At RuPaul’s DragCon NYC, It’s A Party – 

With a Healthy Dose of Politics

At six feet seven inches tall in her black stilettos, the svelte blonde Strawberry, sporting a sleek fishnet dress, leather jock strap, and pencil-thin eyebrows, made a striking impression as she asked passersby a crucial question:

“Are you guys registered to vote?”

Strawberry was one of thousands of attendees at RuPaul’s DragCon NYC, a gathering for fans of the television show RuPaul’s Drag Race, on Saturday, September 7, 2019, at the Javits Center. Between hosting talks with Diane von Furstenberg and Whoopi Goldberg, RuPaul spun a DJ set for the crowd on the Main Stage, blasting favorites like Beyonce’s “Crazy In Love” and Missy Elliott’s “Lose Control” to guests outfitted in ball gowns, bouffants, Speedos, and sparkles. Beyond the fun of performances, dancing, and meet-and-greets with drag celebrities, one key theme permeated the convention: the importance of participating in politics to create change for LGBTQ Americans.

Strawberry herself hadn’t planned to register people to vote; she said her role was “thrust upon me by a chance of happenstance” that morning. Most people she spoke to were already registered, but she appreciated the opportunity to encourage convention-goers to engage politically.

“We live in a society where money is taking precedence over the consensus of the people,” she said. “The only way to fix a broken political system is from within.”

As much as she appreciated the convention as a safe space for the LGBTQ community, she was concerned that the abundance of vendors might give attendees the idea that it exists primarily as “a place to buy goodies.”

“I hope people don’t take away the idea that drag can be bought.”

More than 200 vendors filled the Javits Center with neon wigs, bedazzled stilettos, and clack fans reading “SHADE,” but not everyone was there to sell merchandise. HeadCount volunteer Sam Hardy waved a red and blue clipboard as she circulated throughout the show floor in search of new voters. Hardy, a second-time attendee of RuPaul’s DragCon, said, “Our goal is to make everyone excited to vote.”

Even elected officials themselves exhorted Drag Race fans to register for the upcoming election. In a prerecorded video message, Senator Elizabeth Warren told convention-goers, “Equal means equal, period, and that’s what I’m fighting for.” 

“I’m counting on you to make your voices heard,” she added.

At a panel called “Trump and Mitch, Sashay Away: How We Win in 2020,” Marti Gould Cummings, who is running for City Council in Council District 7, explained that their biggest concerns as a candidate are high cancer and asthma rates, climate change, and police-community relations. 

What draws most people’s attention to Cummings, however, is that they campaign in full drag.

“For me, drag is just an extension of who I am,” they explained. “If drag gets the attention, I can then say, ‘Great, you’re listening? These are the issues that we have to take care of. These are the issues that my constituents are concerned about, and this is what I’m going to do when I’m elected, so if you don’t take me seriously as a drag queen, look beyond what I’m wearing and listen to what I’m saying.’”

Performer Trixie Mattel’s encouragement to participate in politics drew one of the biggest crowds at any performance that day. To an attentive, tightly-packed group of hundreds encircling the Main Stage, Mattel declared: 

“If I have the time to vote in drag, you b----es do, too!”

Carmina Burana: Review

Drunk, horny monks have helped me survive the pandemic.

Lately, I’ve been losing myself in the sumptuous music of Carmina Burana, a cantata that sets medieval monks’ poems about destiny, sex and alcohol to epic, powerful arrangements like “O Fortuna,” “Were diu werlt alle min,” and my personal favorite, “Tempus est iocundum.” The composer, Carl Orff, wrote the music in the 1930s and 40s, but the best pieces have had serious staying power (in pop culture and elsewhere) throughout the last century. 

A 2006 NPR piece about Carmina Burana described it as being full of “extremes and excess.” Outside of LEO, I make a living in theater photography, the intersection of two art forms that make melodrama out of everyday life. “Extremes and excess” are my career, yet so much of 2020 neutered me into a life at home, without theater. Daily, I saw the same dusty laundry room. The same backyard. The same neighbors’ cars. The same wooden floor onto which light spilled, not from the lofty rafters, but from the fridge. It was a struggle to get through a photo class doing staged “performance” photography at home last spring because I knew that it just wasn’t real. It wasn’t right.

