MOUNTAIN JAM: 2008
Rob Johnson, John Lynskey and Joe Bell all contributed to this report

All Photos by Rob Staub
The long drive up to the Catskills for Mountain Jam set the perfect tone for what would end up being a perfect weekend. Location means a lot to an outdoor festival, and Hunter Mountain is nothing short of spectacular. Add in the incredible lineup, and you have a recipe for an incredible weekend of music.

One early highlight on Friday was a band called BuzzUniverse, who played the old Marshall Tucker Band song "This Ol Cowboy." Haven't heard that live in ages, and they did a really good job on it. Pete Francis, of the band Dispatch, brought a large crowd for his afternoon set, and he captivated them with his powerful vocals and stage presence. Dispatch is one of those bands that has a cult following, even if they never made it big in the conventional sense, and if Francis' set was any indication, they may be worth checking out.

At 5:00 PM Grace Potter and the Nocturnals absolutely killed it! Grace was really workin' it and had the crowd (especially the guys) in the palm of her hand. Ivan Neville joined the band for "Right Place, Wrong Time" and the encore was the Who's "Gettin' In Tune." Scott Tournet's guitar solos during the entire set were some of the best we've seen from someone outside of our nucleus (ABB, GM, DTB) in a long time.

By the end of the show, everyone at HTN was feeling pretty good about having Grace on the cover of our March issue. (See picture) When she graciously signed autographs after the show, at least half of the people in line were holding the Grace Potter issue of Hittin' the Note. Nice!

Ivan Neville's Dumpstaphunk went on next and proceeded to knock the crowd out with their greasy, sweaty brand of Crescent City funk. This is the kind of music that grabs you by the neck and makes you dance against your will. Ivan is the star on lead vocals and keys, but one thing that makes this band unique is TWO bassists, and both Tony Hall and Nick Daniels are first-class funkmasters.

The first of two epic, double-decker Gov't Mule shows started off with "Hammer and Nails" before kicking into "Wandering Child," a welcome rarity from the Allen Woody days. "Don't Step on the Grass, Sam" was a welcome message at this party, but the show didn't really get down to business until a terrifyingly-intense version of Led Zeppelin's "Since I've Been Loving You." On this tune, Warren Haynes showed all the soul and passion that makes him such a remarkable performer.

Next, Warren chose to pay tribute to another classic band, the Beatles. This medley of "She Said, She Said" and "Tomorrow Never Knows" also featured a notable jam on "Day Tripper" and contained some of the most powerful, spontaneous improv of the whole weekend. To quote a Mule song, the band obviously had their "Game Face" on from the very beginning.

"Banks of the Deep End" and "Patchwork Quilt" offered some of the mellower side of Gov't Mule, before bringing out Brendan Bayliss of Umphrey's McGee for a superb version of "Sugaree." With Ratdog playing Sunday, there were plenty of Deadheads in attendance, and they roared their approval from the first notes.

Everyone in the audience was soaking up the vibe and the music – it sure was a good time! Grace Potter and Scott Tournet joined Gov't Mule for "Whole Lotta Love" right before the end of the first set, and it was a smoldering, sizzling, catch-on-fire kind of performance. This was a good place for a setbreak, if only because it would be hard for anybody, even Gov't Mule, to top that.

After the break, the Beatles theme continued with the other Umphrey's guitarist, Jake Cinninger, joining in on a jammed-out version of "Dear Prudence." A scorching "Rockin' Horse" brought the jams and crackled with intensity as Warren wore out his Gibson Firebird. A super-funky version of Little Feat's "Spanish Moon" with Ivan Neville of Dumpstaphunk and Ben Ellman from Galactic sitting in was arguably the highlight of the second set. Ellman in particular gets points for going toe-to-toe with Warren and not missing a lick, something that is never easy for anybody to do.

By the time the show closed with an incendiary double encore of "Mule" and "30 Days in the Hole," it was clear that Mule intended to set a high standard for the festival they were hosting. If anybody was in doubt that Gov't Mule has reached the point where they can anchor a large festival, those doubts had evaporated. Check out Mule Tracks to hear the show for yourself, here is the link: www.muletracks.com

Lotus and Galactic kept the party going until 4 AM, but your humble reporters didn't last that long. Let us just say that both bands are at the top of their game, and you can't do much better for jamtronica and New Orleans funk, respectively.

