All of my friends and family know I love music festivals. So when Railbird Music Festival was announced earlier this year, more than a few of them sent it my way. After doing a little digging, I learned it’s by the same producers as Forecastle Music Festival, one of my favorites. If you’ve read any of my coverage before, you know I sing Forecastle’s praises every year for what a well organized, well-run event it is. So my expectations were sky high going into this.
I woke up this morning at the beautiful Campbell House, ready to officially kickoff the very first Railbird Music Festival. But first, something I’ve always wanted to do…getting my hair done before the festival. My hair is very thick and curly, so I always want my hair in french braids for festivals so it’s off my neck while still looking cute, but I have NO idea how to french braid. So I was absolutely elated when I found out The Campbell House has an on-site hair salon. Once my hair was adorably styled in french braid pigtails, it was time to head out to the festival…
This was the very first year for Railbird, so of course there were going to be kinks. Luckily, they were all relatively minor. Getting into the festival, which was held on the Keenland grounds, was fairly well organized for parking and rideshare drop-offs. However, it was a long walk fro there to get to the actual entrance, then another short walk to get to the box office. But once we had our tickets, getting in was seamless.
Walking into the festival for the first time, I love to just soak it all in. Just standing still and breathing in the festival magic. What is this festival about? What kind of crowd does it attract? What’s the vibe they’re going for? I can usually answer all of those questions by just standing still and observing it all for a few moments.
After filling up our water bottles, which is the first thing I do at every festival, we walked the grounds. We did a full loop to see everything – locating stages, water stations, and bathrooms. On our exploration, we found a Four Roses bourbon bar, a horse betting tent, and a few other treasures that made the festival that much more unique. I immediately knew I HAD to utilize this horse betting tent. I’ve never bet on a horse before! Did I ever have the desire to before today? Not really. But why not?! I read online the tent was supposed to be air-conditioned, and sadly, it was not. But it was fascinating. Inside they had betting kiosks, and a built off patio that was airing live races. They even had a desk where someone would explain how betting works, which was great because I honestly had NO idea. Win? Place? Show? Trifecta? They explained everything, I made my bet, and ended up winning $2.40 on a $2 win bet. I will try to not spend it all in one place.
One thing I endlessly appreciated was the women representation in the lineup. A lot of festivals get scrutinized every year for the lack of women on the lineup. Well, Railbird went in the opposite direction. In fact, out of ALL the acts we saw today, only ONE was headed by a man. That’s pretty damn cool in my book, and a great way to kick off a festival.
The first performance we saw was the legendary Mavis Staples, who has more energy at 80 than I do most days. This woman, who is older than my grandparents, was bringing the house down belting Chicago blues. Her voice was deep, and raspy, almost like she was growling at some points. While I could have listened to her sing the blues forever, I was delighted when they started playing a cover of Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth”. One other thing I absolutely loved about her set was she let her backup singers shine. During “Can You Get To That”, two of her backup singers wowed us all with solos. If it was anyone else, they would have stolen the show, but it was Mavis Staples. By the end of the set, the lawn which started with a few hundred people, was now completely full.
Next up was Lillie Mae. Her clean country voice, mandolins, fiddles…yep, we’re in Kentucky all right.
I remember the first time I saw the viral video of Grace Vanderwaal on America’s Got Talent. I remember it was one of those videos that made me emotional for no reason. So when I saw her name on the lineup, I immediately added it to my schedule. Still with her ukulele, but a little more grown-up, she put on an impressive show for anyone of any age, let alone a 15-year-old.
I was looking forward to seeing Brandi Carlile more than anyone else today, or possibly all weekend. I have seen her perform once before a couple years ago, and have been dying to see her again ever since. Brandi Carlile is one of those people who is even better live than on their recordings – powerful in a way that is even more obvious in person. Donning a more androgynous look today, she sounded sensational as always, covering Led Zeppelin and Joanie Mitchell, and basically gave a flawless performance all around.
After that incredible performance, it was time to see the first male-fronted act of the day for us, The Raconteurs. I have such mixed feelings about Jack White, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I saw him last year at Bunbury Music Festival where he was visibly annoyed the whole time. His attitude just puts a bad taste in my mouth. But I was curious to see what The Raconteurs would be like live. The answer? They were pretty good, but it was nothing I would have bought a ticket for. I was, however, impressed by Jack White’s piano skills, which I’ve never really witnessed before. And Brendan Benson was like a breath of fresh air, and personally I would have liked to see more of him. But it was not enough to fully captivate me, so we ended up heading out just a tiny bit early to try to beat traffic.
Getting out of the festival was a mess. While Keenland has absolutely gorgeous grounds, it’s out of the way from the rest of the city, and tens of thousands of people are all trying to leave at once. It took me six timed-out Uber requests before one finally went through, and he was still a half-hour away. But we overheard people calling cabs that were estimating two-hour waits, and some people who had more timed out Uber requests than me, and just straight up could not get a car. Even though we left about an hour before the festival officially ended, there were still about 500 people waiting for their cars in one spot. So we decided to just start walking. After about ten minutes, we were far enough away from the crowd that it was easy enough for our driver to find us. But while we were smart enough to walk the half-mile to avoid the traffic jam that was happening at the official rideshare pickup spot, I’m wondering if there are still people waiting there as I’m writing this.
Eventually, we made it back to the beautiful Campbell House, our home for the weekend. I am writing this post from the worlds most comfortable bed, and I’m ready to pass out after a successful day one.