Review & Photos | High Sierra 2013 | Quincy, CA

Words by: Dennis Cook & Eric Podolsky | Images by: Andrew Quist

High Sierra Music Festival :: 07.04.13-07.07.13 :: Plumas-Sierra County Fairgrounds :: Quincy, CA

Dennis’ Introduction

After the rowdy, sensory blasting first day and night at High Sierra Music Festival, sleep eluding me, I wandered over to the daily kickball game that gathers at sunrise, the all-nighters and very early risers loosely congregating for one of the silliest, sloppiest sporting displays you’ll ever experience. It’s a scene further amplified in its strangeness by the Silent Frisco groovers in their headphones twerking and stumbling to frequencies unknown to the bundled up ballers around them, dancers occasionally yelping to the surprisingly quiet field, “This DJ is killing it! I freakin’ love this song!” It’s a rule of thumb for me (and not a few others) that it’s not a proper High Sierra if one doesn’t join this sweetly surreal scene at least once each year, and as I rounded the corner from the food court with a piping hot mocha in hand, I ran smack dab into a scene that’d be truly odd in any other setting: A tall dude in a storybook perfect Gingerbread Man costume yelling, “Ha, ha, ha, he, he, he! You can’t catch me!” as someone in a Tigger outfit pumped their legs in chase. High Sierra issues one a license to play, and it’s heartening how swiftly one adjusts to this kind of thing being the norm once they roll into this temporary city on a hill.

Face facts, most people don’t love what they do or how they spend their days. The world would be a happier place if they did, and the proof of this is evident every Fourth of July weekend at High Sierra, where one is surrounded by musicians, technicians, artisans, skipping children (of all ages), and plain ol’ patrons positively aglow with love for the present moment and how they’re living it. The contrast between the makeshift community that gathers on the Plumas-Sierra County Fairgrounds and the world just outside the fence (and the many worlds we leave miles away) is striking – this year in particular occurring in an atmosphere of racial and political divide unlike anything this country has faced since the 1960s. Kicking off on Independence Day, the 2013 HSMF celebrated the nobler universal truths that have defined and shaped America - the joyful, exploratory spirit, the yen for getting loose, and the affirmation that one can believe in and love who and what they want to without shame or worry. Clearly, this vision remains imperfect, in- progress or even downright broken in many places but in Quincy, CA one caught a glimpse of what it might be like to live in a land where nearly every face smiles, nearly every hand is extended in kindness and good cheer, and no matter where one roams there’s something interesting, engaged, and often eerily beautiful springing to life.

This year I was struck by migratory nature of many regulars, myself included, where one’s hand-selected crew returns over and over to the same plot of festival ground, many encampments becoming reliable destinations in the fest’s cartography, small worlds within worlds gleaming with twinkling light and paper lanterns as the slosh of fresh cocktails coming together echoes from bright morning to sighing late night. For many, this festival is in their blood, stirring a need more than a simple desire to return annually, and as it is special to them they strive to make it special for anyone who looms into their orbit, handing out food, misting strangers with cool water, and generally behaving very differently than most do at home with their actual neighbors. High Sierra allows one to lower their guard and embrace the here and now, and folks, you’ve never seen such a hugging horde of humanity. It rolls on 24 hours a day for four days straight. No matter the time, one can wander without agenda with the certainty that they’ll be drawn into capers of varying intoxication with laughter, dancing and great music laced through it all. You might not dig everything – the music or the well self-policed mayhem – but walk a few hundred feet further and you’re likely to find something you want to dive into, arms wide with a grin that lingers in the days after one has left Quincy. One truth this year brought to mind is proximity to bounteous creativity is good for the soul.

As usual, the music was generally high quality and eclectic, touching on regional talents, big names, and High Sierra regulars who reaffirmed why they’re so beloved. The collaborative spirit was especially strong this year, frequently catalyzed by the perfectly chosen Artists-At-Large Skerik (saxophonics), Jennifer Hartswick (vocals, trumpet), and ALO’s Lebo (guitars, vocals) – a trio that embodied the “I’ve got to get a piece of this wonderful musical thing!” spirit that seems to catch many musicians who attend HSMF as well as simply shining in their individual ways every single time they contributed to a wacky host of settings. The players here always seem ready to be turned on by what they’re seeing onstage, and then stoke those same energies each time they step up, be it a brief one song sit-in or their own spotlight sets. No one wants to be the one to drop the sonic hot potato, so one encounters these musicians at their best and most switched-on throughout the weekend. Most of the performers are working musicians, piecing together a livelihood any way they can, and High Sierra provides a much needed shot in the arm for such folks, bringing together quality artists with an audience generally enthused and open to whatever comes down the pike. Bands leave with new fans, sometimes lots of them, and that’s a lock solid guarantee.

