With an elevated musical lineup and slight cooperation from Mother Nature, the fourth annual Moonshiner’s Ball was a hit. The new venue, Jenkins Farm in Irvine, provided a more open landscape to navigate, and while rain did dampen the grounds, festival staff did a fantastic job working around the curveballs. While the ground was damp, the spirits of those dancing atop it were anything but.
Unlike years past, the rain couldn’t put a damper on the event. Travis Young and the Blind Corn Liquor Pickers, the host band, and everyone who works behind the scenes with the Moonshiner’s Ball have a keen eye for musical talent and plucking artists just as they’re breaking into the mainstream, and 2017 was no exception. Stealing the show on Saturday were Blackfoot Gypsies, Jon Stickley Trio, Johnny Conqueroo, Aaron Lee Tasjan and Con Brio.
Nashville’s Blackfoot Gypsies, a four piece with roots in old-school blues and rock ’n’ roll, took to the festival’s tent stage shortly after 1 p.m. The group has an incredible energy in its live performance, led by front man and guitarist Matthew Paige with his karate-kicking onstage antics. The group’s entire set consisted of songs off its new record “To the Top”, including hits “I Had A Vision,” “Lying Through Your Teeth” and “Promise to Keep,” a tune with lyrical references to Kentucky that Paige said is about the band’s journey, trials and tribulations, much of which have occurred in the Bluegrass. The Gypsies last performed in Lexington at The Burl in February.
Kentucky favorite and new Irvine resident Tyler Childers followed with an intimate solo set of his rootsy, Appalachian-infused songs. Childers, donning a teal, flowery button-up, drew much of the crowd out of the shade and to the front of the main stage. Many in the crowd were passionately singing along and dancing in the mud to one of the Bluegrass’ rising musical stars.
Following a performance by Moonshiner’s favorites Vandaveer, the evening kicked into overdrive with the fast-paced acoustic instrumentals of Asheville, North Carolina’s Jon Stickley Trio; Columbus, Ohio’s sassy rock ’n’ roll queen Lydia Loveless and Lexington’s youthful rockers Johnny Conqueroo. The Jon Stickley Trio captivated the crowd seeking refuge from the sun at the tent stage with hits from 2015’s “Lost at Last,” 2016’s “Triangular,” and newly-released “Maybe Believe,” along with teases of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” featuring Lyndsay Pruett wailing away on the violin where the song’s original intro kicks up in intensity. The trio was also one of many groups performing Saturday to pay homage to the recently departed Chris Cornell, frontman of Soundgarden and Audioslave, with a tease of “Black Hole Sun.”
After 2016’s blazing set on the side stage at Moonshiner’s Ball, Johnny Conqueroo was back and even more impressive in their primetime, 7:30 p.m. slot on the tent stage. Grant Curless wasted no time in upping the ante and making magic radiate from his guitar, which paired with drummer Wils Quinn’s steady beats and Shawn Reynolds’ smooth basslines resulted in one of the rowdiest crowds of the entire weekend. Throughout the set, other musicians performing at the festival including Aaron Lee Tasjan, Lydia Loveless and members of Blackfoot Gypsies were seen in the crowd dancing to and observing the young rockers’ craft. With the trio all graduated from high school now, there’s one less hurdle holding them back from stardom.
Having never seen Nashville-based singer-songwriter and Ohio transplant Tasjan live before, but being well-acquainted with 2016’s highly acclaimed “Silver Tears,” I was aware of the artist’s songwriting prowess, but wasn’t prepared for his no-holds barred shredding on his collection of guitars, five of which were laid out behind him on stage. Tasjan performed several hits off “Silver Tears” including a set-opening rendition of “Ready to Die” that began soft and slow before abruptly turning into fast-paced chaos, much like the frequent outbursts of lightning filling the sky throughout the weekend. Speaking of lightning, Tasjan’s set was interrupted briefly by bouts of electricity above, continuing after a ten-minute diversion. Luckily forecasts calling for rain Saturday evening were incorrect, with rain holding until Sunday morning.
Headlining Saturday night on the main stage was San Francisco’s Con Brio, led by enthusiastic front man Ziek McCarter, who pranced and danced around on stage, even going as far as jumping atop speakers separating the stage from the jubilant crowd. McCarter, who often draws comparisons to Michael Jackson and James Brown, captivated the crowd along with the boisterous funk and soul band behind him, which included a lively horn section.
Perhaps the weekend’s most perplexing performer was Las Vegas’ That 1 Guy, whose comedic blend of music and his one-of-a-kind instrument, dubbed a “The Magic Pipe”, got the late-night crowd moving and grooving. “The Magic Pipe” is a self-made instrument loosely resembling a cross between a harp and a robotic arm. Built out of aluminum, the instrument can morph and bend due to adjustable joints. Completing That 1 Guy’s musical rig are “The Magic Boot” and “The Magic Saw,” objects that emulate an African talking drum and violin bow in terms of sound.
Music continued through Sunday. However, with a forecast calling for buckets of rain, I departed for Lexington early in the morning. In a twist of fate for the Moonshiner’s Ball, which has struggled with rainy weather in previous years, rain was sporadic enough that music continued throughout the day, including sets from Louisville’s Nellie Pearl and Ben Sollee, who showed off his new project Kentucky Native, featuring Bennett Sullivan on banjo, Julian Pinelli on fiddle and Jeff Picker on bass.
Contrast that with Friday night, when thunderstorms cut Marcus King Band’s set short and left Lil Smokies playing an unplugged set due to standing water on the stage and prompted Golden Dawn Arkestra and Lexington’s Trucker Hat Coalition to play around a bonfire. But these are the sort of unique moments weather and festivals have a way of creating.
With 2017 being a groundbreaking year for the Moonshiner’s Ball in terms of a new location and amplified musical lineup, paired with the festival’s enduring homegrown attitude and southern hospitality, it’s safe to say that although only four years in, the festival is quickly becoming one of Kentucky’s best music destinations and not-so-hidden entertainment get away.
Matt Wickstrom is a Lexington-based music journalist who will be interning with the Herald-Leader and LexGo.com this summer.