Mountain Jam found its purchase on the slopes of Hunter in simpler, rockier times, long before the summer festival became the thing, the model, for everyone in the game. Now in its tenth year, Mountain Jam is adapting to a different and bollixed commercial climate. For the second time, it finds itself competing head-to-head (and even sharing a few acts) with the super-stacked Governor’s Ball on Randall’s Island in the East River. And this year, there comes a challenge closer to home, in the decidedly more urban and “now” flavors of the Hudson Project Music and Art Festival in Saugerties in July.
Once upon a time, the genres kept their distance from each other. The average Mountain Jammer would barely recognize a single name on the All Tomorrow’s Parties bill, even though they were mostly guitar rock, too. Whose Bloody Valentine? Certainly not ours.
But that’s no longer the case. Except for hip-hop, which Governor’s Ball and Bonnaroo embrace and which Mountain Jam eschews (letting Michael Franti stand in for it, while hippie fringe festivals like Gathering of the Vibes roll all night to electro-jam-rap), there’s quite a lot of shared gray space between the festivals these days. I would illustrate with a trippy, multi-orbed Venn diagram if I could illustrate, or if either you or I really cared. Suffice it to say that festival booking has become a positioning act of great cultural nuance and subtext – and economic consequence.
Scan the high peaks of the 2014 Mountain Jam lineup and you’d assume that the whole story here is affirmations, bedrock values and returns-to-form. Umphrey’s McGee, Bob Weir and Ratdog, Gov’t Mule and the Allman Brothers Band claim the featured sets along the top line of what is now a four-day mountain festival. In the past few years, most of the stylistic surprises (like Dr. Dog or James Murphy from LCD Soundsystem) lurked in the subheds; but this year, the second-tier names do little to challenge the classic jam narrative: Robert Randolph, Michael Franti and Spearhead (for whom an entire Mountain Jam stage will someday be named) and such next-gen, song-oriented jammers and roots-farmers as the Avett Brothers, Tedeschi Trucks, Blitzen Trapper and Jackie Greene.
Trampled by Turtles bring the fiddles, the banjos and the Mumfordian passions. Mix in a little bit of late-night electro and Afrobeat action for the younger set and you’ve got yourself a picture of consolidation and core validation. Further, Mountain Jam tends to the local a little more this year than in the past few, serving up sets by Connor Kennedy, the apprentices of Paul Green’s Academy and, in a bit of a curveball, the talented nu-folk outfit Elijah and the Moon.
It’s all in keeping with the Woodstock music establishment’s late-onset awareness of legacy and perpetuation, of conscious baton-passing and succession-planning. This year’s Mountain Jam – for the first time, to my knowledge – even features community workshops and lectures: a songwriting master class and a talk on why the Allman Brothers are the greatest of all American rock bands [?!? – ed]. Proselytizing and preaching to the choir, of course, but that’s how balls are kept rolling: You’ve got to galvanize the core before you evangelize the extremities.
What, then, to make of a short, inconspicuous pocket of music on the smaller West Stage in the middle of what we hope will be a sun-soaked Sunday afternoon? At 3:45 p.m., in a sliver set wedged incongruously between East Stage workouts by Spearhead and by Black-Crowe-flying-solo Chris Robinson, Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger will confuse the bleary fourth day crowd. GOASTT is a band fronted by that eminent Manhattan insider Sean Lennon and his longtime girlfriend, supermodel Charlotte Kemp Muhl. They make swanky, jet-set retro-pop that is really delightful and a million miles removed from Drive-by Truckers.
After a City-standard 45-minute set (Gov’t Mule is confining itself to a single four-hour set this year), GOASTT will be followed, for 45 incandescent minutes, by the brilliant Brooklyn band Lucius: a kind of Siamese-twin-fronted, hybrid acoustic/electro-pop group whose debut full-length Wildewoman was one of the real highlights of 2013/14. Between GOASTT and Lucius, Mountain Jam will see more theatricality, urban irony and sheer fashion than in the previous nine years combined, and more of that thing that has never been a key ingredient in the Mountain Jam recipe: pop – unadulterated, blues-free pop music.
Perhaps a mockup of the L-train will deliver Lucius and GOASTT to the stage, and they’ll get off with their gig bags strapped on their backs, asking, “What’s for backline?” Perhaps Lucius will be followed by Tame Impala, and then Kendrick Lamar? Perhaps a banner will read: “Mountain Jam, Sunday afternoon intermezzo brought to you by the folks at BSP Kingston,” where GOASTT has played and where Lucius has appeared triumphantly several times on their way up?
Well, “It’s all good.” Especially Lucius. Can Woodstock still mint new icons? Time will tell. But a sensibly and selectively expanded purview should be part of its long-term strategy of sustainability. This year’s festival reins in the stylistic excursions of recent years. It is blatantly more about tradition than bridge-building or bridge-burning. But Sunday afternoon’s bizarre little patch of non sequitur might well wake up a few ears – to the benefit of both the artists and this venerable festival.
Tenth annual Mountain Jam, June 5-8, Hunter Mountain, Hunter, New York; https://mountainjam.com.