Review and Photos | High Sierra | Quincy

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

High Sierra Music Festival :: 07.03.14-07.06.14 :: Plumas-Sierra County Fairgrounds :: Quincy, CA

Read a full review after Andrew's photos and be sure to check out a gallery of Whitney's photos at the top of page two.

Dennis’ Introduction

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union… The Preamble to the U.S. Constitution has few more tangible manifestations than the annual High Sierra Music Festival, where for four days we collectively chip away at the tribalism, venom, sheer stupidity, rank greed, rock throwing and perverse intractability marbling itself into the modern American psyche. Nestled amongst tall trees, cooling breezes lifting the heat from bronzing skin, strangers grab you to dance in the street or make you the best damn Bloody Mary you’ve ever tasted, nothing asked in return except a smile, a hug and the unspoken promise to keep the goodwill flowing.

Open hands and generous hearts mostly prevail against any negativity that creeps through the gates. One feels amongst friends even if it’s their first time strolling the tapestry draped oases, brightly lit RVs and streamer adorned tents. An empty cup is greeted with a newly opened bottled of Chianti and a grin from a new friend. This special, all-too-temporary community imbues one with the specialness of simply being human and alive, blessed to light-step through music of many hues, a different adventure at every turn and the richest, most unexpected conversations one could ever imagine. It doesn’t take long for walls to drop and suddenly one’s essence steps into the light and starts to speak truths about themselves, the world and just about anything else in the universe. Dionysus runs wild-haired along the pathways and stages, rib-aching laughter ringing to the sky, and the real color show arriving only once the stars come out.

High Sierra is permission to play, a hall pass from deadlines and budgets, an invitation to the People’s Party where time is fluid and there’s always a thick slice of cake left just for you. If all this sounds too good to be true, well, then you’ve probably never spent the Fourth of July holiday with the freaks, families and frolickers in Quincy.

Eric’s Introduction

There are very few things in our lives we can count on to be there for us year after year. As time marches on, people move away, get married, change jobs, babies are born, etcetera. That's why it's such a luxury to have the constant reassurance that High Sierra Music Festival will be ready and waiting for us come Fourth of July Weekend. The amazing folks running this little slice of heaven up in the Quincy pines have been at it for 24 years now, and have honed and perfected every logistical detail to a tee, making for the easiest, most carefree festival experience imaginable. Much of this has to do with the well-earned level of trust between the festival and the town of Quincy (zero police presence or security checkpoints), which is directly due to the well-earned level of trust between the festival and its almost unbelievably well-behaved, self-regulated audience.

This year, aside from the intimate, convenient confines and ample showers and flush toilets, there were beer tastings, Bloody Mary bars, World Cup screenings, yoga classes, parades, river runs, RV sets/dance parties, campsite jams, and the ever-present air of “there's-no-place-I'd-rather-be” satisfaction radiating from every happy, costumed reveler you crossed paths with.

And then there was the music. Once again, High Sierra succeeded in curating an impressive, versatile lineup of artists for all musical palates. I for one was very pleased at this year's bluegrass-heavy schedule, which allowed ample opportunities to get your twang on throughout the weekend. Between Punch Brothers, Dead Winter Carpenters, Trampled By Turtles, Sierra Hull, The McCourys (both Del and Travelin'), and Steep Ravine (who tugged some heartstrings with their version of John Hartford's “In Tall Buildings”), the pickin' was first rate. We were also lucky to have wizards Stanley Jordan, Scott Pemberton, Fareed Haque and RonKat Spearman spewing guitar pyrotechnics all weekend, though this was just the tip of the musical iceberg, as 16 hours of non-stop music four days in a row provided way more highlights than can be mentioned here. What follows is two guys’ takes on a marathon long weekend of music in paradise. It's safe to say that most are already counting the days till High Sierra 2015 – it’s just too perfect a festival to miss.

Dennis’ Thursday Highlights

While none of us was present at the great land runs of the late 1800s, there’s more than a little of the same unbridled exuberance and hopefulness to the rush of people when the gates open on Thursday morning. While the vendors, staff, VIPs and few others are already settled in, the majority of attendees stake their spots in the early hours on Thursday, backpacks, tents and coolers in tow as choice plots next to stages or beneath thick pines – unlike most festivals there is virtually no segregation between performance and camping spaces with folks tucked in every which where - are claimed with a whoop. It’s an alarm clock of slapping sandals and trailing laughter that announces, “It’s on!” in a most delightful way.

