Bourbon & Beyond raises a glass to its roots and gives a hint of its possible future

Bourbon & Beyond 2023
Bourbon & Beyond 2023(Marty Pearl | Marty Pearl)
Published: Sep. 19, 2023 at 1:05 PM EDT
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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WAVE) - Taking a bow with the rest of live music during the pandemic, the Bourbon & Beyond Festival held each September in Louisville quietly grew as it rested. Around 90,000 attended in 2019. Three years later, it had swelled to 140,000.

This year, even with official attendance numbers not yet released as of Tuesday morning, it felt even larger. More cheering crowds, more smiling faces, more people stumbling over more lawn chairs in the field like clowns clopping through a minefield. Each day carried a different vibe, and on Sunday night the venue felt more packed and energetic than ever before.

Meanwhile, a festival mostly known for booking modern Americana, indie and hybrid bluegrass acts with a touch of country and big names from classic rock felt primed to move into a broader direction.

Danny Wimmer Presents, the organizers of the event, already lay claim to America’s largest hard rock festival with Louder than Life. Don’t be surprised if Bourbon & Beyond grows alongside it to become the largest all-around music festival in the country.

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Bourbon & Beyond 2023
Bourbon & Beyond 2023(Marty Pearl | Marty Pearl)

Revisiting dusty roads

On Thursday, such a broad vision had yet to materialize. Things felt familiar enough, picking up from last year. Singer-songwriter Brandi Carlile packed enough punch in 2022 to ripple across the entire venue and the entire weekend, playing just before Kings of Leon. She and her band ripped across the stage with dynamite last year as if they felt personally slighted by not being the top act, launching a spectacle that orbited through David Bowie’s outer space, Radiohead’s early work and touched down literally “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”

For those who asked for it, they got it. Brandi was back for round two, saddled in the night’s top spot. But what about the rising beast placed on the card just beneath her in Billy Strings? Judging by T-shirts, he looked to be the fan favorite.

Day one brought a very comfortable and familiar vibe, with blues legend Buddy Guy pulling off parlor tricks with his guitar, playing his six-string with a drum stick, with a towel, and even with his overalls. John Primer, who rocked out on the adjacent stage earlier in the day joined him, as did Guy’s son, Greg for a mid-afternoon jam before a vintage, mid-century neon backdrop.

As the blaring sun sank between the twin stages, Train embedded choice classic rock into their own material, Steve Miller’s “The Joker” nestled into “Meet Virginia.” Pat Mohanan, the sole remaining founding member of the band, noted that band’s guitarist was from Louisville as he tossed shirts into the crowd that said “Meet Virginia.” Apparently, it was lost on him that Kentucky, in fact, divorced Virginia some 231 years ago. Train continued serving classic-pop-rock sandwiches, slicing “Come and Get Your Love” into “Hey, Soul Sister,” and plating a sample of the Beatles’ “Hey Jude” ahead of a full serving of the Eagles’ “Hotel California.”

While most of the crowd focused on the main stages, Billy Strings began his night on the other side of the field, jamming out collaborations with local fiddle virtuoso Michael Cleveland and Flamekeeper before bringing Cleveland on stage later in his own performance.

“It’s good to be back in the Bluegrass State,” Strings said as he took the stage, roughly a week after tying the knot to yoga instructor Ally Dale. “But I never left the bluegrass state of mind. Let’s do it, boys!” Immediately, the ensemble tore into Bill Monroe’s “I’m Going Back to Old Kentucky” like a committee of vultures at a roadside feast.

If there were a song on his band’s setlist that could describe the whole night, “Hellbender” would be it. Billy Strings played at the final Bourbon & Beyond to be held at Champions Park, the one that flooded so badly that the Wimmer group looked for higher ground. Billy played that afternoon in the beer tent. Coming off COVID, he headlined a three-night run at Waterfront Park, also promoted by the Wimmer folks, and in the coming years, the Hellbending Prince of Bluegrass might make a run at Brandi Carlile’s throne, as his amplifiers had stopped ringing four nights later.

With Cleveland squealing his bow alongside him, Billy sang: “I might change my name to Jack Harlow 2; Hello City Limits, I’m starting over new,” revising Bluegrass Hall of Famer Red Allen’s classic.

For Brandi Carlile, it was also a fresh start in familiar stomping grounds. In what was likely a calculated move that felt like a counter attack in a musical chess match, she opened with tamer but equally selections than she did a year before. An early “Broken Horses” landed after the opener “Stay Gentle,” before the simmer started to slowly boil.

She embedded a portion of U2′s “Where the Streets Have No Name” into “My Song.” A year removed from whipping the Kings of Leon so hard that it had to be painful for them to sit on their thrones the following morning, she devoured the moment, tongue in cheek but smiling like a proven winner.

“We’re grateful to be given a shot at this slot tonight,” she told the adoring crowd. Things gradually got rowdier and then Billy Strings was welcomed to play on his third stage of the night.

The band and guest laid down a lively take on Paul McCartney and Wings’ “Live and Let Die” before Carlile celebrated the moment in the limelight, dialing up Queen’s “We Are the Champions.”

A chess match, if it ever was that, between a Hellbending Prince and a Bourbon Queen ended in a beautiful stalemate.

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Bourbon & Beyond 2023
Bourbon & Beyond 2023(Marty Pearl | Marty Pearl)

Paving new paths

Friday night ended in a much different style on what felt to be a more packed field. Early on, Hozier did his typical thing, conjuring ghosts and chasing spiritual snakes as the crowd swayed appropriately. Before him, Brittany Howard took everyone to church with her unmatched and stark command of voice and tone. However, things felt a bit different when acts like Bastille played.

