As it was to be the only part of the three-day HullabaLOU Festival at Churchill Downs where we would have the benefit of Herald-Leader staff photographer Mark Cornelison’s visual assistance, we wanted to focus our coverage on the event’s inaugural day. Here’s the timeline of our Friday journey.
* 2:59 p.m.: While enroute to meet Mark at the Herald-Leader building, a preface to the 3 p.m. news on WEKU-FM spells out the afternoon’s heat advisory with this bulletin: “If you don’t absolutely have to go outside, don’t.” How encouraging. The forecast: a high in Louisville today of 97.
* 4:47 p.m.: Arrive at Churchill Downs. Despite warnings of impending traffic backups, we sail in – an early indication of a possible light turnout. Mark offers a tube of sun block with a protection level of 85. He claims to have one that goes to 100. 85 it shall be.
* 4:51 p.m.: The first audible sounds of a festival already underway hit our ears. It’s the veteran horn driven unit known as Blood, Sweat & Tears delivering a letter-perfect Lucretia MacEvil. Guitarist Steve Katz is the only original member left, although the younger recruits all exhibit an obvious, brassy vitality.
* 5:10 p.m.: After checking in and grabbing a quick bite, we discover the entire schedule is running almost 30 minutes early. So there is only time for a brief listen to another horn fortified unit: Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, serving up an impassioned Forever. An unlikely but welcome festival choice. Word is they were invited by HullabaLOU headliner and fellow Jersey boys Bon Jovi.
* 5:38 p.m.: Off to the infield where country-pop rock troupe Gloriana is leading a double life. The rocker How Far Do You Wanna Go bleeds into Fleetwood Mac’s Go Your Own Way while You Said includes bits of Led Zeppelin’s Black Dog. Then comes Bob Dylan’s It Ain’t Me Babe sung with a Johnny Cash drawl. Pass. Next, please.
* 5:57 p.m.: Reflecting a hearty level of stylistic diversity that has been quickly established as one of HullabaLOU’s finer attributes, we trek across the infield to the beckoning of Fred Schneider and the B 52s. “There’s a fun place everybody’s going,” he tells an eager but hardly packed audience. Everyone thinks Love Shack is at hand. Instead it’s Funplex, followed by a jubilant Roam. Fun indeed.
* 6:10 p.m.: A swing past the mainstage finds pop rockers Train in motion, Meet Virginia in the groove and singer Pat Monohan with guitarist Jimmy Stafford fully in charge. Efficient enough though hardly remarkable.
* 6:22 p.m.: The last of the infield’s three stages has old school soul on the front burner. Specifically, Gladys Knight is serving up the ‘70s soul-stirrer Neither One of Us with ageless and effortless drama. Very cool.
* 6:33 p.m.: A retreat, for now, from the infield bring us to the paddock area and a stage devoted to bluegrass. Just beginning are The Travelin’ McCourys – essentially, The Del McCoury without father Del. Instead, Dan Tyminski from Alison Krauss and Union Station is handling guitar duties. But when mandolinist Ronnie McCoury takes the mic for Deeper Shade of Blue, plenty of dad’s regal high mountain tenor emerges.
* 7:43 p.m.: After a break for beverage and shade, I venture off alone to pick up where we left off. The Travelin’ McCourys are still in action singing Body and Soul to a still pitifully meager audience. World class bluegrass like this deserves better.
* 7:55 p.m: Am misdirected three times enroute back to the infield. “May I enter at this gate?” I ask. “No” is the reply. “OK. Where can I enter?” As mentioned, the first three answers are incorrect. A fourth security hombre simply admitted he didn’t know. Thus we have my only serious gripe about HullabaLOU – a clear lack of sufficient navigational guidance. Churchill Downs is roughly the size of a shopping mall. Directions to appropriate gates and entrances – preferably, correct ones – would seem to be essential.
* 8:01 p.m.: My unqualified HullabaLOU highlight of the night: The O’Jays singing Love Train. Call me corny, but it remains a powerful, unapologetically G-rated affirmation that was underscored with a verse from People Get Ready as a preface. The crowd size is still modest. But two nearby caterers wearing t-shirts advertising Big Momma’s Soul Food catch the groove but good. A blast.
* 8:10 p.m.: Country star Dierks Bentley makes this observation of the heat that is only now starting to relent: “There’s no hot that two cold beers can’t handle.” Cute. Returned to the gate I entered earlier to view Train, but am now denied access. Not worth it. I move on.
* 8:15 p.m.: Where Gloriana played earlier now stands alt-pop princess Colbie Caillat. This isn’t worth it, either. Caillat songs like The Little Things churn to neo-reggae-fied rhythms and airy, pedestrian melodies that sound like they were manufactured for cell phone commercials. A drag. I bolt.
* 8:28 p.m.: The Doobie Brothers. Oh, God – it’s the Doobie Brothers. Is the music of today represented here only by Colbie Caillat and Dierks Bentley? A programming note for the future: book someone from this century, please, with just a little bit of innovative gumption. But here’s the odd thing, the Doobies had their moments – including a credibly rootsy Black Water with guitarist John McFee switching to fiddle. Long Train Coming nicely followed. The past, it turns out, doesn’t sound so bleak on today’s turf.
* 8:42 p.m.: Pass by a sign giving these directions: “Jazzfest (as in the famed New Orleans event which shares booking organizations with HullabaLOU) – 700 miles” and “HullabaLOU – you are here.” If only the rest of the day’s directions were as succinct and trustworthy.
* 8:51 p.m.: Silence. The only point of the day – at least, the only one I noticed – where all five stages were quiet. The crowd mounts. Word is that nearly 50,000 tickets have been sold for the weekend. No one at the Downs has given official attendance figures, but today’s turnout seems about half of that. Still, the audience intensifies around the mainstage as the evening’s final act begins.
* 9:12 p.m.: Bon Jovi. Simply put, if you’re a Bon Jovi fan, then the Jersey band did itself proud. A healthy Jon Bon Jovi beamed during the opening Lost Highway, guitarist Richie Sambora blasted out anthemic solos during You Give Love a Bad Name and the entire band played with a hard rock pop sheen that made their newest music indistinguishable from its ‘80s hits. But, frankly, I’ve never been terribly taken with Bon Jovi, so the thrill was a little lost on me. But there was no denying a sleek veteran act that played well and honestly to its fanbase.
* 9:38 p.m.: Bon Jovi’s It’s My Life fades as we walk back to the parking lot for the trip home. HullabaLOU is now officially on its feet. The verdict: an event with plenty of room, plenty of heart and plenty of variety. Give it some tweaking and, quite literally, a sense of direction, and Churchill Downs may have yet another annual, high profile party on its hands.