One can surely quibble with some of the organizer’s picks but that’s almost always a matter of personal taste, and I never encountered a single act without at least a small, enthralled audience drinking in their offerings - and one suspects that’s not all that common even in a festival environment. There’s no discounting the symbiosis between the performers and attendees at HSMF, including the diligent, cool headed staff, the clever ambiance gnomes, the patient teachers of Blue Bear School of Music easing folks into being music makers and not just consumers, and the chill, effective security team that keep everything moving along with few hitches. Little occurs to bust up one’s dream state, and nearly every first-timer I spoke with told me how special High Sierra already felt to them after just a single installment. It’s little wonder why people plan their summer around this fest or spend the next year plotting out how they can better fuel this shared daydream next time out.

Eric’s Introduction

For those in the know, the days leading up to the kickoff of the High Sierra Music Festival always tend to bring with them a slowly creeping giddiness - knowing the revelry that awaits up in the pines of Quincy, CA makes the routine of “real life” just a bit more mundane in comparison. This time around, the 23rd installment of this music-lover's institution delivered smiles, dance parties, and unforgettable musical moments at every turn.

Capping attendance at around 10,000, the intimate grounds of HSMF may well hold the best run, convenient, hassle-free, and downright pleasant festival experience in the country (but don't tell anyone, it's our little secret). From the diverse musical lineup, to the vendors and facilities, to the community of campers that come fully prepared for four days of life-affirming good times, every aspect of HSMF is time-tested and proven, which allows one's weekend to flow unobstructed and free. But logistics aside, what truly makes HSMF a little slice of magic is the deep-rooted community of music lovers. Those who have attended know this, while those who haven't can only guess at the unprecedented openness and communal joy that runs through the weekend. HSMF is a place to shake off the stress of the outside world, a place to let it all hang out and see what weird, different places the day takes you.

This year's musical lineup was another well-curated, diverse mix of veterans and up-and- coming artists, with funk and Americana-roots rock represented especially well. Horn players were the MVPs of the festival though - this weekend was clearly a brass lover's dream, with horn sit-ins happening at nearly every set. And did I mention Mike Dillon? As an de facto artist-at-large, every set the man touched turned to gold, whether he was playing drums, percussion, or vibes. As usual, there was too much good music and too little time to catch it all, but it mattered little in the end, as transcendent experiences abounded at every turn. Yes, we're all pretty lucky to have this place to return to year after year, as it's clear that no other festival experience comes close to achieving the palpable magic that HSMF instills.

Eric’s Thursday Highlights

1. Robert Plant presents The Sensational Space Shifters – 9:30-11:30 p.m. – Grandstand Stage

Probably the biggest name to ever grace a stage at HSMF, Robert Plant and his new band played their first festival ever with this triumphant, utterly satisfying set that seamlessly mixed together the old, the familiar, and the foreign. Opening the set with the hushed elegance of “Babe, I'm Gonna Leave You” that exploded in a heavy, duel guitar workout, this band traversed time with a blend of old blues tunes and crowd-pleasing Zeppelin classics. Sonically, this band creates a well-simmered melting pot of familiar blues-rock, world music, and a tinge of electronica to create a spacious, mysteriously ethnic sound that's epic in its majesty. Keyboardist John Baggott (Massive Attack, Portishead) gave an electro-modern tinge to “Spoonful,” which led into a West African take on “Black Dog” complete with a breakdown chant from the Gambian multi-instrumentalist Juldeh Camara. An acoustic take on “Going to California” brought the most love of the night, being the perfect song to hear in a big field on a warm 4th of July night. The massive, epic vibe continued with eerie takes on “Please Read the Letter,” and Zeppelin's “Friends” and “Over the Hills and Far Away.” Taking us on a lesson in roots music, Plant closed the set with the old blues number “Sugar Mama,” which seamlessly blended into a straight rocking “Whole Lotta Love” that was a privilege to experience. Plant was clearly loving the HSMF vibe and let us know it with his playful stage antics during the “Rock and Roll” encore (“Push, push, push!”).

2. Scott Pemberton – 11:30 AM – 12:45 PM – Big Meadow Stage

“Who the hell is this guy?” is the question that everyone was asking after the first set of the weekend. Blasting straight out the gate with no guitar strap, no shirt, and a wooly beard, it was clear that Scott Pemberton and his power trio were hungry and eager to please. The man is a wildly creative virtuoso guitarist in the vein of Hendrix, coaxing wacky and wondrous distorted sounds out of his instrument with effortless ease. He plays it on a bench, he plays it on the ground, he plays it on his torso, he manhandles the shit out of it, and it sounds fantastic. With his band laying down everything from blues-rock to breakbeat dance music behind him, Pemberton's serious chops were the main focus of the diverse song selection. After an original tune called “Let's Play House” (about what you think it's about), the band launched into a dirty surf-rock instrumental that gave the just-settling-in crowd its first real chance to boogie down. The perfect opener for the festival, which set just the right tone for the weekend.

