Now entering its fourth year, LouFest has outgrown its toddler phase and is ready to play with the big kids. What began as a relatively small affair has expanded into a respected event with national recognition; in years past it was somewhat of a boutique festival, far from the behemoth sonic sprawls created at Coachella or Bonnaroo. Occupying a plot of land in Forest Park, the LouFest organizers kept the concert cozy, ensuring a quality experience built around a small stage setup and local vendors.
Brian Cohen, founder of LouFest, first held the event in 2010 and set out to build an annual destination festival. Cohen's recent partnership with C3 Presents is the latest step in that growth process. As the third-largest concert promotion company in the United States, C3 Presents organizes massive events — including President Obama's inaugural celebration and other multiday music happenings like Lollapalooza and Austin City Limits. Whatever the company does, it does big, so regular LouFest attendees should expect something extra special this year — something that Charlie Jones, executive producer at C3, refers to as "an elevated experience."
The inclusion of such a massive promotion company (and the connections that come along with it) has opened up new options to the LouFest organizers. In LouFest's past, the bands were staggered on two different stages, but this year there will be a third stage and some overlap of set times. Instead of being able to see every set all day, music fans will need to make some choices. This new factor might be viewed as a possible inconvenience by previously spoiled LouFest attendees, but it is a standard practice for larger music festivals, and Cohen sees it as a positive thing, providing fans with the opportunity to see more bands.
"This year there has to be some decision-making to determine what bands you want to see," Cohen explains."Maybe you stay for half a set and then run to another stage. So that's all part of the dynamic that makes it more interesting and exciting."
C3's Jones agrees with Cohen's movement theory. "The park is huge. If you've been there the past couple of years, they've only utilized a very small portion of it. This year is not going to be that much bigger in a sense that there's that many more people, but we are utilizing more of the grounds so that there's more room to spread out with your blankets and move from stage to stage. Part of the philosophy that we have with producing events is motivating people to move around and experience other things, whether it's music or food or just their friends."
It's hard to imagine the festival topping the psychedelic dance-fest that occurred last year. And though rain threatened to ruin parts of the event and forced muddy audience members to scramble for shelter, the show went on, and went on spectacularly. Headliners the Flaming Lips and Girl Talk made sure that the energy went up after the sun went down, and daytime sets by Son Volt, Dinosaur Jr and Dr. Dog were of legendary quality.
This year the lineup is more visually and sonically subdued, but it's no less powerful. Headliners include monster acts Wilco, the Killers and the National. Rounding out the bigger names on the list is Alabama Shakes, a band that has gone from playing the Old Rock House here less than two years ago to getting near-top billing at LouFest. Like any large and diverse music festival, the lineup features often-seen touring bands awaiting their dues (Ra Ra Riot), hippie favorites (Trampled By Turtles), newer buzz bands (Wild Cub) and the electro-dance flavor of the moment (Icona Pop).
LouFest and St. Louis
Historically, LouFest has been a local operation from top to bottom. Organized and run by Cohen's St. Louis-based company, Listen Live Entertainment, there has been great care taken to make sure that the festival welcomes and includes native businesses.
Says Cohen, "The beer is represented by two local favorites, Anheuser-Busch and Schlafly. Anheuser-Busch sponsors our main stage, and Schlafly has their beer garden. Our food court is full of local favorites, and in our market square we have local fashion and local retailers that come out and provide great things for people to browse through. So all in all we are a St. Louis event, born and bred. We try to reflect that in everything we do. We're all about the city. We're all about being a place to showcase the best that St. Louis has to offer. Not only music, but food and fashion and everything else. Our event is about celebrating all of those things."
If there has been any criticism of LouFest over the years, it's the fact that it's called "LouFest" and that the name might imply the inclusion of more local bands on the lineup. But the festival has included local bands every year, even if their performances have been relegated to the earliest possible time slots.
"What we have done from the beginning is make sure that local bands are represented in the lineup," Cohen explains. "That's very important to us, and that's a tradition that we want to keep. Other festivals don't really do that. They don't have a commitment to their local scenes, at least in the public way that we do."
Over the years LouFest has featured performances from locals Kim Massie, So Many Dynamos, the Bottle Rockets, Magnolia Summer, Sleepy Kitty, Jumbling Towers and Jeff Tweedy (arguably a St. Louis native via neighboring Belleville, Illinois). And that streak doesn't end — Tef Poe and Kentucky Knife Fight are on the bill for 2013.
"It's a balancing act to determine how many to include, because part of the appeal of festivals is bringing bands to St. Louis that don't really come here that often," Cohen says. "So while there's plenty of local talent that we could put on the stage throughout the day, we need to strike a balance between bands that you can see often in St. Louis and those that are going to provide a unique experience that our fan base doesn't get to experience very often."
Jones echoes Cohen's "bigger picture" sentiment: "Whenever we go to a new market, and specifically St. Louis, it's not necessarily a goal just to make a big music festival, but it's to try to create an event that's going to become part of the community and hopefully be thought about as something to do in that community for many, many years to come — a true cultural event that represents the park, the city and the fans that would come to it."