Sing It From The Mountaintop

Taking DIY shows to new heights.

By Molly Long

It’s 9:20 a.m. on a Saturday, and Dan Goldberg and Greg Paul are standing next to the central kiosk of Grand Central Terminal, chatting with the sleepy group of people trickling in. “I used to be a boy scout,” says Greg. “It taught me a lot about leadership.” Dan, the more soft-spoken of the two, scans the crowd and greets people warmly as they arrive. His instructions on the Facebook event explained how this would all work: “Meet us at Grand Central at 9:15 a.m. by the information booth with the clock on top. We’ll take the round trip Hudson Line Train to Cold Spring at 9:43 AM. This costs $26.50. It’s a beautiful ride as well.”

All photos by Andrew McFarland, except where noted.

Since 2012, Dan has been organizing a series he calls Mountain Shows. He books a line-up of musicians and gathers whoever wants to spend a day hiking Mount Taurus in the Hudson Valley. On the way up, the group watches the musicians play at different scenic locations—the peak, a forested area lined with rock cairns, and the ruins of a mansion are some of the best spots along the trail.

As more people assemble in a circle, everyone makes introductions and catches up. Dan and Greg start talking about a performance they saw the week before in the basement of Dan’s house, known as Bohemian Grove, where he throws shows. The performers were smearing ketchup on themselves and flinging it around the room.

It’s 9:35 a.m. now; time to round everyone up and get on the train. Greg makes sure Liz Hogg, one of the musicians who will be playing today, is back from buying her ticket before we go. We all follow Dan and Greg to track 34 and scatter to whichever seats we can find in the same car. The train rides north through Harlem, and then the trees slowly begin to crop up. We roll along beside the Hudson River, the trees, and the hills under a blue sky for a little over an hour, and then we all get off in downtown Cold Spring. Flanked with other tourists, we meander to a spot on Main Street. (It’s the sort of town where the main street is actually called Main Street.) Greg tells everyone to meet back here soon. We scatter to find bathrooms, coffee, snacks, and maybe the odd antique. There are about 20 of us.

When we’ve all made it back into the fold, we take a 10-minute walk away from Main Street to the trailhead. We’re about to spend the chilly but sunny November day hiking and listening to quiet sets among the rocks and trees.

In a bar or a venue, you can mill around talking to the same friends,
paying little attention to the music. Being at a Mountain Show is the
opposite.

Vagabon at Mountain Show XVII. Photo by Matt Gajewski.
Mutual Benefit at Mountain Show VI. Photo by Sarahmia Drennan.

I hadn’t been to a Mountain Show until I played at one the month before with my own songwriting project, Poppy Red. At that point I had met Dan a couple of times at shows around town, and I’d been hearing about his project the Spookfish for years, but I didn’t know anyone well who was going. I spent the first couple of hours feeling shy and wondering what I had gotten myself into. But as the day went on, polite, cursory exchanges turned into spacey dissections of the song-writing process, spiritual narratives, the turmoil of moving to New York City, and Alain de Botton. When you climb a mountain with 20 people and sit next to them on the ground listening to music, it’s almost impossible not to make friends with some of them. I couldn’t help but go to the next one.

Dan doesn’t put on the Mountain Shows with any particular aim in mind except to encourage people to spend a day in nature and to bring different musicians and their friends together. He conceived of the project as an alternative to the money, alcohol, and hype driven bar scene. Dan was disappointed with the booking culture of bars when he first started trying to get shows in New York City. A lot of the bills he ended up on felt arbitrary, and the bands didn’t fit together or complement one another. In a bar or a venue, you can mill around talking to the same friends, paying little attention to the music. Being at a Mountain Show is the opposite. You’re forced to engage with both the music and the people around you. It makes you listen closely, and it makes you talk to people you’ve never talked to before.

The first Mountain Show Dan put together was on April 15, 2012. Dan played a set under his songwriting moniker, The Spookfish, at “the first remnants of the Cornish Estate.” Fables played as well. Other Mountain Shows have featured Small Wonder, Eskimeaux, Vagabon, Jordan Lee of Mutual Benefit, Brown Bread, Psychic Book Club, Daniel Klag, and Travis Trevisan from Tape Deck Mountain, to name a few.

