Staff photo by Erin O. Smith / Kelsey Bailey, a stage hand with IATSE Local 927; Jesse Cohen, a stage hand with IATSE Local 140; and Philip Amos, a stage hand with IATSE Local 140, take down decorations during cleanup following the Moon River Music Festival in Coolidge Park Monday, September 10, 2018 in Chattanooga, Tennessee. The pieces were part of a photo booth set up for festival attendees.

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Moon River recap

You'll have to forgive Drew Holcomb for the birthing analogies when it comes to discussing the inaugural Moon River Festival held this weekend in Coolidge Park. He gave birth, if you will, to the event in 2014 when he co-founded it in Memphis as a way to bring people to a Tennessee city he loves.

But as he stood backstage Saturday night with his wife, Ellie, listening to The Head and The Heart, he couldn't help but think of the scheduled birth of their third child, a son they would name Samuel Rivers Holcomb.

And as he waited Monday in their Nashville home for their trip to the hospital, he described his favorite moment of the weekend.

"I was back there listening to The Head and the Heart with my wife, who was 39 weeks pregnant. It was the last song before she had to go back home to Nashville and they are playing 'Rivers and Roads,' and it has a line: 'Rivers and roads, rivers and roads, rivers 'til I reach you.'

"We just looked at each other and laughed and cried. That was my special moment."

The festival, the first-ever gated and ticketed event held in Coolidge Park, was a big success by nearly all accounts. Moon River sold out in eight hours back in March and Ashley Capps, the AC in AC Entertainment, said that provided a lot of momentum for his team.

"Selling out any festival is not easy, especially the first day you go on sale," he said. "Granted, it is a smaller scale, but we like that 10,000 [attendees] number because it lets you focus on doing a lot of other things really well."

Attendees and social media commenters noted how easy the layout of the site was to navigate, the beauty of the location and even the lack of expected traffic congestion on both sides of the river. Some did comment online about the lack of local food vendors and local musicians on the bill.

Gating surrounded the park from the Chattanooga Theatre Centre to almost the Market Street Bridge. A temporary entrance gate made of thick wooden columns and complete with waterfalls on either side was built near the circle by the theatre center.

Jonathan Susman, activation and engagement specialist with the city, said getting water to the gate was just one of the challenges that the city was asked to handle, and it marked an example of the cooperation between AC and the city.

"I think everybody feels extremely happy that AC chose Chattanooga and we could not be more impressed with how they animated that space. The layout was great, and we might take some of their ideas [such as lighting the trees]. The park has been used for events before, of course, but not like that. Public Works did obviously an incredible job, but everybody behind the scenes at Parks and Maintenance and Engineering put in a lot of hours."

Some of those were last-minute jobs, such as figuring out how to get water to the water fountains at the gate and figuring out whether hanging swings from the Walnut Street Bridge would be safe.

"What a great idea, but engineering had to make sure it could be done," Susman said.

For Chattanoogan Landis Batts, words were not needed to sum up how he felt about watching the War & Treaty perform Sunday afternoon. He simply pointed at the husband-and-wife team of Michael and Tonya Trotter and smiled.

"That whole thing was just so great," he would say later.

Organizers said there are always improvements to be made and they will look at those, but overall they were were happy, as well.

"We are ecstatic," said Jeff Cuellar, vice president of strategic operations at AC Entertainment, the Knoxville-based music marketing and production company that partnered with Holcomb and co-founder Paul Steele to present the event. "We are over the moon about it and really excited about next year."

The festival is contracted on a year-to-year basis, and Cuellar said the AC team will meet city officials in the next few days and weeks to discuss ways to improve next year's festival.

"We all made notes throughout the weekend, and everyone has their own ideas. There are always ways to improve, but overall, we are very happy."

The festival was moved to Chattanooga because it outgrew the Levitt venue in Memphis and because Holcomb and Steele realized it had outgrown their abilities to manage it properly. Holcomb said it was like letting a child move on, and it was the right thing to do.

"I am really grateful to Chattanooga for embracing this," Holcomb said.

Even if that did mean letting go and letting others — in this case AC Entertainment — produce it, and letting someone else — The Avett Brothers and The Head and the Heart — take top billing.

"For me, I have two thoughts about that," he said. "One, letting go of the festival and letting it outgrow me and seeing how it went let me know that it was a good idea. Not headlining was a good thing. The idea had outgrown me, so having The Head and the Heart and The Avett Brothers be headliners and me be a cheerleader was really fun.

"It was like sending a kid off to college."

Holcomb is the front man for Drew Holcomb & The Neighbors, and his wife Ellie is a talented singer in her own right. Having her there to sing with him onstage at the VIP party Friday at the Walker Theatre and again at the festival Saturday also were special moments.

"I got some great video and pictures of her singing with all this energy," he said. "It was a mixture of totally anxious and very, very excited for me."

Capps said several sites around the state were scouted for relocating the festival, but Chattanooga was chosen for several reasons. The park itself was a big selling point, but so was the fact that AC also books shows at the Tivoli Theatre, Memorial Auditorium and the Walker Theatre, and works with Songbirds Guitar Museum and The Signal in putting shows there. Those relationships give it a deeper sense of the city, he said.

He said he stayed in a downtown hotel over the weekend and walked everywhere he could, and that the festival is just the latest new thing that makes Chattanooga an interesting place to live and visit.

"My first shows in Chattanooga go back to the '80s," he says.

"Our relationships with the Tivoli and the Auditorium and the Walker help us to better understand the community and to feel like we are a part of the community. It was part of the combination of things that made it the best possible option.

"I walked about three miles all over downtown while I was there and you can feel the energy. This is just one more thing that makes the city inviting."

Contact staff writer Barry Courter at or 423-757-6354.