Moontower festival goes over the moon

By Aayat Ali and Matt Wickstrom

This article originally appeared in the Kentucky Kernel.

The third annual Moontower Music Festival was the biggest and best yet, serving up a lineup featuring a plethora of musical styles from blues rock to electronic funk to southern and indie rock and everything encompassing the spaces in between. An estimated 5,000 fans flocked out to Masterson Station Park on Saturday to enjoy the festival.

The early portion of the day at Moontower showcased several central Kentucky bands under the sweltering sun, each group matching the heat with an equally fiery set of music. Johnny Conqueroo showed fans that rock n roll is alive and well with a set of hard driving, sweaty blues rock. Small Batch and Blind Corn Liquor Pickers followed, rocking out to the loyal fans standing up to the unforgiving sun.

Nashville’s Chrome Pony followed Blind Corn Liquor Pickers on the festival’s Moon Stage, bringing with them their blend of indie rock n roll. The one-of-a-kind screechy voice of guitarist Tyler Davis echoed throughout the sun-drenched fields of Masterson Station Park, augmented by the unorthodox yet intriguing mix of organ, drums, and bass for a gritty garage band-esque sound.

Following Chrome Pony was Bassh, another group from the music city. The group is billed as a duo of brother-in-laws Jimmy Brown and C.J. Hardee, but featured a four-piece outfit for their Saturday afternoon set at Moontower. The highlight of Bassh’s set was a performance of hit song “Body”, a tune with strong indie pop influences courtesy of Bill Reynolds of Band of Horses who lent a helping hand in shaping the song.

Following Bassh a flare of country and bluegrass music invaded Moontower with Aubrie Sellers and Mandolin Orange. Aubrie Sellers, also the daughter of country music star Lee Ann Womack, showed that the musical genes in the family didn’t end with her mother. Sellers has a commanding stage presence, with her powerful voice reaching out and grabbing at you demanding your attention. Sellers, who is helping lead a new wave of women in country music, surprised fans near the back end of her set with a cover of The Beach Boys “In My Room” before closing out her set with “Just to be with You”, a cut from 2016’s New City Blues.

The mandolin and guitar duo of Mandolin Orange followed Sellers on the Tower Stage, providing an intimate mid-afternoon set of elegant bluegrass and folk. Emily Frantz traded in her mandolin for the violin on “There was a Time”, and later brought out banjo player Arthur Hancock from The Wooks for a cover of The Stanley Brother’s “Long Journey Home”.

Over on the Moon Stage, The Weeks started off their performance with the song “The House We Grew Up In” from their 2008 album Comeback Cadillac.  Through the heat of the day, the whole crowd managed to muster up the energy to engage in the catchy, fast-paced southern rock tunes.  The band rocked through their set with several upbeat tunes and encouraged everyone to “dance with the person next to you.”

The Tower Stage brought renowned indie pop band JR JR, formerly known as Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr., for their first performance in Lexington.  With amusing banter about a rough night involving Kentucky bourbon, the band played the single “Gone” from their recent self-titled album.  They also treated the crowd with a rare performance of the song “Knock Louder” from their 2013 album The Speed of Things, which featured a tight-knit three-part harmony.

Although The Floozies started off with a 10-minute technical delay, the duo quickly proved why they were one of the most anticipated acts of the day.  With two laptops, a guitar and drum set, the pair fed the crowd funky tunes unlike any of the other performers of the day.

Nashville band Judah and the Lion introduced themselves as the Backstreet Boys and opened with a cheeky rendition of “I Want It That Way.”  The band’s performance allowed for plenty of audience participation as they jammed into their song “Twenty-Somethings” that transitioned into an R. Kelly cover of “Ignition (Remix).”  Choreographed dance moves, three different banjos, a mandolin and a mixture of rock and hip-hop beats are the components that set Judah and the Lion apart in their performance.

Troy Andrew, who plays under the moniker Trombone Shorty, picked up the groove for the night. Two saxophones, guitar, bass, drums and the obvious trombone, the band’s hour-long set felt like it could have lasted another two hours.  Song after song, the band’s energy refused to simmer throughout the entire performance.  They closed out with a quick cover of the James Brown classic “Get On Up.”

Following the eclectic mash-up of jazz and funk from Trombone Shorty was southern rock all-stars Drive-By Truckers. The crowd erupted during a performance of “One of these Days”, an older tune written by guitarist Mike Cooley that the group dusted off for Moontower. The group later shredded to “Hell No, I Ain’t Happy” that included a bridge into a cover of Prince’s “Sign of the Times” and the Truckers new single “What is Means” off their forthcoming album “American Band”, out Sept. 30.

Manchester Orchestra, a Kentucky favorite, rounded out the night, playing through their head-banging tunes as the entire crowd sang along to seemingly every song.  Opening with the song “Pride” from 2009’s Mean Everything to Nothing, the audience’s energy made the already loud show feel like a full-grown music festival.  The band played various songs from their discography, along with announcing they were about to start recording their new album the very next day.  Always humble, lead singer Andy Hull took a moment to thank the crowd for coming.

Diving into their earlier catalog, Hull introduced one of their last songs saying, “This next song’s about the end of the world and what the 19 year-old version of myself thought it would look like.” The band then jammed out the 2006 hit “I Can Barely Breathe” that was largely sang by the audience with the lyric “When I fly solo, I fly so high.”

While the music and new stage setup was run to perfection with no delay between bands to set equipment up, better execution could be had in regards to beer and food vending options. Only one beer tent was available at the festival, and many of the food vendors on site ran out of key products and ingredients in the middle of the afternoon. Despite the frustrations, the music at Moontower left many fans young and old going home smiling ear to ear.

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