Bourbon and Beyond Music Festival Louisville, Kentucky 2023
What they got right
It's a visual delight and a comfortable venue, easy to navigate, with plenty of places to relax out of the blazing sun, a decent and affordable food selection, an excellent small craft and popular bourbon selection, and of course, good music.
Orderly. The campgrounds were partitioned in such a fashion that everyone got their little parcel which could be reached without tripping over someone else's guy wires and without the omnipresent possibility that suddenly a stranger would barrel into your scene. I'm not saying that was always bad, only sometimes. Admittedly, $300 was a bit to pay for a 20x20 parcel, especially for my tent campsite which was at the end of the runway of a busy international airport, with planes taking off and landing so close the cars and tent poles rattled every time. This was not an area of visual delight if you looked beyond the campground, but rather a clusterfuck of infrastructure, electric wires, concrete, traffic, a beltway with several roads merging and the UPS Worldport Global Hub at the edge of the Louisville airport. On Sunday afternoon around four p.m., plane after bloated cargo plane, slowly whirled through the thick air, too slowly lifting, their yellow-banded brown tails eventually disappearing into the air we cannot see that is the rest of the world. I saw a couple groovy bright yellow planes just scoot up into the air. Still, the port-o-johns were nearby and simple to get to. The showers weren't far and I understand were relatively clean with hot water. Their hours were a bit off for me, closing in mid-afternoon, I think from 2-8. I was hot and sweaty enough to want one just before dinner, but I carry a large vessel of water and Dr. Bronner's mint soap, so sponge bathing was fine for me. The mornings were a bit chilly and I prefer lazing about in flannel pjs, nursing hot coffee to a bracing morning shower. But that's when most folks wandered down there. I liked too that the campground was next to the roller coaster. There is something whimsical about sleeping near amusement park rides. A fantasyland aura embraces the sleeper.
It was surreal passing them at night, dream walking before the head hits the soft pillow.
Clean. The venue was clean, except that of course at the end of the day there was trash lying about, plastic bottles and other dirty, scrappy debris, but it was cleared by morning. There were plenty port-o-johns, easily findable due to high signposts and believe it or not, outside them, water stations with soap that were refilled regularly, so that I was able to keep my hands cleaner there than at home. A serious upgrade to precovid days.
The stage areas. Dancers are given priority just like the old days before everybody was dragging chairs around and fat fucks started planting theirs directly in front of the stage. It's a festival! Duh. Chairs are allowed with a pass for them, but only behind the dance area. Several musicians have told me that a sedentary crowd brings down the vibe for them too. I don't know if it's changed, but Merlefest has a stellar musician line-up, and I found, the laziest, most self-righteous audience imaginable.
Everybody gets tired and the grassy areas for blankets and chairs are ample.
Umbrellas are not allowed and while it makes for a long afternoon in the hot sun with no shade, it's only right that someone is not greedily blocking your view of the stage. Except of course tall people, who always do. I'm not even five feet tall and invariably a tall person often with a super thick neck, plants himself directly in front of me just as I am losing myself in the magic of a skillful guitarist picking. These moments are when I am especially glad to be solo. Friends usually get irritated with the selfishness of the tall person, but I just keep moving around, peeking in between people before they decide to lean in and kiss... and so on. By the way, if you are reading this and attend theater, symphony orchestra or opera performances with a lover, would you kindly refrain from PDA? Theater seats are staggered so that those behind you have a view of the stage and your cuddling blocks it.
In short, the venue is as accommodating on the visibility score as it can reasonably get. It's helpful in a lot of ways that companies like Frontgate administer these fests.
Bourbon. The bluegrass stage is in a long canopied building with twenty vendors or so behind a long bar serving bourbon straight up or in a specialty cocktail.
With the tip, it's around $24 a drink. Just pricey enough to keep folks from slopping their drinks around. The vendors I encountered were all super helpful, happy to answer your questions and seemed to take their job of mixing a good drink seriously.
This reminds me of a t-shirt that made me grin: I have mixed drinks about feelings. Ain't that the truth?
As far as I could tell, they had a very nice selection there. I am an amateur bourbon drinker. I mean, I've carried an emergency flask around my entire life, but my imbibing has not elevated to the level of aficionado by any stretch. This place made you want to get there though, and Monday morning found me at a Liquor Barn on my way out of town, comparing notes with and taking recommendations from a local who is. Louisville prides itself as the start of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, a corridor of small-batch craft and popular bourbons. (The trail welcome center is at the Frazier History Museum on North Ninth Street.)
