When the LouFest 2016 lineup was announced on May 24, you could almost hear a St. Louis-wide sigh of relief, if not surprise.
While the previous year's festival — with headliners the Avett Brothers, Hozier and Ludacris — saw the strongest attendance of LouFest's six-year run in Forest Park, the lineup's representation (or lack thereof) of women and artists of color, along with a distinct orientation toward indie/alternative pop and rock, raised some eyebrows and inspired more than a few shrugs. Some wondered if LouFest's relevance to St. Louis had come to mean little more than a name and a location.
But to return to this year's weekend in the park: If 2016's lineup hasn't put those concerns to rest, nothing will.
From Buddy Guy to Greensky Bluegrass, from Anderson .Paak to LCD Soundsystem (which has never before performed in St. Louis), from Preservation Hall Jazz Band to Band of Horses, from Vince Staples to Chris Stapleton, LouFest 2016 isn't just more diverse: It feels like a reset. Heritage acts are well balanced with rising artists, as are the genres of blues, hip-hop and soul with electronic, rock and country sounds. The festival has also increased its local representatives. Seven St. Louis bands will perform over the weekend, some with prime mid-afternoon spots.
"This year we put diversity a little more up front when we started booking in January," says Mike Van Hee, part of the St. Louis-based Listen Live team that owns and produces the event. "We were a little more aggressive on artists like Charles Bradley and Preservation Hall Jazz Band. We also wanted a female artist on the top of the bill. When Lauryn Hill became available, it made all kinds of sense. We also wanted up-and-coming hip-hop acts, to give them an opportunity on a really cool stage in a cool slot. That's when we grabbed Vince Staples and Anderson .Paak. This year we don't have a hip-hop nostalgia play. That's a bit of a departure from what we've done."
In 2009, Listen Live launched LouFest with the plan to bring to Forest Park a multi-day, multi-stage festival on the model of Austin City Limits. In 2013, Listen Live began a partnership with C3 Presents, an Austin-based company that produces Lollapalooza and which gave LouFest a powerful infrastructure and a national reach.
One year later, C3 was acquired by Live Nation. And so despite the success of LouFest 2015 (more than 50,000 attended across the weekend), C3 pulled out of the partnership.
"C3 has expanded its brand insanely over the years," says Rich Toma of Listen Live. "They added three more Lollapaloozas, took Chicago [Lollapalooza] to four days and they've got two more days of Austin City Limits. In order for St. Louis to have the best experience from LouFest, it was a mutual decision. C3 said, 'Look, you guys know what you're doing. You can put your team together, and let us know how we can help.'" That means an advisory role going forward, but that's about it.
Instead, this year Listen Live has increased its collaboration with local promoters and club owners — including staff at local venues such as the Pageant, Off Broadway, the Ready Room and Fox Theatre. "It's a cool opportunity for one weekend a year to bring together a lot of people on the scene here to work on an event we are all passionate about," says Van Hee.
"This is what we always wanted it to be like," adds Toma. "When you work with a big national company like C3, they have a crew that travels around the country, but this is a unique opportunity to grab the best of the best in St. Louis and assemble them in a team to get this done. Everybody's got their fingerprint on LouFest in different ways." (Fourder Brian Cohen is no longer part of the company — this year Cohen is working with the Cortex hub on the Murmuration Festival, which will be held two weeks after LouFest.)
This year, the event has expanded its local food offerings (more than twenty vendors) and aims to keep the space and activities attractive for families. But the biggest shift remains a lineup that's about as representative of St. Louis' wide-ranging tastes and demographics as a local festival-goer could want.
"In the beginning, people might have questioned the lineup last year," says Van Hee. "Every lineup is not for every person. The whole point is to get people out and have them experience new things. That's intentional. We try to work things in that people might not have heard of. In the past we've always tried to get artists like Chris Stapleton or Charles Bradley. You're wanting to book artists that are relevant to St. Louis. This year, those fell into place. And we always wanted to have more local artists, but there just weren't enough slots."
A week before LouFest, some of the St. Louis bands picked for the festival got together at the Tick Tock Tavern in the Tower Grove East neighborhood to hang out, listen to each other's CDs and share stories of festivals past and present. None of the seven picked this year — Foxing, iLLPHONiCS, Bruiser Queen, the Sleepy Rubies, Aaron Kamm & the One Drops, Karate Bikini and John Henry — have appeared at LouFest before.
Michelle Rae, the saxophone player for Karate Bikini, did perform with Jon Hardy and the Public at LouFest in 2011. She's looking forward to returning to the park. "I am just as excited to be there and see all the bands and be a part of it as I am about playing," she says. "From playing it before, I really remember the whole event as much as being on stage."
"I got to see OutKast and that was a highlight of my life," recalls Larry "Fallout" Morris of iLLPHONiCS. "Since it started we wanted to play LouFest. It's been a goal of ours, so it's a bit surreal to actually get to play. We were pushing to play it, and we also asked our fans to make some noise about it. We just released our album in April and there was some buzz around the band. And now I'm hearing from people who are excited to come early to see the local acts."
While an afternoon slot at LouFest is no more likely to break a band than a showcase at SXSW would be, the LouFest locals know the exposure is about more than just a 45-minute set.
"We got a fair amount of attention from the Bowie tribute show [in March at Off Broadway]," says Danny Hommes of Karate Bikini. "That maybe helped us with LouFest. We feel honored that we were asked, but the real benefit of playing has kind of already happened. We're seeing a bump in attention and people talking about the band and listening to our music."