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And They’re Off! The Inaugural Railbird Festival At Keeneland

Lexington, Kentucky has never seen anything like the inaugural Railbird Festival. Over the last few decades, Lexington has had some great success in cultivating talent that goes on to become household names. What Lexington has not had, is a true destination festival. Unlike Louisville that hosts the Forecastle Festival and several Danny Wimmer Productions. That all changed when AC Entertainment (Promoters of Forecastle and Bonnaroo) partnered up with Keeneland.

Let’s be honest, horses and bourbon are what most folks associate with Kentucky. Music though, isn’t too far behind in terms of exports. Kentucky has produced artists like John Michael Montgomery, Montgomery Gentry, Sundy Best, Chris Stapleton, Sturgill Simpson, and of course our newest favorite son in Tyler Childers. Who happened to be one of the headliners at Railbird.

So where else could a classy festival that shines a light on horses, bourbon and music? My answer as a Kentuckian, is nowhere. Keeneland is the ultimate location that has plenty of room to grow with this festival.

Having said all that, we’re incredibly honored that we were given the opportunity to cover this festival and put our own little spin on the who, what and why Railbird is hopefully here to stay.

If you’re a reader of this site, you’ll recognize several artists that we’re going to discuss. If this is your first time here, welcome. We hope you enjoy what we do here at Capture Kentucky. So pull on your boots and let’s get to work!

Our first act was a special one for us. We’ve been screaming from the rooftops about Joslyn & The Sweet Compression for at least two years. We’ve even dubbed vocalist Joslyn Hampton as the “Queen of Kentucky.” Her vocal range and capabilities are second to no one and I’m rather certain they walked away with many new fans.

Next, we took in a performance from yet another Kentuckian in Ian Noe. We were in attendance at the Burl at Ian’s album release, (You can read that here.) so we were anxious to see Ian perform again.

Noe gets compared a lot to folks like Bob Dylan, that’s a lot of pressure on a young man trying carve out his own niche, but you’ll never see or hear Noe complain. Ian Noe is a no-nonsense kinda guy. His performances are intimate, but they’re also very intense. In fact, that’s my favorite aspect of a performance from Ian Noe.

In the hot Kentucky sun, Noe did not disappoint and you can bet your bottom dollar that his festival slots will creep closer to the top of the posters in a short time. Keep an eye on this young man!

Next up was a band that I was really looking forward to, Low Cut Connie. I wrote in our preview article that Low Cut Connie landed somewhere between Bob Seger and Billy Joel on a drunken rampage, I’m even more convinced after witnessing their wild performance on Saturday. THAT was rock’n’roll!!

I truly love it when artists ham it up for us photographers. It really does benefit us all. That’s why Low Cut Connie won the performance of the day. So. Damn. Awesome!!

I did catch a bit of Mavis Staples, but given the first three song limitation on photography, I broke away to see one of my favorite dudes in Mr. Justin Wells at the Burl stage. I’ve always enjoyed Justin, but his band gets better every single time I see them. The addition of Robert Frahm on guitar has elevated the entire band.

Justin performed for one of the bigger crowds at the Burl stage and I obviously loved it, but most importantly, he caught the attention of Rolling Stone. That’s way cooler than anything I can type out for ya. You can check out that article here.

After seeing several songs with Justin, I made my way over to see the living legend himself, Mr. Robert Earl Keen.

Robert Earl Keen is a very important artist to many of the musicians at home here in Kentucky. Mr. Keen is often covered by The Wooks and REK has been helpful and encouraging to none other than Tyler Childers. Inviting him onstage whenever his tour comes nearby. Childers has in turn played several shows in Texas with Mr. Keen, and Tyler has tabbed him, along with Town Mountain, as support at his Red Rocks debut in Colorado later on this year.

In the past, Mr. Keen has played several shows in Central Kentucky, mainly at the now-defunct Willie’s, so I wasn’t sure how big of crowd to expect, but whatever my preconceived notions were, they were multiplied by 100. Lexington really outdid themselves as the road went on forever….yeah, you know the rest!

Grace Vanderwaal was up next. This young lady was thrust into the spotlight when she was a contestant on America’s Got Talent. At just 12 years old, Grace walked away as the champion. Since her debut there, Grace has continued to grow in popularity and if I’m honest, she’ll be selling out arenas and possibly stadiums in five years or less.

Grace kicked off her new tour at Railbird and the few minutes I spent in the photography pit, it was easy to see why folks love her. She’s a star, but she’s also still a teenager. For me, that was what was so enjoyable about her set. Forgetting to grab her ukulele before the song started, she laughed it off where many artists would wilt like a flower in the sunlight. She’s fun, talented and a wonderful example for many young ladies, many of which were in attendance.

