[REVIEW + PHOTOS] Pilgrimage Festival 2015

Pilgrimage2015-ReviewHeader Photo by Mary-Beth Blankenship.

New festivals are as nerve-wracking as they are exciting, especially for those involved in putting them together. Not only are you faced with scrutiny and legions of first-time attendees who will form opinions as things continue to get settled, but also bands and press both rooting for you and simultaneously judging you on several metrics of success. Ever since we first got word of Pilgrimage Festival, we had been eagerly awaiting its arrival; finally, a major musical event in the immediate Nashville area boasting a lineup of artists we love. We went in with open minds, rooting for both the success of the fest and feeling confident about its co-founder, Kevin Griffin (listen to our podcast with him here). While the weather was sometimes dicey, and attendance seemed a bit lower than expected, albeit solid for a first year, we had an amazing time, and, more importantly, saw some incredible performances. The vibe of Pilgrimage was one of community, and, given the response from both attendees and performers, we have a feeling that this thing will be sticking around for years to come, and we can’t wait to watch it grow! Below, check out our recount of Pilgrimage Festival’s inaugural year, complete with photos from contributor Mary-Beth Blankenship!



While I definitely understand and respect the idea for Pilgrimage starting and ending early, making it family-friendly and more appealing to the city of Franklin, getting up and getting there by 10:30 in the morning is tough y’all. Running a bit late, I was pleasantly surprised to find that traffic and parking were not an issue at all, and made it easily onto the grounds in time to catch a bit of young blues phenom Kingfish. An artist I wasn’t familiar with before we started covering this event, Kingfish is only in his teens, but has the voice and the technical chops of an accomplished player many, many years older. He was just as impressive live, shredding on the guitar, singing songs about love and loss in a way that made me feel like he’d sincerely lived it, and just generally wowing those who ventured out early. And the early crowd was certainly respectable! [PO]

ELEL_Pilgrimage2015ELEL. Photo by Mary-Beth Blankenship.


Wandering over from Kingfish, I had to show the first local band of the day some love. By now I’ve seen ELEL probably a dozen or more times, but their hypnotic, electro-rhytmic indie tunes never fail to impress. Running a bit behind schedule, frontman Ben Elkins handed out sodas and snacks from the band’s hospitality bucket backstage, and, finally, kicking things off about 15 minutes late, the group launched into familiar tracks from their self-titled EP, certainly one of our recent faves. Per usual, they played with the energy, vigor, and hypnotic quality that makes them so special, but I soon had to cut their set short to sneak off to see another local performer. [PO]

GuthrieBrown_Pilgrimage2015Guthrie Brown and the Family Tree. Photo by Mary-Beth Blankenship.

Guthrie Brown and the Family Tree

Though we frequently cover them, and I’ve known of them for several years now, I’ve actually never seen a proper live set from Guthrie Brown and the Family Tree (it’s funny how hard it can sometimes be to catch bands in your own backyard). After watching acts on Pilgrimage’s two more or less equal in size main stages, I wandered to Hard Rock Harpeth River stage, which sat on a roadway and was much small and lower to the ground; no doubt providing an intimate performance environment for some of the big names who would grace it throughout the weekend. Guthrie and co. sounded absolutely stellar, playing with a bit more bite and energy than I expected. Though a young group, they have a professional polish, and definitely perfectly represent the diverse talent Music City has to offer. [PO]

HollyWilliams_Pilgrimage2015Holly Williams. Photo by Terry Wyatt, courtesy of Pilgrimage.

Holly Williams

Though skies were grey on Saturday morning, the short trek out to Franklin for the inaugural Pilgrimage Music and Cultural Festival was totally worth it for those willing to wait out any inclement weather. Car traffic was light and well ushered (but did you know you could come by canoe?!) and the vibe was decidedly laid back as we arrived on site in time to catch a good bit of Holly Williams’s set on the biggest of the three main festival stages. Ms. Williams offered many of her own compositions as well as both a worthy rendition of John Prine’s classic “Angel From Montgomery” and a special guest appearance from her younger brother, now a student at Belmont University, offering vocal support on granddaddy Hank’s classic, “I Saw The Light.” [JM]

Holly Williams was another surprise for me.  I’ve heard the songs of the granddaughter of one of the greatest songwriters (Hank) and daughter of one of the greatest republican boobs (Hank Jr), but, you’ll notice this trend with my reviews, I’ve never seen her live.  She is a showman for sure, playful, spirited, and possessing seemingly all of the good qualities from both of her renowned kin.  Highlights of the set were the cover of John Prine’s “Angel From Montgomery” and the duet of her grandfather’s “I Saw The Light,” which she performed with her little brother (who apparently is attending Belmont to follow in the family footsteps). [MH]

Saint Motel

Pilgrimage is to be commended as an event you could totally eat your way through with tons of local options at reasonable (especially for a music festival) prices. On our way out of Holy Williams’s set, noting that the line to the Grilled Cheeserie was stupid long (as to be expected), we stopped by Puckett’s to grab a redneck burrito and a picnic table near the action. We soaked up some of Saint Motel’s raucous set and dug the thumping party vibe they were rustling up with some of the hippest hipsters around the grounds. To top things off, we stopped off for some listeria-free ice cream at the Jeni’s truck and chatted up the staff who were positively stoked to be so close to the bands and were bopping along to “Cold Cold Day” among others. [JM]

