Railbird Festival 2019: Day II
Railbird day two kicked off with Yola’s fiery voice soaring over the hills of Keeneland! Dubbed as the “Queen of Country Soul,” her set included “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” and “Love All Night,” Of course, we are all familiar with Elton John’s hit “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” but I thoroughly appreciated the soulful rendition Yola served to the early crowd that was descending upon the festival grounds. Another tune that I caught in the distance was “Love All Night (Work All Day)” from her February 2019 debut album, Walk Through Fire. The song is an affirmation to the life of a working-class musician, much like she was. As with many aspiring musicians, Yola worked during the day and played gigs at night.
Ona is a band. In fact, it’s an indie rock band from Huntington which is just up the road from the town named Ona, West Virginia. The band of “brothers” was jamming on The Burl stage as Yola was wrapping up the first set of day two. The band drew a very nice sized crowd for being an early day set, which furthered my confidence that they are worth digging into. They were a lot of fun to watch jam and I always enjoy a spirited keys player, which they have in Brad Goodall. Anyone can really see the chemistry on stage from life-long friends – Bradley Jenkins, Zach Johnston, Max Nolte, Zach Owens, and Goodall. I caught a couple of tracks off their new album, Full Moon, Heavy Light, which included the light and dreamy “Summer Candy” and the synth-heavy “Allison in the Grass.” They have a stacked tour schedule, so chances are good that you can take in one of their shows.
Futurebirds, from Athens, Georgia was next up over on the Elkhorn stage. The invigorating indie rock group had the crowd moving and grooving along to their psychedelic country sound in the hot afternoon sun. With a three-part harmony layered with acoustic, electric, and pedal-steel guitars, they were certainly enthralling to watch and hear perform. Some favorites that were played are the melodic “Rodeo” and the groovy crowd-pleasing “Tan Lines.”
SUSTO, named after a medical syndrome that’s specific to Latin American culture and roughly translates as “panic attack,” took the Limestone stage. The band from Charleston, South Carolina brings the sound of mid 60s Everly Brothers records, complete with Glen Campbell-esque guitar parts.
During their set, I also attended the taping of Robert Earl Keen’s Americana: The 51st State podcast featuring the female trio, I’m With her. The group was born of a collaboration of singer-songwriters and gifted multi-instrumentalists, Aoife O’Donovan, Sara Watkins, and Sarah Jarosz. One of the topics of discussion was long touring stints. The ladies talked about how they prefer to change up the setlist to keep the shows from getting stale. They will sometimes tweak the songs just slightly to match the mood or the feel of the crowd or venue. The trio is always trying new ways to make a solid audience connection. Often times, they will extend a solo or an intro to gauge the feeling of the crowd. If the crowd cheers and gets excited for the instrumental, they will incorporate that into more of the set. Otherwise, they will perform the songs as is. They are continually discovering methods of change to their sets to keep them fresh for the audience and themselves. O’Donovan and Jarosz both agreed that Watkins was the best of the three at creating banter during a show. Keen was interested in their songwriting process since they live in separate parts of the country - Jarosz and O’Donovan in New York and Watkins in LA. They explained that they will usually schedule a songwriting retreat that lasts about a week. However, with their latest single, “Call My Name,” released early this year, they didn’t begin writing the song together in their usual style. They all had separate fragments of the song that came together with a hook that Aoife had originally established. The trio hammered together each of their pieces in one day in Breckenridge, Colorado in the middle of a tour. Before I was ducking out to get back to the live acts, the ladies of I’m With Her were hashing over their connection to the Texas songwriting legend, Robert Earl Keen. Sarah Jarosz talked about growing up in the Austin, Texas area and how big of a fan she was of Keen, even at a young age. Sarah began playing the mandolin when she was nine and could be seen performing bluegrass music at festivals in her adolescent years. Sara Watkins, founding member and fiddler for progressive Bluegrass band, Nickel Creek, also loaned her fiddle playing skills to Robert Earl Keen’s rendition of “Footprints in the Snow” by the Father of Bluegrass, Bill Monroe. The song was recorded for Keen’s 2015 Bluegrass tribute album “Happy Prisoner: The Bluegrass Sessions.”
