How a festival that never was brought some of Louisville's heavy music scene closer together
Fans moshed in the pit of Portal, a venue in northwest Louisville, in late August as local band Wake Up in Tsunami tore through their set onstage.
Vocalist Braedon Wessel was feeling the vibe.
“It makes you feel loved,” he said. “It makes you remember how awesome your scene is, how awesome the scene in Louisville is.”
Heavy music has a long, robust presence in the city. Some artists have made it big, like Knocked Loose. Others are still grinding at the local level, building a steadfast following.
“I would like to say we're one of the closest as a community because everyone's friends here, and we're like one step away from having a community garden,” Wessel said with a laugh.
Wessel was playing at an event called DROP-OUT Fest. It wasn’t the gig he originally had on his calendar. DROP-OUT Fest was the result of bands rallying together after another festival got canceled.
“I was like, ‘Hey, guys, since we're not playing the show anymore, let's put a show together and play so you guys that were coming from across the state could still have something to do,’” Wessel said. “Because, you know, people printed merch for this, people invested a lot of money into this.”
Bourbon and Beyond and Louder Than Life brought some big names to Louisville this fall, like Pearl Jam, St. Vincent and Red Hot Chili Peppers. Kentucky Irate Fest, slated for late August, promised to do the same in the heavy, metal and core music scenes. Major acts like Norma Jean and Slaughter to Prevail were expected to perform, and Louisville bands saw it as an opportunity to showcase the city’s talent. But about two weeks before Irate Fest was set to open, local bands started dropping out.
Louisville-area musicians told WFPL News they received “aggressive messages” from organizers about ticket sales. The expectation was for bands to sell a minimum number of $60 tickets to the festival in order to be included on the lineup. It’s not an unheard of practice, but some musicians said they weren’t aware of the Irate Fest requirement or didn’t have enough notice to fulfill it.
“I would have no qualms selling tickets months ago, when we signed on, if that had been part of the agreement,” Clay Nevels, frontman for Louisville group Foxbat, said.
He also had concerns about the cost of tickets, and asking people to pay that kind of money when Foxbat isn’t a headliner.
His band wasn’t in it for the money, Nevels added, the musicians “just wanted to play a festival.”
The situation spiraled from there.
Bands shared messages they got from organizers on social media. Then, an Irate Fest promoter posted a statement online, acknowledging he had been “rude,” while also laying some of the blame on local musicians.
Musicians, like Nevels, said they felt disrespected and threatened.
“We don't need that kind of negativity around here.”
About a week before the festival, nearly half of the lineup had withdrawn, citing poor treatment, as well as multiple rape and sexual assault allegations being discussed within the scene.
Soon after, organizers pulled the plug.
Joseph Borland was listed as the festival’s founder. He didn’t respond to requests for comment from WFPL News. One of the final posts on the Kentucky Irate Fest Facebook page said local musicians were “sabotaging” the event, and only hurting themselves.
Jordan Haynes, a longtime music producer and engineer in Louisville who has recorded with a number of local artists, said he’s generally witnessed “an excitement and buzz” from bands when they land on a festival lineup.
“Bands are going to, for the most part, do everything they can to promote, make sure word gets around town that there is this festival happening,” Haynes said.
Haynes said festivals and multi-act events can expose local artists to new audiences, and that’s major.
“Sometimes it’s going to be more [people] than what would show up to any of our local shows. That's just like exponential potential for growth, just in that one event,” he said.
Haynes thinks show cancellations and stress during COVID pushed some heavy music artists to be more supportive of each other. And over the last month, he’s been encouraged to see them, “knowing their worth.”
That’s evident in a Facebook group, started by Louisville musicians in August.
It began as a space for people to share their complaints about the Irate Fest debacle, but has since evolved. An admin changed the name to “For the Scene, By the Scene.” People post about new music, merch and upcoming shows – it’s how DROP-OUT Fest happened.
Foxbat’s Clay Nevels said this is all proof “there are a lot of good people that care about music; they care about supporting the local scene itself and helping it thrive.”
“It really did make a sense of community about all this, with how it came together,” Wake Up in Tsunami’s Braeden Wessel said.
They, and others, want to see more of that for-the-scene-and-by-the-scene energy going forward, online and in real life.