The eighth annual Mountain Jam hits Hunter Mountain next week, bringing together a lineup of international superstars with local musicians on the rise from May 31 until June 3. But what exactly is Mountain Jam, and how are the festival’s producers trying to honor the past while looking to the future? And where do Steve Winwood, the Roots, Gov’t Mule and LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy fit into all this?
For some, even the name “Mountain Jam” evokes a certain style of music: one where lengthy noodling in the vein of the Grateful Dead and Phish is on the menu. But according to festival founder Gary Chetkof, that’s only one piece of the puzzle. “It’s really evolved,” said Chetkof, president and general manager of WDST. “We’ve even played around with, ‘Do we need to rename the festival?’ No one even really can agree on what a jam band is anymore anyway. The lines are blurred. These aren’t just studio bands; these are great live performing bands with the ability to invite friends and special guests on the stage, so there’s some camaraderie and uniqueness.”
The first Mountain Jam was held on June 4, 2005, a single-day celebration of WDST’s 25 years in operation. Legendary guitarist Warren Haynes serves as Mountain Jam co-producer and leader of what is effectively the festival’s house band: Gov’t Mule, the only constant on every lineup from the first to the present.
Mountain Jam was already growing by its second year, expanding to two days in 2006, adding more bands on multiple stages, with The New York Times identifying it as one of many “little Bonnaroos” because of its roster grounded in “groovy jam rock.” Mountain Jam has since experienced a steady growth, with festivalgoers often traveling great distances to camp out under the stars and have their minds blown by an increasingly diverse musical lineup.
According to Chetkof, that gives producers an opportunity to showcase local artists alongside superstars. “That’s really important,” he said. “We really serve the Hudson Valley and we carry the Woodstock name and wanted to serve both of those. The original Woodstock Festival was all about new bands and turning people on to the new, hot bands. We want to take pride in exposing some of these up-and-coming new bands in the area to a national audience.”
Those up-and-coming new bands include the Connor Kennedy Band, fronted by a young blues guitarist who grew up in the shadows of the Catskill Mountains. Kennedy’s career trajectory could rise as rapidly as another Mountain Jam performer, Gary Clark, Jr., an electrifying guitarist and singer who hits the festival still hot after scorching the desert for two straight weekends in April at the Coachella Music & Arts Festival in Indio, California. For Chetkof, Clark is one of many on the bill whom he’s thrilled to have performing.
“I think having the premier up-and-coming talents, like a Gary Clark, Jr. who we fought really hard to get for Mountain Jam, is important,” he said, “or to get Ben Folds Five to do their reunion, or the uniqueness of the Word with Robert Randolph and John Medeski, where again they haven’t played together in a decade. We couple that with the Roots and some of the bigger names in rock ‘n’ roll.”
In the Roots, Mountain Jam has hip-hop’s closest link to the spirit of jam music: a stunning live band familiar with stretching out and riding the groove. The Roots stood out during a Lincoln Center tribute to Bob Dylan six years ago with an incendiary rendition of the former Woodstock resident’s “Masters of War,” with a bit of Jimi Hendrix’s “Machine Gun” thrown in for good measure.
Another artist whom Chetkof was beaming to have booked is James Murphy, frontman of the now-defunct LCD Soundsystem, who bowed out a year ago with a massive party at a sold-out Madison Square Garden. Murphy will spin during a late-night deejay set on the Friday night of the festival. “I saw him play at the Virgin Festival last summer, and I was just so blown away,” Chetkof said. “I hounded him, because he just doesn’t do this often. I think the stars just lined up on this one, because the Roots are having him play the next day at their festival in Philadelphia.”
Chetkof reserved his most obvious excitement for Steve Winwood, the legendary singer and keyboardist who, in addition to a lengthy solo career, was also an integral piece of the Spencer Davis Group, Traffic and Blind Faith. Winwood closes out the festival on Sunday night.
“I get chills just talking about having him there,” Chetkof said. “It’s one of those things that…you know, you grow up with someone like that, listening to his music and admiring him for decades, and then he’s going to end up headlining your festival. It’s just an honor and a privilege. Steve Winwood is one of the most incredible musicians ever. To me he’s like the Michael Jordan of rock ‘n’ roll. He doesn’t get old; he’s timeless. To have all those songs, all those hits being played to the Mountain Jam audience is just going to be an amazing end to the festival.”
But while there will undoubtedly be an air of celebration running throughout the festival, there will also be a feeling of loss. Levon Helm – who played the festival in 2008 and 2010, and who, as a member of the Band and in all his musical endeavors since, was synonymous with the Mountain Jam ethos – passed away on April 19. “We’ve dedicated the festival to Levon, and Warren is dedicating his Gov’t Mule set to Levon, and I know that he is working on some special things for Saturday night with his band,” Chetkof said. [Writer’s note: It was announced on Tuesday that the full Levon Helm Band, including Amy Helm, Larry Campbell, Teresa Williams and the LHB Horns will join Gov’t Mule for their second set on Saturday night to perform songs from Helms’ 50+ years of music.]
Mountain Jam will take place at Hunter Mountain from Thursday, May 31 through Sunday, June 3 and will feature performances by Steve Winwood, Gov’t Mule, Michael Franti & Spearhead, the Tedeschi Trucks Band, Ben Folds Five, the Roots, a James Murphy deejay set, Charles Bradley and His Extraordinaires, the Simone Felice Band, Lotus and many others. The festival is family-friendly, will feature a number of dining options and has camping available for anyone wanting to soak up every minute of Mountain Jam. “We want to give people a unique experience,” Chetkof said, “and we want to give people the best music that we can.”
Mountain Jam has a variety of ticketing options, including a three-day pass (currently $175), a VIP pass (currently $485) and single-day passes (currently $60 to $65). For more information, visit www.mountainjam.com.