But rediscovering Carmina Burana through the Munich Percussion Ensemble’s 2017 performance has reawoken my motivation for my work — because that’s exactly what my favorite part of it, “Tempus est iocundum,” does. Everything about this piece just works.

Those opening notes —  the high-pitched women’s voices in sync with the tambourine —  set up the rest of the piece so beautifully and brightly. Each “quo pereo!” is a burst of pure joy. Even the way that the baritone soloist glances at his female counterpart gives us the sense that we’re not just an audience to a song, but to two characters in their own scene. 

The best part, though, is that gorgeous, weighty “totus floreo,” which means “I am wholly blooming.” In this concert hall  —  stately and high-walled, yet warm and earthy like a medieval tavern —  the phrase rings so beautifully that I am tempted to tattoo it onto my arm.

But I am not wholly blooming. I am still living at home. I am still working through the aftershocks of the pandemic: the betrayal when one of my closest friends turned into an anti-masker. The panic when he suddenly got sick. The loss of income when my summer job was canceled last-minute because of COVID. The loss of faith in my government to prevent something like this from happening.

For what it’s worth, not every song in Carmina Burana is equally capable of being a necessary distraction. “Were diu werlt alle min,” a song about forsaking the world to romance the Queen of England, conjures up images of imperial triumph and victory in only 56 thunderous seconds. But its counterpart, the jarring “Ego sum abbas,” is less a transporting piece of music and more a depressing monologue with an occasional interjection from the percussionists. It’s just uncomfortable. That’s not to blame the performers, by any means; the musicians are skilled and the baritone soloist, Carl Rumstadt, has a powerhouse of a voice. A listener will take to it better, though, in pieces like “Circa mea pectora,” in which the swells of the orchestra and the male chorus back up the singer as he moves toward his ultimate decision, punctuated by the quick notes from the women that imply an anxious internal dilemma. It’s the most beautiful, longing ode about a man cheating on his girlfriend that the classical music world has to offer. 

Two of the first pieces in Carmina Burana that I ever listened to were “Veni, veni, venias” and “Floret silva nobilis” in high school. I didn’t know the full meaning of either song; I knew that “veni” was encouraging something to come forth, and I assumed “floret” meant something to do with plants growing. Musically, they were both bouncy and sprightly, so, in my head, they both had the same approximate meaning: please come, spring! A great sentiment in any year. But in this particular year, when we’re dependent on what spring can offer  —  the vaccine, the opportunity to get outdoors, to be safe and warm and amongst friends  —  that message is even more urgent. Listening to those songs  —  even knowing now that their meanings are definitely not what I had thought they were  —  almost feels like I am sending up a plea to Fortuna, destiny, herself.

The poems that make up the text of Carmina Burana predate the Black Plague, but we and the people of the medieval age share the same love of theatrics, of excess, of extremes. It’s stayed with our species through the ages. We want to get together in person and feel the soaring glory of a chorus hitting a high note  —  or a “totus floreo” —  deep in our souls. We just don’t want to worry that doing so might threaten the lives of our loved ones. 

Through the last few months of winter, getting lost in Carmina Burana has been my method of self-preservation, a way of reminding myself that beautiful performances like this one will return to the world. There will be shows again. There will be actors, there will be lights, there will be songs. This year and next, the performing arts and I will, once again, bloom.

Fatten the Curve:

How the Plus-Size Dating Community
is Making the Most of COVID-19

When it comes to COVID-19, not everyone wants to flatten the curve. Some people want to fatten it.

As COVID-19 has taken most elements of life virtual, one online dating community is thriving because of the quarantine and some of its physical side effects. Feabie (pronounced like the name “Phoebe”) is a dating and social networking site that caters to communities whose members tend to overlap: fat admirers (or FAs), plus-size people (BBWs/BHMs), and members of the feederism community (feeders and feedees.) Currently, the site has more than 115,000 users worldwide. It functions as both a dating site and a community outpost.

