Pilgrimage.  The term just makes you think of something grand: the kind of thing that you must make a journey to experience. When you give this name to a festival that borrows liberally from the rich New Orleans music scene and mixes it with top touring artists and a big dose of the best of Middle Tennessee culture, supported by an historic town, you have a formula for an event that draws people to experience it.  Two years ago, Kevin Griffin had an epiphany while running through Harlinsdale Park, and along with two longtime friends, the help of countless others and a couple of years of hard work, they've realized it in this first edition of Pilgrimage Festival, held at the end of September in Franklin, Tennessee. Intended to showcase the best of local and Middle Tennessee culture and music, the festival assembled a roster of top touring artists, sprinkled in a generous amount of local culture, then arranged it all to be both family and music fan friendly - a hat trick in itself.

The inaugural event benefitted from having an experienced logistics staff on board whose focus was to make the festival a positive and well-run experience for the audiences. When it comes to a multi-day, all day festival Maslow's hierarchy of needs certainly applies to attendees. Are there enough toilets?   Can I get food?  Will I be able to park my car less than a mile away?  Even though the line for the grilled cheese food truck remained impossibly long, Pilgrimage succeeded in delivering an experience that rivals most other major music festivals - an amazing feat for the first time out.  Surprisingly, about 1/3 of participants walked into the festival grounds from Franklin - another point of success for the local community's support of the event.  One thing though that shouldn't be overlooked is the 'Tennessee friendly' attitude of everyone associated with Pilgrimage, who made it their mission for attendees to have a terrific experience during their time at the site. I cannot count how many people asked me if I was having a good time, or gave me a friendly wave while I was there. As a festival veteran, this experience stood tall.

Having only three main stages (plus an excellent children's stage and one for emerging artists) makes for a somewhat more relaxed festival - and it was that.  Many took advantage of the grassy rolling terrain and areas with chairs and hammocks under the trees to picnic, play with family and friends or even take the occasional nap.  Several art installations (including the main barn which displayed large painted canvases painted by local artists) and a diverse collection of Middle Tennessee-centric artisans selling their wares provided a pleasant addition to the performances.  The programming on the Hohner Little Pilgrims stage was child inclusive while never dumbing down the music, and much welcomed by the parents. And even though there were rain showers (this is Tennessee after all), people rolled with the weather and for the most part relished the experience.

But the music is still the reason that people come to a festival, and the lineup reflected much of the best of the Americana Music Triangle, an area that stretches from Nashville to Memphis to New Orleans and everything in between.  It mixed in some of the best indie/rock bands around today, brought in traditional jazz and singer-songwriters, included some soul screaming funk and jazz and wrapped it all up with star power on top.  Pilgrimage benefitted from Franklin's support, and given that they met their target financial goals, we expect this event to grow and spread in popularity and attendance in future years.


The following highlights the performances of a few of the many bands who were at Pilgrimage.

Steven Tyler

As the person with arguably the biggest star power - or at least rock star brilliance - of any musician at Pilgrimage, Tyler was our MVP artist for the festival. Although he has recently moved into the country genre, Tyler stuck mostly to the Aerosmith classics for his performance, slipping in at least one new song with support from a new band that he loves as much as they love him.

Steven Tyler by Amy Price

Weezer

Someone told me there are only two kinds of people:  those that love Weezer and those that have just never heard them.  There's a third type however:  those that are more 'meh' about Mr. Cuomo's band, and before this performance I counted myself in that group. Maybe it was the crowd's enthusiastic reception for these SoCal guys, but Weezer just brought it to the stage and left it all there.  Even when Jack White's frequent collaborator Ruby Amanfu showed up to sing with Rivers, it just couldn't get more magical than these four playing their hearts out. Perfect.

Weezer by Amy Price

Chris Stapleton

This thirty-something songwriter released his first album this year to rave reviews and multiple award nominations, but classifying him only as country is a disservice to the bluesy soulful sensibility and rock and roll attitude that Stapleton brings to each composition.  Covering songs from this first album, and supported by his singer-songwriter wife Morgane Stapleton and a crack collection of musicians, his performance made up for a lower level of on-stage animation with the emotional one-two punch of his lyrics and music. This was a performance to be savored, and many of the performing artists at Pilgrimage were in the audience to hear him.