Vendors. I bought a cache of excellent bourbon honeys and a beautiful, well-made skirt there, all reasonably priced. Too, I was surprised to see that THC gummies were offered for sale in a state where recreational marijuana has not yet been legalized. Our laws are all over the place in this country, but I was glad to see that especially here, alcohol was not elevated as the recreational drug of choice over marijuana.
What they didn't get right
The probability that a staffer could answer your question, even the simplest one, was pretty low. I followed google maps to Gate 2 for campers, but at the last moment wasn't sure whether I'd taken a road ten feet in advance of the one I should have. I never did find out. I had to go a little bit the wrong way down a one-way street to get to the sign that said Campers where there was an attendant. In front of me were RVs parked on concrete. I asked him where the tent camping was. He didn't speak English. I tried charades, but he was still pretty clueless about whether there was a separate campground for tents. In retrospect I should have just thanked him and kept going down that lane. But I did not, and spent the next forty minutes driving through capacious parking lots only to ultimately confront a concrete barrier, and even once was held up in traffic on the departure drop-off lane at the nearby Louisville International Airport. The ticket booths were unmanned an the employees on golf carts unwilling to slow down even when hailed. Finally, upon the advice of a friendly convention center employee I drove in the exit, waving to the attendant who didn't care at all, and wound my way past the RVs, heading for the roller coaster where I was hoping to find a way to wend around it and find tent camping. I did. I subsequently placed two additional simple queries with staffers. i.e. where the showers were and where the music venue was. They were unable to shed any light on these. Nonetheless, they were a good-natured lot.
The festival is held on the Kentucky Festival Grounds at the Kentucky Expo Center, an almost unimaginably large complex. Although it could, I am going with it is unlikely that the infrastructure will change. The areas closest to the stage are large, chunky gravel. It's partitioned by concrete barriers so very important people can get closer to the stage. The gravel extends back a decent distance. Then there is a large patch of grass extending across the area. The stages are side-by-side. The grandstands for sound and lighting are tall and wide and obstruct the view of anyone behind them, but if you can get a good angle, you can see both stages from one vantage point. Folks set up blankets and chairs in this grassy area. Behind the grassy area is a wide expanse of asphalt, evidently a roadway though more the breadth of a racetrack. On the side leading to the bathrooms, water station, food and bluegrass stage, gravel again takes the place of asphalt, so it can be a long, clumsy hot walk back and forth for water. The problem is that gravel and asphalt, apart from radiating heat, are very challenging surfaces to dance on for an extended period. Challenging to the knees and ankles, well to cartilage in general. Ground is far gentler.
There was so much they did get right in spacing the audience with the infrastructure they had. Behind the asphalt is another large expanse of grass in front of and along the sides of canopies offering whiskey. All available spaces were filled with chairs, blankets and people the nights of Days 3 and 4. It appeared that a pretty sizable number of people came just for the day and in that regard, the pedestrian traffic pattern was well planned as there was never waiting for an extended period anywhere. It was kind of refreshing not to be crammed in a slow-moving line with sweaty people expressing impatience by moo-ing. I mean, you'd find yourself moo-ing too in these situations. It was kind of nice just sashaying in.
You could still get away from the crowd if you felt overstimulated, and hang out in a quieter grassy space heading toward the bluegrass stage where tall monuments provided shade or you could find a canopy with picnic tables and misting fans.
Or a cool, relatively quiet area at night. Did you ever look at a guy leaning up against something and know when you look in his eyes that he's the devil? You take another scan and all the pieces fit. The next musician after this guy's eyes met mine conjured the devil. Never did this place have a threatening feel however.
More grass and less asphalt, concrete and gravel would make the concert venue infinitely more accommodating.
This was taken in the morning. By mid-afternoon the canopy, offering much-desired shade, is teeming with folks and by evening the crowd has spilled over; the surrounds are a sea of blankets and chairs. Whiskey available.
Only water station too remote. It's a hike for many campers to get to the gate. There are golf carts ferrying people, ostensibly for disabled people. The pickup points are labeled thus, discouraging me from hailing a ride the first couple days until I learned that it is simply a priority to pick up disabled people, but if there are none or few, others are welcome in the golf cart. Take cash to tip. The days I attended the festival were cloudless and hot and the walk was long. At the gate, I had to dump the water in my refillable bottle as it looks like vodka or moonshine and taking liquor into the venue is prohibited. So that meant trudging an additional expanse to get to water. This may seem like a minor issue, but I faced it half a dozen times. Refillable water bottles should be encouraged. There'd certainly be less trash at the end of the day and maybe the profits from sales would support an additional water station.