SATURDAY

If you don't like Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, then in the immortal words of Canned Heat, you've got a hole in your soul. The combination of them and JJ Grey and Mofro made for a soulful Saturday afternoon before the rain came through. For those who aren't familiar with the mighty Dap-Kings, they are the men behind the curtain of Amy Winehouse's sudden rise to fame. That's right – those soulful retro grooves that have made Ms. Winehouse a star are 100% Dap-powered.

Even so, there is no substitute for seeing the band with Sharon Jones, their fearless leader. A five-foot firecracker with the stage presence of a female James Brown, she had the band saying "How high?" every time she said jump. Besides being a great singer, songwriter and bandleader, she is the head of Dap-Tone Records and a one-woman soul revolution. It's just a shame she didn't have a larger crowd.

As previously mentioned, JJ Grey and Mofro were the perfect follow-up to the Dap-Kings, one of a very few bands that could have followed her set and kept the needle on the Soul-O-Meter pegged into the red. Whether he was wailing on harmonica, laying it down on keys, or ripping a hot guitar solo, JJ held everyone's attention like the consummate showman he is. "Jookhouse" was a particular highlight, a funky groove machine that got the crowd going.

In the middle of Ray LaMontagne's set, a sudden thunderstorm rolled through the mountains and sent everyone running for cover. This is where Mountain Jam's excellent location really paid off, as most of the patrons simply ducked into the ski lodge and rode the storm out without any problems. Once it cleared, LaMontagne continued his set of mellow blue-eyed soul as if nothing had happened. Kudos to the Mountain Jam staff for handling the storm so well, and bouncing back so quickly.

Jackie Greene, known to many for his work in Phil Lesh and Friends, put on a rowdy, fun set after LaMontagne, but the rain had sent some people back to the campground. Greene is an old-school entertainer, someone who can write a song, sing and play guitar, and do all three better than most.

Michael Franti is such a charismatic performer, and he has enough energy to power a small city...heck, a large city. His positive, reggae-flavored set had the crowd in the palm of his hand, and his band Spearhead matched up favorably against the excellent musicians we saw all weekend. If you enjoy conscious reggae in the Bob Marley vein, do yourself a favor and see him live when you get a chance. By the end of his show on Saturday, the whole crowd was like one big smile. It is physically impossible to not have a good time at a Michael Franti concert, and if you're lucky and/or in the right mindset, it could change your life, or even the world.

There is nothing like opening a show with "Helter Skelter" and "Thorazine Shuffle" to let people know that you mean business. Saturday's Mule show had barely started, and it was already nearing the peaks of Friday's show.

Perhaps out of a sense of mercy, the band took it down a notch for a sequence of "Child of the Earth" and "To Love Somebody." The latter featured Ray LaMontagne on vocals, and even if his voice is very different from Warren's, the two share a heartfelt quality that makes every word seem like an urgent plea from the depths of their soul.

The first set ended with a powerful trifecta of Mule classics, going from the Zeppelin-esque grandeur of "Painted Silver Light" to the deep blues of "No Need to Suffer" to the raw, crunchy power of "Blind Man in the Dark." Moments like this make you realize what a deep songwriting catalog Warren has created over the years.

After that old school run to finish the first set, the second set kicked off with some reggae flavor from the recent Mighty High CD, a double shot of "Unring the Bell" and "Unthrow the Spear" with Michael Franti of Spearhead. The reggae direction has been very controversial with some Mule fans, but Franti's presence made it all seem natural and unforced.

"Bad Little Doggie" marked a return to the classic Mule sound, then things really got cooking with a nasty "How Many More Years" that showed Warren in full-on, take no prisoners mode. The heartbreaking "Tastes Like Wine" followed, and once again you have to step back and tip your cap to the breadth of Mr. Haynes' songwriting ability.

For the second time in two nights, Matt Abts proceeded to make every drummer in the audience seriously consider giving up the instrument by unleashing a terrifying display of power and finesse. John Ginty of Robert Randolph's band joined the band afterwards for a testifying, energetic version of "After Midnight" that was chronologically appropriate, given the lateness of the hour.

"Brand New Angel" closed out the second set, but it was mere prelude to an astonishing quadruple-decker encore sandwich. "Beautifully Broken" melted into a wicked "32/20 Blues," which jammed into "Fallen Down." As if that wasn't more than enough, they finished off with a powerful medley of the Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter" and a jam on the Dead's "The Other One." The Great American Songbook is in good hands as long as Gov't Mule is on the road, and Warren and company proved over and over again that they are one of the best live bands in the world today.

