LEXINGTON, KY August 10-11 2019:
The grounds of the world-renowned Keenland Race Course were invaded this weekend by legions of music fans for the inaugural Railbird Music Festival. Curated by the great minds at AC Entertainment who have brought us well-known festivals such as Bonnaroo and the nearby Forecastle, the festival definitely has the pedigree (intentional horse pun) to be among the best festivals in the Southeast.
As was already mentioned, the festival found its home next to one of the world’s most famous and prestigious race tracks. The grounds are beautiful and immaculate, with nice walkways scattered throughout. The staging could not have been better for patrons, as both main stages, the Limestone and the Elkhorn respectively, were both in lower areas of the grounds, rising to a slight hill in the middle. This gave both stages an amphitheater-esq quality. Interestingly, the Elkhorn, which would be considered the smaller of the two stages, actually had the larger field area out front. That could be chalked up to the festival choosing to invest heavily in its VIP and ‘Superfecta’ packages, which have excellent and ample viewing areas at both stages, but even more so at the Limestone.
Seriously, if you were considering going to go VIP for viewing space alone, this is the festival to do it at; treat yourself. Many festivals place VIP stands and viewing areas at an odd side angle that makes actually seeing acts less than optimal, but that isn’t the case here, with ample stand seating and great pit areas that really let fans get up close and personal with their favorite artists. Our only critique, and this is more on a journalistic side than the fan experience, is that the Limestone stage was very high compared to how close the railing was to it. This made seeing acts who don’t like to stand right at the edge of the stage difficult both for photographers and rail-riding fans alike, unless you wanted to count your favorite artist’s nose hairs, that is.
Fans of amazing bravado, voices that speak of an older era in music, and truly amazing musicianship will find a home at Railbird. With three stages stacked with acts in such a way that it was possible to catch a piece of every show if you wanted to, there was an abundance of amazing talent to be witnessed. Two acts really stuck out, though, in this writer’s mind, and those were Futurebirds and Low Cut Connie. Both of these bands were first-times for me, and both of them absolutely blew me away. Many bands can play music or have a great stage presence, but when a band can do both you know you are seeing something truly special. Both of these bands were instant adds to the library after such stunning performances. Beyond these there are far too many others to name them all, both big and small.
Blackfoot Gypsies were absolute masters of the small stage, making us feel like they, and we by proxy, had been transported back to the ’60s. Billy Strings, another artist relegated to the small Burl Stage (named for a local popular venue and bar), drew in a well-deserved crowd and could have easily fit onto one of the bigger stages. The small acts were not the only weekend highlights, however. Hometown boy and recently exploding sensation Tyler Childers and his band played to a beautiful sunset on Sunday. Not only was Tyler given the key to the city of Lexington before this set, he and the band also impressed up by showing they are still humble and tech-ing their own gear rather than sending a stage hand out to dial in their monitors, as most main stage acts do. Yes, the sounds of the weekend were fantastic, truly speaking to the roots of the region in bluegrass, Americana, folk, soul, and rock and roll.
Experientially, Railbird managed to find a strong North Star in regards to treading the line between oversaturation of sponsor activations (a marketing term for branding and branded areas you sometimes see at events) and still being able to offer attendees some great creature comforts. There were a few branded areas, but all seemed to offer real value to fans and were not too in-your-face, buy-our-stuff grabs. If one word had to define the sponsored area, it would be classy. Our favorite of the weekend had to be The Cool Down, two shaded tent areas with seating and large fans sponsored by appropriately named vendor Big Ass Fans. These things seriously helped with breaking the heat of the day. That need was definitely felt by many attendees who, based on conversations heard throughout the grounds, seemed to be attending either their first festival or at least their hottest one to date.
Many fans were also expressing a bit of sticker shock at pricing for drinks and food, though these seemed to run at roughly festival averages in our experience.There were also plenty of water-filling stations throughout the grounds, though the event could have used one more a bit closer to the Limestone stage. One thing rather absent from this festival was a lack of unique vendors selling things such as custom tie-dies, pendants, and various other festival garb. There were a few options, and the festival definitely benefitted from this as official march reportedly sold out at least by Saturday. Railbird also pushed hard on the family-friendly aspect of festival life, with an area with a comfort tent for breastfeeding mothers, extra fans, a bubble machine, horse-petting zoo complete with mini-unicorn, and a mini stage show all its own.
Finally, as previously mentioned, the festival has done an excellent job of curating events and areas that offer many premium features such as onsite horserace betting, numerous bourbon cocktails, the cleanest festival porto-potties we have ever seen, and so much more. These things alone are amazing, but the festival becomes especially lux when patrons upgrade to VIP and Superfecta level tickets: premium viewing areas with seats, a pit complete with someone serving hors d’oeuvre’s, valet parking, and probably a million other benefits we never even witnessed. It has already been said once, but it is worth repeating, the amenities offered by the upgrade packages seem worth it; treat yourself.
So, what now?
This first-year festival overall knocked it out of the park, and we hope that the ticket sales will propel it into the future. They have the brains behind the scenes to make it work, and we look forward to being back at Keeneland next year with just a few minor tweaks, all of which are simple and minor. The festival has already shown a great ability to quickly pivot plans in order to make things better for the attendees and was showcased in the quick change in parking and traffic plans from Saturday evening’s standstill for a couple of hours to Sunday’s smooth ride-out. Thank you, Railbird, and thank you to all the fans who came out and made the weekend amazing. (Also, huge shoutout to the staff and patrons for doing an amazing job of picking up your trash; that cannot be praised enough!)