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The Districts Surprise, Ume, Vintage Trouble and Trombone Shorty Impress and OutKast Sets Day 2 of LouFest 2014 Ablaze

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Don’t call it a comeback. The anticipation of headlining duo OutKast was palpable yesterday on the second day ofLouFest 2014. Nearly 20,000 fans were expected to attend.

I first headed to the Forest Park stage to see Texan rockers, Ume, who blew me away with jangled guitar hooks that walk the line between grunge and metal. Those hardened music edges are eased by the sultry voice of guitarist/singer Lauren Larson, who flits about with Fender Jag in hand and let’s out some savage screams — when you hear it, you can’t believe it came from her. The band gave an aggressive and stirring performance that set the tone for the rest of the afternoon. After the show, I promptly visited the Euclid Records tent for the band’s signing.

I took note of Empires on the main stage, who hail from Chicago. The band isn’t new, but they sort of act like it. “You guys probably don’t know who we are yet. But you will,” singer Sean Van Vleet said referring to their forthcoming record. What the group lacked in stage presence, they made up for in tuneage: overarching, synth-drenched pop that took cues from U2 and Morrissey. It was a fairly consistent set, but not a lot of surprises to be had. Empires announced their return to St. Louis in about a month, however, so hopefully we’ll get to know them a bit better by then.

I took in Philadelphia quartet the Districts by way of recommendation from a good friend of mine who occasionally has questionable taste in music. This time, though, he was spot on. “It’s good to be back,” said lead singer/guitarist Robby Grote. Their last show in St. Louis did not end well, as their van was stolen outside the City Museum. But lucky for us grand theft auto did not tarnish our name or keep the band out of town. Nor did the misfortune of breaking a string on Grote’s Rickenbacker after the second song impact the set. You knew it was going to happen, the way he sliced at his guitar, like he’s trying to saw it in half. In fact, Grote plays so passionately and spastically that I’m reminded of Dr. Gonzo from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, as Grote casted about like he was deep in a violent drug trance. The band’s blend of folk and soulful rock ‘n’ roll was heady and invigorating and, at times, felt like it wanted to lean alt-country but never actually did. “I don’t know where I’m going / and I don’t know where I am,” Grote sang on “Call Box.” It makes you want to quit your job and follow your dreams — if these young men can do it, so can you.

Portugal. The Man opened its set with an always stirring cover of “Another Brick In The Wall, Pt. 2” by Pink Floyd — fodder for warming up the crowd. The song then segued into “Purple Yellow Red and Blue.” The crowd had become a massive, moving thing. If this was any indication of what the festival would look like for OutKast, it was exciting and intimidating. Bassist Zach Carothers slapped the neck of his instrument repeatedly, trying to squeeze as much low-end out of it as he possibly could, while guitarist and lead singer John Gourley’s caterwauled and shredded in a white linen suit. These guys couldn’t be any more cool than they already are. They ripped through a few covers, one of the most notable being Oasis’ “Don’t Look Back in Anger,” before finishing out the set with “Modern Jesus.”

I was able to catch a few cuts of Los Angeles’ Young & Sick, whose thought-provoking and curious arrangements garnered a good crowd. “There’s nowhere I would rather be / than right here,” singer Nick Van Hofwegen crooned. He found several new fans who agreed, but it was difficult not to heed the siren call of Moon Taxi, just over the hill. But I had to hear “Ghost of a Chance” first.

On the verge of being labeled a space-jam band, Moon Taxi pulled back on the throttle and kept its sound in clear pop territory. The Nashvillians played the Shade Stage but there was none for the band. Most of the crowd came directly here to see this group’s performance. “Don’t make no bones about it” singer Trevor Terndrup heartfully sang with sun-drenched vocals as bandmates added backing harmony. Terndrup’s lyrics can be endearing. “I am just an honest thief / I believe in disbelief,” he sang on the older song “Square Circles.” Overall, a congenial group that delivered a magical journey through pop and space. If you missed them, expect Moon Taxi to sell out next time they land in St. Louis.

In the context of an indie-heavy lineup, Trombone Shorty was one of the most surprising acts of the day — there was nothing so jazz-influenced at the festival as the New Orleans veterans — a welcome change of pace to the constant slew of white-kid, indie-pop bands, whose sound was beginning to run together. The set kicked off with a funk instrumental before showcasing Troy Andrews’ vocal talents. “Your love will make me do the craziest things,” he wailed. One of those crazy things occurred later in the set with an unexpected cover of Green Day’s “Brain Stew,” that morphed into New Orleans funk madness. You never would have thought it possible to make the trombone a true rock instrument, but somehow Trombone Shorty has done it. Andrews is simply a terrific bandleader and all-around talent.

I caught a touch of the AJR set at the BMI stage. It was pleasant, apple-cheeked and perfectly happy teenster pop. In other words, everything I’m against. Primarily because I’m not a teenager anymore. But the kids loved it, even when the band broke out the melodica.

You know you’ve made it in St. Louis when the Soul Selector himself Papa Ray of KDHX wants to handle your introductions. Vintage Trouble was easily the most photogenic band of the festival. Every movement was an event to be captured on film. Singer Ty Taylor delivered acrobatic spins, grinding, microphone twirls, the works. A better successor to James Brown simply doesn’t exist. Taylor demands complete attention and involvement from the crowd. “You people in the back are not excluded,” he smiled. VT’s set, however, was criminally low on fans. The band kicked off “Run Like the River,” Taylor grabbed a wireless mic and jumped into the crowd to show LouFest how it’s done. The band was a well-oiled soul machine and, in my opinion, the best act of day two.

Until, of course, the act we’d all been waiting for.

Atlanta hip-hop superstars OutKast kicked off a 90-minute set with “B.O.B.” — the crowd went ballistic. Andre 3000 sported a black jump suit with the words “Can One Rest In Peace and Violence” on his shirt and a large “Sell Out” price tag dangling from his arm. Big Boi started off the set with his hands up in the air, referencing OutKast’s support for Michael Brown. It seemed as if everyone in the park had crammed in tight to get good vantage points for what may be their last look at OutKast on stage.

Hands raised and swayed in the air during “Aquemini.” I could even spot young children on shoulders, listening and taking pictures with their parents’ phones. After the hit single, “Ms. Jackson,” Andre 3000 let partner Big Boi perform some songs from his solo album “Speakerboxxx,” before returning to the stage for Andre’s mega-hit “Hey Ya!,” bringing a handful of girls on stage with him to help “shake it like a polaroid picture.”

The message was received and the crowd followed suit, proving that OutKast’s creative and eclectic funk still resonates. The band also dug in for some deep cuts for diehard fans, like “Hootie Hoo,” which had me howling at the not-quite full moon.

OutKast finally closed out a mind-blowing set with “The Whole World.” While walking through the crowd, I could feel a magnetic and unyielding energy. Outkast had brought the party and closed out the best LouFest to date.

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