Today’s show is the seventeenth installment of the series. Greg, whose project is called Train Trash, is playing. Dan and Greg often play these shows, but they all make efforts to expand beyond their immediate social circles, inviting acquaintances and people whose music they discover online. They aim to connect artists from different social circles on the same bill so that everyone’s friend groups can mix together.

As it becomes increasingly difficult to find space in cities like New York, projects like Mountain Shows take a direct action approach to finding temporary solutions.

Mountain Show IX.
The author performing at Mountain Show XVI. Photo (and previous background image) by Gregory Paul.
Mountain Show IX.

Working to foster community amongst artists is a goal of the mountain shows, and yet, the social significance of these sorts of shows in 2015 runs even deeper. In the wake of last year’s widespread venue closures in Brooklyn, it has become increasingly difficult to find spaces for expression, especially for those performing experimentally-leaning music, and whose friends don’t have the disposable income to spend on drinks. Even extra apartment space to throw your own shows often comes with a prohibitively high price tag. As private space is sectioned off and doled out to generate maximum capital, options become fewer for putting on shows that deviate from tried and true formats.

With real estate prices continuing to ratchet upward, watching musicians play in a public space feels even more satisfying. As it becomes increasingly difficult to find space in cities like New York (and around the world), it would seem that projects like Mountain Shows take a direct action approach to finding temporary solutions.

Appropriately, Dan doesn’t hold as apocalyptic a view of the NYC DIY scene as some. Instead, his outlook is more constructive: he thinks people should adapt and hold themselves accountable for finding their own ways to put on shows and form communities.

The spirit of these sorts of shows, which reclaim public space in a way that is increasingly rare, recalls the energy of FMLY Rides, a series organized by the Los Angeles members of the decentralized DIY collective FMLY. On FMLY Rides, dozens of cyclists would embark on a Critical Mass-style group ride together, stopping at various points to set up generator sets along the way.

FMLY has been organizing non-traditional events and festivals for years. An outdoor FMLY Fest show at McKibben Park in Bushwick was part of what initially inspired Dan to put on his own shows outside of the standard venue context.

Noah Klein, co-founder of FMLY and current resident at Silent Barn, one of Brooklyn’s more prominent DIY venues, speaks in strong terms about the importance of creating alternatives to the traditional venue dynamic, where the motivation is to sell tickets and alcohol: “Music is a social function, not a consumable one,” he explains, in a discussion of the mountain shows. “To encourage art as a passive phenomenon, one meant for entertainment, is the murder of its potential, and the propagation of why so much music, art, and literature is unnecessary bullshit.” Dan’s Mountain Shows, he says, are the type of event that emphasizes community over consumption.

Mountain Shows and FMLY rides develop “temporary autonomous spaces,” Klein says, and they work to “encourage a paradigmatic shift in the phenomenon of live performance.” They are hardly the only instances of public, permitless shows in recent years, but they are indeed part of an important DIY tradition that feels more necessary in 2015 than ever.

Dan doesn’t hold as apocalyptic a view of the NYC DIY scene as some. He thinks people should adapt and hold themselves accountable for finding their own ways to put on shows and form communities.

Mountain Show IX.
Mountain Show IX.
Mountain Show IX.

Mount Taurus, whose peak is 1,420 feet high, sits above Cold Spring and overlooks West Point. When we make it there, Greg announces to the group that, in case anyone gets lost, we should memorize the pattern of trail colors we’ll be following: white, blue, red, blue. “WBRB–you can remember it as ‘wait be right back,’” he calls out to the group. “Just follow me and Dan, and we’ll lead you in the right direction.”

Dan climbed Mount Taurus for the first time several years ago right before he moved to Busan, South Korea to teach English. He could take the subway from Busan to Geumjeong Mountain, and he started hiking it often. He became a serious hiker, taking the Trans-Siberian railroad to China and Mongolia to hike mountains there. But, for whatever reason, images of Mount Taurus stuck in his mind. When he moved from Busan to Brooklyn, he still felt drawn to the mountain.

