Photography by Catherine Watkins
On paper, the Pilgrimage Music & Cultural Festival shouldn’t have worked. Founded by Better Than Ezra lead singer Kevin Griffin, the festival is located on a farm in a suburb of Nashville where the only access point is a single two-lane road, in an area that’s already over-saturated with music festivals, with a price point a little too expensive for the average festivalgoer, weird hours, and a lineup that seemed a little too broad for big music fans but a little too specific for the average person. Not all signs pointed towards disaster, but success certainly was far from a guarantee. First-year festivals are typically about learning from the mistakes you’ll inevitably make, and it usually takes a few years before a festival gets really streamlined. However, the folks behind Pilgrimage seemed to be on top of just about everything for their inaugural event, and the weekend went smoother than any first-year festival should. Sure, it wasn’t perfect. Stages sometimes ran late, and there were some minor sound problems here and there, but I came away thoroughly impressed by the whole experience.
Harlinsdale Farm proved to be a fantastic setting for a festival like this. The festival grounds were full of big, green rolling hills and beautiful trees. Organizers wisely left the grounds bigger than necessary, leaving wide-open spaces that made for some much appreciated breathing room. The Hard Rock Harpeth River Stage was uniquely situated in an equestrian arena and looked like an actual venue that could hold shows year-round. The bazaar area was filled with interesting shops and good food and centrally located in the middle of the three stages. While the grounds felt expansive, it never took long to get from one set to another as the stages were close enough together to easily split sets, but angled the right ways to minimize sound bleed except in the most quiet of moments. The food truck area was perfectly situated, so you could still listen and hear the bands on the Golden Record Road Stage, and the water-filling stations were convenient and never too backed up. Porta-Johns were also nicely spaced out and plentiful and never seemed to get too nasty.
Getting in and out of the festival was also decidedly less painful than I imagined it would be. Having only one road to filter crowds in and out of the farm seemed daunting, but they somehow made it work. It felt just like normal traffic for a big event where you might have to wait up to 30 minutes to get in or out, not “Festival Traffic” as you normally think of it, where it takes hours. Everything was so well organized, I couldn’t believe I was home just half an hour after the final notes of each night. They were even prepared for the rain. On Saturday, after being cloudy all day, the rain finally came for the last couple hours of the night. Luckily, no sets had to be canceled or delayed, and the next morning every spot that was muddy in the slightest was completely covered in hay, so there was never any worry of stepping into an unexpected mud puddle. I guess that’s the benefit of having a festival on an actual farm.
The crowd was an interesting cross-section of suburbia. Equal parts high school teenagers, mid-20s hipsters, suburban parents/grandparents, and young children – they could all find common ground with this lineup. At times, it felt almost like more of a neighborhood party than a major music festival, especially when people would set up their lawn chairs and leave them there throughout the day as their claim to prime real estate close to the stage. For those who wanted to pack the front of the crowd, it was a major annoyance, but it made sense for the more laid-back sets of the weekend. Allowing chairs is a necessity for a festival that draws a sizable older crowd, but Pilgrimage might want to look into having “chair-free zones” a la Austin City Limits for next year.
The festival organizers made a big push for having it be a friendly environment for kids as well as adults: The hours were made with kids in mind (ending before 8 p.m. each night), there was a stage specifically for kids’ music, and children 10 and under got in free. This made for even more of an interesting dichotomy. As kids played around the festival grounds, the bands on the “adult” stages made no effort to censor their acts or clean up the language in between songs (as they shouldn’t, though I can envision the letters from angry parents already), and weed was clearly in the air for certain acts (security did very little as far as checking bags at the entrance). But I never saw a kid throughout the weekend who didn’t look like they were having a blast, so they definitely did something right. While I personally would have loved to have seen longer sets that lasted further into the night, I understand their reasoning behind the curfew.
I have no knowledge of sales numbers and am a terrible estimator of large crowds of people, but I will say that while some sets had large, sprawling crowds, it did seem like the event wasn’t quite operating at capacity. That made for an enjoyable experience for those in attendance, as it was never too crowded to get near the front of the stage, and walking from one place to another was a breeze. But for the organizers, that had to sting. They had the lineup, they had the setup, but I think the price point, which seemed aimed at suburbanites with disposable income, was a bit too high to pull the size crowd envisioned. Still, the crowd was sizable enough that it seemed like a success. On a personal note, it’s surreal to see a festival like this happening just down the road from where I grew up and even better to see it be such a success right off the bat. Here’s hoping they hit whatever their magic number was and can afford to return next year, because if this inaugural edition was any indication, this could be a great festival for years to come.
10. IRON & WINE
Sam Beam’s transition from bedroom folk artist to full-on jam band is almost complete. I can’t begrudge a guy for fleshing out his songs in a live setting, but a lot of the charm is lost when the arrangements to the songs we know and love are all different, and the band jams a little too much on each song. That said, Iron & Wine still played some fantastic songs, and Beam’s performance on the first afternoon of the festival was jovial and relaxing. Opening with a slightly more jangly version of “Woman King”, he drew mostly from his last couple of albums, occasionally dipping into the past for choice cuts like “Boy with a Coin” and “House by the Sea”. Beam seemed impressed by the festival and the scenery of the farm and looked like he was having the time of his life on stage.