An FA is a person of any gender who is attracted to fat or plus-size people, although most FAs on Feabie are straight men. Plus-size people themselves are divided into BBWs (“big beautiful women”) and BHMs (“big handsome men.”) Feederism is a fetish that involves one partner (the feeder) giving the other partner (the feedee) food to make them gain weight for both partners’ sexual gratification. Not all FAs are feeders, but the two groups often overlap. 

Fat-related fetishes –– as well as attraction to fat people in general –– are often pathologized and stigmatized. Even as wanting a “thicc” girl has become a mainstream meme in the last few years, the idea of the dating partner who hides their attraction in public is a very well-known trope in the fat community.

Rochelle Brockington, a plus-size photographer who goes by “Rochelle Fatleopard” professionally, posted on Facebook in 2017 that her skinny friends “get surprise dinner dates” overlooking the New York City skyline, whereas she and her fat friends “get paragraphs from dudes explaining why they don’t pay for dates then a text at 3am [sic] asking if you wanna come over.”

On Feabie and elsewhere, however, the community is diverse and eager. Members include a financial analyst in New Jersey, a higher-up at Twitter, a champion disabled athlete, a pediatric surgeon at an elite Upper East Side hospital, a competitive pinball player, and an up-and-coming playwright. 

While “the quarantine fifteen” has been one of the banes of many people’s pandemic experiences, many users on Feabie have embraced it, literally and figuratively. The site’s homepage functions as a public hub where, at all hours of the day, users around the world post paeans to various components of fat bodies: love handles, thick calves, sagging bellies, stretch marks.

Unlike the Facebook newsfeed, the Feabie newsfeed makes all status updates public to members around the world, although members can curate which types of users’ posts they see, according to their own interests.

In the last eight months, many Feabie users have written status updates celebrating their own or their partners’ quarantine weight gain.

“Biggest I have every [sic] been and still way more to go,” cheered a 26-year-old pharmacist in Indiana. “Several women I know have BALLOONED since March,” posted a 31-year-old IT professional in Georgia. “It’s a shame they aren’t comfortable with it.”

At the same time, even the most devoted FAs on Feabie often complain about how frequently fat women use the site –– and, more broadly, the fetish as a whole –– as a means of earning money. Women who do this will post links to various outlets in their profiles, including Amazon wish lists and payment services like CashApp and Venmo, usually with a coy mention of “tributes” or “getting spoiled.” Some women on Feabie make “clips” for male audiences. Sometimes these videos are directly sexual in nature, but often they reflect the interests of the niche community –– for instance, eating or posing in normal clothes that fit badly.

Plus-size model Mary Boberry, 35, is to the FA world what Kylie Jenner is in the mainstream world: an entrepreneur, celebrity, and outsizedly popular sex object. At the start of quarantine, she weighed more than 600 pounds, and she currently has more than 111,000 followers on Instagram, Reddit, and Feabie combined. A two-and-a-half minute slideshow on YouTube showing her weight gain has more than 47,000 views.

As a “verified creator” on Feabie, she earns a living through selling “sets” –– themed groups of 50-70 photos of herself in certain outfits –– through a website called BigCuties. She, too, is using quarantine to her advantage. One of her spring sets celebrates her for “doing what most of us are, hanging out at home, and socially distancing!”

Ultimately, Feabie is a microcosm of larger society, and it often filters sociopolitical issues through a fat-related perspective. Around Thanksgiving, a 29-year-old construction worker and saxophonist in California implored community members not to celebrate colonialism but to instead “celebrate overeating and togetherness.”

Shortly after the Associated Press announced on Nov. 7 that President-elect Joe Biden would replace President Trump, many users came to the site to express their glee at the news. In between all-caps posts of relief, joy, and support for Biden were posts more common to Feabie. A woman in Germany asked for recommendations on take-out food. Another asked for advice on gaining weight. One woman (who has since deleted her profile) said she was just interested in cuddling and “getting her booty rubbed on.”

