Mountain Jam 2012 | New York | Review | Photos

Words by: Chadbyrne R. Dickens :: By: Images by: Karina Rykman

Mountain Jam :: 05.31.12-06.03.12 :: Hunter Mountain :: Hunter, NY

Full photo gallery below review!

Mountain Jam by Karina Rykman
“First, there is a mountain…then there is no mountain…then there is” – Donovan (1967)

Donovan's song, rooted in Zen philosophy, sets forth the idea that pre-enlightenment, we simply see a mountain. In the enlightenment process, the mountain recedes into an intimate illusion. After one is fully enlightened, the mountain’s substance reemerges along with the truth of the world seen even more clearly than before. Decades after the song was written, the lyrics represent an experience for many at Hunter Mountain in the Catskill Mountains of Upstate New York. Thousands flock in the quest for a musical respite from their daily lives, to escape with the aid of beautiful melodies among the endless green hills and trees with like-minded kind summer folk at a ski resort located barely two hours from New York City and only 20 minutes from Woodstock, the musical hotbed of Upstate New York.

Mountain Jam was originally the brainchild of Woodstock classic rock radio station, WDST for a one-day event in 2006 to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the station. Mountain Jam got its name from the Donovan song, which the Allman Brothers have been playing for decades in an instrumental jam version of “There is a Mountain” called “Mountain Jam”. The Allman Brothers guitarist and Mountain Jam co-founder, Warren Haynes and his band Gov't Mule are the only band to perform at each Jam, now entering its 8th successful season. With Haynes on the bill as co-founder, it is not surprising that Mr. Haynes sat in with multiple artists. If you love Warren’s work, he being ranked #23 in Rolling Stone’s Greatest Guitarists, you get your money’s worth at this gathering. If not, you may joke, “Is there anyone Warren doesn’t play with?” It’s like a relationship: one is fonder of another when there is some scarcity. One may also not appreciate the van on the premises with a huge painted portrait of Haynes holding his guitar advertising his most recent album. One can’t imagine Garcia promoting in this manner. However, Haynes and his cohorts know how to throw one heck of a party.

Despite a Saturday night rainstorm flooding the camp with over an inch of rain and unseasonably cold temperatures below 50 degrees, even being frozen to the bone in a soggy tent didn’t dissuade the hordes of folks on the hill, but rather drove them to get up earlier and find refuge in the torrent of talented musical artists enlisted to entertainment them. I watched every minute of music I could and in fact, only missed one band (Break Science) and that was due only to a time conflict. Veteran Steve Winwood killed as the Sunday night headliner. Lotus pulled out all the stops in a late night bonanza that throttled the senses for hours except for the moment music was halted and glow stick throwing etiquette was instructed to the audience. The Tedeschi Trucks Band played an effectively unique cover of “Everybody’s Talking” to a loyal fan base. Wyllys brought his unique party nu disco, while Turkuaz started things off right with exquisite energy. The Caravan of Thieves proved they belonged with a scorching cover of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” while Zach Deputy brought his looping to two stages.

Festival Highlights

Warren Haynes by Karina Rykman
With the pre-show announcement that the Levon Helm Band (“a roving Ramble”) would be the last surprise artist enlisted, those in attendance knew they were in for a treat. After a raging set from Gov’t Mule, Haynes joined his friends to pay proper tribute and homage local hero and southern icon Levon Helm. Having passed away just six weeks prior, this band of veterans included Larry Campbell (professional guitar player for Woodstock’s Donald Fagen) and Levon’s daughter Amy. The emotionally-charged set included powerful versions of Levon’s classics from his long tenure with The Band, including a raucous “Up on Cripple Creek”, a smoking “Ophelia,” and the usual barn-burning group love-in, “The Weight.” The atmosphere emanating from the stage and shared with the packed audience throughout the mountain was one of unfettered love and respect for Helm. People were breathless and beat from an intense display of showmanship and respect for their fallen idol. The show marked the highlight of a busy musical Saturday; the definitive and perhaps final showcase in a large public forum for how much Levon meant to so many throughout this region and across the country.

One could imagine they were in the South, with so many blues and southern-influenced artists on display at Mountain Jam. In the current musical landscape where most fans follow guitar-driven rock, there are presently few successful bands where the main focus is the piano. But this weekend belonged to the piano players. The last bastion of Piano Gods from the 70s like Elton John and Billy Joel would have been proud to see how the next generation was representing their instrument through this tickling of the ivories. Ironic that in a festival founded by one of our greatest guitarists, steeped in old-school blues riffs and southern-tinged rock n roll including Robert Randolph, Luther Dickinson, Larry Campbell, Anders Osborne, among others, at a jam session, it was this rare coming together of piano playing prowess that stole the show.

