High Sierra | 07.03 - 07.06 | California

High Sierra Music Festival :: 07.03.08 07.06.08 :: Plumas County Fairgrounds :: Quincy, CA

By: Kayceman

High Sierra 2008 by Julie Blaustein
Wildfires are still raging through Northern California. Sparked by lightning storms on June 21, come July 2, the day before the start of to the 18th Annual High Sierra Music Festival, Highway 70 (a commonly used road to get to the fest) was closed and there were reports of poor air quality. Concern was spreading and there were rumors of a possible location change or even cancellation. Turns out the other primary route (Highway 80) was a little easier and by the time we heard the first notes of the fest the wind had changed and was blowing the smoke out of the valley. Everything was working out just fine, just like it always does at High Sierra.

The key is to just relax and let High Sierra happen. By staying true to their roots and keeping the festival an intimate, boutique-style event, organizers are able to give patrons a unique experience that is impossible to duplicate. There's an ease to the proceedings, from getting into the grounds, to getting food and ice, to clean showers, to walking the short distance from one stage to the next, there's never any stress and things just seem to roll along at the perfect pace. There are a variety of camping options, lots of shade, a swimming pool, the beautiful Feather River and you're surrounded by giant trees and rolling green mountains. This is Northern California in all its glory, and there is no better place to celebrate America's birthday than at High Sierra.

This relaxed atmosphere and slowed down pace dictates life at the festival. Work and worries, money issues and all the other weight that piles up on our backs begins to lift, revealing a simpler you, reminding us of the kids we used to be. High Sierra is summer camp for adults and it not only affects the fans, but also the musicians. Artists feel the respectful, positive vibe and it allows them to let down their guard and roam the grounds, interacting with fans. Unlike a lot of festivals, most of the talent sticks around for the weekend so they too can unwind. It's common to see an artist checking out other bands, standing right in the crowd, dancing like no one is watching because they probably aren't.

Musicians even rolled into campsite parties, JamBase's Camp Harry was fortunate enough to host a bunch of bands (for both music and just beers) including Mike Gordon, who rolled in with a cymbal on his head, which Rotary Downs drummer Zack Smith played with the RV antenna for a bit. As Smith tells us, "Seeing Mr. Gordon at Camp Harry with a Zildjian 16" deep crash on his head made me want to further the symbolic cymbalism while I wondered, 'Why,' and thus played the intro to 'YYZ.' I got one bar into it and Mr. Gordon had enough. I hope this didn't delay any future musical or otherwise relationships." What other festival could that conceivably happen at? Artists play impromptu gigs at campsites, on RVs and even in RVs at sunrise. There's a freedom and simple joy to High Sierra that has made it a must attend event for those in the know. With so many festival options, such a poor economy and insane gas prices we have to pick our plans carefully, High Sierra is money in the bank. It's always the weekend we long for most.


Seth Olinsky - Akron/Family by J. Miller
Akron/Family is the only band to get two reviews in our High Sierra coverage (see Dennis Cook's coverage on the next page); and I assure you they earned it. Having been relatively impressed with their studio work and hearing from multiple trusted sources that it was all about Akron's live show; I made the difficult decision to skip one of my favorite bands - Surprise Me Mr. Davis - for Akron's first of two sets at High Sierra. I was rewarded with a spiritual awakening. Exploding with light, energy and raw passion, active participation is required. This is more an experience than a concert, with an ancient, ritualistic nature to the proceedings. Throughout the show I found myself clapping (and I hate clapping during songs), throwing my arms over my head and chanting. This was wildly psychedelic, very risky, free-as-fuck music that screamed through the body. Just as dark and scary as they are beautiful and subtle, they constantly walked the fine line between creation and destruction, heaven and hell. The plethora of influences and distances traveled by this band is what sets them apart, but it's their late '60s, twisted American rock roots that fuel the beast.

The next day on the Big Meadow was even better. Once again accompanied by the guys from Megafaun and this time adding The Slip/Mr. Davis rhythm section of Andrew Barr and Marc Friedman for a few jams, the vocals were cleaned up and the songs even more fluid. They brought up a young friend of around twelve to play cowbell on top of the bass amps and there were more than a dozen percussion instruments handed to the front row. With all the drums, guitars, banjos and beatboxing (nice one Andrew Barr!) it was unlike anything I've put in my ears this year, and it very well may be the most overwhelming musical experience of 2008 for this scribe. After just two days with Akron/Family I'm fully on board, ready to join their cult.

