Justin Timberlake Electrifies on First Day of Pilgrimage Festival in Tennessee

John Shearer/Getty Images for M2M Construction
Justin Timberlake performs at the 2017 Pilgrimage Music & Cultural Festival on Sept. 23, 2017 in Franklin, Tenn.

The first thing you’ll notice about the Pilgrimage Festival is how sanitized it is. It’s family friendly, it’s overwhelmingly drug-free (unless concert-goers were being really sneaky about their weed use), and it’s stunningly clean. How often can you say a music festival is clean?

It’s as sanitized as the very city it takes place, the quaint, yet expanding Franklin, Tennessee, and it works to its benefit. Compared to its grittier Tennessee brethren Bonnaroo, Pilgrimage seemed to say, “Okay, how do we do this, but for people who aren’t trying to camp in a field for four drug-fueled days and then stay up until 2 a.m. for a DJ set?”

It’s Music Festival Lite. And you know what? It works to their advantage.

But, for as pristine as the grounds were, that doesn’t mean that the stacked line-up of the first day of the sold-out two-day fest didn’t come to tear it up.

The biggest and best acts of Saturday’s (Sept. 23) festivities were all Southern born and bred, from the twangy, festival-opening Texas Gentleman (from, you guessed it, Texas) to the Saturday-closer, headliner and Pilgrimage co-producer Justin Timberlake (the Tennessee kid made it a very personal affair).

The oppressively hot Tennessee day officially kicked into full festival gear once Trombone Shorty and Orleans Avenue took the main stage mid-afternoon. Makes sense, considering Trombone Shorty can get any party started, and the NOLA charmer found the right balance of classics and crowd-pleasers for those just getting introduced to him, covering everything from Red Hot Chili Peppers to 311.

Gary Clark Jr. was no stranger to the well-placed cover song, either. During his sweltering, earth-shattering set, the musician played his take on “Come Together.” (Clark wasn’t the only artist feeling that very united vibe, as Big Sam’s Funky Nation put their big brass band spin on the classic.)

One of the few missteps of Pilgrimage was putting the wildly popular Avett Brothers, fresh off their incredible documentary May It Last, on the second-biggest stage. It wasn’t that fan favorites like “I and Love and You” or “Kick Drum Heart” or “Head Full of Doubt/Road Full of Promise” lost their luster in a smaller setting (it was downright romantic as the sun set over the Tennessee hills), it’s that that the crowd spilled over well beyond the confines of the stage.

Then again, even the most hardcore Avett fans ducked out early to make their way across the farmland to the main stage for the main event: Justin Timberlake and the Tennessee Kids.

On paper, JT may have seemed like an odd fit for the young festival (2017 marks their third year), which is boasting un-JT names like Ryan Adams and Eddie Vedder. But he was right at home -- fitting, because Timberlake was, technically, home.

The Memphis native, who opened the eclectic, electric set with an unexpected cover of Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come,” shared his love and gratitude for his home state throughout.

Timberlake told the crowd of 25,000-plus that he felt a little bit like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz because, “F--k... there’s no place like home.” Sanitized fest be damned, JT dropped a few f-bombs throughout his set.

Fans likely felt right at home, too, thanks to a setlist that featured tried-and-true hits like “Sexy Back,” “Senorita,” “Rock Your Body,” “Suit and Tie,” “Mirrors,” and last year’s ubiquitous earworm “Can’t Stop the Feeling!”

As much of a megastar as Timberlake is, he’s more than thrilled to share the stage with his band, the stunningly talented Tennessee Kids.

Of course, there was no one Timberlake was more excited to share the Pilgrimage stage with than with this friends and musical collaborators, Chris and Morgane Stapleton. (Timberlake joked that he desperately wants to Paul to their Peter and Mary.)

For anyone who obsessively watches Timberlake and Stapleton’s incredible duet at the 2015 CMA Awards (who doesn’t?), it wasn’t hard to see that the magic was still very much there on the Pilgrimage stage.

The goosebump-inducing, one-two-three punch of “Tennessee Whiskey,” “Sometimes I Cry,” and “Fire Away” was, far and away, the best thing performed on stage throughout the entire first day of the festival.

A gushing Timberlake, who admitted he’s something of a “stalker” when it comes to the Stapletons, made a pact on stage that whenever he’s in Tennessee, he’ll bring Chris out with him, and vice versa.

Timberlake is an international superstar, but it’s pretty obvious that when he’s at home in Tennessee and really allowing his music to have that Southern sound he grew up with, he’s at his loosest, his happiest, and, truly, his very best.