3. Peter Apfelbaum & Sparkler – 5:30-6:45 – Vaudeville Tent

Featuring a big band of wildly talented musicians, this set of free-jazz fusion and avant- garde hip-hop grooves expanded some minds in the late afternoon Vaudeville shade. Switching from keys to sax throughout the set, Apfelbaum led his super-tight band in exploratory excursions that featured outside-the-box soloing all around, notably from guitarist Will Bernard and the lovely horn duo of Natalie Cressman on trombone (and bass) and Jill Ryan on alto sax. Dueling keyboards lent a breezy In A Silent Way vibe for a bit, while another tune's slow-down-speed-up pocket had us jerking around trying to dance to its weirdness. Things got hypnotic with a repetitive groove entitled “All These Things Disappear,” featuring tinklings of Fender Rhodes that blessed everyone out good. Top-notch musicianship all around.

Dennis’ Thursday Highlights

1. North Mississippi Allstars – 11:30 p.m. – 1:30 a.m. – Vaudeville Stage

One of the most snarling, back alley blues-rock displays I’ve ever witnessed went down at the Allstars’ late night set, where the boys put their backs into it as writhing, hip grinding masses stuffed inside the tent allowed themselves to be seduced and savaged. NMAS have increasingly diversified their catalog, particularly on the sublime mortality focused Keys To The Kingdom (2011), but it was REALLY satisfying to hear them dig their fingers into the kind of nasty-good Mississippi mud that first put them on the map. When the Allstars play like this one wants to open an old school strip joint where they’re the house band and burlesque cuties and deliciously crude comics grace the stage. Anyone who let their guard down at this set most assuredly shook what mama gave them and didn’t much care who watched and licked their lips. A stellar multi-song sit-in from guitar maestro Will Bernard accented the positive and allowed the often classy six- stringer to get dirty, and bassist Lightnin’ Malcolm is a force of nature that dovetailed beautifully with the positively possessed attack of this set, offering a lascivious physicality that swept one up into the electric, percussion swirl around him. And don’t just take my word on this set’s glory. Here’s what Cody Dickinson posted on Facebook the next morning: “Incredible night last night. Lots of heavy things happening all at once. Most exciting show of my life. Thanks High Sierra!” Ain’t no lie, world boogie is coming!

2. Lord Huron – 3:45-5:00 p.m. – Vaudeville Stage

Rare the first afternoon at a festival where one feels drawn out of their shell, lifted a few centimeters above the norm, the weight of the world easing ever so slightly through the power of song. While I’d found Lord Huron’s 2012 full-length debut Lonesome Dreams a touch sleepy and hard to differentiate track-to-track, live the music became fully incarnated, lungs full of air and strong legs leaping. Their songs strike a deep chord, sneaking past our defenses to stir up childhood memories and wee hours musings. There is great longing and great release in this music, which shares some surface similarities with early My Morning Jacket and Fleet Foxes but is striving for something more emotionally direct and less atmospheric. Based on this set, it appears Lord Huron is out to exorcise some demons, both their own and the one’s we’re hounded by collectively. Even being only passing familiar with their catalog I and many others in attendance were throwing up our hands and stomping our feet by the end, the group’s all-in demeanor and driven musicality too powerful to resist.

3. Allen Stone – 7:15-9:15 p.m. – Big Meadow Stage

There’s no denying part of Allen Stone’s appeal is how he just doesn’t look like a panty dropping soul-rocker with the moves and inflection of a young Chris Robinson. At first glance one could easily peg him as the kid on shakedown hawking hand-blown glass pipes or various sundries from his medicine bag, but put him on a stage with a tight, nasty band and he’s mojo marinated dynamite. The swoony, female packed front row let ya know the little girls understand what Stone is packing, and the muscle of his collaborators and the sheer charisma their bandleader brings to the table suggests the road not taken by The Black Crowes after their “Hard To Handle” stoked debut success. Their originals hold their own against choice covers like Rufus’ “Tell Me Something Good” (the massed audience sing-along at the first chorus was a HSMF 2013 Mega-Moment) and the guitar bite and unguarded organ wail made sure one didn’t mistake this for neo-soul; this is rock ‘n’ roll that hasn’t forgotten how to make tail feathers flutter.

Eric’s Friday Highlights

1. The Infamous Stringdusters – 1:45 a.m. – 4 a.m. – High Sierra Music Hall

Everyone has a moment at HSMF when the festival mindset hits them and they realize they've truly settled into the High Sierra vibe. For me, this feeling took a couple of days to hit, and it happened in the middle of the Stringdusters' searing, soaring, triumphant late-night set. These guys just keep getting better and better, and their white-hot virtuosity and telepathic full-band interplay nearly knocked me off my tired feet. In particular, the soaring leads of Andy Hall on dobro and Jeremy Garrett on fiddle were grin-inducing pumps of adrenaline for my spent body. It certainly helped that the band knew their audience, and they pushed our pleasure buttons over and over again with all the right covers. “Don't Think Twice, It's Alright,” “He's Gone,” “Walking On the Moon,” “Deep Ellum Blues,” “Cripple Creek,” and “Jack-A-Roe” would all have been fun to hear, but they didn't just play these covers, they tore them up. Building and peaking over and over again until our faces hurt from smiling, this incredible band delivered an awe-inspiring, uplifting set that made us forget sleep for another night.

