LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) – Under an early autumn sun that delivered every degree of summer, the first-ever Bourbon and Beyond festival stirred up drinks and roared out from amplifiers in a mix of Southern classic and Midwest hip that packed Champions Park with dozens of thousands for the weekend.
While the stages swirled shots of blues with doubles of classic rock, garnished with a hint of bluegrass, the grounds housed tents for bourbon, barbecue and Cajun seafood broils served by celebrity chefs and master distillers.
The two main stages, placed side by side with stadium-sized vertical monitors, fed the eyes and rattled the ears of fans of all corners, allowing people to stay right put or to mill about without missing much or allowing those who chose to miss it all.
The backbone for many acts in rock, the guitar, was a staple in sets from noon to close, from Buddy Guy to Keifer Sutherland, noon to close they strummed and hummed, an age-old trick to rev up the guys and woo the gals. But nobody lifted the ladies like The Lady, Sunday night’s closer.
>> SLIDESHOW: Bourbon and Beyond
Stevie Nicks, whose voice has inspired generations of female singers, from pop country to dream pop, invoked estrogen and empowerment. Performing Gypsy, she created a synergy with the dozen-thousands gathered, especially the ones donning spaghetti straps and sundresses. While her performance partook in only a sprinkle of Fleetwood Mac hits, the resonance in the air was no doubt magic.
Prior to Nicks, Joe Bonamassa got down, dirty and unapologetically destructive, bending metal strings into powerful chords so strong they rose up the stars and drove down the sun, where it stayed until Monday morning.
Preluding Nicks and Bonamassa was another titan from the era when eight-tracks became cassettes. Bad Company frontman Paul Rodgers hammered home perhaps the most welcome surprises of the weekend, especially surprising since all the songs he sung are so well known. From Can’t Get Enough to All Right Now, Bourbon and Beyond grew from something small enough for an oversized casino reunion show to something big enough to fit in the back of a Trans Am.
Louisville loves nostalgia, no matter the reason, and despite it being the nine-millionth time they might have heard it, those gathered before the Oak Stage had no problem singing every stitch of Shooting Star. Hell, get ’em drunk enough and everybody in Louisville is a rock star. They know the words.
The lyrics laid out in young Johnny’s introduction to Love Me Do capped a fitting end to a Fab Four mini-marathon. An earlier performance by G Love & Special Sauce included a cover of Why Don’t We Do It in the Road, matched in the following set by Gary Clark Jr. straight up devouring a sinful rendition of Come Together.
Perhaps the best reworked covers from the weekend came from a guy who’s still in his original group but spent the bulk of his night in the spotlight alone. When joined by his cohorts in Pearl Jam, Eddie Vedder is used to filling arenas with bits of comedic banter in between thick bouts of musical amazement.
His solo act on Saturday night had servings of both. Vedder, simply asking where everybody was from, stoked war cries of red-and-blue, boos and cheers of Louisville versus Lexington, dozens-thousand deep drunken rock stars, letting poor Eddie know about the all-important rivalry. “C’mon, who do you guys cheer for here?” Poor Eddie got everyone to settle on cheering for Paducah.
The banter came during an impressive opening run of PJ staples, starting at I am Mine, venturing into Elderly Woman before a crooning Wishlist became Sometimes and Can’t Keep.
The 17-song setlist, thicker than most played at Bourbon and Beyond but nothing near as thick as the phone books delivered at a typical PJ show, included a slew of covers.
Shortly after having a celebration anniversary shot with a longtime crew member from a fifth-sized bottle of Jim Beam, Vedder went into selfie mode, recording the crowd singing Happy Birthday and sending it to Bruce Springsteen. That launched him into a reworked cover of the Boss’s Open All Night. Other cover-song selections included Bruce bandmate Steven Van Zandt’s I am a Patriot and Neil Young’s anthemic, often-encored-by-Pearl-Jam, Rockin’ in the Free World.
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A good portion of the Pearl Jam fan club ducked out before Steve Miller Band closed the Saturday night session with enough smash singles to give you 82 minutes of rock-solid Rock ‘n Roll without a commercial.
The onetime protégé of Les Paul, who made a career with earworm hits perfectly blended with colorful-pop British Invasion and subtly seasoned swamp sound, brought out Kenny Wayne Shepherd, an earlier performer, to guest on a couple of blues standards in between the rundown of every song that everybody knows but wants to hear anyway.
So we learn a Jet Airliner can Fly Like an Eagle higher than Wild Mountain Honey all the way to Swingtown where The Joker, mislabeled a Space Cowboy, can Take the Money and Run.
Miller’s Serenade delivered a memorable ride, although I don’t recall it being quite in that order. Lost in the blurry blender of the late-night mix with plenty of mixer, the remaining crowd, now well beyond well bourbon, found it easy to Dance Dance Dance, though the band must have thought they were much too sweaty to even consider playing Winter Time.
Bourbon and Beyond got some 1,100 likes when it posted on Facebook it will return next year, so whether you went or not, there will be another chance to go beyond. If you want to see music at Champions Park before next fall there is always Louder than Life this weekend, headlined by Ozzy Osborne with Zakk Wylde and most of the members of Rage Against the Machine.
I bet you 100 bucks somebody gets punched in the face, bourbon or not.
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