Saint Motel was the first set I saw on the opening day, and it really couldn’t have set a higher bar for the rest of the festival. I was familiar with them only because their hit single “My Type” is on the radio almost every time I get in my car, and was a little worried that the rest of their songs wouldn’t live up to the hype they set for themselves with it, but I ended up being very pleasantly surprised. Frontman and keyboard player A/J Jackson commanded the crowd and exuded tons of energy, but the other members were fun to watch too, particularly the bass player. I have to say, though, that the horn section was really what did it for me. Everyone started cheering and dancing when the opening notes of “My Type” started, and they closed out their set with a bang. [MG]

MadisenWard_Pilgrimage2015Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear. Photo by Mary-Beth Blankenship.

Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear

Relatively new to the national scene, it feels like Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear have been all over the place lately. In the Nashville area alone, the mother/son duo have performed no less than four times since the summer, and yet I’m still not tired of their charming, soulful, folky sound or wonderful family dynamic. I only had time for a few songs before wandering to Neko Case (the trend for me at fests, it seems; I want to see it all!), but they couldn’t have been better suited for the smaller, closer stage. [PO]

Feeling invigorated by the great ice cream and even greater vibes, we crossed on over to the smallest of the three main stages to scope out a lesser known act, Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear and we’re so glad we did. Acts like this are a key reason festivals are such an awesome opportunity for music lovers, because you can take in new sounds in such an eclectic setting and discover your next Favorite Band. Hailing from Kansas City, Missouri, real life mother/son duo, Madisen and Ruth (Mama Bear) Ward greeted the small crowd gathered with the appropriately themed “Live By The Water” on the Harpeth River Stage. Their set was full of charming, bluesy folk and included the particularly engaging “Alligator Fish and Chips” that converted us immediately into fans and had us searching for their Spotify presence on our way out to catch the next act. [JM]

Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear are one of the acts that I had to pass up at Bonnaroo this year, and, unfortunately, missed them a couple of weeks ago during AmericanaFest as well.  The mother-son duo started out performing an a couple of songs that featured just the two of them together at the front of the stage.  Both Madisen and his mother remain seated for their performace, and had a table with some candles in between them, which makes the stage feel like their front porch, and you’re just a lucky passer-by that happened upon them on their house.  Their bluesy folk accumen has been well documented over the past year, particularly in standout tracks like their breakout hit “Silent Movies,” but it’s hard to understand just how special this familial relationship is until you’ve seen them live.  Madisen has a vocal style that transcends his cool demeanor, and Ruth (Mama Bear) beams like I would imagine my own mother would, if I were as talented and took her on the road with me.  Schtick?  Perhaps, but it’s a damn sweet sight from two talented musicians regardless. [MH]

Trampled By Turtles

Trampled By Turtles called our attention to the uniqueness of Pilgrimage’s day-time focused festival scheduling as they shared they were stoked to get their “work” over early and then join in on the party and catch other acts scheduled for later in the day. The band turned out a crowd pleasing hootenanny but many around were speculating as to how long they’d have to wait for the fan favorite/radio friendly “Wait So Long” – and patience was rewarded as they closed things out with the much beloved tune just as we hopped in line for a caramel apple because did we mention how ridiculously good the food at this festival was yet? [JM]

NekoCase_Pilgrimage2015Neko Case. Photo by Mary-Beth Blankenship.

Neko Case

I often tend to use festival lineups to track down artists that I have rarely or never seen.  Neko Case, as a solo artist, fit perfectly in that category.  Case sporadically releases and tours her solo work, but has also surely been tied up for the past couple of years supporting that incredible Brill Bruisers album as part of The New Pornographers.  Her set was sweet and featured a really relaxed vibe, but I cut her set short due to the first of the intermittent rain showers that I came to the festival ill prepared for.  Neko, our time will come, I’m sure of it. [MH]

While I’ve seen Neko Case on a handful of occasions with The New Pornographers, this was my first chance to catch her solo, and she sure didn’t disappoint. Though I spent the bulk of her set adjacent to the crowd, waiting in line for lunch (now is a good time to mention the amazing, local, and reasonably priced food options- way to go Pilgrimage!), wishing there were video screens (though they would have been overkill for 85% of the weekend), the sound was fantastic. By the time I was able to wander closer, a sudden rainstorm began, and I ran to the beer tent for shelter (but hey, beer!). [PO]

Will Hoge

On a serious sugar high from our caramel apple, we ducked under a bit of cover as there was a smattering of rain as we wait to make our way back over to the Harpeth River Stage to check out hometown hero, Will Hoge. Suddenly to the jangle of Freddie King’s “Going Down,” Franklin’s own took the stage for a somewhat subdued start just shy of 3pm. Hoge offered a series of songs that felt a little too contemporary country radio friendly for our taste (as he’s moved more in that direction after being embraced by country fans as a result Eli Young Band’s cover of his “Even If It Breaks Your Heart”) but did dig deeper into his catalog for a few of our favorites included “Second Hand Heart.” At one point, Hoge marveled at the reality that a musical festival of this size was being hosted in his hometown, noting that if someone had told him when he was growing up that this kind of thing would be happening here he would have told them “that they were full of shit.” It certainly is remarkable to see how far things have come in the last 15-20 years for Nashville and the surrounding area, here’s hoping progress presents more good things like Pilgrimage in the years to come. [JM]

IronAndWine_Pilgrimage2015Iron & Wine. Photo by Mary-Beth Blankenship.

