It’s been a long time since I went to a “Festival” type concert, but at the urging of a friend who was calling me lame, I bought a one-day pass for Mountain Jam. When I looked at the schedule for Saturday, a couple of performers jumped out at me – Mavis Staples and the North Mississippi Allstars Duo, and a chance to see Gov’t Mule. So, this 54-year old headed up the mountain wearing a NYRA “Alabama” hat, a Buck Dharma Archive T-shirt and comfortable shoes. I packed one of the kid’s backpacks with everything I needed to enjoy the concert – a change of clothes, with a hoodie and heavy sweat pants for when it got cold, a camera, binoculars (never used them once), bug spray, sunscreen, Aleve, my medicine, a big water bottle and a flashlight. With a Coleman camp chair, I was ready!
We found a place a couple of hundred feet from the stage, and claimed (or so we thought) our ground for the day and began 12+ hours of music and people watching. The crowd was very diverse – families with very young kids up to people I would consider old. The weather was spectacular – sunny with a breeze and in the mid-70s – and as we got there, the Ryan Montbleau Band started playing. Never heard of them before, have no idea what any of the songs were called, but it was a vibrant performance that swung and rocked and fit the bright weather. The guitar player was excellent and had one of the best, if not the best solo of the day. These guys ended their set by saying they play house parties! I don’t know the names of the songs, but I am going to find out.
With no break, the talent moved to the other stage where Zach Deputy took the stage. Zach is a one-man band – singing and playing along with his sequencer, he took the crowd all over the musical map, finishing with a “Magic Carpet Ride” medley that included Stevie Wonder, James Brown, Parliament/Funkadelic and back to Steppenwolf. It was pretty wild, and people were up and dancing and singing along, and I was having a great time watching another person I had never heard of rock the house. I want to know how all these teenage kids know the words to “Magic Carpet Ride?”
Mavis Staples didn’t know where she was, but she knew what to do. Playing some of the Staples’ staples, (I should have written all this down!) along with a bunch of the tunes from her album from last year, Mavis fronted a great band. The drummer was cool in his suit and tie and rocked pretty well. The guitar player was great, and the bass player played an incredible slide guitar as well. It was like being in church, and Mavis was preaching the Gospel of Love. Best part of the show was seeing the young people singing along.
Next was a band called Portugal. The Man, whose claim to fame was being from Sarah Palin’s hometown of Wasilla, Alaska, and now Oregon. When this was announced, the crowd didn’t react, which was one of the big surprises of the day. I quickly understood why when one of the future leaders of America, resplendent in tie dye and wearing crocs stumbled in front of us and vomited, leaned forward and stumbled on! As for the band, I guess the guitar player started out as a solo looper, but I wasn’t really getting it. Loud, distorted guitar (hollow body Gretch guitars), and a voice that sounded more like Penelope. The Girl, they jammed for their allotted time, and I didn’t pay much attention and went to “Awareness Village,” from whence I came away enlightened. After a stop at the restrooms, I was my old self again and got back to my seat in time for the next band I had never heard of before.
People were rushing the stage to see the Avett Brothers. Everyone under the age of 30 knew the lyrics to all the songs. People were bouncing up and down and waving their hands back and forth, and there were banjos and foot stomping and sing-a-longs and all, and it was pretty pleasant, and I sat through most of the show and enjoyed watching the young people dig a band. I sort of remember those days back in the 1970s. They came back and played an encore and had this nice mellow feeling going through the crowd, which was shattered by the next group.
Luther and Cody Dickinson came out as the North Mississippi Allstars Duo. I had expected acoustic guitars, but they came to rock the blues. They did all the cool NMA songs like “Po’ Black Maddy,” and without a bass player, they set up and incredible groove propelled by a backbeat and slide guitar. These guys were a real hit, and Luther played cigar box and coffee can guitars, and on a few tunes Cody played guitar and drums at the same time. The crowd was getting pretty rowdy by this time, the air was taking on a strong fragrance, and people were getting clumsier as they navigated through the crowds. The clouds started to come in around that time, and everyone was excited about the next band I had never heard of.
Michael Franti and Spearhead apparently have a huge following. Franti is a 6’6” giant and master showman. He had a crack band with two guitars, a keyboard player, bass, drums, percussion, a back-up singer, a sign language interpreter and a florist who made an arrangement on stage during his encore. Everyone but me knew all the words to songs, but most had choruses that were easy to figure out and led to people jumping up and down and/or waving their hands and swaying. The music is a mix of reggae, soul, rock, pop, disco, techno and gospel. The songs are about sunshine and life and ganja and peace and love and the children and more sun and ganja. They performed a great version of Bob Marley’s “One Love,” and ended with a song where they brought about a hundred kids up on stage to sing the last song with Michael. Most of the kids clearly had a contact high and some numbly swayed and nodded to the music, while another stood still as a statue while wearing the kind of hearing protection earmuffs you see on construction sites or shooting ranges. One of the girls even knew the words and got to sing a verse over the mike. The rest were jumping about in the fog. The crowd was really pushing forward now, and instead of flicking their Bics like we did back in the old timey days, they do what I call the swayve. Young and old swavying to the music, no cares, no worries (well, some of the older members of the crowd were probably worried if they could make it to the rest rooms in time), up on the top of a mountain on beautiful day. I was surprised by the number of people who left when Spearhead was finished, but the hardcore Gov’t Mule fans – mostly male, drunk and high – were crushing forward in a relentless stumble, spilling beers and burning people with their cigarettes, knocking over chairs and tripping on blankets. This was all before the only break of the day.
It was dark and cold now, and there was a fog machine on the stage pushing out redundant smoke, and the lights and sound were being tested, and the Mule fans jockeyed for position.
What can I say about Gov’t Mule? We went from peace and love to the Thorazine Shuffle. The mood was much darker, and music was a bit louder, and Warren slowly built the crowd up to the boiling point. People were yelling and screaming. The pumped fist replaced the swayve, and all the cute young girls moved back to get away from all the testosterone. The tattooed couples embraced and saluted with their beer cups. Who knew Mule was the greatest cover band of all time? Their version of Pink Floyd’s “Money” was especially noteworthy because Warren Haynes sounded so good playing a Telecaster. He brought out the sax player from his other band, and they just smoked the song and tried to blind us all with the brightest stage lights I have ever seen. They followed with Sabbath’s “War Pigs,” (again, all the young kids knew all the words – I can’t even remember them anymore, so I Ozzyfied my personal sing-along wherever I forgot). He owned the crowd as he went into intermission.
They came back and played another great cover, whose name escapes me, and then went into the Mule catalogue with things like “Deep End,” and they brought out the Dickinson brothers with Luther playing slide and Cody playing a washboard for what Warren labeled “the blues part of the show.” We got to the first encore, when we decided to beat the rush and head to the car. As we were leaving, Mule was doing an awesome cover of Lennon’s “Working Class Hero.” I was tired and sore, dirty and dusty, slightly burned but thoroughly entertained. The music was excellent, and the location is wonderful. I could hardly walk at the end of the day, but, dang, I had fun.
Review and photographs by Dan Hogan. See more of Dan’s photos from the day here.