Words: Aaron Weaver
Photos: Brian Bruemmer, Rubato Photo – Website // Instagram // Facebook

Let’s Talk About Railbird 2021:

No Fyre Festival But Perhaps A Festival On Fire 

Let’s talk about Railbird. The inaugural Railbird was a highlight of the 2019 festival season. It featured a great musical lineup, had an interesting atmosphere, and took a unique perspective focused on the culture of Lexington as part of the event. After a COVID gap year, Railbird 2021 returned to the famous Grounds of Keeneland, promising a mix of national, regional, and local acts with an emphasis on Americana, curated bourbon experiences, and a window into the equine culture for which Lexington is famous. For one weekend in August, Railbird brought together over 30,000 people from all over the country, many having their first concert experience since the COVID pandemic had begun. Festival goers needed to bring either proof of vaccination or a negative test result to enter, another Railbird promise, that this would be a safe experience for all who came…

Let’s talk about Railbird. We should talk about Saturday. But I don’t want to talk about Saturday. Let’s talk about Sunday instead…

We arrived at Keeneland on Sunday around 2:00pm and were quickly directed to the correct parking lot. We waved down a person on a golf cart who pointed us towards the shuttle pick up spot. The shuttle dropped us a short walk to the admission gates, which at this time had lines only a few people deep. The first set of gates checked for the bracelet for COVID vaccinations that were given out the day before- I had my vax card out but was told the bracelet was good enough. The second gate scanned my admission bracelet and greenlit me to enter. This was good; this was efficient, quick, and friendly. Much, much better than Saturday. 

But I don’t want to talk about Saturday. Let’s talk about Sunday. 

The War & Treaty (Brian Bruemmer/Rubatophoto.com)

We enjoyed a few minutes of S.G. Goodman, the Jim James produced singer-songwriter, who was playing at the Burl Stage as we entered the main entrance. Once inside we headed to the Elkhorn Stage for The War and the Treaty. We had looked at the schedule when deciding what time to arrive and there was no way we wanted to miss this husband and wife duo performing their mix of gospel, blues, country and soul. It was Sunday after all, and this was as close to church as I was gonna get this weekend. The music was joyous and bright and for the first time this weekend, I was excited to see people dancing. Real dancing, not just swaying back and forth like I’d seen the day before, when you weren’t sure if it was to the music or from the dehydration. There was no dancing on Saturday. The day was a conservation of movement.

But I don’t want to talk about Saturday. Let’s talk about Sunday. 

Cedric Burnside (Brian Bruemmer/Rubatophoto.com)

Next, I was back to the Burl Stage for Cedric Burnside, the multi-instrumental blues performer and grandson of blues legend R.L. Burnside. Cedric initially made a name for himself as a drummer, but as a solo musician he is better known for his traditional blues guitar which seems to both channel and reinvent the family tradition established for him.  I was still feeling pretty good, but I must have still looked wrung out from Saturday, because Burnside’s sound guy leaned out from the booth and handed me a bottle of water. “You look like you can use this, brother.” I was actually doing okay but at no point during the weekend would I have turned down a bottle of water. Not after the commodity water had turned into on Saturday.

But I don’t want to talk about Saturday. Let’s talk about Sunday. 

Robert Earl Keen (Brian Bruemmer/Rubatophoto.com)

Things started heating up around the time Robert Earl Keen took to the Elkhorn Stage. The crowds were starting to grow again, and he seemed  to vibe on the cheers and hoots coming from his fans. Up until this point the temperatures had stayed moderate and there was enough cloud cover that the sun was kept at bay. Around 4pm, the cloud cover finally burned off as the temperatures reached 89° and the heat of the previous day returned. Several times since arriving we had passed by the water stations, and I had noted that there had been no lines for water, but now lines were starting to form although still only a dozen people or so deep on each side. This was a stark contrast to the lines on Saturday which seemed to take the shape of infinity symbols, twisting and turning and never ending… 

But let’s not talk about Saturday yet. Let’s keep talking about Sunday. 

