REVIEW: Here's What We Experienced At Bourbon and Beyond 2022

Sep 19, 2022 at 4:35 pm
Chris Stapleton Closes out Bourbon and Beyond 2022.
Chris Stapleton Closes out Bourbon and Beyond 2022. Photo by Steve Thrasher

If you weren’t paying attention to the Bourbon & Beyond Festival 2022 Facebook group during the festival, you completely missed out on a whole subculture that developed around a man named Troy. Somewhere between the people selling wristbands and other people complaining about anything and everything to do with the festival, he became this year’s unofficial mayor and mascot of Bourbon & Beyond!

It all started with a post about being mid-flight to Louisville and realizing he’d forgotten his and his friends’ four-day passes. Then his friends started posting about him, initially busting his balls for forgetting the passes, then once they managed to somehow get into the festival, posting about his every move. From there it took on a life of its own, turning into Troy name-dropping by random people, (including me), in almost every post in the group regardless of what it was initially about. Many even creating posts just to name-drop Troy. It eventually became a “Where’s Waldo” type of obsession with people actively seeking him out for pictures, and Troy, now referring to himself in the third person, was glad to oblige! God knows how many free drinks he got out of it! But it did get him and his friends personally invited into the VIP section by one of the festival organizers. So, you see, sometimes huge mistakes can end up making for the best memories.

And that’s one of the things I love about Bourbon & Beyond, how relaxed and fun-loving it is. No one is taking themselves too seriously, and no one is starting fights. It’s just a huge crowd of drunk, sunburnt people having a good time!

Bourbon & Beyond came to fruition in 2017 as a partner-festival to Louder Than Life. In 2019, the festival saw a crowd of more than 91,000 attendees, earning Bourbon & Beyond the title “The World’s Largest Bourbon & Music Festival." Although the numbers are not in as of this writing, this year’s crowd is sure to have shattered that record. Organizers have hinted that this Bourbon & Beyond could hit above 130,000 people. Saturday had its biggest attendance at around 41,000 people.

However, it’s also seen more than its fair share of problems beginning in 2018, when torrential rainfalls turned the festival’s previous location, Champions Park, into a veritable swamp the first night, resulting in the cancellation of the remaining two nights. Then, after making its return in 2019 at its new (and current) location, Bourbon & Beyond was cancelled due to COVID, and again in 2021, so festival producers Danny Wimmer Presents could focus on their other festivals.

I guess you could say that Bourbon & Beyond has been “aging” for a few years, as any good bourbon should. 

Now, after two long years of staring at the lonely, un-updated Bourbon & Beyond app on my phone, (which was still boasting the 2019 lineup up until a couple weeks ago), Bourbon & Beyond made its triumphant return to the Highland Festival Grounds at KY Expo Center from Sept. 15-18, bigger and better than ever.

Having been expanded to four days, this year’s Bourbon & Beyond featured an absolutely staggering lineup of music featuring more than 60 bands/artists, numerous culinary and bourbon workshops, tastings and displays, and a seemingly endless variety of bourbons and whiskeys on hand for purchase. 

For the two weeks in September that Bourbon & Beyond and Louder Than Life take place, (hopefully 3 weeks next year if Hometown Rising takes place again), Louisville is the epicenter of music festivals in the world. And this is my Christmas time!

And the fine folks at Danny Wimmer Presents put together a stellar lineup for Bourbon & Beyond 2022, with many of the acts having not played here in several years. Thursday night headliner Jack White making his first Louisville appearance since headlining Forecastle Festival in 2014, and Thursday night co-headliner Alanis Morissette’s first since 2008. Friday night headliners Kings of Leon have played Louisville several times going all the way back to 2003, with their last local appearance taking place at the KFC Yum! Center in 2017. Saturday night co-headliners Greta Van Fleet last saw Louisville in 2017 as well, but at the Louder Than Life Festival that year. The Doobie Brothers last played here at the now mostly-forgotten heat-fest that was HullabaLOU in 2010, (they also played across the river at Horseshoe Casino in 2015, although neither of those shows featured Michael McDonald). Chris Stapleton last played here, well, less than 3 years ago. But he’s from Lexington, so he’s practically local anyway. Saturday night headliners Pearl Jam take the cake though, going a full 28 years without playing a Louisville show. Their last show here being in March of 1994 at the greatly-missed Louisville Gardens. 

Stepping onto those hallowed grounds Thursday, it all hit me at once. That feeling of a little kid just waking up on Christmas morning, excited to open those presents. Knowing that between Bourbon & Beyond and Louder Than Life, I had eight full days of this excitement! Maybe it was the Delta-8 talking, but I teared up a little. 