2. Primus – 9:30-11:30 p.m. – Grandstand Stage

As soon as Les, Ler, and Jay Lane took the stage and opened with a long, ambient, ominous jam, it became readily apparent that it was time to put the kiddies to bed. Featuring a stage setup clearly designed to unsettle, Primus delivered a weird, bizarre set of extended, psychedelic worm-hole jams that seemed like it was designed especially to fuck with the hippies at High Sierra. Claypool knows better than anyone how to instill that foreboding fear that slowly creeps up your spine, and he was a master of his craft on this night, delivering an otherworldly experience that left everyone dumbstruck. Guest spots by Skerik and Mike Dillon funkified things considerably (though still plenty weird), with Les picking up his 1-string whamola bass to add some farty womps to a Dillon/Jay Lane duel that blew a few minds. The satisfying slap-tastic “hits” were saved 'till the end, but “Jerry Was a Race Car Driver” and “Tommy the Cat” were just icing on the cake of this freaky deaky, deeply satisfying set.

3. The Revivalists – 3:15-4:30 p.m. – Vaudeville Tent

There are some bands that get after it so hard that you can't help but be swept up in their energy. The Revivalists' Vaudeville afternoon set was one of these experiences, as every note they played was filled with a breathless, hungry attitude, a-la early Springsteen. Featuring a horn section and pedal steel, the Revivalists play a rootsy brand of American rock that's led by the smoky vocals of David Shaw. Their set swept by in the blink of an eye, capped by a slow-burn crescendo of a guitar solo that peaked with a ferocity seldom seen on the grounds of HSMF. The Revivalists' crackling energy stayed with me long after the set had ended.

Dennis’ Friday Highlights

1. Roots of Led Zeppelin – 1:00-2:15 p.m. – High Sierra Music Hall

Anchored by four-fifths of New Monsoon – Bo Carper (banjo, acoustic guitar, vocals), Marshall Harrell (bass), Phil Ferlino (keys, vocals) and Jeff Miller (electric guitar, vocals) – and Dan Lebowitz, 2013 fest sensation Scott Pemberton (guitar, vocals) and Pemberton’s equally hirsute, shirtless drummer Russ Kliener, this was a delightful hour-and-change lesson in the folk and Delta blues Robert Plant had talked about being “lashed to” in his youth the previous evening. More than the easy shred show it might have been, this playshop lovingly dug up the roots of blues based rock, some of the original uncivilized grit still clinging to the verses, kept a bit dirty by a rotating cadre of players clearly in love with the material and ready to show how it had blossomed in their own craft. Highlights included a blistering, psych-accented Pemberton led take on the Electric Mud version of “I Just Want To Make Love To You,” Miller tearing the heart out of “In My Time of Dying,” and Carper making Bert Jansch smile with his captivating take on “Blackwater Side.” One was reminded of what a reliable pleasure the New Monsoon guys are, as flexible and naturally intuitive a gang of musicians as any here this weekend, and real aces at hitting memorable notes even in familiar territory. It’s been too many years since NM played HSMF and hopefully the warm reception this set and their varied sit-ins elsewhere received will lock them into the 2014 installment, particularly with a new studio album in the works and the group playing tastier and tauter than ever.

2. The Revivalists – 3:15-4:30 p.m. – Vaudeville Stage

What a hungry, hungry young band! Watching initially from backstage, I was struck by the many musicians who came quick strutting in to catch these New Orleans guys, Mike Dillon and his trombonist sidekick Carly Meyers unpacking gear from their just- arrived tour van to squeeze into the second half of the set while the perpetually delightful Jen Hartswick told me how The Revivalists usually won’t let her leave the stage once she sits in…and that didn’t bother her in the slightest! Like Rotary Downs and Mutemath, this band shows that New Orleans has a vibrant, unique rock scene happening that’s greatly overshadowed by the city’s funk, soul and jazz heavyweights. Their music surely grooves – I think they’re stockades in New Orleans for bands that don’t make you dance – but it’s also sharply drawn, the tunes sticking after just one hearing, and the group’s drive and lust for connection with the audience seal the deal. Even when one of them wasn’t actively playing, they’d work the crowd, leaping into every corner of stage to reach out for high-fives and handshakes. Not too often does one walk away a bona fide fan after a single performance but this set made me fall hard. Bonus points for a blazing cover of the Allmans’ “Whipping Post” that brought to mind an earthier, less twiddly version of Zappa’s take on the classic.

