Story by Matt Wickstrom
Photos by Steve Mack and Sarah Cahill
LIVINGSTON, Ky. — Following years battling the unpredictable wraith of Mother Nature the Moonshiner’s Ball has found a new home within the cozy confines of the Daniel Boone National Forest. The quaint setting at Rockcastle Riverside offered up many intriguing avenues of exploration throughout the weekend including river access for kayaking, moonshine-making workshops led by members of the Discovery Channel series Moonshiners, and of course dozens of bands, some familiar and others not so familiar, for attendees to take a sip of.
Thursday, Oct. 10
The festival kicked off on Oct. 10 with a night of music for early-bird arrivers featuring two regular Moonshiner’s Ball performers in the Baja Yetis and Johnny Conqueroo. Each showed their muscle with the Yetis exhibiting a masterclass in improvisational jazz and jam featuring veterans Billy Underwood (saxophone), Brandon Bowlds (guitar), Mark Falk (bass) and Danielle Barkman (drums) paired with new kids on the block Jacob O’Donnell (sax, Coleslaw) throughout their set and Vivian Leigh (vocals) for a stint that included covers of the Talking Heads’ “Take Me To The River” and Aretha Franklin’s “Rock Steady.”
Spunky acid rock trio Johnny Conqueroo capped the night off with a chaotic set of infectious guitar riffs and spectacular interplay. The catalogue-spanning set included early hits such as “Washed Up” with newer cuts “Rhodedendrons” and “Calculations” along with whipping out the new, unrecorded and straight-forward set closer “Sex and Violence.” The band in many ways has grown up at the Moonshiner’s Ball, having performed at the festival each of the last four years dating back to when its members – Grant Curless (guitar), Wils Quinn (drums) and Shawn Reynolds (bass) – were underclassmen in high school performing on the secondary stage as a relatively unknown act to now being a headlining act and one of the most sought after performances of the festival.
Friday, Oct. 11
Adopted Kentucky natives dominated the early afternoon of Oct. 11 at the Ball with the Appalachian gypsy folk sounds of the Handshake Deals and guitar virtuoso Jordan Smart. The Handshake Deals kicked off the festival’s West Sixth Brewing Main Stage with a quirky mix of light-hearted aesthetic, knocked up a few notches with the band’s Casey Papendieck donning a cheetah print onesie like a messed up kid as he and the rest of the group ran through an assortment of cuts from their debut album from earlier this summer including “Broke Down in Virginia,” “Cheap Beer” and “Ginkgo Tree.” Most impressive throughout the trio’s performance was the different musical hats each member was juggling, with Papendieck and Laura Gregory regularly switching between instruments on the fly and flat-out shredding multiple instruments at once, the most impressive being the multiple times Gregory wailed on the accordion/bass and drums simultaneously with relative ease.
Jordan Smart followed the Handshake Deals in the wooded enclave of the Purple Haze Forest Stage, bringing with him a mammoth stage presence despite performing solo as he showed off his picking chops and proliflic songwriting throughout his set, taking those huddled around on an emotional roller coaster with songs that induced bursts of laughter (“I Sure Would Like To See John Prine” and “Pickle Song”) followed by somber cuts that pulled at the heartstrings (“Heart Of It All”). Panning the crowd throughout his performance Smart had everyone within earshot stuck in a trance from open to close focused on him, not an easy feat in the age of social media and a non-stop news cycle that has whittled down attention spans to next to nothing. Other highlights of Smart’s set included a cover of Blaze Foley’s “Big Cheeseburgers And Good French Fries” along with original cuts “Old Stone” and “With You Tonight” that featured sit-ins from Joel Serdenis (Blind Corn Liquor Pickers) and wife Nikki Siababa, the later of whom clutched the couple’s young daughter during a glorious duet.
