New York’s Hudson Valley has a rich musical history, being home to the original Woodstock Festival (as well as its infamous little brothers, Woodstocks ’94 and ’99). Radio Woodstock founders Warren Haynes of The Allman Brothers Band and Gov’t Mule and producer Gary Chetkof founded the Mountain Jam Festival in Hunter, New York as a one day, four band event in 2004 to honor the spirit of the original Woodstock.
In the decade since, the festival exploded into a weekend long Woodstock tribute, becoming a summer tradition for both residents of the Hudson Valley and tourists of Upstate New York. In what is probably the biggest year for the festival yet, the Black Keys (who played the festival before headlining stadium shows) and Robert Plant will be headlining. I had a chance to speak with founder Gary Chetkof, who elaborated on the festival’s continued expansion and which Alternative Nation regular he’s pursuing for next year…
Can you describe from your own point of view what Mountain Jam is really “about” to people who may not be familiar with the festival?
It’s a big production, a top tier talent festival that is very intimate. We only sell 15,000 tickets. Nothing’s split or crossed; we’re on hundreds of acres of flat land. You’re sort of in a bowl in the beautiful Catskill Mountains, and the stage is at the bottom. It’s a natural amphitheater. There’s not tons of walking. Besides camping options, there’s plenty of hotels and condominiums in the area for rent… plenty of options for lodging. It’s set up so that it is affordable to come for only a day.
There’s real infrastructure, bathrooms… that’s what sets us apart. We’re probably the most accessible of the festivals, and we give people tons of options. I know a lot of people that hate portapotties… it’s nice to have real bathrooms and running faucets in the middle of nowhere.
Plus, in a sense, you carry the torch of the original Woodstock Festival.
Yeah, we carry the torch! It’s always what we’ve done. There’s always lots of peace, love, and good vibrations. It’s one of the reasons we always book Michael Franti… he carries that spirit. Richie Havens, Edward Sharpe… socially advanced and very progressive with a sense of social consciousness. That’s the tone we set out to achieve.
I bet setting up this festival is all you can think about for most of the year!
Yeah… you might get a week off after the last festival! The cleanup alone takes weeks. Not too long after that, you get the offers for next year’s lineup!
This year’s lineup includes headliners The Black Keys and Robert Plant. That’s pretty huge. Is this a step towards targeting a broader audience?
That’s exactly what we’re trying to do. We’ve always been very diverse musically, much more diverse that a lot of other festivals. Radio Woodstock is a strong component in the booking. It’s a pretty aggressive, eclectic and nationally respected radio station. We’re more inclined towards booking to that audience, but now we’re branching out to indie and alt, pretty much anything that is exciting. Music today is very encompassing in that people’s tastes vary. We’re not focused on any one genre.
The whole summer music festival scene in America has gone through a revival over the past few years. Mountain Jam predated fests like Firefly by six or so years, yet you must have to try and keep up with that market.
You need to be aware of what the new competition is. There’s no doubt about it. Two things have happened in the past ten years: the economy has tanked, and more festivals have grown. So we’re really chasing limited dollars, we have to up your game. Having Robert Plant, the Black Keys, Alabama shakes… it’s about upping our game and being competitive, staying fresh and being unique. That’s important to us.
We’ve been webcasting our festivals for a constant 10 years, spreading awareness throughout the country and people coming from all fifty states all the time. The five hour radius around is obvious with people driving in. We get the bulk of people from there.
The festival has pretty much gone off without a hitch since its inception, with the exception of a controversy last year surrounding possibly overzealous security guards and local law enforcement. You yourself said that you’d make sure the issue was rectified this year. Do you have any update on that?
Obviously, things get blown out of proportion. People said it was really not that bad, for the 95%. The 5% had a problem. We have changed security companies. We want to bring that spirit that we’ve always wanted for Mountain Jam. We got rid of the people who went to far. I’m gonna be hanging out and making sure security is really friendly and not too intrusive. We work with the state police to make sure they are more respectful of what we do, and they know the boundaries of what’s legal and not legal. I’m really looking forward to putting that behind us this year.
Now that the everything about the festival is finalized, are there any artists that you tried booking this year, or possibly looking to book in the future?
We got all the artists we went after this year, as the headliners! I haven’t thought too much about next year…
Maybe it’s too early for me to ask. You still have a few weeks…
I was looking at Eric Clapton, Pearl Jam as the artists I’d love to bring to Mountain Jam…
That would be great!
Pearl Jam, if you’re reading this… gimme a call! [laughs] I’ll be calling you in a couple months!