Our second festival season visit to Kentucky was just as fun as the first. This time we spent the weekend at the first ever Railbird Festival in Lexington. If you are familiar with our site, you know this new festival is one we have been excited about for awhile. You can check out some of our previous posts about the activities and venue here.
Railbird took place on the grounds of Keeneland. If you aren’t into horse racing (also Top Chef) or from Kentucky, you may not have heard about this beautiful place, but it is time to fix that. Keeneland is more than a race track, the complex features beautifully manicured grounds and major sales and operations facilities. It is also a national historic landmark, featuring shops and displays focused on preserving the history of horse racing. During the festival, the site hosted special tours and culinary events for both festival goers and the general public.
I flew down from BWI right after work on Friday night. It was a quick flight – just over an hour to Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky Airport (CVG). Then it was about an hour and fifteen minute drive to the festival area. Literally everything about the trip went quickly on the way to Lexington and every step from the flight to the rental car were smooth. I wasn’t sure what my work situation was going to be for the next week, so I had to make last minute plans. If I had booked earlier, flights were actually incredibly well priced and it is definitely an easy weekend trip to make.
As far as accommodations, I went with the Holiday Inn – Lexington Downtown/Keeneland. It was super close to the festival venue and offered everything I look for in a festival hotel: free parking, free breakfast, and my newest wishlist addition – a pool. I landed after 9:30PM and by the time I got my car and got to Lexington all I could think of was a late dinner. Luckily, the hotel is located in a relatively large shopping complex that has a bunch of food options. I decided to go with Taco Bell for the first time in years . . . but there was also a Zaxby’s, a Wendy’s, a gas station, and a sub shop all within the same area.
Check – in was easy and after my Taco Bell feast, I went to bed with visions of horse country and festivals running through my mind.
Continuing my food theme, let me just say that this hotel’s breakfast was particularly good. With everything from fresh pancakes to warm cinnamon rolls to biscuits and gravy. After breakfast I got all my equipment and festival gear ready and headed over to the venue to grab my wristband.
Entering the grounds to park it became clear right away that this festival had crowd moving and parking well under control – especially impressive for a first year festival. The venue is used to hosting large horse racing events, and the parking staff showed that experience. It was probably less than five minutes from pulling in to my parking spot. One of the really cool things was that people were tailgating and all set up. This is not often an option at other festivals, and it was really fun to see. You were allowed to get to the lot up to two hours before the gates opened and many people took advantage of that. The ticket process was quick and easy and I headed over to wait at one of the two entrances. I hardly ever saw a big crowd to get in, having two entrances divided the work and by the second day there was more info about which lane to go in that festival producers had gotten ready over night.
I spent my first hour or so on a self guided tour of the venue – checking out the stage positions and the lay of the land. I also wanted to see if I could find Ale 8 – 1 soda anywhere, because I am addicted and ready to move to Kentucky to have it all the time. I ended up with both a frozen Ale 8 -1 from the Valu Mart booth and a take on a peach margarita from Sugarlands Distilling Co. Both were absolutely fantastic and the margarita was my favorite drink of the weekend.
After that, I headed over to check out Joslyn and the Sweet Compression on The Burl stage. She is a local and was fantastic – one of the best acts I saw all weekend. I followed that up with another one of my favorite performances. This one was from Devon Gilfillian over at the Limestone stage. They were both amazing and two of my absolute favorites from the weekend. Two other musical high points on the first day were Grace VanderWaal and Brandi Carlile. I was especially touched and moved when Brandi covered Joni Mitchell. Honestly, I knew she was amazing – but the performance moved me from casual observer into full fan territory.
I spent most of the day catching bits and pieces of acts, buying merch (more on this later) and hanging out with surprise friends. Turns out one of my festival pals lives in the area and just happened to see my post about being there. We spent the afternoon and early evening catching up, making up ridiculous hash tags and enjoying the gorgeous setting.
On the food and drink front, I followed up my peach margarita with rigatoni and meatballs from a pasta cart and a couple of different takes on a mule – one involving vodka and one Four Roses Bourbon. One of the big treats was how well the festival treated media, we had a happy hour and a great meal both days. My favorite part was the homemade onion dip – which apparently people indicated they had dreamed about overnight. It was definitely that good and I felt well taken care of. Shoutout to the Kentucky Department of Tourism for sponsoring! This was the first time I felt really comfortable leaving my extra stuff in the media area and it was really nice.
After a long week of work and a beautiful day in the sun, I spent some time lounging in front of giant air conditioning vents in the VIP area before heading back to the hotel.
Day one also lead me to add another thing to my festival preparations. I strongly recommend bringing an extra bottle of water to leave in the car for the end of the night. While it won’t stay cool all day – after a long, hot day in the sun, that water is necessary for sure and it is such a comfort not to have to go in search of water. My trip out of the parking lot was quick and easy, because I left a little early. However, if you had been stuck for a bit – having that bottle of water and a snack would be a game changer.
