“I was born here and raised here
And I will make my grave here
It’s home… Tennessee”
~ Drew Holcomb & The Neighbors “Tennessee”
Last month, Moon River Festival celebrated its first year in Chattanooga. The fest spent its first four years in Memphis in a space it quickly outgrew. Founder and indie musician Drew Holcomb brought Moon River to its new home on the banks of the Tennessee River on September 8th and 9th.
As we teased in our preview article, Moon River featured some of the hottest names in indie music. And like its older indie festival siblings (Newport Folk Fest, Pickathon), this festival offered genre diversity and a solid lineup from top to bottom. Moon River is a music lover’s paradise for two reasons: its intimate settings let you see your favorite bands in comfort, and (most importantly) zero schedule conflict!
Add in the beautiful scenery and small crowd size, Moon River proved to be idyllic in many ways. Festival organizers spared no details, either: from the Tennessee-themed cocktails to the moon phase artwork decorating the trees, Holcomb and festival organizers AC Entertainment made magic in Chattanooga.
This family-friendly event catered to patrons of every age and interest. Fans of college football could watch their teams in the on-site sports lounge. Outdoor enthusiasts could paddle board or scale the climbing wall while listening to the music. The venue even has a splash pond and carousel for kids of all ages. But who has time for that when the music is so stellar?
Headlining shows from The Avett Brothers and The Head and The Heart wowed crowds, while powerhouse singers like Mavis Staples, Margo Price, and Liz Vice made the earth move under everyone’s feet. (Stay tuned in the coming days for our festival interviews featuring Liz Vice, The Ballroom Thieves, and more.)
Despite a brief rain delay during Penny & Sparrow’s set on Saturday, the weather did not dampen the high spirits of attendees. Some artists, including Colony House and The Dirty Guv’nahs, are native Tennesseans, but indie artists from both coasts felt right at home.
Boston-based folk-pop quartet Darlingside harmonized over a single mic while their local friends The Ballroom Thieves watched from the crowd. Both bands connected with the crowd during their respective sets and won scores of new fans in the process.
Fellow East Coast trio I’m With Her proved there is no such thing as too many string players as Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz, and Aoife O’Donovan charmed everyone within earshot on Saturday.
Later that evening, Oregon sister trio Joseph stomped and clapped to their powerful indie folk-pop melodies that left fans yelling for more.
The Closner sisters even brought out Penny & Sparrow to supplement the duo’s lost stage time. Their set was the perfect segue for another band with Pacific Northwest roots, The Head and The Heart. This was the band’s first time in Chattanooga, and the crowd showed them plenty of love.
Sunday highlights included Drew Holcomb joining Judah & The Lion for a crowd-pleasing cover of The Killers’ “All These Things That I’ve Done.” You could feel ripples of electricity in the air as they sang, “You know you got to help me out” – so the 10,000 attendees of all ages joined in on the chorus. This was just one example of the unity on display at Moon River.
Judah & The Lion frontman Judah Akers opened their set by announcing the lack of partisanship for the next hour. He urged the cheering crowd to realize “there is no us or them, no political party – just us, united together.” Moments later the band dove into a high-energy set that quickly became a weekend high point. Anyone who doubted if indie folk can be fused with hip-hop and funk left feeling invigorated and impressed.
Another soulful female echoed Vice’s sentiments later – the legendary Mavis Staples. One of her proclamations (“There is an idiot in the White House!”) was met with enthusiastic cheers and one eager fan raising a hand-written “Mavis for President 2020” sign. The 79-year-old singer delighted the crowd with her own hits (including “I’ll Take You There” and “Freedom Highway”), but it was her take on Talking Heads’ “Slippery People” that earned waves of appreciative applause.
Holcomb’s own set was thunderous fun, with fans wondering if his very pregnant wife, Ellie, might give birth on stage. The family’s timing was perfect as they welcomed son Samuel Rivers Holcomb the day after the festival ended.
Sunday evening closer The Avett Brothers wrapped the festival in style, leading the crowd in heartfelt performances of their hits – 22 songs in all.
If you enjoy family-friendly festivals at smaller venues where you can see dozens of your favorite indie artists perform, make plans to attend Moon River Festival next year. It is a true gem.
You can follow the festival here:
Photography by Jeanette Sangston
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