A Sonic (R)evolution: Diverse Beats and Uncharted Sounds Galvanize Forest Park
Story: Madisyn Siebert & Jennifer Rolf
Photos: Sean Rider & Cory Weaver
For years, St. Louis had been looking to fill the hole left by the LouFest Music Festival following its unfortunate downfall in 2018. The gap left many longing for the return of a local, true park music festival, and that wish was finally fulfilled with Evolution Festival’s inaugural event in August.
And wow, did St. Louis show up. The festival, which boasted around 25,000 in attendance, headlined The Black Keys and Brandi Carlile, with supporting sets from a wide variety of genres and artists, including Modern English, Brittany Howard, Morgan Wade, Michigander, Ice Cube and more. While there was no cohesive “sound” to the festival, it did a great job of casting a wide net to see what would bring people in and hopefully set the festival up for success for years to come.
The festival only had two stages, both on opposite ends of each other: one decently bigger (the VisitMo.com stage) and another smaller (the Lindenwood University stage). Every time one set ended and the next started on the other stage, a herd of music lovers traipsed across the field to the other side of the grounds—a trend that stretched throughout each day. Some festival goers took a different approach, opting to park themselves in chairs and picnic blankets near the main stage.
If you weren’t there solely for the music, you had plenty of sponsors, shops and activations to check out on the festival grounds. There was plenty to explore during times when a set wasn’t exactly someone’s speed.
Another interesting part of the festival was the VIP area’s special “stage” sponsored by Sauce Magazine that highlighted a variety of food and drink demos, from whiskey tasting to how to smoke the perfect brisket with Sugarfire Smokehouse pitmaster Zach Bingman. Plus, any good show-and-tell offers the opportunity to taste it for yourself, which the crowd did so with anticipation.
Despite the rain-delayed start on Saturday that led to some muddy conditions that evening, people still came in waves to experience Evolution. Weather, of course, was outside the festival’s control.
However, there were other things that were in the festival’s control that didn’t seem to go as planned, such as no designated walkways in the crowd of chairs and people, making it difficult to get to the photo pit and media tent, as well as the crowd of chairs nearly running into the food vendors by the main stage and blocking off access to the bathrooms. To give the festival team credit, they came back bright and early on Sunday and adjusted these issues with more regulations to keep the crowd of people walking and the crowd of people sitting both happy by designating certain areas for both.
Now, on to the best part of this festival, the music.
Saturday’s lineup was a mix of sound and energy. The rain delay forced some sets to be shortened to help accommodate the timeline. Despite the weather issues, you could still feel the positive energy—not only from the crowd but from the artists themselves. Local St. Louis band Punk Lady Apple, on the Lindenwood University stage, welcomed many a festivalgoer onto the grounds with their style of punk rock and R&B. Post-punk/new wave rockers Modern English drew a large crowd, and when they sang “I Melt With You,” the St. Louis heat wasn’t in full swing yet, but the party was. Nikki Lane brought her edgy country flair to the festival, with songs like “700,000 Rednecks” “Highway Queen,” “Right Time” and “Denim and Diamonds.” We then shifted to Cautious Clay, who gave us many “Reasons” to check out his smooth R&B pop vibe. A must-see was Brittany Howard. Best known as the vocalist/guitarist for Alabama Shakes, she owned the stage with her blend of rock, soul and blues, playing songs from her celebrated 2019 album, Jaime, including “He Loves Me,” “History Repeats” and the 2021 Grammy-award winning best rock song, “Stay High.” She threw in a few covers, including Jackie Wilson’s “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher” and Nina Simone’s “Revolution,” as well as a couple new tracks.
Then came the penultimate set: The Black Crowes, a band that could have easily been the headliner. Raspy-voiced lead vocalist Chris Robinson and crew showed us that years may have passed since the bluesy rock band released new material, but it didn’t matter to the Evolution crowd. The Crowes broke out all of their well-known hits, including “Twice as Hard,” “Hard to Handle,” “Jealous Again,” “Thorn in My Pride,” “She Talks to Angels” and “Remedy.” The day was finished off with a stellar performance by The Black Keys. A different kind of blues-tinged rock band than their predecessors, the band played through the St. Louis drizzle to give the crowd exactly what they came for: songs like “Gold on the Ceiling,” “Tighten Up,” “Next Girl,” “Ten Cent Pistol,” “Wild Child,” “Little Black Submarines” and the finisher, “Lonely Boy.”
Sunday opened with St. Louis-based roots band Yard Eagle taking the stage, welcoming the masses who strolled in for the second day of the festival. We got a nice mix of rock and folk from upstate-New York-via-North Carolina band The Nude Party, whose set included “Cherry Red Boots,” “Astral Man,” “Lonely Heather” and the Bob Dylan song “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You.” Tatted country artist Morgan Wade got the crowd amped up with her cover combos like Stone Temple Pilots’ “Plush” and Miley Cyrus’s “Karma,” and the Outfield’s “Your Love” and Rick Springfield’s “Jessie’s Girl.” She also offered several originals, including “The Night,” “Losers Look Like Me,” plus “Psychopath” and a few more from her newly released album of the same name. One Bands Through Town staff member’s Sunday favorite was Michigander. The indie pop/rock band was a hit as people danced in the crowd to “Superglue,” “In My Head,” “Let Down” and more.
A crowd favorite of the day was Ice Cube, who performed a selection of his own music as well as a couple N.W.A. songs. The crowd was rapping right along with him to tunes like “Natural Born Killaz,” “Check Yo’self,” “Friday,” “You Can Do It,” “Straight Outta Compton” and “Gangsta Gangsta.” He wrapped up his time at Evolution with “It Was a Good Day.” The second-to-last act was Ben Harper & The Innocent Criminals, who performed a magical set that featured much of Ben’s solo work. The multifaceted musician and his band, whose music touches rock, folk, soul, blues, reggae and more, pleased the crowd with songs like “Below Sea Level,” “Diamonds on the Inside,” “Say You Will,” “With My Own Two Hands” and their most popular track, “Steal My Kisses.”
Brandi Carlile, the highly acclaimed, award-winning singer whose broad style of music blends elements of folk, rock, alt-country and Americana, was the festival’s finisher. She has cultivated a large following, which was clear at Evolution. She touched on many songs from her albums In These Silent Days (including “Mama Werewolf,” “Right on Time,” “Sinners, Saints and Fools”) and By the Way, I Forgive You (including “Hold Out Your Hand,” “Party of One,” “The Mother”), as well as “The Story.” She also covered Wings’ “Live and Let Die” and Queen’s “We Are the Champions.” Her enthusiasm for performing was evident, and it made her the perfect artist to close out Evolution Festival.
While this is a festival, it didn’t come with the high prices that traditional festivals have. General admission originally was priced as $99 for early bird tickets and maxed out $165; single-day tickets cost $89.50, and there was a variety of VIP options, the cheapest starting at $200 and the most expensive being $1,500 for everything under the sun. There truly is a package for everybody from the everyday fan to the person who wants to experience festivals like royalty.
We witnessed appreciation from the artists all day; many complimented the team at Evolution Festival and said they were nothing but kind and easy to work with, which keeps us hopeful for this festival for years to come.
As of now, we know the festival plans on coming back in 2024. This is good news because St. Louis, at its core, is made for festivals and loves gathering together to celebrate good music, good food, good company and more.