The Bourbon

As you may have inferred from the title, Bourbon has a little something to do with this festival. Good lord does it ever! Kentucky-produced bourbon (as well as some other states' offerings) was on full display.

Representing the bourbon industry was the Team Kentucky Bourbon Stage, hosted by bourbon expert Chris Blandford and lifestyle guru, Emmy winner and Kentucky native Trish Suhr, and featured workshops from giants of the industry such as author Fred Minnick, Wes Henderson (Angel's Envy), Rob Dietrich (Blackened Whiskey), Linda Ruffenach (Whiskey Chicks), Marianne Eaves (Eaves Blind), Jennifer Vernia (Rabbit Hole), Heather Wibbels (Bourbon Women), Julian and Preston Van Winkle (Old Rip Van Winkle), Rob Samuels (Maker’s Mark), Campbell Brown (Brown-Forman), Dan Callaway (Bardstown Bourbon Company), Samara B. Davis (Black Bourbon Society), Caleb Kilburn (Peerless), Shaylyn Gammon (Blue Run Spirits), Carrie Van Winkle Greener (Pappy & Co) and Ian Sulkowski (Old Forester).

Also featured was the Louisville Cocktail Competition on Friday where judges Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer; Fred Minnick, (author and bourbon critic) Samara B. Davis, (Black Bourbon Society), Chris Santos (Chopped, The Food Network) and Peggy Noe Stevens (Bourbon Women) decided the winner of a cocktail to be known as “The Louisville." Combining Knob Creek bourbon, cinnamon syrup, Cynar (an Italian bitter aperitif), lime juice and dry curacao, Expo bartender SC Baker took home the honors with what she calls "A really approachable cocktail, despite being seemingly complex."

And the bourbon tents! The many, many bourbon tents! King among them, the fan favorite and aptly named Kroger Big Bourbon Bar. In a nutshell, this is basically the entire KY Bourbon Trail centralized in one big-ass tent with selections from pretty much every bourbon distillery in the state.

The Silver Dollar Hunter’s Club was an absolute must do for the bourbon aficionado, featuring an absolutely staggering collection of rare, vintage and experimental bourbons from around the area. Not easy on the wallet by any means, but more than a few checks on the bourbon bucket list!

Another fan favorite making its return was the Jim Beam Tiki Barrel Bar, mixing bourbon and rum-based island cocktails in a much-needed shaded seating area designed to look like its name.

Bulleit Bourbon brought back one of my favorite features of the festival, free play arcade games! It made me nostalgic for those weekend nights spent at Aladdin’s Castle at the Jefferson Mall in my youth.

Kentucky Distiller’s Association handpicked a handful of new and up-and-coming bourbon distillers for their Craft Bourbon Bar.

George Dickel brought a whole new experience to Bourbon & Beyond with their Flight School, which gave guests a chance to pair a flight of bourbons with a 15-minute interactive educational session on bourbon. Master Distiller Nicole Austin was also on hand to chat and answer questions.

Jack Daniel’s was there, which being owned by Brown-Forman kinda sorta makes them a KY bourbon in a round-about way. Anyway, their huge Char House tent, situated dead center with both main stages and far enough back to have a great seat for either stage, proved the place to be if you could find a seat.

Not only was the gang from “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” here to do a live podcast, but to also showcase Four Walls, their new limited-edition Irish American Whiskey blended for bartenders and built to be a tribute to the barroom itself. They’re even donating all proceeds to non-profit organizations benefiting the bartending community.

click to enlarge Photo by Yvonne Gougelet. - Yvonne Gougelet
Yvonne Gougelet
Photo by Yvonne Gougelet.

Ian Somerhalder and Paul Wesley, better known as the Salvatore brothers on the hit TV show “Vampire Diaries," were also there to showcase their own bourbon brand, Brother's Bond. Judging from the squeals coming from the Team Kentucky Bourbon Stage during their talk, it must have been absolutely amazing bourbon! That or a few people were just a little bit more than happy to see them. 

And they’re not the only stars here getting in on the whiskey game. Friday night headliners Kings of Leon have teamed up with Kentucky’s own Willett Distillery to create the limited edition Kiamichi Whiskey, showcasing it at Bourbon & Beyond as well.

And although they are not playing Bourbon & Beyond or Louder Than Life this year, Metallica was there in spirit (see what I did there?) with their Blackened Whiskey Bar slinging drinks and cocktails made from their bourbons & ryes, all of which are “sonically enhanced” by Metallica’s music. An interesting gimmick to be sure, but it does apparently help create a really damn good, very smooth whiskey!

