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The 10 Best Things We Saw at Mountain Jam: Day One

As the 13th year of Mountain Jam began — “Lucky 13” as they’re calling it this time around — it was a whole new deck of possibilities. Fans trading concert war stories and talking about the bands and artists they were looking forward to seeing. In some cases, those connections go back decades while also offering up no shortage of new potential experiences, as demonstrated by the guy who said that he’d never seen Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, but he had a boatload of Peter Frampton memories, sharing details about the first time that he saw the guitar legend in 1975. We made it through the first day and walked away with plenty of highlights to make us really look forward to the rest of the weekend. Here are 10 things we really enjoyed during day one of Mountain Jam.

Hollis Brown’s Noon Wake-Up Call

Nearly a decade ago, the members of Hollis Brown looked to Bob Dylan for some inspiration when they were trying to figure out a suitable band name and in the years that have followed, they’ve seen their popularity continue to rise. As the first band of the day, they proved that sometimes the good moments that you don’t want to miss come early. In the closing moments of their hour-long set on the Valley Stage, guitarist Jonathan Bonilla leaned into an impressive guitar solo during “John Wayne” which prompted a nearby fan to marvel, “He’s been shredding like that the whole set.” Fans got a second dose in the more intimate setting of the Empire State Tap House later that same afternoon and they’ll be back for round three today, playing an exclusive set for VIPs at 1:45PM.

Muddy Magnolias’ Soulful Stew

Even a little bit of rain couldn’t dim the impact of Muddy Magnolias, the soul-stirring combo of Jessy Wilson (first known for her work with John Legend) and Kallie North, a satisfying vocal marriage brought together by way of Brooklyn, N.Y. (Wilson) and Beaumont, Texas (North). Nashville provided the meeting place for the two and, with full band in tow for their Mountain Jam performance, it was easy to see why their collaboration has flourished. They had infectious energy and a connection that felt like they had been singing together for decades instead of several years. Tagging the title track of their 2016 album, Broken People, with a hefty excerpt of “The Weight” by the Band, Muddy Magnolias turned in a strong set that even as the rain picked up progressively, kept fans planted and locked into their groove.

Would You Like to Buy a Monkey?

Interestingly enough, the tacos were the most normal thing on the menu at Love Thy Tacos & Smoothies. It was their creatively named smoothies that really stuck out and made us stop. We asked about the Angry Monkey smoothie and our hostess, clad in purple leopard pants and a “Whiskey Is My Spirit Animal” t-shirt, let us know that it was the best thing on the menu. Comprised of coffee, banana, peanut butter, chocolate and honey, it was the perfect blend of several favorites, all rolled into one delicious frozen package. This monkey will hardly leave you upset.

Andy Frasco and the U.N. Were a Lot of F.U.N.

Sometimes you look at a group and you go, “That guy must be a real trip to be in a band with.” Andy Frasco is one of those guys. Midway through his set, he was out in the crowd, announcing, “We’re going to Bar Mitzvah the f— out of this.” Coaching the audience, he let them know that they would be “dirty dancing” to the right and then “we’re gonna Patrick Swayze our way back.” The entire crowd executed this move as directed perfectly and that right there would have been enough of a memorable moment to tell your friends about. But Frasco also crowd-surfed his way across to retrieve a beer (after first turning down a sketchy-looking beer that was right in front of him) — and those were just the moments off the stage. With songs like “Smokin’ Dope and Rock and Roll” and a well-placed cover of Johnnie Taylor’s “Who’s Making Love,” they helped to turn up the party vibes early in the afternoon. Only their set closing rendition of “Killing in the Name” by Rage Against the Machine felt unnecessary and out of place.

Everybody Needs a High-Five

This one’s pretty simple. We’re walking the grounds of Mountain Jam and here comes a guy, letting each and every one of us know, “You guys, I’ve got high-fives if you need ‘em.” Judging by the reception to his offer, it seemed like there were plenty of people who thought that sounded like a pretty good deal.

