THROUGH THE LENS: Kentucky’s Railbird Festival
Brandi Carlile - Railbird Festival 2019 - Photo by Amos Perrine
Generally when this column features a festival I talk about the music. But this time I’ll focus more on what it was like to be there. Given that Railbird is a first-time festival, held this past weekend on the back side of the beautiful Keeneland racetrack in Lexington, Kentucky, that seems appropriate. In case you have never been to a horse race, a railbird is a horse that hugs the rail as it comes barreling down the track to the finish.
Everything was going fine until I got to the car on the first night. I didn’t mind that finding the car in the dark took an extra few minutes. I didn’t even mind — that much — that someone had pilfered the vegetables and peaches (my supper) I picked that morning and had left tucked discreetly beneath the car, out of the sun. No, what was distressing is that once I moved the car into line I sat there 1 hour and 45 minutes before exiting the grassy parking area. Then the route back to town was a roundabout way on backroads. Unless you knew the area extremely well or had a GPS, you’d have been in a pickle.
But that was the only negative to the inaugural Railbird Festival. Other than that — and that did take a beating on social media — the fest was well thought out and organized, with all sets beginning on time. Security was very tight, but unobtrusive. The way it should be. It was also extremely hot, but there were numerous stations providing free water. I took the extra precaution of adding electrolytes.
The first thing I noticed after entering through a “stating gate,” like the ones that keep horses apart before the start of a race, were the numerous areas to purchase beer, wine, and liquor. Yes, real Kentucky bourbon. With so many distilleries in the area, and a captive festival audience, it was not unexpected. However, what was unexpected, despite the abundant alcoholic offerings (including $15 margaritas), was a lack of apparent inebriation, and absolutely no related incidents. Upon leaving I asked about that and was informed there were no incidents of any kind.
The Grounds, Stages, VIP Areas, and More
The grounds were vast, but gently sloping so you did not have to look over or between a bunch of heads in front of you. Everyone also seemed to respect other folks’ space, and generally were so doggone polite. Maybe it’s a Southern thing.
The festival offered three stages for music (small, medium, and large) that offered extremely little shade and were set far apart from one another. So, while there was no sound-bleed, my Fitbit had fireworks going off quite often on the treks between stages. As sets were staggered you could easily do half sets if you wanted.
While there was some limited VIP viewing up close, the two-story VIP areas of the two bigger stages were a football field away. Each had an enclosed air-conditioned first floor and a viewing area on top, with the largest stage offering stadium seating.
There was an indoor “stage” that showcased nationally known chefs. Along with tastings, local bourbon was also available. A nice addition. There was a fifth stage, one for children that was basically an open mic for anyone of any age. Not that there were many families there, but it was nice to have.
Finally, this fest was the most LGBT-friendly fest I have ever attended. Freedom is not another word for nothing left to lose. Nor is it finite. Rather, it’s exponential — i.e., the freer someone else is the freer I am, the freer we all are. At Railbird we were free to be you and me.
Brandi Carlile – Can there be any doubt who’ll be named Artist of the Year at AmericanaFest next month? Wearing a Highwomen necklace, Carlile took it home, and the crowd with her. Afterward she joined Old Crow Medicine Show for a couple of numbers.
Mavis Staples – Even though I experienced the Stop Making Sense tour, I still lost it when she did “Slippery People.” The Legend of legends.
Yola – With Anthony da Costa on guitar, Yola wooed a crowd that, according to my informal poll, had never heard her before. They’re believers now.
Lillie Mae – With brother and sister in the band, Mae’s musical charms, demeanor, and authenticity beguiled the audience. If you’re not hep, this Friday is a good time to start as her second album, Other Girls, drops.
Billy Strings – Strings approaches music like a jazz master. He’s Tony Rice on steroids, and has a band to match.
Kelsey Waldon – Kentucky-native Waldon showed out-of-staters why John Prine and Willie Nelson are fans. Prine so much so that her new album, White Noise/White Lines, comes out on his label Oct. 4.
I’m With Her – With all due respect to other trios, this is my supergroup.
These are just my highlights; you can see most everyone else in the photos below, save for the later Sunday sets as I had a prior obligation at home.
Now the photo collection that can become a slideshow by clicking on any one. They’ll also be enlarged when you do so.