Railbird Festival 2019: Day I
Excitement was abundant. Curiosity was plentiful. With a lineup like the folks put together for the inaugural Railbird Music Festival, how could you not be excited? With the fact that it was a first-time music festival in a city that hasn’t seen a festival of this magnitude probably ever, I was curious about how it would all play out. I have been spending a lot of time in Kentucky as of late, particularly Lexington, and I was happy to get back there. As soon as the lineup was announced, I purchased a ticket. As soon as the opportunity to do media coverage for the festival came up, I jumped on it. There were so many national and international acts that I had been dying to see; not to mention the local and regional favorites that I have fallen in love with in the past few years. This festival seemed to hit all of the elements I knew I would enjoy: a vast musical showcase, beautiful location, and local bourbon distilleries serving the libations. Before I get into the music, I want to break down my experience as a whole since this is a first-time festival. Overall, I had a wonderful time and am looking forward to the continuation of the festival.
On the eve of the music festival, I headed to the Keeneland grounds on the west side of Lexington. I wanted to pick up my media credentials and get the “lay of the land” before I arrived the next day. There was an exclusive pre-party being held that evening on-site for the VIP ticket holders and the like, so I tagged along with a friend who was attending. From what I could tell by surveying the area, there was not much natural shade, but a few different areas set up for relief from the late summer heat. These areas were named The Cool Down and were powered by Big Ass Fans. They consisted of large canopies with tables and seating set up near the food vendors. There were many different choices of food trucks and vendors, as well as water bottle filling stations. Those water stations are one of the things I appreciate most at outdoor festivals. The Four Roses Winner’s Circle consisted of a bar, seating, and nearby yard games provided by Four Roses Bourbon Distillery. The festival grounds were vast and slightly hilly on each end where the larger stages were situated. During the festival, I found that the low rolling hills served as a nice natural amphitheater and were great for viewing the stage from the back of the large crowds. In the Lucky Day Plaza, there was a wagering tent with bar and outdoor seating in front of a jumbo screen that simulcasted horse racing. Near the Keene Barn, you could find a family-friendly area dubbed the Kid’s Corral. The Keene Barn was transformed into “The Rickhouse” which hosted the Sip & Savor Culinary Stage where you could watch and participate in bourbon tastings and culinary experiences demonstrated by internationally known chefs. The Rickhouse was also the location for the artist merchandise. On each end of the grounds near the Limestone and Elkhorn stages, there were VIP lounges with enclosed, air-conditioned relaxation areas on the lower level and a Skydeck above. The Limestone stage bar also had grandstand-style seating. Flanking the periphery of the festival were several local merchants and non-profit partner booths. The media tent was the only thing I wasn’t able to precisely locate until I arrived on Saturday.
Once I hit the festival grounds Saturday afternoon, I went straight to locating the media tent before I set out to listen to music and take notes. I had full intentions of attending the tapings of Robert Earl Keen’s Americana podcast, but was having trouble finding any information or signage on the exact location of the building in which it was taking place. By the time I had learned that it was too far to walk to, I had missed too much of it to be worth the trouble. I made arrangements to borrow my photographer friend’s car for the tapings on Sunday.
Unfortunately, while I was trying to locate the podcast tapings, I had missed Lucie Silvas who put on the first performance of the festival on the Limestone stage. I had been eager to see her as she is an artist I have not previously seen perform. The next performance on the schedule I was repeatedly told not to miss. That performer being Joslyn & the Sweet Compression on The Burl stage which was slightly set back from the main thoroughfare, next to The Rickhouse. Lead vocalist, Joslyn Hampton, calls Lexington her home and the house filled up to see her early afternoon set. She was a delight to watch and her soulful vocal range was impressive. I am glad I listened to my friends’ advice and took in the funky, groove-filled set.
Next, I moved on to the Elkhorn stage to take in part of The Dip’s set. The seven-piece ensemble, complete with a horn section, from Seattle, WA was another band that I had been hearing a lot of buzz about in the weeks leading up to Railbird, but wasn’t terribly familiar with. One of the tunes that stood out to me was “Slow Sipper” which is off of their newest album, The Dip Delivers. The band uses vivid imagery in their lyrics to tell us a story and the vast instrumentation provides the tone for each of the song’s settings. With their soulful melodies and funky rhythm, it was easy to see why they were creating such a buzz.
In an effort to expand my musical palate, I trekked over to the Limestone stage to catch a couple songs from Devon Gilfillian. This was another artist I had only recently heard of, but was immediately captivated by. He had a clear message of love and acceptance that I found very refreshing in light of our country’s recent tragedies. Promoting positivity and optimism, Gilfillian performed his latest groovy, energetic single, “Get Out and Get It.”
