The t-shirt in question, photo by Sophie Kaiser

Well, that’s really not true—I also got to see one of my favorite bands live! For the first time! For free! 

Disco ball in front of one of the stages, photo by Sophie Kaiser

I owe my love for Cage the Elephant to the ubiquitous experience of Melophobia being the soundtrack of my adolescence. But despite its service as a high school sweet heart serenade, in all my years of angsty teenage listening, I had never gotten around to seeing them live. So, naturally, when I heard they were on the lineup for Pilgrimage Music Festival in Franklin, Tennessee this fall, I was prepared to drop heavy funds to lose my Cage the Elephant virginity. But as luck would have it, my beloved roommate and dear friend told me she was thinking about volunteering at Pilgrimage via an organization called Work Exchange Team, through which you work a couple shifts in return for a free ticket. She had me at “free ticket,” and so with a couple of other friends in tow, we signed ourselves up for a weekend of festival labor! The program allowed us to list each other as contacts so that we would get scheduled for shifts at the same time, and we also were able to indicate which artist we wanted to prioritize seeing so that our work could be timed around their set. As sad as it was to neglect the Black Keys’ headlining performance on Saturday night, we all listed a Sunday evening with Cage the Elephant’s as our act of choice. 

Festivolunteers in the titular t-shirts, photo by Sophie Kaiser

Before we knew it, the weekend had arrived, and our first shift was scheduled for Saturday evening. That afternoon, we trekked up to The Park at Harlinsdale Farm, a plot of rolling hills and trees and a lovely getaway from the Franklin suburbia just down the road. Upon arrival, our crew was gifted with the titular volunteer t-shirts (or voluntee-shirts, if you will,) and sent to work at the festival entry point. With our fancy devices in hand, we scanned peoples tickets and welcomed them into the event. It was the perfect vantage point for taking in all the outfit inspiration from trendy concert goers while also absorbing the sounds of Amos Lee from the stage to our right and Houndmouth from the stage to our left. Were stages really far away from the entry? Yes. And could we hear them very well? Not at all. But was it cool to be in their sonic presence, nonetheless? Absolutely.

Franklin sunset, photo by Sophie Kaiser

As the sun set beautifully behind the Franklin countryside, fewer people were arriving at the festival, and with the increasing need for volunteers elsewhere, our lovely entry crew was thus separated. A couple of us were sent to the kitchen, helping clean the same dining tent where artists had just eaten their dinners. Others of us were sent to hospitality, where they rushed around on a golf cart as they completed various tasks for the performers. One of my friends delivered pizzas to Maren Morris and her crew, and another helped prepare for the Black Keys’ after party. As luck would have it, however, I was dismissed from my task of breaking down boxes early and was free to roam the festival for the waning hours of night one. My aforementioned disappointment in neglecting the Black Keys was ultimately unnecessary, for we headed straight for their stage, weaving our way through the impressively large crowd to listen to almost the entirety of their iconic set. Not only did they jam their way through nearly all of their discography, but they even brought special guests on stage and played some tributes to blues musicians who have inspired their quintessential sound. It was the perfectly fortuitous way to end our first day of festival employment.

The Black Keys, photo by Sophie Kaiser

One great trip to Cookout and one not-so-great night of sleep later, our next shift was scheduled for Sunday morning. We awoke bright and early and headed to The Farm (after a coffee run that I may or may not have insisted on that may or may have been the reason we were late. Apologies, Pilgrimage.) We were simply so good at checking people in the day before that they insisted we return to our post there, so we spent the whole morning at the entry station, basking in both the sunny day and in the glory of wielding the ticket scanner. When the time finally arrived for us to clock out, we ate some fried festival food and headed over to the Golden Record Road Stage. Texas three-piece Khraungbin was just starting up, commanding the stage with a colorful set of soulful, psychedelic covers. It was a transcendently groovy way to check them off of my concert bucket list and dance to the burgeoning anticipation of that night’s headliner.

The coffee run in question, photo by Natalie Elliott
Golden Record Road stage, photo by Sophie Kaiser

As Khruangbin came to a close, fans of Dave Matthews Band (read: unfortunately not me) flocked to the other stage. While the front of the crowd grew sparse, the impending advance of the people at the back had not yet commenced, and so we took this awkward limbo as our chance to beeline through the festival-goers, somehow finding ourselves just behind the barricade. The audience erupted in excitement as we bore witness to lead vocalist Matt Shultz charging the stage in a shimmering, silvery suit covering his entire body and face. The polychromatic detailing transformed Shultz into what I can only liken to the human embodiment of a disco ball, under whose kaleidoscopic presence we rowdily danced to classics such as “Ain’t No Rest For The Wicked,” “Spiderhead,” and my personal favorite, “Shake Me Down.”

Matt Shultz’s dazzling outfit, photo by Sophie Kaiser

As dazzled as I already was in the presence of this performance, I was even more impressed to discover that the costuming was actually the result of a partnership between tech company Beyond Protocol and the Fiber Art’s Build Lab in Vanderbilt’s own Wond’ry Innovation Center. In one article, Alexandra Sargent Capps, the lab’s director, stated that this “development of adaptive clothing . . .will allow biometric data such as Matt Shultz’s brainwaves to be regularly monitored and part of the performance.” Not only is the suit an ode to Cage the Elephant’s eccentricity, but also a wearable commentary on the potential of technology, adaptive fashion, and mental health.  

Matt Shultz holding up a heart to the audience, photo by Sophie Kaiser

Although oblivious to the greater meaning and intentionality behind the elaborate costume, everyone in the crowd was keenly aware of the kind energy that Cage the Elephant cultivated at Pilgrimage that day. While he performed, Shultz metamorphosed his look, adorning himself with various hats, sunglasses, and accessories. At one point, he even donned a sheer scarf which he wore like a translucent purple cape, giving him a sense of regality but also bizarreness, as though he were taking on different personas throughout the set. However, as the performance progressed, he also slowly peeled off the suit, revealing his face and his chest and consequently rehumanizing himself. All the while, he continued to hold up hearts with his hands for songs like “Come a Little Closer,” “Telescope,” and “Cigarette Daydreams.” And as audience members outstretched their hand-hearts back to him, it felt like an unspoken conversation, a mutual acknowledgement, and a manual symbol of solidarity in this crowd.  From the costumes to the crowd, these small but intentional acts of kindness culminated in an experience steeped in compassion and saturated in the shared sentiment that despite our differences, and despite the overall adversity of these past few years, we were all so happy to be enjoying live music together, dancing shoulder-to-sweaty-shoulder. In “Rubber Ball,” Cage the Elephant proclaims, “All I got is nothing but / A little bit of love / Gonna give it to the people / Then they’ll see.” I think I speak on behalf of us all when I say, we saw.

The sun setting on Pilgrimage, photo by Sophie Kaiser