Liz Cooper (Brian Bruemmer/Rubatophoto.com)

Back at the Burl, Liz Cooper impressed me with her guitar shredding. This was not what I was expecting, and with my mouth slightly agape I watched her bend and break notes with the help of her wawa bar and effect pedals. Unfamiliar with Cooper prior to the festival, I had listened to several songs and her latest album to prep for the festival, but it had not prepared me for her level of virtuosity. Every festival I find a new musician or band to dive into when I get back home. Liz Cooper was this year’s model. But as engrossed as I was, I could not help but notice the main admission gates to the left of the stage, and the rapidly growing lines outside waiting to get in.

The Revivalists (Brian Bruemmer/Rubatophoto.com)

I headed to the Limestone stage for the first time of the day for the Revivalists. The largest crowd of the day so far, I watched from the outskirts for a few songs. They sounded good; clear production and super polished, but not really my thing. They reminded me of a 311 inspired jam band. After a few songs I wandered off to see how the festival was progressing away from the stages. It was obvious that the crowds were catching up with the day before, although I knew they would not reach the attendance of the first day. Too many people had said, tweeted, and posted that they would not return because of the issues on Saturday. I personally had watched a man snap his admission bracelet off of his wrist at the local bar and grill we had eaten lunch at prior to coming to the festival, asking if anyone wanted it as he would not be going back to the ‘expletive, expletive’ festival for a second day. No one took him up on it. The restaurant was full of people grabbing a meal before heading to Railbird. No one wanted to be caught with an empty stomach in case the food concessions were unable to handle the crowds again on the second day. I met a friendly man at the bar who was waiting with his girlfriend for take out while I was finishing my salmon burger. He told me that buying VIP tickets was the smartest thing he had done concerning Railbird. I asked if he meant because the drink lines were shorter, and he said no they were long in the VIP section, too. He said the premium tickets had been 100% worth the extra money because there was an IV tent inside there and he would not have made it through Saturday without one. I thought about all the people I had seen inside of restaurants on my way in, and how many people were buying up supplies on Sunday morning at the nearby Target. It helped explain the lack of lines at the food stands on Sunday. Everyone had made sure to fill up before coming back for Day 2. I personally had not eaten at all on Saturday because I did not have time to wait in the long lines between bands. Besides, you had to wait in another line to get a drink, lines that became famous. Posts on social media reported 2 and half hour waits for beer and water sales. The free water station lines were not much better, and dehydration and heat exhaustion were rampant on Saturday due to temperatures that reached the mid 90s with high humidty adding to the misery. Also according to social media, a weird barter economy developed on Saturday. People were buying bags of ice from vendors, ice was traded for beers, beers were traded for food, food traded for water. People did what they had to do to make it through the day. Some did not make it through the day. 

But let’s not talk about Saturday. Let’s talk about Sunday. 

Band of Horses (Brian Bruemmer/Rubatophoto.com)

I made my way to the Elkhorn again for Band of Horses. The crowds, the temperature, the lines for both beer and water were all continuing to grow. Railbird had promised to make improvements after Day 1, but it was becoming clear that the better conditions on Day 2 so far were only partially the result of their actions and had been bolstered by the late arriving and lighter crowds on the day. Many had opted to skip the lower and lower mid-card and were only coming for the later acts. I remember thinking how unfortunate it was for those bands people had skipped. Just as I had “discovered” Liz Cooper earlier that day, many smaller bands build their fan base by exposure to the fans of more established bands at festivals.  Band of Horses made it obvious that the crowds had thickened. I could not get close to the stage without trying to force my way through the throngs of people. I opted to stay toward the back near a picket fenced in area with wrought iron seating and a bar. As I stood against the outside of the fence, a young woman named Mads asked me if I would watch her two drinks for her. Mads needed someone to make sure no one took off with them or “dropped something funny in them” and I looked trustworthy enough. I assumed she was going to the restroom but a few minutes later she came back with two more drinks and sat them on the ground near me and ran off again. She returned a few minutes later with two more drinks and a friend. At first I thought she might be buying drinks for an underaged friend but they were both clearly over 21. Mads said she was going to get two more drinks but told her friend they should drink one of the drinks on the ground first. They both picked up some type of cocktail garnished with edible flowers. Mads downed hers quickly. She told me her friend was going to stay with me while she went and got two more. She then explained she had access to an area with free drinks and that  she could get two at a time but that after not being able to get any yesterday that she was going to get her money’s worth today. Her friend did not have access so she had been getting drinks for both of them and bringing them out. As the friend was now watching the drinks, I could concentrate on Bands of Horses. The instruments sounded good from the back but the vocals were muted and it seemed like the stage was turned down since I had been there earlier. Suddenly Mads was back and telling her friend to grab the drinks and go because they were on to her. They grabbed their drinks and disappeared into the crowd just before a man in a suit and tie and a bartender came running up to the fence from the inside yelling after the two of them, but were too late. Mads was gone.

