REVIEW: Here’s What We Experienced At Bourbon & Beyond 2023

Sep 18, 2023 at 3:26 pm
Blondie performs at Bourbon & Beyond on Sept. 17, 2023.
Blondie performs at Bourbon & Beyond on Sept. 17, 2023. Photo by Nik Vechery

So, we need a name for those of us who frequent Bourbon & Beyond yearly. Louder Than Life fans are called "Loudmouths,” so what do we have? “Bourbonites” is already a thing, as is “Beyonders.” So, what then? “Bourboniers”? “Yonderers”? How about “Bouryonderers”? I like it because it sounds like it’d be the name of a disease in the 1800’s. OK, maybe not “Bouryonderers,” but we do need a name for our community.

Anyway, it’s September, and right now Louisville is the epicenter of all things music for the entire country with not one but two major music festivals. Billed as “The World's Largest Bourbon & Music Festival,” in 2022 Bourbon & Beyond saw attendance of 140,000 people, and last year Louder Than Life drew 170,000 attendees, setting a festival attendance record and officially becoming America’s biggest rock festival. In Louisville, KY. Right here. Our city. Not New York, L.A., Chicago, Houston, or any other major U.S. city, but Louisville. I don’t know about you, but it just seems unreal to me.

Built around showcasing “Why Louisville has become our home away from home,” said Danny Wimmer, founder and namesake of Danny Wimmer Presents, “Bourbon & Beyond is our love letter to the city of Louisville and the great state of Kentucky.” Looking at the 2023 lineup, which featured performances by almost 70 bands/artists, as well as 16 bourbon and 11 culinary experiences, I think one would be hard-pressed to argue against that. Wimmer continued: “Having the opportunity to curate an unbelievable festival experience rooted in amazing musical performances combined with our passion for bourbon and culinary arts is our dream come true.” Ours, too, Mr. Wimmer! Ours, too.

And it’s that spirit that makes Bourbon & Beyond so incredibly unique. Nowhere else in the world can you find such an amazing array of extraordinary music, top-notch bourbon, and world-class culinary delights than Bourbon & Beyond. It’s not just another festival, it’s an experience!

Given the title, you may have guessed that bourbon has a little something to do with this festival, and Kentucky-produced bourbon was on full display. Representing the bourbon industry was the Kentucky Venues Bourbon Stage, hosted by bourbon expert Chris Blandford and featuring workshops/tastings with special guests such as actors Ian Somerhalder (“Lost,” “The Vampire Diaries”) and Paul Wesley (“Star Trek: Strange New Worlds,” “The Vampire Diaries”); actor Graham McTavish (“Outlander,” “The Hobbit,” “Men in Kilts”); singer Wayne Newton; country music artist Hailey Whitters, bourbon expert Fred Minnick; and an array of bourbon industry experts, pioneers, and distillers. Also featured were daily tapings of “The Firkin Podcast,” featuring Chris Blandford and Brian Probus, and perhaps the greatest idea for a bourbon talk, “Bourbon & Basketball,” which featured 1980 and 1986 University of Louisville Championship basketball stars Robbie Valentine (’86), Chris West (’86), Wiley Brown (’80) and Scooter McCray (’80) sharing stories while sipping Michter’s Bourbon and Michter’s Rye.

And then there are the bourbon-sponsor tents, and they are numerous. King among them is the Kroger Big Bourbon Bar, which, in a nutshell, is basically the entire Kentucky Bourbon Trail centralized in one big-ass tent with selections from pretty much every bourbon distillery in KY.

The Hunter’s Club was a 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!

Bulleit Bourbon brought back one of my favorite features of the festival: free-play old-school arcade games. I ducked in here to escape the sun more than a few times. Much to my surprise, usually there were games open.

Fan-favorite Jim Beam Tiki Barrel Bar was back once again, mixing bourbon and rum-based island cocktails in a much-needed shaded seating area designed to look like its name.

George Dickel brought back their popular Flight School, which gave guests a chance to pair a flight of bourbons with a 15-minute interactive educational session on bourbon.

Jack Daniel’s was there with two big-ass tents, which, being owned by Brown-Forman, kinda sorta makes them a Kentucky bourbon in a round-about way. Anyway, their huge Char House tent, situated dead center of 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. And their Sports Bar tent was a nice place to avoid the sun and catch a game on TV if, again, you could find a seat. 

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 obviously works, as they do make a really damn good, very smooth whiskey!

Also in attendance were Angel’s Envy, Knob Creek, Wild Turkey, Boundary Oak, Jefferson’s Bourbon, Bird Dog Whiskey, Basil Hayden, Heaven’s Door, and Log Still Distillery.