Again, if you don't want to take our word for it, check out the Mule Tracks: www.muletracks.com

Dark Star Orchestra elected to do an original setlist for their late night slot, instead of recreating an actual Dead show. "St Stephen," "Truckin' " and "Not Fade Away" were all crowd favorites. Meanwhile, the livetronica band Pnuma Trio kept the Lodge hopping until 4 AM. If you like the late night scene, you can't do much better than Mountain Jam.

SUNDAY

By Sunday, a sense of festival fatigue had started to set in, and it took a while for the crowd to really get warmed up. The gritty guitars and Southern gothic storytelling of the Drive-By Truckers got everyone to wake up, and the day only got better from there.

Medeski, Martin, Scofield, Haynes and Wood should hit the road. There was great interplay between Warren and Scofield on guitar on "In Case the World Changes Its Mind," but it was hard to take the spotlight off the core trio – one has to stand in awe of Billy Martin and Chris Wood as a rhythm section, and that Medeski guy isn't too shabby, either.

MMW isn't for everybody. They can get WAY out there at times, and when they do, they can lose their audience. However, this show had a lot of good grooves and hot jams, and showed them at their best. They are some of the best musicians on the planet on their respective instruments, and when it all clicks like it did at this show, it's easy to understand the guy who said at one point, "That is the future of live music, right there."

The Levon Helm Band put on a performance that rolled like thunder over the crowd. Animated and having the time of his life, an obviously delighted Levon played with an intensity that belied his 68 years. He led his ensemble through a nice mixture of tunes from his days in the Band, including "Ophelia," "Long Black Veil," "Rag Mama Rag," "Tears of Rage" and "The Shape I'm in." Levon moved effortlessly from drums to mandolin, and clearly enjoyed sharing vocal duties with his daughter Amy. Levon worked in "Anna Lee" and "Got me a Woman" from his award-winning album The Dirt Farmer, both of which were received warmly. This stellar set was topped off by an appearance from Warren Haynes on "I Shall Be Released" and "The Weight" – the joy on the stage was contagious, and Levon Helm proved why he is an American musical treasure.

Any Dead-related show that opens with "Help On The Way>Slipknot!" and ends with "Terrapin Station," "Sugar Magnolia" and "Ripple" can make anyone happy, and judging from the crowd response, the audience at Mountain Jam felt the same way. This was a very solid show from Ratdog, and ended the weekend on a great note.

Besides the great opener, seeing Levon Helm sit in on drums for "She Belongs to Me" was legendary. The crowd warmly received Levon, and he was right on point, even when Bob left the song's structure for a little improv riffing. Warren Haynes was another very special guest, trading verses on "Loser" and adding perfect slide flourishes. "Loose Lucy" was another crowd favorite, with its refrain of "Thank you for a real good time" seeming like the perfect sentiment for the end of a great weekend of fun and music.

The Ratdog original "Two Djinn" that ended the first set showed that they are not just a Dead cover band, and really allowed the band to flex their muscles. Mark Karan, recently recovered from throat cancer, was in great form all night, and he and sax player Kenny Brooks really got to shine on this tune.

After a short break, the band took the stage to an intense, spooky rendition of "Masters of War" that sizzled with righteous anger. Weir meant every word as he spit out lines like "All the money you made will never buy back your soul." By the time he got to the end, he drove the point home by repeating "And I'll stand over your grave till I'm sure that you're dead" several times.

"Friend of the Devil" and "Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodleoo" marked a return to happier territory, with two of the most upbeat songs in the Dead catalog. However, the main event was the full performance of the entire "Terrapin Station" suite, something very few of the Deadheads in attendance had ever seen live.

This massive 23-minute excursion hit the note on every level. Bobby was in fine voice, giving tremendous pathos to the lines "While you were gone/Space was filled with darkness/The obvious was hidden/With nothing to believe in/The compass always points to the pits" from "At A Siding." Likewise, the churning jam in "Terrapin Flyer" was given a full treatment, with drummer Jay Lane getting to show off his chops. When it was all over, you felt like you had been on an epic journey across time and space.

"Sugar Magnolia" was an obvious, wise choice for a set closer, if only because there aren't many other tunes in Ratdog's arsenal that could have followed "Terrapin." One of the special moments of the whole weekend was the encore, a sweet "Ripple" that had the crowd singing along to every word. "Let there be songs to fill the air" could have been the motto of the whole weekend, and it was the touching, emotional final word on Mountain Jam.

It was a treat to see so many of our readers at the HTN booth, and, needless to say, the music was superb and the vibe nothing but positive – we're already looking forward to next year. Many thanks to everyone at Radio Woodstock and Hard Head, and especially Warren Haynes, for such a fine weekend.
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