Written by Charles “Bones” Frank
Oh play me some mountain music; like grandma and grandpa used to play, then I’ll float on down the river, to a West VA hideaway!
Though only a few hours north of my home in North Carolina, the journey up Interstate 77 to Mountain Music Festival in Oak Hill, West Virginia is a voyage into another time. It’s a simpler, slower paced land where the beauty and gravity of life is easier to notice. The road is spruced with bridges over mighty river waters, tunnels through the cavernous mountain range that encompasses much of the land, and quaintness not easily found today in many parts of the country. My destination, however, would be anything but quiet, as Mountain Music Fest is totes one of the heaviest hitting jam-centric lineups in the region. Taking place at the ACE Adventure Resort, Mountain Music is an incredibly patron friendly, easy to manage hideaway, that for the last five years has grown to a stalwart in our community. Imagine easy access to amenities, an organized campground entirely marked by alphabetical placards, and a relatively small festival footprint allowing for optimal opportunity to travel to-and-fro venue to camp, with no shortage of shuttles to assist you in your trekking. Welcome to the gemstone that is Mountain Music Festival- lend me your time and allow me to oil this canvas.
I arrived under the blanket of darkness to the frenzy that festival Thursday evenings often are. People were absolutely bubbling with energy of what was to come. Not only was the slate for the evening rich with intrigue, but a massive storm cell had clapped through the festival grounds just prior to my arrival causing a state of what I will describe as “excited panic.” The rain, winds, and lightning had seemingly left many camps scattered and campers seeking refuge. However, this storm was no match for the undaunted resolve of this crowd, only starting to take form at the bottom of the mountain at The Lost Paddle, a covered open-air bar/venue/restaurant is where the first shows of the weekend took place. With the main venue not scheduled to open until afternoon the following day, The Lost Paddle was ground zero for this opening stanza of the party, and I made it in just as The Kind Thieves were completing their jaunt. The Kind Thieves are a bluegrass psychedelic explosion, natives of West Virginia who absolutely can walk the walk. Their high energy paved the perfect path for the groovematic attack that lay beyond; Aqueous.
While Aqueous was setting their stage, I moved around the lodge to see so many emissaries of the industry enjoying themselves and their friends, new and old. This Thursday night romp was indeed a meeting of the minds, set to a backdrop of the Lincoln log style building, complete with a stone hearth. The wood glowed as warm as the thick air just after the storm, and the faces of those enraptured in joy was a sight to behold. My cheeks began to swell from so much smiling and it was only night one. The beverages started to flow as the four piece from Buffalo, NY took the stage. Gantzer and company blazed into “Skyway -> Second Sight”, both fan favorites from their live Element Pt. I & II collections. This band’s layers are impossible to mistake, deep tonal explosive rock guitar licks backed by an unwavering bass pocket create a valley of exploration for the clavinet sounds intermingled with piano keys. After the first two originals, Nick MacDaniels emerged amidst “Warren In The Window” to take lead vocals on The Gorillaz classic “Clint Eastwood”, and thusly officially beginning BIG Something’s stamp on the festival. Like the song echoed, I was feeling glad. The band moved back into their own “Warren In The Window” to complete the bust out sandwich, and I began to move towards the shuttle busses to ascend me back up the mountain to rest up, as a full Friday laid in wait on the other side of the dawn.
The day broke under cloud coverage, augmented by a relentlessly hot sun whose face popped intermittently through the sky whenever it so chose. These conditions are normally quite difficult to overcome at the larger festivals–fatigue sets in much quickly and rest is hard to come by as many patrons either hunker down inside the main venue for hours at a time, or stay dormant at their camps until evening sets in. However, this is not the case at Mountain Music Festival. The layout of the campgrounds is ideal for foot traffic, even with puddles arising out of the still saturated ground from the previous evening’s storm. One can move fluidly from venue to camp with ease, saving time and much needed energy. The entirety of the camps are located in rows just behind the festival’s main entrance, making coming and going even in weather heavy conditions a charm. Imagine being able to easily locate your friends and visit your various groups without expending an hour every time you wish to hold a meet up. I arose to make the short walk down to the Strange Stage, located centrally amidst the campgrounds, where I was able to catch a band I had just missed the night before- Bennett Wales & The Relief. Let me say, what a relief it was that I heard about this group via Virginia friends and I’m mighty glad I had my catchers mitt on, ready to catch the slaw they slung. They played a refreshing style of blues melded rock & roll, laced with a kind of Muscle Shoals vibe all while combining melody and funk. Wales’ voice is not to be tangled with, and they were the perfect wake up for a large looming day of heavy jams.