09. NEKO CASE
“We have a box set coming out … so we’re gonna do some deep cuts.” That’s a great phrase for big Neko Case fans to hear, but maybe not so much for a festival audience. Still, Case mixed in the deep cuts with some of her most recognizable and crowd-pleasing songs in a set that classed up the whole festival. From “Bought and Sold” to her latest single, “Night Still Comes”, Case transitioned from ballads to sing-alongs with ease. She also showcased her sense of humor throughout the set, running and jumping around on stage and expressing her longing to be rocking out at the other stages while still singing for her audience. She also explained that she almost didn’t have a guitar for the set thanks to US customs, but at the last minute, some Air Canada employees pulled through and got her guitar back to her just before the show. Thanks, Canada.
Local Nashville favorites ELEL kicked the festivities off Saturday morning with a bang. After an extra-long soundcheck that included the band throwing snacks to the crowd as their way of apologizing, ELEL got the energy pumping immediately with a set full of positive and uplifting songs that got the people on stage dancing just as much as the crowd. With six members on stage – including an awesome trumpet/triangle/whistle/hype man – the band would occasionally showcase their versatility and switch instruments between songs. Their songs feature complex melodies with sudden and surprising shifts, but played well in an easy-going festival atmosphere. Most importantly, it was just a really fun set – a great mood-setter for the start of a long festival day.
07. BAND OF HORSES
The minds behind the Pilgrimage lineup hit the nail on the head with some perfect mid-afternoon sing-along bands. As one of those bands, Band of Horses did not disappoint – delivering hits from throughout their discography in their 5 p.m. slot. Their songs were straightforward and faithful to their records, which in this case is a positive because nothing kills a good sing-along like a new arrangement. From “Is There a Ghost” to “The Funeral”, they hit just about every crowd-pleaser in their arsenal, leaving the sizable crowd content.
06. STEVEN TYLER
Although he’s probably more known to the youth as a reality TV star these days, Steven Tyler is still a Rock star with a capital ‘R.’ He put his frontman hat on at Pilgrimage on Sunday, armed with an arsenal of classic rock ‘n’ roll stage moves. Though I personally expected nothing more than a set full of some of his new country material that he’s been working on in town lately, he came out of the gate swinging with three Aerosmith classics right off the bat – “Sweet Emotion”, “Cryin’”, and “Jaded”. They weren’t countrified versions or new arrangements either – they were faithfully performed by his backing band, Loving Mary. He eventually settled into some of his new country material, but brought it back around with more hits like “Walk This Way” and “Dream On”. Somehow, he can actually still hit the high notes. Well, most of them at least.
05. PUNCH BROTHERS
Chris Thile is the Justin Beiber of bluegrass. Okay, that’s not fair to Thile, but he does have a magnetic draw that makes him something of a heartthrob for a certain audience. That audience was in full force at Pilgrimage on Saturday, screaming with pleasure at every move Thile made. He took it in stride, cracking jokes left and right and seemingly having a ball on stage. “It’s so beautiful here,” Thile said as he looked out on the equestrian arena turned venue. “I’m so glad they put a music festival here instead of a Panera.” The band exhibited their extraordinary musicianship by playing a little bit of everything – from new songs like “My Oh My” and “Boll Weevil” to some of their “nihilistic instrumental jams” (“They’re about nothing!”) and classics like “Rye Whiskey”. The crowd was particularly excited for this set, and Thile took notice, remarking; “Goddamn, you guys are awesome to play music for! Long live Pilgrimage Festival!” Long live the Punch Brothers, too.
04. WILLIE NELSON
Tasked with closing down the first inaugural Pilgrimage Music Festival, Willie Nelson decided to take the crowd to church. He came to the stage during the golden hour, and after all the rain of the night before, the sun setting throughout his set was a beautiful sight to behold. Backed by a large band and a choir, you might as well have called him Reverend Willie. He played a plethora of standard hymns like “I’ll Fly Away” and “I Saw the Light” – and some of his self-proclaimed “new gospel songs” like “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die” – alongside normal set staples like “On the Road Again”, “Georgia on My Mind”, and a handful of Hank Williams songs. As the patron saint of marijuana, there was of course plenty of paraphernalia found at Willie’s set, which made for an interesting mix with the Bible-adjacent tunes he was singing – but, then, Willie has never shied away from either his spirituality or his love of the reefer. Another highlight came when Nelson was joined on stage by the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and Holly Williams, the granddaughter of Hank Williams. Willie Nelson & friends ended the festival on a high note – in every sense of the word.
