High Sierra | 07.03 - 07.06 | California

By: Dennis Cook

The Mother Hips

Bluhm & Loiacono - The Mother Hips By J. Miller
The Mother Hips rolled out two nigh perfect but utterly different performances, piling on weird, rubbery elongation at their Thursday late night set and then making folks sigh and sway at the Friday Big Meadow afternoon session. By all appearances they're a classic four-piece rock unit, but one had only to pry just a few millimeters below the surface to find rich layers full of diamond wisdom and peculiar tunings, subtle life lessons and bedrock fundamentals. Their philosophy going into the late night gig was, according to drummer John Hofer, "to play until they shut us off." The gargantuan setlist drew from their entire 15-year catalog, hitting the sledgehammer pop of "Rich Little Girl" and the squirrel-y elusiveness of "Figure 11." The sheer range, potency and mind-blowing musicianship they displayed made this one of the most thrilling, unpredictable sets this year. Guitar solos soared and ripped in unpredictable directions while the rhythm boys created an endless, strong undercurrent. The Hips kept things rolling past 4:30 a.m., when, in fact, the powers that be gave them a quick bum rush and raised the house lights within seconds of the last notes. That they had an utterly lovely, fan faithful set left in them the next afternoon was impressive. In a just world, folks would know the name 'The Mother Hips' the way they do The Rolling Stones. The Hips are a living, breathing classic in every respect and this weekend only cemented that fact.

Gov't Mule

At this point, you kinda know what you're in for with Gov't Mule, and their Friday headlining set offered few surprises. That's not to say it wasn't enjoyable; there's a lot to be said for burgers-and-fries comfort music, all greasy and salty and good going down. They have shaken up their setlists, and the High Sierra selections ranged through crystal jazz jamming and dub reggae pockets on the way to familiar fare like "Thorazine Shuffle" and the obligatory "Soulshine" encore. Ivan Neville's sit-in on keys during "32/20 Blues" was a ball, too. Primarily the child of hirsute '70s hard rockers like Mountain, Humble Pie, et al., Gov't Mule does electric blues rock as well as anyone ever has. There's no shame in being good at that, and if sometimes it feels like we've revisiting the same ground, it's never really an unpleasant return.

Railroad Earth

Warren Haynes - Gov't Mule by Susan J. Weiand
Railroad Earth has turned into a tremendous live band. Not that they were ever really wanting, but both their Friday late night and Saturday main stage sets were powerful, amazingly well played and paced for maximum effect. Their ability to read a crowd, to anticipate their desires and adjust in the moment was apparent at High Sierra. Combining traditional folk instrumentation with a lock tight rhythm section, they are the natural progression of something started decades ago by Fairport Convention, Pentangle and even The Byrds – folk music married to rock, which then honeymoons somewhere quite different. There's both modernity and antiquity to RRE, and the tension between the ages adds much to their excellent and ever-growing song list. Unlike many bands on the festival circuit, it's not the covers that garner the most attention but their originals, which are obviously gaining increased dearness with their fans. Saturday's late afternoon set was better attended and perhaps even more warmly received than RatDog's headlining performance immediately afterwards. It's worth noting that kind of love in the air, and in this instance it's totally warranted.

Bob Weir and RatDog

Oh how I wanted to like RatDog's headlining set on Saturday. Long a champion of Bob Weir and his rambling, jazz-inflected, blues rock warriors, it was frustrating and disappointing to listen to them work into "Dark Star" and find my mind wandering because the music didn't demand my attention. It's hard to put a finger on exactly what was off. They played well together, the solos were nicely constructed and the song choices were top flight but very little gelled completely. While it's been their ballsy character and irreverence for traditional arrangements that's made RatDog so engaging in recent years, this gig relied too heavily on nostalgia and the abundant goodwill the Dead's catalog holds for many of us. Guitarist Mark Karan played his ass off, the one true standout of the night, and it was wonderful to see him back in action after his recent health issues. Everyone else played well, too, but some indefinable spark one expects (and it's probably unfair to expect it) was missing. Not bad so much as just not all there.

Cornmeal

Allie Kral - Cornmeal by Susan J. Weiand
Cornmeal opened for Railroad Earth's late night gig and damn near charmed the pants off more than a few of us. There was something elegant yet homey about their playing and compositions, and the gusto they put into everything from the very first minutes was impossible to resist. They play bluegrass like a sophisticated cousin that takes bits from the Grateful Dead, '70s psych, country and more. Like myself, you may have a hard time tearing your eyes off their clear firebrand, violinist-singer Allie Kral, whose imaginative playing kept sending jaws to the floor at this set and during her guest appearance with RRE the next afternoon.

