Let me start by saying, I’ve never seen so many cowboy boots at a music festival in my life. But hey, we were in Lexington Kentucky after all. That’s right ya’ll, I just got back from the very first Railbird Music Festival, held on the grounds at Keeneland, one of America’s great historic racetracks, right in “the horse capital of the world” – Lexington, KY.
This was the premiere of Railbird Music Festival, so nobody had any idea what to expect. Two-days of music and bourbon…that’s pretty much what I knew.
Being from metropolitan Ohio, I also had no idea what “Railbird” meant. But with a quick Google search, I immediately appreciated the name.
Clever. I like it.
There were three stages – two large stages, and one awkwardly small stage. Bourbon was flowing from various bars around site. A delightfully diverse assortment of food vendors were all stationed in the middle – everything from Chinese food, to pasta, Mexican, burgers, corndogs, mac’n’cheese, funnel cake. They had pretty much all their bases covered. There were also culinary demonstrations all weekend, a kids section, a horse-betting tent, and a number of other components that made it so one-of-a-kind.
All around, you could tell they put a lot of thought into it.
Located Lexington, KY, Keeneland is an internationally renowned racecourse, and a National Historic Landmark founded in 1936. The Queen of England herself has visited Keeneland, and the 2003 movie “Seabiscuit” was actually filmed there if that gives you any indication of its status. Initially, I was hopeful we might be on the actual infield of the race track, but alas, we were just a little up the way from there. After all, Keeneland is about 150 acres in total.
Gorgeous and unique grounds for a festival, but it had its pros and cons. PROS: in addition to being beautiful, Keeneland also sits on extremely flat land, allowing for a nice breeze the whole festival. CONS: there is really only one main entrance to get in and out of Keeneland, so getting in and out of the festival was absolute chaos. And unlike other festivals where we usually grab a drink at a bar nearby waiting for traffic to clear up, Keeneland does not have anything remotely walkable nearby, so you are forced to leave the area immediately after the last act.
Another con is there is not a ton of hotels in the immediate area. We were lucky enough to stay at The Campbell House, which was about 5 miles and a ten minute Uber ride from the grounds – one of the closer hotels to the grounds, while still being close to downtown. I felt like I hit the jackpot staying there too, because I always like to stay somewhere a little unique, not a copy and paste hotel you could find in any city. And The Campbell House was so purely Lexington.
The lineup was very country heavy, with some pop, rock, and soul thrown in for seasoning. One thing I loved about the lineup was the number of WOMEN performing. In fact on Saturday, we only watched ONE male-fronted act.
Now let’s talk favorites. Mavis Staples absolutely stole the show, and by “show” I mean the whole damn weekend. Her gravelly voice is just so captivating, the crowd size almost doubled during her set like she was casting a spell on all ears nearby.
Brandi Carlile is consistently one of the best live performers I have ever seen. That woman can not hit a wrong note if she tried. Having her on the lineup for the very first year was a strong move on their part. She draws a loyal crowd that will sing along to every song or cover she pulls out, including myself.
During Grace Vanderwaal‘s set, I heard so many variations of “she’s so cute” or “oh my God I just LOVE her”. But they were right, they were just saying what everyone was thinking. For a 15-year-old – the talent, the stage presence, the charm – she’s simply lovable. America’s sweetheart. And she seemed genuinely thrilled to be performing for us. There were definitely more kids in the audience for her set than any other. Little girls with t-shirts and signs they couldn’t wait for her to see, and she pointed and smiled at each and every one of them throughout her set.
St. Paul and the Broken Bones was the best surprise of the weekend. I’m ashamed to say I had never heard of them before the festival, and boy was I pleased to see a dash of glam in the lineup. The cape, the horn section, the danceable tempo of every SINGLE song. It was like a breathe of fresh air in a sea of acoustic music.
What they did right.
The footprint of the festival was smart. Two large stages with all the food and tents (and that one awkward small stage) in between. They had enough bathrooms that I literally never ONCE saw a line. Free water stations at each end of the festival. Besides the oddly placed media tent that you had to leave the festival grounds to get to, the rest was well planned.
Again, the amount of women on the lineup really set them apart. I can’t tell you how many festivals I go to where I only end up seeing one or two female artists. I’m hoping Railbird sets a new standard in the industry. One or two women is not acceptable. An even half? That’s more like it.
They kept the equestrian theme throughout the festival, which I loved. I mean, we were on a racetrack after all. At the Lucky Day Plaza, they had horse betting kiosks, with live races happening on TV’s around the tent. Such a unique touch for a music festival. They also had an entire kids section with pony rides. And yes, the adults could pet them too.
What they can do better next year.
The absolute biggest problem they had was the parking/drop-off/pickup situation.
First of all, 15,000 cars all trying to get in and out of a venue that really only has one entrance from the main road? Recipe for disaster.
Also, there were not enough Uber, Lyft, or taxi drivers in Lexington. It took me probably 30 minutes to find a car on day one, then another 30 minutes for them to get there. We ended up walking about a half-mile to the main road so our driver wouldn’t have to enter the mess that was the designated pickup location.
How can they fix it, short of moving from Keeneland? Some sort of shuttle would be really smart on their part. Just a lot of buses that can take you to and from some designated spot downtown, or maybe some of the few nearby hotels that get heavy festival traffic.
I do applaud them for recognizing the clear problem on Saturday night, and immediately addressing it on social media and through their email list first thing Sunday morning, including some new rules and parameters for parking.
Another area for improvement was the portion of the festival on asphalt. The entire middle section of the festival – which was home to all the food trucks, vendors, and a lot of the seating areas – was on asphalt. If you’ve ever spent any time on asphalt in summer, you know it is easily 10-15 degrees hotter, and there was no avoiding it with this footprint. It seems like the grounds are big enough, they should be flexible enough to correct this, hopefully.
The only other little thing I would change was that awkward small stage they had in the middle of the festival. The idea of a third, smaller stage is great, love it. But the lawn was just TOO small. There were acts there all weekend that had big enough audiences that they overflowed into the food area.
For their first year, they hit it out of the park. Did it have its’ problems? Sure. But they addressed them immediately, and made smart changes as they went. The first year of any festival has its kinks, but what you DO about it really says the most about the festival. I’ll be curious to see what changes they make next year.
Lexington is a historic city, and I’m happy to be a part of their history by attending the very first Railbird Music Festival.