And since this is Bourbon & Beyond, a big part of the Beyond is the culinary experiences that took place on the Monogram Culinary Stage and featured world-renowned chefs and culinary experts such as Chris Santos (“Chopped”), Edward Lee (“The Mind of a Chef”), Amanda Freitag (“Top Chef,” “Chopped”), Darnell “SuperChef” Ferguson (“Superchef Grudge Match,” “Guy Fieri’s Tournament of Champions”), Sara Bradley (“Top Chef,” “Chopped”), Maneet Chauhan (“Chopped”), Christian Petroni (“Next Food Network Star”), and Claudette Zepeda (“Iron Chef: Quest for an Iron Legend”), among others.

Oh, and there was music, too! Four full days of it, to be exact. Thursday’s lineup ended up being my favorite of the festival, with amazing performances by several living legends and future legends, and absolutely perfect weather to boot. Some of my favorites of the day were blues guitar legend John Primer’s early-afternoon set. Legendary R&B and gospel queen Mavis Staples took us all to church with an absolutely astounding performance, proving exactly why she is considered one of the greatest singers of all time! Legend followed legend as blues guitarist Buddy Guy took the stage immediately afterwards. Dressed in overalls and a polka dot shirt, Guy looked like a big kid suspended in time as he wailed out blues classic after blues classic. Currently on his farewell tour, and playing what will most likely be his last ever Louisville gig, it was an absolute honor to witness the 87-year-old Guy in action. But as with any multi-stage festival, band/artist scheduling is always a problem for the concertgoer, forcing them to choose who to catch and who to miss. Unfortunately, sandwiched between both Staples’ and Guy’s sets was fiddle virtuoso, Grammy winner, and Henryville, IN, native Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper on the smaller Bluegrass Situation Stage. I remember watching Cleveland play at a few bluegrass jam sessions at Bluegrass Brewing Company 20-some-odd years ago and being absolutely blown away even back then, so I was very interested in catching at least part of his set. But I, among many others, couldn’t tear myself away from either Staples’ or Guy’s sets. Turns out Billy Strings made a guest appearance during Cleveland’s set and jammed at least a song or two with him. It certainly would have been nice to see that! Train seemed to have a great set, although I found myself wandering around the festival during it. I can honestly say I’m surprised by the number of songs I heard them play that I was familiar with. Future legend Billy Strings, who seemed to come out of nowhere a few years ago and quickly became one of the biggest bluegrass artists of all time, put on a commanding performance that had the whole crowd dancing and singing along. Strings even threw in a few Bill Monroe covers along the way. And coming back for the second year in a row, another current and future legend: headliner Brandi Carlile, who absolutely crushed it with her amazing set that leaned heavily on her latest album, 2021’s In These Silent Days, but featured tracks covering most of her discography. The highlight came at the end of her set when she was joined on stage by Billy Strings for covers of Wings’ “Live and Let Die” and Queen’s “We Are The Champions” before coming back for her encore (sans Strings), the 2018 powerhouse “Hold Out Your Hand.”

Friday saw a great but much-too-early performance by Goodbye June, whose sound heavily favors early AC/DC mixed with a bit of Lynyrd Skynyrd. Also on way-too-early was Mr. Las Vegas himself, Wayne Newton, who made the best of his 35-minute time slot by performing all the hits he’s known for (mostly covers, but he’s made them his own). Following Newton — although they are trying to make their own way in the music industry and distance themselves from the comparisons — was Bono’s son Elijah Hewson and his band Inhaler. I’m unfamiliar with their music, but I gotta say, it reminded me a lot of early U2, which isn’t a bad thing. The Gaslight Anthem were great, but I had to bail on them early to catch The Cleverlys, whom, if you haven’t heard, you really need to. They do bluegrass covers of songs that should never be bluegrass covers. I skipped Bastille in favor of The Lil’ Smokies on the Bluegrass Situation stage, who were quite entertaining. Apologies if you’re a fan of Hozier, because I’m not particularly familiar with his work other than “Take Me To Church” and found myself wandering around during his set. Following him was another highlight of the festival, Duran Duran. As a kid who grew up in the 80’s, I understand the value of Duran Duran. They were the face of MTV in the early years and back then were basically where Taylor Swift is now in terms of fandom. As a kid, I just thought they were a great pop band, but it wasn’t until I got older that I discovered the level of talent that went into their songs. And Friday night, they did not disappoint, sounding as fresh as they did 40 years ago. I have to say, the Snapchat-type filters being shown on the monitors were funny at first, and watching people in the audience turn into wolves during “Hungry Like The Wolf” was great, but it got old after a while. But honestly, Duran Duran could have been the headliner and I don’t think anyone would have been disappointed. During the short break between Duran Duran and The Killers’ set, while Elvis’ version of “Blue Moon of Kentucky” played over the speakers, I joked to my wife, “Do you think they’ll play Mr. Brightside’?” I just figured it would be their encore. But then Elvis suddenly cut off and you heard that unmistakable “Mr. Brightside” opening guitar riff. I’ll give it to The Killers — that’s a hell of a flex to open with arguably your most popular song. From there, The Killers proved they were just that, as they proceeded to put on an 18-song set drawing tunes from their entire discography and giving one of the best performances of the entire festival.

