Mountain Jam 2012
Mountain Jam, the annual music festival hosted by our local Radio station, WDST, at our local ski mountain, Hunter Ski Bowl, got to me this year in a way that it hasn’t done before. In a good way. In a way that made me realize that I may have finally succumbed to the Woodstock vibe. My music tastes remain firmly rooted in my South London upbringing of mod and punk, and my additional NYC years as a dance club DJ, but there’s a significant part of them willing to branch out into the Americana that values proficiency – NOT for the sake of showing off, but in pursuit of soul.
Admittedly, my mild conversion of sorts over the first weekend of June may have been down to the fact that we are still urban enough to have been specifically attracted to this year’s Mountain Jam by the unlikely appearance on the bill of (LCD Soundsystem/DFA’s) James Murphy for a nocturnal DJ Set. And that Murphy himself is sufficiently unhip amongst the (Mountain) Jam Band set that our request for guest passes resulted in half a dozen artist passes instead, Murphy having no other need for them. (Thanks James – and Steve for sorting them out.) The ease of access all areas and parking made the festival something of a personal pleasure perhaps not experienced by everyone else, but still, when push came to shove, Murphy’s DJ set was scheduled to run from 1-3am in the open air on Friday into Saturday, and it was raining heavily (it being an outdoor rock festival, what else would you expect?). Aware of the long weekend ahead of us, especially the frantic Saturday schedule of our 7-year old, I stayed home while my wife Posie, who doesn’t get to enjoy the DJ vibe as often as I do, successfully enrolled a couple of Phoenician friends to join her in the mud; all three somehow made it through the whole outdoor set, during which thunder apparently rivaled the bass bins for ear-splitting sounds. By their own accounts, there weren’t too many twenty-somethings out there braving the elements, let alone a trio of late 40-somethings. Kudos to the three of them for being hardcore.
My own Mountain Jam weekend started on the Saturday with Noel, whom I brought along after his own guitar lesson in the heart of Woodstock, and who looked quite at home with his Martin guitar case on his back and an Artist pass around his neck, watching proceedings from the pit in front of the stage and offering his own impromptu performances of Gustafer Yellowgold songs from atop a haystack in the Awareness Village. Being all of 7 however, he was also easily tired of live performances and we spent as much time climbing the pyramid at the top of the mountain and hanging out in hammocks as we did partaking of Saturday’s strong line-up that included the recently discovered but none too young soul sensation Charles Bradley; the somewhat novelty factor of LA’s El Mariachi del Bronx; the incredible pedal steel playing of Robert Randolph alongside the equally excellent Hammond organist John Medeski as accompanied by the North Mississippi All Stars as The Word; the inspired set by the Givers; and the reunion of the Ben Folds Five. This was more consecutive music than I’ve seen in the past at Mountain Jam, when I’ve tended to come in for a specific act and leave again, and it allowed me to appreciate the logistics of the festival from my kid’s eyes, as a very easy-to-navigate, fun-to-explore gathering free of the pushing and shoving, the drinking and drugging that comes at bigger events. That said, we left before the evening came fully upon us, sacrificing host band Govt. Mule’s familiar two-hour headlining set of extreme noodling and the subsequent late late-night set featuring the Levon Helm Band for a tribute to the recently deceased great man’s music.
Instead, Sunday saw myself, Posie and Noel arrive early to witness one of our excellent local kids bands, Ratboy Jr., wake up the festival with an energetic set rendered all the more potent by the hula-hoopers; Palenville’s own Simone Felice, fresh back from a month-long British tour, deliver a powerful but somewhat shorter-than-anticipated performance, after which his violinist and Woodstock native Simi Stone dashed off to the Awareness Village stage for her own solo show that was rendered tardy but only mildly subdued by a heavy rainstorm; Michael Franti and Spearhead, who perform at Mountain Jam annually, then taking to the same stage, ending the rain, and getting a field full of soggy campers jumping buoyantly; 17-year old local guitar virtuoso Connor Kennedy performing indoors in what I know as the Colonel’s Hall where my teenage son Campbell used to take his lunch on our skiing weekends; Malaysian transplant Zee Avi playing “Pumped Up Kids” on ukulele amongst other self-penned delights; and the briefest of glimpses at both the Carolina Chocolate Drops and Trombone Shorty and Orleans Avenue. As these latter acts’ names help demonstrate, while Mountain Jam has developed its reputation on the back of Dead-like jam heroes (Warren Haynes of Govt. Mule being the festival’s co-promoter), there appears to be a particular focus on modern Americana, in which traditional musics from across the States are not so much revived – that would suggest that they were dead or dormant – as much as they are given a facelift, rejuvenated and represented to and for a younger generation.
