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Live in Forest Park, it's LouFest

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 31, 2010 - LouFest is a two-day music festival featuring 18 bands scheduled to run from noon until 10 p.m. this Saturday and Sunday, Aug. 28 & 29, at Forest Park's Central Field.

Yes, a music festival in Forest Park, which has been home to the annual hot air balloon glow and race and in recent years to a couple of one-day wine and jazz events.

But a two-day music fest featuring alt-rock bands like Built to Spill, Broken Social Scene, Airborne Toxic Event, Jeff Tweedy and She & Him? Right here in River City ... er, St. Louis?

Yes, LouFest is really happening this weekend.

The driving force behind the event, Brian Cohen, has made his home here for the past seven years, teaching media literacy and documentary film production at Washington University. But the idea for LouFest germinated during Cohen's years in Austin, Texas, where he attended the University of Texas and -- more important -- became a huge fan of the Austin City Limits Music Festival.

I caught up with Cohen on the phone a few days ago as he and his production company, Apple West, entered the last few days of preparation for LouFest. Cohen explained his commitment to creating a rock music festival in St. Louis, why he decided to try to make it happen in Forest Park ... and his hopes for making it an annual event.

Cohen says, "I had been going to that (Austin City Limits) Fest from the first year it started and just thought it was a great event."

But when Cohen moved here to get his master's degree at Washington University and eventually teach there, he found nothing similar in the St. Louis area.

"After I moved here," states Cohen, "I really missed being able to go to an event like that, so I've been playing with the idea for a few years of trying to get something similar happening here in St. Louis. And a couple years ago, it seemed to me that the time was right to actually try and get something started. By then, I had made some of the contacts I needed to make in terms of the music industry in order to really think seriously about making this happen."

noonBottle Rockets
1 p.m.Stephanie Sid
2 p.m.So Many Dynamos
3 p.m.Adam Reichmann
4 p.m.Titus Andronicus
5 p.m.Lucero
6 p.m.Airborne Toxic Event
7 p.m.Built to Spill
8:30 p.m.Broken Social Scene
noonKim Massie
1 p.m.Magnolia Summer
2 p.m.Carolina Chocolate Drops
3 p.m.Gentleman Auction House
4 p.m.Cory Chisel
5 p.m.Fruit Bats
6 p.m.Alejandro Escovedo
7 p.m.Jeff Tweedy
8:30 p.m.She & Him

Those contacts included Jeff Jarrett at Contemporary Productions, one of the major musical concert and event bookers in the Midwest, and Ironman Sound Industries, a St. Louis-based company that provides concert production as well as sound systems for events.

"Jeff at Contemporary was the crucial link in terms of the music lineup," says Cohen. "It's one thing to have a great lineup on paper. But from there, you actually have to get them to say yes ... that they want to play a first-time festival with no proven track record. And Jeff had the experience and connections - and the trust of people in the music business - to get them to say yes."

With an established booking agency and a sound production company as partners, Cohen felt it was time to seek out a venue and dates for the event. For him, the only venue that made sense in St. Louis was Forest Park.

"To me, Forest Park seemed like the ideal location for a music festival," he says. "I live close to there, and I spend a lot of time in the Park. Most St. Louisans are really connected to the park as an important part of their lives, so it seemed like the perfect place. I decided to present the idea to the St. Louis Department of Parks, Recreation and Forestry. But I only did that after I did the research and work to make sure I had everything covered. I wanted to make sure we could come out of the box with a fully formed, knockout event."

To do that, Cohen also needed sponsorships - both in terms of in-kind contribution of services, media outlets ... and corporations and companies willing to put up actual cash to help fund the event.

That's where his background as a documentary film producer and director came into play. Cohen has directed and produced two documentaries about Jewish life and culture - 1996's "At Home on the Range: Jewish Life in Texas" and 1998's "Pushcarts and Plantations: Jewish Life in Louisiana." Cohen had to raise funds to make those films a reality, and he took that experience and made it work in a festival setting, lining up supporting sponsors such as Bud Light, Pepsi, Whole Foods, Schlafly, Euclid Records, the Moonrise Hotel and Johnny On The Spot to supply needed infrastructure and services.

Before going to get approval for the Forest Park site, Cohen had to pick a date for the festival - one that would make sense for the event, the park and for a potential audience in avoiding conflicting attractions.

"We especially had to find a date that would work for Forest Park," explains Cohen. "We made sure there were no other big events happening in the Park that would cause a conflict. We also wanted to do it when the Cardinals were out of town ... and at a time that would work best for the core audience for a music festival. We chose Aug. 27 and 28, the weekend before Labor Day because there were no conflicts in the park and the Cardinals were out of town. In addition, area colleges were back in session, and we knew that college students were a major part of the core audience for a music festival that is basically alt-rock in its focus."

It should be noted that other events are happening the weekend of Aug. 28 and 29 that could appeal to potential fans of LouFest. BluesWeek (Aug. 26-Sept. 5) has set Friday and Saturday, Aug. 27 and 28, for the Market Street Blues Festival at Peabody Opera House and Soldiers Memorial. And the International Institute's annual Festival of Nations takes place in Tower Grove Park Aug. 28 and 29 - with four stages of entertainment by performers from a variety of nationalities on both days.

Cohen wouldn't say how ticket sales are going for LouFest, or even if there is going to be a specified limit on the number of tickets that will be sold each day. (Tickets are $38 a day, or $64 for a two-day pass. Kids under 10 are free.) But he did say he wanted to make sure that people didn't feel overcrowded at the event.

"We don't really have any crowd estimates at this point," he states. "But we do have a commitment to make sure we don't oversell the event. I can assure anyone who comes that we're not going to make it overcrowded. There will be plenty of room to enjoy the music ... as well as the Kids' Village and the food at the Nosh Pit and exhibits at the Eco Zone."

Cohen is especially proud of the environmental commitment at LouFest - and the focus on making it a family friendly event through children's activities at the Kids' Village, including a separate stage area.

"A lot of people - especially the parks department - were happy we wanted to have such a strong focus on the environment," states Cohen. "It's kind of unusual for a first-year festival to go so deep in terms of environmental commitment, but we wanted to make sure since we were having the event in Forest Park that we really focused on the environmental impact. And that's something we've done in every aspect ... from encouraging riding bikes and taking public transportation to reducing waste with a refillable water bottle effort. And for the Kids' Village, that's like a festival within a festival."

So what about that event name? Why LouFest?

"It's simple, says Cohen. "From my perspective, a festival like this really has to involve the local business community - great businesses that make St. Louis their home. And that's really been our focus as much as possible. So LouFest made sense. And we're already working on next year!"

Terry Perkins is a freelance writer who has long covered the St. Louis music scene.

Terry Perkins is a freelance writer based in St. Louis. He has written for the St. Louis Beacon since 2009. Terry's other writing credits in St. Louis include: the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the St. Louis American, the Riverfront Times, and St. Louis magazine. Nationally, Terry writes for DownBeat magazine, OxfordAmerican.org and RollingStone.com, among others.