The 5 Best Sets We Saw at Moon River 2023Main photo by Taylor Regulski, courtesy of Moon River Music Lists Moon River Music Festival
Music festivals are magical, but they can also be unpleasant. Standing for hours on end, the crush of the crowd near the front of a stage, the overpriced chicken tender baskets, the rows of mobile toilets and the accompanying smells—so many smells!—can all make for a chaotic experience. It’s not for the faint of heart. But every now and then, a festival overcomes these pitfalls and you have so much fun you forget the whiskey Coke in your hand costs $20. Moon River Music Festival is one such outlier.
The Americana-centric boutique festival put on by Tennessee natives Drew Holcomb & the Neighbors began as an upstart in Memphis nearly a decade ago, and four years ago expanded to scenic Chattanooga, where it lit up Coolidge Park once again this past weekend. There was truly a familial feeling throughout the whole weekend—vendors, attendees and artists alike remained not just courteous but also friendly. And when Caamp was sadly forced to drop out of their headliner slot for health reasons just a few days before the fest, NEEDTOBREATHE stepped in and stepped up and provided a stellar Saturday night set. Even when things once again didn’t go to plan thanks to a late afternoon rain shower, no one pitched a fit. Rather, patrons flooded into the bars of Downtown Chattanooga for beer breaks, and we were all happily back under blue skies before long. And even though the festival was sold out, it never felt too crowded.
Since there were only two stages and acts were rarely competing against one another, Moon River provided the perfect opportunity to not only see old favorites, but also stumble upon new discoveries. Our favorite acts were a mix of the two. Please find our top five acts below, and if you happen to find yourself near Chatt this time next year, do yourself and your soul a favor and grab a buddy, put your boogie shoes on and head under the bridge to Moon River.
First Aid Kit
Photo by Cora Wagoner
First Aid Kit, the Swedish folk-pop duo made up of sisters Johanna and Klara Söderberg can’t always be found state-side, and I’ve been trying to catch them live for many years. The time finally came at Moon River, where they played a dreamy set at dusk on Sunday evening. It was so dreamy, in fact, that a couple standing on the front row got engaged amid the band’s hit “Emmylou” to the great delight of both band and audience. Swoon!
Photo by Nathan Zucker
Alt-country troubadour S.G. Goodman, hailing from Western Kentucky, writes funny and frank rock songs that never fail to inspire toe taps, but her greatest talent may in fact be stage banter. Goodman charmed the crowd immediately with her quips about an alleged cult supposedly operating out of a local deli and played several songs from her 2022 album Teeth Marks including blue collar anthem “Work Until I Die.” Her tunes are so catchy even the Tennessee River seemed to be rushing along in time.
Photo by Taylor Regulski
Speaking of stomping, no one else throws down quite like Nickel Creek, the progressive bluegrass trio who just seem to get better with time. More than 20 years after the release of their self-titled debut, Chris Thile and co. still sing every song—from the sappy but sweet “The Lighthouse’s Tale” to “The Fox” fable to tracks from their new album Celebrants—with the enthusiasm of teenagers playing their first folk fest. It also helped that the massive Sunday night crowd seemed to be full of Nickel Creek fans—at the end, Thile went so far as to say the crowd was the best they’d ever played for. Whether or not that’s true we’ll never know, but one thing’s for certain: You’ll rarely find multi-instrumentalists with as much grace and talent.
Photo by Grant Hodgeon
Marcus King is no stranger to the festival scene, but he seemed to bring extra oomph to his Saturday night set on the Iris stage. The Greenville, South Carolina, native fit right in among the Southerner-heavy lineup, and his jam-meets-country style made for a rowdy but tight hour. He seamlessly wove a setlist of original songs and covers, including “When a Man Loves a Woman” and Jimmy Cliff’s “Many Rivers to Cross,” and blew newcomers like myself away with his powerhouse vocals.
Photo by Nathan Zucker
The festival closer, Hozier—aka Irish crooner Andrew John Hozier-Byrne—was undoubtedly a major draw for many festival-goers, and his set was nothing short of mystical. Whether he was playing “Jackie and Wilson” or “Work Song” from his beloved self-titled debut or fresher cuts from his excellent new album Unreal Unearth, released late last month, he truly gave himself to the music in a way I have seldom witnessed at a festival, or any other concert for that matter. His voice is impenetrable. Whether it was just Hozier and an acoustic guitar (as on “Cherry Wine,” which was as lovely and raw as it was upon release in 2014), channeling his gospel influences on Wasteland, Baby! picks or just going full-on rockstar mode for “To Be Alone,” Hozier truly put on a perfect set from top to bottom. He’s currently making his way across the states for a tour supporting Unreal, and if you have the chance to see him, I urge you to take it.
Watch all our sessions from the 2021 Moon River fest, like this one from Madison Cunningham on the Paste YouTube Channel, where you can also find videos from First Aid Kit, Marcus King and S.G. Goodman.