Following a performance from Louisville’s Mama Said String Band that featured a haunting cover of The Grateful Dead’s “China Doll” and an off-stage excursion by Eric Bolander and his assholes to counter-act technical issues, Lexington favorites the Wooks took to the main stage for a rambunctious set of foot-stomping honky tonk.
The Wooks pulled out all the stops during a blazing set that saw the group navigate from a jubilant set-opening “White Lines And Neon Signs” to “Little Sandy Queen” while also fitting in covers of Tyler Childers’ “Messed Up Kid,” Robert Earl Keen’s “Undone” and Tom Petty’s “Learn To Fly” along with the ever-popular “Atlantic City” from Bruce Springsteen. Despite recent lineup changes that have seen mandolinist Harry Clark elevated to lead vocalist and George Guthrie come into the fold on banjo the band has continued to shine, further evolve and excel as one of the preeminent bands leading the current Kentucky music movement.
Since it’s inception the Moonshiner’s Ball has had a knack for taking on an entirely new energy once day turns to night, with the upbeat, layered harmonies of Maine-based “Holler folk” troupe Ghost of Paul Revere ushering in the amped up vibes with banjo heavy instrumentals and harmonica-infused ballads of raw musical bliss. Standouts from the band’s set included the hootin’ and hollerin’ “Fire In The Sky” and “San Antone,” a song that starts off slow showcasing the group’s harmonizing before evolving into a happy-go-lucky medley.
Sinkane, the Brooklyn-based collective with a worldly sound, was next on the docket, bringing a ferocious fusion of psychedelic rock, afro-beat, funk, jazz and electronica bursting at the seams with positivity, most notable during a performance of “U’Huh,” a melodic psych-jazz adventure featuring the line “Kulu shi tamaam,” Arabic for “Everything is Great!” followed by a chant of “We’re all gonna be alright,” offering reassurance to those who may be struggling to get by that they are not alone. Throughout the band’s set it was evident that the message of positivity and togetherness was a mantra of sorts for the group, who also featured “Kulu shi tamaam” emblazoned on its drum head. Other highlights from Sinkane included a set-opening “Everybody” and “Everyone” from its latest album Dépaysé along with the rhythmic “New Name” and a groovy cover of War’s early 70s hit “Slippin’ Into Darkness.”
The high-flying rocky soundscapes quickly shifted from the main stage to the Purple Haze Forest Stage following Sinkane for the triumphant return of rising Lexington-based southern rock and jam band Magnolia Boulevard. The group, who last year performed on the same stage during the afternoon, was now thrust into a more primetime slot after a torrid year on the road that has included showcase performances at AmericanaFest, opening for Marcus King and participating in the NAMM conference in Los Angeles. Wielding a razor sharp groove of southern rock influence reminiscent of the Allman Brothers and Tedeschi Trucks Band with a dinstinct bourbon-soaked Kentucky flavor, the group took listeners on a riveting journey of musical exploration the poignant “Sister,” new song “Lovin’ Me” and a staggering cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Gold Dust Woman” featuring chilling vocals from front-woman Maggie Stanley that the band unveiled just weeks prior during their performance at the sold out, 5th annual Kickin’ it on the Creek festival in nearby Irvine.
Despite action packed sets from Sinkane and Magnolia Boulevard leading up to it, nothing could come close to matching the intensity of Brass Against’s raging performance to close out the main stage on Friday night. Led by the prolific free-styling vocals of Sophia Urista and backed by a boisterous six-person brass army, the group had a frenetic main stage crowd ready to mosh from start to finish with imaginative interpretations of Tool’s “The Pot” and “46 and 2,” Rage Against the Machine’s “Killing In The Name,” “Know Your Enemy” and “Bulls On Parade;” and Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir.”
