Framed by a chair lift overhead and Ferris wheel perched on the side of a mountain that rose 1,600 feet, former Grateful Dead guitarist Bob Weir launched his headlining slot on the closing night of Mountain Jam in a most auspicious way.
With 10,000 watching, he flubbed the opening line to a song he has performed hundreds of times over 30 years.
Then he walked over to Mark Karan, guitarist in his band, RatDog. Karan spoke into Weir's ear — likely the first line to "Help on the Way" — and the evening got under way.
The false start only fueled the frenzy that had been building over the three days that Mountain Jam was held at Hunter Mountain Ski Bowl in upstate New York. 2008 marked year number four for Mountain Jam, staged this past weekend by Woodstock-based WDST-FM and Warren Haynes, guitarist for Gov't Mule and the Allman Brothers Band.
Weir and RatDog delivered about three hours of music that featured a caustic cover of Bob Dylan's "Masters of War" and inspired audience sing-alongs on "Friend of the Devil" and "Ripple." But the high point of RatDog's set and the entire weekend came when Levon Helm sat in with RatDog on Dylan's "She Belongs to Me."
About 24 hours earlier, Helm held one of the now-famous "Midnight Ramble" house concerts at his recording studio in nearby Woodstock, for a sold-out audience that included Mountain Jam performer Jackie Greene.
The Levon Helm Band played right before RatDog at Mountain Jam and brought fans to their feet with Band nuggets like "Ophelia," "Rag Mama Rag" "The Shape I'm In" and "The Weight." Helm's new material, from his Grammy-winning 2007 release Dirt Farmer, was greeted as enthusiastically as the classic catalog.
Helm welcomed Haynes for the final two songs of his set, and the Gov't Mule guitarist added his vocal growl to "I Shall Be Released."
In addition to co-staging the event, Haynes fronted Gov't Mule's headlining sets on Friday and Saturday nights. He also sat in with Medeski, Scofield, Martin & Wood, slicing up the six strings while dueling with former Miles Davis sideman John Scofield.
Haynes also sat in with RatDog on the Dead's "Loser," giving fans a taste of what might be in store for a Ratdog/Gov't Mule West Coast tour that starts June 20. But on their own, Gov't Mule played long and they played hard. Mule keyboardist Danny Louis showed off his chops during the Mule's homage to Jerry Garcia, "Patchwork Quilt."
Friday night covers of the Beatles' "She Said, She Said," "Tomorrow Never Knows" and "Dear Prudence" provided the Mule with vehicles for explosive experimentation. They came back Saturday with "Helter Skelter" as their opener.
Moments after leaving the stage Sunday night, Weir, while chatting with WDST owner Gary Chetkof, quite possibly spoke for all 10,000 assembled.
"I had fun," Weir said.