Story by Matt Wickstrom
Photos by Sarah Cahill
LEXINGTON, Ky. — Last weekend the music world centered around our beloved Lexington for the inaugural Railbird Festival. Combining the region’s world class bourbon and horse industries with a world class mix of local, regional and national talent for a one of a kind experience that only Kentucky could provide, the event lived up to and shattered the hype and buzz stirring about since its announcement in March.
With talent the likes of Brandi Carlile, Tyler Childers and Johnny Conqueroo on hand there was something to strike everyone’s musical fancy at every turn, with no true weak spot in the entire two days of festivities. Take a look below at our run down of the top 10 best acts we saw at Railbird (in order of appearance).
Billy Strings brought by far the biggest crowd to Railbird’s Burl Stage on Saturday with a fiery psychedelic twang infused set of bluegrass stylings new and old. The artist’s set ran through a variety of hits from “While I’m Waiting Here” and “Turmoil & Tinfoil” to an old-timey cover of The Stanley Brothers’ “Going to the Races.”
Carlile dazzled at Railbird, running through a plethora of her hits – and a few surprise covers – in her main stage set including “The Story,” “The Joke,” “Raise Hell,” “Fulton County Jane Doe” and “Dreams.” Accompanying them was a moving cover of Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You” and Led Zeppelin’s “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You” transformed into a folk rock medley.
Following her 75 minute Limestone Stage set, Carlile hitched a ride across the grounds to join bluegrass showmen Old Crow Medicine Show on the Elkhorn Stage for an emphatic three-song conclusion that brought the Railbird crowd to a fever pitch. Following a glamorous introduction from fiddler Ketch Secor, Carlile joined the group for staple “Wagon Wheel” before fully handing her the reigns on a conjuring of Dolly Parton classic “Jolene” and Johnny Cash’s “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” Prior to Carlile’s guest appearance, Old Crow’s high strung set included “Dixie Avenue,” “Sweet Amarillo,” “Methamphetamine” and ‘stoner gospel’ “I Hope I’m Stoned (When Jesus Takes Me Home).”
Reunited rock troupe the Raconteurs capped off a heated first day of Railbird Fest with a catalogue spanning set in front of an ocean of sun-drenched patrons. Led by musical mastermind Jack White, the group dipped heavy into their fresh, chart-topping Help Us Stranger including distortion heavy renditions of “Bored and Razed,” “Help Me Stranger,” and “Somedays (I Don’t Feel Like Trying)” while also serving up fresh takes on old hits including “Level” and fan favorite “Steady, As She Goes” from its 2006 debut Broken Boy Soldiers. Also mixed in were cuts from the band’s follow-up 2008 effort Consolers of the Lonely with “Old Enough,” “Top Yourself” and “You Don’t Understand Me” – the last of which saw White switch out his guitar (for which he had one for nearly each song) to get behind the keyboard.
Early Sunday afternoon West Virginia rockers Ona brought glimmery, dream like psych-rock sounds to the Burl Stage, setting the tone for what was the most consistent stage for heavy hitting action and musical discovery throughout much of the weekend. The band ran through several cuts from their new album Full Moon, Heavy Light including “Summer Candy,” “Allison in the Grass,” “Golden Highway Deserter” and a set closing “Young Forever,” with each song diving further into the deep end of psychedelia with dynamic synth usage and cosmic key arrangements from Brad Goodall leading to wildly tripped-out jams.
Following Ona on the Burl Stage was one of the weekend’s several Kentucky thoroughbred performers in Monkeys Eyebrow native Kelsey Waldon. The first artist in 15 years to sign with John Prine’s Oh Boy Records, Waldon conjured up old-timey country visions a la Dolly Parton and Margo Price from the start with an opening “Travelin’ Down This Lonesome Road” before jumping into her newest single “Sunday’s Children” a gospel sounding anti-gospel song of sorts. Waldon later turned the honky tonk up to ten with renditions of “False King” and “Dirty Old Town,” at the end of her performance leaving no doubt why the legendary Prine had the confidence to pull the trigger on this Western Kentucky gem.
