Words: Aaron Weaver
Photos: Brock Caldwell
Welcome to Railbird. Welcome to Kentucky. Welcome to America.
On August 10th and 11th, Railbird Festival made its inaugural debut on the grounds of Keeneland in Lexington, Kentucky, the world famous racetrack and industry leading thoroughbred horse auction house. Railbird separated itself from the myriad of other festivals vying for your festival dollars by concentrating on the region hosting it; the bespoke lineup featured Americana music in all its forms, as well as opportunities to explore equine culture and Kentucky’s most famous creation – bourbon whiskey.
As a new festival there were a few hiccups, most notable was the exiting plan after the festival Saturday night, but for the most part, AC Entertainment – the same group who puts on Bonnaroo and Forecastles among other festivals – put on a seamless festival that provided a positive experience for all those in attendance. I was struck by how happy everyone was to be there. On a weekend when temperatures soared, and at a location with limited shade available, the crowds stayed upbeat and focused on the music. And I think that was the key to the whole experience; this was a festival where everyone came to see the music. There was a notable lack of festival scenesters. The floppy felt hats, floral jumpers, and nautical wear cribbed from Instagram photos of Coachella and found at most festivals were replaced by more practical concert going attire; shorts, tshirts, sundresses, ball caps and straw sun hats, and, for the cowboys in attendance, jeans, western shirts, and stetsons. To eavesdrop was to hear excited utterances about what performers the people were excited to see next, who their favorite band were, and how to decide between who to see and who to skip. Because with three stages all scheduled with brilliant performers, it was not always easy task to schedule your day.
Railbird gave us a lineup of some of best Americana, Alt-Country, Bluegrass, Folk, R&B, Blues, Old School Country, and good old Rock and Roll artists currently touring; both well established acts and up and coming next generation artists. Official headliners were The Raconteurs on Saturday and Hozier on Sunday. I’ll talk about them more in a minute, but first I would like to posit that there was a third, unofficial headliner. Tyler Childers was the name that you heard mentioned most often. The weekend was start to finish a feast of great music. These were some of the highlights.
Local Boy Done Good
Tyler Childers, the Eastern Kentucky native, got his start performing by bouncing back and forth between Lexington, Kentucky and Huntington, West Virginia, so it is no wonder that he is viewed as a local hero. Offering up a style that mixes country, blue grass, and folk, his songs feature a strong vocal narrative of the rough of tumble lifestyle of growing up and living in rural America. His songs are full of stories of family, coal mining, drinking, cocaine, and women. The stories aren’t romantic but they do romanticize the lives of real people getting by where they are and with what they have. 25 minutes before the man took the stage you could witness a grand migration of people across the festival grounds, homing in on the performance, and leaving other performers audiences looking a little sparse. Childers put on a passionate, vigorous performance that did not dissapoint his hardcore fan base. And you can tell he loves those fans. On the verge of becoming one of the biggest names in country music, Childers stopped his performance like a guy playing the local roadhouse to congratulate the Hickeys on 40 years of marriage. He added that “they are winning at life”. So are you Mr. Childers. So are you.
I’m from Cincinnati where many still mourn the demise of The Greenhornes, the garage-blues rock trio that ended when two of the members, Jack Lawrence and Patrick Keeler, left to form The Raconteurs with Brendan Benson and legendary rocker Jack White. Ending a long hiatus, the band is currently touring in support of their new album Help Us Stranger, the Saturday night headliner made sure to mix in enough of their hit songs to keep the audience engaged. One of the highlights of the performance came during the performance of “You Don’t Understand Me” when White took over one of the keyboards from touring member Dean Fertita of The Dead Weather and Queens of the Stone Age, and the two performed a long dueling keyboard jam. The crowd response was exceptional as the The Raconteurs showed they still have something to offer in this increasingly post-rock musical world.
The Pop Star
Irish musician Hozier seemed a little out of place with the rest of the lineup. Yes, he is known for an indie rock folk-singer looks like a match for the festival on paper, but the artist best known for the multi-platinum “Take Me to Church” felt like a little more of a polished and pop radio ready product that the other performers on the line up. Closing the entire festival late on a Sunday, and following crowd favorite Tyler Childers, I expected many to depart early for home. I was proven wrong as Hozier did his job and held the audience to the very end. He provided a soulful, heartfelt ending to a great weekend.
The American Treasure
That is what Mavis Staples is, an American treasure. The octogenarian has seen a thing or two in her life. Beginning her career with The Staple Singers in the 50s, she was heavily involved with the civil rights movement in the 60s, was family friends with Martin Luther King Jr., was once proposed to by Bob Dylan, and has performed with more big name musicians over the years than I care to list. After everything life has shown her over the year, Mavis still brings nothing but positivity to the world. IMavis Staples let us know that we’ll get by with love and faith. She preaches understanding and acceptance telling the audience that “if I tell you my life matters, that doesn’t mean that I don’t think your life matters, too”. Mavis addressed the crowd openly and directly, singling out individuals in the crowd to make comments and ask questions. After decades on stage, she knows how to pull people in and make a connection. And vocally, Mavis still feels in her prime, her voice has not lost a bit of its power over the years.
