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Kentucky's best party: Michael Tierney on the incredible Starry Nights Festival and the growing Bowling Green music scene

by Michael Tierney

A photograher tries to capture the magic of Moon Taxi. (All photos by Michael Tierney for Insider Louisville. Click to see full size.)

It’s midnight on a Friday night, and the dew begins to creep in over the hills and forests of Western Kentucky.

The moon shines brightly over a farm in Oakland – a small town outside Bowling Green in the Mammoth Cave area – as a local band jams to an ecstatic crowd. Close to 6,000 music fans had arrived earlier in the day to dance, camp, and create a near lawless society for the weekend. The scenery was classic, the fun uncontained, and the music was awesome; local, regional and national acts shined.

Starry Nights Festival conquered all expectations for music fans, as Kentucky’s best farm party, and the state’s second biggest music festival was a major success for music fans. The very existence of a mid-size festival in rural Western Kentucky would raise many Bluegrassers’ curiosity, but readers please prepare yourselves: Bowling Green is becoming a force to be reckoned with in the music scene!

Kingston SpringsWhat Made the Festival?

Bowling Greeners were out in full force, and were extremely welcoming. The locals got the party started early and encouraged all out-of-towners to join. A rowdy group of BG natives erected a full bar, Little Las Vegas, a good seven hours before the first band was set to perform on Friday, resulting in possibly the wildest campsite at the festival.

Foreigners from Oregon to Florida settled into their campsites, grilled out, played disc golf and started day-drinking in preparation for a night full of local Bowling Green bands. Repeat, Oregonians in Bowling Green for an unparalleled music experience.

Ian of Kingston Springs

Why?

The landscape was phenomenal, the weather impeccable, and the crowd size manageable. One could travel from one stage to the other without missing a second of live music and still get a decent viewing spot. Calmer music fans posted blankets on top of the hill looking down upon the festival’s two stages. Many enjoyed the sounds of Saturday’s early-day bands at their campsite, while cooking burgers, beans and dogs; every band was heard by all, as each band’s sound reached the furthest outskirts of the campsite, and each band played unopposed.

How?

There were two stages with a short walk between them, both located at the bottom of a hill: a natural amphitheater. Performances alternated between the two stages so there was no show competing another. The campsite was about a two-minute walk to that very hill, with food, showers, ice cream, and glass blowing about the same distance away. One could hear a band from their tent, decide if one wanted to see the performance, and be near the front row in no time. You even had time to grab bbq or a waffle cone first.

The dramatic stage lighting for Cage the Elephant.

Starry Nights is the anti-Lollapalooza/Bonnaroo. Breath-taking southern belles, tattooed children, near-naked men and too-tight jeaned hipsters – all united by a love of live music-soaked in the lax atmosphere of the festival, and thoroughly enjoyed the BYOB policy. It is not everyday one can hoist a handle of Kentucky Gentleman front row during one’s favorite band’s show, and most-legal and not-celebrated the privilege.

Not to say the crowd was entirely about drinking, but rather, the average music fan enjoyed bringing their drink of choice instead of paying five bucks for a Bud Light tallboy. It’s always easier to have a good time when you avoid being nickled-and-dimed. Don’t you think?

Yeah, the scenery was great, the crowd more than diverse (just imagine Portlanders mingling with someone from Barren County, Kentucky), the porta-potties clean, weather perfect, but how was the line-up, how was the music?

Fantastic, duh!

Moon Taxi

The Brilliance of the Line-Up, and the Bands Who Killed It.

Take note Forecastle, because Starry Nights put together a great line-up that flexed local talent with national powerhouse acts. Here’s how they did it ….

Friday night was loaded with local acts, all chosen by fans prior to the festival. The vote off led to five local bands having Friday night’s crowd each to themselves; local acts getting 5,000 ears on their music is huge for a band’s growth, and two of the acts created a huge buzz for themselves: Canago and Five Knives.

Canago seized the headline time slot and conquered it mightily. Their pop-jam music drew the biggest crowd of the night, and they did not disappoint. The band – who has had some killer shows in Louisville – swayed the crowd back and forth, and fans cheered from left and right. Canago has recently released a new album called “Fun” and with a show like this, the band’s momentum should remain steady. Expect Canago to be coming around Louisville soon, and most likely at a venue bigger than the Hideaway.

Five Knives was something straight out of the future. Punk, metal and electronica. The band’s sound was like Iron Maiden mixed with Katy Perry, and Bassnectar. While much of the lyrics were superficial and childish, the crowd could not help but be entertained. The fact that this band came out of Bowling Green is just fascinating, and revealing of the diversity of the music scene in the area. Louisville, prepare yourself for the wackiness, that is Five Knives, to head our way soon.

