Story by Matt Wickstrom
Photos by Sarah Cahill
LEXINGTON, Ky. — 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.”
Earlier in the afternoon the band which Tyler Childers sported on the shirt he wore on his appearance on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon last week – 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.
Among the other early afternoon highlights were several Kentucky thoroughbreds, the first of which was Monkeys Eyebrow born 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.
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.”
Other highlights include…
Jade Bird, the 21 year old Londoner and Englishwoman of the day to perform following Yola kicking the event off. Bird channels incredible raw power and energy in her petite frame leading to an often jaw-dropping performance, with Railbird being no exception. 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.”
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 were the first band on Railbird’s Limestone Stage that I mad 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.
Two final standouts were Lexington rhythm and roots outfit the Wooks – who managed to wrangle in the weekend’s biggest crowd on the Burl Stage topping Billy Strings from Saturday – and Gary Clark Jr., who’s rock, soul and blues drenched performance saw the artist channel his inner Curtis Mayfield.
While detailed attendance numbers are not yet known, it’s estimated that upwards of 25,000 fans attended throughout the weekend, with most aspects of the event (with the exception of a minor hitch and alteration for Sunday with day parking) going off to perfection.
“The inaugural Railbird feels like a huge success,” said Railbird partner David Helmers. “We learned a lot and will make some adjustments, but we feel like we got most things right. Most of all, we’re thankful to all of the artists, partners, vendors, staff and fans who made Railbird 2019 an absolute blast!”
Stay tuned for further coverage of Railbird Festival including a comprehensive top 10 breakdown for the weekend and more. In the meantime, view a collection of photos from Sunday courtesy of Sarah Cahill of KY Cahill Photography below.