Mountain Jam IX Review: “There is no such thing as bad weather; only bad clothes.”
– Oliver Burkat
This mindset and strategy is a tidbit of wisdom that was passed on to me at camp during this past weekend’s ninth annual Mountain Jam, and if you execute it well, you’ll be snug as a bug in a rug at one of the craziest and well-executed parties on the East Coast. If you don’t, well… good luck. As any experienced festival attendee will tell you, respecting Mother Nature’s power with preparation and a good attitude is the key to having the time of your life, even when doing so may seem impossible to the layperson. The rain began Thursday afternoon just as my incredible crew and I pulled up to Hunter Mountain and it did not stop raining for two full nights and an entire day, lasting over 36 hours. It rained for so long that I began to feel the percussive impact of raindrops everywhere, even in the lodge and under our tent. When the rain finally stopped in the wee hours of Saturday morning, the sudden lack of audible raindrops at 4am was immediately noticeable, incredibly pleasant, and a cause for major celebration. As a reward, the Mountain Jamily was treated to a weekend of much more agreeable, if not downright fantastic weather. We wouldn’t have had it any other way.
Embracing the rain and making the best of it is the only option, and with such a stacked lineup (and some waterproof boots), that wasn’t hard at all. Brooklyn-based Rubblebucket was the first band of the weekend to grace the main (East) stage with their brand of psychedelic indie rock, upbeat dance music and radiant, left-field arrangements. After a short stage change-over, Primus was primed to rock the mountain for the first headlining set of the weekend. Their brand of bass-led odd-rock had the crowd dancing, smiling and bouncing regardless of the rain. They played extremely tight as a power trio, rocking the crowd hard with songs like “Moron TV” and treated us to one of my personal favorites, “Tommy the Cat”, for the encore.
Immediately after Primus, funk-fusion masters Kung Fu absolutely blew away both fans and the uninitiated, creating a dance party frenzy inside the lodge at the Healey Brothers Hall stage from midnight until 1:30am. If you haven’t seen this stellar, nimble band yet, you are seriously missing out. Rounding out the evening’s late-night festivities, Big Gigantic ruled the main stage from 1-2:30am, creating huge dub and dance-scapes with only 2 members, Dominic Lalli on saxophone/production and Jeremy Salken on drums. Deep bass and soaring sax solos contrasted well in the natural amphitheater on which we danced, offering a perfect end to the first night of Mountain Jam. And it rained on.
The morning greeted us with more rain, but we fought it off at my camp with gourmet strawberry, banana and chocolate chip pancakes complimented by incredible after-market crack-bacon. Again, preparation is key; a Ferrari can’t run on fumes. Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers was the first act we caught on Saturday, whose blend of country rock and blues provided the perfect soundtrack to improve a rainy afternoon. Not to ignore what helped them rise to stardom, the band included two covers from their much-revered “Van Sessions” YouTube cover series: “You’re No Good” by Linda Ronstadt and “Working Man’s Blues” by Country Music Hall of Famer Merle Haggard. Deer Tick followed, a fun alt-indie band that combines blues, folk & country and had the barefoot Jammers stomping with delight. Pulling from their occasional alter-ego Deervana, the band launched into Nirvana’s “Breed”, receiving the most excitement of the set from anyone under 40 in the crowd.
The Avett Brothers followed on the main stage with their catchy folk-pop, but after a spell we had to return to camp in order to prepare for the long night ahead. “Returning for round 2 of Rain Jam” as we liked to call it, Widespread Panic tore a hole in the side of Hunter Mountain with the first 2-set, 4 hour performance of the weekend. The packed crowd didn’t seem to mind the rain or mud, as waterproof armor-clad and drenched fans alike danced to Widespread Panic’s infectious grooves, slamming piano and ripping guitar lines. Cover songs always en vogue, the band interpreted Robert Johnson’s “Me and the Devil Blues”, Junior Kinbrough’s “Junior”, “Low Spark of High Heeled Boys” by Traffic, and “Papa Legba” by Talking Heads. The encore was made up of a pair of covers as well; first, Widespread side-project brute.’s “Expiration Day” and J.J. Cale’s “Travelin’ Light”.
Rounding out the second night were two very unique and different bands: White Denim, an exciting and infectious punk-infused psychedelic blues-rock band out of Austin, TX, followed by Conspirator holding down the late night jamtronica party. Flanked by Aron Magner and Marc Brownstein of The Disco Biscuits, electronic drummer extraordinaire KJ Sawka kept the party absolutely raging til 3am with the help of RAQ guitarist Chris Michetti. By the end of Conspirator’s set, it was time to wring out the torrential rain and try to warm up as temperatures plummeted into the high 40s as the rain finally relented just before sunrise.
The lack of rain really turned the tide during the second half of Mountain Jam, improving everyone’s mood and lifting spirits ten-fold. Amy Helm carried her father’s legacy proudly, serenading the mountain and Jammers alike with her dynamic voice and heartfelt compositions. Helm was backed by The Handsome Strangers, with special guests Marco Benevento on organ, Mike Merenda on banjo and Ruth Ungar on fiddle. The organizers of Mountain Jam couldn’t have planned it any better if they tried, as Michael Franti & Spearhead lifted the packed crowd’s spirits to new heights just as the mostly cloudy day opened up to pockets of much needed sunshine. Besides Franti performing “Hey Hey Hey” from the middle of the crowd, the real highlight of the set was their hit “Say Hey (I Love You)”, during which the band welcomed 20 or so young children to jump and dance along on stage, culminating in the entire band cutting out and having one girl sing acappella to the enormous audience in the most adorable voice ever “I love you” to end the song. It was a truly tender moment.
