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Elegy in rock: Farewell Mountain Jam

February 9, 2019 12:12 am Updated: February 11, 2019 11:55 am

To quote a lyric from a song by George Harrison: “All things must pass.”

So it is that Greene County bids a fond farewell to Mountain Jam, which this year passes from Hunter Mountain to Bethel Woods in Sullivan County.

It should not be a surprise to anyone that the big jam-band, alt-rock festival took its talents downstate in the face of reports of slipping attendance and a lamentable departure from the festival’s original intentions.

Gary Chetkof, CEO of Radio Woodstock and a Mountain Jam co-founder, said the move was necessary for the rebirth of the festival on the 50th anniversary of the legendary Woodstock Music and Art Festival held in August 1969 in Bethel.

“We thought holding the festival in Bethel on the 50th anniversary of Woodstock was a good time and place for the festival to have a fresh look and a fresh feeling,” Chetkof said.

In other words, we’re going to fix something that wasn’t broken for the sake of commemorating a 50-year-old rock festival that still nurtures a long-gone hippie ethos. We love ya, Hunter Mountain, but we gotta go.

From the beginning, Mountain Jam embodied a subtle experimental side of rock, exemplified by Jam perennial Gov’t Mule and the band’s lead guitarist Warren Haynes. Gov't Mule's album "Shout!" was released in 2013. It is a double CD set in which one disc contains songs recorded by Gov't Mule with vocals by Warren Haynes. The second disc contained the same songs with each track featuring a guest vocalist.

Mountain Jam’s earliest incarnations featured such idiosyncratic artists as Medeski, Martin & Wood, Grateful Dead spinoff Phil Lesh & Friends, Umphrey’s McGee and RatDog, another Dead spinoff, alongside the Allman Brothers Band, the Derek Trucks Band, Les Claypool, My Morning Jacket, Tedeschi Trucks Band and Widespread Panic. But musical styles and cultures change with the times, and Mountain Jam changed with them.

Criticized for a shift toward more conventional rock acts, Mountain Jam featured Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers, Peter Frampton and the Steve Miller Band. Yet, Mountain Jam made history as a venue for one of Petty’s last concerts a few months before his death and Miller sealed his reputation as an inveterate jammer decades ago. Most recently, Beck, Alabama Shakes and the Black Keys performed masterful sets with solid ensemble playing replacing all the jamming and noodling.

The recent criticism of Mountain Jam is interesting in light of the announcement that Willie Nelson is tabbed as this year’s headliner. Now, while Nelson is a living legend and a ferocious live act, he is not the future of rock. And the Avett Brothers and Michael Franti & Spearhead are vintage stars of the old Mountain Jam.

Hunter Mountain and the rest of Greene County stand to lose millions of dollars in revenue from Mountain Jam’s departure and face the economic unpleasantry of finding something to compensate for it. It’s also a crushing disappointment for fans who reveled in the beauty of Greene County’s mountain peaks, peaceful setting and the sounds of the natural amphitheater.

So, we conclude with a quote from another song, this one by the Sex Pistols: “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?”

*Editor's note: This story corrects an earlier version that misidentified the discs of Gov't Mule's 2013 album "Shout!"

As Sheriff Seeley's remarks singling Mountain Jam out for gratuitous comments defending his department's over policing of that event made clear, local law enforcement can take major credit for driving away $9.2M in annual revenue. Over thirty years that amounts to $300,000,000 conservatively factoring in inflation. Instead that money will flow to Sullivan County.

Meanwhile, Greene County is throwing its money away planning a new Jail Bond that will have a final cost of $90M. This is the opposite of encouraging tourism and economic growth.