Mountain Jam June 4-7,2015

Hunter Mountain, NY

Interview with Founder Gary Chetkof

by Elise Olmstead


There are a few must-attend festivals for music fans on the East Coast, and Mountain Jam has consistently been a prime destination for jam band-lovers for the past 10 years. The premiere festival of the Northeast takes place annually at Hunter Mountain, NY, and will be on the weekend of June 4-7 this year. The beautiful ski resort venue hosts some of the biggest names in the music scene, as well as some of the best bands you’ve never heard of. The festival is known for its knack for choosing up-and-coming bands right before they explode in popularity.

This year their lineup includes The Black Keys, Robert Plant, Alabama Shakes, Moe., as well as Gov’t Mule, who returns every year and is playing a special “Dark Side of the Mule” set in 2015. We spoke to founder Gary Chetkof about the evolution of the event and what to expect this year.


Mountain Jam I know was originally created to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Radio Woodstock. But what made you guys decide to keep doing it and making it an annual event?

It was so well received after the first one that people kept on calling and saying, “That was great, doing it again next year, right?” And we were like, “No!” (laughter) But enough people convinced us that it was such a great experience, and it was such a beautiful location, and it was such a great vibe, that it really was something that people asked for. So we said, “Okay, we’ll try it, and we’ll try camping”, and then after that success we did three days, and then a few years later we did four days, so it totally grew organically because people wanted it.

Awesome. How did you find Hunter Mountain? Was Mountain Jam the first event to happen at Hunter Mountain, or did Hunter Mountain always host events there?

They had hosted events there, like, ten years earlier, and it was before my time, but I found out that it used to be a very big concert venue in the summer. We were checking out different places in the area, and that one totally stood out to us. It being in a ski resort, it has a lot of benefits. First of all, it’s in the mountains and it’s beautiful, and the setting is really important to us. The views are incredible. The shape of the ski mountain is such that it’s a natural amphitheater: the stage is at the bottom, and everybody’s in the bowl above it with perfect line of sight. The sound is incredible. There’s flat land where the beginning skiers ski which is perfect for camping. There’s plenty of parking. And there’s indoor facilities and bathrooms, which as everyone who goes to a festival knows, the port-o-potties are always the least pleasant part. So it really is an amazing place to do a festival.

It is. It’s a great venue. We got to go to Mountain Jam ourselves before and had a great time. I was wondering. Is Warren Haynes involved with Radio Woodstock, or how did he become involved with the festival?

He was at the first festival we did, and he was very instrumental in convincing me to do the festival again and he would headline it. So it’s just been natural. We’ve gotten closer over the years. He’s such an amazing talented guy, and he had so many great friends that he plays with. So it was natural to form an alliance with him and work on this festival on, you know, more of a visionary level and a programming level.

Sure. Absolutely. And how do you decide the bands that you want to have on your lineup?

We really try to be diverse. I think that’s the key to what differentiates us, so, we’re not any one particular genre. We started out in the jam band world, and now we’re crossing more into rock, and alternative, and indie. So we like to have a little variety of everything. Which is why we have kind of a diverse audience we have. There’s the Robert Plant type of fans, and then there’s The Black Keys fans, and The Alabama Shakes fans. So it really is an interesting mix, and it’s always based upon Radio Woodstock, which has been around for 35 years, and is very progressive, and independent station. It really reflects the diversity of talent that’s played on the radio station, so it’s very classic rock oriented, plus new rock, and everything in between. You really could have an incredible diverse mix of music and appeal to so many different people.

Yeah, there’s definitely a little bit of something for everyone.

Yeah, and what’s really cool is that the people who write afterwards, a lot of times they’re mentioning unknown bands being curated by the radio station, with help from Warren. People often write, “There’s ten bands I don’t know on the line up, but I trust this festival to turn me on to some new stuff.” And that’s what we’ve done. We’re the forefront for a lot of bands, or a lot of bands that when they first started on the second stage, or indoor stage, and now headlining or now performing right before the headliners. So people like Grace Potter, Michael Franti, they were a lot smaller ten years ago, and it’s amazing to see how they progressed.

