Music News & Reviews

2016 was an encouraging year for local music in many ways

Wilson Sebastian, owner of Willie’s Locally Known, before its new home opened on Southland Drive at the railroad tracks in Lexington.
Wilson Sebastian, owner of Willie’s Locally Known, before its new home opened on Southland Drive at the railroad tracks in Lexington. cbertram@herald-leader.com

The Lexington music community was due for an encouraging year and was, by and large, rewarded with one during 2016.

Three new performance venues introduced themselves, a handful of Central Kentucky festivals experienced significant growth, and several Lexington artists made substantial noise outside of hometown confines and their own comfort zones.

Here was just some of the good news surrounding the great sounds created in 2016.

New digs

Leading the way was the emergence of three new music venues, two of which were upgrades of previous establishments.

The parade began in March, when Willie’s Locally Known opened the doors to new digs on Southland Avenue. Everything that made the original Willie’s on South Broadway so appealing — a listening room environment with great sound and eats that reflected its dual existence as a barbecue restaurant — carried over into the newer and significantly larger space.

The venue also wasted no time in bringing in major concert acts. The first year of the new Willie’s Locally Known included shows by Drivin N’ Cryin’, Alejandro Escovedo, Doyle Bramhall II and JD McPherson.

The Burl was the new club on the block — the block being the Lexington Distillery District along Manchester Street. Situated just off Manchester on Thompson Road, The Burl is a space both intimate and versatile. Its first show, staged in July, was a comedy performance featuring “Liberal Redneck” Trae Crowder, but its concert fare since has shifted from cordial folk-directed Americana (Amanda Shires, My Morning Jacket’s Carl Broemel) to a lengthy roster of heavy electric locals that have turned The Burl into their new performance home.

The most dramatic transformation award goes to Cosmic Charlie’s, which uprooted in December from its longtime digs at University Plaza on Woodland Avenue to the booming Warehouse Block along National Avenue. The old site was just that — old, beat up and oppressively dark. The new digs literally let the light in, with a stage located near large, window-centric garage doors that let you see the outside neighborhood that the club is now part of.

Big Boom

The annual country music gathering known as Red, White and Boom emphasized the latter in a big way in 2016. Initially a celebration that capped downtown’s Fourth of July activities, the festival became a weekend event a few years ago with a move to Whitaker Bank Ballpark. But a calendar shift to Labor Day weekend led the way for Red, White and Boom to become a three-day event of national proportions.

Instead of a bill dominated by up-and-coming acts, the new Boom brought major headliners in for three consecutive evenings — Eric Church, Jason Aldean and Florida Georgia Line. Blessed with sublime late-summer weather, the festival’s attendance grew each night, making each of the three bills the equivalent of a Rupp Arena turnout.

There were some justifiable consumer gripes about the delay in offering single-day ticket sales to the event. But the response and turnout were hearty enough for the sponsor, WBUL-FM, to offer a Boom bill of even bigger acts — Luke Bryan, Blake Shelton and Sam Hunt — for Labor Day weekend in 2017.

Local heroes

Lexington artists were immersed in diverse projects throughout 2016, several of which took them to literally new stages of their careers.

Duane Lundy, best known for his work as producer for myriad local and national acts at his studio, Shangri-la, took to the dance floor — or rather, his music did. Lundy designed a mix of live and recorded accompaniment for Blackbird Dance Theatre’s March production of “Titus” (artistic director/choreographer Jenny Fitzpatrick’s re-imagining of Shakespeare mega-gruesome “Titus Andronicus”). By the summer, he was back on more familiar turf, rocking out at Crave Lexington and The Burl with his progressive pop pals in Chico Fellini.

One of Lundy’s production clients, Justin Wells, released his debut solo album, “Dawn in the Distance,” this year, retaining some of the electric country dirt he kicked up for nearly a decade with Fifth on the Floor. But the solo record was rootsier than his former band, with shades of brittle Americana and blues.

But if there was one local who made himself present throughout 2016, it was Mark Charles Heidinger, better known to the indie folk-pop masses as the frontman of Vandaveer. Technically, Heidinger is a Louisvillian these days, but his Lexington roots run deep enough that he and performance mate Rose Guerin recruited a faithful pack of locals — J. Tom Hnatow (a longtime Vandaveer cohort), Robby Cosenza and Blake Cox — for considerable cross-country touring to promote the fine album “The Wild Mercury.” The tour included numerous returns to home-state turf. The most inviting was a March date that was part of the Downtown Arts Center’s inaugural Sunday Sessions series.

Festival growth

Two Central Kentucky festivals experienced significant growth as they hit their third anniversaries in 2016.

Although ravaged by May storms for much of its weekend run, The Moonshiner’s Ball was encouraged enough by attendance figures to move out of HomeGrown Hideaways in Berea, its previous performance base, to the 400-acre Jenkins Farm in Estill County’s Red Lick Valley for 2017.

The third installment of the Moontower Music Festival beefed up considerably its performance bill in August on a pair of side-by-side stages that included performances by Manchester Orchestra, Trombone Shorty and Orleans Avenue and a killer evening set by Drive-By Truckers.

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