If you ask the organizers of the Evolution Festival — the two-day music, bourbon and BBQ bash coming up on Saturday, August 26, and Sunday, August 27, in Forest Park featuring headliners Brandi Carlile, the Black Keys, the Black Crowes and Ice Cube — this thing is going to be huge, an amazing experience for attendees and a new St. Louis institution for years to come. And we have every reason to believe them, given the credentials of the event’s two executive producers.
Steve Schankman has been synonymous with live music in St. Louis since 1968, when he co-founded Contemporary Productions, which produced everything from the Grateful Dead at the Fox Theatre in 1970 to the marathon Superjam concerts in Busch Stadium in the ’70s and ’80s to the annual July 4 VP Fair concerts under the Arch. Schankman’s company was instrumental in building Riverport Amphitheater (now Hollywood Casino Amphitheatre) and the Pageant.
Joe Litvag started 30 years ago as an intern for Schankman and went on to head up the St. Louis office of Clear Channel Entertainment (now Live Nation), served as a senior executive for AEG Live (during which time he brought Paul McCartney to Busch Stadium) and then became president of Danny Wimmer Presents, producer of highly successful multi-day festivals including Bourbon & Beyond in Louisville and Aftershock in Sacramento. Litvag recently founded his live entertainment firm, the Just Listen Company, in St. Louis.
Together, Schankman and Litvag have produced tens of thousands of concerts and festivals, so they are confident in assuring folks that they have left no stone unturned on the way to providing an excellent two-day end-of-summer experience in Forest Park. They also know that such reassurance might be necessary for some St. Louisans who remember the turbulent flameout of LouFest in 2018.
For those who need a recap, LouFest ran from 2010 to 2017 in Forest Park, usually in early September, growing from an initial daily attendance of 4,500 to more than 25,000 per day at its 2017 peak. Started by St. Louis-based Listen Live Entertainment, LouFest received a major boost in 2013 by partnering with Lollapalooza producers C3 Presents. After C3 ended its partnership in 2015, Listen Live managed LouFest alone until 2018, when, under immense financial pressure from skittish sponsors and unpaid production companies, organizers suddenly canceled the entire festival only four days before it was set to start. LouFest was no more.
At first glance, some might see similarities between LouFest and Evolution: two-day, two-stage summer rock festivals in Forest Park. However, Evolution organizers are quick to point out the differences. “People have been asking us [about LouFest] since we announced the festival, and we try to be respectful but make sure that people understand that this is not the same group of people and this is not the same vision behind it. This is a different group of people that have, between Steve and I, close to 100 years of experience in this business, and we know what we’re doing. We’ve done it 100 times before.”
If there is an existing festival after which Evolution is modeled, it is Louisville’s Bourbon & Beyond, which is coming up on its seventh incarnation in September and shares some headliners with Evolution, including Brandi Carlile, the Black Keys, the Black Crowes and Brittany Howard. Last year, Litvag invited Schankman to Louisville to see the festival first hand.
“We saw Chris Stapleton and my good friend Michael McDonald with the Doobie Brothers,” Schankman remembers. “I loved what I saw, and I told Joe, ‘If you find the right site in Forest Park, let’s do it.”
Litvag found that spot in Langenberg Field, located north of the Boathouse and west of the Muny, an area Schankman describes as a “pristine, grassy, heavy-tree area, which is where I want to go to see a festival.” There, the team will construct a high-end festival infrastructure, bringing in production manager Brandy Johnson, who is just coming off of Taylor Swift’s extravagant Eras Tour. Two stages will be at opposite ends of the grounds, about a five-minute walk apart, with no overlapping music, so ambitious attendees will have the opportunity to catch full sets from every artist.
As for the vision of the festival, Schankman and Litvag are, for the most part, targeting an older demographic than LouFest, with its indie-rock focus. They estimate Evolution’s audience to be more in the 30 to 60 age range.
The 53-year-old Litvag says, “I’ve been to my share of concerts and festivals, and I have no interest in going to a festival dominated by 16- to 24-year-olds. So we set out to create something that’s going to appeal more to people who have matured and maybe started families but still love live music and the idea of going to festivals but don’t want to deal with the massive crowds of Bonnaroo and Lollapalooza.”