Earlier that week, on Election Day, a 35-year-old feeder in Denver named Zach posted that he wanted everyone to get out to the polls in support of the Biden/Harris ticket. The only type of exercising he supported on Feabie, he said, was exercising the right to vote.

History in the (Re)Making

Only the priests noticed that the King had now been missing from the Assemblée Nationale for more than 15 minutes, and their furtive note-passing betrayed their attempt at calm as they deflected glares from the Jacobins. Suddenly, the nervous President Barnave rose to announce, voice shaking, that Prussian forces had advanced toward Paris. Someone, he warned, must be elected to lead the Army immediately. A laborer, relegated to the back of the room, stood up to demand that his people be allowed to enlist – and that, if not, they would start a riot.

Then someone’s cell phone rang.

This was not the French Revolution. This was Reacting to the Past, a historical live-action roleplaying first-year seminar taught by Professor Patrick Coby at Smith College every Monday and Wednesday evening from 7 to 9 PM. Here in “Reacting,” as students call it, first-year students relive and recreate the events of two historical time periods: the French Revolution in September and October and the Parliament of Henry VIII in November and December. Each student is assigned the role of a character, which can be either a specific person, like Thomas Cromwell or Maximilien Robespierre, or a member of a faction, such as the Jacobins or the Crowd. Students deliver speeches, make deals, and vote in order to advance their characters’ "victory objectives,” which may include goals like abolishing slavery or enabling King Henry’s divorce. Smith offers three different Reacting classes per year, but Professor Coby’s fall class is known as the most intense of the three.

Reacting is unlike a typical first-year seminar because students must live the history in ways that go beyond just dressing in costume or using vocabulary from the time period. Students must use the same devious means as the historical figures they portray once did in order to achieve their goals. Rather than merely argue about taxes, for instance, the lords and commoners in Parliament poison each other, spy on each other, spread false rumors about each other, and put each other to death for heresy or treason. Additionally, characters may filibuster, shout down opponents, or worse: in one class, a student – with the professor’s blessing – burned another student’s paper over the sink.

Reacting is a psychologically intense experience of winning and losing power – and, as a result, it is incredibly addictive. Competition, backstabbing, paranoia, and secrecy all play an important and everyday role in Reacting and lead many past members of the class to half-jokingly refer to it as a “cult.” 

Amanda Miller, who portrayed révolutionnaire Antoine Saint-Just in the French Revolution game and Bishop John Fisher in the Henry game, agreed that “cult” is an accurate descriptor for Reacting: “The game really takes over.” In Reacting, she said, “I’m totally in the moment; I never think of anything else but, ‘Oh my God, it’s 1535, and, like, defense taxes, f--k!’”

“It’s like you’re possessed,” said Jenny Agel, who played the only female member of the Crowd faction in the French Revolution game, then a placid priest in the Henry game. “But it’s also a little bit exhilarating.” 

Miller agreed. “What I’m disturbed by is that it feels good.”

A unique aspect of Reacting at Smith is that most of the characters are male, whereas all of the students playing the characters are female. In both the French Revolution and the Henry games, students make many in-character statements about the impropriety of women being in government, owning property, or being able to vote. Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn, the two women who make brief appearances in Henry’s Parliament, are there only to be publicly shamed for making Henry unhappy. Naturally, the gender discrepancy does not go unnoticed.

Lily Armstrong, who plays Thomas Boleyn, said, “[Reacting] undoes the way that we’ve been socialized to act as women in this day and age, as opposed to men in another era.” Amanda Miller added, “It’s the freedom to act like men in power without facing the repercussions of ourselves being judged that way.”

While Reacting is a firsthand lesson into the limitations of history, students find ways to add modern perspectives to the class. In the French Revolution game, one character passed a law establishing marriage in France as a civil right, which, as a result, legalized same-sex partnerships.

As soon as the gavel hit the podium, a beaming Antoine Saint-Just, sporting a handmade tricolore and cravat, strode to the front of the room and asked his colleague Maximilien Robespierre to join him. Pulling a red Ring Pop out of his pocket, Saint-Just got down on one knee and asked Robespierre to marry him. 

Robespierre said yes.

