Photos by Dino Perrucci
Thousands of live music fans assembled at the base camp of Hunter Mountain this weekend for the eighth edition of Mountain Jam, the annual festival hosted by Warren Haynes of Gov’t Mule/The Allman Brothers Band. Despite sporadic rain showers throughout the weekend, this year’s festival held a special significance for both the artists and audience as everyone gathered to mourn the recent loss of The Band’s legendary drummer, and local hero, Levon Helm.
With his adopted hometown of Woodstock only ten miles southeast of the festival’s site on Hunter Mountain in Hunter, NY, this year’s Mountain Jam became a weekend-long tribute to Levon’s legacy, with festival regulars reminiscing about his 70th birthday celebration at the festival two years ago, several bands covering his songs and even a group of campers setting up an acoustic jam session inside the lodge, inviting fellow Mountain Jammers to sing along to Band favorites like “The Weight” and “Up On Cripple Creek.”
This impromptu gathering of fans carried just as much emotion and grief as the hour-long tribute that Haynes mounted along with members of the Levon Helm Band—including Larry Cambell, Brian Mitchell, Jimmy Weider (who replaced Robbie Robertson in the reincarnation of The Band), Teresa Williams, Byron Isaacs, Justin Guip, Earl McIntyre, Jay Collins, Kenny Rampton, Blue Lou Marini and Howard Johnson—in the middle of Gov’t Mule’s set on Saturday night, when Helm’s musical family assembled to play songs from The Band’s catalog like “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” “Ophelia,” “It Makes No Difference” and their own version of “The Weight” featuring festival standout Lukas Nelson. Gov’t Mule remembered Levon during their own sets as well, covering “I Shall Be Released” and rolling “The Shape I’m In” into a spacey Danny Louis keyboard jam during their set on Friday night.
Other Mountain Jam acts worked Levon tributes into their sets as well, starting on Thursday when Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe broke into a high-energy bebop interpretation of “Yahoo Street Scandal” from Bob Dylan and the Band’s Basement Tapes with Warren Haynes dropping in for a solo. The Travelin’ McCourys ft. Keller Williams launched a memorial doubleheader on the main East Stage on Friday afternoon, playing bluegrass standard “Tennessee Stud” in honor of recently passed guitarist Doc Watson followed by their own folky version of “Up on Cripple Creek.” Breakout Mountain Jam stars Sister Sparrow and The Dirty Birds followed suit on the same stage Saturday, infusing “Cripple Creek” with their raucous brand of harmonica and horn-laden soul. Headliner Steve Winwood offered the final Levon tribute of the weekend on Sunday night with his politely funky take on “The Weight,” capping off an emotional weekend for Helm’s hometown crowd.
While remembering Levon Helm greatly affected the tone of the festival, it certainly wasn’t all tears and sorrow. The festivities kicked off indoors on Thursday night with hard-hitting performances from Turkuaz, Mule side project Planet of the Abts, Karl Denson and instrumental Led Zeppelin cover project Bustle In Your Hedgerow, featuring Scott Metzger on guitar, Dave Driewitz on bass, Joe Russo on drums and Marco Benevento playing most of the vocal melodies on keyboard. In typical Mountain Jam fashion, Haynes made multiple appearances on Thursday night, also appearing onstage with Planet of The Abts on a cover of Black Sabbath’s “War Pig’s,” and then later with Bustle In Your Hedgerow.
Living only a short drive from the festival grounds, Benevento became a familiar face over the weekend at Mountain Jam, as he returned barely ten hours after leaving the stage with Bustle for a set early Friday afternoon, and yet another Friday evening. The first full day featured a blazing blues guitar display from Gary Clark Jr., The Roots starting off their trademark style of high-energy hip hop with a tribute to recently deceased Beastie Boy Adam Yauch and a nighttime Gov’t Mule set punctuated by rainstorms that sent many back to the safety of their tents. Elsewhere, Roosevelt Colliver of The Lee Boys sat in with both Anders Osborne and Gov’t Mule.
Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real started off Saturday on a high note, captivating the crowd and attracting the attention of Haynes, who invited Nelson to share the stage with him twice later that night. Later that afternoon, Mariachi El Bronx and The Word (Robert Randolph, John Medeski & The North Mississippi All Stars) set the groove for the rest of the day, which featured a set by Ben Folds Five, a second indoor set from Sister Sparrow and the Dirty Birds and a muddy late-night dance party with Lotus, after the emotional Levon tribute and a jazzy set from Gov’t Mule.
The last day of the festival picked up right away, with the Simone Felice Band covering Neil Young’s “Helpless” and Dylan’s “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” before a rainy but fun set from Trombone Shorty and Orleans Avenue. The rain broke in time for the Tedeschi Trucks Band’s blazing afternoon set, and Dawes even saw some brief glimpses of sunshine during their impressive afternoon performance. Sun showers dotted Michael Franti and Spearhead’s upbeat celebration of love and life, and the clouds finally parted to leave a clear, starry night for Steve Winwood’s closing set, which featured crowd favorite “Higher Love,” Winwood picking up the guitar for “Dear Mr. Fantasy” and an encore jam with Warren Haynes on the classic “Gimme Some Lovin’.”
With some spectacular musicians and the spirit of Levon all around the mountain, this year’s Mountain Jam was an emotional and unforgettable experience for everyone present that won’t soon be forgotten.