Yeah, very true. And it’s funny, speaking of the line up, I was doing a little research today and I found a blurb that in 2006 Mountain Jam was called a “Little Bonnaroo.”


And that kind of struck me as funny, especially now that Bonnaroo is so different and features so many main stream bands, and I was wondering what you think of the current festival market and how it’s kind of blowing up and becoming more main stream.

You know, back then we might have been like a little Bonnaroo, because Bonnaroo was a lot different then than it is now. Bonnaroo was pretty much a jam band festival in the beginning as well. And they really diversified, and I think that there’s so many festivals out there now and there’s people with limited amount of disposable income, so they have to choose which festival to go to, and I think that keeps us on our toes to be better than we were the year before. Trying to do something different. Reach out to more people. Again, one of the reasons we went with Robert Plant and The Black Keys was to really step up the game better, and offer some of those super start artists that we hadn’t had in the past. And to do it all within the confines of an intimate festival, which is what we still are. 50,000 is pretty much sell out for us, so we really try to be a big festival programming-wise and production-wise, but keep it really small intimate and friendly. You know, no big lines, and there’s not a lot of walking you have to do. Everything is pretty much contained in one area, so I think that makes us unique.

Yeah, it’s a nice happy medium.

Yeah, and the fact is, we’re on a ski mountain. It’s really unique. And it being in a bowl, the stage at the bottom, and everybody spread out on the mountain with a great line of sight makes it really special. I say, at the end of the day, it’s the overall experience that people take away from it, and how was it front the time you drove in, to walking around all weekend long, to all the amenities, and all the non-musical entertainment, and the food, and the indoor facilities, and the indoor bathrooms, you know, people really appreciate the whole picture.

Yeah, definitely.

Another thing: We’re not in the middle of the field far away from civilization, so people can also stay in hotels, and stay in ski chalets, people can stay in condominiums, people can come for the day. I’ve always been really focused on the individual. What do they want? And they can tell Mountain Jam anyway you want.

That’s very true. It is much more accessible. You’re not just kind of stranded out in a field for a few days.

Yeah. There’s so many festivals that are in remote locations, and everybody’s camping. It just gives everybody more options.

Now something a lot of our readers were interested in and concerned about was the excessive security that’s been happening in recent years. And they were wondering if there were going to be any changes being made this year concerning that.

Yeah, there’s a lot of changes that were made. I think we’ve gotten it right. In the beginning years it was the state troopers. A lot of festivals have the same issue. I was very vocal about it, because I didn’t like what was happening, so I was more vocal than other people. Then last year the state troopers kind of had an influence on some of the security searches, and they, unbeknownst to me, were doing searches too hard. So we totally addressed that, and I apologized profusely, and I feel terrible. We changed security companies, and we’re bending over so backwards to make sure people are happy and treated properly. We’re pretty much sure that everyone’s going to come away saying really great things about security this year.

Great, well, I appreciate you being vocal about it. And I know our readers appreciate knowing that this year’s going to be a better experience. And something else about this year, is that’s it’s going to be the ten year anniversary of Mountain Jam! Do you have anything special planned to celebrate?

Actually, the 11th, because even thought the first year was one day, we count that as the first Mountain Jam, so this is actually year eleven. We looked at it more as just celebrating starting a new decade. It’s ten years. And that’s one of the reasons why we went with such big artists. We really want to make the festival be the premiere festival in terms of booking in the Northeast. Which I think we are right now. Hopefully you’re going to see that train continue, is that more big names to go along with the traditional bands that have played Mountain Jam to keep that good mix going.

Sure. Well, I’m super excited about the lineup. You guys did a great job putting that together this year. I know a lot of people are excited, and I can’t wait to see it happen and experience it again.

Like I say, you’re only good as your last festival, and you’re only as good as your lineup this year. We knew especially after the security thing, we better cut back. We really owe it to the fans to have best line up we’ve ever had, and make sure they come back. And make sure they see that we really fixed that problem. That was our goal and we’re going to keep doing that.


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