Benevento/Russo Duo

The Benevento/Russo Duo either completely click live or else ramble a bit self-indulgently. Fortunately, a big reduction in tour time and myriad creativity sparking side projects delivered the pair at their warmest and softly charming at their Thursday main stage set. Beginning in a comforting haze, the Duo very slowly turned up the heat, hitting the boiling point only after building up some trust. With Marco Benevento's keyboard array bumping against Joe Russo's percussion rack, they danced between spotlight outbreaks and bled over into one another's sound, letting things get messy if it fueled the music. "You all know Joey Russo? Well, it's all true," offered wiseass Benevento, who opened things up to "Q & A time" for a minute. While most couldn't hear the shouted inquiries up front, we did get Benevento's snarky retorts ("Indica versus sativa tonight at 3 a.m. on the main stage!") The "aah shucks" moment occurred when Benevento was handed his baby daughter Ruby after Russo had briefly used her as a hand percussion instrument (as any parent will tell you, great sound but VERY unpredictable). Ruby banged at the keys for a moment in the simplest but perhaps nicest solo of the weekend. The Duo's endless builds and straining for resolution made for a compelling, if easy going, stretch of electronica-jazz-classical-rock.

Bustle In Your Hedgerow

The Sparrow Quarter by Josh Miller
It would be easy for Bustle In Your Hedgerow to be some gimmicky bullshit. In fairness, one's appetite for cheese and pomp is tested by this instrumental Led Zeppelin cover unit comprised of Joe Russo (drums), Dave Dreiwitz (bass, also of Ween), Marco Benevento (keys) and undeniable group superstar, guitarist Scott Metzger (RANA, American Babies). But, watching them thumb down the Zep pleasure button during their Thursday late night opening set for The Mother Hips and again the next afternoon in the Big Meadow, one had only to surrender to the Valhallan splendor of their BIG, BIG ROCK thang and grin. The audience frequently jumped in to carry key vocals – a "la la la la la la" or Plant-ian "way down inside, woman, you need me" – and usually with zero prompting from Bustle. What always makes me happiest about this band is the fully '70s, large amp, shreddy burn Metzger brings to the table. It's a fool that steps into Jimmy Page's boots, but Scotty is a glorious fool that makes those heels click and skip. Even with all the other mayhem and melody happening around him, Metzger demanded our attention from top to tail. If anyone is paying attention, he's one of the under-sung treasures on his instrument. Hats off to Tom Hamilton for picking Metzger up for the American Babies, who plied roots rock at its finest at their very winning Friday Big Meadow set.

Abigail Washburn and the Sparrow Quartet

Abigail Washburn and the Sparrow Quartet were a total delight at their Thursday main stage set. Take seriously any ensemble where Bela Fleck plies his skills in service of another musician/composer's work. Add in the staggeringly talented Casey Driessen (violin) and Ben Sollee (cello) and you have one of the most gifted, enjoyable and exploratory acoustic groups today. You'd be hard pressed to find a bigger Uncle Earl fan than myself but Washburn's banjo and natural, unique voice shine most brightly here. Grabbing hunks of 78 rpm hot jazz, Eastern Chinese folk, bluegrass and chamber music, they offered up a great conversation to eavesdrop on. Minute details and subtle resonances abound in their interplay, which proved that seated musicians could make a good-sized festival crowd lean in and focus. Washburn introduced "Great Big Wall In China" as "a kind of meeting between Woody Guthrie and that great opera writer Puccini up on that mountain." The Sparrow Quartet erased distance and revealed the intersecting lines inside seemingly disparate music in the sympathetic vibrations of their voices and instruments.

New Monsoon

New Monsoon by Susan J. Weiand
Having seen a great many New Monsoon shows it still comes as a surprise that they keep evolving and finding fresh ways to explore their music and get it across with greater clarity. Their Friday main stage set was idyllic, pairing the perfect setlist for a postcard lovely summer day with stellar playing. Drummer Sean Hutchinson and bassist Marshall Harrell are driven cats out to make their mark, and that youth wave has swept up the others, making them refine and accentuate the many good things inside this band. Older cuts, like "On The Sun," were given a fresh face; in the case of "Sun," a razor sharp funk feel. With their mutating catalog, their ceaseless melodic grace shined on Friday, rushing from banjo to kick drum to searing electric guitar to ebullient piano. New Monsoon pours jazz fusion, stadium rock, high-end folk and considerably more into a single vessel, and while in the past it wasn't always able to contain such multitudes, today's incarnation has shaped something sturdy and beautiful that holds every drop.

