Real People Know How to Chill

My summer started on Saturday on the grassy ski slopes of Hunter Mountain at an open- air rock concert sponsored by Woodstock Radio, where the ‘60s and its spirit of liberty have never died.

I go to these concerts during the summer. They are an idyllic reminder that life is glorious and to be enjoyed by young and old, male and female. There is a disappointment; lesbians and gays are seldom visible at these events, but almost every other group shows up from goth to earth mothers, parents with young children and teenagers who will be met by their parents when the concert ends.

These scenes bear a marked similarity to a summer day in Washington Square and Central Parks. Frisbees, hacky sack and beach balls provide recreation. Taking advantage of the outdoor location, other people smoked cigars and marijuana, and drinkers could find their brew. Prohibition has no place in these gatherings where everyone chooses their own recreation.

Jam bands—musicians that improvise jazz-like riffs—provide the music. It demands a lot of the musicians, but it attracts an eclectic group drawn from the ranks of blues, reggae, bluegrass and jazz. The jam band community often speaks out on non-music issues such as mandatory minimum drug sentences registering as an organ donor or coping with hepatitis C.

The audience and the musicians come from the city and the country, and that makes them interesting to a political observer. A great many are Southerners who never chose reactionary Christianity or Republicanism. The jam band fans are not afraid of evolution or modernity. The Southerners made their peace with northern liberalism decades ago. The Northeast city folk are at ease with bluegrass music and songs with a country and western flavor.

While black musicians play regularly at these concerts, the audience is overwhelmingly white. The whites, however, are a diverse group including business owners who profited from the Internet revolution as well as those who live paycheck-to-paycheck.

The giant music corporations and their star performers are worried about declining CD sales. This is a non-problem to the jam band community whose prosperity ebbs and flows. They permit anyone to record or download music. Copyright is simply not as important as recognizing that avid fans want to record the music they love for fun and profit. There are no discussions about this; bootleggers are full-fledged members of the community.

The mother of all jam band concerts was Woodstock in 1969. It attracted such a huge crowd that the fences were trampled by the fans and no tickets were issued. The common crowd estimate was 500,000, which is conjecture, but people needed to park their cars as far as 20 miles away. They were coming to hear an eclectic mix of music—Jimi Hendrix, the Grateful Dead, Joan Baez and Janis Joplin, to name a few, whose music is still popular. The direct descendents of these concertgoers and their musicians were at Hunter Mountain on Saturday.

The Mountain Jam was organized by WDST, a small radio station in Ulster and Greene Counties with a large Internet following. The broadcasters were celebrating their 25th anniversary with a concert that started at 1 p.m. and ended at 11:30 p.m. with about seven bands playing on two bandstands. The long hours are typical at these outdoors festivals that often last three days.

The audience arrived from distant locations. I traveled from New York City to Albany and then drove with friends to Hunter Mountain, a trip I will repeat one or two times before summer’s end.

One of my favorite musicians, Warren Haynes, was a headliner at the Mountain Jam. He is a Southerner and a prolific songwriter and a talented guitarist who gives solo performances and plays in four bands. Government Mule is his band and they played a three-hour set to close out the night. But Haynes is a member the Dead, a successor band to the Grateful Dead, the Allman Brothers Band and Phil Lesh and Friends. He is often called the “hardest working man” in the jam band scene. He is certainly one of the best musicians who can make his guitar sound like a whole band.

But Warren Haynes has his politics as well. Every December, he holds a benefit for former Pres. Jimmy Carter’s charity, “Habitat for Humanity.” Recently he has raised $100,000 each year. He does his fund-raising for this group in his hometown of Asheville, North Carolina, but he lives in downtown Manhattan.

The jam band concerts happen across the United States and appeal to a large fan base measured in the hundreds of thousands, but when I talk to political activists about this group, I’m greeted with blank stares. It’s another missed opportunity for Democrats.