Yes, Friday night’s party was full of awesome local acts, minus the late night DJ, and music fan’s outside of Bowling Green got a full taste test of the areas music scene, and seemingly enjoyed the sample. Saturday’s lineup was more of a mixture, as bands from Bowling Green, Nashville, Atlanta, Alaska, and many other locations performed.

Every band performed well. Fans enjoyed the early local sounds of the Sex Bombs, the late afternoon heavy-rock of Manchester Orchestra, the calm before the storm act that was Justin Townes Earle as his folk-rock pick-along jams were a nice switch-up from most bands. The “trap-step” crazed late night act, MiMOSA, rocked the electronic fans, and Space Capone’s funk-fusion blew many away in the heat of the day. Each band was heard, because each band played unopposed, and most bands took full advantage of the moment.

But three stole the day, and those were The Kingston Springs, Moon Taxi, and Portugal the Man.

The Kingston Springs, a band from a small town in Tennessee, performed at 12:30 on the Little Dipper stage. The band has many videos of acoustic jams, but these boys rock live; with an arsenal of sound that blends blues/surf/pop. It’s always something when fans seem to catch on to the words and sing along before the tune is over. The band was relentless, as they played as many songs as possible, and one awesome anthem in, “Soldier Boy Blues.”

“Weight of this World” rocked, and the harmonies on “Shaken” tingled spines, and soothed a grooving medium-sized crowd. “Lover” grabbed all’s attention and without saying, said, “Listen to what I have to say Y’all.” Most did, and all enjoyed the killer sounds and tremendous songwriting ability of the Kingston Springs.

One of Insider Louisville’s favorite bands, and soon to be a national powerhouse act, Moon Taxi, was set to play after Bowling Green heroes, Cage the Elephant. Big shoes to fill, but the band did so easily. The crowd was beginning to fill up before Cage was done, and when the BG ragers ended, the crowd came rushing over for one of Nashville’s hottest acts.

The boys went right for the throat by opening with “Mercury,” and never looked back. The first 20 rows danced like there was no tomorrow. By the time the band had finished their closing song, which was a cover of Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer,” the crowd was near hyperventilation. Taxi simply killed it, and it seems the bigger the moment for the band, the better they get. This band is heading straight to the top, and if they are back next year on the bill, expect them on the big stage.

If you have never have heard Portugal the Man, do yourself a favor, and go get their CD, and put it in your car immediately, because the Alaskan natives blew this festival out of the water. Alaskans rocking Western Kentucky away… WTF???!!!

With great effects and weird sounds, genre-blending styles, and high-pitched vocals, Portugal the Man captivated a packed crowd, and may be well on their way in becoming America’s Radiohead. Portugal’s second song was “All Your Light”, a song that captured all’s ears, and the band did not let it go the rest of the set. Thousands danced in almost pure shock of how good this band was performing. The peak moments of the set, for most, were when the band harmonically matched and transitioned perfectly in the middle of their own song into, and out of, Beatles classics, “Helter Skelter” and “Hey Jude”!

Electronica no longer holds the sole reigns of modern “mash-ups”.

The band-again-blew the crowd away, and even invited some of the boys from Morning Teleportation to jam out on stage with them, revealing their character and support of their fellow musical brethren. Expect very, very, very big things from this band, and cross your fingers they’ll head to Louisville soon.

Who to Thank for All This Madness?

There seems to be two main factors for all of this madness, and that is the influence, and support of Cage the Elephant, and the proximity to music capital, Nashville.

Cage the Elephant is Bowling Green’s version of our My Morning Jacket. The band is the hometown superheroes, and locals cannot get enough of their now internationally acclaimed band. Cage headlined the festival, and hosted the rowdiest crowd of the weekend. They played all of their hits, new and old, and even had a dance party on stage for their closing song. Locals, and out of towners could not help, but join the party, and energy provided by Matt Shultz and crew. Shultz was dressed in a bathrobe, and ran across the stage in frenzy, and even dove into the crowd to sing “In One Ear,” a highlight moment of the festival.

But even more impressive was the band’s involvement with the festival, and in many ways, this is their festival. Shultz was seen on a golf cart, directing staff and security early Friday, he was then seen on stage for many of the local acts, either in introducing his favorite band, Morning Teleportation, or rocking out with the Sex Bombs…. Shultz was there to support his fellow Bowling Greener, and it definitely had an impact on the crowd, and the local bands.

Cage made this festival a Bowling Green showcase, surrounded by awesome regional talent, and a few national acts, such as Portugal the Man. It was a blend that will help water the seedlings in the Bowling Green scene, and it seems to be working as more-and-more bands keep sprouting up from the area. There were more than seven bands from Bowling Green area on the bill, and they got to play unopposed, and with some killer well known bands to a crowd of nearly 6,000. All absolutely huge for a small band’s buzz, and absolutely brilliant thinking by Cage in their efforts to grow the music scene of Bowling Green.