Aphrodesia

Thirteen people is a LOT to wrangle but Aphrodesia made it seem easy on Friday. One of the few acts to fill up the massive main stage, they conjured a "Holy Ghost Invasion" that crept into our pores and heated us from the inside out. While grounded in Afrobeat and other Motherland flavors, Aphrodesia also draws heavily from American funk and soul pioneers like Sly Stone and James Brown, something reflected in their gift for performance. They haven't forgotten the value of being entertainers as they've explored global politics and social disorder on record. There's a sensual core and dusky vibe to them, and the tattered, moon age carnival tart costumes on their trio of female singers gave one a gateway into their complex but very appealing world. Mesmerized by hips and lips and wonderful, unpredictable voices, one could miss how much was going on musically and intellectually. Step back, let the elements rise and fall, and one discovered a gorgeously marbled marvel of cross-continental flavors. Friday was hard charging and firmly in the pocket, subtle shades sliding into brilliant colors that cut across one another to create new stripes in a rainbow of human creation. Well fucking done, folks.

EOTO

Trombone Shorty by J. Miller
There's not a lot terribly original about EOTO but there's no denying their pleasure in making this quasi-futuristic, improvised dance music. In 1995 this sound was new(ish) but today it's just blip-blonky good fun. It was hard to tell who had a better time on Friday night in the Vaudeville Tent - the hopping, twirling dancers on the grass or Michael Travis and Jason Hann. If you don't over think it too much, EOTO is fun; scrape at it and it's oddly sad, like a chrome and neon shopping mall, once so shiny and new, that's fallen behind the times.

Trombone Shorty

Trombone Shorty puts on a hell of a show. Both pure New Orleans stomp funk and something a little leaner, cleaner and today, Shorty and his vise-tight band, Orleans Avenue, hit the Vaudeville like a happy storm on Saturday night. There's no substitute for charisma and the buoyant energy of young men, and these boys have both in crazy abundance. Vibrating with soul, their musicianship and showmanship are impressive, especially for such a relatively new act.

Izabella

Izabella is a band to keep your eyes on. Their Thursday Shady Grove set ranged from Return To Forever-esque jamming to the sugary funk of Shuggie Otis' "Strawberry Letter 23" (their take the equal of the iconic Brothers Johnson hit version). For Izabella, "jam band" means something positive but neither is it a straightjacket that demands every tune be stretched and bloated with improv. Their originals are dead solid with hooky lines like "Thank you for the kisses, girl/ Thank you for the food you taught me to cook." This is exultant, flowing music, and follows in the Bay Area tradition of great forebears like the Sons of Champlin. Plus, lead singer Brian Rogers sings with genuine soul, which is pretty bloody rare in this vocally challenged age. Their self-description of "dance rock with a cherry on top" fits this consistently entertaining new group very well indeed.

Scott Amendola Band

Blue Turtle Seduction by Susan J. Weiand
The Scott Amendola Band put intelligence to groove early Saturday afternoon in the Big Meadow. Amendola is a drummer that recognizes talent and a bandleader that knows what to do with it. This stellar trio with keyboardist Wil Blades and guitarist Jeff Parker (Tortoise) funked shit up proper but also gave the serious musicos in attendance plenty to consider. There's terrific smarts to Amendola's work, and just leaning in to watch their gears turn and lock was a real pleasure. Was it jazz? Sort of. Soul? Yeah, though I'd call this trio soulful first. More than anything, it was great instrumental music that never once made you wish there were vocals or another instrument in the mix.

Blue Turtle Seduction

Blue Turtle Seduction filled the wee hours Thursday night with a bubbling, topplingly fun vibe. Everything about them danced, from the tunes to their demeanor to their growing, very engaged fanbase. The theme was "Punk Rock Pirates" and they offered up well played takes on the Misfits ("Astro Zombies") and The Clash ("Guns of Brixton") for the beautifully trashy costumed audience, but the overriding energy was a quasi-futuristic party planet – somewhere other than a building in the Sierras, where motion and color and joy swirl into a taste your body eventually craves. The other cover choices further reflected their range – an inspired reworking of Pearl Jam's "State of Love and Trust," a jaunty take on Wyclef Jean's "Perfect Gentleman" and R. Kelly's "Ignition (Remix)." Blue Turtle is a slow burn, and the 'seduction' at the end of their name is a clue to those that think they've got them figured out after a few minutes. Take a little more time, leave your preconceptions outside and actually listen, and you may find a more complex, modern group than you expected. Beyond that, they work tirelessly to create a good time for anyone who steps inside their sphere, and that alone is worth props.

Robben Ford

Papa Mali by Susan J. Weiand
I felt a right fool for having missed Robben Ford live before his Saturday afternoon set. There's not a lot of singers or guitarists one can reasonably compare to Buddy Guy but boy howdy does he deserve it! In the Big Meadow, Ford laid us flat with six-string pyrotechnics that teetered between hyper technical dazzle and nearly-off-the-rails wildness. Combined with his keening, sweet & sour singing, a curious and appealing blend of warmth and funky phrasing, and one great song after another, Ford's performance was one of those amazing surprises that High Sierra's programming offers open-minded participants.