1. Typhoon – 5:30 pm – 7:00 am – Vaudeville Tent

A blazing summer afternoon may seem an odd slot for this large, multi-limbed Portland band, particularly with lyrics like, “You were born in a hospital bed/ You will return to the hospital bed, my friend/ Life's a beast that shits and eats from the same end,” but there was something so resolutely alive, artfully sculpted, and poignantly human about Typhoon that most gathered beneath the shelter of the Vaudeville tent surely felt present at a moment, or more accurately, a series of sighing, wailing, swaying moments that brought one close to the nitty-gritty stuff of life. Typhoon is a big band with a lot of moving parts, and frankly, I wondered if they could pull off the broad swings between whispery delicacy and pummeling grandiosity in their excellent studio work in concert. It took all of one song for this 11-person lineup to show that they were one body, the breathing and motion stitched together by a visceral collective commitment to the special, utterly fearless songs of lead singer-songwriter- guitarist Kyle Morton, who croons with a similar cracked intensity to Two Gallants’ Adam Stephens, the sound of men who see too much truth and have no choice but to sing about it. The facile comparison – which I heard from a number of folks in the crowd – is Arcade Fire, but Typhoon is a much more prayerful enterprise, the things they explore offering few pathways to big stages and glittery costumes but multiple routes to catharsis and deep, shared understanding about the hard stuff that inevitably comes our way.

2. Dead Winter Carpenters – 2:30-4:15 PM – Grandstand Stage

Ambition is attractive in an emerging young band, and this Lake Tahoe, CA quintet showed they have their sights set on big things in their Grandstand Stage opening set. Every element – songwriting, vocals, solos, group interplay – was sharper than any previous DWC performance I’d caught, and while some of their chummy playfulness has diminished what’s emerging is a band snapping at the heels of kindred ancestors like Railroad Earth and Leftover Salmon. With multiple vocalists and songwriters there’s a lot of variety, and steady touring has given the band polish and an easygoing facility with audiences. Despite the high humidity and mercury jumping temps at this year’s HSMF, there was a solid crowd grinning and grooving in the large, grassy field, a testament to their ever- expanding fan-base.

3. Scott Pemberton – 7:30-9:00 PM – Vaudeville Tent

Finally cooled off enough to really give one’s boogie shoes a workout, the charmingly hirsute and terrifically enjoyable Mr. Pemberton delivered dance music of a well-rooted sort, electro-aware but blues-based, full of shreddy delights but also seamlessly propulsive. In fact, it’s hard to figure out where Pemberton and his limber, muscular trio came from. They aren’t using anybody else’s blueprints but they’re sure as shit building a capering, high time stokin’ thang together. Pemberton is a fantastic guitarist – something he showed off in his “I’m game for ANYTHING” guest turns at other sets – but he’s not a peacock. It’s the music he’s after and it just so happens that he’s a damn blast to watch as he hunts down the notes for our pleasure and stimulation.

Eric’s Thursday Highlights

1. Turkuaz – 11:30 PM -1:30 AM – Vaudeville Tent

One of the best parts of High Sierra is discovering new bands, which are given prime slots to deliver the goods and blow minds of newly-won fans. And there's no better slot for this than the late-night Vaudeville set, when the intimate tent is turned into a marathon party, energy bouncing off the walls in all directions. This was my first exposure to the nine-piece Brooklyn-based funk band Turkuaz, who blew the roof off the joint with a two hour set of dirty grooves. Led by guitarist/composer Dave Brandwein, the band tore through song after infectious song, backed by a full horn section and the freaky, unhinged, Betty Davis-like singing from Geneva Williams and Sammi Garett. Frankly, the set was a blur of a dance party for me, anchored by the thick, dirty bass lines of Taylor Shell. I do remember scream-singing along with a cover of The Beatles' “I've Got a Feeling,” which was dropped at just the right time in the middle of the funk. There was no better way to jump-start the weekend than with a deep funk tent party, and this set did it just right.

2. The Budos Band – 10:00-11:30 PM – Big Meadow Stage

Budos brought the dark, sinister grooves to Big Meadow to usher in the first night of revelry. This band is unapologetically boisterous with their hard-hitting, punk energy – they're not afraid to throw the kitchen sink at you if needed. Things got pretty weird there for a while — baritone saxophonist Jared Tankel was channeling the dark spirits with his deep squawks, driving the funk freakout in all its scary glory. As professional as these guys are, they're not afraid to get raw and real, and we weren't afraid to follow them down the rabbit hole into the abyss. These guys were in full on shaman mode on Thursday night, creepin' and churnin' the funk for Big Meadow to frolic in. This was the set that really jump-started the festival for me — it was all butter from here on out.