Built To Spill

Headlining the main stage on the first night there was considerable buzz surrounding Built To Spill's set. Clearly the most "outside of the box" big name on the bill, if you were looking for something a little different, maybe a little louder and more distorted, this was the place to be. Having seen BTS both at festivals and in clubs I've consistently been more impressed with the later. Perhaps it's playing in front of a less appreciative audience, maybe all those guitars just sound better bottled-up inside, or maybe they need more time to set up their massive sound and tweak all their gear; but whatever it was, they had a hard time fully getting on track. Some of the tempos seemed to fluctuate and the triple guitar attack was just a hair off target. That said, Doug Martsch and his team still tore up some tents with their swirling guitar meltdowns, specifically during "Going Against Your Mind" and set closer "You Were Right." Although it may not have lived up to the expectations of die-hard fans, Built To Spill still put on one of the more enjoyable, and definitely one of the more rocking shows of High Sierra.

The Slip

Steve Adams (Big Light/ALO) during The Slip late night
By Scott Galbraith
High Sierra just wouldn't be High Sierra without The Slip. Making their eleventh consecutive appearance (the only band to ever do so), these two sets are the only shows the band has played this year and it's very likely they won't play any others. Knowing this, it was difficult to tear myself away from most of their day set, but it was their late night set on Thursday that I was happy to be able to catch in its entirety. Packed into the Vaudeville Tent there was a palpable energy running through the crowd. Leaning heavier on more recent material - like the wonderfully updated reading of "Airplane Primitive" - it was impressive how easily these three were able to communicate. There are few bands as in-tune with one another as The Slip, and the fact that they all grew up together and have shared their lives is readily apparent when they're onstage. Brad Barr's guitar work was sharp and nimble, moving from crunchy rock power chords to obtuse jazz runs and melodic interludes. Though certainly not perfect, when these three clicked they truly soared. Often led by Marc Friedman's inspired bass work, he and drummer Andrew Barr create a fluid stream of sound that allows the band's vast instrumental segments - such as the freaked-out "Get Me With Fuji" - to move unhindered into new waters with ease. But as boundless and enthralling as their jams can be, The Slip are a mature band with a keen focus on songcraft, hooks and pop structures, making their cover of Paul Simon's "The Boy In The Bubble" (which they played at both sets) a perfect choice for the festive High Sierra faithful.

Nathan Moore

Nathan Moore should be a star. He's one of the greatest songwriters we have and the faucet is always on, pouring fresh songs out like water. He's intelligent, funny, honest, warm, a little crazy and full of love, and so is his music. As the leader of Surprise Me Mr. Davis, Moore is able to get in touch with his wild rock & roll side, mixing with The Slip to become something bigger than either could be without the other, but it's with just a solitary acoustic guitar and his open voice that we see deepest into his soul. Watching him strap on his harmonica while listening to him tell stories between songs, explaining their inspirations and deeper meanings, we're reminded of folk legends like Woody Guthrie and pre-electric Bob Dylan. His ability to tap emotions and use his experiences to create unifying theories throws a rope around the crowd, pulling us all closer. Having stayed up the entire night before, even helping his team win the sunrise kickball game with a miraculous double-play, on Sunday Moore was a little beat up, his voice giving out just a bit, but he got lots of laughs and even a few tears as he performed "The High Sierra Heartbreak," a song he wrote in the pre-dawn hours in a friends RV (he also lead a touching "You Are My Sunshine" sing-along in said RV). Nathan Moore is a true American troubadour, perhaps the perfect acoustic artist for Independence Day.

Dusty Rhodes and the River Band

Andrea Babinski - Dusty Rhodes and the River Band
By J. Miller
One of the great, relatively unknown outfits of the day, Dusty Rhodes and the River Band put on a rock & roll sermon under the California sun. Drawing from a wide swath of American roots music - from rock, country, folk and bluegrass to gospel, soul and psychedelia - the six band members made good use of their guitars, keyboards, violin, accordion, mandolin and more. Predominantly playing music off their stellar 2007 release First You Live, including great versions of "Ghost Trails," "Dear Honey" and "Goodnight Moonshine," it was impossible not be mesmerized by big Afroed frontman Dustin Apodaca. As the band swapped lead vocal duties, sang harmonies into each other's mics and bounced around the stage, they were loose in all the right ways and they made a good argument for being the current incarnation of The Band. It was a few minutes later that they dove into one of the best versions of "The Weight" I've ever heard. After that it was all gravy, but when Dusty took the mic, jumped on the speaker riser and started preaching, we all went along for the ride. With hands reaching out to the crowd, Dusty pleaded, "If you just believe we can do this, if you believe in rock & roll, me, you and Obama can legalize marijuana!" Amen.

