Article and Photos by: Michael W. Bright
Louisville, KY– Where to start…Whether you brought your grandmother or your granddaughter there was enough food, water, shade, security and bourbon (for grandma) to satisfy all souls. The Bourbon and Beyond Festival, the first of what we hope will be many, was unveiled in the friendliest city east of the Rockies, Louisville.
For a first outing, this festival ran like a well-oiled machine. The bands hit the stage on schedule, the gourmet food was hot, beer cold, bourbon any way you liked, no lines, security was polite, port-o-potties relatively clean and copious.
A full weekend of music demands some picking and choosing. Here are some highlights: The implied agreement between the audience and an opening band that says, “We won’t boo you off the stage just because we came to see the headliner,” doesn’t apply to festivals. So opening a two day music festival is challenging, maybe risky. But if you paid $70 to $100 for a Saturday general admission ticket you got your money’s worth in the first thirty minutes. The Dave Cavalier Trio hit the stage with enough honest swagger and heat to pull the 2000 or so amblers toward the stage. Dave plays independent blues tinged rock and handles the axe like a third arm. The tunes in his set of original material can be found on a few independent releases and he’s got some well-produced videos. But neither of those outlets do justice to the excitement he and his two mates generate on stage. Next time around, he’ll be opening and touring with some big names, his immediate goal.
After Cavalier rolled out the red carpet for day one’s bands, Shawn James and the Shapeshifters muddied it up with so much nasty gritty Arkansas strain, (by way of Southside Chicago soul), that the stage needed hosing down. Jame’s well-worn Gibson ES alternately clucking, rolling and wailing and his unique vocal shading, something like a controlled roar, set the tone for the Shapeshifters genre of the day- heavy-devil-blues rock. Papa John Creach pioneered the electric violin in rock as a Jefferson Airplane sideman in 1970, but Sage Cornelius wields the bow with gymnastics, a fury and precision that the septagenarian couldn’t touch.
She played, swayed and bull-whipped her long hair with such ferocity that she repeatedly bashed into the bass/banjo man, nearly knocking him down. James writes some fine folk songs, fleshes them out with the Shapeshifters who effectively attach a car battery to the song.
Meanwhile, there was a five star food and booze extravaganza that accounted for the, “Beyond,” portion of the festival. Celebrity chefs like Tom Colliceo and Carla Hall and master bourbon distillers responsible for brands like Buffalo Trace, Angel’s Envy, Bulleit, Four Roses, Maker’s Mark, Michter’s, Old Forester, Woodford Reserve, Rabbit Hole, Smooth Ambler— did I mention this was a bourbon festival? They joined local chefs and food trucks offering ice-cream, gyros, barbecue, upscale tacos and ceviche. A tiny tent placed inconspicuously among the vendors was a pop-up speakeasy. Unofficially, the menu described, “super premium brands, rare finds and dusty bottles,” a few of which confounded even natives of the Bluegrass State. It was for aficionados of the brown liquid gold who could afford the luxury of $50 plus drinks.
It was 5:10pm and the humid 93 degree afternoon was easing a little. Kenny Wayne Shepherd, halfway through his set, had just rolled into, “Heat of the Sun,” and festival goers had left their diversions and were packed up against the stage, initially drawn in by vocalist Noah Hunt.
Comparisons of one guitarist to other great guitarists isn’t fair because it implies a certain lack of originality. But it is usefully descriptive. That said, imagine a stylistic framework of Clapton, Hendrix, Stevie Ray, Robert Johnson, even a touch of Jeff Beck. Imagine someone who might employ quotes from all those styles, but within the boundaries of one song. Electric guitars and their masters, that’s my thing. This pursuit has cost a good deal of time and money over nearly 50 years. Friends may come to blows over the argument, but for me, on a blazing Saturday afternoon, it was simple and staggering. Kenny Wayne Shepherd was the most talented guitarist I’ve seen. It’s no happy accident that Chris Layton, drummer for Stevie Ray Vaughn’s band Double Trouble is backing him.
Eddie Vedder did his solo thing, bearing several acoustic guitars and of course, his ukuleles. It was fun, relaxed, more folksy than rock, as if a friend had come by your campfire to play a few. It was so casual that no one minded when he forgot the words three songs into the set.
Honorable mention from day two goes to Paul Rodgers who had a boat load of rock radio hits with Bad Company in the late 70’s into the early 80’s and later with supergroup The Firm. His voice was a flawless representation of his former abilities and his backing band easily pulled off hits like, “Rock and Roll Fantasy,” “Shooting Star,” and “Can’t Get Enough.” For superfans he even did, “All Right Now,” a song from Free, his band which predated Bad Company.
The two day festival became a three day event as bourbon hangovers (one of the worst kind) and ringing ears headlined Monday morning. The Bourbon and Beyond Festival drew an estimated 50,000 fans who will no doubt welcome it back to town for a second year.