Closing out Friday night at the Ball were another of the festival’s staple acts in jam-grassers Restless Leg String Band, who this year slotted back into their usual late night slot at the event. Taking to the Purple Haze stage at 1:30 a.m. the group wasted no time cutting to a trance of tripped-out jams that included the Ishi Wooton-led “Have A Good Time,” Casen Baumgardner-led “You Make Me Who I Am” and a Joe Schlaak-led cover of Larry Keel’s “One” from the artist’s new album of the same name. The group was later joined by drummer Todd Copeland and vocalist Maggie Stanley of Magnolia Boulevard during Grateful Dead covers “Deal” and “Bye and Bye.” helping to stretch their marathon set into the wee morning hours well past 4 a.m.
Saturday, Oct. 12
Following a late night partying on Friday music circulated back to the stages around mid-day on Oct. 12 with Louisville-based country rocker Tyler Lance Walker Gill. Flanked by an all-star band of musicians that included members of Nellie Pearl, Flatland Harmony Experiment and Roadie, Gill fired up covers of George Jones’ “White Lightning” and the Allman Brothers “Midnight Rider” that featured an occasional quavering on high notes eerily similar to another of the Commonwealth’s red-headed treasures in Tyler Childers. Gill’s forthright, unabashed songwriting also shined through on “Tonight Your Memory Drank Me Under The Table” and “Too Much Is Never Enough,” the later of which tackled the struggles associated with the opioid epidemic, alcoholism and addiction that is rampant across Appalachia.
Following the jet-fueled tales of Tyler Lance Walker Gill was a diverse trio of folk-friendly outfits led by Whitesburg, Ky.’s Wayne Graham, who served up an easy-going blend of Appalachian rock led by Kenny Miles subtle croon carried on the waves of guitarist Lee Owen’s Jerry Garcia-like soundscapes fortified by the rhythm section of Hayden Miles (drums) and Chris Justice (bass). The group flexed it’s muscles with subtle yet infectious Wilco-esque grooves on “Mexico” and “My Tomb” whilst mixing in rockin’ covers of Dire Strait’s “Setting Me Up” and J.J. Cale’s “Drifter’s Wife.”
Minnesota-based folk quartet Good Morning Bedlam brought soft, angelic vocals paired with a sensational stage presence that beckoned late-rising campers out of their slumbers and to the main stage during renditions of originals “Out In The Breeze” and “Long Road” before cutting to the chase with a indie-folk mash-up of Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass” that showed off the band’s versatility and poppy appeal that helped them earn top honors earlier in the summer at the band competition during the annual John Hartford Memorial Festival in Bean Blossom, Indiana.
Bendigo Fletcher, who had to book it to Kentucky for their appearance following a show the night prior in Dallas, Texas, supporting Caamp followed Wayne Graham on the Purple Haze Forest stage with a psych-folk mix full of screeching harmonies of Ryan Anderson and fuzzy synthesizers wrapped around more stripped-down and intimate moments including a solo offering of “Soul Factory” and newly penned tune “Retail Lord.” Additionally, the group – who recently signed to Paradigm Talent Agency – performed two outdoorsy themed cuts from its latest Memory Fever EP including “Chocolate Garden” and “Solar Eclipse 8/21/17, with the band right at home within the hollers and hills of Eastern Kentucky that have been monumental influences to the band and its explorative sound.
Up next was graceful Nashville-based songbird and Third Man Records artist Lillie Mae. New to Moonshiner’s, Lillie Mae wasn’t new to most of the crowd, having performed earlier this summer at the inaugural Railbird Festival along with multiple prior gigs at The Burl, Willie’s Locally Known, Red Barn Radio and other Lexington and area venues. Fresh off the release of her sophomore album Other Girls the artist broke into several cuts from the compilation including “How?” and “Didn’t I,” each of which exhibited Mae’s old-timey country vocals backed by the tightly wound instrumentals of her family band.
Before daylight ceased the largest attended performance of the day (by far) was for Senora May, who was perhaps the most “local” local artist to perform throughout the weekend hailing from nearby Irvine. With her mother and brother in attendance Senora May captivated the crowd with soothing yet assertive tales “California King” and “Milk and Honey” showing off the artist’s sweet and sour songwriting that makes her the sour patch kid of Kentucky music.