Rushing back over to The Burl stage from the podcast taping, I was able to catch a portion of the set by Kentucky’s own rising country star, Kelsey Waldon. Waldon had critically acclaimed success with her prior album, I’ve Got A Way, and the crowd’s response to those songs was proof positive. The country and Americana music scene has been abuzz since the report of Waldon being signed by John Prine’s Oh Boy Records. I know the crowd that gathered at The Burl stage were eager to hear some tracks from the record due out in early October. She featured “Anyhow” which is her new single from the forthcoming album, White Noise/White Lines, and it received an approving response with most of the crowd already knowing and singing the words. One of the songs from the new album that I was delighted to hear her perform that day was “Sunday’s Children.” The entire album is fantastic, but that song with its heavy bass line and striking lyrics is a stand out track. I’ll have more coverage in the near future from an interview I had done with Kelsey later that day.
Next, on my agenda was the second Americana podcast taping featuring Drew Holcomb of Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors. I came in as Holcomb and Robert Earl Keen were discussing a song from his brand-new album, Dragon, called “But I’ll Never Forget the Way You Make Me Feel.” It is a song for his wife and fellow singer-songwriter, Ellie Holcomb. It’s written about forgetting the details of moments and events the couple experience throughout their marriage, but not letting that get in the way of remembering the feelings those moments evoked. They also discussed the difference in sound and the challenges of capturing the same emotion in a live performance versus recording studio tracks. Holcomb talked about the balance of confidence and learning from each record that gets made. He talked of fighting to have “What Would I Do Without You” on his 2013 Good Light album. His team was skeptical because it was a dark song with no chorus. As it turns out, that song has come to be one of his most beloved by fans. REK asked Drew about his songwriting methods. He said he usually does most of his writing late-night at his kitchen table or in the car with a voice memo app. Watch for an article of a more detailed interview I had with Drew that evening after his Elkhorn stage set.
During the time I spent sitting in on the podcast tapings and conducting interviews with Kelsey Waldon, Justin Osborne of SUSTO, and Drew Holcomb, the UK’s Jade Bird, Lexington’s Johnny Conqueroo, Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors, St. Paul and the Broken Bones, Fruitbats, and I’m With Her all took the stage. Oklahoma Reviews’ photographer, Kaeleigh Williamson of Wildflower Soul Photography, was able to capture, through the lens, many of those performances that afternoon.
After meeting with Drew Holcomb, I stepped out to the Elkhorn stage to catch the first three of Grammy winning, Alt-country rocker, Lucinda Williams’ set. With a career spanning 40 years, Williams has had much success, but commercial success didn’t come to her until the mid-90’s and beyond. With her lyric sheets propped on a music stand next to her (her crippling stage fright causes her to sometimes forget lyrics), Lucinda and her band commenced with “Protection.” It’s the popular second track from her eleventh studio album, Down Where the Spirit Meet the Bone. The following tune was the Replacements frontman, Paul Westerberg, inspired song, “Real Live Bleeding Fingers and Broken Guitar Strings.” Williams is a big fan of Westerberg’s songwriting, so she was compelled to write her own song in regards him. The last song I stayed for is a setlist staple, “Drunken Angel,” from her highly esteemed Car Wheel on a Gravel Road album from 1998. The song was written about her friend and fellow singer-songwriter, Blaze Foley, who was shot and killed in a bar during an argument turned wrong.
Back on The Burl stage, was the Lexington-based jamgrass infused Bluegrass band, The Wooks. The high-energy music of The Wooks has garnered much popularity as of late and the large crowd sprawled across the lawn was evidence. The band also played to a packed house at The Burl’s music venue the night before for the Railbird afterparty. Since 2014, The Wooks have put out two albums, accumulated award nominations, competition wins, and have amassed an impressive festival resumé. I am looking forward to their Appalachia on the Rocks showcase on September 29 at the Cervantes Masterpiece Ballroom in Denver, Colorado.
Up next on the Limestone stage, Grammy Award winner and dubbed by Rolling Stone as “The King of the Summer Festivals, was Gary Clark Jr. The phenom brought his magic to Railbird Festival, showcasing his ability to bring Rock, R&B, blues, soul, pop, psychedelia, punk and hip hop all into one unique sound.
