By Matt Wickstrom, Kentucky.com
LEXINGTON, Ky. — Following over a decade of combative work in the litigation sector, the Italian-born, Owensboro-raised David Helmers needed a change of pace.
Helmers appears to have found that change, as the man who planted the seed for the inaugural Railbird Festival. The music gathering is bringing some notable acts such as The Raconteurs, Brandi Carlile, Hozier and Tyler Childers to a venue known more for its horse beats — Keeneland.
The festival, which is expected to bring more than 20,000 over the two days, is being brought to Lexington by the producers of Forecastle and Bonnaroo. It’s being touted as an event that will showcase not only the music on its three stages, but also Kentucky’s bourbon and equine culture.
“We have people coming from all over the country,” said Helmers, who is co-producing the event. “I think 49 states now represented from tickets purchasers and a number of foreign countries.”
A long-time concert goer and live music aficionado, Helmers had often tossed around the thought of bringing a premier musical event to Lexington, but a busy career and raising a family left the aspirations as mostly an afterthought. However, following a heart-to-heart conversation with his wife, Helmers opted to leave his law practice in 2011, embarking on a year-long trek around the globe with his family to recalibrate his priorities.
Helmers returned reinvented as a business consultant and mediation specialist and became an angel investor through Wild Duck Investments, which he co-owns with Phil Holoubek. The group has helped to fund start-ups such as the Kre8Now Makerspace, a subscription-based community workshop located at 250 Simpson Avenue featuring over 10,000 square feet of work space filled with CNC routers, 3D printers, sewing machines and other crafting tools.
It was during a consultation gig with with Kaelyn Query, president of LexEffect, producers of the now defunct Moontower Music Festival that had a four-year run from 2014 to 2017 that Helmers got the itch to dive into the production side of things. He became a consultant to the festival in 2016 before taking on the role of minority partner in 2017.
Moontower folded after ticket sales plummeted to nearly 3,000 in 2017 after issues with beer distribution and other hiccups at the 2016 edition. But Helmers walked away with a wealth of know-how under his belt from from the experience he jokingly refers to as “my 101 course in festival production.” Bumps and bruises aside, being a part of the Moontower team helped Helmers to realize that the reality of bringing a bona fide A-list music festival to Lexington and Central Kentucky would just come down to assembling the right group of people to make it all happen.
“While Moontower 2017 was a great success in many ways, producing the event required too much from too few people,” Helmers said. “It was very much a local effort by just a small group of people. Building an all-star team to produce Railbird, including AC Entertainment (producers of Bonnaroo and Forecastle), and partnering extensively with local stakeholders should enable us to create a first-class, durable event that will continue for many years to come.”
In August 2017 Helmers got to work behind the scenes reaching out to production companies and local and state entities about partnering to bring a signature music event back to Lexington.
First to meet with Helmers was VisitLEX President Mary Quinn Ramer. She offered to help organize meetings with prospective partners, hosting visitors and touring them around the city, recruiting folks and pulling together corporate sponsors. Ramer herself had also just wrapped up a destination plan for the area that uncovered seven key recommendations, one of which was to bring a signature festival to the area.
“It’s been an absolute pleasure to work with David,” Ramer said. “He’s not only a passionate music fan but an avid ambassador and promoter of all things Lexington and Kentucky. It’s been exciting working together with him and the rest of the team on this project and seeing our collective visions come to life.”
Helmers and Ramer spent much of 2018 searching for a production partner and host site. Following discussions with a variety of companies, in January 2018 he convinced members of Knoxville, Tenn., based AC Entertainment — producers of Bonnaroo for nearly 20 years and Louisville’s Forecastle Festival for over a decade, among others — to tour Lexington and discuss the viability of producing a festival here.
It was then that both parties saw the potential in Keeneland as a host site due to its legacy along with already having much of the needed infrastructure and amenities to operate a major event in place and having a proven track record of moving tens of thousands of patrons in and out of its premises on any given day throughout the spring and fall meets.
“Keeneland saying yes was a game changer,” Helmers said. “I think that if you’re trying to have a signature event in Central Kentucky that showcases the region there’s no place more iconic to host it than the hallowed grounds of Keeneland.”
A large part of AC Entertainment’s success has been the marriage its events have to their locations, from the ever-expanding Bourbon Lodge at Forecastle, and Derby Festival parties on the Belle of Louisville to regionally curated experiences at some of AC’s smaller events such as High Water Festival in Charleston, S.C., and Big Ears Festival in Knoxville, showing signs of success in markets comparable to that of Lexington. That trend will continue at Railbird with premium bourbon and culinary experiences, horse farm tours and more to bring a well-rounded and authentic flavor of Central Kentucky culture to the festival.
“In doing that you’re creating an event that is unique because it can’t be replicated anywhere else because nowhere else is the horse and bourbon capital of the world,” said Helmers.
According to Keeneland vice president and COO Vince Gabbert, the organization had been approached by a handful of production companies over the last several years to pitch having a music festival on the site. The team at AC Entertainment stood out from the crowd due to their success in particular with running smaller, “boutique” festivals, he said. Citing the 2015 Breeder’s Cup as a turning point, Gabbert said he’s excited to bring a music festival to Keeneland, which will further expand the organization’s commitment and service to the community.
“If you look at the success of Central Kentucky and how it’s currently growing one thing that’s been missing that a lot of people have been calling for is a large music festival much like what cities like Charleston and Knoxville now have,” said Gabbert. “We’re well-equipped at Keeneland to handle a festival from a logistical standpoint and there’s not much going on at our campus this time of year, and with the pieces coming together as they did it made sense to move forward and bring a new energy to our campus and city.”
With over 10,000 tickets sold for each day (and counting), the inaugural Railbird looks poised to have a successful turnout for year one, which Helmers hopes to build and grow on for years to come.
“We’re counting on Lexington to come out and support (Railbird),” said Helmers. “This is something we hope to produce annually and have be a part of the fabric of our community similar to UK Basketball and Keeneland race seasons for years to come, and I think the stage is set for that.”
Herald-Leader chief photographer Alex Slitz contributed to this report.
IF YOU GO: Railbird Festival
What: Music festival featuring performances from The Raconteurs, Brandi Carlile, Hozier and Tyler Childers, among others
When: Aug. 10-11
Where: Keeneland, 4201 Versailles Road