If you thought “festival season” ended with Labor Day, you will be surprised to know that September looks to be our one of our busiest and best festival months of the season. Leading off with Moon River Festival, located in Chattanooga Tennessee.
Moon River is one of the first festivals we started covering this year, so it was extra exciting to actually be there last weekend.
Let’s start with some basics:
Tennessee Native Drew Holcomb (of Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors) started Moon River Festival back in 2014. For the first four years, Moon River took place in Holcomb’s home town of Memphis. After outgrowing its stunning park setting in Memphis, Holcomb made a big move (figuratively and literally) transferring Moon River to Coolidge Park in Chattanooga last festival season. Holcomb explained the move in a letter to fans online, describing his hopes to expand the dreams. Moon River is a two – day event with a pretty kick ass lineup, showcasing big names in the rock, Americana, Blues, and country scenes.
With that little intro done – let’s jump into our recap.
Due to uncertain work constraints, mainly the question of whether or not I was going to have a major trial coming up in mid September, I had to hold off on making travel plans until the last minute. This made it a little tougher to get down to Chattanooga, but based on my research – if you plan earlier than I did, there are tons of inexpensive ways to get directly to Chattanooga. Southwest was running a deal into Nashville, so I made a late night Friday flight down. Once in Nashville (which by the way has the prettiest airport I have ever been in), I rented a car and made the 1.5 to 2 hour drive to the Chattanooga area. I elected to stay in the scenic Lookout Mountain area at a Country Inn and Suites that had fantastic TripAdvisor reviews (particularly about their breakfast). It also offered an indoor pool, free parking and a good location. That said, there are definitely closer hotels – including The Edwin Hotel which not only looks gorgeous, but is located just at the other side of the bridge (more on that later) across from the Moon River site.
After a very late night arrival, I scoped out the infamous breakfast buffet. It was definitely bigger than most hotels. I never waited in line and there was a ton of variety. Maybe I have been traveling too much lately, but it wasn’t anything completely insane. Still would definitely it a thumbs up all the way. After breakfast, I went through my normal pre-fest preparations and packing. With expected temperatures in the mid 90s this included forcing myself to drink a lot of water. Around noon, I headed to downtown Chattanooga. One of the things I would advise is to check out parking options in advance. You will likely need to park on the downtown side of the bridges and walk over. I picked a lot on Market Street that seemed to be in a well lit and well traveled area. From there, I walked about a block and a half up a hill and around a corner to the Walnut Street Pedestrian Bridge. The Festival site advises that access via this bridge is recommended and if just for the view alone I would totally agree. This walk is gorgeous and a super cool aspect of the Moon River experience. In fact, a number of the artists made it a point to shout out the people on the bridge. While I would never recommend forgoing the true festival experience, the bridge is open to the public and offers a view of the festival that a number of people took advantage of especially at night.
Moon River is what I like to call a boutique festival. It is more intimate than some of the festivals I have attended this year, and not in a bad way. The check-in process was easy and entering the gorgeous entrance that featured running water features was smooth. Yes this is probably the third time I have said gorgeous, but the aesthetics of this festival were on point and for me a big selling point. Speaking of selling – the festival was completely sold out! I ended up picking up a VIP ticket off their official resale platform (before later finding out that our media passes got us in most of the areas anyway). I really struggled over whether to spring for the VIP pass, but given the heat I think it would be worth it.
The festival grounds are riverside and the bridges run through it. There are super adorable areas under the bridges with little porch swings and hammocks and tons of shade. Experienced Moon River fans had arrived early and set up blankets and hammocks in the shade. It could best be described as tailgating inside the festival and supports my theory that southerners are way more festival ready than the rest of us. Some other cool features of the park were an indoor carousel and a fountain area. Both remained operational during the festival, providing some fun kid spaces and by the end of the hot day you could find some brave adults jumping in to play as well.
Moon River has two stages and no overlap. That means you can see all the shows without any dreaded conflicts to decide between. So . . . that’s what I did on day one. Hopping back and forth for every act from Lady Wray to the beginning of Jason Isbell. One important thing to keep in mind about my perspective is that I was in the photo pits most of the day, very exposed to the sun. That said, I took as many opportunities as I could to duck into the well equipped VIP area to grab free ice cream, use the air conditioned bathrooms, or just sit in the AC.
In the early afternoon, I had the opportunity to sit down with Devon Gilfillian for a quick chat. I first got familiar with his music when we were prepping our coverage for Railbird festival and got to see his performance there a few weeks ago. He quickly became one of my personal favorite artists of the summer. I never say favorite new artist, because he isn’t new – just new to me. He’s another one of the genre bending acts we have been exposed to, especially in the South this year. He brings elements of blues, gospel, soul and rock to the stage with a big big voice. Although he is currently based out of Nashville, Devon is from the Philly suburbs and we had a fun exchange – culminating in us both just yelling DelCo.
We always like to ask artists about their festival backgrounds and Devon was really interesting to talk to about this. He said that his first festival was Electric Forest in Michigan. He explained that he wasn’t really an EDM guy, but was encouraged to go by friends. The weekend really opened him up to the festival experience, he explained what it was like to be in that vibe and just see thousands of people absolutely “losing their minds” in a good way. After that, he went to other festivals naming a few including Hangout.
I also asked him from the artist perspective what the major difference was between playing a festival vs. a stand alone show. He explained that he is at a point where he is still working and that he loves the opportunity festivals provide to expose new fans to his music. He added that with festivals you have this set time to really make an impression, and so that means moving away from his slower, deeper ballad work that he can dig into at club shows.