Chris Stapleton by Amy Price

St. Paul and the Broken Bones

This band had one of the biggest audiences of the festival on the Harpeth River Stage, and it's no wonder. Their live performances are electric, with lead singer Paul Janeway being the soul screamer that he is, while people in the audience walked up to make contact with him as he pushed his very being into his music.  It's part funk, part old-timey revival and all soul.

St Paul and the Broken Bones by Amy Price

Will Hoge

Local boy made good, and returning to play at Harlinsdale Farm - where he used to run a weedeater in earlier times - had a certain rightness to it. With a bluesy voice and athletic onstage moves that rival Springsteen, Hoge delivered an energetic set with his band that covered his eclectic blend of Americana and singer-songwriter compositions.

Will Hoge by Amy Price

Kingfish

This teenage guitar prodigy - Christone "Kingfish" Ingram - has already caused a stir with his YouTube videos, but nothing compares to the electric sizzle of his live shows. Kicking off the festival on Saturday from the Harlinsdale stage, he and his band knocked the smallish audience off its feet. Word spread, to the point where he played to an overflowing crowd on the Hohner children's stage.

Kingfish by Amy Price

Better than Ezra on the Hohner Little Pilgrims Stage

When the description reads "Kevin Griffin (with artist cameos)", it's a fairly sure thing that Griffin's long time band mates will be joining him on stage. The real treat however were the kids that were invited to come up and play with the band. It made the performance a real family affair - and the kids were really good!

KevinGriffin BetterthanEzra onHohner Kids Stage 4893

Cage the Elephant

Although this band has seen success with their recordings - with their next Dan Auerbach-produced LP dropping in December - nothing compares to their live performances, which have a reputation for over-the-top antics by lead man Matthew Shultz, arguably the best front man in music today. It's not just insane crowd surfing and all-out stage performances however; Matt sings to members of the audience in a way that's not gratuitous or part of an act: he makes a genuine personal connection with each individual, which is a real talent on its own.  Having this nearby home town group at Pilgrimage was a stroke of genius and amplified the festival cool factor to 11.

Cage the Elephant 4516

The Kimbro Pickin' Parlor Stage

Though the set times were more of a suggestion, this late addition to the Pilgrimage lineup showcased the best of really local talent, and even brought in a few out of town guests, including singer-songwriter Dan Dyer from Austin.

Preservation Hall Jazz Band

A few years ago, this storied band was playing to older audiences in fine arts centers. That's where the efforts of Ben Jaffe, son of the founders of PHJB, connected the band with contemporary artists - notably Jim James, who continues to work with them - and activated the music with a far younger audience. The performance was energetic, upbeat and entirely danceable and the crowd definitely dove in.

Preservation Hall Jazz Band by Amy Price

Big Sam's Funky Nation

Spanning jazz and funk and highlighting their New Orleans heritage, Sammie "Big Sam" Williams leads a group of extraordinary musicians who push the boundaries of multiple genres. They brought a performance of seriously good music aimed at creating a non-stop dance party, and the audience happily obliged.

Big Sams Funky Nation by Amy Price

Wilco

By the time Jeff Tweedy and company came to the stage on the first day, the skies had truly opened up a deluge of rain over the festival site, delaying the start of the show as the crew (including at least one of the festival founders) squeegeed the stage and tarped the sound equipment. The reward for the faithful was a radiant and beautifully played show by the band (with Tweedy wearing a good-looking set of glasses onstage).  It was a bonding moment in the rain that played out against the soaring melodic rock of the band, as perfect as it could be.

Wilco by Amy Price

Willie Nelson

Closing out the festival on its second day, one can hardly imagine a better artist to unite past and present than Willie. And having a person who keeps his family and friends close fit perfectly with the family atmosphere that Pilgrimage did indeed maintain.  The skies cleared to show a beautiful flaming sunset as Willie played. He didn't simply warble through his long and storied song list:  he brought a host of artists on stage to sing with him, closing with "Will the Circle Be Unbroken?" in the best Pilgri-match up of the festival.