Firing up just fifteen minutes later, on The Burl stage, was the Blackfoot Gypsies. The hard-working band from Nashville brought the stage to the ground with their adrenaline style of downhome roots of Delta blues mixed with influenced 70s sound of that sweet rock ‘n’ roll.
The hottest country band in all the land, Tyler Childers and The Foodstamps, was up next on the Elkhorn stage. Prior to his set, he was graciously presented with the key to the City of Lexington. The crowd filled in tight around the stage and up the hill as far back as I could see. It was a sight to behold and I can only imagine the pride and delight in the entire band’s hearts to gaze upon so many fans that showed up to see them play. This performance was coming hot off the heels of several monumental events. The newest album, Country Squire, had just released and promptly went to No. 1 on the Billboard Top Country Album chart. Tyler and his band, The Foodstamps, had a big week playing the New York City Webster Hall for their album release show and also premiered on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. Their Railbird set was jam-packed and mixed up with a ton of favorites and the crowd sang along to every one of them. He got the show underway with the new single, “Housefire.” He then did “Whitehouse Road” from the Purgatory album, and “Redneck Romeo” which he referred to as a Lexington song and the crowd cheered with enthusiasm. Tyler went back to the new album and delivered a few more tracks from it. Childers and the Foodstamps laid down a hard-hitting, fully energized rendition of The Charlie Daniels Band tune, “Trudy,” before ending his show with the much-loved and emotional, “Shake the Frost.”
Sunday headliner, Hozier, was infectious. His vocal range was satisfyingly unexpected, his stage presence was bold and invigorating, and the band that accompanies him is phenomenal. “Take Me to Church” is definitely an “ear worm” and in 2014, put him on the map at an international level, but the rest of his music, at least from a live performance stand-point, is just as powerful and moving to his fans. His Railbird performance is the Irish singer-songwriter’s first trip to Lexington and is on the tail-end of his North American tour to promote his latest album, Wasteland, Baby! One of the more explosive deliveries of his set was of “Dinner and Diatribes” from his March 2019 Rubyworks Records album release. The song paints a portrait of a socially disengaged man that would rather leave his social setting to be alone with his lover. In a tribute to the great legacies of artists like Nina Simone, Billie Holiday, Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, and Mavis Staples, Hozier aroused the crowd with “Nina Cried Power.” In addition to the song being the opening track from his September 2018 EP release of the same name, it can be found as the lead-off single on his newest LP, as well. The studio recording also features the legendary Mavis Staples in which he refers to in the song. “Nobody” is another great track from the Wasteland, Baby! album that starts off with and has a continuing ethereal background tone, but picks up to an excited timbre in the verses. Citing North Carolina astrophysicist, Katie Mack’s research on dark matter, Hozier breaks into his slow and drawn-out song, “No Plan” that is about not “sweating the small stuff.” He uses the lyrical reference, “As Mack explained, there will be darkness again.” I thought that was a very contemplative and intriguing nod to her work. In an effort to beat the traffic, I reluctantly hitched a ride from the festival prior to getting to hear some of my personal favorites from his debut album like, “Jackie and Wilson,” “Work Song,” and “Take Me to Church.” However, there is nothing more I can say about those songs that hasn’t been said in the last five years of their existence.
All in all, I think the inaugural effort of the Railbird Music Festival was a great success. There is always going to be hiccups with any festival, especially of this magnitude and infancy. Those such hiccups with the parking, podcast signage, and a few temporary sound issues are all easily remedied for the future and I look forward to seeing this festival continue to grow. The people of Lexington and the surrounding areas were hospitable and accommodating. The grounds of Keeneland make a beautiful and ideal locale for such an event. The incorporation of the horse race wagering, chef-inspired food demonstrations, and local bourbon distilleries were a nicely added touch to make this festival one-of-a-kind. I loved the variety of Rock, Americana, and Country music acts. This array of genres allows the attendees to check out musicians that they may not have otherwise. I think the diversity in music offerings is important and encourages open-mindedness. My hope is that if there is an artist that you are not familiar with in this line-up that you are encouraged to seek out their music for yourself. I know I left there a fan of many musicians I hadn’t listened to prior. I hope to see you again Railbird! You were marvelous.