Some have given Grace the title as the next Taylor Swift, I’ll be more than happy with just the first Grace Vanderwaal.

After my time in the pit with Grace, I quickly made my way to the Burl stage to catch Billy Strings. Billy has been featured on our site, but I had never experienced his talents firsthand.

Whenever an artist has a lot of hype around them, people seem to have this preconceived notion of what they expect and are often underwhelmed. That is not, nor will it ever be the issue with Billy Strings. Billy and his band were playing so hard and fast that I halfway expected them to spontaneously combust.

Holy crap can that band deliver. My favorite part was that Billy performed barefoot. I’ve found that many of my personal favorite artists perform barefoot. I assume most do so to stay humble or grounded, but I’m not convinced that is true with Billy Strings. Because I think at some point Billy played so hard and fast that he blew his own damn shoes and socks off!!

Next was Brandi Carlile. Her career has quickly risen to become one of the top artists in Americana today. While that genre may claim her, she has a lot more layers than that and all were on display on Saturday evening. Playing on the massively tall Limestone stage, Brandi delivered many fan favorites and even a few surprises.

She played songs like “Hold Out Your Hand”, “Hard Way Home”, “Raise Hell” and of course, “The Joke.” She did an amazing Joni Mitchell cover of “A Case Of You” as well, but the buzz that was going across the field at Keeneland was when Brandi covered the Led Zeppelin classic “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You.”

For me, it seemed like the rock and roll was always just beneath the surface in many of her songs anyway, so when Brandi hit the gas, the fans lost their collective minds. Brandi wasn’t done though, but more on that in a few.

By that time, I was exhausted, the sun had essentially won. When I got back to the media tent to backup my files, the Big Ass Fan was too much to leave. The sun was beginning to set and the sky was an incredibly beautiful sight.

So rather than walking down to photograph the Old Crow Medicine Show, I chose to take the opportunity to simply enjoy their set and watch the sunset. Now you may find that crazy to pass on the chance to photograph a band like Old Crow Medicine Show, but I’ll just leave a photo from the sunset for ya. That’ll explain my decision.

As for their performance, it was high energy, very inviting and fun for all ages. They blasted through songs like “Chicken Pie”, “Tennessee Bound”, and “Methamphetamine, and yes, they sang “Wagon Wheel”, and yes it was deafening, BUT let’s get back to Brandi for a second. Brandi joined Old Crow Medicine Show for their last two songs. Taking to the vocals on the Dolly Parton classic, “Jolene,” Brandi nearly brought down the house, BUT I did say two songs. Stepping back into more of a backup singer, OCMS performed “May The Circle Be Unbroken” originally made famous by the Carter Family. That was easily the highlight of Saturday for most patrons and was an incredible moment with an epic sunset that I’ll always remember.

The Raconteurs closed out the night on the Limestone stage. They had a very strict photo policy and only allowed a couple of photographers to shoot from the soundboard. So since I try to put you in the moments I write about with my photos, we chose to get a headstart on traffic and head out early after watching “Bored and Razed”, “Level”, and “Old Enough.” They sounded great!

On Sunday, I planned on photographing Yola, but we arrived just a few minutes too late, as I really wanted to catch Ona at the Burl stage. The two songs we watched from Yola though only deepened my love for her voice and I will catch her soon.

I mentioned Ona before. Ona is a band. Pretty simple, right? That’s more than just a simple saying on a t-shirt, that’s essentially the vibe from the band themselves. Keeping things simple, singable and fun. These West Virginians brought their “A Game” to Railbird, much to the delight of a rather large crowd at the Burl Stage. No word on whether or not ole Shady Boggs made an appearance.

Kelsey Waldon was up next and if you missed it, we interviewed Kelsey before Railbird. You can check that out here.

As for her performance, she was absolutely on point. Armed with a big smile and an acoustic guitar, Kelsey made her way into the hearts of those in attendance. She was the early afternoon buzz and deservedly so. She even dropped her new single, “Sunday’s Children” on us. Which takes a hard look at religion and the world today. Pretty powerful message and delivered with a funky vibe.

Now we talk about the band that stole the day, the young men that make up Johnny Conqueroo. I’ve been a fan and supporter of Johnny Conqueroo since I heard the first note. I once described them as a band that could write and record the soundtrack to a Quentin Tarantino movie.

