Sometimes a moment can be so surreal that despite it happening right in front of you, it’s still impossible to believe. Much like David Copperfield making the Statue of Liberty disappear, seeing a full-fledged music festival take place seemed unfathomable and maybe even unreal—yet, that was exactly what happened this past weekend at Mountain Music Festival at ACE Adventure Resort in Minden, WV. Together with headliners Pigeons Playing Ping Pong, The Wood Brothers, Lettuce, Big Something, and many more, thousands of fans reveled in the return of live music.
Thursday, June 3rd
Sitting at a campsite in the afternoon sun on Thursday—day one—talking to strangers, setting up a temporary home, it all felt so foreign after over a year of distancing from every living thing. But with bumper-to-bumper car camping for the sold-out event, neighbors were invited to get friendly with their coinhabitants. The old normal was once again becoming the new normal.
With a truncated Thursday night lineup featuring only three bands performing at the intimate Lake Stage, Fletcher’s Grove, Empire Strikes Brass, and The Werks were given the opportunity to shine. Beginning with West Virginia locals Fletcher’s Grove, the weekend was officially underway as the roaring sound of foot-stomping rock-grass reverberated through the mountain resort, cascading down to the sleepy mining town below.
As the sun set, things started to get a little funky with Asheville’s own Empire Strikes Brass, who took advantage of the intimate setting to ignite a full-on boogie-down. During the ensemble’s set, the wood floor of the Lake Stage bounced along to the rhythm of hundreds of rowdy crowd members. In addition to a run of original material, ESB offered well-received covers of Chicago‘s “25 or 6 to 4”, a hard-hitting “Godzilla” by Blue Oyster Cult, and a cathartic “O-o-h Child”, which prompted many to confirm that “yes, things are going to get easier.” The band’s set closed with a roaring cover of Anderson .Paak‘s “Come Down”, turning the Lake Stage into a blistering inferno before handing off the platform to The Werks.
Thursday’s concert marked a historic occasion for the Dayton-bred quartet as they welcomed back original bassist Chuckie Love, who had not performed with The Werks since 2011. The Subterranean bassist was met with an adoring response by the legions of card-carrying Werkers Union members who flooded the stage that evening. In return, The Werks delivered spirited takes on old-school favorites from the band’s 15-plus year career, including the show-opening “Duck Farm”.
The flames continued to fan with “Burning Groove” followed by the throwback of “Headin’ South”. Each of The Werks’ bassists over the past few years has had his own personality and style. As for Chuckie, his presence straddles the line between Dino Dimitrouleas‘ understated playing and the overt slapping of Jake Goldberg. He’s there when you need him, and serves as a team player for the vintage, groove-oriented jams that the band is once again pursuing.
Love’s presence was unquestionable as he took lead vocals on a cover of The Smashing Pumpkins‘ “Cherub Rock”, as The Werks raged into the wee hours of the morning with “Galactic Passport”, a rare “Plain White Toast”, and a “Fall” that saw Chris Houser, Dan Shaw, Rob Chafin, and Love wring every note out of the song. The Werks’ set, along with Thursday’s programming, ultimately came to a close with the track Werks fans had been clamoring for since Chuckie’s return was announced: “Liqwid”.
Friday, June 4th
Beyond the monumental return of concerts, Mountain Music Festival also saw the re-emergence of the activities that come in tandem with live music. The simple act of sitting in the afternoon sun, enjoying an adult beverage with fellow travelers next door, swapping stories of previous times spent on the road made its triumphant return to our lives this past weekend. It was easy to simplify the pandemic’s decimation of the concert industry down to just the loss of live music, but with concerts finally back, so too returns an entire lifestyle surrounding the search for the sound.
As the West Virginia sun beat down on the mountaintop, many took refuge under the Strange Stage tent for Vintage Pistol on Friday afternoon. The Arkansas-bred quintet—reared in the fellow mountain range of the Ozarks—took up the mantle of kicking off the day’s festivities with pride. Though some were still brushing the sleep out of their eyes and flushing the stale alcohol from their veins, Vintage Pistol played like it was a headlining set. The booming sound of lead guitarist Walt Blythe‘s Gibson Les Paul through a Marshall stack was enough to wake even the deadest of party-goers. The show was on once again.
After months of tightly-regimented concerts, the temptation can be easy for one’s ears to grow larger than their stomachs. The reality is, however, that one simply can’t hit every set all day long and make it into the night. In the case of Mountain Music Festival, the marathon of programming and oppressive heat necessitated some pragmatic choices. While many chose to sweat it out during Moon Hooch‘s primetime performance down at the Main Stage, the sunset TAUK set was the true beginning of the evening for most.
Friday’s Mountain Music Festival appearance marked the first post-pandemic concert for the instrumental ensemble, yet the band’s ability to work an entire crowd without uttering a single word remained unfettered. With centerpiece Isaac Teel holding court on drums, TAUK offered a refresher for those who had missed them the past year with fan-favorites like the show-opening “Sweet Revenge” and “Time’s Up”.