Before Wilco could take the stage for the first headlining performance of Pilgrimage’s young life, the skies that had been threatening rain finally opened up and poured. Some people ran for the nearest tent, and others ran straight to their cars and headed out for the day. But there was a small and dedicated base of fans who stuck it out, and they were rewarded with a classic Wilco set. Opening with a bang with a few rocking songs from their latest effort, Star Wars, they eventually settled into a groove and played plenty of crowd favorites, like “Jesus, Etc.”, “Hummingbird”, and “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart”. Once the rain let up about midway through the set, people came back out of the woodwork, and the crowd went from barely there to a respectable size. It’s almost a given at this point that you’ll experience some of the best musicianship you’ll ever see at a Wilco show these days, and this set was no different. It is truly a pleasure watching Nels Cline and his absolute mastery of the guitar, and Glenn Kotche being the drummer of the same band is almost unfair. The worst Wilco set is still better than most shows, but luckily this set was far from the worst – they gave Pilgrimage its first great headlining set.
Realizing their potential as a perfect “career-spanning hits set” festival band, Weezer followed Saturday evening and gave the people what they wanted. It’s no secret that their last few albums haven’t been particularly good (at least before Everything Will Be Alright in the End), but they usually have one or two good hits, and Weezer touched on just about all of them during their 75-minute set. After opening with “My Name Is Jonas”, they touched on everything from “Hash Pipe” and “El Scorcho” to “Troublemaker” and “Pork and Beans”, with lights that coincided with each color album that a song came from (Blue, Green, or Red). They played loud and hard, and Rivers looked happy to be there. They brought out Nashville local Ruby Amanfu (best known from Jack White’s “Love Interruption”) for a duet on “Go Away”, rain started pouring down during “Say It Ain’t So”, and “Island in the Sun” in the heavy rain made for an ironic treat. Weezer truly transcends generations – everyone was represented here, from older folks still rocking out to mid-20s hipsters who grew up on Weezer to little kids, including an adorable six-year-old who sat on her dad’s shoulders in the middle of the crowd and threw the Weezer sign in the air throughout the set. They finished up their set with a couple of Blue Album classics, “Undone (The Sweater Song)” and “Buddy Holly”, cementing their show as perhaps the most crowd-pleasing of the weekend.
01. THE DECEMBERISTS
“Hi, we’re The Decemberists from Portland, Oregon, United States of America, and we’re here to follow Aerosmith.” That’s how Colin Meloy introduced the band as they walked on not long after Steven Tyler’s set finished late, pushing The Decemberists’ start time back nearly 30 minutes, so he couldn’t resist making some jabs. “We’re just doing cleanup after that Aerosmith cover band.” Meloy’s wit was on full display all night, cracking up the audience between songs. The band strayed from the typical “greatest hits” festival set, instead focusing on new material from both their last album, What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World, and their brand-new EP, Florasongs — from opener “A Beginning Song” to the seasonally appropriate “Anti-Summersong” (“I bet Steven Tyler didn’t take the seasons into account for his set”), “Make You Better”, and “Why Would I Now?”. Meloy also performed a gorgeous solo rendition of “Carolina Low” with nothing but an acoustic guitar and backup singers (“We only have so many upbeat songs in our quiver. This is a slow song”).
It wasn’t all new material, though, as they dipped into a medley section of Hazards of Love (including a vicious rendition of “A Bower Scene”) alongside other old favorites like “O, Valencia” (“Our bay-area gang war song”), “Down by the Water”, and “Calamity Song”, a song about the end of the world, which Meloy explained was a perfect song for the night that the blood moon rises. “As we all know, with the 4th blood moon rising tonight, as was told in dianetics or something, it means the end of the world. So enjoy this lovely sunset, because it’s the last one you’ll ever see.”
Eventually the set came to a close, but not before Meloy asked the audience for some participation on their last song. Any good Decemberists fan knows that audience participation means “Mariner’s Revenge Song”, so the crowd went wild. As Meloy explained to the crowd how it would work – when Chris Funk gives the sign, we were to scream like we were being eaten by a whale – he turned to the general direction of Willie Nelson’s stage, who was already midway through his set by this point, and said, “Willie, if you can hear me, we need you to scream like you’re being swallowed by a whale. Don’t fuck it up!” The song itself was the same as ever, which is to say one of the most fun live songs you can see. The band was so loose and animated; Meloy nearly forgot some of the words but laughed it off, and everyone was acting their part throughout the song: the cellist stabbing an invisible whale with his bow, the backup singers emotively moving with the flow of the song, and everyone (band and audience) swaying back and forth during the most sea-shanty portion. Then came the whale. As the crowd screamed, a big cutout whale burst on the stage and swallowed up the whole band despite their valiant efforts to kill it, leaving them laying on the floor as confetti fell to the ground from the whale’s blowhole. It was as much a theatre performance as a song in a festival set, and it was undoubtedly one of the best moments of the weekend. If this was to be our last musical experience on Earth due to that cursed blood moon, I think the crowd would be at peace.
Click ahead for an exclusive photo gallery from Pilgrimage 2015.
Photographer: Catherine Watkins