Iron & Wine

One of my all-time favorite songwriters and an artist I hadn’t seen live in quite a few years, I was thrilled to see Iron & Wine on the initial lineup, and made the dash to the main stage as soon as the rain let up so I could find a good spot. First-timers might be caught off guard by his stage banter; a bit goofy, cracking jokes, and playful, essentially the exact opposite of his serious and sad writing style. With the assistance of his backing players, Sam Beam made his way though a great balance of old and new selections, allowing his earnest delivery and hypnotic style do the heavy lifting. Though I wanted to watch every note, I had to duck out early to make it to another of my most-anticiapted: Cage the Elephant. [PO]

Feeling a twinge of the old FOMO, we made our way back over to the biggie stage to catch some of Iron and Wine and mingle with the man buns and beards. Sam Beam promised “as many songs as possible” during his set and we were thrilled to plop down in a nice sunny spot and enjoy great renditions of “Tree by the River,” “House by the Sea,” “Boy With a Coin” and people watch a bit. Rando girl in the shark costume, well played. [JM]

First it was raining, then it was sunny. Then Iron and Wine took the stage. I had just arrived at the festival and while I was bummed that I missed Neko Case, I was excited to see some teenage favorites of mine. I only stayed for the first half due to the rest of my group being anxious to get a good spot for Cage The Elephant, but Sam Beam’s voice sounded as amazing as it always does. It took the production team a few songs to figure out a proper balance but once they achieved perfect levels and brought the drums up, the band sounded great. I didn’t catch any of the old classics that made me love this band to begin with but seeing his more recent material performed with a live band gave it new life and definitely made me go back and dig into some of the latest Iron and Wine albums. [JC]

CageTheElephant_Pilgrimage2015Cage the Elephant. Photo by Mary-Beth Blankenship.

Cage the Elephant

Holy shit. I could watch Cage the Elephant 100 times and never get tired of their insane live show. In a set pretty similar to the one I recently caught at Forecastle Fest, the local transplants blasted though favorites like “Spiderhead,” “Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked,” “Cigarette Daydreams,” “Back Against the Wall,” and “Come a Little Closer,” all the while going extra hard, jumping in the crowd, and just generally bringing the energy level of the whole day up a few notches. Matt Schultz spent a healthy part of the show in the crowd, per usual, and even his brother Brad dropped down to shred in the audience and get in on the fun. The guys seemed especially excited to be playing a big show at home, and, as they do at every fest, they absolutely stole the show. [PO]

What is there to really say about a Cage The Elephant set that you haven’t already read? They were amazing, as per usual, and the Fender stage was the most packed out that I’d seen it all day. I walked up as they were playing “Aberdeen,” a favorite from 2011’s Thank You Happy Birthday, and stuck around to hear the bigger hits, “Cigarette Daydreams” and “Ain’t No Rest For The Wicked,” and watched with joy (and a little jealousy) as all the fans in the front gathered around frontman Matt Shultz as he dipped in and out of the crowd. [MG]

Can we talk about the amount of kids in noise cancelling headphones rocking out on the outskirts of Cage The Elephant? It seemed this set was for both the serious rock fans of the festival and the next generations of hellions. One thing’s for certain – it was loud and people were rocking it hard. [JM]

I must be honest, until the Saturday of Pilgrimage Festival the only Cage The Elephant song I was familiar with was “Ain’t No Rest For The Wicked.” They have always been a band that I just listened to everyone else talk about but never got around to checking out myself. But I must say, their set was one of the best surprises for me of the weekend. Matt Shultz worked the crowd from every angle. He jumped off the stage multiple times to dance with the audience and get them even more energetic than they were before. The rest of the band was just as strong and effective in the cause as they pulled people from backstage to get up and get rowdy. It was clear that this is what these guys were meant to do and as a musician myself I can sincerely appreciate that. [JC]

SherylCrow_Pilgrimage2015Sheryl Crow. Photo by Mary-Beth Blankenship.

Sheryl Crow

When I first saw that Sheryl Crow was on the lineup, it didn’t really hit me how big of a deal it was – but as soon as she came out on stage, my inner 90’s child was totally geeking out. Hearing the songs that dominated the charts for several years of my childhood (“All I Wanna Do,” “My Favorite Mistake,” “If It Makes You Happy,” “Steve McQueen,” etc.) played live was so much fun that I think I got a little carried away and forgot I was actually at her show and not singing along to her songs at a karaoke bar. Swaying along and doing the sad person dance to “The First Cut Is The Deepest” and “Picture” was pretty cool too, and so was seeing Holly Williams come out for a duet. [MG]

We made our way over to Sheryl Crow perhaps a bit shamelessly in order to grab a good spot for Wilco who would follow. To our delight, there were a fair amount of songs we couldn’t help but sing along with – including a solo stab at a portion of “Picture” (her duet with Kid Rock) that we… um… like… Don’t judge! Even if we aren’t diehard fans of hers, it’s hard to deny the impressive breadth of her back catalog of radio hits and the delight she brings to those that dig what she’s all doing. [JM]

Sheryl Crow was not very high on my must see list, but, beyond her stellar songs from my younger days, I sometimes forget that she lives here now and employs a lot of local players.  It’s cool to see the talented musicians that I run into around town, when they aren’t on tour, up on the festival stage showing 50 times more people than fit into The Family Wash just how badass they are.  Friend-a-niscing aside, Sheryl’s set was truly something to behold.  The unbelievably fit 50+ year old with a award winning smile, kept one of the larger happier crowds of the weekend going with a plethora of hits from her 16x platinum discography.  Coincidence?  Nope. [MH]

Weezer_Pilgrimage2015Weezer. Photo by Mary-Beth Blankenship.


