Photos by Natalli Amato
“When I dreamed up this festival, I wanted it to feel like a family reunion.”
Drew Holcomb cut straight to the essence of Moon River as he spoke to the crowd sprawled over the grounds of Coolidge Park in Chattanooga, Tennessee on Saturday, September 8. For two days, festival goers and musicians formed their own ‘chosen’ family, bound by a shared love of Tennessee’s vibrant music scene and natural beauty. For Holcomb, this truly was a family affair. During his set, he traded verses with Ellie Holcomb – his (very pregnant) wife and fellow musician – on a heartfelt rendition of Tom Petty’s “Learning to Fly,” and multiple tracks celebrating the love shared between the couple and their children (“Mama’s Sunshine, Daddy’s Rain,” and “What Would I Do Without You”). The genuine camaraderie shared between artists was visible as Holcomb welcomed Liz Vice, Judah and The Lion, and Caamp onto the stage for an exuberant jam of “Ring the Bells.”
While many artists were no strangers to Holcomb’s home state and muse, Tennessee, the Seattle-based headliner The Head and The Heart experienced Chattanooga for the very first time at Moon River. After a day that was otherwise marked by the delicate harmonies of I’m With Her and the Secret Sisters, and banjo-playing fit for a jamboree courtesy of Trampled By Turtles, Saturday’s headliner brought the west coast’s alternative-rock scene to Chattanooga. The sheer energy displayed by the crowd as they traded lines on “Lost In My Mind,” and “Down In the Valley,” suggested they happily accepted the night’s change of pace.
Inclement weather loomed threateningly over Moon River during the course of the weekend but could not deter fans from celebrating their favorite artists and exploring the park’s grounds. On Sunday, a sea of rain-poncho-clad fans stood before the Poplar stage; they were staking out the best spots from which to watch Margo Price take the stage with her band. While Price’s undeniable swagger and strength as a performer is already widely-known, it was proven once again when she opened her set with the howling first lines of “Tennessee Song” as the rain descended upon Moon River.
Fans who took refuge in one of the many welcoming Frazier Avenue bars missed Price’s debut of her new song, “Leftovers,” for the dedicated crowd. “It’s not about food, it’s about sloppy seconds,” she clarified before launching into the feisty tune. With just her acoustic guitar, Price delivered biting new lyrics, “Like yesterday’s wine / You’re past your prime,” until her band jumped in, escalating the chorus’ momentum: “You can have whatever’s left, I didn’t want it anyway.” (Two days following the performance, she released the new track on Amazon Music.)
Price was not the only artist to deliver new music for the Moon River crowd. The Nashville based indie-rock band, Colony House, debuted “Lights On,” for festival goers. Frontman Caleb Chapman kept up a playful banter with the crowd, asking fans to let loose as if this were their favorite song, telling them, “New songs are like the friend that came with your friend.” Judging by the amount of clapping hands and bobbing, dancing bodies, the crowd became fast friends with the infectious, sprightly new track.
While many sets were platforms for festival-goers to find some new favorite songs to add to their current playlists, Sunday night’s final act clearly had a longstanding place in the hearts of the Moon River crowd. One could stand on the park’s rolling hillside and see Avett Brothers t-shirts in every direction. The setlist drew heavily from their most recent album, True Sadness (2016), yet still gave a robust portrayal of their full catalog. Many times, the band could hardly emit the first few notes of the song without the crowd erupting in all-encompassing cheers of delight.
Scott Avett teased the crowd with the possibility of hearing a new song, but offered “Murder In the City” instead. (He could hardly finish uttering the title before the applause solidified the decision for him.) Seth Avett’s delicate performance of the classic song gave the swaying crowd the feeling of transcendence that drives us to seek out live music in the first place. As the set reached conclusion, the rain made another appearance. However, instead of driving fans away, it added a sense of beauty to the night as the stage’s roaming lights illuminated each droplet. In spite of the weather, the Avett Brothers gave a near half-hour long encore, closing with “Kickdrum Heart.”
The success of this year’s festival will undoubtedly have people returning next year for their very own Moon River family reunion.