Nobody who plans on attending a day-long rock ’n roll festivus in the middle of nowhere actually wakes up at 5:30 on a Sunday, much less hits the road before the Today Show. But there we were, fueling Melissa’s truck in the pouring rain and getting my bacon, egg and cheese swiped by some sneaky girl at Dunkin Donuts. (Bacon-lovers know no bounds.) Mountain Jam 2010, here we come!
The hour-long trip to Hunter is gorgeous despite the cold rain, and none of the photos I take from the passenger seat do the landscape any justice. We debate stopping near Kaaterskill Falls, but the winding, slippery road and fear of being late (late? Really?) keeps us truckin’ on.
The first thing we notice when we pull into the crowded, muddy lot is that the dirt is red and it’s pretty good at seeping into pristine white sneakers like cherry syrup in a Sno-cone. Nevertheless, the breeze is refreshingly sweet and heady, like flowers and hay; Melissa’s first words are “Everything here smells so clean!” (We will be reviewing that quote later.)
The drizzle lets up for a moment, so I photograph festgoers while Mel mans the video camera. We soon realize we’re missing an essential sine qua non in Mountain Jam fashion: galoshes. Spotted, striped, plaid and paisley, they are everywhere, and surprisingly, they look pretty chic with all the tie-dye. The conformist fashionista in me vows to buy a pair the second we return to Poughkeepsie.
We decide to see what’s poppin’ at the Main Lodge, where it’s drier (for the most part). A small group congregates at the bottom of a gated staircase; they tell us that WDST is doing a live radio show up on the landing with Michael Franti, one of the Jam’s headliners. Natch, we sneak up and flash our wristbands, which garner suspicious looks from the staff — we’re sporting the equivalent of campers’ passes instead of the VIP badges we’d asked for. Thankfully, our awesome WDST contact recognizes us and we witness magic in the making (see Melissa’s journal/video about Michael Franti being the rainman and such). A lot of clapping and singing ensues, and we earmark his show at 3 p.m. as can’t-miss.
Back outside, we catch snippets of a series of concerts: The Bridge — the first act of the day — includes an Eddie Vedder lookalike on lead guitar and a saxophonist in a baseball cap. The band was amazing, especially when Baseball Sax Man and Eddie Vedder II do an awesome back-and-forth jam. Next door, London-based One eskimO begins their set — Melissa echoes my thoughts when she dreamily remarks of the British guitarist (Pete Rinaldi), “I can listen to him talk all day.” The California quartet ALO, joined by Jackie Greene (who later makes an appearance at the Levon Extravaganza), are tremendously fly as well.
We pop indoors for Myles “Mojo” Mancuso, one of the musicians we’d profiled the week before for Melissa’s “Forever Young” music feature. Seriously, this kid is good. At first glance he’s an unassuming 14-year-old: quiet, freckle-faced, and blue-eyed with a shock of red hair that just screams chess club. But onstage and guitar in hand, he transforms into a true bluesman (his husky “How y’all doin’ tonight?” channels a Mississippi man-alter ego). Along with his dad, Nick, on the drum kit and Bruce “The Wolf” Wolffield, the bald, bearded bassist (and master of the “Myles Mancuso Horn Section” — a kazoo), the Mojo Myles Band has some serious soul. Everyone in the room — from teenyboppers to baby boomers — were either singing, grinning, or making some sort of rhythmic movement (watch the videos here), especially during the note-perfect cover of “Ring of Fire.” Needless to say, Myles rocked it.
Afterward, our schedule gets hectic — we opt for some grub and skip a few notable acts (Justin Townes Earle, Alison Moore, These United States, Jay Farrar, and the James McLean Band) for the aforementioned weather-controlling Michael Franti (see Melissa’s report); Matisyahu (you know his hit, “King Without a Crown”); and the McLovins, a trio of high-schoolers from Hartford that could give Phish a run for its money. (After the crowd chanted relentlessly “One more song!” the guys hopped back onstage and treated us to a perfect rendition of The Doors’ “Break on Through,” introduced simply by 17-year-old bassist and vocalist Jason Ott as “one from the ‘60s you might know.”)
Some warm libations in the form of coffee and hot cocoa and an hour-half Alison Krauss/Union Station gig later (she’s amazing, but that sorrowful voice is our Whiskey Lullaby), we decide we need a major break before the big daddy of ‘em all — the Levon Helm and Friends show. By now the afternoon sun is replaced by a drizzly, overcast sky and some chilling winds (it dropped into the 40s by then), so we make a beeline for the vendors to warm up. A Mountain Jammer with cheese fries in a doggy bowl points us in the right direction, and before long we’re noshing on heart attack material: Cheez Whiz-covered starch sticks and fried Oreos drizzled with chocolate syrup. Despite the warm deliciousness, I’m still freezing; I pull Mel toward a tent filled with sweatshirts at the edge of the grounds, where we meet another Miles (see photos). Turns out a few hugs and some leftover cheese fries will get you two dirty jokes and a 10-dollar discount off a poncho, holla back.