People kept telling me to go see Gary Clarke Jr., so that’s exactly what I did, and I will now recommend the same to you. He is a supremely talented blues guitarist with a band that knows how to rock with soul. The future of the blues is in a great place if a man under 30 can sound like he does. The soul train rolled on into the Healey Brothers Hall with the Alecia Chakour Band, who I personally could not wait to see, and I’ll be damned if they didn’t put on one of if not the most emotive and soulful performance of the weekend. With her father Mitch behind her on bass, the monster himself Joe Russo of Furthur on drums, Neal Evans of Soulive on keys, Sam Cohen on guitar and Cochemea Gastelum on baritone saxophone, the room was simply oozing with talent and musical mastery. My only written note to myself for this performance was “amazing”.
Mountain Jam founder Warren Haynes’ Gov’t Mule rocked excessively and had the mountain going wild. Haynes and his band embody what the festival is about, which is incredible music and relentless talent. Highlights of the set included Jimi Hendrix Experience “1983… (A Merman I Should Turn To Be)” Led Zeppelin’s epic “No Quarter” back into “1983” as well as a cover of moe.’s “Opium” with guest Bill Evans on saxophone, who performed earlier in the day with his band Soulgrass. Mule was also joined by Evans, Alecia Chakour, Neal Evans of Soulive, Eric Bloom & Ryan Zoidis (The Shady Horns) and Cochemea Gastelum on Etta James’ “I’d Rather Go Blind”, who all also closed the set less Chakour, but with the addition of Hook Herrera on harmonica and Soulive guitarist Eric Krasno on Tom Waits’ “Get Behind The Mule”.
A perfect way to pass the blues torch from set to set, Soulive and The Shady Horns hurried to the adjacent East stage for their late night performance, certainly putting a funky feather in the already musically-drenched but finally dry Saturday cap. Drummer Alan Evans kicked things off by emphatically taking a picture of the crowd from atop his drum throne while maintaining his cool, never removing the lavish scarf around his neck. Bill Evans Joined the band for their interpretation of Melvin Sparks’ “Povo” off of their tribute album “Spark!” with Karl Denson, and treated the crowd to The Beatles’ “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” revitalized by their all-Beatles Rubber Soulive album. At one point during “Povo”, a stranger leans over to me and simply mumbles “straight jazz nerds” in the most complimentary of ways. I could not agree more my friend. But wait! Here comes Warren Haynes to now reciprocate the hosting he held earlier as a guest on the Jimi Hendrix classic “Manic Depression”. After 1.5 hours of Soulive it was time to call an end to day three, as Sunday promised to be a gorgeous day.
The sun finally woke me up by 9:30 or so, but I couldn’t have been happier to be a sweaty mess in my tent; it was beautiful outside! With spirits at an all-weekend high, there was no last-day blues, only pure elation brought on by the weather and the great music still to come. After more obligatory pancakes, we headed to the hill to enjoy The London Souls, whose power trio was cut by a third, as apparently their bassist Stu Mahan fainted from dehydration and was unable to perform. Amazingly, but not surprising, they sounded fantastic even as a White Stripes-ish but better two-piece band, welcoming Soulive’s Eric Krasno on stage for a rousing rendition of Neil Young’s “Ohio”. Lead guitarist Tash Neal, who suffered a severe brain injury last year in a car accident, dubbed their bluesy band “The London Soulive” for the duration of Krasno’s stay on stage.
Dispatch commanded the main stage in the height of the afternoon sun, warming the crowd with their roots reggae and funk-packed rock music. Paying tribute to their elders and a crowd favorite, Dispatch covered The Grateful Dead’s “Friend of the Devil” much to the delight of Sunday’s quickly crisping crowd. Jackie Greene played an invigorating set, enchanting the crowd with his angelic voice. After a quick jaunt back to camp to break down and load the car, we were back for the final and most coveted performance of the weekend: four hours of an epic Phil Lesh & Friends lineup, featuring Warren Haynes and jazz legend John Scoffield on guitar, Furthur drummer Joe Russo and Jeff Chimenti of RatDog, The Dead and Furthur on grand piano.
After opening with “Cosmic Charlie”, the band busted out Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love” which put a smile on every Mountain Jammer’s face as the sun began to set. PL&F covered two Beatles’ songs, “She Said She Said” and a gorgeous “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”, as well as Traffic’s “Low Spark” which sandwiched “Crazy Fingers”. Closing out the set was Wilson Pickett’s “In the Midnight Hour”, followed by a bitter-sweet “Box of Rain” encore, signaling the end of an absolutely incredibly uplifting, tiring yet absolutely necessary weekend packed with world-class music and unbeatable scenery and company. Mountain Jam is considered one of the best music festivals in the country for a reason, and after spending the long weekend there, regardless of the obstacles Mother Nature’s presents, those of us who have been know that it is definitely deserving of such a title.
Primus “Wynona’s Big Brown Beaver/Eternal Consumption Engine”:
Widespread Panic “Disco>You Should Be Glad”:
Phil & Friends “Shakedown Street”:
Gov’t Mule w/ Soulive and the Shady Horns “Get Behind the Mule”: