Familiar Faces And New Acts Converge In Upstate New York For Mountain Jam

The Lumineers 2013

Videos by American Songwriter

Every June deep in the woods in upstate New York, there’s an annual music festival. No, it’s not Bonnaroo or Coachella, nor is it a revival of Woodstock. It’s Mountain Jam, a celebration of rock and Americana music now in it’s ninth year, which attracts a niche group of die-hards from around the country who drive into the forest, set up camp, and listen to a plethora of musical acts, most of which involve a guitar and none of which would dare use a synthesizer or beat box.

The festival, which is run in-part by a local radio station, has grown in size and scope annually; this year’s installment featured four straight days of music compared to the typical three, and attendance reached record highs. However something peculiar happened at this year’s Mountain Jam, and it wasn’t the rain that consumed the first two days of the event, or the thick mud that spectators stood in while enjoying the musical acts. After a near-constant Billboard onslaught of your Justin Biebers and Katy Perrys in the recent years, the nation as a whole suddenly wants “real” music again. That’s not to say Justin Bieber isn’t real, but more than one person I spoke to at the festival talked about how “real music” is played with actual guitars; not anything created on computer software.

As a result, the radio is reflecting this change in taste. Last year, Z100 (the New York City pop radio station and home of artists like Pitbull and Bieber), suddenly started playing a little jam band ditty by Denver-based The Lumineers called “Ho Hey.”  Any other year, if The Lumineers played Mountain Jam, they would have been just another act- but this year, they were something different and the hype in the crowd was apparent right before they took the stage for their hour and a half long Saturday evening set- a prime slot. The band, who was giddy and jumping around, opened with a few album cuts before launching into the two and half minute “Ho Hey”. From their command of the crowd (which they ventured into for a couple of songs), it was obvious that for this group of spectators, The Lumineers were “theirs,”- not a product of a conglomerate that churns out poppy tracks, and not popular due to any sexual energy or scandal. The audience almost took the part of the proud parent, as if to say “this is real music, and we’re glad the country sees it that way too.” However entertaining their set was, one could tell that this is still a brand new band- besides “Ho Hey” and their follow-up “Stubborn Love,” the audience couldn’t singalong to much else. In addition, their set-list was padded with covers, as varied as a spot-on Bob Dylan for the fast-paced “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” as well as a triumphant version of the David Byrne track “This Must Be The Place.” Overall, this is a band made for the stage; they’ve written most of their hits, including “Ho Hey,” for the Denver club scene and it shows.

Similarly, also treated like music royalty, were the Avett Brothers. Hot off the success of the September release of their most recent album The Carpenter, the band braved a torrential downpour on Friday afternoon to play a variety of their most well-known songs. Unlike The Lumineers, the Avett Brothers have a rich history with full length albums dating back to 2002, but it’s only been within the last few years that they’ve started to capture the nation’s attention. Through the less than desirable weather conditions, the band played pitch-perfect renditions of songs like “Live and Die” and “Laundry Room,” so close to the recording you could have sworn their albums were playing in place of the actual band.

If the Avett Brother’s popularity within the past few years is another sign of this growing shift, it’s worth noting the older acts who were on the bill as well. A founding member of the Grateful Dead, Phil Lesh, also took the stage for a four hour set to close out the festival. The crowd seemed to enjoy them just as much as The Avett Brothers, but as blasphemous as it it may seem, overall the Avett’s Carpenter album peaked higher on the Billboard charts (#4) than any Grateful Dead album in their history (excluding a greatest hits album, their biggest selling was In The Dark, which peaked at number 6 in 1987). That’s not to say the Avett Brothers are more influential, but it was apparent by size of the crowd and energy onstage, today’s rock & Americana acts are enjoying more success and interest than the genre has seen in recent memory.

This changing of the guard was apparent with other acts as well. Levon Helm, who passed away in April 2012, had previously been a Mountain Jam mainstay; this year his daughter Amy performed a tribute to her father during an hour-long set midday on Saturday.  Somehow fitting in nicely with the rock lineup, Michael Franti and Spearhead took the stage. Franti, who seems to have a variety of followers akin to “deadheads,” led the crowd in a sing-a-long of his some of biggest hits including smile-inducing tracks, like “The Sound of Sunshine” and new single “I’m Alive (Life Sounds Like),” which made for a welcome break between all of the other folkier acts. Franti, who has performed at Mountain Jam before to acclaim, has also experinced increased success in recent years which each album selling more than the one previous. Perhaps that’s why Franti enjoyed what looked to be like the biggest afternoon crowd of the festival.

In addition, acts like Gary Clark Jr., Gov’t Mule, Dispatch, and Widespread Panic also took the stage for a nothing-but enthusiastic crowd; many of whom I spoke to liked the way how the festival is setup. Despite a few lulls, there was nonstop music for the entire run, and it was rare when one act would overlap another, leaving everyone to see every single musical performance available. This has it’s obvious perks, but on the occasion when you don’t like like a particular act there was nowhere else to go. Widespread Panic’s set, while good, seemed to drag on for a bit, but that could be because they had the misfortune of playing on the second night of the festival, when rains were pouring down and temperatures hovered in the low 50’s.

Overall, Mountain Jam is a celebration of “real” music (whatever that may mean to you), and bridges a smart gap between today’s radio favorites to yesterday’s musical legends. As a result, there’s no way to tell if this is the start of a larger pendulum swing from electropop to folksy rock on the charts or a few token exceptions, but from the sound of the crowd singing along to “Ho Hey,” it’s apparent that if just for a moment, the crowd would pass up a synthesizer for a guitar any day.

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