Pilgrimage did a really stellar job of booking a diverse lineup (well, almost; where was the hip hop guys?!), and sticking Weezer at the top of the bill really gave the rock fans something to stoked about. One of my all time faves (and also sometimes one of the most frustrating bands ever), I hadn’t see a proper (non-album themed) Weezer show in a few years, so this was the highlight of my weekend. Worn out from a long day and lack of sleep, I found a cozy spot in the back, and soaked up what turned out to be a largely greatest hits set- score! Rivers and co. have been doing this for decades, and their live show has never sounded better than in recent years; the band seem genuinely excited about playing together, and, despite having performed the hits 1,000s of times by now, they still deliver with enthusiasm and earnestness. Aside from the usual standouts like “My Name Is Jonas,” “Say It Ain’t So,” “El Scorcho,” and “Island in the Sun,” one of the standout moments came when local singer Ruby Amanfru came out for a duet on new tune “Go Away” (sung on the record by Bethany from Best Coast). Partway through the set, the skies opened up for the bigger storm that we’d managed to avoid all day, and, once again, I found a tent for cover; at least I got a healthy dose of Weezer in first. Unable to photograph Wilco in the rain and feeling utterly wiped out, I made a break for my car when the weather let up, leaving the rest of the crew to geek out over Jeff Tweedy (and smiling as I heard “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” resonating in the distance). A+ day one. [PO]

Weezer were at the top of my list for the weekend, and they did not disappoint. The 16 year old teenager in me was beaming with delight when they took the stage and opened with “My Name Is Jonas.” They played a set chock full of classics and highlights from their recent album such as “Back To The Shack.” When the rain started to come down hard it didn’t deter the crowd. In fact, it made it even more of a memorable experience shouting the lyrics to “Say It Ain’t So” as we were soaked with a downpour that just couldn’t hold off. The band finished with “The Sweater Song,” but were immediately called back onstage for a two song encore of “Beverly Hills” and the hit everyone was waiting for, “Buddy Holly”. [JC]

DrJohn_Pilgrimage2015Dr. John. Photo by Steve Wrubel, courtesy of Pilgrimage.

Dr. John

After meeting some new friends and running into a longtime friend that I haven’t seen in years at the hospitality tent, said new friends and I hopped into a golf cart to make our way down to see New Orleans legend, Dr. John.  First, as a person that “works” on covering three to four festivals a summer, Pilgrimage is incredible.  Golf carts are never not utilized, and the hospitality area was one of the coolest most relaxed vibes of any festival we’ve been to.  So, my new friends and I bummed a ride on a passing golf cart, and made our way to The Harpeth River stage to get our funk on.  We pulled up right as Mac Rebennack and Co. were pounding out the first notes of “Iko Iko,” and the crowd immediately set into motion.  My new friends wanted to find some VIP hangs, but I made my way down to the beaming crowd to spend some time with an old musical friend, rain be damned.  Apparently, the rain heard my threat, and the skies opened up leaving me running for cover.  One song with a legend-like Dr. John is just not fair, but, we’ve spent a lot of time together before, and I’m sure we’ll have another romp soon. [MH]


We got to Wilco Sheryl-Crow-early so to say we were excited is an extreme understatement. But man were were worried when the skies opened up and what had been a bit of spitting rain became an undeniable downpour. We gotta take a minute to salute the true heroes of Pilgrimage – the crew that tireless squeegeed sound equipment to ensure safety and that she show would indeed go on. The crowd thinned as a result of the rain but there was much chanting to be had and by 6:25 Tweedy and his men took to the stage and made up for lost time by dispensing with the pleasantries and dolling out the hits. New single “Random Name Generator” got folks excited early on and then we just kept getting the goods from classics “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart” to “Handshake Drugs,” “Jesus, Etc.,” “Heavy Metal Drummer” and more.  It was a set to remember to be sure. We’re still reeling from the insanely gorgeous outro to “Impossible Germany” that felt like a victory in the face of mother nature’s threats to cancel the whole affair. We were bummed when there was no encore following the killer re-working of Guthrie’s “California Stars” but still, we felt satisfied having had a seriously great Saturday and called it an early night. [JM]