3. White Denim – 7:45-9:15 p.m. – Big Meadow Stage

After showing off the mellow gold side of their songbook the previous day on the main stage, White Denim unleashed a set that seemed purposefully designed to test the limits of their stamina and technical prowess. Easily the most unremittingly aggressive performance I’ve witnessed by this stunning Austin band, this was a banquet of guitar pyrotechnics, hefty Entwistle-esque bass, and propulsive, jaw dropping percussion. From a mad skills standpoint, this threw down four aces and gave even veteran noodle masters like moe. a run for their money this year. What keeps this from any jam-band-i-ness is the intricacy and general high quality of their compositions, which remind one of Close To The Edge- era Yes shorn of all proggy excess one moment and the next serve up distant echoes of The Name of This Band Is period Talking Heads. None of these root sources is particularly prominent since White Denim is whole heartedly engaged in forging their own manner of big, bold, beautifully etched rock. I said a bunch before this weekend but after this set it bears repeating: This is one of the finest, most promising young rock acts going today.

Eric’s Saturday Highlights

1. The Greyboy Allstars – 6:45-8:45 p.m. – Grandstand Stage

Maybe it was just my hankering for a set of funk, but this may have been the best set of the weekend. There's something about seeing this band of pros amplified on a big stage that brings out the best in them - the grooves were so telepathically locked-in and powerful, it was easy to hear their 20 years of group chemistry in every tune. It also helped that their fresh new material is killer, and they played plenty of it. Bassist Chris Stillwell is one of the least flashy, most sympathetic, rock-solid players I've ever seen, giving the music a backbone as straight and solid as sax player Karl Denson's posture. With Denson, keyboardist Robert Walter and guitarist Elgin Park weaving in and out of each other with playful precision and passion, the Grandstand field was shakin' as the sun set behind the stage. Sit-ins by Skerik and trumpet player Jen Hartswick brought things over the top, and judging by Hartswick's face after exchanging solos with Denson, the musicians were just as awestruck by this ensemble's tightness as we were. This was some dirty boogaloo funk you could set your watch to, if you bothered to wear a watch at High Sierra (I didn't).

2. The John Scofield Überjam Band – 4:30-6:00 p.m. – Grandstand Stage

After melting some faces at Vaudeville Tent the night before, Scofield brought his own version of a jam band to the Grandstand stage for some daytime grooves in the sun. These tunes seemed to work better with the room to breathe out in the open space among the pines, and watching Scofield wring notes out of his guitar out in the open hills was quite a pleasure. With his guitar foil Avi Bortnick laying down programmed electronic backing tracks and tight rhythm guitar, Scofield was free to get seriously bluesy on new songs like “Boogie Stupid,” “Curtis Knew,” and “Al Green Song.” Even when playing over a one-or-two-chord vamp, Scofield's unpredictable phrasing and unmistakable tone are staggeringly engaging, surprising, and always soulful. It's always a privilege to watch a master at work, and it was quite the treat to watch Scofield squeeze out solo after brilliant solo.

3. The David Mayfield Parade – 1:45-3:00 p.m. – Vaudeville Tent

Equipped with an arsenal of fantastic country tunes, a quick wit, and a tight backing band that acted as his comic foil throughout the set, David Mayfield put the “Vaudeville” back in the Vaudeville Tent with one hell of an entertaining set. Rounding out his original set of heartfelt love songs with a good bit of humor and stage antics, Mayfield's set satisfied in more ways than one. The bearded bard sang, jumped on things, danced, and worked the crowd like a pro, but most importantly, the warm, inviting music was great throughout. His animated female fiddle player kept things interesting as well, both with her harmonizing and fiddling and her dialogue with Mayfield. This was one set that left everyone with a warm afternoon smile on their face.

Dennis’ Saturday Highlights

1. The Barr Brothers – 7:55-9:25 p.m. – Big Meadow Stage

The High Sierra debut of Brad and Andrew Barr’s latest project was a moving, exhilarating affair, prompting tears from many in the first tender stretch and then livening up to a playful, musically potent conclusion (which included some guitar-bass face-to-face moments that brought vintage Zeppelin to mind). As ever with these dizzyingly gifted siblings, there’s a ton going on at all times but they’ve harnessed their talents (and talent for stirring interesting, worthwhile stuff from their collaborators) to the most focused, effective songwriting and arrangements of their career. Yes, the tempting madness and spontaneity of The Slip and Surprise Me Mr. Davis is largely absent but, shooting straight, this works better at presenting the full spectrum of the brothers’ charms in ways those not already in their cult can appreciate. Some of this is the company they’re keeping, namely bandmates Sarah Page (harp, vocals) and multi-instrumentalist Andres Vial (bass, vibraphone, percussion, harmonium), two Montreal gems that alter the palette of the Barrs’ music in wholly terrific ways, their trained seriousness offering fine counterpoint to the brothers’ moment-seizing invention. The horn section from Rubblebucket joined them for most of the set, accentuating the classy-cool vibe of this new music. Delicacy and restraint are very effectively employed tools here, and the group dynamics between Andrew, Brad, Page and Vial reveal how well they listen to one another and respond in real time – they play to the songs but in a most conversational way. The combined elements are tenderizing, humanizing, and catch-your-breath lovely AND it seems like this band is just beginning to crest into its full potential.

