It’s nothing short of remarkable that an inaugural festival can achieve perfection on its very first try. We’ve seen it twice in the past month alone, first with the launch of the Earl Scruggs Music Festival over the Labor Day weekend, and now, more recently, courtesy of CaveFest. The latter, which took place Saturday and Sunday, October 8-9, at the venue known as The Caverns in Pelham, Tennessee, was especially impressive, given the beautiful environs of its natural amphitheater and the illuminated setting of the cave itself and its surrounding landscape. In some ways, it’s like a scene out of a Disney movie, walking through a real wonderland.
Of course, a stellar musical line-up is essential to any festival, and here again, CaveFest succeeded admirably. Saturday’s showcase included sets by Taylor Scott Band, Volunteer String Band, Rumple Mountain Boys, Lindsay Lou Band, Sierra Hull, Jim Lauderdale, Yonder Mountain String Band, and the Sam Bush Band, all playing the stage of the outside amphitheater. Sunday found Pressing Strings, Kendall Street Company, Sicard Hollow, The Lil Smokies, Kitchen Dwellers, Rising Appalachia, Infamous Stringdusters, and Leftover Salmon performing on the main stage. The omnipresent Lindsay Lou, designated as an artist in residence, made frequent appearances with the other performers, and ably filled in when one of the scheduled acts, Larry Keel, was forced to bow out.
Inside the Cave itself, several secondary bands performed for smaller crowds eager to soak up that inner ambiance. Youthful performers and jammers showed off their skills and savvy, proving well worthy of main stage status at some point in the future.
Overall, the festival took on a seminal sixties vibe, courtesy of tie-dye, camping, the scenic setting, and the communal atmosphere overall. License plates on the parked cars revealed attendees from as far away as New York, Pennsylvania, and Iowa, but the harmonious feelings among the attendees found everyone united in common cause. Hippie happenstance was prevalent, and the connection between artists and audience enhanced the sunny circumstance overall.
In many ways, CaveFest illustrated the fact that today’s bluegrass gatherings are based on populist precepts. Infamous Stringdusters and Yonder Mountain incorporate rocky refrains in their material, towing the line between bluegrass and a more progressive posture. Sam Bush is a crowd-pleaser from the get-go, and while his song, Circles Around Me, may have been inspired by his ongoing reign at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, it could also be easily applied to the feelings experienced at CaveFest as well. Leftover Salmon appeals to the latent Deadhead in us all, and their songs about mountain highs and the cool contentment of being part of a cool band with a faithful following reinforced the notion that the band’s perennial popularity endures. For his part, Jim Lauderdale was, as always, the ultimate crowd pleaser, his understated sense of contributing to his perfectly pointed stage patter. On the other hand, Rising Appalachia spreads good vibes by sharing an uplifting attitude and an impressive acumen, the latter courtesy of their combined multi-instrumental abilities.
Nevertheless, it was the up and coming acts that provided some of the biggest surprises. The two Montana-based bands, Lil’ Smokies and Kitchen Dwellers, combined melodic prowess and a determined dexterity that made for a quick connection. So too, Sicard Hollow offered an array of good songs, all of which resonated well.
All in all, CaveFest is off to a superb start, and at this point, it seems very little tweaking will be necessary next year. By any definition, it’s the most desirable destination one can imagine for any fantastic weekend flush with festival fun.