Second, is the Nashville effect. If a band on the Starry Nights bill was not from Bowling Green, there was a good chance they were from the Nashville area. There is a definite Nashville spillover effect on Bowling Green, and other areas within a close proximity. BG bands avoid the cutthroat atmosphere of Nashville’s music scene, and can master their sound and performance in their hometowns. Then, with Nashville close by, bands can use the music epicenter to play, promote, network and produce when ready to do so… then lift-off!

“It’s the best of both worlds in many ways,” the Kingston Springs explained, and they are so right.

Bowling Green is becoming an almost minor league system for Nashville, as bands know if they can gain enough ground in BG, it’s only a matter of time before a potential Nashville gig happens, and/or promoter spots them. Especially with the breeding ground that has become Tidballs, Bowling Green’s biggest music venue, and one of the city’s major sources of entertainment.

Remember, it’s Bowling Green, so there isn’t a million things to do. Live music is just becoming THE thing to do, and as there is more support from Bowling Greeners, bands can begin to make quests outside of the city, and into Nashville and Louisville, while knowing they have a solid support network at home; this phenomenon has, and is happening right now, just look at lineup calendars, and you will find plenty of BG acts, such as Space Capone, Morning Teleportation, and Canago heading our way, and into Nashville.

Lessons from Bowling Green, and Final Thoughts

Why is all of this important? Why are you still reading an analytical review of a music festival more than eighty miles from your home? Because there is much Louisville can learn from our sister city to the west.

One is that Louisville festivals – which we need at least one more of, not more street fests – should intertwine more national acts with local talent. Forecastle is a great music festival, but the average music listener, and the out of towner, is always going to choose a popular national act over our own talent, when playing at the same time, because of exposure, information, and “Likes” on Facebook.

But if a smaller-scale fest featured a couple of well known national acts, while exposing local talent equally as Starry Nights did, it would not only benefit our local scene, but also keep ticket prices cheaper, as local band’s cost less. Plus, who doesn’t want to see Wax Fang, Discount Guns, She Might Bite, and many more on the big stage, instead of the smallest and for only thirty minutes? This city is loaded with musical talent, and we need to showcase it to the region, and beyond; instead of letting it die in local bars.

Second, Cage the Elephant’s Godfather role in the Bowling Green’s music scene is symbolic of the omerta between BG bands. Each band, though different in style, shared major love for their city, and the rockers that live within it. There seemed to be a tight support network between bands, and positive reaffirmation works, always will. Even Moon Taxi helped secure Canago a spot on the Starry Nights bill… there seems to be a lot of positive vibes, and excitement as the scene grows down west.

We all know My Morning Jacket loves Wax Fang, as all local music fans in town do, but where is the rest of the love from local bands? The competition for exposure in Louisville is so great, that band’s have lost touch with the importance of a support-network between bands.

A lot of the problem is that Louisville’s music scene is competing against one another, and against the rest of the bar scene, as all of our music venues are primarily bars. Resulting often in bands boozing too hard, and too often.

Payouts are usually based upon how many people a band can bring with them, which leads bands to focus more on bringing people rather than perfecting their sound; a strategy that may have short-term success in getting gigs around town, but over the long run is self-destructive because touring/publicists/PR companies don’t pick up poor performing bands, no matter if they have fifty friends to come and buy booze.

All of this has led to a heightened sense of competitiveness between Louisville bands, and it factionalizes the Louisville music scene. This must change, or Louisville’s music scene will fail to progress further. There is much hope though, as a bevy of new talent is rising up in town, and many of the bands are friends, and have performed together. There are a few older local bands that do help smaller bands here in town, and that just want the whole schbang to grow. Music collaborations between local musicians in town is also on the rise.

Also, there has been a surge of local social networkers, such as LouisvilleMusicCulture on Facebook, that do their very best in promoting everything that is cool here in town… it is up to readers to listen.

The battle for progression is on, and with luck and persistence, Louisville’s scene should continue to develop in the right direction, especially if we take a look around the region and look at what different cities are doing right with their music scene.

If Louisville fails to do so, and fails to prove this is a city that loves and supports its local music; then we will continue to twiddle our thumbs in bemusement as Bowling Green continues to put more bands on the biggest, and best festivals around the region, and country. Repeat, our little sister city is outdueling us in many ways, and there is much to learn from the one, and only, Bowling Green.

Keep on doing what you are doing you Hilltoppers, and Insider Louisville – the only Louisville representative both media, and band wise – hopes to see you again next year at Starry Nights.

Thanks and goodnight!

MHT

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