At Online Festival, LGBTQ Men 

Redefine and Explore Masculinity, Gender

Nathan Serrato has many of the hobbies one might expect of a life coach in Escondido, California. He loves yoga, hiking, and posting inspirational quotes to Instagram: “You are never TOO YOUNG to start an empire or TOO OLD to start a dream.”

He also loves to pole dance for strangers online. 

Serrato, a gay Latino man whose coaching practice is called Queer Conscious, said that LGBTQ people are more likely than straight and cisgender people to suffer from alcoholism, substance addiction, and sexual abuse. 

“By the time I was 21, I became a statistic of all of those,” he said. 

He’s now using pole dancing — online only, for the moment — as a means of reclaiming his identity and sensuality after trauma and religious repression. 

Serrato, 29, was one of more than 30 artists and performers at The 8th Annual New Masculinities Festival, hosted on Zoom on November 14, 2020. The festival, produced by two New York-based organizations, The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center and Produced by Man Question, spanned two parts: “Main Room” and “After Dark.”

While all of the pieces in “After Dark” had to do with sex, sexuality, and desire in some way, the overarching theme of the festival was about giving space to rethink what it means to be masculine or male.

Wearing a black hoodie, tall stilettos, and striped thigh-high socks, Serrato gyrated to the song “Silence” by Marshmello and Khalid: “Can't tell me there's no point in trying / I'm at one, and I've been silent for too long.”

At the end of his performance, his audience applauded him — silently, with the clapping emoji.

“The arena of our sexuality and erotics is where a lot of gender performance gets put into practice. I’ve just wanted a space for us to get a little dirtier with it,” said C. Bain, the host of “After Dark.” Bain is a writer and performance artist in Brooklyn who describes himself as “gender-liminal.” He showed off tattoos of nautilus shells underneath his black chest harness.

Much of masculinity, Bain said, “exists in this domain that you can't explicitly make art about or even put language on, really, because of how our culture handles sex.” The point of After Dark, he explained, was to counter that limitation.

Steven Gordon, former executive director of The Pride Network, echoed Bain: “Sometimes we feel the need to compartmentalize our sexual selves from our activist selves from our community selves, and, really, they're all one.”

“I know the way I show up in the bedroom affects the way I show up in my community, and vice versa,” he said.

Emanuel Highlander Brown, a Black trans man in Georgia, recited a spoken-word poem about his body.

“Despite my complicated relationship with my fatness, I know it is dangerous. I know it is threatening to be big, bearded, and Black,” he said. “I know each wave of an arm or strong planted footstep creates fear. I know this body is policed.”

Other pieces that evening were more explicit: Jeffrey Cougler, a hard of hearing graphic designer from Rochester, NY, shared a video of colored pencil drawings of male nudes; Jake Frisbie, who is nonbinary, played a silent video of themself naked, flushing a toilet, overlain with text from Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, a novel about a character who changes genders; and Chinese-American poet Chen Chen, who lives in the “second most conservative city in the country,” Lubbock, TX, read a longform essay about the poet Rimbaud — and a sex act with a similar name.

At the end of the festival, C Bain was sad to be distant from his guests: “I want to hear the heels in the room!” Still, he said, the event was valuable to the community and society as a whole.

“A little gay sex and French poetry would make some people better citizens,” he said.

Freedom Hall Testing the Waters of Large Events

After a year without most concerts and live events, Freedom Hall is starting the year by bringing thousands of fans to the venue — a slow but impactful start on Louisville’s road to economic recovery. As performers and athletes return to Freedom Hall, fans and tourism officials are hopeful that it will be a bellwether for a return to normalcy.

Christian hip-hop performer Toby McKeehan, better known by his stage name, TobyMac, performed at Freedom Hall last Friday night with a few other Christian groups and performers. The concert was the first indoor show that Freedom Hall has hosted since the World’s Championship Horse show held during the Kentucky State Fair with only close contacts of the riders in attendance, and it was the first arena concert in Louisville since The Lumineers played at the KFC Yum! Center last March.