After taking Noel home – though we had to drag him from the kids’ play tent to do so – we returned for the lengthy evening performance on the main stage of Michael Franti and Spearhead, who truly embody the Mountain Jam spirit. I’ve been tuned into Franti’s music since first witnessing him as a member of Alternative Tentacles’ signings the Beatnigs, banging sheet metal on the floor of the Pyramid Club on one of my first trips to New York City in October 1987; after a subsequent stint co-fronting the Disposable Heroes of Hip-hocracy, he has, with Spearhead, truly found his true voice and his place. To call him an American Billy Bragg is to over-simplify and potentially belittle both performers, but Franti has that same intense relationship with his audience, the same concern for political issues, the same desire to do good, and a similar willingness to get off his soapbox and sing about love and romance when the occasion requires. (It should be noted that Bragg does not employ an on-stage flower arranger, however.) Franti also has a remarkable connection with his audience, which blends all ages, and his invitation to the children at Mountain Jam to join him on stage for “Say Hey I Love You” (even though the simplicity of that song’s title speaks to Franti’s limitations) was one of the highlights of the festival. Franti’s spirituality has long been self-evident, and it was no surprise that for the second time in a day, his set caused the thunder clouds to break and the sun to appear, but when his set then concluded with a rainbow (and the rising of the full moon) there were some who started to speak of him in religious terms. Franti will surely be back next year to perform another set of minor miracles.
I had been additionally attracted to this year’s Mountain Jam by the appearance of Steve Winwood as the festival’s closing artist. Winwood had appeared at Roger Daltrey’s Teenage Cancer Trust concert this March and almost literally raised the roof with a phenomenally energetic and truly communal performance on the Hammond and vocals (with Daltrey’s band as backing) of “Gimme Some Lovin’” and “Higher Love.” In America, it would be fair to say Winwood’s better known for the jazz fusion musicianship that much of his solo (and Traffic) work has entailed. As such, and though he opened with the Spencer Davis group’s 1966 hit “I’m A Man,” his set was probably more subdued than some might have expected. Winwood is nothing less than a virtuoso on the Hammond, a gifted guitarist, and still possessed of excellent voice for someone of his age, but it was Brazilian born guitarist Jose Neto who really blew me away. Using his custom-designed headless guitar by the German luther Rolf Spuler, Neto’s playing was constantly inventive and frequently spell-binding, but never show-stealing; his subtle inflections on the (mandatory?) cover of The Band’s “the Weight” is well worth watching on YouTube. Neto never stepped forward from his place alongside Winwood’s other backing musicians, and was happy to give it up to Warren Haynes when the latter came on for a rendition of “Gimme Some Lovin’” that was every bit as Woodstock as the performance I saw with Daltrey’s band in March was London. It was a particularly mellow conclusion to a festival that rarely rocks hard to begin with.
There were several non-musical factors that rendered Mountain Jam a success this year (though the weather was certainly not one of them). The play area for kids in the Awareness Village; the non-profit organizations encouraged to set up stalls; the availability of craft beers and local wine alongside the usual industrial beers on tap; the food trucks from the likes of Woodstock’s own Yum Yum amidst the typical fried fare; the signing tent for the musicians to mingle with their fans; the puppeteers and the night-time light shows; the True Mirror Palace, which had blown my mind at Burning Man last year and which turned out to have been designed here in Ulster County; and especially, the number of our own friends (and their families) who we ran into over the course of the weekend. Rock festivals are not always a unilaterally positive experience, as anyone who has witnessed bottle throwing, freak-outs and drunken aggression over the years can readily testify, but there was nothing but good vibes and warm smiles to accompany the wide variety of largely but not exclusively roots-derived music. Mountain Jam is still not as large as it sometimes suggests itself to be – less than 10,000 customers paying to come through the Ski Lodge doors over the course of the weekend – but that intimacy serves as a large part of its appeal. And if the booking policy continues to embrace the likes of James Murphy and Charles Bradley, Ben Folds and Steve Winwood, Dawes and Givers, the Roots and the Word, there’s no reason for it not to become what it aspires to be: one of the East Coast’s prime musical movers.
Photos from the weekend below. Click on any to see larger size.