3. Sierra Hull – 1:45-3:00 PM – Big Meadow Stage

Opening the Big Meadow stage with a sunny afternoon set, 23-year-old mandolin virtuoso Sierra Hull and her clean and true band of bluegrass pickers came all the way from Nashville for us Californians, and boy was it a great way to start the weekend. The girl's mandolin tone is gorgeous, flowing like water with her fluttering, delicately picked lines. Add to that her pure voice, poignant original songs, and a band of Nashville pros that includes the incredible multi- instrumentalist Justin Moses (banjo, fiddle, and dobro), and this girl puts on a show like a breath of fresh air. Hull's music strikes the perfect balance between jazzy, progressive newgrass and traditional country flavor — the original tune “Best Buy” was an old-fashioned fiddlin' good time, while a fast-picked instrumental medley of “Whiskey Before Breakfast” and “Salt Creek” jump-started the first dance party of the weekend. I'll certainly be following Sierra Hull's promising career after this joyous set.

Dennis’ Friday Highlights

1. Greensky Bluegrass – 10:00-11:30 PM – Big Meadow Stage

While many relived the pleasures of 1998 with Lauryn Hill at the main stage, string lovers got a boisterous master class in pickin’ on the Big Meadow. With members of The Travelin’ McCourys and others joining them, it was evident how confident and capable this five-piece has become. They’d never say it themselves but Dave Bruzza (guitar, vocals), Paul Hoffman (mandolin, vocals), Michael Bont (banjo, vocals), Anders Beck (dobro) and Mike Devol (upright bass, vocals) can hold their own with anybody in their field AND they write significantly better original material than most of their contemporaries. As hot as the licks and extended, interwoven runs were this night, one kept coming back to the sturdiness of these tunes and how they aren’t just rehashes of bluegrass standards. However, their fine instincts for covers emerged in a shuddering, audience igniting version of Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain,” that was as well realized as it was unexpected. It is a joy to watch these guys work, and there’s never a doubt they’re pouring everything in them into the experience.

2. Chris Robinson Brotherhood / The Mother Hips – 11:30 PM-1:30 AM (CRB) / 1:30-3:30 AM (Hips) – Vaudeville Tent (CRB) / Funk'n Jamhouse (Hips)

One of this writer’s central complaints about modern rock is how it really wants to be dance music but has forgotten that rock ‘n’ roll is by nature a boot-scootin’ thing separate but equal to what’s happening in clubland. Maybe it’s the constriction of skinny jeans or something but much of today’s new rock has no swivel, no backfield in motion, no old time groin thunder. But, blissfully, this was not the case with the inspired one-two punch of late night sets from the Chris Robinson Brotherhood and The Mother Hips, where if you weren’t moving vigorously I’d have checked your pulse. It may be The Kinks’ that said “give the people what they want” but these two groups excelled at serving folks what they might not have realized they wanted or perhaps even needed - stand in the middle of either audience and you could watch people be charmed in real time. While the basic configuration of the CRB and Hips is standard issue rock instrumentation, they’ve each put their own stamp on the genre, offering odd angles and juicy twists inside music that’s as sturdy and ready to roll as any ancestor. It’s a much harder thing to accomplish than most understand, this variation within a well-established genre, but this evening both bands made it look effortless, swinging hard but giving ample leash to appealingly psychedelic tangents, gusto-stuffed solos, and just plain unassailably excellent rock ‘n’ roll that knows its history and is anxious to make some of its own.

3. Jonathan Wilson – 5:15-6:30 PM – Vaudeville Tent

Wilson is a rock musicologist with heart. There’s no mistaking his affection for '70s jewels like David Crosby’s If I Could Only Remember My Name or crate digger obscurities like Gary Higgins’ Red Hash, but Wilson isn’t just another recreationist aping the moves of his forebears. This is the music that moves him and he’s succeeded where most others fail in creating new music in the same spirit with the same density and gently bucolic vibe. His late afternoon set arrived like a welcome breeze, his crack band serving the songs well and their leader in fine voice. It’s the kind of music where one catches a pleasant contact high the longer they linger in its undulating waves. With some fiery guest guitar from the CRB’s Neal Casal, this set was as nicely carved and gorgeously executed as one could want. And bonus points for diggin’ up Sopwith Camel’s “Fazon” and dusting it off for a lovely cover – pure creamy goodness.