Allowing generators in tent camping. This floored me. Note too that the hours allowing generators are nuts here. The only taboo hours are from 3 am to 8 am. This is a time when we should be moving away from fossil fuels, not encouraging their use. While the campground, backed up against the freeway and an international airport was a far cry from the wilderness with its megavolt lighting and hellish tangle of electric wires, tent campers are typically the more environmentally conscientious among us, appreciating the rustle of the fresh air through the campsite to the noxious fumes and incessant grating noise of a generator. One literally has to shout to talk over one.
Scheduling bands at the same time posed a bit of a challenge choosing who to see, but didn't rise to the level of a genuine problem until Days 3 and 4, when the vibrating speakers of the big stage performers drowned out the performers on the bluegrass situation stage, unless you were VERY close to their stage. The reverberating cacophony was so bad that it was painful to hang out in the building at all, which was a shame since that's where the bourbons were showcased. It became hard to find any peaceful enclave and was tiring to those of us who'd been there since the day before Day One.
I have not addressed the perqs available to VIPs because I feel that festivals are egalitarian events, a celebration of humanity and I recoil at the notion that some people are superior over others, especially when it comes down to money drawing the distinction. I walked up to the gate with a young woman who expressed it perfectly. As we passed those standing in line for VIP entry, she pointed, saying, "There's a very important person. And there's one." It was amusing, but I am generally non-confrontational so just walked quietly alongside her in a silent Buddhist way. I've accepted VIP entry before and felt self-conscious. I was again offered a free VIP ticket with my proponent declaring that the bathrooms were cleaner and you could get close to the stage without getting smooshed. The port-o-johns in the general admission area were kept clean enough. If it was that the VIP bathrooms had flushable toilets, yeah, I'm sure that's more pleasant opening the door if the previous person has flushed, but can we really justify flushing down five gallons of clean water every time we pee? As for not being smooshed, the VIP section was indeed closer to the stage, but everyone looked just as smooshed together in their little band of gravel as the next section of po' folks. I did hear that world class chefs were offering food samples and that sounded delightful, but was not enough of an enticement to lure me away from the color and joy of people who did not need to feel self-important. With 40,000 fans, obviously only. relative few are going to get close to the stage. The huge screens showed up-close shots of the musicians to those in the back. I'm not sure if the venue sponsored the videographers or the musicians or if it was a mix, but the videography was notably better Days 3 and 4. The first couple days the cameramen noticeably missed focusing on the soloists, not really appreciating the collaborations for what they were.
Recruiting for the US Army. There's a time and a place. I am sad that we need an army, but we do for defense. It was genuinely creepy though to have active and insidious recruitment at a music and bourbon festival. Not only did the big screens repeatedly advertise this promoter, but there was a recruiting booth and an army band I did not see on my schedule who played from the big stage for an interminably long time Sunday afternoon, intermittently plugging for the Army. It would seem that a decision to enlist with the Army should be given sober deliberation at every stage, from the initial "teaser" to the sign-up. Face it, the worst decisions can appear to be a good idea when you've got bourbon swirling around in your brain. Too, it's one thing if your family has been in the military for generations and you know what you're getting into when you enlist, but then these advertisements are not for you. It is for the vulnerable low income lads and lasses who haven't seen their battalion of friends blown up only to find out that the invasion was to protect vested interests of a US family or corporation. It is for those who are clueless that the US is perceived globally as a marauder and genuinely believe that wherever the government sends them and whatever they are ordered to do, it is in the name of freedom. The US Army seduces these innocents with macho-isms like "Be all you can be."
Until you aren't. Presently, in 2023, the average of US veterans committing suicide is 22 a day. It is estimated by a study at Brown University that over 31,000 veterans of post-9/11 conflicts have committed suicide. This is more that four times the number killed in conflict. Is this a vocation we want to be promoting at a musical festival? Why not promote opioids?
Mad lighting turning night into day. Debatable because it did make the place feel safe, and you wouldn't find yourself locked in a port-o-potty knocking into a urinal, unable in the pitch black to find the handle some masochistic sucker designed the placement of precisely so that you would have a nightmarish time trying to get out. It was so bright everywhere that I found it more sane to wear sunglasses at night.
An aside on the music selection
I've never been to a festival with such a diverse slate of musicians and the notion fascinated me. I admit to a moment of panic after dropping eight hundred bucks. There would be some straight-up country pop and bourbon flowing freely. Had I signed up for a raucous? But I liked the idea of all these people with different tastes coming together for a peaceful party, and that's how it turned out. Sweet crowd.