Before retreating for some mid-day rest, I made my first trip into the main venue, and though the main stage shows didn’t start until a little later, I went to take in the offerings of the artists in the Pigment Sanctuary, curated by Ashton Hill. Wow, I caught my breath after entering the massive circus tent, the largest art tent I had ever been in by leagues. Amidst its coverage I found some of my favorite ambassadors of paint in the industry, Bryan Stacy, Leslie Caneda, Aaron Raybuck and Brad “Zilla” Smith just to name a few. The works in this gallery were simply stunning. The tent featured a kind of eastern Indian style geomancy, enriched with kneelers, foliage, and light of all different shades. Aaron Raybuck worked masterfully at his patented alternative dimensional depictions of creature and landscape. Zilla’s pastels broke through into consciousness, and I was a mere wanderer in the humid mist that began to cloak the grounds.
I watched some of Broccoli Samurai weave their web of Jamtronica for a crowd of onlookers ripe with admiration. The Ohio based quartet has risen nicely over the last few years to solidify their places in the scene as an absolute party starter. Their set acted for me as the catalyst to an evening sure to deliver. The schedule henceforth looked like this: Perpetual Groove -> Umphrey’s McGee -> BIG Something. This was not your average broth my friends, this was a chunky helping of stew, simmering up and ready to boil over. P Groove has returned to the stage from their hiatus and is back to conquering the land with their lyric heavy, emotional style of trance jam. I always draw signification from their shows, and this evening’s was no different. Butler’s voice is just beautiful, it always holds weight, and I can attach to it with ease. The energy in the crowd rose to a precipice when the boys from Athens delivered a spot on rendition of the Nine Inch Nails staple “Closer”, the addictive glitch synth sounds from the tune are right up P Groove’s wheel well, and the evening wild out had begun. The unit made way into “Teakwood Betz” from 2003’s Sweet Oblivious Antidote and the raging Chemical Brothers cover of “The Golden Path” which has been in the P Groove canon for years. Butler’s voice dominated the stage and dominated my conscious, as I was so glad the Groove was on the mountain.
The main event for Friday night featured two groups who need little introduction. First up was Umphrey’s McGee, the masters of timing, complexity, and rhythm. It is hard to describe this band without indulging in repetition as they have been hitting hard for quite sometime now, but for the second year in a row, the McGee was determined to stake their flag at Mountain Music. The Umphreaks were out in full as the sextet began the rock show. The first set featured and opening stanza of “Bathing Digits -> Mad Love -> Higgins”, before moving into the more seldom heard “The Fussy Dutchman” and a madly precise “Syncopated Strangers” effort that left crowd members swooning. The ending of the latter was a massive bomb of heavy rock and there wasn’t and Umphreak in the house left unsatisfied. The second set offered a little more dance vibes with “Bad Friday”, “Utopian Fir” and one of my personal favorites “Miami Virtue” from earlier on in the Umphrey’s catalogue. A bea-u-ti-ful “Trenchtown Rock” brought the show to a close, a song to which Bayliss’ voice lends wonderfully. The temperature up on the mountain was now at a constant and comfortable early summer cool, just right for the heat that was to come at the last main stage show for the night.