2. Lee Fields & The Expressions – 12:15 a.m. – 1:30 a.m. – Vaudeville Stage

Classic hoof stomping, heartbreaking soul delivered by a compact powerhouse whose body and every utterance spoke of a life hard lived but survived with indomitable grace. Active since the late 60s, Fields is all the heft and heart that modern soul music is missing, keeping the torch lit for the pioneering music of James Brown, Otis Redding and Ray Charles. That he’s backed by a much younger band that looks like they could just as easily be the opener for Grizzly Bear as the seamlessly together bedrock for this soul legend is an added treat. There was little doubt this music is a mission for everyone onstage, and their undisguised passion and indisputable skill at executing a style that’s all but disappeared hit the audience like lightning, the entire tent shouting and swaying head-on-shoulder with strangers by the final bow. The premiere High Sierra debut of 2013 and he crushed it again the next day on the main stage.

3. Jamming On The Brill Building – 1:30-2:45 p.m. – High Sierra Music Hall

During the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s a skilled stable of songwriters cranked out some of the most finely sculpted pop songs of all time. Located on Broadway in Manhattan, the Brill Building gave rise to Carole King, Burt Bacharach, Leiber and Stoller and many more. However, it’s a prime piece of musical history that’s now known more for its invisible omnipresence on oldies stations and TV & film cues. So, hats off to Lebo for coordinating this choice selection of Brill classics in ways that highlighted the succinct charms of the originals and then expanded them in organic ways. Case in point, “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” was intertwined with the Grateful Dead’s “Bird Song,” a pairing utterly unexpected but ridiculously enjoyable. Often the past is lost in any real detail in our rush for newness, and this playshop helped shine a light on some bedrock songwriting and how it’s still vibrant and relevant today. With guest turns from Elephant Revival’s Bonnie Paine, members of California Honeydrops, Fruition and New Monsoon, right on time drumming from Ezra Lipp, and more, this set mingled classic numbers with present day emerging greats for a very cool experience.

Setlist: Teenager in Love, Love Potion #9, You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Bird Song, I Feel The Earth Move, Unchained Melody, Piece of My Heart (with tear the house down lead vocal from Jennifer Hartswick)

4. Mike Dillon Band – 11:45 a.m. – 1:00 p.m. – Vaudeville Stage

No festival day is anything but good when one is screaming, “Motherfucker!” by noon along with Mike D and his kicking, hopping, utterly into it young band, who look for all the world like Dillon drove his van up to a community college classroom and said, “You, you and you get in the van. It’s time to split some heads open on the road!” This is what punk rock sounds like filtered through jazzbo skills and hip hop thinking. It’s a heady buzz and mayhap a bit too agro for some daisies at the fest, but if one had an appetite for strong, pummeling, wickedly well played music that busts not stretches genres then the Mike Dillon Band served up a feast. And the next morning they dished up a rugged brunch on the Big Meadow that included a ballsy, suits-them-to-a-tee cover of the Stooges’ “1969,” identified as Dillon’s favorite punk song of all time. For a band only a little over a year old, this is shaping up real nice.

Eric’s Sunday Highlights

1. moe. - 9:30- 11:30 p.m. – Grandstand Stage

Having not seen moe. in many moons, I didn't have many expectations for this set, but moe. came through in a big way with a casual, good-natured weekend closing set that wasn't afraid to get slinky and stretch out in between some massive climaxes. The boys clearly felt right at home at High Sierra, having played the festival plenty of times since their first appearance in 1997(!) And though the familiar dueling guitars of Chuck and Al always hit the spot with their shred-tastic peaks, the highlights of the set occurred during the multiple special guest sit-ins. Trombonist Carly Meyers from the Mike Dillon Band was the first to appear, bopping and weaving in and out of the music during a transition from “Skrunk” into “Time Ed,” at which point Mike Dillon joined the party and proceeded to engage Jim Loughlin in what had to be the greatest vibraphone duel I've ever witnessed. This was an incomparable musical moment that took the cake as the highlight of the set for me. More highlights included a Lukas Nelson sit-in on “Opium,” where some raunchy blues guitar licks got traded around, and Anders Osborne helping peak out a riff-heavy take on “Happy Hour Hero.” I was running out of steam by this point and had to head back to the campsite, but not before dancing and hopping my way into the dusty night to a bouncy take on “Buster.” moe. knew the crowd they were playing for and gave us just the down-home set we needed at the end of the festival.

