Has it really been 12 Mountain Jams already? In fact it has, and that makes the Hunter Mountain long binge weekend one of the granddaddies of the new-model, cross-genre music festival. Festivals have transformed the live music landscape in the last decade, its economic and aesthetic character. In terms of formative, industry-shaping influence, Mountain Jam sits just a rung below its most venerable and high-profile relatives: Bonnaroo in Manchester, Tennessee; Coachella in Indio, California; Bumbershoot in Seattle; and a small handful of the most robust and enduring others, some inclusive and imperialistic, others highly specialized and canonical.
Festival booking represents a fascinating act of compromise, as organizers try to balance the serving of the core constituencies with the imperative of growth and the challenges posed by increasing competition. With two or more stages to fill for three or more days, musical diversity is inevitable (even at a purist festival like Grey Fox), but it is not a pell-mell, randomized diversity. Looking at the text-packed psychedelic Mountain Jam poster, one can all but hear the boardroom positioning and multiplayer negotiations that go into the shaping of the bill and the hierarchical assignment of type sizes to band names.
Imagine the voices of artist management piping up and putting some money where its mouth is, especially in the middle and lower tiers of the lineup where acts with representation are scrambling for new audiences and explicit endorsements from and affiliations with more established and iconic artists. Imagine the primary festival stakeholders and their multiple interests: building their brand, refining their positioning in a cluttered market, schmoozing with the gods and defending their margins. The audience itself speaks, too, in that crude collective way of ours, with our documented proclivities and our gate-measured enthusiasm (or our jaded and fatigued lack thereof) for the acts that we are proffered.
Diversity is actually built into Mountain Jam, though it may not be apparent in the festival’s name, which paints a pretty cohesive picture of earthy, string-based rock in a high rural setting. The paradox lies in the festival’s complex and multiparty imprimatur, the pairing of stakeholders Radio Woodstock (they of the three-and-a-half-minute Adult Alternative pop song) and Gov’t Mule’s Warren Haynes (he of the three-and-a-half-minute blues/rock guitar solo). The contradiction inherent in that tandem has actually served the festival extremely well. Mountain Jam has been pivotal and forward-looking in the way that it has introduced many non-jam, song-oriented artists (such as Jackie Greene or Dr. Dog) to the great receptivity and support of the jam audience. And let’s give that jam audience a heaping pile of credit, as well, for its stereotype-defying iconoclasm of taste.
Speaking of iconoclasm of taste, to the 2016 lineup we go. When this year’s marquee headliners (Wilco and Beck) were announced several months ago, I proclaimed it a time of great healing. It was the coming-together of the people under the commanding banners of two great unifiers of American music: Wilco, who made country art, and Beck, who turned rap, sampling and folk music into a fine and unique grade of surreal poetry that is often imitated and never quite matched. The next line of the bill – the gorgeous Avett Brothers, the house band Gov’t Mule and jam-scene insiders Umphrey’s McGee – seemed to be designed to say “We got you covered” to the core audience. Throw in the late add of Train covering Zeppelin and…sorry, man, I just don’t know what to say about that.
Down the bill is where things get wild, a pretty comprehensive virtual map of the 21st-century scene. Because jam loves electro: Thievery Corporation. Because jazz (Scofield, Medeski etcetera) taught jam how to be more like Miles: Lettuce and Marco Benevento. Because songs are still the thing: Jason Isbell. Because a solid majority of the most daring and original new music seems to come from women these days: And the Kids and Courtney Barnett. Because ecstatic retro and hootenanny have not quite disappeared yet and we are not fully in the post-Mumford age: Darlingside. Because the local crop is good and up to it: Elijah Wolf, Ratboy, Jr., Upstate Rubdown. Because Spearhead always plays Mountain Jam: Spearhead.
Twelve years of this mess. Here’s to 12 more. For full lineup and ticket options, visit http://mountainjam.com.
12th Mountain Jam, June 2-5, Hunter Mountain, 64 Klein Avenue, Hunter; http://mountainjam.com.