I headed back to the Limestone for Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit. I took the path that would take me past the food booths. The day before the lines had been the proverbial mile long, but it was now close to 6:30pm and most of the queues were only a few people deep. Like me, it appeared that most had eaten before coming to the show. I noticed that many of the menus had options crossed off and wondered if they had sold out yesterday and had not been able to get additional supplies between days – unlikely – or if they had tried to streamline the menus for speed and efficiency. I had lunch early enough that I was starting to get hungry but with the heat I wanted something light; besides, the food stands did not sell drinks and the beverage lines were not as lean as these. I ended up at Gus’s World Famous Chicken and ordered the $12 chicken tenders and fries plate and was underwhelmed by the two tenders the size of my index fingers and the overly salted fries in the container. I ate the chicken and threw the fries away. I am not sure what they were famous for but it was not taste or abundance. But at least I was able to get something to eat. I never did get a chance to eat on Saturday, lines at least an hour long there was no time because there was just too much to miss. And honestly, it was too damn hot to eat anyway. Long lines, no tables, no shade – it made for an unappetizing Saturday.

But one more time, let’s not talk about Saturday. Let’s talk about Sunday. 

Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit (Brian Bruemmer/Rubatophoto.com)

Jason Isbell is a consummate professional and genuine nice guy who gave the crowd everything they were expecting. His banter between songs is almost as enjoyable as the music itself. This was one of the performances that I had most looked forward to and he and the 400 Unit lived into my expectations. Unfortunately, Amanda Shires, incredible violinist and wife of Isbell, was not present at the show for personal reasons. Together they are big proponents of vaccinations and some of the key figures responsible for the health requirements for entry into Railbird. 

Khruangbin (Brian Bruemmer/Rubatophoto.com)

And then there was Khruangbin. Playing on the Elkhorn, Khruangbin was the last band before Sunday headliner the Dave Matthews Band would take the stage on the Limestone. As they began, the sun started to set, the heat of the day subsided, and for one set everything at Railbird seemed perfect. Anyone who has seen Khruangbin knows how difficult it is to put into words their sound – a fusion of classic rock, psychedelia, R&B, and 1960’s Thai music. Anyone who has seen them also knows how mesmerizing their stage performances are. Their stage presence is dramatic, their stage costumes are incredible, and their stage wigs are… Creepy? Cool? Creepy Cool? I made the mistake of looking up the band without their wigs one time, and it was like seeing Superman without his cape. Just accept the wigs. They are important. But ultimately you are there for the music. Which is amazing.

And then we left. No, I did not stick around for DMB. We walked to the shuttle, took it to our car, and left before we would get stuck in the exiting traffic. We had to. Because Saturday had taken so much out of us.

So no matter how much I don’t want to talk about Saturday, we have to talk about Saturday.

John Moreland (Brian Bruemmer/Rubatophoto.com)

Because every time you get to see John Moreland is a gift, even if you just walked several miles in 87° heat and ridiculous humidity and vast confusion about where to go and how to get in. Even if you spent over an hour driving around the Grounds of Keeneland, being directed to lot after lot after lot because none of the parking staff knew where to send you or who to ask to find out. Even if you waited in line to wait in a line to wait in a line to get in to the festival grounds. Even if you thought you’d be inside the gates by 12:30pm but barely made it in by 2:00pm. Even if Moreland is playing on a stage too large for one man, even one as imposing as he. Even if you have to stand 50 feet away from the stage to see him because the stage itself seems to be at least 15 feet high. Even then it is a gift. So was seeing the fan in the crowd who looked like he was straight from the farm, mouthing along with every lyric of the soulful singer-songwriter’s set, a man who looked like he was about to come to tears.

