Twin peaks: Robert Plant & the Black Keys headline Mountain Jam

The Black Keys (photo by Danny Clinch) and Robert Plant.

The Black Keys (photo by Danny Clinch) and Robert Plant.

It used to be that Mountain Jam was the local festival for folks who like their guitars hit one way and the sadly short-lived All Tomorrow’s Parties at Kutsher’s was for folks who like their guitars hit the other way. And no one could be accused of false advertising. “Jam” is right there in the name of the Hunter Mountain festival, and the London-based ATP just copped the title of a Velvet Underground song for theirs.

And seldom the twain shall meet. The Mountain Jam crowd would question the skill and the soul of the ATP axe-slingers to the extent that they could be bothered to learn their names and admit their reputations into the guitar-god discussion. J. Mascis (and maybe even Doug Martsch) they would understand, because everyone loves Neil Young; but most of those who walk as deities in the indie guitar world – ATP veterans Kevin Shields (My Bloody Valentine) or Stephen Malkmus (Pavement), for example – often sound, to the ears of the Derek Trucks aficionados, like “dudes who don’t really know how to play very well.” ATPers, for their part, would graciously concede the limited, genre-bound technical prowess of Mountain Jam’s legions of Dead-, Allman- and blues-derived long-form soloists, but would casually dismiss their relevance, imagination and the freshness of their aesthetic intent.

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So does the booking of the Black Keys as co-headliners of the 2015 Mountain Jam represent the final blurring of that once-testy cultural border? No, not really; though it might be appealing to look at it that way. First, remember that the Grateful Dead were a primitive psych/blues freakout band in 1966 (and their very early work – but only their very early work – is actually well-regarded in the primitivist rock community). The Black Keys are not all that far out of tune with the Mountain Jam core vibe, though many Mountain Jammers might find them conspicuously lacking not only a bass player, but also anything that they would recognize as a lead guitarist.

Second, the indie-rock scene doesn’t necessarily claim the Black Keys as one of their own, either. While Messrs. Auerbach and Carney’s early records (through 2008’s Attack and Release) certainly rate as notable works of blues yowl and fuzzcraft in the service of zippy songwriting, the Black Keys can also be viewed as the arena-scruff duo that cashed in on what the White Stripes, the Vines, the Strokes and the other neo-garage acts of the early aughts pioneered – or repioneered, as the case may be. The Black Keys aren’t jam, but they’re not really indie agitators either. What they are is very popular.

So the Black Keys are a lively band, a nice score and a bill-freshener for Mountain Jam, to be sure, but a bit of a red herring if you are looking at it as a serious redrawing of the scene topography. Ironically, it is the other headliner, Rock Rushmore’s own Robert Plant, whose presence here speaks to what is and what has always been daring and audacious about Mountain Jam. Daring, you say? Robert Plant, who is welcome on all stages?

Yes. Plant performs here with his band the Sensational Shape Shifters in support of a really nice and curious 2014 album, Lullaby and…the Ceaseless Roar. If you want to hear Zeppelin at Mountain Jam, you’ll need to attend Noelle Doughty’s Zepperella set. Plant is touting new stuff, and that’s what he’ll be playing on the slopes of Hunter. Mountain Jam’s real legacy – a tolerant and willing dedication to music in the moment – empowers the performers to move beyond the dutiful delivery of the hits. They don’t have to jam. Solos not required. “Do what thou wilt,” says Mountain Jam, but you better mean it.

Plant’s post-Zep career has been undeniably vibrant. Even those like my friend Artie Fisk, to whom Zeppelin are little more than some nouveau British aristocrats who owe the estate of Willie Dixon a bit of money and on whom most of the blame for c*ck-rock can be pinned, have been forced to concede that Robert Plant is a restless and vital cat and has been for a long while. From his legit New Wave hits in the early ’80s through his credible work as a rockabilly revivalist, his wildly successful collaboration with Alison Krauss and his infrequent but anything-but-complacent (and often North African-flavored) reunions with Page, Plant doesn’t seem much hamstrung by his own past. That’s pretty rare among A-list rock stars, who have a harder time than you might imagine keeping the corporate boardroom out of their career decisions.

Beneath the twin peaks of this year’s bill is a pretty doctrinal Mountain Jam lineup, but a good and very deep one, featuring perennial favorites like Spearhead and Grace Potter and the “I can’t believe this is their first Mountain Jam appearance” jam-scene stalwarts moe. Alabama Shakes was a quiet score and a real attraction on this bill: a band that pretty much splits the difference between the Black Keys and the Dap Tones.

Lake Street Dive are fresh blood on the roots scene. Big Gigantic are jam’s preferred electrobeat band and have been for quite a while. Railroad Earth’s assemblage of bluegrass and folk/rock heavies is pretty much universally beloved across the scene. Spirit Family Reunion are the kind of Brooklyn that Hunter understands.

The local nationals scene is represented thickly, with Larry Campbell and Theresa Williams doing their thing, Marco Benevento, Simone Felice and Amy Helm & the Handsome Strangers. Burnell Pines, the Compact, Simi Stone, Mike + Ruthy, Ratboy, Jr. and others are fixtures on local stages and beyond, and good, on-topic choices to round out four days of non-stop music.

Mountain Jam takes to the slopes at Hunter on June 4. Music proceeds until June 7. The ticketing and camping options are as complicated and various as you might imagine, but this is a mature festival now, and its game is tight. Check out the full lineup, the schedule of acts, food venue lineups, non-musical activities, lodging packages and what it all might set you back at https://mountainjam.com.

 

Mountain Jam, June 4-7, Hunter Mountain, 64 Klein Avenue, Hunter; https://mountainjam.com.

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