Amy Helm Made the Rain Stop

Only three hours into the first day, it had been a bit rainy and cold. Amy Helm decided to take matters into her own hands and stepped out on the Mountain Stage with a smile on her face from moment one, launching into the title track from her 2015 album, Didn’t It Rain. And then, the rain stopped. What kind of spiritual juju is that? Judging by the set that we saw from Helm and her band, the Handsome Strangers, only the best. Helm and the group worked the festival crowd with incredible poise, as if they were playing a small club. She previewed her next album, which she says is tentatively set to be released in January 2018, with “Cotton & the Cane,” a smoky, organ-drenched rocker, one of several songs she’s been road-testing in recent months. Pulling out an a cappella rendition of Ralph Stanley’s “Gloryland,” Helm told the crowd that it was a hymn which her father, Levon, had taught her, dedicated “to all of the incredible people we’ve lost this year,” with a special nod to the memory of Gregg Allman. They then segued directly into a jubilant version of the Allman Brothers Band staple “Midnight Rider,” which as she revealed later during a brief conversation following her set, was something that they had decided to do in his memory, working it up less than 24 hours prior. You never would have known it was pulled together so quickly. After just under an hour, Helm wrapped things up, still stomping her foot with gusto and left the crowd wanting more — a select group of VIP fans did in fact, get more. She played an exclusive acoustic set that you can watch on the Mountain Jam Facebook page.

Hula Hooping 101

Miss 360” (Brianna Mae Clements) saw her first hula hoop at Mountain Jam in 2010 and she’s been back every year since then, now teaching fans how they can successfully navigate the art of the hula hoop. It requires a lot of patience to learn initially, as she told us. “Because a lot of things take time and nothing is instant gratification with hooping,” she says. “It all takes practice. And having a sense of humor.” She remembers coming to the festival and seeing other girls hooping for the first time and how she was just mesmerized, not even looking at the stage. “I was just watching these girls,” Clements recalls. “I couldn’t stop thinking about it and then that fall, i bought my own hoops and started practicing and eventually teaching and performing.” From there, she moved into flaming hula hoops and fire eating. That probably requires a bit of adjustment and being okay with fire, you would think and she confirms that to be the case, talking about the “fear factor” that she had to get past. “It was something I wanted to do and I was just terrified of it. I went to a summer solstice party and people were spinning fire and this girl taught me how to do it and I was petrified,” she laughs. “I probably stood there just spinning it above my head for two minutes before I got up the courage to bring it down. Once I got over that, I was addicted. I loved it.” Mountain Jam fans can get their own dose of her skills during workshops in the Learning Center on Saturday and Sunday with additional nightly performances during the “Fire Spinning” segment.

White Denim Is the Best Denim

We only caught the final part of White Denim’s Mountain Jam set, which is where we caught up with the Austin-bred band to find frontman James Petralli drenched in sweat, wearing a Grateful Dead t-shirt. They had worked the Mountain Jam crowd into a frenzied state as they headed towards the end of their hour-long set, but they still had plenty left in the tank, pulling out several elongated guitar solos during “I Start To Run,” reaching back nearly a decade to their 2009 album Fits. Petralli made sure that the band would leave a permanent imprint with those witnessing their performance, breaking several guitar strings in the closing moments of the song.

The Head Needs Their Heart

Clearly jazzed to be making their first appearance at Mountain Jam, The Head and the Heart proved to be the perfect way to mellow out a bit as the sun started to disappear from the sky, signifying that the first day of the festival was winding its way to a close. “It really doesn’t get any better than this, playing music outside, especially on a mountain,” vocalist Jonathan Russell told the crowd. “Mountain Jam, you figured it out.” Their stage featured a setting that found the band surrounding themselves with additional greenery which amplified the natural beauty of both their surroundings and music.

Pass the String Cheese & There Will Be No Incident

It’s hard to believe that 13 years into the Mountain Jam experience, this was the first time that String Cheese Incident has played the fest. As Mountain Jam founder Gary Chetkof points out in the festival guide, they are a band “steeped in the tradition of Mountain Jam’s musical roots.” They arrived for their debut performance as one of the headliners for this weekend and made up for lost time by playing two sets. They walked onto a stage that was packed with a lot of gear surrounding them, personalized with area rugs that felt like mood carpeting. Nearly 25 years into their collective journey, it was interesting to watch how each member seemed to disappear into their own musical worlds during the stretched -out instrumental sections and yet they maintained the connection with each other, locked together in a way that comes as a result of so many years of playing music together. Bathed in windmills of intense blue lighting, illuminating the smoky haze, the group turned in an entrancing atmospheric performance, which began with “Song In My Head,” the title track of the 2014 album of the same name. They would roll forward for nearly a half hour (also incorporating “Best Feeling” from their collaboration with Keller Williams) before breaking to acknowledge the crowd. But there were very few words necessary or required — let the music do the talking after all, as they say. String Cheese Incident did exactly that and set the bar high for tomorrow’s slate of artists as they brought the first day of music to a satisfying end.

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