2. Steel Pulse – 7:15-8:45 p.m. – Grandstand Stage

In a year sorely lacking in any reggae, Steel Pulse filled the void with a super-tight set of modern progressive reggae classics. The music's precision made it a kind of post-roots reggae performed by a well-oiled machine with perfect four-part harmonies led by David Hinds, whose husky voice is still amazing. Opening with “Rally Round” as their Rasta anthem of sorts, Hinds and his massive dreads led his band of pros through hit after hit like infectious “Prodigal Son,” my favorite tune of the set. “No More Weapons” was dubbed out nicely, while “Life Without Music” got the crowd skanking and singing along as the sun set behind the band. By this point in the weekend, the festival flow had well set in, so no one had any trouble settling into an easy skank for this satisfying performance.

3. The California Honeydrops – 2:05-3:25 p.m. – Vaudeville Tent

The Honeydrops' Vaudeville Tent set wins hands-down for the biggest dance party and most memorable moment of the weekend. Simply put, the house was brought down. In the midday heat, the Honeydrops' set of sweet, pure, NOLA-inspired soul music drew a larger and larger crowd as the set went on, due largely to lead singer Lech Wierzynski's ability to get the crowd involved and turn a concert into a huge celebration of life. In a way, the Honeydrops’ set's communal, joyous feel filled in for the absent Nathan Moore's annual Vaudeville Tent set, which usually has the tendency to bring a crowd together like nothing else at High Sierra can. Wierzynski projects a similar vibe of profound gratitude and love onstage, and when he got everyone into the party with “Soul Tub” things started getting crazy. It's easy to dance to the second-line inspired horn lines of the Honeydrops, but the crowd climax that occurred during this set was one for the record books. We're talking a crowd-surfing, breast-exposing, raging, dust-cloud raising, freakout of a dance party the likes of which I've never seen at High Sierra [take a peek for yourself here]. At this point, the music was just the background to the party going down in Vaudeville. Mad props to the Honeydrops for bringing the absolute best out of people, as this moment defined why HSMF is not only the best fest in the west, it's the best in all the land. If you've ever been, you know exactly what I'm talking about.

Dennis’ Sunday Highlights

1. Guitarmageddon: Stadium Rock! – 4:00-6:00 p.m. – High Sierra Music Hall

Celebrating 10 years of over the top guitar heroics, the ever-shifting aggregate of Guitarmageddon gathered for what may be THE archetypal choice of material for this occasional project. Guitarmageddon founders Sean Leahy and Josh Clark (Tea Leaf Green) held down their usual spots stage right while current bandleader Simon Kurth (aka Huckle) drove some of the best guitarists around – Jeff Miller, Dan Lebowitz, Kiyoshi Foster, Lukas Nelson, Jeremy Korpas, moe.’s Al Schnier (who seemed to get a special kick out of this NorCal tradition) and Fruition’s Jay Anderson & Kellen Asebroek - and a crack rhythm team of Phil Ferlino (keys), Murph Murphy (bass) and Ezra Lipp (drums) to appropriately ludicrous heights. But where the Guitarmageddon schtick has sometimes been layered on the source material (the White Stripes and Talking Heads sets come to mind), this assortment of creamy mainstream, FM certified favorites fit them like a glove, the bonhomie onstage increasing song by song, pleasure buttons being slammed repeatedly for the audience, whose faces lit up with an infectious glow at the opening notes of each iconic tune. The eternally appealing sounds of Derek and the Dominos’ “Layla,” Aerosmith’s “Sweet Emotion” and opener Edgar Winter Group’s “Free Ride” (with some great falsetto from Ferlino decked out in sleeveless t-shirt and head bandana; some of the guys really got into the spirit of the theme, particularly suede tassel vest clad Lipp) drew people in, and the curious were rewarded with surprises like Jen Hartswick belting out Journey’s “Any Way You Want It” better than ol’ Steve Perry can anymore and Johnny Moroko, lead singer of Rolling Stones tribute Brown Sugar, killing it on “Start Me Up.” If you didn’t have a king size blast at this set, which got an additional 45 minutes over allotted time to handle all the widdly-widdly goodness, then I’m fairly sure you’re not wired for a good time. Fun resides in the heart of Guitarmageddon, and this set amped up all the positives about this lovingly ludicrous endeavor.