BIG Something took the stage to massive applause. Their seven piece lineup aboard for the ride took no time in making it clear that they were there to make a statement, as the set began just prior to 1am the boys had a message to deliver: WAKE UP! The Rage Against The Machine cover “Wake Up” was a genius touch to begin the throw down, and with its notes and MacDaniels’ commanding yet smooth voice rolling out over the masses it was clear that the boys from Burlington, NC were not messing around. Following Umphrey’s McGee is no easy task for anyone, regardless of the time slot or setting. Let me be very clear here, BIG Something relishes in opportunities like this and used the energy to dive into their set with ferocity. The set was bound together with monster jams both new and old, such as “Blue Dream -> Megladon”, “A Simple Vision -> Sundown Nomad” and “Club Step ->” into their first ever rendition of “Another One Bites The Dust”, the quid essential Queen tune to which BIG Something’s full sound transformed into a titanic jam vehicle. After a few more staples including “Pinky’s Ride” and The Otherside’s “Plug”, the band pulled a cover straight out of left field for their encore. Welcoming the top dog of Mountain Music Festival Charlie Hatcher onto stage to report that to his delight they were going to cover a song he had requested but probably never expected to actually hear: the rich EWI sounds began the intro to Paula Abdul’s “Straight Up,” but with BIG Something scheduled the following evening, their diamond of a set list would be anything but a hit and run. It is also worthy to note here that the sounds coming off the main stage were just one feature of BIG Something’s punch; Cameron Grogan is a wizard of a lighting designer. His work at this festival was saliva inducing, and just as captivating as the sound from the band. After that ear drum invasion coupled with the hazy array of rainbow colors from Grogan’s board, I was spent. I undertook the campground stage, positioned as a perfect net to catch traffic, briefly to catch the awesome theatrics of the MFB belting through their megaphone before I retired for the evening. A brief but heavy rain set in as the night drew to a close, and I lay down to immediate sleep as the drops pitter-pattered against the tin roof of my trailer.
The rain died down sometime during the night, and I awoke to sunny skies, though the forecast called for more weather. Fortunately, the rain never came, and the only water I would touch on this fine afternoon was that of the lakeside waterpark at the bottom of ACE’s grounds. The park sits directly beside The Lost Paddle, where the Lakeside Stage played host to two fan-tas-tic younger groups in the early afternoon, both of whom I was eager to undertake before a little beach fun. First up, Asheville’s Travers Brothership.
The Travers Brothership stormed the stage and is simply smothered in authenticity. They reek of The Allman Brothers Band, and it’s no mistake, as within their set list lay ABB family favorites such as “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” and “Black Hearted Woman”, in addition to trotting out a “Soul Serenade.” The covers don’t tell the whole story though, as their original “Hold My Name” appeared towards the end of the set and gave the respectable mid-day audience a taste of their ability as songwriters and arrangers. The track features a searing guitar solo from Kyle Travers, while his brother Eric kept the rhythm tight and composed on the kit. The voice of Josh Clark could be heard as far as sound would carry as he belted out vocals from his perch with the bass. This was a true treat for a Saturday afternoon, and segued into Black Garlic, a hometown favorite from just around the bend in nearby Fayetteville, WV. Black Garlic sewed a quilt of worldly rock/jazz fusion, and though perhaps the greenest horned band toted on the lineup, it was clear these boys came to be heard. A sit in from BIG Something’s Casey Cranford on the Black Garlic original “Wychyneewah” foretold of what lay in store.
I moved from the stage down to the waterpark, where the beach party was on and popping my friends. There were inflatable chickens strewn throughout the lake, a zip line over the water, and a huge waterslide where Umphrey’s McGee drummer Kris Myers could be seen catapulting down the tube and into the refreshing lake water. No lakeside waterpark is complete without a blob, the evidence of which could be seen with people flying high into the air screaming with glee, while others botched their initial blob jump and blobbed themselves right off the side. I was elated that no one called the fun police, because heaps of fun was being had in abundance before I boarded the school bus shuttle to go back up top to prepare for the final night of debauchery.
