This weekend an estimated 36,000 people from out of state and the surrounding area gathered in St. Louis for LouFest 2014, the little music festival that could. In just four years, the weekend-long concert has grown so much that founder Brian Cohen partnered with production company C3 Presents to help handle logistics, bring in bigger names and expand concert amenities.
This year, the festival featured an Xbox station, cell phone charging station, designated kids area, Euclid Records autograph booth, expanded art and merchandise market, several bar tents and four stages hosting a near constant stream of music from 12:15 until 10 p.m. More than 17,000 people attended the first day of the festival.
This weekend also saw the birth of a new music festival, Pü Fest. While LouFest follows in the tradition of large music festivals like Bonnaroo and Lollapalooza, living for two days in the lush greenery of Forest Park, Pü Fest was held in the Empire Hall basement at the intersection of California Avenue and Cherokee Street. Fewer than a hundred people were there at any given time. While LouFest featured some of the largest names in music – Arctic Monkeys and OutKast – Pü Fest featured some bands with names you’d never repeat to your grandmother.
Held on the same weekend, these festivals represent different ideas of what St. Louis music fans want to hear.
Luc Michalski, Mike Herr and Pat Boland produced and curated the Pü Fest, booked bands and secured the venue. They had a specific goal in mind.
“For me this festival came together last fall when we realized there was no ‘fest’ or large event representing anything meaningful to St. Louis’ large DIY music community,” said Michalski. Herr, Boland and Michalski wanted their festival to represent that scene.
Brian Cohen, founder of LouFest, says his festival was born from a different desire.
“The goal was always to have a line up that resonated with lots of different people,” said Cohen.
The concerts’ organizers’ think differently about how their festivals relate to the St. Louis community. Cohen sees the festival as an economic opportunity for the city.
“If you bring tens of thousands of people to a location the money that’s spent, obviously within the venue, but also in the immediate area, those areas are going to see financial gains from this,” he said. “We have the income for hotels, and travel, and that sort of thing.”
He also sees it as a chance to ensure other nationally recognized bands want to play St. Louis.
“I think we’ve had an impact,” said Cohen. “Five years ago St. Louis was seen as much more of a flyover city than it is now. Large tours often bypassed us and now we see more tour managers looking at us and making the decision to put St. Louis on their stops.”
The Pü Fest founders were less interested in national tours and more focused on bands they say play shows in St. Louis every night of the week. Michalski thinks Pü Fest is a chance to highlight the strange and uncommon music that interests people in St. Louis.
“It will be people who are interested in discovering music they have not encountered before in an environment where the artists are tangible, up close, honest, and approachable,” he said.
The organizers’ varying tastes were reflected in each festival’s line up. At LouFest bands played with pop music traditions, taking standard rock arrangements and adding their own twists. The line up featured more than one platinum selling artist.
The festival began with grey skies and the neo-soul review of local band Big Brother Thunder and the Master Blasters.
“We never thought that many people would pay this much attention to us,” said Andrew Franklin, Big Brother Thunder’s bassist, with disbelief.
Playing alongside nationally known bands was a major accomplishment for the musician.
“I hate to use the term blessing but it’s absolutely fortunate. We’re fortunate,” said Franklin. He still seemed stunned by the group’s inclusion in LouFest.
“We started in a basement and never really took ourselves that seriously and then all of a sudden you get to play all the festivals you never ever thought you’d get to play,” Franklin said. But he still felt the equal pressure and excitement of being one of a few local acts on the bill.
The following Lou Fest bands mainly fell in to three distinct categories: bands from the Americana tradition, bands intended to make you dance, and bands with chart-topping releases. San Fermin followed Big Brother on Saturday, sounding somewhat like past Lou Fest headliners The National - if fronted by a female vocalist and a whopping horn section. One stage over The Jane Shermans’ sound drew on the intersection of dirty Southern blues and Chuck Berry-esque rock and roll.
