Pilgrimage Music Festival: Wilco, Willie Nelson, Lucius, Charles Bradley & More

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As the festival landscape grows increasingly packed every year, reviewing a weekend of music and culture becomes less about the lineup’s individual offerings and more about the event as a whole. What are the organizers looking to do, and what kind of experience does it leave for the concert goer?

The inaugural Pilgrimage Music & Culture Festival, a two-day event nestled on The Park at Harlinsdale
in charming Nashville suburb Franklin, Tennessee, certainly succeeded at providing a pleasant environment for music fans, offering a stacked lineup without forcing audience members to sacrifice comfort, sleep or convenience (or football—in SEC country, a beer-fueled haven broadcasting the day’s biggest games was a day-maker). Each day began a bit before noon and ran until 7:30 p.m., leaving ample time for a big post-fest meal in Franklin’s nearby downtown area, and the location’s proximity to civilization eliminated the anxiety of most rural events, especially in the rain.

But as much as the festival environment made Pilgrimage an event worth returning to, the performers were what made year one a splash. Saturday began with a performance from mother-son duo Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear, whose wailing vocals and simple instrumentals had nabbed them several festival slots this summer. Somehow, though, their jovial guitar picking felt more at home on this gloomy day on the farm than in any environment I’d seen them before. Neko Case brought the sheer power and intensity of any headlining show onto the festival grounds right in the middle of the day, and Will Hoge brought out an impressive crowd, a particularly fun set since he grew up in the area.

When the skies first opened up during Iron & Wine’s ambient set, it seemed like the light trickle of rain would match the familiar, quiet tunes that propelled singer-songwriter Sam Beam into the spotlight in the first place. But the rain kept getting heavier, and while droves of fans retreated to the many covered areas around the festival, plenty sang in the rain as Sheryl Crow and Weezer battled it out under the downpour.

Those who stuck it out were rewarded with a stellar set from Wilco, who pulled from recent Star Wars with tracks like “More” and “Random Name Generator” while pleasing longtime fans with older numbers like “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart.”

Sunday the weather proved to be much more pleasant, and the lineup was as on-point as ever. Lucius, whose 2013 debut continues to reach new fans, ran through recognizable singles like “Turn It Around” and included a new number, too. Soaring high notes with lyrics like “When you go halfway/You only have halfway to go” showed the depth and versatility of the band’s trademark harmonies, and the set proved that Lucius is only getting better.

That included a healthy dose screaming soul from Charles Bradley, whose high-volume, high-energy performance was impossible to ignore regardless of how far across the farm you were from his stage. The Lone Bellow continued to exceed high expectations with their emotive harmonies, too, with notable moment like a stripped-back trio performance on “Watch Over Us” and Kanene Pipkin’s killer vocal performance on “Call to War”—both apt reminders that this Americana group has more than one member that’s lead singer material.

Nikki Lane charmed with her smoky vocals and sassy lyrics, whipping out well-known single “Right Time” followed by a cover of Bob Dylan’s “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere.” (“This is a cover song somebody told me I should stop coverin’, so I kicked them out of the fuckin’ van,” she opened.) After that, Southern soul men St. Paul & The Broken Bones kept the good vibes going with a sweaty set that showed off frontman Paul Janeways damn-near-unbelievable vocals and got people moving: the perfect last set before headliner Willie Nelson.

Once Nelson took the stage, everything started to unwind. There’s a reason Nelson has sustained such a long career—he was as great a live performer as I’ve ever seen, and it was clear that he was having as much fun on stage as anyone was in the audience. For a young festival that we hope remains a staple in the calendar for years to come, saying farewell with a timeless performer like Nelson was the perfect way to ensure no one was leaving with anything but next year on their minds.

Check out photographer Brooke Bennett’s images in the gallery above.