There are an awful lot of big anniversaries being celebrated this year at Mountain Jam. The Hunter Mountain music extravaganza — which no less an authority than Rolling Stone dubbed one of the top eight music festivals in the country last year (alongside the likes of Lollapalooza) — is five years old. And it seems this once tiny music festival has certainly grown up: It’s now able to attract headliners like the Allman Brothers Band, who will honor their own 40th anniversary by jamming away in the Catskill foothills. And finally, this summer also marks 40 years since the Woodstock Festival, which was clearly the inspiration for this fun-loving party in the peaks.
Whatever it is you want to celebrate, on the last weekend in May, 12,000-plus festivalgoers will flock to Hunter Mountain. Some will pack the hotels, others will camp under the stars. During the waking hours, they’ll be treated to performances by the likes of Michael Franti & Spearhead, Coheed and Cambria, Martin Sexton, The Hold Steady, and Bill Kreutzmann of Grateful Dead fame.
Like Woodstock, Mountain Jam is all about music. The participating bands are chosen for their virtuosity, their endurance, and their showmanship. The acts are transgenerational — Richie Havens, who is on the bill this year, played at the original Woodstock more than a decade before the DJ known as Girl Talk, another act, was born — and they are known to intermingle. For example, Warren Haynes, the guitar legend and event cosponsor, might take the stage with, say, Railroad Earth.
Ray Lamontagne with Gov’t Mule
“There’s a lot of crossover of artists,” says Richard Fusco, the director of marketing for Mountain Jam and one of the founders of WDST Radio Woodstock, “which is a very Woodstock concept. And we’re trying to create the atmosphere of community, as opposed to people just coming to see a concert.”
The Woodstock comparisons are not accidental.
“The jam-band scene evolved from the Woodstock ’69 festival,” says Gary Chetkof, the principal owner of WDST — and the driving force behind Mountain Jam. “It’s a similar vibe here, and we try to keep it that way.”
One of the hallmarks of the original event — which was billed as “An Aquarian Exposition” — is the idea of community. Mountain Jam generates the same type of dynamic. “People are helping each other out,” Chetkof says. “The quote is: ‘If you sneeze, 12 people will say, “God bless you.” ’ The idea of treating one another with respect — and community — is clearly descended from the Woodstock ’69 festival.”
While the demographics trend younger, the crowd is of mixed age. The campsite in particular — tucked away from the hue and cry of the stage — is a hodgepodge of humanity: all living together for three days in relative harmony. “We program Mountain Jam to have older, classic acts as well as new and up-and-coming acts,” says Fusco. “That’s a very Woodstock concept as well.”
Bob Weir and Levon Helm
Unlike Woodstock, the Mountain Jam offers much more in the way of entertainment (and thankfully, much more in the way of restroom facilities). Festivalgoers can nosh on healthy food; ride a Ferris wheel; hit the Frisbee golf course; enjoy a fireworks display over the mountain; imbibe at the oxygen bar; and partake in an array of activities at the Awareness Village, including yoga, acupuncture, meditation, healing modalities, and massage therapy. The artists take part in the activities when they’re not on stage; Franti, for one, is known to take the daily yoga classes.
“It’s a festival atmosphere,” says Helen Gutfreund, the owner of Bodymind Massage Therapy in New Paltz, who attended Mountain Jam last year. “The music is peace-love-and-happiness. The crowd it attracts is a fun-loving, happy crowd. It’s a good vibe the whole time.”
Although neither Chetkof nor Fusco attended the 1969 festival — the former was too young, and the latter went to a friend’s wedding instead — they are no strangers to the peace, love, and music vibe. Fusco helped found WDST in 1980, when it was promoted as “public radio with commercials.” Chetkof’s purchase of the station in 1993 marked a renewed commitment to the Woodstock ideals.
Fittingly, Mountain Jam began life as a one-day music festival to commemorate the 25th anniversary of WDST. “We wanted to have one big outdoor concert on a nice spring day,” Chetkof recalls.
Warren Haynes and Michael Franti
With its verdant beauty, ample number of hotels and restaurants, and naturally pristine acoustics — the audience sits on the mountain itself, looking down at the stage, creating a de facto amphitheater — Hunter Mountain was an obvious choice. “It’s a beautiful venue, and not many people had been there before in the spring,” Chetkof says. Gov’t Mule and Robert Randolph headlined, the weather cooperated, and there was so much enthusiasm for the concert among the 3,500 attendees that Chetkof decided to stage an encore the following year. Only then was the festival given a proper name.
“We were going to print the posters and T-shirts that day,” Chetkof says, “and someone said, ‘You need a name.’ ” After a quick brainstorming session — “It was literally a five-minute meeting” — Mountain Jam was born.
For the second festival, they added a second day and arranged for some attendees to camp in the Hunter Mountain foothills. “It poured the whole time,” says Chetkof with a laugh. But the rain did not dampen anyone’s spirit — if anything, the mud gave the festival even more of a Woodstock feel. Once again, Mountain Jam was a hit.
But the third time was the charm. Chetkof added a third day of music, drawing an impressive roster of bands that included indie faves My Morning Jacket and Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh.
“The proudest moment I had,” Chetkof says: “The third year, we had Phil Lesh deciding to play the festival. He put a band together with Warren Haynes just for Mountain Jam.” The impromptu band spent an afternoon rehearsing at WDST studios and took the stage the next day.
Woodstock redux: Festival patrons enjoy the music
“There were 12,000 people there. It had been raining, but it stopped. I was backstage, and I thought, ‘This is a dream come true. I’m going to stand here for the whole performance and just enjoy it,’ ” Chetkof remembers. “That was the crowning moment.”
By last year’s Mountain Jam — the largest yet, and with arguably the biggest headliner in Bob Weir & Rat Dog — word had spread among the artists. Bands were going out of their way to play the festival on Hunter Mountain.
This year’s incarnation is something of a coming of age. “Mountain Jam,” after all, is also a 34-minute rock jam by the Allman Brothers Band, encompassing the entire second side of the album Eat a Peach. It is a riff on Donovan’s “There Is a Mountain,” and the bane of jukeboxes everywhere.
“We thought maybe one day we’d get the Allman Brothers,” Chetkof says, “but we never actually imagined that it would happen.”
But the Allmans are ramblin’ into town, all the way from the West Coast, just to play a festival that was originally conceived as a one-day-only, one-time-only event. And why shouldn’t they? There’s nothing quite like Mountain Jam — in the Hudson Valley, or anywhere else.
“If you’re lucky enough to get a blue sky and some white puffy clouds,” Gutfreund says, “it’s like heaven.”
♦ When: May 29-31
♦ Tickets: Passes are available on-line at www.mountainjam.com
Festival Pass (provides access Fri.-Sun.): $139.50
Festival Pass with Camping (provides access to campgrounds Fri.-Sun.; RV access additional $175): $159.50
Festival VIP Pass (all-access, includes use of VIP entrances, refreshment lounge, and front-of-stage viewing areas): $379.50
♦ Visit Web site for single-day ticket information.