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Cake Bring the Crowds, Black Pistol Fire Bring the Heat and Arctic Monkeys Chill the Spine at LouFest 2014, Day 1

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This year’s LouFest was marked by some major changes. First up, the great weather.

Last year was marked by some heavy, uninvited rain. Also, this year saw the addition of a fourth stage, which made things a bit more challenging for concertgoers. In order to get good real estate, it’s best to leave a band’s set 15 minutes early. Overall, a great first day for what’s becoming a St. Louis institution. Sunday promises to be even better.

When I arrived to Forest Park after navigating a maze of construction traffic (I cut through the Demun neighborhood), piss-poor drivers and endless red lights, I found parking at the bottom of the park, near the Muny. A strapping young lad on a rickshaw bicycle offered me a ride. In my old age, I asked how much it cost, but then quickly rejected that thought, saying “Nevermind, I don’t care, just get me there.” While my handy sherpa and I reminisced about fall weather on the horizon and he was pedaling his lungs out, I practiced my royal queen wave to passers-by. Many cheers and jeers were directed towards me. Such is the life of royalty.

When I arrived, I took note of Kins, followed directly on the main stage by San Fermin. Kins hail from the U.K. and sound as sunny as they possibly can from sun-deprived England. Their mix of electronic-pop inspired beats really take on an inspired-Radiohead style sound, back when those boys were primarily using guitars to craft hits. Having played at sunny SXSW this year, St. Louis was still a touch cool and gloomy, putting these English boys at ease, but they were somehow able to keep the rain at bay with their guitars and beats. The crowd here was small, as LouFest fans were trickling in all day, so it was still early to get a good enough vantage point for most acts. Honorable mention goes out to slide guitarist Colin Lake on the side stage, who I didn’t get a chance to see, but his growing success tells me he’ll be back soon.

San Fermin was the first act to take the main stage. A large, orchestrated pop band with influences in baroque pop and led by founder and keyboardist Ellis Ludwig-Leone. A heavily arranged, moving and inspirational set of songs that reminded me of the band Fun!. While I don’t particularly like Fun!, San Fermin was able to accomplish something unexpected; make me sit down and take notice. There are a lot of technical surprises happening here in the music that could only be from the mind of a composer. Towards the end of the set, vocalist Charlene Kaye bravely did some crowd surfing, proving these guys are more fun than anything around.

Fellow New York artists, Skaters were up next. Infectious, Strokes-esque rock about the Brooklyn skateboard life. “Give me one more try,” lead singer Michael Ian Cummings sings out on “Deadbolt.” This is the band’s first time to St. Louis, and it looks like we’ve shown them a good time so far. It’s not clear if this band brought it’s own arsenal of beach balls, but suddenly they were flying around everywhere, hitting innocent, text-happy bystanders in the face. The Urban Outfitter crowd went crazy for “Miss Teen Massachusetts” and I fell in love with “Band breaker,” a brilliant nod to 70s reggae-infused punk. My favorite song of the day.

Another SXSW darling this year hailed from Sydney, Australia — Falls craft powerful, moving folk songs with just a guitar and two floating harmonies. Indeed, all of this music could be used for any number of Wes Anderson movie. Fan favorites like “Girl That I Love” and “Home” are enough to hook the crowd and keep them there. Singer Melinda Kirwin has such an infectious Australian accent — I could listen to her read the phone book. Guitarist/singer Simon Rudston-Brown plays lucid acoustic melodies while singing the low-end vocals. Their very gracious melodies were backed by a classical musicians dressed in black, and Rudston-Brown would lightly tap a stompbox with quarter beats, just to give the songs a bit more drive. Before I knew it, the sun had started to come out for good.

The sun’s appearance at LouFest was perfectly times for the chilled out vibes of Washed Out, who is a must see no matter where you are. The band took the main stage and appropriately opened with “Entrance” and “It All Feels Right” from their latest 2013 release, “Paracosm.” The crowd moved in it’s own chill wave in time to the thrusts of singer Ernest Greene’s synths and the bands locking hooks. In between hits like “New Theory” and “Get Up,” Greene came out to meet the crowd at the edge of the stage and called for more noise. The crowd roared. The music is so cloud-like and dreamy, it begs you to lie back on the grass, look up and disappear into the sky. Though it’s standard fare, the band played their original hit, “Feel It All Around,” the theme song to Portlandia. The dream of Washed Out is alive at LouFest. The day had officially begun.