Setlist (and guitarists/guests on each selection): Free Ride (Leahy, Clark, Miller, Lebo, Kurth), Sweet Emotion (Leahy, Clark, Miller, Kurth), Whole Lotta Rosie (Leahy, Clark, Korpas, Kurth), Fat Bottom Girls (Leahy, Clark, Kiyoshi, Anderson, Asebroek – killer harmonies on this one!), Layla (Leahy, Kurth, Lebo, Lukas Nelson), When The Levee Breaks (Leahy, Kurth, Anderson, Lukas, Al Schnier), Start Me Up (Leahy, Kurth, Schnier, Clark, Moroko), Do You Feel Like We Do (Leahy, Kurth, and an especially excellent Miller on point – Frampton would approve), Any Way You Want It (Leahy, Clark, Kurth, Hartswick), Won’t Get Fooled Again (Leahy, Clark, Miller, Lebo, Kurth, Schnier, Lukas)

2. Futurebirds – 8:15-9:30 p.m. – Big Meadow Stage

Facing off against fest faves The Barr Brothers and reggae legends Steel Pulse meant for an initially thin crowd for this Athens, GA band’s High Sierra debut but it clearly didn’t phase them. I’ve rarely seen guys more in love with playing rock ‘n’ roll, where every song was tackled with closing number flourish, hair flying as their bodies swayed with their instruments. For Futurebirds, playing music for people is an obvious pleasure and privilege, and it’s hard not to be smitten with such grinning amour. With pedal steel, two electrics and an acoustic, guitar flavor abounds on every tune. It’s a voluptuous sound but rarely messy because they’ve figured out how to bob and weave with each other’s lines. Only a handful of bands have ever figured out how to handle this much guitar action but Futurebirds have it licked. Their songs are terrific, too, full of oddly wise nuggets and choruses built for boozy sing-alongs. They’re not reinventing the wheel but this motherfucker rolls real nice. By set’s end they’d cemented their place in Athens’ next wave of greats with Dead Confederate, Reptar, and The Whigs. A real treat to get rocked out so solidly late in the game, and hopefully they’ll be back to do their thing again. I came into this set really liking Futurebirds and walked away a diehard fan. Viva live music!

3. Rubblebucket – 10:00-11:30 p.m. – Big Meadow Stage
Materialized – 12:00-1:15 a.m. – Funk ‘n Jamhouse

With so much modern music a fairly typical formula dominates: (this influence) + (other influence) + (fresh adjectives and qualifiers) = new band. So, it was a super treat to conclude my primary listening experiences at HSMF 2013 with the future music of Rubblebucket and Materialized. Though very different from one another, these bands possess a progressive edge that’s largely free of ancestral fingerprints. Though happening right in front of us, their sounds seem snatched from the not too distant days ahead, a beat or three ahead of the competition in exposing the connective tissue between different styles and moods, a reverberant sonic curiosity evident in every step. Both acts have a blast discovering and sharing fresh sounds and new combinations of ideas and in this way keep the listener on their toes, stimulating good things in our brains even as they entertain us and lubricate our limbs.

Rubblebucket solidified their candidacy for High Sierra annual regulars in their third wondrous visit, effectively wooing and moving their largest audience yet here as they closed out the Big Meadow Stage with serious aplomb. Their natural warmth, unforced strangeness, and undeniable skills flowed electrically from the stage to the far reaches back by the soundboard, where I took in the undulating big picture being painted by these Brooklyn/Vermont musicians. Their songs are multilayered – musically and lyrically – but nearly always instantly likeable. They’re talking a lot but they’re always saying something, and they usually say it with a come-hither smile that gives one a tingle. Pop music – often reviled by jam fans and folkies – is integral to Rubblebucket. For as high brow as their compositions and playing can get, there’s usually a toe-tapping element enshrouding the complexities. And sometimes they just let the pop thing hang out for anyone to see as on the fab cover of The Doobie Brothers’ “What A Fool Believes” that went off like a charm bomb in the crowd. By the time lead singer-saxophonist Kalmia Traver was surfed above the sudden horde the band welcomed onstage during “Came Out Of A Lady” one felt part of an interconnected organism, the bonds between the band and the audience visible and invisible, strong and tangible. Without putting too fine a point on it, Rubblebucket hums with a life force that summons one’s own primal joie de vivre.

The frizzled wire, sample savvy, crunching rhythm attack of Materialized proved just the elixir to summon the final freakin’ left in my body. Materialized’s current is irrefutably musical and fleshly present but just as knob stroking as LCD Soundsystem, employing computer crafted bass lines and all manner of synthesizers, sequencers and whatnot in a pleasing, dark-tinged assault on the senses. Sweating out impurities and striving to recall some Prince dance moves to unleash, I thought how much what Mighty Dave Pellicciaro (keys, samples, myriad noisemakers) and Dale Fanning (electronic percussion) and their varied collaborators are up to is just about everything most electronic dance music is missing, most notably a prominent human element with the ability to shift and respond in real time with true musician insight and instinct. No question that these guys are masters of technology but in a daring, hang-your-ass-over- the-edge way that recalls the sonic spelunking of early Tangerine Dream and Aphex Twin. The more aggressive, intense and shadowy Materialized becomes the more I’m captivated by their evolution.

JamBase | Northern California
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