Nigel Hall by Karina Rykman
The incomparable energy put forth by Nigel Hall on a percolating late night R&B session, which included a Warren Haynes sit-in (Nigel has been touring with his band of late) and endless toe-tapping, body-jerking beats from the soulful musical maestro. We already know his style is reminiscent of Stevie Wonder from watching him play with Lettuce and Soulive, but one can see an even higher level of performance when he’s solely in charge. Hall is not a household name yet, but that is just a matter of time. When he dedicated a song he wrote to his girlfriend, we could all feel his love for her as much as he was feeling it from us.

John Medeski is best known as the keyboardist from the professional jazz outfit Medeski, Martin and Wood. As a member of The Word, Medeski is presented with the unique challenge of playing with two of rock’s greatest guitarists in Randolph and Dickinson. The Word, a modern day super group, is a pleasant bombardment to the senses and Medeski knows when to hit his marks and accentuate a jam amidst such formidable talents. Medeski passionately punches the keys on his organ further fueling the fire ignited by the guitar stalwarts. The Word offers Medeski another avenue to share his mastery of the keyboard as he parlays his experience in jazz into the gospel-inspired, Randolph-raging guitar pieces The Word offers. He delighted the crowd with his contribution to the band’s cover of Stevie Wonder’s “You Haven’t Done Nothin’.”

Ben Folds by Karina Rykman
All eyes were on Main Stage mid-Saturday afternoon as the North Carolinian trio Ben Folds Five promised to share their unique rhythms with an audience for the first time in 12 years. The addictive a cappella TV show The Sing-Off was cancelled days before, and the usual intelligent and affable Folds was not talking on this day, allowing his passionate singing and piano playing to speak volumes. With a die-hard fan base chanting and cheering along with classics like “Kate” and “Narcolepsy,” it left those unfamiliar to feed off this frenzy and thus enticed new fans to pay more attention. Folds remains a tour de force behind the keys of his Baldwin, preferring to hit it hard, standing up, and exuding a commanding energy reminiscent of early Elton John. One of our most brilliant lyricists, Folds and his band share insight on love lost in their only hit single, the catchy “Brick,” which persuaded nearly everyone to sing along (as Folds broke a piano string). Later, the band expressed the brutal feelings of a scorned lover in “Song for the Dumped,” which includes the none-too-subtle message, "'Give me my money back, you bitch, and don't forget my black t-shirt." Like Mayer and Swift, Folds’ songwriting touches on the human condition in a way accessible to the masses despite his deep, cerebral approach. Folds found success since the band's amicable break- up and I prefer him solo to this incarnation, which tries too hard to be edgy and alternative. Folds, a trained musicologist, may seem high-brow to some, but after watching his non-stop carnage onstage, including throwing his piano stool into the keys a la Jerry Lee Lewis, his raw energy remains a primal force from which anyone in attendance can't look away.

Mountain Jam by Karina Rykman
The premiere piano player on the scene is Marco Benevento. Having recently relocated nearby, Benevento was the only performer to play three different sets at the Jam. Before his two solo shows, he tore down the house by closing Thursday’s musical extravaganza with Led Zeppelin homage Bustle In Your Hedgerow. Many share a stronger affinity for Bustle than Led Zeppelin themselves due to their taking the improvisational jam aspects of these tunes to another level. The Berklee grad has been steadily playing for over a decade but has experienced a major shift in exposure and acceptance of late. A huge fan of sound experimentation, he uses an piano rigged up with a variety of circuit bent toys, guitar pick-ups, amplifiers, pedals and other effects including an organ. Benevento does not sing but rather uses his keyboard to treat his audience to one long jam session after another, interspersed with moments reminiscent of classical, jazz and just plain weird music. Between his unique rock jams on “Escape Horse” into “Morning After Party”, Marco parlayed his usual sardonic, strange banter into the fray, exclaiming, “Mountain Jam…tasty treats!” followed by asking a man on the chairlift for help. Benevento impressively tacked an innovative version of Amy Winehouse’s “Back to Black,” then shared his cover of Pink Floyd’s “Fearless” with a transition into “Benny and the Jets” with a flawless return to “Fearless,” leaving the audience to bask in his genius work. Benevento takes the structure of the original songs only to interpret them into a fused improv his own. Benevento is contagious and often hilarious, with his talent oozing onto everyone within earshot as he performs like a man on a mission, desperate to share his love for music. No one plays the piano like Marco. Ironic that the old Band tune “Life is a Carnival” would sum it up at this festival filthy with guitar shredders.

At the conclusion of the festivities, I looked back at the old ski mountain, now dank, dirty and deserted. The enlightenment was clear. There was a mountain and it provided us so many musical memories. For much of that time spent on it, we forgot about the mountain as we were only entranced with the music emanating from it. Now departing, there was a mountain again, but we were content knowing it would be there next year to again share its magical truth and playful mayhem.

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[Published on: 6/27/12]

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