I first saw Those Darlins at Off Broadway, during the release of their rollicking self-titled debut back in 2009. Equal parts, Wanda Jackson, Joan Jett and a whole lot of Loretta Lynn, the girls have still got the magic. As I approach the stage in anticipation, they’re already singing “I just want to run and play in the dirt with you / you just want to stick it in,” from the song “Be Your Bro.” It’s good to see a great act from Nashville in St. Louis, especially one’s that’s got such a send of songwriting humor and who’ve gotten so much praise in the past few years. Guitarist and singer Nikki Kvarnes jams on a black on a black Fender Tele Deluxe, while Jessi Zazu starts singing “Screws Get Loose” to end the set. There’s no lack of crowd participation here.

Recent KDHX interviewees Delta Spirit took the next side stage act and wasted little time getting to business. Singer/guitarist Matthew Vasquez came out in blue jean jacket, cigarette sticking out from under a mop of black hair in this face, as he picked up his Gibson SG, raised it up the crowd, the band bringing their sounds to a boil, and launching into “From Now On,” the second track from their upcoming album. Vasquez became a stage monster, trolling above the crowd, spitting into the air, presumably because he’s foaming at the mouth from rocking so hard. After having been around and touring for nearly ten years, the band knows how it’s done.

Yo La Tengo was also another big crowd pleaser, stealing most of LouFest fans from the other side stages. It’s not often this band gets into town, so when they do, we make sure to see it. Ira Kaplan strums away on his guitar intently, while bassist James McNew leans into his bass lines, occasionally hitting some keys on the Roland synthesizer. Kaplan holds up his Fender Strat like a battle axe, as though he’s about to pound it into the ground. I loved Georgia Hubley’s easy-going drumming and back-up vocals. One of the all-time great indie bands that was not to be missed.

UK-based the 1975 took to the main stage and belted out some of their biggest hits from their self-titled album. Heavy-handed synth pop that sounds like nothing from 1975 or even the ’80s for that matter, the band try to the envelope the British electro-pop sound and push it to the next limit. Epileptic spotlights and flashing strobe lights rule the set, giving the indication that maybe this group is more about spectacle than substance. Singer Matt Healy and the band play one of their more well known hits, “Girls,” singing “They’re just girls, breaking hearts / eyes bright, uptight, just girls,” to which the girls in the massive crowd go wild. It’s well-crafted, highly polished pop that’s a good addition for the festival, but not my cup of tea. I’m gearing up for Black Pistol Fire.

Black Pistol Fire played the side stage and were, by far, the best band that played LouFest. Yet another SXSW veteran, this band definitely deserves to be here. Guitarist/singer Kevin McKeown is a southern rock ‘n’ blues tour de force and nobody gets in his way. “Alright St. Louis, let’s get sweaty!” he declares, before promptly take a swig from a large bottle of Jack Daniels and breaking into a short, minor rendition of “That’s All Right, Mama.” This was the craziest I’ve seen any of the crowds at the festival so far. Drummer Eric Owen, shirtless and wrists wrapped, pounded the skins like he was summoning a devil. McKeown stomps so hard during his rough and intricate dirty blues, you thought he would make a hole in the stage. I’m going to make a bold statement here: this band is better than the Black Keys have been, are, or ever will be. A must see.

When I arrived to Cake’s set, they were well into the hits. “I am an opera singer / I sing in foreign lands,” frontman John McCrea sings, though everyone around me is literally singing every word. Talk about a band with a cult following. In fact, I was surprised that Cake wasn’t on the main stage, as there was a main stage’s worth of fans that reached far back into the park. I loved every song they played and waited patiently to hear my number one jam. You know what I’m talking about. They burned through “Sheep Go To Heaven” and “Short Skirt/Long Jacket, before calling it a night. No “The Distance” for me. I leave their set, feeling scarred for life.

Arctic Monkeys fire up the main stage shortly thereafter. In the perfect dark, with smoke and spotlights, the band looks absolutely menacing. Lead frontman Alex Turner takes the stage, shouting “St. Louis!” to the fans delight. Dressed like a ’50s greaser from the future, the band launches into “Do I Wanna Know?” I was crammed so far up front, I could barely get out, amazed at the number of young fans around me who knew all the words and sang their hearts out. These were die-hard fans. One very short girl next to me made friends with a giant in front of her and climbed to the top of his shoulders and promptly began taking selfies.

It wasn’t until mid-set that the band played the hit that launched their career, “I Bet You Look Good on the Dance Floor.” They rolled through several songs of their five-album career and one encore. Those die-fans held on for dear life, but the crowd thinned out early after Cake, in order to get a jump on traffic, and Arctic Monkeys ended their set with the sinister sneer of “R U Mine?” LouFest promptly responded with a resounding yes.

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