I could have left Saturday of the festival high on a heavy dose of Weezer. But lucky for everyone, it wasn’t over just yet. I went to the Midnight Sun stage for what would be my fifth time seeing Wilco. Every time I see this band live I am deeply impressed on how great of an ear each one of them has for what brings out the best potential in the song. They are a big band, but no one oversteps their boundaries. It might involve playing a few chords for the verse and then picking up a tambourine for the chorus. They are masters of crafting a great song and this was evident as ever on Saturday night. They played a perfect mix of classics and new material from their surprise record Star Wars. However, the best part of the set was when they played “Impossible Germany” from 2007’s Sky Blue Sky. This song always makes a Wilco show whenever they decide to play it and it is all because of the extremely tasteful solo taken by the God known as Nels Cline and the strong finish the song takes on. [JC]

AFTER HOURS HOOTENANNY: Better Than Ezra, Jars of Clay, The Whistles & Bells, Emerson Hart

When I realized that Kevin Griffin, the lead singer of Better Than Ezra, was one of the co-founders of the festival, I crossed my fingers that the band would make an appearance at some point, even if they weren’t officially on the lineup. My dreams came true when The Tennessean announced earlier that week that BTE would be headlining the festival’s after show (called the Pilgrimage Hootenanny) on Saturday night at the Factory across the street, a space for tons of art galleries and local shops. A $10 donation to the Blood:Water foundation got me into this quaint little brick room where I heard the haunting folk sounds of The Whistles & The Bells, piano ballads from Third Man Records favorite Brooke Waggoner, an acoustic rendition of Tonic’s “If You Could Only See” from former frontman Emerson Hart, and the acoustic musings of Matthew Perryman Jones before BTE took the stage and shook things up. They opened with “Good,” a true embodiment of ’90s alt-rock, and threw in some more funk and pop-inspired hits like “Juicy”, during which Kevin showed off some mad dance moves. Then I got to hear “Desperately Wanting,” a song that played on my MySpace profile for months throughout high school (not even kidding), and I checked another band off my bucket list. [MG]

Photos by Mary-Beth Blankenship.


Nawas-Pilgrimage2015Nawas. Photo by Adrien Saporiti.


The eagerly anticipated inaugural Pilgrimage Festival definitely felt like a success. As far as first year festivals go, much was made of the stellar roster of top tier talent they procured, with everyone from Wilco and Willie Nelson to Sheryl Crow, Dr. John. And Steven Tyler was there too, because apparently he lives here now. Of course it was also wonderful to see some love for hometown talent like ELEL, John and Jacob, and Guthrie Brown and the Family Tree, all of whom more than held their own and gave fantastic performances all around.

With so much attention being paid to the headliners and the local talent, I almost forgot to check out some new artists. Thankfully, due to traffic or some other scheduling error, my friend was running late and asked me to head over to the Midnight Sun stage to check out Nawas, a recent transplant from New Orleans. Enjoying a calm and breezy start to my Sunday morning. I meandered over with absolutely no preconception or notion of what to expect. Upon arriving I was a bit surprised to see that the band warming up with some serious guitar riffage and a seemingly silky alto singer were actually four guys who wouldn’t be out of place in the quad of your local college campus.

Initial perceptions are a tricky thing though, and any previous notions were shattered once they launched into the first song. Nawas are miles apart from any young band playing the college circuit. The band have a deep, heavy, sometimes nasty groove that declares they may have left New Orleans, but they didn’t leave an ounce of soul behind. It was impossible not to be drawn in by their groove, but it’s frontman Jake Nawas (the name makes sense now, right?) that makes Nawas so captivating. In between songs he seems like the real life version of Adam from Workaholics: quick, funny, and charming in a goofy fashion. However, once the music begins, he shifts and becomes a raw, passionate frontman that you can’t tear yourself away from. His vocal prowess combined with his kinetic, dramatic delivery is both powerful and thrillingly fun to experience. With a blend of hip-hop and electronic elements as well as some vocal effects, Nawas have a special sound for mainstream “pop” lying somewhere between The Weekend and The Neighborhood. I definitely walked away a fan. For a band that I had not heard of or anticipated seeing to be one of my festival highlights, I feel like I discovered something special and encourage you to do the same. You won’t be disappointed. [AS]

Charles Bradley & His Extraordinaries

I tried to make it back early Sunday, I really did. I’m just not a festival and rise early and festival again sort of dude I suppose. Running out the door without even taking the time to eat, I made it into Pilgrimage a little after noon on Sunday, grabbed a burger from Burger Republic (how convenient is it to have some many local faves at an arm’s length?), and let the soulful sounds of Charles Bradley help wake me up as I ate. Perfect way to start a Sunday. [PO]

JohnAndJacob_Pilgrimage2015John and Jacob. Photo by Mary-Beth Blankenship.

John and Jacob

The real reason I rushed backed was to see John and Jacob, the local (by way of Alabama) band I’ve come to know both personally and through the blog as they’ve found worldwide success with their recent debut album. Backed by a full band, the fellas seemed to have picked up some tips from their many months of touring with Kacey Musgraves; not only were all they dressed in matching, dapper, blue suits, but their show was the strongest and most confident I’ve ever seen it, blasting through their incredible originals and even sneaking in a great Everly Brothers cover. If you haven’t gotten hip to this band yet, it’s time. [PO]

ChrisStapleton_Pilgrimage2015Chris Stapleton. Photo by Mary-Beth Blankenship.

