Moon River Festival - Chattanooga, Tennessee - Day 1 - Gigs - Reviews - Soundblab

Moon River Festival - Chattanooga, Tennessee - Day 1

by Mark Moody Rating: Release Date:
Moon River Festival - Chattanooga,  Tennessee - Day 1
Moon River Festival - Chattanooga, Tennessee - Day 1

Previously Memphis-based Moon River Festival, relocated to Chattanooga this year to the roomier but down-home feel of Coolidge Park on the banks of the Tennessee River.  Similar to its younger Southern cousin the High Water Festival, taking place over two days and on two alternating stages Moon River also focuses on Americana, folk, and soul music.  Fitting its rockier locale, the music maybe tended a bit more to the mountain music of its Appalachian neighbors, but allowing for many variations in style and some music fully off that grid. 

Also similar to the Shovels and Rope hosted High Water, Moon River was founded and still hosted by Drew Holcomb to provide an outlet for emerging and established artists to a broader audience.  Given the number of acts that said they had never played in Chattanooga and with a capacity of 13,000 fans, Holcomb and the event organizers definitely succeeded on that front.  I had only seen a handful of these groups myself and most had their own loyal following, so it was a great opportunity for cross-pollination.  

Crossing the wooden planked Walnut Street Bridge that bisects the park, with the Poplar Stage to the left and the smaller Iris Stage to the right, our group was in a full on sweat before making it through the gates.  With the threat of storms all weekend and temps in the low nineties, it was decidedly still Summer in Southeast Tennessee.  Aided by a few light Summer rains and maybe a few Blackberry Farms English Summer Ales, I managed to power through two days of nearly non-stop music.

First up on Saturday, Athens, Georgia based Family and Friends got things off to an energetic start under oppressively muggy conditions.  Consisting of seven members, including two drummers, their exuberance and ragged harmonies captured the early crowd.  The epic sweep of ‘My Life, My Love’ along with a well-timed stage jump to pound on the second drum kit were set highlights.  The group’s sound is primarily indie folk, but the lead guitarist wove something of a dream pop thread throughout the set.  Also from Athens (Ohio in this case), Caamp consisted of only three members, but created quite a ruckus on their opening tune and brought the first of many banjoes to the stage.  The band easily navigates from softer seventies AOR inspired sounds, to scruffier folk fueled tunes.  At his sandpapery best on songs like ‘Iffy’, lead singer Taylor Meier has the whiskey-soaked voice of a younger Ryan Bingham.

One of the duos that got my group up and out for the early start were vocal impresarios Penny and Sparrow.  With a steady rain starting, lead singer Andy Baxter welcomed the onlookers to the Aquatic Set.  Sure enough, three quarters of the way through lead-off song ‘Gold’, festival organizers pulled the plug due to a nearby lightning strike.  Brilliantly, most of us huddled under a large metal bridge and sat out what amazingly turned out to be the only weather delay of the weekend.  Returning to the stage to finish an abbreviated set, they took us through an expertly done cover of ‘The Boxer’ and closed with one of their best, ‘Creature’, which shows Andy’s vocal range at its most dynamic.  One of the groups I have previously seen the most, if I have one small gripe it’s the tendency to mix in audience sound effects and campy R&B covers.  The between-song biting wit is great, but marring what amounts to high art is a shame for longtime listeners, but probably won over plenty of well-deserved converts.

Given the delays, I missed most of soul/gospel singer Liz Vice’s set, but heard her opening take on ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ and mixing in Vera Hall’s ‘Trouble So Hard’ with Gnarls Barkley’s ‘Crazy’ worked really well.  She finished with her own populist ‘Brick By Brick’, winning people over with her expansive worldview.  I did catch all of folky supergroup I’m With Her, which consists of Nickel Creek founder Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz, and Aoife O’Donovan.  The trio’s harmonies were flawless and not having seen them before as a group or solo, Jarosz showed herself to be a tremendous instrumentalist and flat picker.  That’s on top of the well known vocal prowess of all three.  Songs ranged from originals like the lovely ‘Overland’, to numerous covers.  Covers ranged from older songs like Jim Croce’s ‘Walkin’ Back to Georgia’ and fittingly John Hartford’s ‘Long Hot Summer Day’, to more modern fare like Adele’s ‘Send My Love’ and set closer John Hiatt’s ‘Crossing Muddy Water’.  