To attract that audience, Litvag again refers to the Bourbon & Beyond model, which, unlike some of the larger festivals, does not attempt to be everything to everyone. “In the industry, we noticed that the mega-festivals, like Coachella, Bonnaroo and ACL, those that do more than 50,000 people a day, have kind of reached a saturation point,” he notes. “So the future of festivals was going to be more boutique-style and manageably sized festivals that have specific genres and themes.”
Schankman is not ready to talk about expected crowd numbers, but he emphasizes the importance of keeping things comfortable. “We have no interest in packing people in like sardines, because that takes away from the elevated, more mature festival vibe that we’re trying to create,” he says. “We want people to be able to spread their blankets out and enjoy themselves.”
Of course, the age range of any festival crowd is based primarily on the artists being put on the stages, and Litvag, along with Jeff Jarrett, senior vice president and partner with Contemporary, took an approach of thinking in terms of decades and genres when booking this year’s lineup.
“When looking at talent, we sorted the data in a lot of different ways,” Litvag says. “We knew we wanted diversity. That was a given. But also in terms of decades: What do we have for people who grew up and were partying and having a blast in the ’70s? And then the ’80s, ’90s, ’00s, 2010s? It was very important to us that every audience member has at least a couple of acts that they’ve heard of and know some songs by.”
This year’s headliners check those boxes. The Black Crowes and Ben Harper broke in the ’90s; both Carlile and the Black Keys had their commercial breakthroughs in the ’00s; Brittany Howard’s Alabama Shakes arrived in the ’10s.
To scratch the itch of older Gen Xers, the team looked for a genuine ’80s legacy act, settling on British new wave staple Modern English, best known for the 1982 classic “I Melt With You.” Litvag says, “We wanted that big MTV band, an alt-rock band from the ’80s that we could throw into the mix. Modern English came up, and we said, ‘That’s perfect.'”
The other big highlight for ’80s nostalgists will come in the form of a rap legend who helped define the gangsta subgenre in the Reagan era, a booking score that Litvag says has been well-received. “If there’s one act that I have been getting the most positive feedback on, it’s Ice Cube,” he says.
The presence of Ice Cube is especially satisfying this year as hip-hop celebrates its 50th birthday. In that spirit, Evolution will go back even further with the Sugarhill Gang, whose 1979 standard “Rapper’s Delight” introduced rap to the masses, making it one of the most significant recordings of the 20th century. “We thought that, with the anniversary of hip-hop, we need a real classic rap act,” Litvag says. “We already had Ice Cube on the bill. And then Sugharhill Gang came up. Boom. Done.”
Hip-hop is one of three genre “buckets,” as Litvag calls them, along with rock and country, that the festival wanted to fill, a goal that he says was tailored specifically to St. Louis audiences.
“With our experience with Contemporary and AEG, we really have our finger on the pulse of what people in St. Louis want, which is not necessarily what people in Chicago or Louisville or Nashville want,” Litvag says. “So we kept the St. Louis market in mind when booking. ‘Will that really resonate in St. Louis?'”
In that spirit, Schankman, who helped break acts like REO Speedwagon and Sammy Hagar nationally, knows as well as anyone what classic rock means to St. Louis, “KSHE is the longest-tenured rock station in the country,” he says. “It’s an institution, over 55 years.”
“We are incredibly lucky to have that station here with its heritage,” Litvag adds. “They speak to a lot of the marketplace, and the ratings show that.” That influence helped inform the choice to put the blues-based rock of the Keys and the hard Southern rock of the Crowes at the top of the bill.
As for country, in addition to the Americana muscle of Carlile and Harper, the team is bringing in a pair of authentic young country singer-songwriters: the neo-outlaw twang of alt-country star Morgan Wade and the Highway Queen herself, rocky-tonk spitfire Nikki Lane.