Chris Stapleton

I strayed away from John and Jacob to catch another local: rising country star Chris Stapleton. Like Sturgill Simpson and a handful of other Nashville country singers finding broader success by bucking mainstream country expectations, Stapleton plays with an old school, purist, revivalist slant. His set started nearly 20 minutes late, so I only had time to stay for a few tunes. Still, it was my first time seeing Chris live, and I was beyond impressed. Next time he plays Music City, I’m there. [PO]

TheLoneBellow_Pilgrimage2015The Lone Bellow. Photo by Mary-Beth Blankenship.

The Lone Bellow

I’ve seen The Lone Bellow quite a few times in recent years; despite their Brooklyn base, Nashville seems to be something of a second home. It was no surprise to see their inclusion on the Pilgrimage lineup, and they were definitely a great fit, smartly placed ahead of Dawes and performing just a few weeks after a secret show in East Nashville. The trio’s harmonies have never sounded more euphoric, and, now with two lovely albums to pull from, their set seems to be constant favorites. A lovely break in a busy, country-leaning Sunday, I wandered off to see another performer who played that same secret show: Nashville’s own Nikki Lane. [PO]

We moseyed over to The Lone Bellow to catch a bit of what was happening on the big stage and couldn’t help but enjoy the harmonies closing out their popular “You Never Need Nobody” and found ourselves lingering for “Green Eyes and a Heart of Gold” and the following “Teach Me To Know.” Asking if the crowd was excited for Dawes, who would soon follow, the band revealed that the members of Dawes refer to them as “The Lone Yellow” because apparently the urine tank on the Lone Bellow bus once leaked in the general direction of Dawes’ camp. A little bit too much information perhaps, but interesting insight into life on the road and some enjoyable jams, no less. [JM]

NikkiLane_Pilgrimage2015Nikki Lane. Photo by Mary-Beth Blankenship.

Nikki Lane

Pseudo-cowboy attire, Miller Lite in hand, and looking a little groggy to be on so early in the day, local outlaw country songstress Nikki Lane simply dazzled at the Hard Rock stage. Nikki’s a total personality, and took the opportunity to tell stories, call out to friends in the crowd, and joke about her state of mind, between fan favorite tunes and a few cuts from her upcoming album. I’ve missed a lot of opportunities to see Lane lately, so I was extra appreciative to see her. [PO]

On Sunday, we rolled in to find the line at the bouncy house was getting serious as Nikki Lane was doing her best rowdy and perhaps over-sharing a bit with the audience about some of her herbal habits (did she just tell us she smoked too much weed?). She looked every bit the Pilgrimage part in the requisite festival floppy hat, fashionable with all the females it seems, and cranked out her signature sound at the Harpeth River Stage for a captive crowd. [JM]

Jimmy Cliff

I arrived on Sunday just in time to get a good front row spot for Jimmy Cliff. The last time I saw him was at Gathering of The Vibes festival in 2010. I am very picky with the reggae that I enjoy and Jimmy Cliff never disappoints in my book. His energy and enthusiasm for his craft at 67 is inspiring. He was bouncing around stage and gleaming with joy the entire duration of his set as he went through all of his classics such as “The Harder They Come” and “I Can See Clearly Now.” His band did a great job in supporting him too. The background singers showed just as much excitement as he did and the rhythm section kept a smile on as they held down the essential reggae grooves. It was a great way to start the sunny second day of Pilgrimage. [JC]

Though I just had a chance to see Jimmy Cliff a couple weeks ago at Riot Fest in Chicago, he’s a living legend, and I found a drink, took a break on a blanket, and escaped into his tunes- largely responsible for helping popularize reggae on a global scale. Bob Marley may always be king, but Cliff has The Harder They Come and Cool Runnings, so he wins at least in the nostalgia department. Still a fantastic showman, I was especially impressed by the strength of both his voice and his backing band, [PO]

Dawes_Pilgrimage2015Dawes. Photo by Mary-Beth Blankenship.


Due to the fact that I’m a cheapskate and didn’t want to pay to park (and because the city of Franklin is nearly impossible to navigate with so many roads blocked off), I was way behind schedule for Sunday and ended up missing The Lone Bellow. As bummed as I was about that, seeing Dawes more than made up for it. I’d be so bold as to call it my favorite set of the whole festival. They opened up with “Things Happen,” the first single from their brand new album All Your Favorite Bands, and Taylor Goldsmith’s voice was so clear and smooth as butter, which also made me want to melt like butter. All fan-girling aside, they’re the perfect mixture of Americana-inspired lyrics and rock & roll sound that made them a perfect addition to the atmosphere of this festival. They ended with the borderline ballad and title track “All Your Favorite Bands”, and the crowd belted out the words together, bonding in true festival style. [MG]

We realized that we had somehow never seen Dawes despite their ubiquitous presence on festival lineups across the last few years, and so we were excited to have a chance to catch them. Their set was refreshingly celebratory fans relished the opportunity to sing along to favorites like “Most People.” Most amusing to us was the heavy innuendo laid into on “From the Right Angle” as Taylor Goldsmith practically followed “all you want is all I know how to do” with a knowing wink and a “that’s what she said.” All jokes aside, it was a stellar set and we’re solid fans as a result. The goodbye offering of the title track from “All Your Favorite Bands” felt exceptionally apropos given the setting. [JM]

