- by Mark Moody Rating: Release Date: Label:
After a great if not a little hot Saturday full of music, it looked for sure that Sunday was going to be a washout. With yet another chance to catch one of our favorite non-stop touring acts on Sunday, The Avett Brothers, there were a lot of long faces scanning our weather apps late Saturday and predicting doom. A wide forward slash of a front was sweeping West to East across the middle U.S. with Chattanooga dead in its sights.
Sure enough during brunch downtown, the skies opened up and it was pouring at 11:00 with the clock bearing down on the opening act. Even with the front marching on, somehow the park managed to thread the needle of the storms and there wasn’t a delay all day long. If anything, the clouds took the edge off the heat compared to the day before. As good as Saturday’s sets were, Sunday one-upped the prior day somehow.
The first act we caught was the Nashville five-piece Boy Named Banjo. This group veered as close to country music as anyone on the bill, but even though polished it reminded me more of the alt-country bands of Austin in the nineties compared to the sound of their hometown. The five-piece all sang harmonies in spots, giving them a full warm sound. Highlights included ‘Birdman’ and a song inspired by Jason Molina which might have been called ‘One Step Closer’.
Next up, and my favorite of the entire two days, Mandolin Orange (pictured top) played a laid back but inspired set. Songwriter Andrew Marlin’s voice is one of the best out there in any genre and partner Emily Frantz on violin and an amazing voice of her own make this group a potent combination. With several solid albums to their credit, they waltzed through their set with a quiet confidence to an appropriately hushed crowd. They opened with ‘Take This Heart of Gold’ showcasing Marlin’s timeless voice. The faster ‘My Blinded Heart’ showed their chemistry, while Frantz’s turn on ‘There Was a Time’ gave her a spot to shine. Their understated simplicity carried the day and many were singling out their set in the aftermath of the festival. My second time seeing them and they continue to amaze.
Subbing out for a late scratch in the schedule, Moon River veterans Colony House had a ready-made fanbase crowded around the smaller stage well before they took the stage. By far the most rock-oriented band on Sunday’s card they revved things up with ‘Silhouettes’, then slowed it down with ‘Learning How to Love’. A new song, ‘Lights On’ also held promise for the days ahead.
With many highlights on Sunday, it would be an understatement to say Mavis Staples held her own and carried the day to new heights. With the crowd slow to filter over from Colony House, it left plenty of room for the first fans on hand to get their groove on. Staples’ band played it loud and proud and at a very youthful 79, Staples belted out song after song with a soulful growl that belied her time on the planet. Invoking her Civil Rights heritage and calling out “the ol' fool in the White House” she had no trouble enchanting the crowd. She tackled the Talking Heads ‘Slippery People’ in a full-on groove three songs in and just kept rolling. She played standards like ‘Come Go With Me’ and ‘Can You Get to That’ as easily as newer material like ‘You’re Not Alone’. Pushing towards closing out her eighth decade she declared herself 'a soldier' as emphatically as any change agent could and whatever your expectation might be for a performer in her age bracket she defied all of that. Undoubtedly getting an assist from above, she is a treasure to behold and having her on hand was a brilliant choice.
We left the festival grounds for about an hour as it looked like the skies would open up, but somehow that never happened. We were back in and in front of the stage for The War and Treaty’s set. For what would have to be described as a family-friendly festival, these two lovebirds were pushing the limits. If Michael and Tanya Trotter weren’t already married, they may have been required to be by Tennessee law after the display they put on. Backed by a small combo and with Michael on keyboards when he wasn’t prowling the stage, the two both fit the bill as blues shouters but mix in soul and funk elements as well. The total meltdown that ’’Til The Morning’ turned into was a spectacle to behold. The two strutted around each other before Michael dropped to his knees grasping on to Tanya, both in full song throughout. They followed with their popular ‘Down to the River’, exiting after only four extended songs with plenty of time left on the clock. They did return for a two-song encore, but were one of the few bands not to use their full slot but probably did so using twice the energy. Would be a great act to see at a small club.
Next up were eternal crowd pleasers Judah and the Lion. They always put on a high energy set with their fans fully involved. Fortunately, they kept their patented booty work dance to a short few moments at the beginning of the set. Judah led his band through a long string of favorites starting with ‘Twentysomething’, an acoustic ‘Kickin’ da Leaves’, ‘Suit and Jacket’, and ended up with an extended crowd surf on ‘Take It All Back’. It was also a nice touch bringing festival host Drew Holcomb on stage for a cover of ‘Mr. Brightside’ that the crowd ate up.
I stuck around at the main stage to get a good spot for The Avett Brothers (pictured on Gig Review main page), so didn’t catch the set by the Dirty Guv’nahs. The group has been involved with Moon River from the beginning and carry on the greasy Southern rock sound of bands like The Black Crows. Having seen the Avetts many times, they do a great job mixing up their sets pulling popular songs, deeper tracks, covers and putting different combos on stage to perform. Given the festival format, they certainly played many of their most popular songs but the set seemed to be a little more focused on older brother Scott this night. He opened with ‘Shame’, took the lead on ‘Laundry Room’, played solo on ‘Murder in the City’, and also played ‘Shine’ later in the show. Of course, things balanced out as well with Seth, Scott, and bassist Bob Crawford playing as a trio on Seth’s ‘I Wish I Was’. They played a well-received new song, ‘Roses and Sacrifice’, as well as the perennial epic ‘Head Full of Doubt/Road Full of Promise’. We caught the last part of the set from up on the Walnut Street bridge, which was a cool vantage point to catch the rain, which finally started to fall, streaming through spotlights crossing the night sky. They closed as they have done many other times with ‘No Hard Feelings’, which has become something of a mantra for a band that strives to win over everyone. The Avetts non-stop touring and “will travel” fan base makes them top of the live touring bands out there who never disappoint.
Further on the Walnut Street bridge: The bridge served as a very egalitarian spot for non-festival goers to take in as many of the acts as they wanted as it perfectly bisected the park a hundred feet up. The bridge was the baseball equivalent of watching through a knothole in the fence. With the festival selling out in a day, this was a cool way for people to catch some of the music and the bands definitely noticed and were inspired by it. I hope they keep the bridge open to the public in future years as it brought even more of a sense of community to what was already a community affirming event.
Drew Holcomb and the professional organizers from AC Entertainment knocked it out of the park with Moon River and I look forward to coming back for years to come. The number of quality acts has grown exponentially over the four years of the event and the move to a bigger park in a smaller community was a brilliant one. And whoever was in charge of praying for the rain not to wash Sunday’s inspired lineup away certainly deserves a trophy.
All photos by Christa Joyner Moody