Papa Mali

Papa Mali has the authority of an elder bluesman mingled with a shaman – a true crossroad walkin', folklore funkin' bundle of serious mojo. Talk to the man and he's sweetness incarnate, an articulate lover of a huge range of music (we discussed our shared mania for The Felice Brothers after his Saturday main stage set) and a gracious soul that warms your cockles. Put him onstage, especially when the lights go down (like during his crazy, twisty, intense Friday evening late set in the Vaudeville Tent), and this honeybee can sting with the best of 'em. Parts echoed early '70s John Lee Hooker, others Dr. John's "Nighttripper" period, but ultimately he's a unique soul. Papa brought it on "bon temps roule" style at his afternoon main stage show but it was his evening ramble that truly ignited his dark light magic. He's one for the ages.

Will Bernard

Will Bernard by Susan J. Weiand
After many years of being a revered musician's musician, Will Bernard is finally getting some of the attention and kudos he richly deserves. A ceaselessly tasty guitarist, Bernard's playing is a friendlier but no less brilliant cousin to the endlessly (and justly) lauded Nels Cline, who happens to be his peer and friend in the Bay Area jazz/experimental scene that Bernard inhabited for years before moving to NYC. Thursday in the Vaudeville Tent, Bernard and his ridiculously tight band chomped on grooves with grinning tenacity. Their knack for hold-and-release explosions kept the energy high and ears tuned in as Bernard cruised with the mercurial flow of Steve Cropper (Booker T & The MG's) and obvious ancestor Grant Green. But, there's more razor sharp teeth inside his bite – in the whole band really – than these touchstones. More simply, these guys were kinda mean in a really cool way.

Ashleigh Flynn and the Killdeer Orchestra

Sunday opened with Ashleigh Flynn and the Killdeer Orchestra under the Vaudeville Tent charming the sun from its hiding place. Some of the finest singer-songwriter stuff these ears have heard in a few years, Flynn and her boys (Portland's wonderful acoustic explorers Sneakin' Out under a new guise) beguiled a smiling audience that grew steadily throughout their set, drawing in passersbys with the sheer fineness of their picking, singing and composition. Seriously, I haven't been knocked back by a female songwriter like this since I first encountered a young Patty Griffin or Nanci Griffith. Flynn's uncommonly real tales possess an amazing eye for detail that situates one in the moment and captures all the small things we miss as life unfolds but ultimately prove to be the most important aspects of our experiences. Like the best outsiders, she captures all the ache of waiting on the sidelines as the pretty people glide across the dance floor, so much more graceful and beloved than we will ever be. Combine that fantastic raw material with a full-bodied, womanly voice and collaborators that tucked subtle, inspired complications into what can be well-worn territory and you had one of the festival's highlight this year. And their facility for quietly upending traditionals like "Rocky Top" and "Will The Circle Be Unbroken" (carried along by typewriter percussion!) added icing to what was already a real joy. I will be seeking out Flynn's new album, American Dream, forthwith.

The Lee Boys

The Lee Boys by Susan J. Weiand
The Lee Boys demand your attention from the instant they step onstage. At least that was the case on Saturday when they took a bunch of barefoot hippies (and their associated comrades) to church. Their steel guitar driven rush reminded us that one doesn't need a steeple, pews or even the clergy to tap into the divine – God is everywhere and frequently most potently inside musical notes like the ones the Boys dished up. They rarely slapped a Bible or even mentioned the Almighty but there was plenty of Holy Spirit spilling out of their hop and strut. If it's true that you can lead a horse to water but you can't make him drink, well, The Lee Boys have figured out that you just have to make folks thirsty before you offer them something to slake their dryness.

Akron/Family

I leave each Akron/Family performance feeling like I've gone through a cosmic meat grinder – all pink and new and tender. Without question, their Friday Vaudeville and Saturday Big Meadow sets were my personal high marks for High Sierra 2008, far more than a spot of brilliant music, a true and lasting experience, a moment of complete presence, ingenuity and passion. Describing their sound is like the old adage about "dancing to architecture." It is what it is – a fantastic, scorched, verdant amalgam of rock, jazz, blues, folk, punk, avant garde and kid's music strains. Both childlike and bug ass wild, Akron/Family drilled down to a ground of reality that made the earth shake and the air shimmer for some of us. Their undisguised exuberance engages one, offering a chance at profound experience and not just another concert. It's more than a little off-putting if you're not ready to throw down with them but what became clearer to me than ever at this festival was what you put into it with Akron/Family returns to you threefold. Much of what we imbibe musically is pure pleasure or distraction. Akron/Family might make us better people, helping us shed old skin and rise out of our constrictions through the power of song and sound. As I told them with kisses on their foreheads after each set, they make one glad to be alive.

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