Moon River Festival
Crowds gather at the Poplar Stage during the Moon River Festival on Saturday, September 7, 2019.

The Moon River festival returned to the banks of the Tennessee River for its second year in Chattanooga.

The event was held at the Levitt Shell in Memphis when it began in 2014. The founder of the festival, musician Drew Holcomb, moved the location from Memphis to Chattanooga last year after the festival outgrew the Levitt Shell.

The event now calls Coolidge Park home. The beautiful waterfront venue features large green spaces, walking paths, a carousel and fountains.

Walnut Street Bridge, a pedestrian bridge which crosses the Tennessee River, passes over the park, and many festival-goers found shade beneath its beams throughout the hot day. People not in attendance of the festival gathered in packs across the bridge, hoping to listen from above and catch a glimpse of performers.

The first day of the festival displayed a wide range of artists, though almost all featured some form of folk or Americana influence.

The day commenced with an electric performance by the The New Respects, whose music is a melange of rock, soul and alternative. The band was full of energy, despite the afternoon heat and set the tone for the day with their exhilarating performance.

Lead singer Jasmine Mullen donned an all-white jumpsuit on stage, and her passionate vocals excited the crowd for the day of music ahead. Many of the group’s songs placed emphasis on the electric guitar, giving their performance a hard, exciting edge.

Lady Wray performed next. She also sported an all-white outfit; with a mesh shirt and sleeves hemmed with what appeared to be fur, Lady Wray looked like royalty on stage.

Her performance was just as vibrant as that of The New Respects. Her deep, soulful voice possessed a unique power that resonated throughout the festival grounds. 

Moon River Festival
Lady Wray sings during Moon River Festival near the Walnut Street bridge in Chattanooga, Tennessee on September 7, 2019.

Lady Wray kept the crowd engaged throughout her performance, encouraging them to clap along and wave their hands. At one point, she even pointed out her baby daughter in the crowd, and the audience eagerly turned to wave at her.

In addition to sharing her musical talent, Lady Wray also used her concert as an opportunity to discuss some more emotional subjects. She performed one song entitled “Money,” which discusses the often unfortunate role that money plays in life.

“Some (of) us can’t live with it, some of us can’t live without it, so this is the story of my own,” Lady Wray said prior to performing the song.

She also performed her song “Guilty,” a piece concerning incarceration. The song is near and dear to Wray’s heart, as her own brother is incarcerated. This leaves her well aware of the struggles that are associated with incarceration and loving someone who is incarcerated.

Moon River Festival
Arleigh Kincheloe of Sister Sparrow and the Dirty Birds encourages the crowd to clap along at Moon River Festival on Saturday, September 7, 2019.

Folk rock group Sister Sparrow and the Dirty Birds also performed at the festival. Despite being several months pregnant, lead singer Arleigh Kincheloe was not afraid to give a fiery and engaged performance.

The group incorporated several unique instruments into their set, with Arleigh playing the tambourine and her brother, Jackson Kincheloe, playing the harmonica.

Naturally, festival founder Drew Holcomb performed an acoustic show with his wife Ellie Holcomb.

“I don’t think you heard enough of Ellie last year,” Drew Holcomb said. “So we wanted to do a Drew and Ellie acoustic show.”

Ellie grinned from ear to ear throughout their entire performance, appearing just as thrilled to be present at the event as festival-goers were. The couple had an electric chemistry on stage. While singing poetic romance ballads, the love between the two was truly evident.

At one point, the duo performed a slow, melancholy cover of Sting’s “Fields of Gold.” The piece was beautiful, and I personally got chills throughout the song.

Next, Devon Gilfillian performed. Gilfillian’s music is a mix of many different genres, drawing inspiration from hip hop, R&B, rock and more. The young artist inspired a dance party in his audience with his groovy tunes, soulful voice and exquisitely large range.

His set also incorporated several electric guitar solos which were just as powerful as his voice, and whose beats created ethereal vibrations throughout the crowd. The music was so powerful that Gilfillian practically offered a religious experience without ever preaching a word of gospel.

Like Lady Wray, Gilfillian used his set as on opportunity to discuss a more emotional issue: inclusivity. Gilfillian reminded the crowd of the importance of inclusivity and hoped to inspire his audience to make more inclusive choices.

At the same time, Gilfillian still kept the atmosphere of his show easygoing. He and the audience sang “Happy Birthday” to his friend’s newborn son who was born on Saturday. He also invited Drew Holcomb to the stage for a cover of the early 2000s American hit “Waterfalls” by TLC.

Next, Moon Taxi performed. Lead singer Trevor Terndrup looked excited throughout the performance; not once did he stop smiling. The group’s incorporation of elements of electronica into their music made them stand out from other artists at the festival. Few other folk and Americana bands make use of electronic musical stylings in their work.

The performance featured long instrumental solos and a light show, giving the set more of a rock concert feel rather than the intimate guitar picking session that might be anticipated at a folk festival such as Moon River.

The Oh Hellos added a slower, melancholy touch to the evening. The alternative group’s music is very whimsical, comprised of airy guitar notes and soft, almost spell-like voices. The band played their enchanting tunes just as the sun was setting on the festival grounds, spreading a sense of peace throughout the venue.

As night approached, festival crowds grew larger and larger, and a sizable audience showed up to watch St. Paul and the Broken Bones. The folk rock band gave an energetic and entertaining performance, reigniting the audience who excitedly danced and sang along.

The lead singer Paul Janeway emerged from backstage wearing a cape covered in sparkling sequins, a very bold outfit choice. The rest of the band donned suits and tuxedos, resembling members of a classic jazz ensemble. 

Moon River Festival
Paul Janeway of St. Paul and the Broken Bones gets into the music at Moon River Festival on Saturday September 7, 2019.

Janeway was absolutely electric; there was never a moment that he stopped dancing, and his pure confidence radiated out from the stage and into the audience. Throughout the set, he waved his hands like an orchestra conductor, as if commanding the audience to dance — and they so obliged.

Next, folk singer Josh Ritter wowed crowds under the hazy purple sky of the setting sun. Ritter is quite a versatile artist, blending jazz and folk in his music. He’s written an entire album, The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter, that is comprised of songs based on different periods in history.

When performing live, Ritter has an infectious smile and was grinning widely throughout the entire performance — whether that be at his guitar, the audience or the sky. Ritter’s sweet voice perfectly complimented the topic of the majority of his music: romance. Couples throughout the audience embraced each other and swayed to the sound of Ritter’s loving words.

Finally, Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit closed out the night. By this time, the Walnut Street Bridge was packed with pedestrians, and the festival crowd was enormous.

Isbell’s country voice reverberated throughout the audience and the park, and his music was accompanied by gold and blue lights on stage. His soulful, passionate tone left festival-goers with emotions running high at the end of the night.

Overall, the first day of Moon River festival was fantastic and versatile, and I will definitely be attending again next year.

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