Washed Out was the first major draw of the festival and the first to get a large part of the crowd dancing. Washed Out’s self described “chill-wave” music strayed further from traditional rock music, relying on synthesizers, samples and programmed electronics as much as guitars, bass,, and drums.
Blackberry Smoke brought a their interpretation of good old boy deep fried Southern rock and roll, while across the field Black Pistol Fire ripped through the minimal rock and roll stomp popularized by The White Stripes and the Black Keys. As the afternoon turned to evening highly anticipated late 90’s alternative rock champions Cake brought their wry lyrics and off-kilter pop to a willing crowd. Arctic Monkeys capped the evening with their uniquely British stripped down rock.
Sunday began with Pretty Little Empire, another local band, and continued the Americana vibe with Old Salt Union, but the remaining lineup focused more on accessible pop and dance music. Lettuce brought extended funk jams. AJR brought an element of boy-band pop. Cherub sounded like a cross between Michael Jackson and music coming from Manchester England in the early 90s. The group distinguished itself as unabashedly pop-friendly with a Calvin Harris cover. Grouplove was embraced with open arms by a crowd already devoted to the late summer afternoon concert experience.
Outkast brought their undeniably original take on hip-hop to a crowd primed by two days of perfect weather and fun music. They took the stage surrounded by musicians, all with their hands up. Within the first 20 minutes they’d played some of their biggest hits: Bombs over Baghdad, ATliens, Rosa Parks, and Da Art of Storytelling. The group also played later hits like So Fresh, So Clean and Hey Ya!
Down on Cherokee, the Pü Fest bands all shared one specific characteristic -- they were loud and drew from the punk tradition of basement concerts, thrashing bodies, and brash presentation. Yet, if listeners sifted through the sludge each band brought something different. On Saturday, STL underground mainstays The Conformists leaned heavily on their Steve Albini influence. Bug Chaser brought an unexpected rush of hyper psychedelia. Black James presented dubby electronics that turned a thrash-fest into a dance party. Sunday brought Trauma Harness, spikey Self Help, Minnesota noise rock breakouts Stnnng, organizer Mike Herr’s Kisser, and a Pitchfork BNM darling. Both days of Pü Fest also featured bands from across the country.
“This was a really awesome thing because it was an idea these boys had and to see it happen is fantastic. It’s good for St. Louis,” said Self Help’s lead singer Ashley Holmen. “I think it’s a really good representation of the St. Louis music community and the DIY scene.”
Matt and Kim
Only one band almost could really speak to both festivals. Matt and Kim came up in the Brooklyn DIY scene and have played their fair share of basements, warehouses, and living rooms. More recently Matt Johnson and Kim Schifino, who make up the band, released platinum-selling single “Daylight” and hopped on the festival circuit. According to the band, their first show in St. Louis, years ago, was just a concert in someone’s house.
“It always feels very intimate in a way, and it always feels very excited. And that’s what we love, an audience that just looks and feels excited,” said Johnson about playing shows in St. Louis regardless of venue size.
Johnson felt the festivals Pü Fest and LouFest should occur at separate times. “There must be some people that want to go to both festivals,” he said. “If I was a person living in St. Louis I would want to come to this festival and see us, and Grouplove, and OutKast and all these bands but I’d also want to see those DIY bands in smaller venues that might not get to play here.”
Schifino wasn’t quite sure. “What if they planned it correctly and as soon as this is done, that’s where you go to?” she asked. She was quick to answer her own question, “Cause I’ll go if someone tells me where it is.”
For organizers and fans, each festival seemed a success. LouFest reached a level of booking previously unseen in St. Louis. Pü Fest Organizers Mike and Luc are already discussing next year’s Pü Fest, and how to broaden their attendance.
Although the events were organized with different philosophies both focused on bringing together different St. Louis communities with the hope of providing a good time.
Cohen said, “The thing with the music festival is that it’s so cool and it’s so interesting that it becomes a dynamic part of your life.”
One thing is certain: In St. Louis, no matter what strand of music you crave, the first weekend in September offers many options.