But not everyone at the festival was there to drink. In fact, more than a few people there to enjoy the music have struggled with alcohol addiction. That’s why it was so great to see Danny Wimmer Presents address this and partner with 1 Million Strong to create the Wellness Retreat Tent, where sober attendees and their crew could relax with non-alcoholic drinks and meet up with other like-minded people to support each other while at the festival.

And like Bed, Bath and Beyond, you may be wondering what exactly the Beyond is. Well, a big part of the Beyond is the culinary experiences, which was well represented on the Kentucky Venues Culinary Stage. Hosted by Ed Lee (Top Chef) and Chris Santos (Chopped), the stage was home to numerous cooking demonstrations featuring the likes of Damaris Phillips, Antonia Lofaso, Tiffani Faison, Dave Danielson, James Peisker and Chris Carter (Big Green Egg), Ouita Michel and Tyler McNabb (Holly Hill & Co), Amanda Freitag, Justin Sutherland, Sam Fore, and Chris Santos.

And another, lesser known part of the Beyond in Bourbon & Beyond was the music. And DWP Presents were able to book a few bands and artists for the festival. Just a few though.

The Music 

Highlights of Thursday included traditional Delta blues guitarist Buffalo Nichols who put on a blazing set in spite of the early time slot and less than stellar crowd turnout.

Although stuck with a way-too-early time slot, Japanese Breakfast delivered a memorable set Thursday afternoon. Blending sounds of '70s disco with '80s new-wave and modern pop, this is a band I would not be shocked to see headlining this festival in the very near future.

Also on a bit too early Thursday was Shakey Graves. Backed by a full band, Mr. Graves (aka Alejandro Rose-Garcia) nevertheless seemed to enjoy the hell out of his set.

Shively’s own Gary Brewer & The Kentucky Ramblers made it a necessity for me to step away from Shakey Graves’ set for a few to catch them in all their purple and gold shiny-suited glory! Gary has been doing his bluegrass meets Americana style music for over 40 years, and the professionalism certainly showed in their high-energy, absolute blast of a set.

As Thursday night’s co-headliner, Alanis Morissette brought her “Jagged Little Pill 25th Anniversary Tour” to Bourbon and Beyond in full force. Playing 10 tracks off the album along with a handful of songs from her latter records, the seemingly ageless Alanis proved that she is still at the top of her game.

Although there were issues with the mix the first couple of songs, Thursday night headliner Jack White and his band tore through an hour and a half set which saw him leaning heavily into crowd-favorite tunes by The White Stripes as well his two, (yes two), full-length solo albums released this year; Fear of the Dawn and Entering Heaven Alive. His set was also balanced out with a handful of tunes from his previous two solo albums, as well as a few hits from his side-bands The Dead Weather and The Raconteurs. But I have to say that although it may have looked artistic, showing his entire set on the monitors in black and white was incredibly annoying.

Friday’s early lineup proved to be the day of the blues guitarists with highlights including brother and sister duo Jocelyn & Chris and their bluesy rock; Hickman, KY native S.G. Goodman and her bluesy country; Eric Gales and his funky blues; Christone “Kingfish” Ingram and his R&B flavored blues; and the country blues of Charley Crockett. Mixed in were the impressive up-and-coming 'newgrass' banjo player Tray Wellington and his band.

Some band called Houndmouth also played, but no one really knew who they were. The way they carried on though, you’d think they were from here or something! All kidding aside, alt-blues/roots rockers Houndmouth did their hometown proud, smoothly grooving through their 45-minute set, a good portion of which was dedicated to tracks from their latest album Good For You.

Although I was fairly unfamiliar with her work, Australian indie rocker Courtney Barnett belted out an 11 song, highly-impressive set with her two-piece backing band.

Also impressive was Lukas Nelson, son of Willie Nelson, backed by Neil Young’s regular backing band Promise of the Real (POTR). They even threw in a cover of Willie Nelson’s “Every Time He Drinks He Thinks of Her” early in their set.

No strangers to Louisville, Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit played their roughly 17th Louisville show, (not counting the shows Jason Isbell played here before that as a member of Drive-By Truckers). I mean at this point can’t we just claim him as our own? Unsurprisingly, they put on a great set, kind of like every other time they’ve played here.

For all intents and purposes, Brandi Carlile stole the show Friday night, delivering an absolutely stellar performance with her band while delving deep into her catalog. Even a few surprise covers of “Space Oddity” by David Bowie, “Creep” by Radiohead and ending the set with a solo acoustic version of “Over The Rainbow”.

Friday night headliners Kings of Leon proved that they were really the only band on the bill that could have followed Brandi Carlile that night. Putting on an absolutely astounding 21 song, hour-and-a-half set that left the entire crowd wanting more. From the first chords of show opener “The Bucket,” to the ending chords of their mega-hit and set closer “Sex On Fire,” there was no letting up from the Followill family.