Eric’s Friday Highlights

1. The Mother Hips – 1:30–4:00 AM - Funk'n Jamhouse

God knows how I've lived in California for six years and never seen The Mother Hips perform. Thankfully, my first Hips show was a true rager. As an introduction to the band, I couldn't have asked for more, as the 24 year chemistry shared by these guys was on full display for this marathon, wild, late-night set. The band performed as a true unit, churning out fine-honed and patient rock tunes with flair — guitarists Tim Bluhm and Greg Loiacono played off each other telepathically, stretching the music to new places on a dime. Playing to die-hards, the Hips' music was given plenty of room to breathe in this setting, and songs like “Magazine” and “Time Sick Son of a Grizzly Bear” were given a freewheeling rock treatment before opening up into free-form, swaying jams. Another highlight was a passionate take on ”Born Under a Bad Sign” that saw guest guitarist Scott Law join in and dig deep. “Deep” was indeed the key word for this set, as the band was clearly inspired by the crowd and the setting. It didn't take a Hips veteran to tell that this was a special show, whether it was your first or 50th. The good-ol' honest rock 'n roll of the Hips was on full display on this night, and I'll certainly be seeking it out again soon.

2. Chris Robinson Brotherhood – 11:30 PM–1:30 AM – Vaudeville Tent

Once again, the late-night Vaudeville slot delivered in a big way, this time with a patient, well-simmered psychedelic set by the CRB that organically built to a sprawling, grand climax, pushed by Robinson's raspy, soulful rave-ups. The beauty of this band is its lack of rush to get somewhere - these guys swagger along with a feel- good, easy, Dead-like boogie, and it's a joy to experience. It was somewhere in the middle of this set that I truly let my guard down and dropped into the real festival flow - that no-worries, completely-in-the-moment groove of being exactly where you need to be at any given moment that High Sierra fosters so damn well. CRB played it cool and easy, and helped me get there with a breezy, soulful take on Three Dog Night's “Never Been to Spain.” Things started to pick up with a chugging take on “Tomorrow's Blues,” which led into sprawling, muscular versions of Dylan's “Tough Mama” and a rockin' “Ride” that saw Robinson getting seriously soulful while Neal Casal threw out mean guitar licks. The band peaked the set out with one woolly, exploratory, sprawling jam after another that hit all the right spots and sent us into the night ready for whatever came our way. CRB is like a fine wine that’s smooth going down and leaves you with a grand buzz after a healthy dose.

3. Punch Brothers / Greensky Bluegrass – Grandstand Stage/Big Meadow Stage

Both the honed, tasteful and gorgeous virtuosity of Chris Thile's Punch Brothers Grandstand set and the huge dance party of Greensky's Big Meadow set were epic for very different reasons.

Chris Thile's band of virtuosos delivered a progressive yet playful set of American string music that went perfectly with the setting sun. Filling the Grandstand field with interweaving melodies and unexpected chord progressions that went past traditional bluegrass music, the band flowed with a supreme effortlessness. Songs like “Watch 'at Breakdown” and “Magnet” were fun, fast-paced, and catchy, but surprising in structure. Just watching Thile's animated facial expressions was entertaining enough - he was clearly having a blast making this unique music. The highlight of the set, though, had to be a full-on, to-the-note arrangement of a Debussy composition that made my hair stand on end. This was exquisite, first-tier music-making at the very highest level.

By contrast, Greensky Bluegrass brought a whole other kind of vibe with their brand of bluegrass virtuosity. Their Big Meadow set brought the shit-kickin' dance party like no other band all weekend, and tore the roof off with fast pickin', great songs and covers, and a huge sit-in by Ronnie McCoury. A perfect take/singalong of Paul Simon's “Gumboots” made me wish the original had dobro in it, while McCoury lent some red-hot, 64th-note solos to a blazing-fast, jammed-out version of David Grisman's instrumental “E.M.D.” These Greensky guys can pick with the best of 'em, and clearly have the fire in their bellies, as they all played like men possessed. This was probably the biggest bluegrass set of the weekend, and that's saying a lot with all the talent that graced these stages over four days.


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