Despite primarily pursuing an older demographic, Evolution anticipates some young fans. “We’ll get a lot of students,” Schankman predicts, “because Wash U goes back to school, and it’s in their front yard.” Moreover, the undercard features plenty of edgier indie-rock acts, particularly on Sunday: Carriers’ dreamy guitar-based neo-psychedelica; Foxing frontman Conor Murphy’s solo project Smidley’s power-pop balladry; genre-mixing septet the Nude Party’s garage-swamp bluesicana; Michigander’s charmingly dweeby, jangly indie songcraft.
Finally, Evolution will make room for local acts on the lineup, something that Schankman says has long been important to him. “It was one of those other boxes I wanted to check,” he says. “As long as a Schankman is at Contemporary, we’re going to take care of local bands.” Litvag agrees: “There is such a depth of talent in this city, and for the most part, a lot of the local scene is kind of overlooked — but we were never going to overlook it.”
Among the local acts this year are progressive hip-hop duo the Knuckles and multi-cultural alt-rock band Punk Lady Apple on Saturday. Indie-roots act Yard Eagle kicks off the music on Sunday.
Early in the planning period, a major goal was to extend the experience for attendees beyond music, hence the festival’s official tagline: “Music, Bourbon, BBQ.”
“With so many fests across the country, we had to have more to focus on than just the music,” Litvag says. “The two most obvious complementary elements are food and beverage. So then we thought about what we could do to make this thing special and unique to St. Louis.”
So why bourbon? “Bourbon has obviously exploded as a spirit over the last decade,” Litvag points out. “There are some great smaller bourbon events that take place across St. Louis, but we wanted to do something on a larger scale.” To that end, Evolution is bringing in Southern Hospitality, a top concessionaire from LA that oversees the bourbon experience at Bourbon & Beyond. A tent showcasing various bourbon brands and distillers will be located between the festival’s two stages.
For the food focus, the team landed on barbecue as the most St. Louis-y of cuisines. “Our first call was to our friends at Sugarfire,” Litvag says. “They jumped on board immediately as a strategic partner but also helped us to bring in some of the other great barbecue establishments in St. Louis … to help curate the barbecue experience for this first year.”
Schankman gets animated when talking about the range of offerings planned across the festival grounds. “Not only is the food going to be great but [so will] the way it’s displayed,” he says. “This is all coordinated, colorful, tasteful. We have a whole committee just for the look and the decor and the vibe. The trees will be lit up. We have the Regional Arts Commission coming in doing art. We have 40 different sponsors besides bourbon. It’s a whole marketplace.”
And as both men make clear, this is just the first year. Bourbon & Beyond also started as a two-day festival and has now expanded to four days, a model Schankman and Litvag hope Evolution will eventually grow into, emphasizing the benefit such an event can bring to the city. “Pretty much all the other cities across the country that are a similar size of the St Louis metro area have their own festivals,” Litvag says. “It’s part of what this city is missing. This city needs it.”
Litvag is quick to acknowledge that there are other great festivals up and running in St. Louis, such as Open Highway and Music at the Intersection, but that Evolution will be carving out a unique space. “We are very friendly with Music at the Intersection, and we want to help them with what they’re doing just like they want to help us,” Litvag says. “But that’s a specific kind of event with a very specific audience, and we don’t want to take their lane. We just want to create our own lane next to them.
“We want to create something that the entire state of Missouri can embrace and something that we will still be talking about 20, 25 years from now,” Litvag continues.
Schankman chimes in to note that they are already hard at work on the 2024 Evolution: “To show how optimistic we are, we have rented [the larger] Cricket Field for next year, just east of the current field,” he says.
During our conversation, Schankman, ever the promoter, twice articulates the fest’s slogan: “It’s our town. It’s our time. It’s our Evolution.”
Schankman has the long game in mind and, for that reason, he urges folks not to miss out on the inaugural festival: “If you don’t go to the first Evolution, you can never say you were there.”
Evolution Festival takes place August 26 and 27 at Forest Park’s Langenberg Field (5620 Grand Drive) and Boathouse (6101 Government Drive). Single tickets range from $89.50 to $374.50 and passes from $169.50 to $1499.50. More info at evolutionfestival.com.
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