My favorite part of our conversation was just how nice and easy to talk to he was. He gave me a big hug despite being sweaty as anything from a day of photography and we had a good laugh about the brashness of Philly people vs. what we were experiencing in the south. Don’t worry DelCo and Philly we both love you, but ya’ll did boo Santa Claus so you know how you can get sometimes. Also, I may or may not owe Devon $10 bucks because I was certain that YOLA played the same day he did at Railbird and he was adamant that he would have been there to see it if she had. He was right, of course. In any event, I enjoyed the opportunity to chat with him. It is always amazing when artists you really like musically turn out to be awesome people. I left excited to photograph and see his set later that day. You should check him out on Spotify, I strongly recommend my favorite song “Get Out and Get It.”
Every act I saw on the first day was great, honestly. A few favorites were Devon Gilfillian, Sister Sparrow, Drew and Ellie, and Moon Taxi. Oh and St. Paul of course.
I didn’t eat much besides delicious free ice cream on that first day. But – I did have not one but two delicious Sno Cones. Not to be confused with “water ice” which is what I now call it after living in the Philly/Delaware area for so long. The sugar and water gave me new life and I powered through the rest of the day.
After Jason Isbell got started, I took my tired self up to the bridge to take in the scene from that perspective and then made the walk back to the car. When I travel alone, I am always a little more conscientious about walking at night – but this area truly is downtown and there were a ton of people out and about. I felt very safe and the trip home was smooth and maybe took 15 minutes at most.
With the benefit of a cool shower and some AC, my appetite returned with a vengeance. Fortunately, my hotel was right next door to one of my childhood favorites – Cracker Barrel. I headed over and absolutely gorged myself on a fried chicken dinner complete with fried Okra, Lima Beans and a big old slice of chocolate cake. So many shout outs to the lovely waitress who continually brought me refills of iced tea, and then eventually just gave me two glasses at a time – saying she would keep it up until I floated away. After some fun purchases in the “country store” including a soda I have been looking for since Forecastle – I headed back to the hotel for my new favorite post festival activity: a quick dip in the pool.
I woke up Sunday morning feeling ready for day two. Hotel breakfast was once again good and I headed in to try and make gate opening. For work reasons, I had to leave Tennessee on Sunday night – so I was bound and determined to hit as many acts as I could.
I arrived during a set and decided to grab food before it got busy. I snagged a version of frito pie (fritos, chili, cheese, sour cream and more) from one of the food trucks and headed for shade. One of the fun areas I didn’t take about from day one is a shady area with a giant projector screen and some chairs where the venue was showing sporting events. On Saturday it was college football and on Sunday NFL. I enjoyed time there on both days, finding it a fun addition to the normal festival experience. Both times I visited there were plenty of people there but also plenty of room. Also nearby is a sports bar. I didn’t check it out inside, but it seemed relatively busy as well and had AC.
After enjoying my snack and another sno cone (don’t judge me) I headed over to catch the next set. Some of my favorites from the second day were The Suffers and The Band Camino – who put on an especially fun show.
The VIP amenities at Moon River were pretty legit. VIP pass holders not only got special viewing and lounge areas, they also got a swag bag with a drink ticket, koozie and a ticket to get a handmade souvenir t-shirt made of recycle materials. Inside the VIP lounge, there was seating and a few cool activities. There were handmade, fresh flower crowns, a hairstyling station and massages. I took advantage of two of the three (not the massage). There was also a VIP bar and free ice cream. I spent a fair amount of time beating the heat by hanging in the lounge and felt like the benefits were likely worth the price.
In the late evening it was time to head out and drive back to Nashville. It was a smooth trip and I stopped for fast food that I consumed like a ravenous beast. I know I normally write a lot more about food at festivals – there were certainly plenty of really tasty options at Moon River. There was a big variety of offerings, including some super healthy beet burgers. Definitely something for everyone. The location of the festival also allows festival goers to stop for food coming or going. I noticed a set of local breweries actually set up tents and fun dance music on the street walking in. So as I said, definitely plenty of good options. I don’t know if it was because I was “working” more at this festival or felt like it was kind of a quick turnaround, but I didn’t get the opportunity to try as many of the foods as I normally would. That said, I had great service and enjoyed the experience. As I made my walk over the pedestrian bridge back to town it was a pretty cool way to say good bye to the festival. Normally, I feel pretty depressed when it is time to leave – but the walk out was beautiful and you kept hearing music most of the way back to reality.
Oh! I almost forgot! I tried two new drinks on Sunday. The first was a new brand of spike seltzer I hadn’t tried before – the name escape me, but I will think of it. The second, was a cherry limeade from a stand selling craft cocktails from local distillers. It was delicious! If I haven’t emphasized it yet, there were a number of craft beer and cocktail options inside the festival and lines were reasonable. Lines for water started out long, but the festival organizers quickly adjusted and after the first couple hours there was hardly a wait all weekend.
- Well organized and thoughtfully designed festival
- Beautiful location all around. Seriously! I kept thinking about the cute elements they put together.
- Good food options at relatively good prices for a festival.
- Festival organizers quickly responded to the need for water and completely eliminated the wait.
- Well curated lineup
- Great family friendly environment
- Would strongly recommend making this a lengthier trip, allowing time to enjoy some of the awesome sights (both natural and otherwise) in the area. Chattanooga definitely offers some cool vacation options.
- Bring a blanket and reusable water bottle.
- I recommend parking downtown and taking time to enjoy the gorgeous walk across the pedestrian bridge.
We would love to hear from fellow Moon River fans. Let us know your favorite parts of the weekend or any Chattanooga must sees!