I am totally biased here and I am admitting it, but outside of Tyler Childers, Johnny Conqueroo played the best set of anyone on Sunday. They dropped their new single “Calculations” on folks and followed that up with their countrified version Be Bop A Lula. Drummer Wils Quinn was an absolute maniac and the crowd ate it up like candy.

I took a few minutes to head over and photograph Drew Holcomb on the Elkhorn stage. I’m not all that familiar with Holcomb’s music, but I could certainly hear the appeal. I caught his performance of “End Of The World” and later in his set, I caught his story about a fella that approached him rather quickly. He wasn’t sure if he was friendly or angry. The fella told Drew that his child was conceived to his song. I’m not certain of the songs name, but I believe it was “What Would I Do Without You.” It was a rather fun moment for those in attendance.

I am a massive St. Paul & The Broken Bones, so rather than photograph them, I chose to simply enjoy a few minutes of their set before heading over to see our beloved Wooks. Draped in some sort of sparkling blue cape, vocalist Paul Janeway brought the heat to an already blistering hot day as they played several of my favorites. Including “All I Ever Wonder”, “Grass Is Greener”, “Call Me” and from a distance, I heard a bit of my personal favorite in “Broken Bones & Pocket Change.”

The Wooks. Man, where to begin? Over the last two years, the Wooks have made many member changes and that can be detrimental to most any band, but The Wooks aren’t most any band. They seemingly continue to get better and better. On Saturday they played the after party at the actual Burl, I missed that performance, but on Sunday, the Wooks showed the packed crowd exactly why they deserved the prime slot given to them.

The Wooks aren’t exactly your traditional bluegrass band. They do share many elements of traditional bluegrass, but their sound delves into more of the jam band scene with traditional acoustic instruments. With three vocalists in the band, you get a great variety, harmonies and a sound that is immediately recognizable.

Knowing that Tyler Childers set was just a couple hours away, The Wooks opened their set with “Seng.” A song that Tyler penned for his journey to buy his bride a ring. While The Wooks cut the track on their most recent record, I felt it was a great hat tip to kick off their set.

Nashville’s Blackfoot Gypsies closed out The Burl stage. I’ve seen them three times now and I still can’t describe the band. It’s rock and roll, but it’s also punk, and country and poppy and as unique of a sound out there today.

Their set was by far and away the most energetic of the day. Perhaps that’s because vocalist/guitarist Matthew Paige caught Johnny Conqueroo’s set earlier and knew the bar had been raised. Either way, the Blackfoot Gypsies are a must see performance.

That leaves the reason that most of you are reading this article. The return of Tyler Childers to his home state. I’ve written many times about how special it is when an artist comes home, but this story is so much more than that.

Before his set, Tyler was given a key to the city of Lexington. A place that he called home for several years. As you can see by the picture above, that meant a lot to Tyler. It was a moment that I’ll personally never forget.

Tyler Childers released his second album titled ‘Country Squire’ on August 2nd. He followed that up with a sold-out performance in New York City, with Laid Back Country Picker as support. He wasn’t done though. Nope. He made his television debut on the Jimmy Fallon show where he performed “House Fire.”

With all that said, you can see the how and why his Railbird performance was such a huge deal to us Kentuckians. One of our favorite Kentucky sons now belongs to everyone. Tyler has the clout and power of a major label behind him now. So the intimate shows will be few and far between. That does not make me sad, in fact, I couldn’t be more happy that such a wonderful Eastern Kentuckian is holding the attention of so many. Tyler Childers will always call Kentucky home and he will continue to shine a light on problems like the water crisis in Martin County.

So how was the performance? Do you really have to ask? It was flawless, spirited, captivating, exhilarating and a damn good time. While it will take a few performances to get used to the jingly-jangly Telecaster replacing the acoustic on some songs, Tyler has evolved into an artist that we can all be proud of.

Tyler and The Food Stamps opened up with “House Fire” and ended with “Shake The Frost.” Between those two bookend songs, they gave us tons of favorites. Like “Whitehouse Road”, “Redneck Romeo”, my favorite from the new album in “Creeker”, “All Y’ourn”, “Feathered Indians” and three cover songs in “Tulsa Turnaround,” “Long, Long Time To Get Old,” and “Don’t Touch Me.”

It didn’t matter if they were all covers though. This show was a celebration of Tyler Childers with his fans. From the pit, I looked back at the crowd, I didn’t see any grass. It was just people as far as the eye could see and it was glorious.

I honestly don’t think Railbird would have happened without the rise of Tyler Childers. What I do know though, is that the Railbird Festival is now established and isn’t going anywhere for a very long time.