The beginning of the hike is straight uphill, a little on the grueling side. Greg starts at the lead and intermittently moves to the back to make sure no one gets left behind. A few people struggle to keep up, and he assures them that they can take their time, and he’ll keep an eye on them. We take frequent stops at the scenic views overlooking the mountains, the town of Cold Spring now in the distance, and the Hudson River. As we near the peak of the mountain and arrive at a clearing at the edge of a cliff, Greg starts setting up a synthesizer, a harmonica, four pedals.

Those who have been to a Mountain Show before take a moment to point out something on the skyline to the newly initiated: in the distance, if you look closely, you can see a cluster of New York City skyscrapers jutting out from the horizon. They look tiny. Listening to Greg play glittering noise against the cloudless blue sky, I forget they’re even there.

Dan often has a spot on the trail in mind for each artist he’s invited. He experiences a form of synesthesia that gives him strong color associations for all of the music he hears. When he listens to Golden Spun, Rachel Hays’s gentle folk project, he sees many of her songs as rose colored. That’s why he’s having her play the last set later today, perched on a rock as the sun sets behind her.

After his set, Greg announces to everyone that we’ll be having lunch in 20 minutes at the next resting spot. Walking toward the summit, we begin to see patches of snow left over from a recent snowfall. We’ve moved into a different climate.

As we break for lunch, friends are introduced to friends, and food is passed around. Dan offers his kimchi, hummus, and blackberries to anyone who wants some. As everyone is finishing, he pulls a plastic bag of jalapenos from his backpack. According to Mountain Show tradition, everyone bites into a jalapeno to feel a communal buzz before the descent on the other side of the mountain. Dan got this idea in Korea, when he climbed to the top of Geumjeong Mountain and saw a group of elderly men sharing hot peppers at the summit.

The organizers and those who attend the shows like to joke that it’s sort of cult-ish. The initiated have a sense of devotion, and those who haven’t been before are taken with the beautiful views and the friendly atmosphere. Rebecca Richards, a spritely, blue-haired NYU student wearing white overalls who recently moved into Bohemian Grove with Dan, has come today for the second time. She says she loves escaping the city to be in nature, and that she’s struck by how well Dan and Greg keep the pack together and make everyone feel welcome.

We continue down the trail until we reach a fallen tree trunk surrounded by cairns—those precariously balanced rock piles—stacked by previous hikers. Liz finger-picks acrobatic guitar lines and sings into a mic, which is held up by a mic stand Greg fashioned from a stick and some dental floss. As she’s playing, a few hikers walk by, and one of them, a middle-aged man, convinces the two women he’s with to stop and watch a song. “Is this a free concert?” he asks me, and I nod. They stay for a bit, exchanging smiles with us, and then keep walking.

In the distance, if you look closely, you can see a cluster of New York City skyscrapers jutting out from the horizon.

Train Trash at Mountain Show XVII. Photo by Matt Gajewski.

As the sky begins to dim, we reach the ruins of a mansion known as the Cornish Estate, built in 1917 and burned in a fire in 1958. We walk around the stone foundation, through the tall stretches of stone wall, past towers that were once chimneys, over scattered pieces of tile floor, and down the stairs leading into the center of the structure. Dan thought this would be a good place for Laetitia Tamko, who normally plays with her band Vagabon, to play. He sees green when he hears a lot of her songs, and the center of the ruins is full of branches and leaves. Everyone sits in a circle as she plays, now dreamily weary as we near the end of the hike, adding layers as the temperature drops.

After her set, I ask Laetitia, who’s been on to a few mountain shows before, what she likes about them. “It’s really intimate. In bars, people are drinking beers and talking. But everyone is here for the same reason.” Her friend Kalil Smith strolls next to us down the trail as the sky begins to turn pink. “As far as shows go,” he says, “this is the best venue I’ve ever been to.”