The Pilgrimage Music and Cultural Festival has a unique air about it. Despite pulling in huge names— we’re talking Willie Nelson, Weezer, Steven Tyler, and Cage The Elephant (and that was just in the first year, no less!)—it’s situated in the farmlands of Franklin, Tennessee, and subsequently is imbued with the unassuming fanfare that its pastoral setting suggests.
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The man who thought up the whole operation, Kevin Griffin from Better Than Ezra, is similarly unassuming. He, along with the rest of the band, ooze the confidence that one would imagine would come with being in a band for 34 years, but with a notable lack of any of the pretense.
Despite the BTE men (Griffin, Tom Drummond, Michael Jerome, and James Arthur Payne Jr.) hailing from The Big Easy, a move to Franklin sparked the idea for this summer-camp-esque festival which was originally intended to mirror the vibes found at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.
“We were fortunate enough to grow up going to that festival, which started off as a showcase of the best of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast –this deep dive into southern Louisiana culture,” Griffin tells American Songwriter backstage at Pilgrimage.
He continues, “When I moved to Franklin, I wanted to recreate that. We wanted to build this festival to reflect what current people’s music tastes are. More like their Spotify playlists. I don’t even know all of the artists that are on the board every day. So you come out here and find something that you’ve never heard before.”
Aptly, Better Than Ezra has long been a staple at the fest. They played the Gold Record Road stage this year, their fifth or so, to a crowd that was as excited to see the quartet as if it was their first.
“I think this year’s set was the best BTE set that we’ve played at Pilgrimage,” Drummond, co-founder, and bassist for the group adds. “We’ve played maybe five times but there was something about this year—we had a really great time.”
“We’re always happy when we aren’t lazy and take the time to do a fresh set,” Griffin interjects. “Setlists are more of a set suggestion for us. We go off script all of the time. We want to do something special each time.”
If I had to describe BTE’s set in just a few words it would be: transporting, energetic and mercurial. I was transported back to the mid-’90s with some of their earliest offerings. I was driven to keep moving by Griffin’s lively performance and was kept on my toes as the band seemed to play what they wanted when they wanted.
In addition to playing the classic BTE tracks, the group brought out some covers (namely Oasis’ “Wonderwall” and “Laid” by James), gave away an exclusive Pilgrimage guitar, and even debuted a new song, “Mystified,” which is the beginnings of a new project for the group, which Griffin teases is somewhere in the balance of Bruce Springsteen and Bleachers.
“There’s always that moment when you debut a new song and you’re just hoping you get the reaction that you want and I think we did this time,” Drummond says.
The band was formed in 1988 in Baton Rouge by a very green Griffin and Drummond. “We got Tom through an ad in the school paper at LSU,” says Griffin. “He came in and was just a pup. 16 or 17 years old. He had a fake ID to get into the bars that we play. I remember his mom told us one time, “Please take care of my son.”
The duo explained that those early days were anything but a cinch for BTE. Their debut album, Deluxe, was recorded in a former meatpacking facility on analog tape. “It’s all we could afford,” Griffin says. But, clearly, they’ve found a way to weather any storm given they’ve outlasted many of their alt-rock peers – even if that means hitting long lulls and having to reinvent themselves time and time again.
“Nothing has fallen into our laps,” Griffin says. “We were together for seven years before we got signed, just grinding it out in an 82 Dodge Ram. When you’re in a band in your early 20s you’re like a musical pirate. You’re just on the high seas, sleeping on people’s floors, eating crappy food, and driving all night. You do everything wrong but you’re so wide-eyed and enthusiastic, it’s the best time in your life.”
He continues, “It has been this amazing journey. I tell people all the time, ‘just don’t quit.’ You’ll have your moment when you’re a hot thing, you’ll have times when won’t be such a hot thing and then you all of the sudden get this sync on a TV show or Tik Tok and it reinvents the band.”
“We’ve always been about putting together the best collection of songs while still growing. We don’t want to keep putting out the same record over and over,” Drummond adds.
In many ways, “Mystified,” is a reinvention of Better Than Ezra. Using their children as tastemakers, the band is currently in the studio riding with that new sound, creating music that will eventually become their next full-length record.
“It’s shaping up to be a really good album,” Griffin shares. “It’s been too long between releases
and it doesn’t sound like anything we’ve ever done either, so we’re excited.”
In addition to their set at Pilgrimage, BTE is slated to embark on a fall tour starting on October 20 dubbed the Legends of the Fall Tour. “We’re all really big Brad Pitt fans,” Griffin jokes about the name. Along the tour, the band will make stops in Chicago, Dallas, New York, and Boston among other cities. Find the full dates below.
It takes a certain kind of band to keep playing together for more than three decades and it definitely takes a certain kind of person to continue to enjoy it as much as Griffin and Drummond seem to while they are onstage.
BTE gives an infectious performance. You can’t help but want to join in on the fun. When you watch them onstage, it’s no wonder they’ve managed to survive after all this time.
BETTER THAN EZRA LEGENDS OF THE FALL 2022 TOUR
20 | Chicago, IL – House of Blues
21 | Indianapolis, IN – The Vogue
22 | St. Louis, MO – The Pageant
25 | Boston, MA – The Wilbur
26 | New York, NY – Gramercy Theatre
27 | Morristown, NJ – Mayo Performing Arts Center
28 | Washington, DC – Lincoln Theatre
30 | Wilmington, DE – The Queen
1 | Richmond, VA – The National
2 | Atlanta, GA – Buckhead Theatre
4 | Baton Rouge, LA – L’Auberge Casino Hotel
5 | Dallas, TX – House of Blues
6 | Houston, TX – House of Blues
*Check local venue websites for presale details
Photos credited to American Songwriter/Harrison Haake