I returned to The Burl stage to set up post for Ian Noe. I was really looking forward to his set that day, as I was supposed to see him the week prior, but his show was cancelled because the headliner’s bus broke down en route to the gig. Ian’s debut album, Between the Country, has been a stand-out favorite of mine so far this year. His Railbird performance was very moving and the Kentucky native drew a substantial crowd. He came out of the gate with “Letters to Madeline” and we continued to hear nearly every track from his new album. Everyone was swaying to “That Kind of Life” and singing along to “Irene (Ravin’ Bomb).” Many of his songs discuss the heavy topic of addiction which is rampant in the Appalachian region. That particular song is one he penned after an alcoholic cousin’s visit to a family gathering. He also performed his True Detective Season 1-inspired song “Dead on the River (Rolling Down)” and “Barbara’s Song” before I had to run off.
Much to my surprise and gratefulness, the media crew was served food and drinks in the midafternoon each day, so prior to Justin Wells taking the stage, I grabbed some sustenance. Justin Wells is one of my favorite singer-songwriters and I was excited to see him play such a large festival in his hometown of Lexington. The only unfortunate part was that his set was directly slated against Mavis Staples’ set over on the Limestone stage. I wasn’t the only one disappointed. Justin said that the artist he had most anticipated seeing was Mavis. So, in a show of support, Justin scrawled in black permanent marker across his right forearm for all to see: “We love (heart) Mavis.” Justin had a big showing for his set and he and the band lit The Burl stage on fire! I have seen him and the band several times, but that had to have been their best yet. The crowd was exuberant and the band was feeding off of that love. Justin began his set with a Dawn in the Distance favorite, “The Highway Less Taken” and then a new one, “Screaming Song.” Mid-set, Justin told us about the strength of his grandmother who inspired him to write “Ruby.” To cap off his set, Justin belted out the fan-beloved, “The Dogs.” Joining the band for this special engagement was keyboardist, Lee Carroll. Carroll has played on Justin’s albums, but has never played a live show with the band before. It was a great addition and really added that extra element to elevate their performance.
Robert Earl Keen was next up for me on the Elkhorn stage. I had recently seen REK perform and was eager for another dose of the Americana-style storytelling that he is known for. The title cut from his 2005 album, What I Really Mean, was his set lead-off song and we also heard “The Wild Ones” from the same album. In between songs, REK quipped that it was good to be back home after his grandfather lost this land in a card game. The crowd really got into the next couple of favorites, “Feelin’ Good Again” and “Gringo Honeymoon.” Before hiking back up the hill to The Burl stage for the next performance, I listened to REK tell the story of playing Levon Helm’s Ramble at his place in New York. He joked that it was such a moving experience that he was compelled to write a song about Helm three years later.
It has been a little more than a year since I had seen Lillie Mae live, so I was excited to see her and her band, partly made up of multi-instrumentalist siblings, perform at Railbird. Lillie Mae’s beautifully unique vocals, nearly constant smile, and on-stage engagement with her extremely talented band make for a very enjoyable live music experience. “Honky Tonks and Taverns,” from her 2017 album, Forever and Then Some, was the first song I caught in her set. The song reminisces about the memories of the life she’s had and the people she has met on her musical journey that began at a very young age while touring with her family’s band. Off of her brand new, Dave Cobb-produced, album, Other Girls, Lillie sang “I Came for the Band (For Show)” and the waltz-style “Whole Blue Heart.” Lillie Mae coyly proclaimed that the latter song was simply inspired by the blue heart emoji.
I made it over to the Limestone stage just in time to hear the North Carolina duo, Mandolin Orange, perform one of my favorites from their newly released album, Tides of a Teardrop, “The Wolves.” I also really enjoyed the opening track from their 2016 album, Blindfaller, “Hey Stranger.” The harmonies of Emily Frantz and Andrew Marlin blended and projected beautifully over the hills of Keeneland. In the crowd, you could hear fans yelling their request for “Wildfire” which the duo started into as I was leaving to take a quick break before making my way over to The Burl stage.
The crowd was building fast at The Burl stage for energetic Bluegrass performer, Billy Strings. The Michigan native, William Apostol (Billy Strings) has seemed to breathe new life into the Bluegrass genre by commingling his traditional Bluegrass roots and his high-energy guitar work he perfected while performing with his former heavy-metal band. The results are fresh and interesting and seem to be drawing many new listeners to Bluegrass music. Because most of the songs are primarily instrumental, I couldn’t delineate which song was which, but the one song I did pick up on was the Bill Monroe cover of “My Rose of Old Kentucky.” I look forward to seeing more of this fleet-fingered guitarist and his brilliant band of players.