I made my way over from Jimmy Cliff to the familiar sounds of Dawes. This band has been one of my favorite discoveries of the past few years. Every time I have seen them has been at a festival setting, (Newport Folk Festival, Bonnaroo, and Pilgrimage). Taylor Goldsmith is one of kind in my opinion. His lyrical sensibilities and ear for the right chord changes are unique and special. And as a frontman he does a great job keeping the crowd engaged and impressed. This set at Pilgrimage was no exception to such a standard. Goldsmith and the band’s new guitar player, Dickey Betts’ son Duane Betts, wove their guitar styles together in a seamless and pleasant fashion. This was especially evident during “From A Window Seat”. The band ended their set in a perfect festival tone with the title track from their latest album All Your Favorite Bands.  Goldsmith wished the crowd well, sending them on their way to see the rest of their Pilgrimage favorites. [JC]


Pilgrimage is for the little pilgrims, too, and we stopped by the kids stage to check out often Willie Nelson opener, EmiSunshine, who, at 11 years old, gave hands down one of the most captivating performances of the whole weekend. Yodeling through old school country classics as well as some original family compositions, Emi is a tiny powerhouse with a killer set of pipes who conjures both June Carter and Janis Joplin in pint sized form. With jovial stage banter and an authentic appreciation for the opportunity to hold an audience, this young woman is absolutely one to watch. She closed her set with her admitted favorite, the haunting, “Can’t No Grave (Hold My Body Down)” and we had serious chills when she hit her last notes and offered a bright “thank you kindly and goodbye” before bouncing off the stage like it was no big thing that she just totally slayed it. [JM]

StevenTyler_Pilgrimage2015Steven Tyler. Photo by Mary-Beth Blankenship.

Steven Tyler

So after realizing that Steven Tyler was only billed to play for 30 minutes – by far the shortest set of the whole weekend – I just knew it was going to be his solo (i.e. new, country) stuff, so I checked my expectations. He’s a living legend, to be sure, but without Aerosmith, he’s simply a great vocalist and a standup guy; not an artist I’d go out of my way to see. To my surprise and delight, his set was essentially an Aerosmith one, dusting out all of the classic hits with the help of some local players (he’s living here these days). I’ve seen Aerosmith before, but watching Tyler do those songs unexpectedly was surreal, and, perhaps, my favorite moment of the entire weekend. His stories, quips, and innuendos made it all the more entertaining, and, even though he went over time, it felt all too short by the end. I’m told Taylor Swift was there too, and there seemed to be a moment he was motioning for a certain someone to come sing; which ultimately didn’t happen. How crazy would that have been though?! Take note, Pilgrimage 2016. [PO]

Self-conscious that we had pissed off some parents by lingering near the pirate ship with our popsicles provoking to annoy their parents for one of their own, we crossed the grounds and literally climbed over a dude wearing a “Willie Nelson for President” bumper sticker on our way to see what was up with this whole Steven Tyler solo set. Folks chanted for his arrival and when Tyler did swagger out it was seriously surreal. We expected a slew of new songs from his country record he’s moved to town to make but instead found a set littered haphazardly with Aerosmith hits, justifications of his use of a teleprompter, and some ramblings about his summer house in New Hampshire that seemed about the least rock star story one could tell. His insisted on letting his set run super long and included a cover of “Piece of My Heart” and the whole thing felt a lot like a train wreck from which you just couldn’t look away. We could hear the clearly superior set by Band of Horses coming through the hills, and yet, we stayed. Why? Who knows, probably because the Grilled Cheeserie line had finally died down and we could eat again, sure, why not? [JM]

I only saw a bit of Steven Tyler’s set. I guess you could say I popped by for the sheer novelty of being at a festival that he was playing at. But I must say I enjoyed every bit of what I saw. As I walked in he was playing “Sweet Emotion” and as I walked out he was playing “Crying.” He knew that in this type of setting he had to bring the Aerosmith classics and that is exactly what he did. His band was very solid and he can still hit those high notes. For the small portion that I caught, I was pleasantly surprised. [JC]

As with my fellow writers, the Steven Tyler addition was a curiosity, and I wandered over expecting to see an almost 70 year old rock star crooning some pop country for a crowd of bored patrons.  Apparently, being a “rock star” means knowing how to entertain a crowd, and this set turned out to be one of my highlights of the weekend.  You’ll probably label me a snob, but I’ve seen almost every band that played Pilgrimage multiple times, but I’ve never seen Aerosmith (and even quipped that, if they reunited, could probably still pull some pretty major festival headlining slots), so this was a who-knows-if-it will happen again moment.  Yeah, it wasn’t the full band, but Tyler is the voice of Aerosmith, and you know Nashville can put a stellar band together to back him.  Packed with hits, the outgoing front man with the scarved mic stand, almost seem unwilling to relent the stage.  A festival organizer friend told us that Taylor Swift was on-site, and a cameo would have made sense after Tyler helped her out (not really sure who is helping who on that one) at her Bridgestone set on Friday night.  The cameo didn’t happen, but the LOUD sing alongs to some of the biggest hits in rock history were a thrill all their own. [MH]

