For the Lawrence County native, now a national sensation thanks to a sense of songcraft and performance command rooted in a narrative-rich yet vintage flavored brand of country music, what was at hand was essentially a homecoming. It was also the zenith of a major performing arts event that gave every indication over the weekend of becoming an annual happening.
Despite the hero status now afforded him, Childers hasn’t altered his sound or song sensibility much. The Railbird set offered giddy tunes that capitalized on clever, unspoiled storytelling (“Country Squire”), darker rural sagas that read like ghost stories in their sense of human drama (“Creeker,” “House Fire”) and parables with generous nods to his Bluegrass heritage (“Redneck Romeo”). Toss in a white-hot band featuring fellow Kentuckian Jesse Wells (“Jack of all trades, master of most,” as described by Childers) and the world-class homecoming was complete.
Woe be to anyone who had follow Childers on such an occasion. On Sunday, that duty fell to headliner Hozier, an Irish vocalist and song stylist who held his own by transforming tunes that existed as contained pop/folk reveries on recordings (“What Would I,” “Dinner and Diatribes,” “Nina Cried Power”) and expanded them into massive, choral sounding explorations onstage. It was a suitably anthemic Railbird finale.
Sunday evening was ushered in with an intriguing set from Gary Clark Jr. A guitar slinger with an honest, robust intensity, he has evolved into a resourceful soul stylist. Several heroes came to mind while watching him play, but none so vividly as Curtis Mayfield. Part of that came from the topicality of “Feed the Babies,” “Got to Get Up” and other works from Clark’s new “This Land” album. But there was also the convincing soul falsetto he regularly utilized to more exactly recall Mayfield’s spirit. Then again, the dub groove he sunk into for “Feelin’ Like a Million” was pretty cool, too.
In contrast, the women ruled Railbird on Saturday with Brandi 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 most 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 roots. That explained how the gritty might of her voice fueled the deliciously nasty but spiritually commanding 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.
This wasn’t to say the guys didn’t have their say on Saturday. The headlining Raconteurs served up, by far, the weekend’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.”
Leave it to Old Crow Medicine Show to upstage almost everyone on the opening day 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.