I recently was turned on to the music of and since befriended Nashville singer-songwriters, Samuel Herb and Elysse Yulo, who happened to be in attendance this weekend after playing a house show in Lexington. Herb falls under the category of Americana and Yulo has more of a Pop background. Both, very talented in their own right and I encourage you to look into their music. I’m even more appreciative of them for securing me a spot near the front of the enormous crowd for the incomparable Brandi Carlile. I had yet to see Carlile perform live, so this was one set that was particularly exciting for me. In the late day sun, Brandi and her band turned the heat up even higher with one of the most dynamic and exhilarating performances of the festival. With each song, I alternated between chills and tears in the corners of my eyes. “Hold Out Your Hand” off of her latest and sixth album release, By the Way, I Forgive You, was an intense and powerful effort that got the crowd immediately fired up and singing at the tops of their lungs. She slowed it down a bit with the beautiful harmonies of “Wherever Is Your Heart.” Also, from the same album, The Firewatcher’s Daughter, she played “The Eye.” Carlile told the crowd of coming together with her longtime bandmates, twin brothers – Phil and Tim Hanseroth, while navigating the grunge music scene in Seattle, WA nearly 20 years ago. They bonded over their love of the three-part harmony that was not widely popular in that era. After her Bear Creek release, “Hard Way Home,” Brandi took us back to 2007 with her breakout single and title track from The Story which was written by Phil Hanseroth before he had even met Carlile. Before I had to run off to the next set, I was able to catch “Fulton County Jane Doe” and Brandi’s eloquent cover of Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You.” Brandi considers that song one of the top three songs ever written and I was truly impressed by her rendition that day. It’s hard to convey the same emotion and feeling as an original artist, but you can tell this song is extremely important to Carlile and she takes special care to honor it. I feel Carlile has really carved out a place at the top in the last year and I am really enjoying watching her collaboration with the super group The Highwomen. I can’t wait to dig further into their debut album slated for release on September 6 of this year.
On my way over to the Elkhorn stage, I stopped at the last set on The Burl stage for a couple of songs from singer-songwriter Ruston Kelly. I caught “Cover My Tracks” from his critically acclaimed release, Dying Star, and “Hurricane in My Head” off of his 2016 debut EP, Halloween, which he featured the harmonica while playing the acoustic guitar. Listening to Kelly’s lyrics, you can comprehend the emotions of the tumultuous life he’s lived and his road to redemption and happiness.
As Old Crow Medicine Show was breaking into their spirited tune, “Tear It Down,” frontman, Ketch Secor, exclaimed, “You can’t come to the shed without singing about a mule!” From their 2018 release, Volunteer, the band performed “Child of the Mississippi” before going into their popular, “Alabama High-Test,” which is their opening track from Tennessee Pusher. A few others in the setlist included, “Chicken Pie,” “Sweet Amarillo,” “Methamphetamine,” and Charlie Worsham took the lead on vocal for his own song “I Hope I’m Stoned When Jesus Takes Me Home.” In a surprise appearance, Brandi Carlile and her bandmates, Phil and Tim Hanseroth, took the stage joining OCMS on the wildly popular “Wagon Wheel.” Much to my own excitement, Brandi delivered a stunning cover of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene.” Let me tell you, it’s quite surreal to hear 15,000 people sing your name, even if the context of the song is controversial. The group then closed the set with their rendition of the standard “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?”
Wading through the thousands of festival goers, I stopped and chatted with friends, grabbed a snack, and perched myself at the top of the hill in the back of the crowd for the Raconteurs. The first song I rolled up for was “Top Yourself” from their second album, Consolers of the Lonely. After that was “Don’t Bother Me” from their 2019 release, Help Us Stranger. The performance as a whole was invigorating with adrenaline-charged performances from each of the band members and an amazing light show. The side-stage screens were set to black and white which really made the stage stand out. I thought that was well thought out and really helped set the tone for the performance. A few other tracks that were on display were “Now That You’re Gone,” “Somedays (I Don’t Feel Like Trying),” and their most popular, “Steady as She Goes.” That song was the opening track on their debut album from 2006 and still seems to hold its prevalence on many playlists nearly a decade and a half later.
Getting out of the festival at the end of the night was a bit of an arduous, lengthy task. A friend and I left during the Raconteurs headlining set to avoid some of the traffic and to request a ride. After several minutes and several attempts, we were able to secure a ride request, only to have it cancelled by the driver because he could not locate us due to everyone being relocated down the road by the parking lot security. We were unsuccessful in requesting another ride, so we contacted a friend who was bartending the festival and received a ride from her instead. That entire process took approximately two hours. The following night we were sure to get a ride from a friend who was photographing the festival. We were told by others that the rideshare situation was much more organized the second night of the festival, so I was glad to hear that.
As a whole, I would say that the inaugural Railbird Music Festival was very successful. With AC Entertainment, producers of Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival and Forecastle Festival, at the helm, I was pretty confident that the festival would be well-run and loaded with the details that make a festival of that magnitude appealing to festival attendees. The only constructive criticisms I had were with regards to the parking/rideshare plans and lack of signage/instruction for the off-site podcast tapings. The variety and caliber of the performances was outstanding. I felt the crowd and staff were in very good spirits which also added to a very enjoyable experience. Stay tuned for my coverage of Railbird: Day 2. Also being featured in the days to come, interviews from Justin Wells, Kelsey Waldon, Justin Osborne of SUSTO, and Drew Holcomb of Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors.