Each year, the arrival of music festival season coincides beautifully with the annual awakening of nature, and no where is that evidenced more perfectly than on the bright, lush hillside of Hunter Mountain in New York’s Catskill region, where this weekend the twelfth annual Mountain Jam Festival takes place. Once again being touted as the Northeast’s premier multi-day music and arts camping festival, producers Radio Woodstock and Warren Haynes aim to provide four days of music with more than 50 bands performing on three stages, rain or shine.
The small, picturesque town of Hunter, NY has welcomed music lovers to the mountain slopes since 2005. The ski resort’s infrastructure and impressive amenities successfully accommodate thousands of attendees as the festival grows year over year. Festival founder and President of Chet-5 Entertainment, Gary Chetkof understands this and knows where fans will appreciate the extra effort in planning, “We have things pretty locked in by now, and over the last few years, we really stepped up the production – stage, sound, and lights. In the early years, we were constantly re-investing in the infrastructure and more staffing. Now we focus on our artist talent and ancillary non-music activities, such as workshops, lectures, and the kids area.”
With the pristine natural amphitheater, on-site lodging and camping options, 24-hour access to indoor bathrooms, full-service bar and food services, the comforts are noticeable and appreciated. There will be over 25 food vendors, visual art installations, a memorable Skyride, disc golf, massages, yoga, and more for all ages at this family-friendly festival (children under 10 are free with a paid adult). Workshops throughout the weekend include Yoga with Michael Franti, a slideshow and discussion with famed rock and roll photographer Jay Blakesburg, hula hooping classes, and lots more.
Mountain Jam’s VIP offering is actually very important to the attraction itself. Shaded hospitality lounges, gourmet hors d’oeuvres, premium concert viewing, discounted beer, air-conditioned bathrooms, and exclusive parking/camping are all included in the sold-out packages. Providing these amenities really makes the VIP experience at Mountain Jam unlike any other festival.
As for the music, curating the performing artists each year is not an easy task. This year’s lineup is probably as diverse as its ever been, and, for the second straight year, is a noticeable departure from the 60s-inspired & hippie-derived focus (Sunday headliners in 2013 and 2014 were Phil Lesh & Friends and The Allman Brothers Band). Gary Chetkoff takes pride in being able to put together a distinctive array of performers, “It is definitely a lot of work curating Mountain Jam, especially because our lineup is so diverse, we have so many choices to choose from and we try to touch upon a wide variety of musical genres – jam, rock, indie/alternative, folk, blues, reggae, electronic, bluegrass – all in a balanced way. So there is a lot of planning to make sure we hit the right music mix and we also try to bring back favorites as well as introduce new bands to the festival each year.”
Appearing once again at Mountain Jam, as expected, are Gov’t Mule and Michael Franti & Spearhead. Warren Haynes and his southern rock outfit has been the driving force behind Mountain Jam since the beginning. Franti’s energetic set has been a Sunday afternoon staple at Mountain Jam for 11 straight years. Scott and Seth Avett will bring their American folk rock to the stage for the fifth time when The Avett Brothers perform in this year’s Sunday headlining slot. Gary Clark, Jr., Chris Robinson Brotherhood, Umphrey’s McGee, The London Souls, Lettuce, and The New Mastersounds are all returning as crowd favorites in 2016. One particularly interesting act is actually delivering 2 sets on the festival’s opening night. Marco Benevento & Superhuman Happiness: Tribute to David Bowie will pay homage to the recently deceased icon, who long-maintained a Catskills-area mountainside retreat. Benevento last performed at Mountain Jam ten years ago with the Benevento/Russo Duo.
As for acts new to the festival, there are plenty of exciting artists set to become a part of this impressive lineup. Beck, who is now 45 years old and leveraging his 2015 Album of the Year Grammy Award forMorning Phase, arrives at Mountain Jam to headline Saturday’s festivities. Wilco are touring the world for the next six months, and have their only North American festival gig Friday evening on the Mountain Stage. The first action there comes Thursday evening, when radio-friendly roots-rockers Train will take on the classic album Led Zeppelin IIwhich they have recently recorded and will release next week. Jason Isbell comes to Mountain Jam for the first time as a solo act, and shares the bill with other unique singer-songwriters Brandi Carlile & Courtney Barnett. A few groups on the bill seem ready for a wildlife family reunion: Houndmouth, Sister Sparrow & The Dirty Birds, & Donna The Buffalo should all impress with their first invites to the festival. Turkuaz has nine pieces of “superfunk” and will blow some danceable tracks into the Mountain Friday evening from the Valley Stage. Launching from Los Angeles and following a somewhat unsurprising commercial path, The Record Company has an energetic live show that is now drawing crowds internationally. Catch them on the Mountain Stage Saturday.
Some of the especially intriguing acts due to perform should prove to be great surprises for the uninitiated. Nahko & Medicine For The People will captivate the Friday afternoon Mountain Stage audience with their welcoming and inspiring earth-friendly sounds. Saturday afternoon, Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats will offer a package of harmonies and horns that has garnered attention as as soulful R&B combination, and should prove to be one of the day’s highlights. Appalachia-inspired and timeless, Cabinet will perform their proud brand of roots, bluegrass, country-folk that should echo well off the slopes while camps are being set up Friday evening. Anyone punctual enough to be present for John Lee Hooker starting the sounds on Thursday afternoon will surely be receptive to the five female’s gritty, soul-filled blues.
With Warren Haynes so involved in who receives invitations to play at Mountain Jam, you can expect plenty of collaborations throughout the weekend. Haynes has frequently stepped out with Umphrey’s McGee and Michael Franti, and this author has a feeling Wilco could benefit from having him guest guitar on their “St. Stephen” offering that is found on the “Day of the Dead” collection recently put forth from The National’s Aaron and Bryce Dessner.
Another place to look for Warren might be Friday afternoon on the Valley Stage where The Marcus King Band is scheduled to play. Who is Marcus King? He is a third-generation bluesman from Greenville, SC, who at age 20 has already been playing live shows for half his life. The Marcus King Band calls their style psychedelic Southern rock, putting a slightly different spin the on blues, jazz and funk King grew up on. Warren Haynes signed King to his Evil Teen record label after witnessing his blistering guitar style in person.
Tickets for Mountain Jam come in all shapes and sizes and even offer a last-minute payment plan option to pay half up-front now and then the balance in 30 days for general admission tickets. Four-day camping passes are $279 ($245 without camping), and 3-day passes (Friday-Sunday) are $259 ($225 without camping). Single-day general admission tickets cost $55 for Thursday, $90 for Friday, $99 for Saturday, and $85 for Sunday. Mountain “Jammers” should check out the Official Mountain Jam Festival App for iOS and Android for up-to-the-minute lineup and schedule information, artist photography, the latest festival news, a customized personal schedule, and a useful find-my-friends feature. If you’re unable to make it to Hunter this year, there is a convenient live webcast being presented for all four days. The high-definition webcast is available at a “pay-what-you-want” cost with a minimum of $19.99 required.
When asked what someone who has never been to Mountain Jam before expect to take away with them from this year’s festival, founder Gary Chetkoff offered, “A really fun time at a really well-run festival with an amazing, diverse lineup with a lot of music discovery. And a great vibe with a great crowd of people!” Chetkoff then added, “The thing I look forward to each year is meeting new artists and seeing them play for the first time, as well as welcoming back our regulars like Warren Haynes, Michael Franti and the Avett Brothers. It is also really fun to see the Mountain Jam hard-core fans who come every year!”