There was a weird personal moment for me during her set. At the end of the set, Mavis and her band covered “For What It’s Worth”. Only days after the shootings in El Paso and Dayton, hearing the lyrics “there’s a man with a gun over there” hit me with a relevance that it hadn’t before. Battle lines do feel as though they are being drawn. These are increasingly dark times that we live in. I’m thankful for the light that is Mavis Staples.
I get surprised by at least one performer at every festival I attend. Usually it’s a band I wrote off too quickly based on an early song that did not appear to me or whose musical style just doesn’t appeal to me. I’ve tried several times over the years to get into Brandi Carlile, but I have always felt her music was a little too pretty, a little too soft for my tastes. 30 seconds into Carlilie’s live set and I knew had been wrong, this lady rocked. Carlile and her band (she’s been with bandmates the Hanseroth Twins for almost 20 years she told us) played an full-hearted set full of upbeat music and personal stories. Carlile was having fun and let her fans know that she was happy to be playing Railbird, but was jealous of them because she wished she was attending the festival. Stand out songs included “Eye” and Joni Mitchel’s “A Case of You” but it was the cover that Led Zepplin’s “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You” that most impressed. I need to go back through that catalog again.
If you haven’t seen Gary Clark Jr. perform live you are missing out. The man controls the guitar. He’s not Jimi Hendrix, he’ s not Prince, he’s not one of the Vaughan Brothers or Eric Clapton, he’s not anyone except Gary Clark Jr. but his unique mix of blues, R&B, soul, and rock are the convergence of so many unique musicians that have come before him that his sound is at once familiar and something brand new. Clark closed his performance with one of his signature songs, his cover of the Beatles “Come Together”.
St. Paul and the Broken Bones performed immaculate R&B songs that make them sound like they are from a different era. No one who has heard them on the radio or streaming service without having seen them expects that voice to come from a pudgy bald white man, and no one expects that same man, on a day that people are close to passing out from the heat, to be dressed head to toe in glittering sequined gospel robes like the bastard son of James Brown and Elton John. I could see the sweat shooting from his forehead all the way from the soundboard. The temperatures did not stop him from showing off his best fancy footwork either. The band looked a little more normal but were just as inappropriately dressed in black suits. Heat can’t stop a well planned show, I guess.
The Bucket Lister
I have been trying to catch Lucinda Williams for years, but life always got in the way. Either I could not get off work or was out of town, or she was playing close but i couldn’t make the trip to see her. Sometimes in these circumstances the anticipation of finally seeing the performer makes it an ultimately disappointing experience. This was not the case here – Lucinda did not disappoint. She did seem a little distracted at times and didn’t go out of her way to connect to the crowd, at one point she turned her back on the audience during the performance and someone came out from the wings to check on her, but musically she had it all pulled together. Her voice and her guitar were clear and true. As a bonus, I actually go to hear my favorite song by her, “Unsuffer Me”.
The British Are Coming
Because Americana music is not just for Americans any more, there was an impressive of array of British musicians who have embraced the sounds of American folk music, gave it a twist of their own, and brought it back to this side of the Atlantic. Both days of the festival were opened by British songbirds; Lucie Slivas on Saturday and Yola on Sunday both gave impressive interpretations of American music even if they were not impressed by the heat of the American summer. Jade Bird showed off one of the most impressive voices of the festival. She played mostly off the newest album but also provided a Johnny Cash cover and a cover of the Bangles “Walk Like An Egyptian”.
The Rooted Ones
It was good to hear a few bands seem to stick to the basics. Not that their music was basic, but getting back to the roots of Roots Music is always a good idea. Old Crow Medicine Show, Mandolin Orange, I’m With Her, and Billy Strings Band all reminded me of going to Appalachian heritage festivals as a kid. All have managed to put their own twists on the sound, paying homage but keeping it interesting.
One of the best parts of what Railbird did at their festival was to showcase the local music scene, and Kentucky evidently has quite the burgeoning music scene happening. Keep your eyes out for Kelsey Waldon, Johnny Conqueroo, and Blackfoot Gypsies all deserve a bigger stage and a larger audience.
The Not Music
With all the great music at every moment of the festival it was hard for me to truly dive into the other aspects of Railbird. I did enjoy a few bourbons to be sure, but I wish I could have experienced one of the Chef showcases at the festival, the people I talked to that did said it was something special. I stopped by to check out the simulcast horse racing area but not long enough to place a bet. I plan on coming back in October when Keeneland opens back up for live racing. And I plan on coming back next year for Railbird Year 2. If it is half the music experience that it was this year, it can’t be missed.