Review & Photos | High Sierra 2013 | Quincy, CA

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.

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