in performance: railbird, day one

Brandi Carlile performing Saturday at Railbird. Herald-Leader staff photo by Ryan Hermens.

“I’m kind of jealous being on my side of the stage and not out there,” confessed Brandi Carlile to an eager and receptive crowd as the Railbird festival’s inaugural day at Keeneland approached dusk on Saturday. But by the time her performance concluded some 75 minutes later, it was clear the crowd was quite happy with her being right where she was.

In fact, the women essentially took the day with Carlile proving herself an artist capable of just about anything. She delivered a bold electric greeting by way of the show-opening “Hold Out Your Hand,” turned “The Story” from a chamber-like meditation to a rockish stampede and sent her singing to every corner of Keeneland with “The Joke.”

Curiously, the two defining moments of Carlile’s performance didn’t even involve her own material. Late into the set, she piggybacked a bring-you-to-tears cover of Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You” with an atomic reading of Led Zeppelin’s “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You” for a crash course in folk-to-rock dynamics. That she appeared to be having a blast during all of this made the set all the sweeter.

Earlier in the day, Mavis Staples, who turned 80 last month, stayed true to form by using roots driven funk, rock and blues to serve the fervency of her gospel heritage. That explained how the gritty, liturgical might of her voice fueled the deliciously nasty but spiritually comanding groove behind new tunes like “Change” while recasting Talking Heads’ “Slippery People” and Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” into funky, righteous anthems.

From a different generational plain altogether was 15 year old Grace VanderWaal, whose early evening set showcased an eager-to-please scrapbook of pop sketches, from the electronica spiked “Ur So Beautiful’ to the ukulele-led “Escape My Mind” to the quirky power pop slant of “Talk Good.” Taylor Swift was perhaps an inevitable comparison. Luckily, VanderWaal recalled the megastar’s stylistic breadth without the Olympian sense of self-involvement.

This wasn’t to say the guys didn’t have their say. The headlining Raconteurs served up, by far, the day’s most gloriously jagged rock journey, a trip built on piercing vocal wails, layers of guitar distortion and feedback and plenty of direct electric immediacy during the high voltage dirge “Somedays (I Don’t Feel Like Trying) and the comparatively cooler “You Don’t Understand Me.”

Other highlights from Railbird Day One came courtesy of Billy Strings’ blast of warp speed bluegrass within a literal run-through of the Johnny Horton classic “Ole Slew Foot,” Ian Noe’s blend of Pink Floyd-ian jams with Byrds-like jangle and especially Robert Earl Keen’s transformation of the Keeneland field into prime Lone Star honky tonk turf via “Amarillo Highway” and the vastly darker “Sinner Man.”

Leave it Old Crow Medicine Show to upstage almost everyone on the bill. In fact, the one artist it couldn’t beat out was invited onstage to help finish the band’s riotous string music-and-more bacchanal.

“We’re honky tonkin’ on a Saturday night, straight off Versailles Road,” remarked Old Crow fiddler and co-founder Ketch Secor after whipping up the furiously fun “Dixie Avenue.” But wilder times were to come. Against a brilliant August sunset, the band dipped into what it termed “stoner gospel” by singing a harmony-rich “I Hope I’m Stoned (When Jesus Takes Me Home).” Then Secor and company brought out Carlile, whose set had concluded only minutes earlier, to help sing the band’s signature hit “Wagon Wheel,” lead an appealingly desperate reading of Dolly Parton’s immortal “Jolene” and share in a unison version of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” that made sure the Railbird crowd got a spirited taste of Sunday morning to go with its Saturday night.

 



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