By Matt Wickstrom
In its third year, Kickin’ it on the Creek, located a “Country mile” from downtown Irvine, Ky. May just be the best festival you’ve never heard about. Featuring primarily artists local to Ohio, Kentucky and West Virginia’s Appalachian region, the festivals holds a tight family feel among its performers and attendees due to the devotion and passion for music of Byron Roberts and his family, who’ve curated and hosted the festival, initially a birthday celebration for his son Kenton and fundraising effort for headliner Tyler Childers since its inception.
With an attendance cap of 1,000, fans began flocking to the Roberts’ slice of holler paradise early in the week despite music not kicking off until Thursday afternoon with old-school blues trio Short & Company and a special Gregg Allman tribute from Lexington’s Driftwood Gypsy.Although music started up on Thursday, I couldn’t make it to the festival until late Friday afternoon, arriving just in time to hear the last song from Josh Nolan, who along with multi-instrumentalist Ryan Allen seemed to play with everyone throughout the weekend.
Although music started up on Thursday, I couldn’t make it to the festival until late Friday afternoon, arriving just in time to hear the last song from Josh Nolan, who along with multi-instrumentalist Ryan Allen seemed to play with everyone throughout the weekend.
As dusk transitioned into night, Lexington’s bluegrass troubadours The Wooks took to the stage, bringing the fans in attendance to a fever pitch. The group was joined by Aaron Bibelhauser on banjo as Arthur Hancock, who played rhythm guitar, recovers from tendinitis in his hand, suffered in June around the time of Festival of the Bluegrass. Throughout their set the group mixed in an energetic cover of Robert Earl Keen’s “The Road Goes on Forever” featuring Hancock’s howling vocals with originals “White Lines and Neon Signs,” “Turtle in the Creek” – fitting given it being at Kickin’ it on the Creek; “Out of Mine” and more. The group stands out from many other bluegrass acts due to their mingling of traditional traits of the genre with more modern and progressive ones and a jam aesthetic, attributed to many of the band members’ affinity of Phish, The Grateful Dead and other iconic jam bands.
Following The Wooks were another up-and-coming group from Lexington in Magnolia Boulevard. The group, which formed earlier this year, was booked for the festival by Byron Roberts after he heard them sound check at a spring show at The Burl. The group mixes aspects of rock’n roll, blues, soul and funk into a one of a kind concoction featuring former Moonshine District vocalist Maggie Noelle belting out lead vocals, Gregg Erwin’s intricate storytelling on guitar, journeyman Ryan Allen on keys, veteran drummer Todd Copeland and the groovy baselines of John Roberts. With a growing library of originals performed including “Sister,” a slowed down soulful and bluesy compilation featuring Noelle’s emotional songwriting and passionate vocals to “Ride (The Pocket,” a sped-up jam-packed cut, Magnolia Boulevard wowed the crowd, full of many seeing the band live for the first time.
There may not have been a more deceptive artist at Kickin’ it on the Creek than Justin Wells. The former frontman of Fifth on the Floor is tall in stature but packs a wealth of emotion into his songwriting and vocals with a gritty southern output. Wells transitioned throughout his set from a full band to solo performances, covering much of the content on 2016’s highly regarded debut release “Dawn in the Distance” including “The Highway Less Taken,” a tune about the struggles to make it as an artist and his indecision on what to do after FotF, as voiced in the chorus with the lines “I guess it never made much sense on paper / Every quarter you make is gone before it sees a dime / If it was God’s intention to make me better / I’d have some more to give than words that rhyme.”
Wells also threw in fan favorites “The Dogs,” “Going Down Grinnin’” and “Been a Long Time,” with Josh Nolan, who performed earlier in the day, joining him later in his set for a duet along with William Matheny, who followed Wells on stage with a set of his own. Transitioning throughout from slowed-down emotional rollercoasters to fast rock’n roll ballads, this was easily one of the most action-packed and energetic sets this critic has seen of Wells.
After Driftwood Gypsy’s late night funk-infused rager, Saturday’s festivities kicked off early with a pair of singer-songwriters in Geno Seale and Senora May, wife of Tyler Childers. However, one of the day’s early surprises came from Saskatchewan, Canada’s Blake Berglund. Equipped with honky-tonk instrumentals mingling with his smooth Canadian accent, Berglund wowed the festival crowd with many cuts off his album “Realms” that released only a couple of weeks prior, including the hit “Moose Mountain,” a song about smoking marijuana.
Shortly after Berglund was Bryan Minks & The Kentucky Sons. Based out of Lexington, Minks features a hard-driving rock and Americana sound that swept through the eastern Kentucky holler, bringing slow-rising attendees out of their tents and up to the stage to groove along. Minks electrified the crowd with performances of “Reckless and Free” and a cover of Aaron Lee Tasjan’s “The Dangerous Kind,” helping to kick up the intensity on stage, setting the tempo for the remainder of the day.
Fans flocked to the stage in the late afternoon for Cincinnati’s Arlo McKinley and his band The Lonesome Sound, singing passionately along to every song, bested perhaps only by the devout crowd of Tyler Childers fans later that night. Most impressive about McKinley’s performance was his commanding voice that saw that artist belting out note after note with sheer effortlessness on originals “Waiting for Wild Horses” and “Don’t Need to Know.”
However, the highlight of McKinley’s set may have had little to do with him. During his second song, a drone swept low through the crowd, broadcasting the Ohio artist’s performance to members of the United States armed forces currently stationed overseas. The event, which Byron Roberts notified the crowd of prior to the set’s beginning, drew a jubilant response from the crowd, waving, cheering and displaying their appreciation in any way possible to those watching from thousands of miles away. In a weekend full of kinship and unifying moments, this moment took the cake.
Following McKinley was Angela Perley & The Howling’ Moons, another artist from Ohio, hailing from Columbus. Perley brought an emphatic rock’n roll and psychedelia presence to the stage, jumping around like a kid, much to the crowd’s amusement, and even whipping out a musical saw, with its ethereal sounds echoing throughout the holler. The highlight of Perley’s set was a performance of “White Doves” off her 2016 release “Homemade Vision” along with “Hurricane” from her 2014 debut effort.
It’s no surprise that many of the attendees, if not all, at Kickin’ it on the Creek came to see fellow eastern Kentuckian Tyler Childers. The fast-rising artist didn’t disappoint, performing many of the hits off his debut album “Purgatory” and many he hopes to record in the future, including a cover of fellow Kickin’ it artist Newtown’s hit “Harlan Road, ” which Childers actually is attributed songwriting credits for. The pro-Childers crowd was packed in front of the stage tighter than a can of sardines, but nobody seemed to care, all honed in on the red headed wonder, who was joined by his regular backing band along with Jesse Wells and C.J. Cain of the Wooks and other guests throughout his set, including during performances of “I Swear (To God),” “Universal Sound” and set closer “Whitehouse Road.”
With an emphasis on authentic local artists that most big-name festivals neglect, Kickin’ it on the Creek has proved that you don’t need to go big to be a success, although acts such as Tyler Childers are well on their way. With tickets on a strict cap, you won’t want to sleep on making your plans to eastern Kentucky for the celebration in September 2018. In such a divisive time, there’s no better remedy for bringing people together than music.