McKeehan is not the first Christian artist to return to live shows. In Kentuckiana, larger-scale touring groups, including the Australian Christian pop duo for KING & COUNTRY, have performed. KING & COUNTRY did a drive-in show at the Kentucky Exposition Center in October. A week before that, Casting Crowns performed at a drive-in in Mitchell, Indiana. 

McKeehan, through both his touring company Awakening Events and his PR representative, Velvet Kelm, declined multiple requests for comment and did not allow any media passes to the show.

But his fans — who call themselves “Diverse Citizens,” after TobyMac’s touring musicians, DiverseCity — shared photos and videos of the events throughout the night. In the videos, fans in masks danced to his songs.

The next day, fans of the Bellarmine University men’s basketball team brought that same enthusiasm to the arena for the team’s last game of the regular season, their tenth in Freedom Hall. Even throughout the gestures of a normal game — standing up to clap and cheer, yelling at the referees about a contentious call — most fans kept their masks on and stayed in their “pods,” groups of seats in the same row. Freedom Hall also had hand sanitizer stations and signs about mask-wearing posted throughout the venue.

The team normally plays in Bellarmine’s own Knights Hall, but a recommendation from Gov. Andy Beshear to limit venue capacity to 15% meant that the team had to find a larger venue for their games, according to a press release from Bellarmine Athletics. In a regular year, Freedom Hall can accommodate more than 18,000 people.

On Saturday, 2,787 fans showed up to that final Bellarmine game — nearly 600 more than a totally-packed game at Knights Hall in a normal year would have allowed. By comparison, the UofL men’s basketball game at the Yum! Center against UK brought 3,281 fans, according to the game notes.

It’s not just the fans who are feeling the impact of a return to arena shows. Officials in the tourism industry are also grateful that venues like Freedom Hall are starting to drive people back to events that generate income for the city’s economy.

Stacey Yates, vice president of marketing communications for Louisville Tourism, says that bringing shows back, even at reduced capacity, is a hopeful sign for the industry as a whole.

“It seems so small when we were comparing numbers of 10,000 and 20,000 at concerts previously,” said Yates, “but it’s a step in the right direction.” She attributed the public’s interest in live events to “pent-up demand,” which she feels will be a significant impetus for tourism.

Yates said that before the pandemic, Louisville’s reputation as a tourist destination was on a “positive trajectory.” She added, “Once doors fully open, we have no reason to believe that we won’t pretty quickly recapture that.”

One significant key to the city’s recovery, though, isn’t inside Freedom Hall — it’s outside, in the parking lots. Medical professionals are using the parking lots outside the KEC complex, which includes Freedom Hall, as sites for vaccine distribution. While not as exciting as a championship game or a concert, getting Louisville vaccinated will be the strongest way forward to make sure that the return to live events ends on a high note. 

With new EP, local band Castlewood 

cranks the soft-pop up to “Eleven”

Any band who wants to take the stage first has to prove themselves in the studio. For one local band, though, that studio is actually a living room in New Albany, a cozy yellow space encircled by liner notes, album covers, and lyrics scribbled on the walls.

This is the homebase of up-and-coming Louisville-area musicians Nate Stemle, Josh Courtney, and Tyler Courtney, who perform together in the band Castlewood. Stemle, the frontman and lyricist, is a New Albany native who teaches English and journalism at Saint X, his own high school alma mater. Twin brothers Josh and Tyler Courtney are the producer/bassist and pianist/guitarist, respectively.

Together, the group is in between two releases: Castlewood’s first EP, Eleven, which debuted on March 8, and an upcoming single, “Give It Away,” due to premiere on April 16. The five-track EP is the group’s first; previously, they had only put out singles, including 2020’s “Ink Us In” and “Wake Up.” 

The songs on Eleven are a little hard to categorize: while “indie” is a useful catch-all, they are also breathy, reverent, soft, dreamy. I’ve played this album through at least six or seven times, and I’ve always gotten the sense that it could be the score for a romantic scene in a movie.