We assess our recent acquisitions at a picnic bench, where a few kids from Port Jervis attempt to offer us hallucinogens (that, or they meant dinner rolls; I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt). We decline — we’ve had enough baked goods of the edible sort for the day, thank you — and hustle over to the main stage for Levon, where Mel gets poked in the ear by a guy dancing to the Tom Petty record over the PA system. It can only get better, we think.
Levon’s show arrives an hour and a half late, but the crowd forgives him because it’s his birthday and, well, he is 70. (He can do whatever he wants, dag nabbit!) I try to get those around me to chant “Happy birthday,” but they’re either too lethargic or my teeth are chattering too much for them to hear.
By the way, Levon’s friends are awesome: He’s joined by Jam co-presenter and Allman Brothers/Gov’t Mule axe-man Warren Haynes; Don Fagen (Steely Dan); Alison Krauss; the ever-shy Ray LaMontagne (who, despite his ridiculous amount of talent, always appears so physically uncomfortable with himself); Jackie Greene (and hat); Sam Bush (and banjo); Jerry Douglas; Steve Earle; Allison Moore; Helm’s own daughter, Amy (with one set of pipes, lemme tell ya); and the Drive-By-Truckers’ own Patterson Hood and his pops, David Hood. Levon himself perches on a rolling drum set, and at the first beat you can tell this man was truly born for this stuff. One of their first songs was a slammin’ version of the Dead’s “Shakedown Street,” which garnered a lot of noise from the twenty-something art-dealer from Oregon to my immediate left. (“Oh my God, OH MY GOD, it’s Shakedown Street, can you believe it? They’re playing SHAKEDOWN STREET!” — he rocks my shoulder as he jumps — “DO YOU KNOW SHAKEDOWN STREET? THEY ARE PLAYING IT!”). “I know, I know, I know” I keep yelling, though for a portion of it I don’t actually know, because my eardrums have exploded by now.
I’m sorry I don’t recognize a lot of the songs, mostly because they’re just outside my particularly limited realm of musical knowledge. Despite this, I can’t help but bob and boogie. This is the magic of great rock ’n roll — it’s universal, trans-generational, alive — and the thousands crowding the muddy mountain, both young and old, all have that undeniable driving beat in them. Or dinner rolls. But still, it’s definitely more than a feeling. (Yes, that was my obligatory Boston reference for the day.)
Somewhere in between all the friends and frenzy, they present Levon with a huge birthday cake in the shape of the Hunter Lodge and stuffed with fiery candles. Our drummer does a lot of bowing and shaking (if he doesn’t feel the wind chill by now he’s cold-blooded), and his face seems stretched into an interminable smile. They start playing something great — either that Mardi Gras song or something else — but all I think about is how much I’d like some house-shaped fire cake right about now.
I’m stoked to hear personal fave Band classics “Up on Cripple Creek,” “Chest Fever,” and “Unfaithful Servant” — sung by the younger Hood who, in my opinion, could’ve relied less on the cue cards and benefited from a lesson or two with the great Rick Danko, most likely rolling in his grave, bless his soul. It’s still pretty excellent. They finish some two-and-a-half hours later with “The Weight,” in which the Midnight Rambler himself picked up his verse to thunderous applause. It’s at this moment — nearly midnight — that Melissa and I, probably suffering from the early stages of hypothermia, are ready to bizzounce big time. There’s nothing like the end of a concert that makes you realize how numb you are: We’re soaked to the bone by the day’s downpour and iced over by the wind, and standing on a steep mountain (literally with our toes pointed downward) for 15 hours can make the bones in your spine feel really, really misplaced, to say the least. We grab one last round of hot cocoa and coffee — liquid energy — and make a mad dash for the truck, parked conveniently 80 eternities away. We’re both emotionally happy but physically dead, and Melissa yells “This place smells like [the bad word for poo]!” most definitely due to all of the exposed armpits, muddy feet, and cigarette smoke. (Refer back to fourth paragraph now, please.)
Despite the loss of function in our toes and brain cells, we can’t stop chattering about the day’s events. It’s cliché, but everyone was so peaceful — there was a mutual, unspoken understanding of generosity and brotherhood, from the unified jumping (moshing?) crowd at Michael Franti’s show; to the peace offerings from Miles the Poncho Gypsy, Port Jervis Junkies, and Tom Petty Earpoker Guy; to the overwhelming waves of joy radiating from Levon and Co. to the music-loving masses and back again. It’s so Woodstock, but with more clothes, less drugs, and at a steeper angle. And that was just Sunday.