The Mountain Jam Festival taking place this weekend in Hunter, NY seems to almost be running itself. The twelfth annual camping music fest put on by Warren Haynes and Radio Woodstock is providing top-notch experiences for everyone. The gigantic Mountain stage is an imposing presence, and the disparity between the Valley stage is quite curious. Patrons on-site are smiling, well-fed, and are taking advantage of the opportunity to have such a beautiful site to spend the first 2 days of the festival relaxing and listening to some incredibly talented and impressive performances. The pulsing and hard-charging prog-rock of Umphrey’s McGee rattled the slopes Thursday night with two furious sets highlighted by Warren Haynes sitting in and completely slaying the “Higgins” jam with Jake Cinninger. Marco Benevento’s David Bowie tribute featuring Superhuman Happiness was a fun and at times unsteady, but Marco has an entertainment value and stage presence that always keeps you watching. Warren Haynes also snuck on stage to sit-in here to fit his bluesy riffs into the chaos. Benevento at one point played to the crowd after climbing up on his modified acoustic upright piano and leaping into the air with a theatrical landing on the stage. Train performing Led Zeppelin II actually produced a sizable crowd for Thursday at Mountain Jam, and Patrick Monahan revealed a terrific and lively Plant-esque performance for the adoring audience. Clearly loving the vibe, Train pushed even deeper by inviting Warren Haynes up for “Rock & Roll.” On the Valley Stage, there were solid performances from Donna The Buffalo, Cabinet, Wild Adriatic, and Jane Lee Hooker.
Friday, Mountain Jam really starts to look more like its full-sized self, and the music sounded like it too. Warren Haynes made another appearance on the Valley Stage when he joined blues-child Marcus King and his band to trade licks with the 20-year-old phenom. Nahko and Medicine For The People is one of these quintessential additions to any daily Mountain Jam schedule. Its the inspiring and lively, sometimes political, and human-life message in the music that suggests the easy comparison to Michael Franti and Spearhead. After a fun set of bluegrass covers from Love Canon, the Mountain stage welcomed the Aussie singer-songwriter Courtney Barnett. With her witty, rambling lyrics and no-frills style, Barnett skipped around the stage riffing her guitar and treated the crowd to her rendition of the Grateful Dead’s “New Speedway Boogie.” The colorful and emphatic Turkuaz gave the Valley stage a tight, funky set that saw the sunshine hit us for the first time all day. After the funk, one of the best current singer-songwriters in American music took the Mountain stage. Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit are like a cold Budweiser after washing your Chevrolet on Sunday afternoon. His lyrics from “Something More Than Free” or even “Cover Me Up,” portray a dedicated man living his life just trying to be the best that he can, learning and loving whenever possible. It’s the kind of set that you hop on the Skyride, and take in the sweet sounds and views that only Mountain Jam can create.
The Chris Robinson Brotherhood set at twilight dipped back into the Southern sound and featured many tasty notes from guitarist Neal Casal, especially on the popular “Rosalee.” Once night fell on the Mountain – it was chilly enough for a sweatshirt – Wilco came on and added some alternative country heat. That might sound funny, but Jeff Tweedy and crew really brought a big set to their first Mountain Jam. After hitting on some new material, the classic crowd-favorites were deftly played. “Spiders (Kidsmoke),” “Heavy Metal Drummer,” and “The Late Greats” placed smiles on the faces of Wilco’s caring fans – one of whom managed to briefly sway her way onto the stage. Towards the end of the set, Jason Isbell joined the band for “California Stars” and traded sweet licks with Nell Cline.
Up to this point, Mountain Jam’s scheduled hadn’t flinched, but Gov’t Mule and Warren Haynes are throwing this party, and they get some leeway. Even starting almost thirty minutes behind schedule, it still felt like the perfect way to wind down the first full day of Mountain Jam. After sitting in many times throughout the first 2 days, it was nice to see Haynes grip onto his own stuff with his boys. After opening with “Sweet Leaf” it didn’t take long to share the fun. Cline returned to the stage for a nice reggae-inspired cover mashup of David Bowie’s “Rebel Rebel” and 3 O’Clock Roadblock’s “Rebel Music.” The set continued until after 2:00 AM and featured a lovely “Hunger Strike > Dear Mr. Fantasy” offering, “What Is Hip?” with guest Marcus King, and a classic “Soulshine” encore. Warren Haynes is going to be taking the main stage at least once more this weekend. After Gary Clark Jr. cancelled due to an urgent family matter, Haynes added himself to the schedule with a solo set on Saturday afternoon.
Additional reporting by Ross Warner