It wasn’t just a greatest hits offering, however, as the band debuted some new material including “Aquatic Curtain”, a downtempo track teeming with backroom elegance and understated intimacy. The romance was so pervasive that, following the song’s debut, guitarist Matt Jalbert called attention to an audience member who proposed to his girlfriend (she said yes). Another original debut came with “Eldridge Awakes” before the penultimate “CMF 9000” featuring a tribute to the late DMX with Teel singing the “Ruff Ryders Anthem” hook and, finally, “In The Basement Of The Alamo” to close the set.
Once nightfall had fully descended upon the Minden, WV mountain, it came time for Pigeons Playing Ping Pong to swarm in. Fittingly, the show opened with “Too Long”, as the jam staples beckoned the crowd to “sit back, let yourself relax.” The segue train then moved through “Upfunk” as the high-octane energy emanating from frontman Greg Ormont flowed through the air and into the fingertips of lead guitarist Jeremy Schon.
With a 90-minute set time, Pigeons made haste in working through the setlist staple “Melting Lights”, containing a pointed if truncated jam, before heading into “Burning Up My Time”. The highlight of the performance—and quite possibly the evening—came next, however, as the chime of a grandfather clock boomed through the PA. On stage right, TAUK keyboardist Alric “AC” Carter had discreetly set up shop just as drummer Alex “Gator” Petropulos set off the familiar drumbeat of “Time” by Pink Floyd.
With a year in quarantine behind us, the eternal lyrics of “Time” ringed ever truer as it felt like the last year-and-change was robbed from us. In that moment, with the classic rock anthem booming across the sold-out crowd, the feeling was palpable that we were all making up for lost time.
Carter would remain onstage with Pigeons for the following “The Hop” before the ever-growing ensemble was appropriately joined by the Funk You horns for a funked-up take on “F.U.”. This marked the second appearance for the horn section on the day following Funk You’s well-received set earlier in the afternoon. Additional TAUK bandmates Jalbert and Teel would also join Pigeons, with the latter taking center stage to share the mic with Ormont on a super jam rendition of “Hollywood Swinging” by Kool & The Gang, featuring a friendly guitar duel between Schon and Jalbert as the star-studded super jam closed out Pigeons’ set.
With high-energy sets from TAUK and Pigeons in the bag, the stroke of midnight brought with it a spacey cool-down set from eclectic funk masters Lettuce. The refreshingly frigid mountain air paired with the laidback instrumental grooves from the sextet reminded the audience to relax and enjoy themselves. After over a year of waiting for the return of live music, here we were resonating together once again. It was time to lay back and enjoy it.
Like all good parties, however, this one had to come to an end as Lettuce closed down the Main Stage. Those still feeling the need to gyrate made their way to Joslyn & The Sweet Compression for some powerful soul music to feed the spirit, while the rest of us weary travelers retired to our tents, ready to wake up and do it all over again.
Saturday, June 5th
After two straight nights of sleeping in a tent following an extended period of being housebound, a good degree of soreness was inevitable. While in years past it was easy to brush off any notion of attending a workshop in favor of simply lying about the campsite doing nothing, there was only one choice: I had to go do afternoon yoga.
Fortunately, there were dozens of other sore souls in the multi-purpose arts and activities tent. Despite the pounds of sweat that beamed off me and the hay that coated my body due to my lack of a mat, practicing yoga for the first time in years was still the right choice, and would pay dividends later. In a blissful omen, a butterfly appeared during the bound angle pose, more commonly known as the butterfly pose.
As the oppressive afternoon sun beat down, many chose to combat the heat by visiting ACE Adventure Resort’s water park. Located just past the front gate, the massive park was within earshot of the Lake Stage, allowing one to hear Columbus quintet BareFuzz even while rocketing down the waterslide. Despite the allure of the fun and frolic of the waterpark, the siren song of the recently debuted BareFuzz original “Bobby J” was too much to resist for this writer. Though many of us were still dripping wet from the lake water, we were soon naturally air-dried by the rhythm work provided by the backbeat of drummer Derek Petrucci and auxiliary percussionist Jason Weihl in tandem with bassist Adam Tackett.
After getting our fill of the waterpark and following the completion of BareFuzz’s set, it came time to hop the courtesy school bus back to the top of the mountain. This was the final calm before the storm of music on the last night of the festival.
Soon enough, the moment emerged to summon the strength to return to the Main Stage in time to see good ole boy Arlo McKinley. After two nights of hard-hitting jams, the switch to Americana music on Saturday was a gentle transition. Personal allegiances to jam band music notwithstanding, the diverse lineup offered at Mountain Music Festival offered another phenomenon of the long-dormant festival scene: extending beyond one’s zone and exploring new realms of music.
Though the pageantry of bands like Pigeons certainly makes a viewer feel special, as if the band is wooing them in a bid for their attention, there is something endearingly honest about McKinley’s Americana music. There were no gimmicks, no choreography, hardly even any lights used during the dinnertime set. Instead, his music was as straight up as the bottle of bourbon he swilled from onstage.
