Pilgrimage Music Festival | 09.26-27.15

pilgrimage2015 sqAfter a set by Dawes, we moved on to one of the biggest rock stars of all time: Steven Tyler of Aerosmith


Franklin, Tennessee
All photos: Getty Images for Pilgrimage Music & Cultural Festival


Tennessee is already home to major music festivals such as Beale Street and Bonnaroo. Both of these festivals, which take place in the early spring and summer, are great ways to start a summer of music. But there has been a void for anyone looking for a festival with which to end the summer, a music experience that serves as a peaceful transition into fall. Now, that void has been filled by the Pilgrimage Music Festival.

The inaugural Pilgrimage Music Festival took place on the Park at Harlinsdale, a once a famous horse farm located in Franklin, Tennessee. For the weekend, the park’s grounds were transformed into a music lover’s paradise logistically reasonable for a first-year festival. The route to the parking area was winding and a little confusing, but quick, and three main stages were evenly spaced across the farm. The main stage, named after the famous Walking Horse Midnight Sun, paid tribute to the park’s original purpose as the green grass and old white stables appropriately surrounded the stages. The two additional headlining stages were complemented by two smaller, more intimate stages as well as a family stage that played host to young musicians and entertainment for all ages. The weather also played a big role in how the weekend progressed. Cloudy skies caused a lot of people to grab their umbrellas and ponchos in preparation for the worst. Thankfully, the rain only drizzled, even enhancing some shows (like Dr. John’s, where the shaking umbrellas made it feel more like a New Orleans party).

More important than the weather, though, was determining which band to choose over the other because, let’s face it…there are always conflicts. The Pilgrimage Festival played host to headliners including Wilco, Willie Nelson, and Weezer, who were accompanied by smaller, upcoming acts such as Saint Motel and Lucius. Even if you missed an act or two on this lineup, you knew there was still some good music waiting for you around the corner.


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Cage the Elephant

The festival gates opened at 10 a.m. Saturday morning, early for most festivals but just right for one set in the middle of September. Sets from Stevie Woodward, Kingfish, and ELEL kicked off the day, followed by Guthrie Brown and The Family tree and Holly Williams at noon. We opened up our experience with a wonderful, energetic set from Saint Motel, a fairly new band with hits “My Type” and “Cold Cold Man” getting air time on the radio. They set the scene for the festival; it felt like they were able to wake everyone up. Following Saint Motel were sets by Madisen Ward and The Mama Bear and the “Fast and Furious Bluegrass Boyz,” aka Trampled by Turtles. TBT provided a great afternoon bluegrass set with some covers that included the Band’s “It Makes No Difference.”

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Neko Case

Next, brilliant performances from indie staples Iron and Wine and Neko Case were followed by a set from Cage the Elephant that was energetic enough to have closed out the day. Thankfully, that wasn’t the case as, up next, the Punch Brothers delivered the best bluegrass set of the day. They played their instruments with such precision that I got lost in the combination of the music and Chris Thile’s facial expressions. After hearing Weezer perform opening songs like “My Name is Jonas” and “Pink Triangle,” we left to get a solid spot for Wilco. Wilco is one of our group’s favorite bands, and they are best enjoyed up close. The rain had been off and on all day with a sprinkle here, a small shower there, but dark clouds started rolling in as we walked toward the main stage. We assumed that Dr. John was channeling Mother Earth through his music and prayed that he would be merciful and call off the rain before Wilco (below right) was scheduled to start. After fearing the worst, a cancellation of Wilco’s set due to rain, we heard “More…” from the band’s new album Star Wars come over the speakers and we were filled with joy. Wilco played through all parts of their catalog, including more tracks from Star Wars and favorites including “Impossible Germany” and “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart.”tweedy pilgrimage_500

As the music ended and we walked toward our car, I realized that of all the festivals I’ve been to, the Pilgrimage Festival takes the award for “most chairs at a music festival.” There were a lot on Saturday, but the number seemed to double on Sunday. To many festival-goers this might seem like a hindrance, but with the openness of each stage and the spread of a 200-acre farm, no one seemed to mind if there were chairs 10 feet in front of the stage. There was enough room for everyone, and it didn’t matter if they were sitting or standing.


After a full night of sleep (a rare occurrence after a day of a festival), we continued on our musical pilgrimage. Once again, the weather was a key factor to the spirit of the festival, and that weather was beautiful. The Lone Bellow fed off the energy of the crowd and put on an amazing performance that featured the soulful vocals of each band member as they took turns with solos. By the tail end of their set, people in the audience were singing along to songs they didn’t know the day before. As the Lone Bellow finished with a Sunday afternoon harmony, the crowd inched forward, anticipating the approach of Dawes to the stage. The pop/folk/rock had the smooth guitar rifts of Duane Betts to help provide a powerful show, playing crowd favorites like “Things Happen” and “If I Wanted Someone.”

After the show, we refueled with some spicy chicken tenders from one of many food trucks, and then moved on to one of the biggest rock stars of all time: Steven Tyler (left below) of Aerosmith. It was hard to skip Band of Horses and St. Paul & the Broken Bones, but it was worth it to see Tyler sing “Dream On.” Festivals are full of conflicts and tough decisions, but this one was a no-brainer.

tyler pilgrimage_500Although the Decemberists started a bit late due to Tyler running a little over his allotted time slot, they never lost hold of the crowd. They mixed new hits such as “Carolina Low” with older favorites such as “Valencia,” to form a great set list. I had seen the Decemberists twice before, but I had never gotten to hear my favorite song, my Moby Dick, if you will. Then, as their set came to a close, the song I had been hoping for began: “The Mariner’s Revenge Song,” a festival favorite that involves a stage full of props and planned choreography to create a unique experience that only a live performance can capture.

With sore feet and full hearts, we marched on to the largest crowd of the weekend, the legendary Willie Nelson, who put the city of Franklin—and the temporary city of Pilgrimage—in a trance. The clang of Nelson’s guitar rang out across Harlinsdale as he sang hit after hit, while showing how much energy he still has to give to those who listen. It was the perfect ending to the first Pilgrimage Festival, and after a busy summer, the peaceful transition into fall that we all needed. | Todd Blazer & Steven Pate

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