Saturday brought a more rock-centric feel to the festival, with the first highlight being a high-energy early afternoon set by fuzzed out heavy blues rocker Reignwolf.

One of the problems with having so many great bands on one festival is several bands are going to end up with way too early time slots and short set times. This is the case for both Drive-By Truckers and St. Paul & The Broken Bones, both of whom played amazing but all-too-short sets in front of what should have been much bigger crowds.

Daughter of Rob “You can do it” Schneider, (and I know you just read that in his voice), Elle King took the stage next. Having only been familiar with her poppier hit “Ex’s & Oh’s, "I was surprised that there was more to her sound. Very talented country rock that deserves a closer listen.

After their drummer suffered an injury, it was feared that Crowded House would have to cancel their Bourbon & Beyond appearance. Instead vocalist/guitarist/songwriter Neil Finn and his son, multi-instrumentalist and Crowded House member as well, Liam, gave an intimate performance consisting of numerous Crowded House songs. They also offered the biggest surprise of the festival when Eddie Vedder and Josh Klinghoffer came out to do the last couple of songs of the set.

click to enlarge Photo by Steve Thrasher - Steve Thrasher
Steve Thrasher
Photo by Steve Thrasher

And of course three-fifth of the gang from “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” — Charlie Day, Rob McElhenney, and Glenn Howerton — were a riot during their two appearances. First, joining with chef Tiffani Faison for a cooking demonstration using their Four Walls Irish whiskey. No rum ham was produced though. Then later for a taping of their “The Always Sunny Podcast," where they talked at drunken length about, what else, their most drunken nights. Finishing up the taping with a singalong of songs from the infamous “The Nightman Cometh” episode. This one is certainly an episode you’re gonna want to listen to.

Greta Van Fleet was absolutely on fire! Vocalist Josh Kiszka has always been known for rather interesting stage attire, and he did not disappoint Saturday night; coming out in a sequined white jumpsuit looking like a cross between Freddie Mercury and Elvis. And it would be safe to say he channeled the spirits of both, as he and the band played an outstanding set that leaned heavily on their latest album The Battle at Garden's Gate.

click to enlarge Photo by Yvonne Gougelet. - Yvonne Gougelet
Yvonne Gougelet
Photo by Yvonne Gougelet.

I don’t think many would argue that Pearl Jam was the highlight of the entire festival. They were certainly a driving factor in what will end up being the biggest crowd for Bourbon & Beyond yet. And they did not disappoint! Opening with “Daughter," the band played a 20-song, two-hour set spanning their entire catalog and most of their hits. I am truly impressed that Eddie Vedder’s voice is still as rich and full as it ever was! Also, not missed was how great it was for Eddie Vedder to stop the show at one point to call attention to someone he observed having a medical problem, then getting the crowd to part for the paramedics. It was also during this break that he made some hilarious comments about an “I Love Spicy Pie” sign, (it’s just pizza; don’t let your mind go where Eddie’s apparently went). Closing with what Eddie described as “A five-minute cover of a ten-minute song” before launching into a stunning cover of Prince’s “Purple Rain” that saw both Eddie and guitarist Josh Klinghoffer take lead vocals.

Sunday certainly had more of a chill vibe about it. Highlights included Hannah Wicklund and her bluesy rock; Jukebox The Ghost’s catchy power pop, (featuring Ballard High School grad Ben Thornewill on vocals & piano); Mike Campbell & The Dirty Knobs and their bluesy Southern rock that was reminiscent of Tom Petty; Yola taking charge of the stage like a queen with her modern R&B stylings; 25-year-old guitarist/singer Marcus King and his throwback '70s bluesy Southern rock; and CAAMP’s smooth fusion of folk and newgrass.

Co-Headliners for Sunday, The Doobie Brothers sounded absolutely flawless as they rolled through an 18-song, hour-and-a-half set featuring 50 years’ worth of hits! Returning vocalist Michael McDonald still sounding as smooth as he did back in the '70s. Easily one of the best performances of the entire festival.

Multiple CMA and Grammy award winner Chris Stapleton’s rise to fame has been meteoric. As Sunday night’s headliner, the Lexington native showed his almost-hometown crowd why. Running a little over two hours and 20 songs, his set showcased his as-of-now relatively short career. This includes throwing in “Midnight Train to Memphis” by The SteelDrivers, of which he was a founding member before his solo career. He also covered Tom Petty’s “I Should Have Known It” in which Mike Campbell joined him on guitar. Closing out the set with his smash hit cover of “Tennessee Whiskey” was, obviously, the absolute perfect way to end a bourbon and music festival!

Like its namesake, Bourbon & Beyond just keeps getting better with age.

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