By The Louisville Cardinal Staff

When the long-established Forecastle Festival announced its indefinite hiatus in 2023, it left lots of community speculation for what would fill its typical late May slot on the Waterfront. 

Enter Louisville’s mainstream music superstar Jack Harlow. On February 28, just under 4 months ago, Harlow announced that he was organizing a festival of his own—Gazebo Festival—to celebrate Louisville culture. 

We were curious while navigating the crowds seated along the Great Lawn: What is this festival’s identity?

A comparison of Gazebo Festival and Forecastle Prices (courtesy // Payton Carns)

The Kentucky State Fair showcases events and features vendors from all around the Commonwealth. For Bourbon and Beyond, it’s tying the familial roots of the bourbon industry with the rest of the state. Waterfront Wednesday, a longstanding Louisville summer staple, partners with local talent while staying free. Forecastle Festival — Gazebo’s most immediate comparison in location, size, and behind-the-scenes organizers — draws in the city’s youth with the breadth of sonic variety that comes to town all weekend.

Gazebo Festival’s lineup was smaller–just 13 artists spread across two stages each day–and embodied the homegrown image that the Atherton High School graduate has gravitated towards as his career ascends. Festival organizers say Gazebo sold more than 40,000 tickets over both days, and a portion of the sales from every ticket benefitted community organizations in Louisville through the Jack Harlow Foundation.

Under the hood

Local restaurants that partnered with the festival got their time to shine, too. While prices weren’t cheap, they were no different from the norm. An old-fashioned one from the venue bar cost $20, while a SmartWater was around $7. A cheeseburger started at $16, without any sides or drinks, and was as basic as they come. There were more options like fried chicken, Thai food, and hot dogs.

The most interesting item sold was a ‘fruit lollipop,’ a spherical, $7 frozen fruit concoction on a stick. Admittedly, the fresh fruit flavor was very refreshing in the Louisville humidity. Gazebo encouraged attendees to bring reusable water bottles and to refill them at the stations they had set up across the lawn. 

Recent college graduates Mary Covell and her boyfriend Sam Adams have been traveling to music festivals across the country in preparation for Gazebo Festival. After a recent trip to New Orleans for Jazz Fest, they both arrived early in the day with open minds. Gazebo was Covell’s first dip into the Louisville music festival scene, one that she couldn’t miss after seeing the lineup included headliner SZA and Sunday performer Omar Apollo. 

“I know everyone and their mother obviously wants to see [SZA], but I’m also excited to see Jack Harlow. He talks about Louisville so often in his music but I’ve never seen him perform in this space. He cares about this city a lot to do something like this,” Covell said. “Everyone’s here to have fun…that’s personally why I attend.”

Larger festivals like Coachella and Bonnaroo have a lesser purpose in being a space to display unique fashion. If you attend and walk through the crowd at each, there is a clear theme that all attendees are aware of. Gazebo did not feel this way. As the sun’s aggressiveness cooled into the evening, we were parked on a poncho-turned-blanket along the river people-watching. Between bites of a Kizito cookie, Adams remarked that “honestly, (Gazebo) right now feels like a larger Waterfront Wednesday”. 

Half the crowd was dressed to combat the scorching day in the Ohio Valley–bikini tops with woven linen cover-ups or jean shorts with crop tops. Others strutted in far more casually, dressed as if they heard their favorite dad-rock band was at the dive bar. It will be interesting to see how the style evolves if Gazebo returns or if it continues to be, as Covell quipped, “youthful”. 

Merchandise’s $95 sweatshirts featured the full poster cover art, and while they served as a cool memento from the event, the price is way more than half a general admission one-day ticket. 

Severe weather shuts down the second day

Despite the plan for a full Memorial Day weekend event, there were a few issues outside of their control. Severe winds and storms forced event organizers to suspend Day 2 for safety reasons, leaving us with just a taste of what the Gazebo Festival could be. All Sunday ticket holders will get a full refund, and weekend ticket holders will get a 50% refund. Those refunds should appear within 30 days.

“I’m trying to focus on the positive because all I felt was happiness yesterday. I’m grateful for our flawless first day and for the way this city came together. Thank you so much. I’m sorry,” Harlow shared on his Instagram story that Sunday afternoon. During Saturday’s performances, he was busily driving a golf cart around the lawn or supporting the other performing artists behind the stage. If there is one clear thing, it’s the community’s collective appreciation for Harlow and his efforts.

Many of the attendees we talked to flew from different parts of the country (we found someone who came from Florida!) just to see him and support his festival. There is something to be said about how Harlow reflects that admiration onto his home city. Organizers say Gazebo took a little over a year to fully plan. 

“You know, we brought in a team from all over the country to produce this event, and I think that team absolutely delivered on the fan experience,” said Gazebo Fest spokesperson Holly Weyler in a recent interview. “The crowd was great. The vibe was great. Honestly, it was fantastic all the way around.”

Louisville Mayor Craig Greenberg understood the decision, issuing a statement of support and hope to “have the Gazebo Festival in Louisville for many years to come!”

We want to hear from you

So, what did you think of Gazebo Festival? If it returns next year, are you going?

File Photo // The Louisville Cardinal; Drew Thomas (Gazebo Festival)