Following Senora May’s Saturday afternoon sermon the days’ growing bubble of anticipation burst when the amiable psychedelic folk rock began to reign down from the West Sixth Brewing main stage. Baxter kicked off his performance with a sunny, synth-heavy rendition of “Mr. Rodriguez” before diving into “Strange American Dream,” “Hey Larocco” and other cuts from his highly-acclaimed 2018 album Wide Awake. However, the top moment from Baxter’s set may have been during an electrifying and elongated cut of “Bad Things” flanked by meaty guitar riffs that carried into the raging “Amelia Baker.”
Coming just after Baxter was one of the weekend’s most pleasantly surprising sets from Phat Lip, who threw together a flooring mix of latin pop, rock and soul led by the commanding vocals of Kelly Jo, who made her return to the Moonshiner’s Ball after sitting in with the Matt Fassas Trip last year. Coincidentally Fassas, an artist-at-large throughout this weekend, sat in with Jo and Phat Lip during the entirety of their Saturday evening set that included the striking “Stranger’s Love” and “Citizen Alone,” the later being the band’s next single release that also features Fassas on the recording. Despite Fassas and Jo’s Moonshiner’s Ball connections, thats not where the band’s ties to the festival end. Sam Kruer, bassist for the band, is formerly of Moonshiner’s hosts Blind Corn Liquor Pickers before moving to Greenville, South Carolina, years ago along with Fassas, who’s father also served as Blind Corn’s original guitarist.
Speaking of the Blind Corn Liquor Pickers, the Moonshiner’s Ball hosts followed Phat Lip’s performance with what is always one of the most cherished moments of the festival. The moment serves not only as one of joy for the music but one of appreciation for the band and volunteers that have put countless hours into producing the event for the last six years in addition to running around non-stop throughout the current weekend to make sure operations run smoothly. Top moments from the band’s set included a cover of iconic 1985 Tears for Fears’ hit “Everybody Wants To Rule The World” along with “Whichever Way The Wind Blows,” a favorite original of mine from the band that features the group’s hard-driving, moonshine-fueled mix of bluegrass combined with the gritty Jory Bowling and powerful Elizabeth Walker exchanging vocal blows as their voices echo throughout the nearby hills.
Following Blind Corn Liquor Pickers’ rousing performance I made the mistake of going back to my campsite to regroup, where I ended up falling asleep for the rest of the night, leading me to miss sets from Joslyn & The Sweet Compression, TAUK, Vintage Pistol, the last of which raged well past 4 a.m. much like Restless Leg String Band the night before.
I then had to depart Sunday morning, missing the final day’s performances from Moonshiner’s newcomer and Slade native Chelsea Nolan, festival regulars and Paducah-based Solid Rock’It Boosters and Joel Serdenis’ (Blind Corn Liquor Pickers) All-Star Jamboree that included Winchester-based Americana outfit Rifletown as the mandolinist’s backing band along with Riley Logan (Forrest), trumpeter Brad Fowble, bassist Owen Reynolds and many others.
Despite my early departure this was easily my favorite Moonshiner’s Ball to date. Not only was the weather more cooperative than it’s ever been (other than some slightly nippy nighttime temperatures) but Travis Young and the entirety of the festival board and volunteer staff did a fantastic job in curating another musical and cultural phenomenon hidden that showcases the best of the talent in our talent-rich Commonwealth along with others, some recognizable and some not, but all with dynamite grooves and something different to offer that lend themselves that leaves the festival on the cutting edge of musical discovery for even the most seasoned music fans.
Every year I leave Moonshiner’s Ball with a few new bands that I can’t stop listening to. This year is no different after the likes of Phat Lip, Jordan Smart, Tyler Lance Walker Gill, Sinkane and Brass Against became new favorites of mine and one’s I look forward to keeping up with from now on.