Wind Rider Mountain Festival: A Small Festival with Big Rewards

I left New York on Friday. After a three-hour delay, I boarded my plane and headed to New Mexico where I waited in Albuquerque for my ride to Alto on Saturday morning. We arrived near the festival and went to check into our hotel, The Swiss Chalet. Picture a blue and white “chalet” from the '70s that reminds you of a combination of Fear and Loathing and The Shining. Our accommodations for the weekend.

We headed over to the festival in a twelve person white van. We all held our breath as the tires hugged the curves of the steep winding road and took us up to the festival at 9,000 feet in elevation. The area suffered a fire about five years ago and the forest is a mixture of green pines and scorched wood.

The journey to Wind Rider Mountain Festival is not for the faint of heart, but it is worth the adventure. Pulling into the festival, which is held at Ski Apache ski resort, I could see the tents of campers painting the side of the slope. Next to the campsites, they had set up blowup slides and jumping castles, for the children and spirited adults. There were numerous activities offered; gondola rides and zip lining (Starlight runs!), just to name a few.

We were greeted on arrival by the man behind the festival, Justin Huffmon, the Marketing Manager for Ski Apache. He is an amazing human, good vibes all the way. He essentially switched the direction of the festival, now in its third year, to encompass a more jam-based lineup and crowd. The festival was low-key and unpretentious, which the folks who made it up the hill appreciated. For a smaller festival, Wind Rider spent its money in the right places, delivering two stages both producing incredible sound and lighting.

We arrived in time to catch Poor Man’s Whiskey, a rocky bluegrass band that really had the crowd going on the main stage. The Band comes from Northern California and fuses southern rock with high-energy bluegrass. Josh Brough who plays banjo, keyboards, harmonica, and vocals was dressed head to toe in denim bringing a heavy country feel to the stage, while simultaneously delivering some rockin’ bluegrass.

Next up was Old Salt Union, a five piece bluegrass band from Illinois. Festival-goers gathered in front of the side stage to see them deliver what ended up being a pretty impressive bluegrass set. Jesse Farrar fed the crowd's appetite with his picking on upright bass and playful interaction with the crowd. With the sound of banjo pickin' and foot stomping echoing, the sun went down over the mountain. The temperature really dropped and attendees found warmth in the music and whatever makeshift layers they could find. Next year, everyone will pack more efficiently.

With the stages lit to break the darkness on the mountain, the crowd finished up with Old Salt Union and shifted their attention to the main stage for Spafford. The band had just come from an epic two-night run at Summer Camp in Illinois. They came out with "Red's Jam" into "Leave The Light On," a reggae tune that had fans singing. A temporary distraction from the pretty brutal chill that blew through the festival. A beautifully written "Slip and Squander" followed, breaking open for "Parody" into "Walls" into "Lonely." After "Lonely," everyone except Red (keys) left the stage, leaving him to perform "Soulshine," a poignant and heartfelt tribute to Gregg Allman. The rest of the guys came back up to finish out the night with "Backdoor Funk," then "Windmill" which left the crowd ready for their Sunday show.

After Spafford exited, Greener Grounds came out on the side stage to deliver some psychedelic funk-rock music to a dancey crowd. When we left, campers were still enjoying the music. We had to make our way down the incline to get back to the Swiss Chalet.

Sunday we headed over to the festival in the afternoon while the sun was still high and radiating heat, and we felt like veterans on the daunting drive up this time. We had made it yesterday and we surely would today. Walking up to the main stage people were getting ready for Fruition. Fruition struck a chord with me. I found their soulful rock jams easy listening. Things got funkier with "There She Was," a tune sung primarily by the keys player. The band was dishing out catchy beats over lyrics that resonated with the crowd.

After Fruition we took a walk up to the craft beer and food tent then headed backstage to hang out before Spafford went on. Here was the thing about Wind Rider Mountain Festival, most of the bands had met previously or heard of each other and there was a genuine sense of musician camaraderie going on behind the stage, which I found to be refreshing and inspiring.

Spafford came out to deliver "All my Friends" into "Bee Jam" into "Todd’s Tots." Next up was "Minds Unchained," which is funky with a distinct bass line, followed next by "Postman," "It’s a Bunch," "Electric Taco Stand," "Beautiful Day," and ended with "All In." The band's new drummer Cameron Laforest showed up while Brian Moss’s guitar left fans mystified.

Following Spafford, we walked over to Cycles, a band hailing from Colorado that I had not yet heard before. They blew me away. First, the guitarist of Spafford, Brian Moss, sat in to jam with the trio and it was something special. The energy was ecstatic. Cycles are no doubt psychedelic rock but it's nothing like what I'd ever heard before. It was reminiscent of Pink Floyd in that it was spacey, but there was a high energy radiating out of each jam. Watch out for these guys. They are young and have been together for only a couple of years, but they are definitely onto something. 

After a brief walk over to the campsite, we walked back over for The Magic Beans. It's easy to forget to look up, but at Wind Rider, a quick look up will take your breath away. The stars are so bright against the darkness of the night sky and the beauty of it all makes you feel the vastness of the universe. Just before getting lost in it all, I heard The Magic Beans start playing. It was a perfect way to close out the festival. Sadly, we had to leave before they were finished as a storm rolling in prevented them from finishing their complete set. Wind Rider Mountain Festival was a magical festival to attend. The remoteness and beauty of the venue, plus the music I got to experience left me dreaming of New Mexico.

Photos by Nick Kirschman

Lizzie Morelli

I fell in love with music at an early age, but playing was never my forte, writing comes to me way more naturally. I grew up on Long Island. I attended Hartwick College in Oneonta, New York where I earned a degree in literature. I went on to receive my Juris Doctor from New England Law Boston. My passion for music is evident in my writing.