CaveJam | May 25, 2024 | The Caverns | Pelham, TN – Concert Review & Photos

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Review by Shawn Perry
Photos by Erin Perry

The inaugural CaveJam took place over Memorial Day Weekend at The Caverns in Grundy County, Tennessee. Billed as a three-day camping festival with performances from a wide array of artists and bands on two stages — the outdoor amphitheater and The Caverns’ renowned subterranean concert venue — the event managed to move forward, despite severe weather alerts.

CaveJam was well aligned with the jam band ethos of anything goes (within reason) for as long or lazily as it takes. Set against the pastoral Cumberland Plateau, far and away from the rumblings of the chaotic real world, the festival provided all the essentials — local food trucks, worldly vendors with earthy wares, ample parking, swag, glamping options and other extras for VIPs, and, most importantly, an incredible tranquil vibe for three days of music. Visitors could even take a guided tour of the caverns beyond the underground stage.

Friday, a hodgepodge of isolated thunderstorms in the area, opened CaveJam with four amphitheater performances from Susto, Mo Lowda & The Humble, Devon Gilfillian, and DJ LP Giobbi Presents Dead House, who spins what is described as “house music, with a few full Grateful Dead Reimagines.” To be sure, there were more than a few Grateful Dead reimagines and inspirations floating in the air at CaveJam. You just had to know where to look.

The String Cheese Incident (SCI), out of Colorado, were billed as the headliner, playing two of the three days (Saturday and Sunday), with three sets outside and a fourth and final set Sunday at midnight in the cave. As much as I would have wanted to see SCI for that set, I opted to check out CaveJam on Saturday, which included two sets from SCI, and a full spread of seven other acts — Barefuzz, Pimps of Joytime, Ladycouch, Dopapod, Bertha: Grateful Drag, Pink Talking Fish, and Spafford.

It was a clear and warm day at the amphitheater, so we hightailed it to the cave to cool off and catch the last half of Ladycouch’s set. A 12-piece Nashville-based rock and soul revue, Ladycouch were stirring up molecules left and right within the cave’s barometric response. With a four-horn section (two saxophones, one trumpet, one trombone), two keyboardists, two guitarists, two singers, plus the requisite bassist and drummer, how could they lose?

Once they fell into the massive Huey Lewis and The News hit, “The Power Of Love,” it was as if all time stopped and visions of Marty McFly and Doc Brown started buzzing around on the cave’s innate ceiling. No, it’s not the IPAs talking. There was a definitive funkiness fueling the floor with revery. Indeed, CaveJam was more than just jam bands. It offered a flotilla of flavors to sweeten the palette.

Which made the group that followed Ladycouch all the more intriguing. When you consider all the tributes to and reimagines of the Grateful Dead, it was only a matter of time before someone came up with a whole new angle to stand out from the crowd. It’s also a good thing the feds overturned the Tennessee law restricting public drag performances because Bertha would be targeted for prosecution. Instead, the “Grateful Drag” six-piece unit ran through a set of tunes that brought the cave to a boil.

There’s nothing like watching a bass player with a five o’clock shadow dressed in an evening gown and sporting a red wig set up their rig. After a little tuning and powders to the cheeks among the players, it only got better. Test teasers of “Mr. Charlie” and “Eyes Of The World” established the baseline and acoustics. Opening with “Bertha,” the group immediately won the audience over. Their choice selection of classic Dead songs certainly caught my ear.

Having two women — Melody Walker and Caitlin Doyle — gave the group the “Donna” edge they needed to zero in on a prime 70s Dead sound and nail songs like “They Love Each Other” and “Scarlet Begonias.” The jams were equally enticing on “Cassidy” and “Casey Jones.” And how apropos for them to let loose with a groovin’ “Cumberland Blues.”

The guitar work of bespectacled Thomas Bryan Eaton — donning purple tights, a glistening, sparkling dress with flared sleeves, and a purple beehive with a red ribbon — would have made Jerry Garcia think (and look) twice. A dive into “It’s All Over Now” also gave Eaton a chance to deliver a heartfelt lead vocal. It all ended, appropriately enough, with “Almost Saturday Night,” a number built for a crowded cave.

We took a short break at the entrance of Big Mouth Cave, where we luxuriated in the late daytime heat and natural cool breeze flowing from the cave. Members of Bertha, still in character, did the same. The pull was strong enough to lure us back inside for one more performance from a band called Spafford.