One of the things I love about the longer format festivals is the chance to be pleasantly surprised by an act I hadn’t paid attention to before.  Muscle Shoals based The Secret Sisters, ended up being one of my favorite sets of the day.  Fully retro, but also hilarious and heartfelt, sisters Laura Rogers and Lydia Slagle, set up their songs with self-deprecating stories and then proceed to tear your heart out.  One pair of songs were described as a murder ballad and its sequel, with the crowd, warned not to get emotionally attached to any of the characters as they all die in the end.  Other highlights included the ‘Mama Said’ derived ‘Black and Blue’ and the sultry ‘Bad Habit’.

A favorite of my son’s, I had never seen Trampled By Turtles before.  Coming from Duluth, Minnesota, home of great underwear and high-speed bluegrass apparently.  They are traditionalists in that they don’t have a drummer and also carry on the tradition of flashy playing though not showing off.  A lot of the songs had familiar melodies, with opener ‘Kelly’s Bar’ sounding quite a bit like ‘Love Is a Rose’, but everything was so expertly and passionately done that it was no matter.  The slower ‘Alone’ made for a nice respite and songs like ‘Codeine’  showcased the band in all-out mode.  

Another unknown to me, but making the most of their later afternoon slot was the Boston-based quartet of Darlingside (pictured above).  I’m always a sucker for a group of musicians gathering around a single microphone, so I was fully engaged when the foursome opened with the beautiful ‘Singularity’ in perfectly tight harmony around a circular mic.  Little did I know they would perform their entire set in the same mode.  Drawing heavily from their latest album, ‘Hold Your Head Up High’ was another stately song and the light electronics of ‘Eschaton’ were mesmerizing.  Probably my most pleasant surprise of the entire festival.  Fans of Sufjan Stevens would do well to check these guys out.  It’s as if Stevens split himself in two - twice!  

Drew Holcomb and his wife Ellie have been at the music game long enough to have a catalog of crowd favorites to easily stretch out a full set.  Opening with an easy pleaser for the home crowd, ‘Tennessee’, Holcomb should be commended for putting together such a great slate of artists and being humble enough not take the headliner slot though he has the fans to do it.  The Dylan inflected ‘What Would I Do Without You’ stood out and Ellie came on stage to take lead on ‘The Morning Song’.  The couple would have their third child on the Monday after the festival, so quite the troopers.  Another band I knew little of the three sisters that make up Joseph definitely had a loyal following on hand.  Like a better behaved HAIM, the group consists of older sister Natalie on guitar and vocals and twins Meegan and Allison singing incredible runs.  Standouts included new song ‘Green Eyes’, ‘White Flag’, and bringing out Penny and Sparrow for an incredible take on their brilliant ‘Double Heart’ (Joseph also appears on the album take of the song).

Closing out night one, The Head and the Heart (pictured on Gig Review main page) have worked their way up to the brink of arena shows and made for an appropriate closer.  With three albums under their belts, the Jonathan Russell led band (co-founder Josiah Johnson is sadly still absent) has plenty of hook-filled songs to carry a set.  Amazingly, after almost ten years as a group, Russell said it was his fathers first time to see them live.  Their first album was so loaded that any of those songs were instant highlights, but ‘Another Story’ with its piano runs always stands out to me in a live setting.  Likewise, the ballroom rhythm of ‘Ghosts’ goes over well and led towards hearty sing-a-longs on ‘Lost in My Mind’ and ‘Down in the Valley’.  They closed with their traditional final song giving Charity Rose a turn on the slowly unfolding ‘Rivers and Roads’ to send the crowd out happy.      

All photos by Christa Joyner Moody          

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