Sarah Jarosz (Brian Bruemmer/Rubatophoto.com)

Because Americana artist Sarah Jarosz and her band were so damn fun to watch. Because after a couple of delays to the start of her set, Joy Oladokun provided one of the few laughs of the day when she announced that she was “brought to you today by technical difficulties”. Because Margo Price is a joy, even if you listen from across the fairgrounds because you can’t take one more step in the oppressive heat. Because Black Pumas are one the most entertaining live shows you will ever see; impossible energy and verve. Because Leon Bridges has grown more funky and interesting over the years. Because Japanese Breakfast will be the band you said you saw way back when in a few years. And because Billy Strings is raucous and fiery on stage, even when fire is the last thing you want.

Japanese Breakfast (Brian Bruemmer/Rubatophoto.com)

Because no matter how many people wanted to compare it to Fyre Festival, the bands still played. The festival still happened. Fans still were able to see their favorite bands and hopefully were able to discover new music.

And we have to talk about Saturday because you can’t ignore the failures of the day. You can’t ignore the lines that defined the day – the lines of cars to get in, the lines at the shuttles, the lines at will call, the lines at the Covid gates that fed the lines for admission. And you really can’t ignore the aforementioned lines for food, for beer, and, most scandalous, for water. Guests were not permitted to bring in their own bottles of water until the second day, until after people waited in line at water stations for hours, sometimes only to find out the station had stopped working. Your only other option was to wait in the same lines as alcohol and soft drinks, and pay $5 for a can of the appropriately named Liquid Death, or $10 a can for the aftermarket sales that started up in the heat of the day when if reached the mid-90s and festival goers were beginning to drop from dehydration. Soft drinks were limited to soda and energy drinks. I looked everywhere for something with electrolytes when I started cramping mid day. Where were the water carts? The soft drink carts? How much revenue did the festival miss out on by being understaffed?

And because, while you can’t control the weather, it was not a surprise heatwave, and providing an obviously larger crowd with apparently the same amenities as the first festival shows a lack of planning. Less amenities if you note that the permanent restrooms available in 2019 were locked this year, depriving an at-risk crowd a source of not only toilets but of both potable water and an often overlooked commodity, shade. As you walked around Railbird, people were huddled together in whatever shade they could find. For the most part, the festival grounds were wide open with very few public shelters for the non-VIP guests to get out of the blazing sun, all of which were away from the music. People were lying next to fences, small trees, the backs of sound booths, even in the shadows of recycling bins (as far as I could tell, there  were no garbage cans at Railbird, only cans marked for recycling, so of course everything went in the same bin). As the day wore on, many of these areas filled with guests who were passed out or barely conscious, their friends trying to nurse them back to health. I watched people bent over in exhaustion, some of them vomiting from the heat. I watched people carted out, carried out, or who hobbled out on their own well before the festival ended.

Because the technical problems did not end once Joy Oladokun finally got started but instead became one of the themes of the day, continuing on multiple stages, even forcing a late start to Saturday headliner My Morning Jacket.

Because there seemed to be no reaction from the Railbird until after Day 1 was over. To be fair, there was nothing that could be done about the lines or available amenities once the things got out of hand, but at least they could have removed the tone deaf slides playing on the big screens next to the stages telling people to text the number to receive festival updates when there was no cell signal available at the festival, and worse, the slide reminding everyone to hydrate when hydration was in such short supply. I am sure the joke about leading a horse to water seemed funny when they thought of it, but it certainly fell flat given the circumstances.

Because I downloaded Twtter for the first time in two years so I could follow the narrative from the guest perspective. Because not to mention all the troubles they faced throughout the day would be a disservice to those who endured them.

And because unless you understand what happened on Saturday, you might not understand our decision to leave early on both Saturday and Sunday; that exhausted, dehydrated, hungry, and physically in pain, we decided to leave before headliners My Morning Jacket on Saturday, and because of the lingering effects of Saturday, Dave Matthews Band on Sunday. Missing these performers was a hard decision, but the right one at the time, and proven right by the reports of late starts and exiting issues on social media.

Feedback was fast and fierce on Railbird. The people who left early or did not return for the second day after paying for admission are doubtful to come back if there is a Railbird III. Many who made it through said they will not be back. Would I? That would be a hard call depending on the lineup and if improvements are made. I try to never say never. Time will tell. 

FULL GALLERY