I popped back through the main venue to hear the closing notes of the LITZ original “Holy Mountain” before they broke down “Help From My Friends.” The funk matriculating off of the main stage was tangible; this band requires listeners funk meters to be set on high alert, as they do not stop the funk assault. Another Ashevillian operative in funk began just afterwards, and I decided to take in The Fritz set from just outside the main gates with cold refreshment and well-placed lawn chair. The funk had come to town, culminating in Prince’s “Purple Rain”, and I’ve never heard the mammoth of a ballad done more justice than Jamar Woods and the crew. Rest undertook me as I slipped into my early evening slumber, for when I awoke, the second round of the Umphrey’s -> BIG Something mash up awaited, this time with BIG Something taking the opening slot.
BIG Something feels the love they have generated in high capacity at Mountain Music. They have given to the festival and symbiotically the festival has given to them. Bassist Doug Marshall expressed the sentiment, telling me,
“I feel honored to play this festival and to be one of the headliners. It keeps growing every year and we’re just lucky to play. Getting to go back to back with Umphrey’s McGee is just incredible, they blow my mind every time!”
Speaking of minds being blown, the collective brain of the now shoulder-to-shoulder crowd began to melt as BIG Something opened things up with a behemoth “Waves -> The Curse of Julian Brown -> In The Middle -> Passenger” liner. The bluegrass shuffle “Passenger” made way into “Moonshine” before Umphrey’s McGee axe and vocalist Brendan Bayliss surfaced on stage to add vocals to Nirvana’s “Lithium”, which send most of the crowd, myself included into an all out tailspin. Energy was never higher out in the pit than this moment. It was a sort of nod from one beast to another forthcoming one that they had indeed arrived and then some. The soft but powerful “Smoke Signal” followed, as Henlsley’s guitar did the talking out of the darkness. The solo on this new track off of The Otherside is moving, and crashed right into “Tumbleweed,”,the title track from the group’s last record by the same name. The closing numbers were highlighted by an Austin Litz sit-in on “My Volcano” before Nick’s mandolin made its debut on the stage for the fitting “Amanda Lynn” that would be the last this years festival would see of BIG Something.
Now it was Umphrey’s turn to follow up the madness, and indeed madness it was. The entirety of the property was now completely engulfed in fog. Hazers from the lighting rig were simply blinding at this point, and a few steps out of the crowd and into the darkness and one struggled to see even a foot or two in front of them. This was of little significance though as no one was leaving before McGee held court. “Triangle Tear” opened, which is a song off of the bands surprise release of It’s You, the follow-up to It’s Not Us, which dominated jam news outlets just a couple weeks preceding this festival. This song is a short guitar picking frenzy with room to grow. “Atmosfarag,” “Plunger,” and “Soul Food 1” appeared afterwards until “Bright Lights, Big City” took its place. The entire crowd chanted as Umphrey’s destroyed the pulsating anthem that so often encapsulates the attitude of a camping festival. Building an entire self-sustaining populous from the ground in a matter of days, then disappearing back out into the ether. Highlights from within the second sets organs included the crowd pleasing, and always dedicatedly crew pleasing “Pay The Snucka.” The lyrics rang true, as the song instructs listeners to double down after the aces are split, and I was reminded of the gift that this double dose of the McGee truly was. “Daffodils” took the encore position in the evenings set, and Cinninger could be seen dancing with his guitar as he moved seamlessly up and down the frets, the dance matched by Bayliss as they stood face to face taming their respective axes. “Daffodils” remains as one of my favorite songs from the Umphrey’s repertoire, and the Kris Meyers vocals match perfectly with the eerie guitar driven effects and preciseness of the tune. Whew, I wiped my brow and checked my pulse as I gazed at those around me, sharing in my bewildered look of appreciation for the confusing brilliance of this band. We had all stepped through a wormhole this weekend.
My friends, I departed Mountain Music Festival under the clear blue omnipresent sky of the West Virginia hills with such feelings of admiration and humility. To witness the gifts of all the artists, organizers, and performers at such a large but intimate setting, surrounded by so much of nature’s bounty was simply humbling. My road led back down the mountain corridor of the interstate, back into the foothills of North Carolina, but I know that for all of us this destination was only temporary until my next adventure, as the road truly goes on forever.