2017 Pilgrimage Music Festival deep in talent

By Ken Paulson –

With the third annual Pilgrimage Festival in the books, it’s a good time to acknowledge that this is a premier concert event, smaller than Bonnaroo, but just as rewarding.


FRANKLIN, TN – SEPTEMBER 23: Musician Justin Timberlake performs at the 2017 Pilgrimage Music & Cultural Festival on September 23, 2017 in Franklin, Tennessee. (Photo by John Shearer/Getty Images for M2M Construction)

It draws a slightly older crowd than most rock festivals– explaining the AARP booth – and it offers a diverse line-up of first-class talent spread over two days. Everything’s well- paced, with shows starting on time and artists delivering concise and compelling shows.


There’s a little much audio bleed from one stage to the next, but that may be unavoidable with the festival’s fairly compact footprint.


The headlines this weekend justifiably went to Justin Timberlake (outstanding,) the Avett Brothers, Eddie Vedder, Shovels & Rope, Gary Clark Jr. and Trombone Shorty, but the “undercard” at the festival was particularly strong. If you didn’t want to fight the big crowds or 90-degree heat, you could pull up a chair and sit all day at the low-key and aptly-named Shady Grove Stage, where emerging artists were showcased.


Among memorable moments:

Big Sam’s Funky Nation

Big Sam’s Funky Nation – This band was a revelation, drawing on its Louisiana roots, for a raucous and rhythmic show that had the crowd dancing in a scorching sun early on Saturday afternoon. Big Sam plays trombone, sings and dances in non-stop fashion, sprinkling bits of classic rock songs into the mix.


Aaron Lee Tasjan – Somehow Aaron has been pegged as an Americana artist, but this is a guy whose music echoes the Beatles, Chuck Berry, Nilsson, Steve Goodman and Arlo Guthrie. Yes, that’s a very full plate, but his “Silver Tears” album and live show reflect that range. We loved his cover of Todd Snider’s “Hey Pretty Boy,” the derisive chorus of which is “Go Back to Franklin,” which happened to be the site of the festival. No offense taken. It was good to see Brian Wright, another favorite, in Tasjan’s band.


Angaleena Presley: Angaleena lovingly mentioned that her husband and son were across the festival watching Trombone Shorty, so here’s hoping she has a happy life. You wouldn’t know it from her setlist. As she acknowledged, her compositions have plenty of edge, including “Country”, which mocks the current state of country music radio and the de facto discrimination against women. She may be ticked off, but she has every right. By the way, her latest album “Wrangled” shows her bound and gagged on the cover. Not possible.


The Texas Gentlemen – I’m sure they’re heard this before, but the band’s name suggests older men playing bluegrass in suits. Not even close. They delivered contemporary blues and Southern Rock and closed their set with a blistering version of “Shake It All Over,” an early sixties hit for Johnny Kidd and the Pirates (I kidd you not) and the Guess Who.


FRANKLIN, TN – SEPTEMBER 24: Marty Stuart (center) and his Fabulous Superlatives (Kenny Vaughan, left and Chris Scruggs, right) perform during Pilgrimage Music & Cultural Festival on September 24, 2017 in Franklin, Tennessee. (Photo by Mickey Bernal/Getty Images for Pilgrimage Music & Cultural Festival)

Colter Wall – Colter’s acoustic show would have been a bitter fit for a smaller stage, but his commanding vocals and powerful songs were enough to fill the void.


This is a festival that showcased brilliant music veterans like Marty Stuart and his Fabulous Superlatives, the Jerry Douglas Band and Mavis Staples, while making sure the next generation – Amanda Shires, Nikki Lane and Larkin Poe among them – had their chance to shine.


The Pilgrimage Festival drew its biggest audience yet this year, and with good reason. It’s hard to beat a headliner like Timberlake, and the overall curation of the festival is very impressive.



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