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Upon checking in Saturday at the makeshift box office at Railbird, which translated into a tent outside the festival grounds at Keeneland, you could see the crowds already gathering. With gates still 40 minutes away from opening, the temps on this largely cloudless afternoon seemed to mount by the minute.
So did the attendees. By the 1 p.m. opening time, lines to get in had tripled, extending past all sightlines. It would be a scene that would repeat itself in varying degrees for the rest of the day.
Last weekend’s Railbird played to audiences of approximately 30,000 patrons each day – twice the turnout from the music festival’s inaugural year in 2019 (it was canceled in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic). That meant most in attendance shuttled in from parking lots located downtown or across the street at Blue Grass Airport.
While the festival grounds were large enough to where it seldom felt crowded unless you chose to be in the thick of the masses packed together in typical pop concert sardine fashion near the front of the two mainstages, it meant some walking was in order.
Navigating between the two mainstages – and, to a lesser degree, a smaller third stage – required a hearty stroll. That’s also standard operating procedure for the kind of large-scale event Railbird has quickly become.
Saturday’s heat, lack of water
But as the heat intensified during the afternoon, so did lines for all concessions. This was especially true at water refill stations.
While sitting in the broiling sun around 3 p.m., between sets at the Elkhorn stage by Sarah Jarosz and Margo Price, a patron near me said he had waited in line roughly 90 minutes to refill a water bottle. Having unwisely chosen not to take water with me on the lengthy walk from the media tent to this stage area, I felt myself getting uncomfortably light-headed from the heat. My extreme thanks to Herald-Leader photographer Ryan Hermans for bringing me two bottles of water that, in all likelihood, saved me the embarrassment of passing out in a field of perplexed strangers.
Things seemed to settle around the time Leon Bridges took to the Limestone stage at dusk. By that time, though, the sagas about long lines, especially for water, were plentiful. Some took to social media. Many were ugly. The online commentary was vastly more encouraging Sunday, with stories of greatly refortified water stations.
Railbird organizers’ response
“Providing a safe and enjoyable festival experience to our patrons and staff are our top priorities. Day one of Railbird did not live up to our standards,” organizers said in a statement. For Sunday, they distributed more than 50,000 bottles of water, let fans bring in their own sealed bottles and added more refill stations.
By then, though, this reviewer was simply done in. With my editors’ blessing, I made the call Saturday evening not to return to Railbird on Sunday. I debated that decision greatly, although after a 30-minute walk at evening’s end from the festival site to a shuttle bus that subsequently got lost at Blue Grass Airport trying to find our parking lot, I felt my decision was justified.
All of this was indeed a shame because the thing the festival had locked in and executed in near perfect fashion on Saturday was what everyone came for in the first place – the music. Aside from a 20-minute delay in starting an evening set by headliners My Morning Jacket, the schedule ran like clockwork with performances that made you forget about the heat – well, almost.
Highlights of Railbird, Day 1
After the lines, thirst and brutal sun, here are highlights that still made Railbird sing during its most troubled hours on Saturday:
▪ An early evening set by the Austin, Texas, band that, in my book, ruled the day: The Black Pumas. The tag team of Eric Burton and Adrian Quesada took the scholarly vintage soul strategies of the band’s self-titled debut album and set them on fire. Vocalist Burton did much of the heavy listing, propelling a soul-savvy charge with rockish, righteous vigor while guitarist Quesada added electric jabs of psychedelia throughout a performance that came to a serene, soulful close with the Grammy-nominated “Colors.”
▪ A sleek, co-headlining outing by Leon Bridges, who had the unenviable task of following the Pumas on Railbird’s Limestone stage. Initially his set seemed almost static in comparison, but that’s only because the singer’s music was more relaxed by design. His vocal approach was less combustible than Burton’s, meaning Bridges was able to dabble in a multi-generational sampler of old school soul and comparatively contemporary, pop-inflected R&B. As a result, the summery groove of “Steam” stood in marked contrast to the Americana-flavored “Texas Sun” and the tranquil pop-soul show closer “River.”
▪ A return to rock ‘n’ roll courtesy of Saturday headliner My Morning Jacket. The Louisville-bred troupe, and especially frontman Jim James, served up a near two-hour performance that powerfully revealed myriad shades of its expansive pop-rock profile, from the reggae-fied cheer of “Off the Record” to the near-disco strut of “Touch Me I’m Going to Scream, Part 2” to the chunky rocker “Wasted” (from the band’s upcoming, self-titled album) that nicely utilized the considerable guitar vocabulary of Carl Broemel.
▪ Afternoon sets by Sarah Jarosz and Margo Price that played out during the worst of the heat. Jarosz cooked up a folkish joyride that gradually gathered electric steam that culminated in a mischievous cover of James McMurtry’s “Childish Things.” Price followed with a set of honky-tonk that regularly weaved its way into pop turf with original works like “Twinkle Twinkle.”
▪ A poetic but pensive solo performance by Tulsa songwriter John Moreland. Accompanying himself with the light timbre of electric guitar, Moreland offered a series of restless song portraits (highlighted by the “blessed heavy truth” of “In Times Between”) that were folkish in intent but richly confessional in narrative detail. Such works edged him close to the darker side of such practiced songsmiths as Bruce Cockburn.
▪ Kentucky’s own Nicholas Jamerson, who kicked off the day, as well as Railbird’s return after two-year absence, on the smaller Burl stage. Jamerson’s demeanor, echoed later by My Morning Jacket’s James in the evening, displayed onstage graciousness: Both artists seemed jubilant for no reason other than being back, even with COVID-19 still raging, to the business of making live music again.