Band of Horses

Taking second place (first goes to seeing Weezer play “El Scorcho”) in moments at Pilgrimage that made me feel old was when I realized that I was crazy about Band Of Horses’ debut album ten years ago. While they haven’t released a full-length since 2012, the band has been active in the festival scene delivering crowd-pleasing sets. It was great to stretch out on the grass and listen to them play songs like “The Great Salt Lake” that reminded me of exploring the woods and causing trouble with my friends as a sophomore in high school. [JC]

St. Paul & The Broken Bones

When a lady in front of us at Steven Tyler started changing her baby’s diaper, we decided it was definitely time to get the hell out of whatever alternate universe we had entered and we made our way over to catch St. Paul & The Broken Bones self-professed last set before they retire to the studio to cut a new record. We were instructed that this was the time to “dance our asses off” and certainly there was some boogying to be had via some serious Alabama born, blue eyed soul. The band was tight and master of ceremonies/lead singer/pastor of the proceedings Paul Janeway, took us to church as promised, Otis Redding style, on Sam Cooke’s “Shake” and a slew of other soulful sounds. [JM]

My other favorite discovery of the weekend was St. Paul & The Broken Bones.  As I was making my way over to The Decemberists, I ran into our editor who recommended I make a quick pit stop at the Harpeth River stage to check out St. Paul. I am so glad I did because boy does this guy have some pipes. He led his band through some soulful and electrifying R&B tunes, filling in the spaces between with stories of his upbringing in Alabama. I was very glad I made the detour to catch part of his set and would definitely check him out next time he and his very talented band make their way through Nashville. [JC]

Decemberists_Pilgrimage2015The Decemberists. Photo by Mary-Beth Blankenship.

The Decemberists

I missed The Decemberists’ recent stop at The Ryman, so I was determined to see them at Pilgrimage. Though I haven’t kept up with them as obsessively in recent years, the group were once one of my all-time favorites, and still one of the best live acts to see, especially in festival environments. Their set felt all too short, but was delightfully fan-focused, boasting cuts like “Calamity Song,” “The Hazards of Love 1,” “Down By the Water,” and “O Valencia!” Man, Colin Meloy is one of the coolest, most entertaining frontmen in rock. [PO]

Around 6 p.m. we were stunned by the incredible sunset beginning as the Decemberists took to the stage and almost taken out by a stray football that whizzed passed our head. Colin Meloy was in a merry mood and making note of how unlikely an act they were to follow Aerosmith (or at least a fraction thereof). The band offered as many of their upbeat tracks as they could, admitting that they have a “limited quiver” of danceable ditties and apologizing that most of their tracks are about sea monsters or people dying. While Meloy may have doubted how well their work translates to wide open spaces, we found it to be a perfect match. Their offering of “Carolina Low” was nothing short of stunning and the crowd was totally into screaming like they were being swallowed by a whale on “The Mariner’s Revenge.” For those worried they were missing out by not catching Willie Nelson, Meloy even offered a little tease of “Whiskey River” and we knew we were in the right place as the Tennessee sun set on the last day of the first Pilgrimage Music Festival. Let’s do it again next year, shall we? [JM]

As I left St. Paul and The Broken Bones, I came upon The Decemberists. I have been listening to this band since I was 14 and while they have put out some records in recent years that I wasn’t too keen on, this year’s release of What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World was very impressive.  Their set focused on material from that album that really translated well in a live setting. Frontman Colin Meloy kept the stage banter going in between songs by assuring the audience that it was the end of the world and this was their last chance to see music and party. I must say, if it really did turn out to be my last day on Earth, I wouldn’t be upset that I spent it with The Decemberists. They ended their set with my favorite song by them, “The Mariners Revenge Song.” This featured audience participation and a bunch of stage antics that included a giant whale and confetti. It was a great way to send the crowd over to Willie Nelson. [JC]

WillieNelson_Pilgrimage2015Willie Nelson. Photo by Terry Wyatt, courtesy of Pilgrimage.

Willie Nelson

I made my way over l tired and ready to go home. But I knew that I couldn’t skip seeing this legend for a second time. As I walked over he was making his way through some Hank Williams classics such as “Move it On Over” and “Hey Good Lookin.” His band was very solid and his voice still sounds amazing. But one thing that’s noticeable with his old age is that his guitar playing is slipping. If he hired someone else to play guitar so he could focus on entertaining us with his beautiful voice, the show would be absolutely perfect. Either way, Willie’s set was a great way to end my experience at the festival. I walked out of the grounds as he was playing the Patsy Cline classic “Crazy”, feeling  that exact feeling over what a great weekend it was. [JC]

What a way to end a festival, huh? Despite being worn out and hearing my bed loudly calling, I couldn’t pass up my first ever chance to see living country legend Wille Nelson, a perfectly-suited closer for one hell of a first year fest. Willie certainly knows what the people want to hear, especially at festivals, and made sure to bust out the hits like “On the Road Again” and “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die,” plus covers of greats like Ed Bruce and Hank Williams. Holly Williams, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, and more even came out for a surprise appearance, mimicking Bonnaroo’s beloved super jams, and helping end the weekend in an extra special way. Pilgrimage was everything I had hoped it would be and more, and I can’t wait to do this again next year. [PO]

Photos by Mary-Beth Blankenship.


[AS] Adrien Saporiti
[JC] Julian Ciany
[JM] Jessika Malone
[MG] Meredith Galyon
[MH] Matt Hall
[PO] Philip Obenschain

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