A Sailor’s Song: How Forecastle set sail into Louisville’s uncharted waters

Video Courtesy: Forecastle

On a late July day in Louisville’s Tyler Park, with the temperature flirting with 90 degrees, fans of local music gathered for an event featuring acts in 2002 with names like Blue Goat War, The Cobalt and The Vixen Red. The event was the brainchild of one of those local musicians, J.K. McKnightm but the name Forecastle wasn’t even prominently featured on flyers for the free gathering.

Fast forward 16 years, and his idea now old enough to drive a car now drives the summer buzz in the Derby City, packing a large downtown greenspace each year with tens of thousands from near and far.

The original idea of Forecastle was for it to be free, outdoors and grassroots with services donated. That first festival cost less than $500 to produce, and unlike many likeminded local concerts that sprung up only to disappear, it grew within a decade to be one of the signature musical events in the region with a multimillion-dollar economic impact.

In 2016, speaking to the local chapter of the American Advertising Federation, McKnight called himself a self-taught marketer who targeted surrounding cities to lure fans to his hometown.

“If you were driving up to Forecastle from Nashville, I wanted you to see at least four to six Nashville artists performing at the festival,” he said. “I wanted them to see at least two to three Nashville environmental organizations. I wanted to see Grimey’s, the record store there with a shop.”

That growth started at Tyler Park and by 2004 featured acts from surrounding cities. The following year, Forecastle packed a crowd into Cherokee Park not seen since British grunge-rockers Bush headlined a radio-station concert there in the mid-’90s.

(SIDENOTE: Just a few years after that 1995 Louisville show, Bush headlined before a crowd of 250,000 at Woodstock ’99. Bush last came to town in 2017, playing at Fourth Street Live! Eternal growth is rare in the music biz.)

Four years in, Forecastle grew to the point where it had bona-fide headliners in 2006 at the Mellwood Arts Center, indie-pioneers The Apples in Stereo and Sleater-Kinney. Forecastle promised in 2007 to go national and it did.

The nautical-themed phenomenon finally arrived on the water, hitting the Belvedere with headliners De La Soul, Girl Talk, and Particle. The lineup also included an early version of 2018 Forecastle act Wax Fang, of Louisville.

From there the ship set sail in deeper waters and caught wind: 2008 featured plenty of jambands (Disco Biscuits, Ekoostik Hookah, Groovatron) and hip-hop-based performances (Z-Trip, Del the Funky Homosapien and Wu-Tang Clan member GZA), tacking more flags onto the mast of Music. Art. Activism.

Forecastle 2008 (Source: WAVE 3 News)

The hull burst open in 2009, with a lineup loaded with up-and-coming acts that would rival any sized production today: Widespread Panic, The Black Keys, The Black Crowes, The Avett Brothers, Pretty Lights, Cage the Elephant and Umphrey’s McGee among many other noteworthy names. It’s insane to consider that all of this once went down at The Belvedere. Check out the complete lineup here and try to imagine this being contained to one city block of downtown Louisville.

The following year brought Forecastle to its destined home where it remains today, Waterfront Park. A brief partnership with Cincinnatti’s Nederlander Entertainment helped load a lineup led by the return of Widespread Panic, along with the Smashing Pumpkins, The Flaming Lips and Drive-By Truckers.

Forecastle 2010 (Source: WAVE 3 News)Then, Forecastle was no more. For one year.

As McKnight formed the current partnership with AC Entertainment, of Bonnaroo fame, a “Halfway to Forecastle” event served as a holdover for hardcore fans until bigger and better acts would come in 2012. It was much like a late-night rave on The Farm in Manchester, Tenn., home of Bonnaroo, featuring Pretty Lights, Big Boi, RJD2, MiMOSA and Gramatik.

The partnership has driven the modern era of Forecastle, highlighted by performances in recent years by My Morning Jacket, Jack White, Bassnectar, String Cheese Incident, Outkast, Wilco, Sam Smith, LCD Soundsytem, Beck and Weezer.

Forecastle 2013 (Source: WAVE 3 News)

While Forecastle’s voyage ultimately has drawn attention nationwide, its rudder has remained pointed at Louisville. More than a dozen acts on the 2018 bill come from the Louisville area or Kentucky at large. The festival also features local businesses, food trucks and has a special section devoted to the signature craft of the land, bourbonism.

The festival’s activism component has grown into the Forecastle Foundation, which this year celebrated $400,000 in overall giving, aimed at protecting fragile but biologically diverse lands throughout the world. Moving forward, Forecastle has a deal with the city to stay anchored at Waterfront Park through at least 2020, a number fitting for the visionary grassroots work of a onetime local musician who grew his local idea into a Louisville icon.

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