LEXINGTON, KY—After a successful inaugural year in 2019, the Railbird Festival organizers were forced to hold their horses in 2020 due to the pandemic. But the two-day music festival was back in the saddle this year, with the event taking place Aug. 28-29 at the Grounds at Keeneland, the renowned racecourse and auction house located in Lexington, Ky.
Named after the horse-racing enthusiasts who are known to hang on the rail that lines the track, the 2021 Railbird Festival, which is produced by AC Entertainment (part of Live Nation), featured an artist lineup that included headliners Dave Matthews Band and My Morning Jacket, along with Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit, Leon Bridges, Billy Strings, Black Pumas, Khruangbin, Midland, The Revivalists, Band of Horses, Margo Price and more.
In addition to the musical performances, festivalgoers were also able to partake in some bluegrass traditions, including bourbon tasting, local eats and even off-track betting. “One thing we like to do anytime we put on a festival is to capture the spirit and the community of the city we're in—so not only Keeneland, but Lexington itself,” said Jeff Cuellar, VP of strategic partnerships at Knoxville, Tenn.-based AC Entertainment, which also produces the Bonnaroo and Forecastle festivals.
This year, Railbird attendance climbed to 35,000 people per day, up from 15,000 per day in 2019. Because of the growth, the festival footprint, which included three stages, expanded to include larger VIP viewing areas, stage layout changes that accommodated larger crowds and an increase in on-site experiences.
The site was also dissected by a main thoroughfare featuring food and beverage vendors. Organizers said the design was intentional, in order to entice attendees to grab concessions as they traversed the grounds. VIP ticketholders were granted access to exclusive lounges with air-conditioning, hors d’oeuvres, private bars and commemorative merch.
It’s like “building a city in 10 days,” said Mike Rosbrook, national account manager of entertainment solutions for Sunbelt Rentals, which partners with companies like AC Entertainment and Live Nation to produce festivals, supplying everything from forklifts to power-generation equipment to ground protection.
The Fort Mill, S.C.-based rental company also provides equipment for other tentpole events around the country, including large-scale sporting events, corporate functions and other concerts and festivals like Austin City Limits, BottleRock Napa Valley and Tortuga Music Festival.
Generally, annual festivals like Raibird require year-round planning, but because of the uncertainty surrounding COVID-19, organizers started in May of this year. Rosbrook said it took 10 days to load in and four days to take down the festival infrastructure, with over 1,275 pieces of Sunbelt equipment used.
“The minute you tear it down you start talking about ‘how can you make it better for next year? How can you do things differently in order to make it more efficient or better from a fan perspective, from a venue perspective?’ Those conversations happen all year round with Mike [Rosbrook] and his team,” Cuellar said.
During the first day of the festival, temperatures reached 90 degrees-plus, which resulted in long lines at water refill stations and concession stands. Organizers posted a statement to the festival’s social media channels about the situation.
While heat and humidity plague many outdoor summer festivals, concerns related to COVID-19 and the health and safety of fans, staff and artists were top of mind. Attendees were required to provide proof of full COVID-19 vaccination or negative COVID-19 test results obtained within 72 hours of the first day in order to enter. Those who were unvaccinated were asked to wear a mask on-site.
See more from inside the Railbird Festival below.