I quickly picked up on the Phishiness of this preppy looking quartet out of Arizona, and realized right then and there they possessed a tight, eco-centric approach that embraced any number of styles, from rock to reggae to electro-pop. I watched closely as guitarist Brian Moss, bassist Jordan Fairless, keyboardist Cory Schechtman, and drummer Nick Tkachyk engaged in playful cooperation from the get-go as they fell right in “Ain’t That Wrong” from their popular 2018 album, For Amusement Only.

A cover of Tears for Fear’s “Mad World” was a bit jarring at first, but the “Spaffnerds,” as they are known, ate up every beat. That techno sensibility carried over to “Radio.” Then the group shifted gears into “Plans,” which showcased their chemistry and musicianship. It all came to a sudden end with a delightful “Lonely.” The next thing I knew I was at the merch counter buying a Spafford CD. Definitely a band I’ll be keeping my eye on.

It was at this point that we ventured out to the amphitheater to find our place for The String Cheese Incident. The first level in front of the stage filled up fast, so we opted for the next slop up. The sun was setting, temps dropping, and it felt like the right place to be. It only took a little pre-show sampling of Starland Vocal Band’s “Afternoon Delight” to get the place pumped up.

I hadn’t seen SCI in years and was anxious to see if or how they’d changed. To my pleasant surprise, they’ve developed into a world-class band. Guitarist Michael Kang, vocalist and guitarist Bill Nershi, and keyboardist Kyle Hollingsworth, were all where I saw them the last time, and they couldn’t have come across as more seasoned and up to the task.

I recall seeing Kang playing a lot of electric mandolin in a club run I attended in the late 90s. Tonight, he stuck to electric guitar and violin, playing both like an extension of his body. His style, especially his leads, carry a rarefied Jerry Garcia nuance, though he’s also well versed in jazz, bluegrass, and even bits of Hawaiian folk, if you really focus on his phrasing and overall tone.

Nershi, who sings and writes a good chunk of the material, and Hollingsworth were equally impressive. With drummer Michael Travison, percussionist Jason Hann, and bassist Keith Moseley in their pocket, it was as if they could play anything. And that they did with complete abandon.

“What a beautiful place to play,” Nershi remarked before the ensemble started up with “Search” from 2001’s Outside Inside album. That’s all it really took to get the hillside moving. More recent fare like “Ain’t I Been Good To You” and “Manga,” both with accents-a-plenty from Hann coupled with those spin-tingling clavinet strokes from Hollingsworth, had everyone on their feet spinning, twirling, prancing, wiggling, shaking, stomping where there was room, and doing their darndest to release all their inhibitions into the nearby woods.

A convergence of tempos and styles, ranging from reggae to incidental to whatever strikes the mood, underscore SCI’s innate sense of intuitiveness and adventure (clearly tied to their Colorado roots) they bring to the stage. Combined with an eye-popping lightshow, the show becomes an effervescent blend of color and sound, especially poignant in areas like the Cumberland wilderness.

The first set ended with a wicked stab at Tom Petty’s “Wreck Me,” followed by a return to the old days with “Restless Wind” from 1998’s ‘Round The Wheel album. That certainly brought everyone back down to earth. We relocated to another section of the amphitheater just as the darkness settled in. Twenty minutes later, SCI was back and ready to take the audience on a sonic rollercoaster ride.

They cobbled together a rapturous suite around “On The Road,” another one from ‘Round The Wheel, plus a new one called “I Will Follow,” followed closely by a bright and bouncy “Betray The Dark.” The country-flavored “Cottonmouth,” with Moseley handling the vocal, went down like a glass of sweet tea.

Just when thought the spirited “It Is What It Is” was the climactic moment, SCI took it one step further when they encored with the Dead’s “I Know You Rider” and a dab of Bob Marley’s “Stir It Up” thrown into the mid-section to make sure everyone was paying attention. No worries, as everyone was transfixed, firmly in the grip of the music ricocheting off the boulders that lined the back of the amphitheater.

I was compelled to come back Sunday to check out Easy Honey, Love Rat, Karina Rykman, Space Bacon, Keller Williams, The Vegabonds, Dumpstaphunk, Neighbor, and two more sets of SCI, but weather and circumstances stood in the way. By all reports, it exceeded all expectations, especially when Keller Williams jammed with SCI.

Out of curiosity, I watched some video of SCI’s final set in the cave. They couldn’t have been more suitable to the environment. Which isn’t to say they’re cave dwellers. It’s really more about the venue itself and a sense of well-being it encompasses. I can’t stress enough that if you ever get anywhere near The Caverns in Pelham, and there’s a show happening, seize the moment and go. No matter what’s going on outside, it’s like a safe haven for the mind, body, and soul.