Gradually and increasingly, Bourbon & Beyond has felt year by year like a place that graying Gen-Xers could bring their adult children without embarrassment and disagreement over the lineup. Over this past weekend, those moments of gradual shifts felt minute by minute like something more earthshaking.

Perhaps it was watching everyone sing to their version of “No Scrubs” or watching everyone dance to “Of the Night,” perhaps because the sound was more driven by electronics than acoustic, no matter. The result was the first indication of an entirely different vibe than for most prior editions of Bourbon & Beyond.

Given that Duran Duran was the legacy act of the night, matching Billy and Brandi’s offering of a James Bond song with their own (”A View to Kill, which charted higher in the U.S. than McCartney’s classic) after ripping “Hungry Like a Wolf” off the setlist bingo card like a dirty bandage only two songs into their hour-long groove. Maybe it was the bourbon talking, but things just felt – different.

As the sky darkened and The Killers shrieked before eager fans who had speculated earlier in sunset conversations about where in the set they would play “Mr. Brightside” (spoiler: Slot 1), the masses, several-dozen-thousand of them, sang their hearts out to songs barely as old as this event itself. It became as clear as moonshine: Bourbon & Beyond is fermenting into something deeper, something more beyonder than beyond.

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Bourbon & Beyond 2023
Bourbon & Beyond 2023(Marty Pearl | Marty Pearl)

‘Where we’re going we don’t need roads’

The following afternoon, band members asked their ASL interpreter to sign collard greens and bourbon whiskey. They invoked one of their more lively songs by spinning the lyrics to, “If you’re a bourbon drinker then we’ll all have a humdinger,” and they took people to church in their own way. (“I smell brimstone all over y’all.” / “That ain’t brimstone you’re smelling.”

Old Crow Medicine Show on day three did everything that traditional Bourbon & Beyond acts do to fashion traditional Bourbon & Beyond moments.

“Let’s show ole Bruno how it’s done,” they said in a playful nod to Sunday night’s headliner as they held a dance contest, professing the East Kentucky Flatfoot as the best dance.

They played “Proud Mary” to honor Tina Turner and segued into “Tequila” in a nod to Pee-wee Herman after a cover of “White Lightning.”

“It might be happy hour somewhere,” they crowed ahead of a note-perfect cover of “Margaritaville” for Jimmy Buffet and ended with perhaps the best crowd sing-along moment of the weekend with “Wagon Wheel.” Saturday afternoon Old Crow felt like 2017 Bourbon & Beyond.

So did the Black Crowes and their well-traveled hits that fit like a timeless leather jacket. Same for the Black Keys closing the night in the rain as maybe half of the crowd ducked out early. Saturday was perhaps the most traditional-looking card of the weekend. Then came the electricity of Sunday.

The choices of Fantastic Negrito, Babyface and ZZ Ward built a solid foundation, kudos to the set scheduler who crafted each day’s card like an elegant menu, while Jon Batiste and his backing band brought fun and energy, creating call-and-response moments and jumping off stage to mingle with the crowd. It’s what typically is expected at during Sunday afternoon on one of the main stages at Bonnaroo and here it was in Louisville.

In all, this felt a little like Coachella, at least as big as Governors Ball. This wasn’t far off from Lollapalooza. On Sunday night, the nostalgia act was Blondie, the genre-blending, norm-bending pioneer who keeps adding tour dates to a Hall-of-Fame career. And Blondie delivered a cleaner and stronger performance during her stop in Louisville than she did in April in the California desert.

Danceable power flowed like juiced-up powerlines through “One Way or Another,” into an electrifying “Call Me” and burst like a broken levee into the psychedelic disco siren call of “Rapture.” Beyond nostalgia, she cast upon the crowd her history, commanding awe while delivering shock. “Heart of Glass” took dips into material by Donna Summer and the Sex Pistols. Disco, punk, glam, new wave. Blondie.

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Bourbon & Beyond 2023
Bourbon & Beyond 2023(Marty Pearl | Marty Pearl)

After a post-encore pause, those who had meandered off to grab a late bite or a last drink stopped doing whatever they were doing, frozen in their tracks, when TI & Jay-Z’s “Bring ‘Em Out” rang from the house PA just before Bruno Mars & company took command, taking no prisoners. While The Killers on Friday night at least twice made reference to their Las Vegas roots, complete with lasers and confetti, Bruno delivered a more Vegas-type show, bouncing from instrument to instrument in between choreographed dancing amidst a perfectly illuminated stage.

Pure fire engulfed alcohol-soaked masses from the “24K Magic” opener well through the bulk of their set as Bruno sang, danced and shed instruments, delivering classic funk with an ultra-modern flair.

He took control of the piano and ran through a medley of songs that he has lent his magic to – CeeLo Green’s “(Forget) You,” Snoop and Wix Khalifa’s “Young, Wild and Free,” and Anderson .Paak’s “Leave the Door Open,” mixed with other solo efforts.

By the time the encore of “Uptown Funk” rang out across the Highland Festival Grounds, the final notes of the 2023 edition of Bourbon & Beyond swelling into the crisp September air, it also felt like a moment that one might look back to in coming years as a new beginning. This was huge, but just how big can this thing get?

Bourbon & Beyond 2023
Bourbon & Beyond 2023(Marty Pearl | Marty Pearl)