Following the honky-tonk swagger of McKinley, The Infamous Stringdusters graced the stage to set off the fuse of a different kind of party. Collectively, the crowd switched its dancing modus operandi from the headbanging of the night before to the newfound foot-stomping and hee-hawing.
After an early offering of “He’s Gone” to invite Deadgrass vibrations, The Stringdusters dove into their own catalog as the sun finally began to lower on another blistering day. It was during this time that a theme began to emerge from the Americana portion of the program. The music spoke out to me in particular—not in the sense of a song written just for one listener, but in how the lyrics themselves were exactly what I needed to hear. From the gentle nudge of “Kiss Me, Baby” to the prescient advice of “Just Let It Go”, there was something prescient in the air.
The Wood Brothers continued to push me toward the arms of a newfound companion made within the confines of ACE Adventure Resort. After a year of distancing oneself from any sort of intimacy, Oliver Wood‘s advice of “thinkings the last thing that you ought to do” was the plainly-worded call to the return of romance. After all these years, love songs finally became more than just words. Even with all of our hang-ups, The Wood Brothers drove the point home that “Everybody Is A Little Bit Broken”. After finally taking the band’s advice and jumping in feet first, I too felt like the “Luckiest Man”.
Much like the Mountain Music Festival lineup itself, The Wood Brothers offered something for everyone. That versatility came in no small part from Jano Rix, who was in constant motion onstage as he moved from the drum kit to the keyboard to his unique percussive guitar. Even beyond his music, Oliver Wood acted as a friend to the audience, offering casual banter chit-chat like he was old friends with thousands of strangers.
Though the day was filled with the lyrical graces of Americana music, the time finally came once again for bombastic jams to return. For the final act to don the Main Stage, North Carolina’s own Big Something emerged to the Earth-shattering “Bombtrack” by Rage Against The Machine blasting over the PA in a sign of things to come.
Having just wrapped the band’s joint drive-in tour with Too Many Zooz, Big Something was primed and ready to go. The only difference with Mountain Music Festival was that now the crowd was joined together in a singular amoebic blob, headbanging alongside each other as Big Something opened up with the title track to its latest album, 2020’s Escape.
A fakeout came early on as Josh Kagel distinctive keyboard intro to “A Song For Us” instead lead into the first verse of Bob Marley‘s “Trenchtown Rock” before Nick MacDaniels ultimately lead the band back to the Tumbleweed track. Though technically the sun was not shining like MacDaniels sang, the entire crowd was nonetheless able to bask in the glow that is the positively upbeat song.
Big Something – Mountain Music Festival – Minden, WV – 6/5/21 – Full-Show
[Video: Big Something]
Big Something – “Bob And Weave” – Minden, WV – 6/5/21
[Video: Big Something]
Following a nod to the previous night’s headliner with a cover of Lettuce’s “Reunion”, Big Something took the opportunity to debut the new track “Bob And Weave” before things got heavy with the appropriately titled Escape track, “Heavy“. From there it was Earth-shattering big riffs with an extended run through King Gizzard & The Wizard Lizard‘s “Head On / Pill”.
With more booming runs through “Megaladon”, “Love Generator”, and “The Breakers“, Big Something provided a last-minute scream therapy session for everyone to dance out all the frustration of the past year. By the time the band got to the closing “Tumbleweed”, however, we had all finally come to the realization that there was no longer a reason to be angry. We were back. Live music was back.
Upon returning for the encore, a solo MacDaniels took on John Prine‘s “Illegal Smile” in a singalong that bittersweetly reminded us all of those who were not able to make it through the pandemic. After leveling the entire audience emotionally, it was time for one last rocker as the rest of the band returned to the stage for Talking Heads‘ “Crosseyed & Painless”. Though it’s not uncommon for a jam band to cover the Remain In Light track, it’s less common to do what Big Something did and actually play the song at its proper tempo and include every verse.
While Big Something’s set was done, the show wasn’t yet over. Right as the band had finished taking a group photo, a barrage of fireworks lit up the night sky. Practically everyone in the crowd stayed just where they were, craning their necks skyward for the last blast of the weekend. The only thing running through my mind was the Jerry Jeff Walker line, “It must have been one hell of a starry night / The moon was so bright / Guess it must’ve knocked out all of your lights / I guess that’s the night that you fell for my silvery line.”
Not to overlook late-night sets from Black Garlic and The Kind Thieves, the action for the weekend was over for many. At most every festival, there is that temptation to stay up as late as possible, enjoying every last moment of freedom as we rage against the dying of the night. For those of us with several hundred-mile drives the next morning, who may have also been tasked with recapping the entire event, the time comes to say goodnight.
For all of us, no matter how late we keep it going at the campsite, the moment eventually comes to tear down camp in the morning. It’s a lot like summer camp—the ones kids go to, not the one moe. goes to—where you never want to say goodbye. Instead, it’s a “see you later.”
“See you later,” to the new neighbors next door.
“See you later,” to your weekend romance.
And “see you soon” to live music. See you real soon.