Rotary Downs

Coming all the way from New Orleans, with two day slots and a late night throwdown at Camp Harry, Rotary Downs left a serious mark at their first ever High Sierra. Although guitarist/pedal steel guru Chris Colombo was unable to make these shows because his wife was giving birth to their second child, NOLA hot shot Chad Viator (from Lafayette band Arbor Vitae) did a bang up job on guitar, covering all of Colombo's parts while injecting his own style (nice slide work) into the mix. Also new to the stage was second trumpeter and keyboardist Michael Girardot. Not only did Girardot prove the perfect addition to his band Rotary Downs, he also added tasteful trumpet work to Surprise Me Mr. Davis' late night show. While it's true that RD have horns and are a distinctly New Orleans band, they are most definitely a gritty rock band that isn't afraid to dip into whatever form of sound inspires them. Watching drummer (and famed photographer) Zack Smith slam the skins it was obvious that no one has more fun than Smith. Led by vocalist and guitarist James Marler, it's his opaque, hyper-intelligent lyrics and dry, Stephen Malkmus-style singing that defines the band, but it's the group melodic, dynamic, patient tension-building jams that make them special. Wowing the crowd with standout tracks like "Feast In Squalor," "B/W" and "False Protection" from their breakthrough 2006 album Chained to the Chariot, it was the new, unfamiliar material that reminded us why Spin just named them one of the top NOLA bands to watch, as well as why Rotary Downs won "Best Rock Band" in NOLA's Gambit Weekly's Big Easy Awards. Perhaps the Downs guys said it best on their website: "We had NO IDEA how awesome High Sierra would be until we experienced its majesty a few weeks ago. The ultimate intimate festival in the Sierra Mountains of Northern California treated us so well, we still feel all warm and fuzzy about it... we smiled so much it hurt. See you there next year!"

Critters Buggin

Mike Dillon - Critters Buggin by Susan J. Weiand
When Critters Buggin is playing you go, it's that simple. With only five dates scheduled for 2008 (all in the summer and two of them at High Sierra) this was a treat of the highest order for fans of the freaky. For many, this is the band that introduced us to, and perhaps even defines, saxophone manipulator Skerik. Working with his partner in crime, percussionist Mike Dillon as well as bassist Brad Houser and drummer Matthew Chamberlain, it's Chamberlain's high-profile, big time session work with artists like Tori Amos that forces Critters to be a side project. One can only dream of what would happen if Chamberlain could dedicate a real slice of time to this avant-noise-rock-mind-melter of a band. Although their day set was fun, it was late night in the Funk'n Jamhouse where they truly excelled. Twisting from ambient electronica to thundering percussion to free-jazz squawks and dubbed-out meanderings, Critters utilized samples, loops and lots of traditional instruments to create a world completely unique to these four genius-weirdoes. And just when it seemed things were at a peak, Tortoise guitarist Jeff Parker joined the fray, adding his angular licks to an already overwhelming wall of sound. Selections such as "Critters Theme" (from 1994's Guest) and "Mount Blasta" (off 1997's Host) stuck out, but this set came off as a single entity, blending lines, pushing boundaries and dragging listeners through a heady, outro experiment in sound.

James Hunter

British R&B soul singer James Hunter was one of the biggest surprises of High Sierra this year. Stumbling past his Big Meadow closing set on Friday night it was impossible to not walk over and get a look at this outstanding, rich voice. The band (including a baritone and alto sax duo that could have come out of the Stax heyday) was a slick group of guys, all dressed in suits, and they never missed a step. Listening to Hunter sing in a classic, timeless 1950s/1960s manner it was obvious why Van Morrison called on Hunter to tour and record with him, but it was equally apparent why Hunter broke out on his own. One of the greatest showmen I've ever seen, Hunter knew how to use his powerful voice, not to mention his guitar and fancy dance moves. When he sang "No Smoke Without Fire" and "Class Act" the girls screamed like he was Elvis Presley.

Big Light

Torphy, Bifulco, Adams - Big Light by Scott Galbraith
Rising from the fertile San Francisco music scene, Big Light is a band on the move. Led by singer-songwriter-guitarist Fred Torphy, the band's catchy, hook-heavy pop songs and psychedelic instrumental moments have made fans of Surprise Me Mr. Davis, Apollo Sunshine (AP drummer Jeremy Black produced their self-titled 2008 debut) and even pulled ALO's Steve Adams into the fold making him the official bass player. Performing two early morning (10:45 a.m. is early for a festival) sets and one afternoon RV bash, it was the balance of touching songs like "Hard Knocks" (with the refrain "you remind me of my sister with your heart of gold") with grittier, more experimental selections like "Heavy" (with it's stadium-sized hook and ginormous guitar jam) that made fans of everyone in attendance. While this is Torphy's band, it's the team he's assembled, including wild keyboardist Colin Hoops and rock-steady drummer Bradly Bifulco that gives this band life. Coming off High Sierra the buzz around Big Light is growing and it seems clear that next year they'll be on a bigger stage with a better time slot.

Continue reading for more on High Sierra...

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