Jade Bird – the 21 year old Londoner and second Englishwoman of the day to perform following Yola kicking the event off – channeled incredible raw power and energy in her petite frame leading to a jaw-dropping performance at Railbird. That energy was on display immediately during a set opening “Uh Huh” showing off all of Bird’s vocal range before taking a swift turn into “Good At It” and “Good Woman” from her 2017 Something American LP. Bird later turned up on emotional roller coaster “Ruins” before giving fans a geography lesson during a cover of Johnny Cash’s “I’ve Been Everywhere.”
One of the afternoon’s most energizing sets of musical exploration was led by Lexington power rock trio Johnny Conqueroo. It’s been a blessing to watch the band grow over the last several years as an up-and-coming high school troupe to blossoming on one of the biggest stage’s Central Kentucky music has ever seen, with Sunday’s set being a firm reminder, or perhaps an assertion, that Johnny Conqueroo’s star is continuing to shoot upward. The group had the crowd at the edge of anticipation from the beginning with a groove equal parts western honky tonk and sludgy psych-rock set off by the charismatic charm and musicianship of guitarist Grant Curless and quirky, dynamic drum arrangements of Wils Quinn as they dove into the heavy early with “Brick” and “Rhododendrons.” The band later wielded its two newest songs from an upcoming EP due out this fall in “Calculations” – a honky tonk rock anthem with Nude Party-esque vibes – and “Rock and Roll.”
The Eric D. Johnson led Fruit Bats dazzled during a mid afternoon set on the Burl Stage with a psychedelic and dreamy blend of poetic folk rock. The catalogue spanning set included older hits such as “My Sweet Midwest,” “When U Love Somebody,” “Absolute Loser” and “Humbug Mountain Song” along with freshly fused together cuts from the band’s fresh effort and Merge Records debut Gold Past Life including “The Bottom Of It,” “Cazadera,” “Drawn Away” and “Gold Past Life,” the last of which saw Johnson elevate his voice a few octaves during the song’s catchy chorus “You know you’re never gonna feel as right / Than in your gold past life / A ship of paper on a sea of fire / Back to your gold past life.”
St. Paul & The Broken Bones
St. Paul & The Broken Bones were the first band on Railbird’s Limestone Stage that I made the trek to see on Sunday and the southern soul, funk and jazz collaborative did not disappoint with a blistering set under an equally blistering sun, which frontman Paul Janeway referenced, at one point saying “If you ain’t sweating you ain’t working!” Janeway put in the work, moving to and fro along the towering stage in a shimmering sequin cape pumping his angel-like vocals into a sea of noise that ate up the crowd in its path. The band kicked the party into high gear with the funkified grooves of “Flow With It (You Got Me Feeling Like)” before lifting the crowd up with the soulful “All I Ever Wonder” whilst also mixing in “Grass is Greener” and “Apollo,” among others.
Near the end of a scorching day two – both musically and on the thermometer – of the inaugural Railbird Festival it was Kentucky’s own Tyler Childers, who after receiving a key to the City of Lexington sent a crowd as far as the eyes could see into its biggest frenzy in a weekend full of highlights.
Although Childers will tell you he’s a country music singer, to the fans of Central Kentucky he’s a rock star, and as such the band treated the crowd to an energized, foot stomping affair from the get-go with a set opening “House Fire” from his week old album Country Squire before cutting into a standout from his debut full-length Purgatory in “Whitehouse Road.” Childers then paid homage to Lexington with “Redneck Romeo” with its opening stanza “Lexington’s a city / But it ain’t so big it freaks me out…” The band later dove into cuts of (among others) the twangy title track from his latest effort “Country Squire,” “Charleston Girl,” “I Swear to God” (accompanied by a monstrous “Fire in the hole!” retort from the crowd), “Honky Tonk Flame” and a set closing “Shake the Frost.”
View a full photo gallery courtesy of Sarah Cahill of KY Cahill Photography below.