As a member of Better Than Ezra, Kevin Griffin is well aware of both how crowded the festival market is and the long odds of success for new events.
“Like restaurants, most festivals fail, whether a musician is involved with it or a team of professionals. And most festivals don’t make it past year one,” he tells Billboard.
But that isn’t deterring the frontman, who says, “I’ve always wanted to do a music festival,” from throwing his head in the crowded ring with the Pilgrimage Festival, a two-day event he co-founded with friends Brandt Wood and Michael Whelan. The fest will be held Sept. 26 and 27 in Franklin, Tennessee.
Because of the saturated festival market Griffin says laughing, “It is a seller’s market. There are more and more festivals, but there’s the same talent pool, so the price for bands these days has gone up astronomically.” That said he and his partners have put together a strong bill, including Willie Nelson, Weezer, Jimmy Cliff, the Decemberists, Sheryl Crow, Charles Bradley and, Billboard can confirm, Wilco.
Griffin had several criteria in artists he was looking for, including the ability to play acoustic and philanthropic pasts as the show will give back to both the city of Franklin and the Grammy Foundation charity MusiCares. For Griffin, Wilco is a perfect addition to the strong bill.
“I’ve been a fan of Jeff Tweedy’s writing since the Uncle Tupelo days,” Griffin says. “To have Wilco on the bill is a dream come true. Wilco’s music is a seamless fit with what Pilgrimage is all about.”
They certainly fit the requirement of being able to play acoustic, which is important for Griffin, who wants bands to showcase a different side of themselves. “Another part of Pilgrimage that is unique is most bands are going to play acoustic and if they don’t play acoustic they’re gonna have at least a portion of the set,” he says. “But if Rivers Cuomo says, ‘We’re not playing acoustic today,’ that’s fine. What we want to have is for people to see these artists in a unique way.”
One act fans may notice is not on the bill is Griffin either on his own or with Better Than Ezra. That is intentional as he doesn’t fit the musical motif he wanted year one to have. “I’m not playing this festival, Better Than Ezra isn’t playing and I’m not doing a bluegrass side project,” he says. “If you look at the lineup there’s a DNA that’s running through this festival that’s pretty consistent. And right now I don’t really fit in that DNA of what I want this festival to be. So there’s a purity in that.”
Griffin does not see Pilgrimage Festival as being an artist-run festival like the ones that were held in recent years by everyone from Dave Matthews Band and Pearl Jam to Rage Against The Machine. He says humbly, “I’m a small part, I came up with the idea for it, but an idea is just an idea until you surround yourself with the people who can enable you to pull it off.”
The team he, Wood and Whelan has put in place is one significant reason he believes Pilgrimage Festival can defy the odds and be a success. “We have experienced people running our production, marketing, outreach to the city, publicity. We have some great people advising us who are veterans of the festival business and they’ve been attracted just by what we’re trying to do,” he says. “That has definitely built our confidence that these people who could easily be called cynical veterans have said to us, ‘This is special, this setting is unique, what you’re wanting to do here in Nashville is unique. Amazingly, there is a lane for what you’re wanting to do.’”
Much of the inspiration for Pilgrimage came from New Orleans Jazz Fest and the realization there is nothing similar in Nashville, a town known as Music City. “Jazz Fest has huge tents on the main stages that look unlike any other festival. It has a very bucolic, rural look to it and we’re taking that idea,” he says. “All the partners in Pilgrimage grew up in New Orleans going to Jazz Fest and having gone to a lot of festivals around the country and world I realized that model of a multi-genre day festival with a big emphasis on food and drinks and art really wasn’t done the way Jazz Fest does it. It hadn’t been done many places outside New Orleans. So that was really the emphasis behind Pilgrimage.”
Of course Tennessee does already have the very successful Bonnaroo, but Griffin isn’t trying to compete on that level with the first-year Pilgrimage. “Bonnaroo is its own thing and it’s amazing, the camping, it’s a rite of passage for college kids and stuff. But the Jazz Fest model is a little older leaning,” he says. “We’re not trying to compete with Bonnaroo, ACL and Lolla, ours is a much smaller attendance, something that’s curated, more boutique. You can only do that at a smaller level.”
Griffin is optimistic about the future and the plans to expand. Given though that even Coachella had to take a year off following the financial loss of their first year in 1999, Griffin is realistic and cautiously optimistic about where Pilgrimage goes in the future. “If we live to fight another day then we’ll make it a little bigger.”