. While some of music’s most famous stars are from the St. Louis area (Miles Davis, Chuck Berry, and Ike Turner to name just a few), it has never been a well-known music town. Growing up in the area, I remember the closest St. Louis came to widespread fame was The Urge’s “Jump Right In” playing on MTV, and being the closest major city to where Jeff Tweedy and Jay Farrar started and ended Uncle Tupelo.
Now Brian Cohen, a documentary filmmaker originally from Texas, has a vision to push St. Louis into the limelight with his festival brainchild known as LouFest. This year was the third iteration of the festival that has previously sported bills including !!!, Broken Social Scene, Built to Spill, and TV on the Radio. This year’s line-up was an uneven mix of local and mid-level national acts, showing a festival on the rise that can put St. Louis on the map– if it finds its footing.
Saturday, August 25th
The two-day party began in typical St. Louis summer fashion: hot as the surface of the sun and humid as a steam bath. The festival is in a fantastic location in Forest Park near downtown St. Louis, and for those of you used to the vast expanse that is Coachella or Lollapalooza, this set up is like going to a small street festival. The whole thing is roughly the length of a football field and just about as wide. There are two main stages (orange and blue stages), a small, fairly underutilized children’s stage, two beer tents that serve both local (delicious Schlafly’s) and quasi-local brews (Anheuser Busch products, which are made in St. Louis), and five or six food tents from local restaurants. It is small, but it’s not boring.
I made the rounds of the entire grounds in about 15 minutes and then settled in for the music. Unfortunately, the music on the first day was pretty lackluster. Other than the solid set from the Black Lips-esque King Tuff, the opening acts– a mix of local acts and smaller tour vets like Cotton Mather— made me question my decision to come to the festival. If you don’t like the music playing, there isn’t much else to do, and nowhere really to escape it. When you have more than one band in a row like that, it means a couple of hours of sitting at a picnic table twiddling your thumbs.
That’s about the time that the universal festival standby started: an unrelenting downpour of rain. Luckily this is St. Louis, so the rain only lasts roughly 20 minutes. After the rain stopped, the festival took new life. Phantogram blasted the small crowd out of their sunburnt and water-logged lull. The older parents there– with their kids…so many kids at this festival– were then treated to a loud set by Dinosaur Jr. Not just like “outdoor concert” loud, but “Holy shit why does J. Mascis have six Marshall half stacks daisy-chained together for his guitar?” loud.
Girl Talk closed things out in his typical style with lots of flashing lights, confetti, his two laptops playing five dance tracks at a time, nerdy-white-guy hype-man antics, and not even one Marshall half stack.
Sunday, August 26th
After leaving the first day somewhat disappointed with the lack of attention-keeping talent from bands that I’m sure were better than their negative stage presence showed, I kept my excitement for the second day’s line-up subdued. It may have been the smartest move all weekend, because day two brought the fun and gave me hope for the festival’s future. THEESatisfaction dropped some smooth early ’90s R&B/hip-hop, while Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin delivered one of the best sets all weekend. The Missouri boys made sure to dedicate a couple of songs to St. Louis sports legends (Ozzie Smith and Jack Buck) and the city’s extensive highway system.
It was hard to top SSLYBY’s set, but Virginia-based Wild Nothing did their best to match it. The music was beautiful, but the stage presence wasn’t quite there. Cults and Dawes came close as well, but in a live setting, most of Cults’ songs sounded the same, and by the time Dawes was hitting their stride, the rain came again– and this time with much more force. Festival organizers postponed everything for around 30 minutes while the rain came down in thick sheets all over the area. Once it let up, Dr. Dog took the stage for an abbreviated set and blew the previous SSLYBY benchmark away. It was everything a festival show– or any show really– should be. It was energetic, loud, enthusiastic, and a damn fun time. It was the perfect lead up for the headliner: The Flaming Lips.
I would attempt to describe the Flaming Lips set, but much has been written on it, and it was the same hijinks they have been pulling for the last five or so years. It was certainly amazing and beautiful to watch, but then it always has been.
Overall, LouFest is worth keeping on your radar. While this year they booked mostly festival junkies and a strong local contingent, it’s a festival on the rise. This was only their third year putting the thing together, and there are some issues with the booking and set up of the festival, but we all know of festivals that have been around much longer that have more than their share of hiccups. Everything was still smooth, the people were beyond friendly, and there was a real community dynamic that made it feel comfortable.
I talked to numerous people throughout the weekend and everyone had the same thing to say: “I really hope they keep doing it. I hope people keep coming out because it’s a great thing for St. Louis.” I tend to agree. The arts and music scene in St. Louis has been slowly on the rise over the last few years, and a festival like this is a perfect chance to put a strong shot in the arm of the St. Louis economy and music scene. It was great to be around all of the local music fans at the grounds who were there to see friends, listen to good music, eat great food, and support not just the festival, but also their city. A lot of cities brag about how proud they are of themselves, but none can back it up quite like St. Louisans can. It’s a humble pride that is willing to step up and support something they know can be an asset to the area. I’m already looking forward to next year.
Photographer: Jessica Luther