Mountain Jam: May 31 – June 3

It’s been called “little Bonnaroo” and with some of the key acts heading off from upstate New York to rural Tennessee the following week, it’s not an entirely unfair claim. But while the pair share a hazy hippie vibe and even – I learned later – some of the same food vendors, Mountain Jam is an entity all its own.

This year’s incarnation of the annual Mountain Jam festival was the eighth. The first Mountain Jam was a one-day concert celebrating the 25th anniversary of WDST, a Woodstock-based independent radio station whose eclectic format is indicative of what the festival eventually became. Govt. Mule headlined the inaugural Mountain Jam and they’ve been the sole musical constant ever since. Warren Haynes, Govt. Mule’s guitarist and leader, co-produces the festival with WDST, and his considerable fanbase comprises much of the several thousand in attendance. So dedicated to Govt. Mule are these fans that they dutifully stood in a torrential downpour on Friday night; their slick ponchos glowing in the night with each flash of light from the stage.

Govt. Mule

If Govt. Mule is an annual constant for Mountain Jam, rain (or the threat of rain) was a constant for the four days of the 2012 festival. The threat was there through most of Friday, though it didn’t really come down until that night, just prior to Govt. Mule’s four hour set on the East Stage. James Murphy, former lynchpin of LCD Soundsystem and one of Mountain Jam’s most intriguing bookings, carried on with his late night DJ set on the West Stage that evening, though the rain kept many of the revelers cowering in their tents while hoping they wouldn’t slide down the mountain and into the tiny village surrounding the ski resort.

The Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Morrison, Colorado, is one of the country’s most renowned open-air concert settings. The gorgeous scenery and natural acoustics provide a unique experience for those wishing to commune with nature while they have their synapses shredded by music. Hunter Mountain during Mountain Jam should also be mentioned in that conversation. With the two primary stages (the larger East and smaller West) sitting side-by-side at the bottom of a verdant stretch of peaks, the natural setting carries the sound up the hillside and, presumably, into the heavens above. I learned this while on a long ride up the ski lift, one of the best ways to really get a sense of the surroundings as it carries riders over the crowd and beyond the RV and premier campsites, halfway up the mountain to the base camp of a zip line. I also learned it as I eventually got tired of being cold and wet during Murphy’s set and listened to the second hour shivering in a tent I feared would be obliterated by the volume and awesomeness of the beats.

The longer the weekend went on, the muddier the hill became, and even with the best efforts of the festival’s organizers by laying down shitloads of hay, people still slipped and fell in the mud. Of course the longer the weekend went on, the less people actually seemed to care whether they were covered in mud anyway. Yes, there were showers (three narrow stalls per gender for $5 a wash) but their lines never matched the length of the lines for coffee in the morning.

Mountain Jam is billed as a child-friendly festival, and I suppose if you’re cool with your kid inhaling lots of pot smoke, it’s not the worst place in the world. There was face-painting and a couple of kid-specific tents for kid-specific activities. Even some of the music was geared towards kids: Ratboy Jr., a local act in the wry tradition of They Might Be Giants who drop the Jr. when they play for grownups, was one of the musical highlights on the small stage in the Awareness Village, playing late-morning sets on Saturday and Sunday. I also saw four kids that were maybe in the 5th or 6th grade in the tall grass halfway up the mountain, perhaps bent on escape or on a hopeful Stand By Me-style search for adventure.

Did you go to college at any time between 1968 and…well, now, I guess? Picture the hippies. I’ll do it too: I was in college in the early ‘90s and I played drums in a funk band. A lot of the kids who came to see us play were contemporary hippies with long flowing robes and matted blonde dreadlocks. They wore hemp necklaces and corduroy pants with long quilted panels running down the sides. If that sounds familiar to you, guess what? They still look like that! Mountain Jam in many ways felt like college, though fortunately the comparison ended there and I wasn’t subsisting exclusively on ramen noodles so I could spend what little money I had on records, pot, and beer.