My minor sunburn faded over night and so did my aches after a quick swim in the hotel pool. On my last visit to Kentucky I ended up with a hotel with a pool and realized that it makes such a big difference to be able to cool off and loosen my muscles at the end of the day. I would absolutely recommend adding that to your wish list.
It sounded like it took some people some extra time to leave at the end of the night, so the festival was quick to address it, sending out social media alerts about changes to the parking plan. Once again demonstrating the venue’s ability to deal with large crowds in the way some new festivals might now.
Following another good hotel breakfast – which included an adorable child with squeaky shoes cracking up the room, I got my stuff in order for day two.
My parking experience was as quick and easy as the day before and it didn’t take more than 10 minutes to drive in, park, and get inside through the gates. My hotel was also only about 10 minutes away from the venue so that was fantastic in terms of a short trip.
I started the second day out at the Limestone stage where YOLA absolutely killed it. She is an English singer and songwriter who brings music that is a mix of rock, soul, and country that is hard to describe. One of her songs, “Walk Through Fire” completely moved me.
After that, I met up with Jill who came down from Cincy for the day. We did a quick tour and found ourselves in the building with the Sip and Savor stage right as a cooking demonstration was about to start. We snagged spots at a table and were super excited to find out that meant we actually got to try the food! This experience was both one of the most unique things I have gotten to see at a festival and one of my favorite experiences of the weekend. The chef for our demonstration was Dan Wu (from Master Chef and owner of Atomic Ramen). He spent an hour walking us through three dishes, answering audience questions, and giving a lot of cool kitchen tips. During or after each demonstration, we got to try a nice sized portion of the food. The picture below shows the menu items. My absolute favorite was the arancini – Dan Wu did an Asian fusion take on this traditional Italian meal, using sticky rice and a mixture of various ingredients that were combined with cream cheese and deep fried. Holy crap! Delicious. I am actually going to try and do my own take on it using sticky rice this weekend.
One of the best things about this demonstration was that Dan Wu’s wife was helping with the plating and his mom was part of the audience. It was so cool to see his mom watch him proudly and sample the food he was making a long with us.
With full bellies and big smiles, we headed out to explore some of the other stages. Jill spent some time hanging in the shade listening to music, while I shot some shows and headed back to the media area for happy hour. Some of my early day 2 highlights were Jade Bird and the Fruit Bats.
After eating, we headed over to watch St. Paul and the Broken Bones. If you have not checked them out – you are seriously missing out on a soulful, rock experience. Paul Janeway has an epic voice and often performs wearing glittery capes. I felt like he was singing his heart out and couldn’t tear myself away to the shade.
We spent the next hour chatting with a couple that let us share their blanket, chatting about pets and life and music. Every time I get to a southern festival I am reminded not just about growing up in the south but of how friendly people are.
I had been waiting to see Gary Clark Jr. for years, having missed him at a few festivals. I grabbed a delicious gyro and a lemonade from a food vendor and headed into the crowd for most of his set. At some point it was time for Jill to head home and I followed shortly after catching parts of Tyler Childers and the beginning of Hozier.
As I headed into the parking area, it was cool to see people hanging out at their tailgating sites with friends. Listening to the music and enjoying a beautiful evening. My drive back to the hotel was quick and easy again and it was time to head to bed for my 4:00 AM departure.
One thing I noticed during the weekend was how people in Kentucky are totally prepared for the festival experience. Maybe it is the southern hospitality spirit or being used to tailgates and lots of events outside – but I was impressed all weekend with how ready everyone from the staff to the crowd seemed for this new festival. Crowd size was really impressive all weekend and people were dressed to impress. So many hats!
My trip home was uneventful and I made it in time for both appointments and to head to work.
A few quick takeaways from the first ever Railbird Festival weekend:
- Merch: The fest had fantastic merch options, including two amazing posters and a bandana that is my new favorite.
- The Sky: Yes it really was the blue all weekend. The weather was gorgeous and there were plenty of spots for shade and air conditioning.
- Festival Experience: Overall, Railbird was well organized and extremely well produced- even compared to festivals that have been running for a long time. The grounds were well set up and clean, the lineup was fantastic, and little touches like the care put into the logo for The Burl stage or the way they treated media really showed through.
- Flexible and Responsive: This is similar to my previous point, but I think worth noting separately. Railbird did a fantastic job of responding to the crowd and the experience. When there were delays with traffic – they pushed out a quick solution. When the entrances needed more signs – someone painted them. When there was a question of how media access would work through a particular gate – it was fixed in less than five minutes. The bottom line is that having a well established venue and veteran festival producers helped make sure that all aspects of the fan experience were both well done and responsive when things needed to be changed. I was exceptionally impressed and I am not just sucking up I promise.
- Brunch: I didn’t get to try any of the extra culinary experiences this year, but after seeing how well the food was done throughout the festival that would definitely be something I want to try out next year. The brunch looks particularly amazing.
- Location: Not only is the venue beautiful, but travel wise the whole thing was easy to get to with a quick flight and plenty of hotel options.