That sense is apt, because all of the songs on Eleven are about the highs and lows of love. “No Warning” tells of romantic feelings that took the singer by surprise; “All is Well” speaks of a relationship that’s better than fiction. Even in “Night Off,” in which the main character and his beloved fight, they reconcile: “What once was straight, it might be bent / now the words I said are words I meant / and I still think you’re heaven sent / These are feelings that we’ll fight off / But love won’t take a night off.” (Stemle also has a tattoo on his arm that reads, “Music is love.”)

Much of what makes Castlewood what it is is the group's ties to their hometown roots. Not only have the band members known each other since childhood, but Eleven itself was named for Stemle’s house on 11th Street in New Albany, the location of the aforementioned studio. The Castlewood name is a direct reference to the street where he grew up. There’s even an occasional bit of Kentuckiana flavor in the band’s lyrics: in “Next to You,” the singer tells his girlfriend that he will call her at 5:02 — a double meaning that also refers to the time Stemle’s real-life fiancée, Aubrey Meiners, calls him after work each day. After that, he’ll “take exit ten onto Cannons Lane / and I’ll hit the gas and I’m on my way.” Even some of Castlewood’s most immediate goals are geared toward the local market: they want to get a song on a rock station like 99.7 or 100.5, the same ones they used to listen to as teenagers. The group would love to get 10,000 fans, they said, but Stemle’s first goal for the band was for one person they didn’t know to listen to one of their songs. 

Although Castlewood is a newer musical venture, the Courtney twins are no strangers to wider audiences. Through their band, Before the Streetlights (BTSL), they’ve racked up a bevy of credits as the openers for “emo” groups like Escape the Fate, Secondhand Serenade, and The Red Jumpsuit Apparatus, and Austin Bello of Forever the Sickest Kids produced their EP Highways in 2014. In March 2016, BTSL’s song “Goodnight, Goodbye” played in more than a thousand Journeys stores, which the group considers to be one of their biggest professional breakthroughs. It brought them a new surge of fans, including some as far away as Scotland and France. (The song’s success is well-earned; it’s a banger.)

While Castlewood might be a bit of a departure from BTSL — Tyler pointed out that Castlewood’s music is more “radio-friendly” that BTSL’s, which is fair; one of BTSL’s early songs talks about getting a fake ID and running from the cops — the group has confidence in their future, despite the challenges of the last year. While all the members of Castlewood currently work or go to school full-time, the pandemic gave their creative process the literal and figurative space to flourish.

“Without the pandemic, we wouldn’t be a band,” said Josh.

The lyrics of one of their earliest singles, “Summer of Josh” (whose name is a play on the Seinfeld character George Costanza’s “Summer of George,” referring to a season of waylaid plans) will be painfully familiar to anyone recounting 2020: “Staring at the four walls of my house / Getting sick and tired of hanging around / Nowhere to go, nowhere to be / Sun is shining on 11th Street.” 

Breaking out of their own stagnancy led the band to create the cover of Eleven. The trio, armed with disposable cameras, took photos of moments that made them happy — going camping, moving out of an old house, or even just hanging out together on a porch. The end result, after some culling, was a pile of photos commemorating a summer that otherwise would have been lost — a summer that they salvaged by sharing creative energy.

Castlewood does not yet have the name recognition or touring history of more established acts, but if there is one thing this band is not missing, it is energy. In the hour and a half that I spent with them (twice as long as we had originally planned), the bandmates bounced fluidly from their songwriting process to shared nostalgia, reveling in memories of mid-2000’s mall concerts and a past Harvest Homecoming Festival. We laughed about shared connections from middle and high school, about how Louisville is both a small town and a big town. Even when the bandmates weren’t talking about music, the way they vibed together was (forgive the virus language) joyfully infectious.

When the pandemic is over and live concerts can return, they want to put that energy to work at an open mic, maybe, or a concert (“or eight or 10 or 20”) – maybe a joint tour with Elephants (the name under which Josh produces his solo works) and BTSL. First, though, they admit that they’ll have to learn how to adapt their songs to be played live — “a whole different art” from recording them in a studio, Tyler said  but, in the meantime, they have their new EP and single to share. 

The sun is shining on 11th Street. Next year, perhaps, stage lights will shine on Castlewood.

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