The Roots

Though the name smacks of jam bands, Mountain Jam’s lineup is considerably more eclectic. Not that one shouldn’t expect lengthy guitar solos over meandering musical passages, because there is plenty. But this year also featured a stellar performance by the Roots, a band who, while not uncomfortable with the concept of jamming, are decidedly crisper and on point than the term “jam” might indicate. The Roots were one of the weekend’s highlights, a blast of electric energy just before the rains came down on Friday night. How they do what they do – house band on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, jetting off to destinations unknown for weekend gigs, ?uestlove’s weekly DJ set at Brooklyn Bowl, and steady stream of Twitter commentary nearly every minute of every day – is a mystery. Keeping up with their itinerary is exhausting enough, so imagine what it must be like to actually be in the Roots. But none of that matters once they hit the stage, because it’s pure bliss. The Roots even found the time to work in tributes to the recently departed, opening with a go-go-infused take on the Beastie Boys’ “Paul Revere”, simultaneously honoring Adam Yauch and Chuck Brown.

Mountain Jam also paid tribute as a whole to Levon Helm, a friend of the festival and a musical legend with deep roots in the area; Helm passed away earlier this year, and renditions of his solo material and songs made famous by the Band were heard (with encouragement by producers) from many of the artists during the weekend. Govt. Mule brought out the surviving members of the Levon Helm Band for the second half of their Saturday night set for an emotional, celebratory performance.

Ben Folds

Mountain Jam was also the first official reunion show of the Ben Folds Five, who ran through their greatest hits in front of fans who’d traveled far and wide to see it happen. Folds was in predictably gregarious form, regaling the crowd with wry stories between even wryer songs from the group’s staggeringly catchy back catalogue. While the North Carolina-bred band is in the midst of recording a new album, they stuck strictly to the classics, only letting up long enough for Folds to throw his stool at his piano – a decidedly punk move for a guy who used to earn a paycheck as a judge on an NBC singing competition show. Of course, if you haven’t heard “Army” or “Song for the Dumped”, you might not know he had it in him.

One of the festival’s breakout acts, Gary Clark, Jr., had already lain waste to the kids at Coachella, and was one week away from doing the same at Bonnaroo when he unleashed his guitar fury at Mountain Jam. Clark, who grew up in Austin, Texas, has already made a name for himself in the blues community, but has lately expanded his reach thanks to incendiary live sets like the one on Friday afternoon at Mountain Jam. If he’s uncomfortable with the comparisons to Jimi Hendrix, Clark sure isn’t showing it, as evidenced by his blistering instrumental run through “Third Stone from the Sun”.

Charles Bradley

Another breakout performance came from Charles Bradley & His Extraordinaires, a Daptone Records-affiliated soul outfit and one of the all-time feel-good stories in the history of music. Bradley, a singer in his mid-‘60s with a heartbreaking-but-triumphant life story, was discovered singing as a James Brown impersonator named Black Velvet by Daptone co-founder Gabriel Roth. Bradley, a.k.a. the Screaming Eagle of Soul, has since recorded a debut of all-original material, which he showcased at Mountain Jam along with crowd-wowing dance moves possibly honed during his Black Velvet days. Bradley’s sincerity and humility are as genuine as his absolute love of performing, and his voice – and his band – killer. Even if you ignore how totally fucking gratifying it is to be able to celebrate Bradley’s rise, the guy is just dynamite.

The festival’s final headline slot went to Steve Winwood, a dynamic performer since his teen years in the Spencer Davis Group. Though his performance came at the end of a lengthy stateside tour, Winwood was in fine voice and spirit, running through classic material spanning his long history, up to and including cuts from Nine Lives, his 2008 album. Winwood brought out Haynes for “Gimme Some Lovin’” – a singular highlight from an exceptional festival-closing set.

Steve Winwood

Despite often dismal weather and an abundance of exceedingly over-patchouli’d patrons, Mountain Jam was a pretty terrific festival. In its eighth year, it shows no signs of faltering. With a clear dedication to offering a wide range of musical options to its audience, one can only hope it carries on for many years to come. With great local acts like blues of the Connor Kennedy Band, hotly-tipped indie artists like the Carolina Chocolate Drops and the Simone Felice Band, genre-defying outfits like Break Science and EOTO, and jam legends like the Tedeschi Trucks Band, there really is something for everyone at Mountain Jam. Now, about all that rain…

View all of Mike Katz’s photos of Mountain Jam.