Waking up that third day of a four-day festival just hits different. When you know you’re only halfway through it all, but your body is feeling like you’ve been there for four days already. Perhaps it’s more of my body telling me my age is catching up to me. In any case, I couldn’t drag myself over to the festival Saturday until later in the evening for The Black Crowes. My apologies to all the bands before them that I skipped, as it looked to be a great lineup Saturday. The Black Crowes delivered a set made up almost entirely of songs from their first two records. The band sounded great, and it was good to see the Robinson brothers together again and back at it with renewed vigor. And speaking of brothers, The Avett Brothers followed and made me realize that I need to listen to them more often, delivering my favorite set of the weekend. Certainly no strangers to Louisville, The Avett Brothers had the crowd singing every word to every song and dancing along. I don’t think there was a dry eye in the crowd after the song “Murder in the City,” including that of vocalist/guitarist Scott Avett, who appeared to be choked up following the song. Like Duran Duran the night before, The Avett Brothers could have been the headliners and no one would have left disappointed. Perhaps they should have been, as the conclusion of their set sent a wave of people towards the exit prior to The Black Keys even taking the stage. A short rain shower during the first 15 minutes or so of The Black Keys’ set sent even more people heading for the exit. Leaning heavily on songs from their breakthrough album Brothers, The Black Keys delivered a fun, upbeat set, although we only stayed for half of it. Being wet from the rain and achy from standing for long periods of time over the past few days tends to make that decision for you.

Sunday was kind of a repeat of Saturday, with us not getting there until Blondie was about to go on stage. As I sit here writing this, I really regret not getting there earlier, as Sunday had a great lineup and I’m sure I missed out on some great sets. Blondie, however, was amazing! Debbie Harry owned that stage like the legend and diva she is. Backing Harry was an all-star band featuring longtime drummer Clem Burke (who was once a member of The Ramones for a very short period of time in the 80’s), Glen Matlock (original bassist for the Sex Pistols), Andee Blacksugar (guitarist for KMFDM), and Matt Katz-Bohen (keyboardist for Princess Goes), among others. (Unfortunately, original member and band co-founder Chris Stein no longer tours with the band due to health issues.) Harry and the band delivered a solid, strong set composed mostly of their hits and proving that even after almost 50 years, Harry still has it. But going into Bourbon & Beyond, you knew there was no better way to close out the festival than Bruno Mars. The man and his band picked up where James Brown and his band left off with lots of interactions, synchronized choreography, and, of course, phenomenal musicianship. Obviously, they did not disappoint. I know what they’re doing is a lot of hard work and years’ worth of practice, but Mars and his band made it look easy, seemingly having the time of their lives while doing it. You can certainly see by watching him perform, Bruno Mars was born to be an entertainer. His voice is incredible, his dance moves are insanely entertaining, his style is impeccable, and he does it all with a smile from ear to ear the entire set. Mars and his band knew exactly how to keep the crowd engaged and dancing from the first note of the evening to the last, setting an extremely high bar for all festival headliners next year.

As the sounds of Mars’ encore “Uptown Funk” rang out, you knew there was no more perfect end to yet another perfect Bourbon & Beyond! Danny Wimmer Presents delivered on every aspect of this festival, from booking an amazing lineup all the way to the whole sea of available porta-potties. I really don’t think I could go to a festival put on by a different company and not be disappointed in how it’s put together, mostly because in my mind I’d be going, “That’s not how DWP would have done it.” I’m spoiled for festivals now. If you’ve ever been on the fence about going to a festival, I implore you to give Bourbon & Beyond and/or Louder Than Life a chance. DWP has it down to a science, running everything smoothly and professionally. Come join our community; we’re all family at these festivals. See you next year, Bouryonderers!