High Sierra Music Fest | 07.02-07.05 | CA

Words by: Kayceman, Jake Krolick & Justin Gillett | Images by: Josh Miller, Jake Krolick & Sarah Law

High Sierra Music Festival :: 07.02.09 - 07.05.09 :: Quincy, CA

HSMF 2009 by Krolick
The High Sierra Music Festival is a festival put on for the people by the people. I have heard nothing but great things about the small festival nestled in the Plumas National Forest on the fairgrounds in the town of Quincy, California. But it wasn't until I was meandering around the grounds on Thursday with one of the festival locals that it really hit me how intimate and amazing this fest truly is. I may have been born in the East, but my heart lies in the West. You might as well toss the tough exterior attitude out the cabin door high over the Rockies because it's not welcome in the western world. In the kingdom of High Sierra the one thing that does reign supreme is fun, and boy do those good times roll. Apparently all the creative types who received their pro-status in doing a festival proper have transplanted out west. I'm not talking about your everyday run of the mill music fan, no, I'm talking about throw caution to the wind, costume wearing, cocktail party having, bring the 20-foot inflatable pool with all the trimmings festival fanatics, each whom would give you the car they drove in with if they just thought you would have a better time at their party.

The community that surrounds High Sierra is one tight knit crew made up of musicians, staff and attendees, but the lines between those distinctions blur continuously and you're left wondering, "Who really runs the HSMF festival and makes it so great?" Certainly you can start with the music, but I saw equally as much great music away from any of the official stages featuring official and unofficial performers. Take the sunset shows like Tracorum tearing it up on top of an RV running down the road behind the yoga, tightrope and kickball field. How about Saturday evening's late night lineup at Camp Harry with Big Light, Nathan Moore, and Surprise Me Mr. Davis? The performance was dreamlike and left many questioning if it really happened or had they imagined such an amazing time. If there was ever a summer camp for adults then the High Sierra Music Festival is it!

The camps were barely camps, more intimate villages of color and convenience, each with a vibrant and distinct personality. These home away from home settings were what you may imagine in your dreams, full of flowing flags, airy spaces of shade, neat nooks containing fresh colorful foods, drinks, lazy chairs, hammocks and toys. You could walk from one side of the festival grounds to the other in 20 minutes; yep it's that small, and so well laid out. Want to meet your favorite artist playing at High Sierra? Man, it's hard not to run right into them! They camp right in the center of the grounds as an invitation to come hang out, no barriers or fences here. You run into them in line for coffee, in the playshops, dancing in the late night barn, at one of the many showers, or perhaps at the morning kick ball game. Yes, it's official: my heart has a new love and I am absolutely infatuated with the High Sierra Music Festival. (Krolick)

The Slip

The Slip :: HSMF 2009 by Miller
The High Sierra Music Festival celebrated its 19th anniversary this year. The Slip has been a part of the past 12 installments. In fact, the Boston-bred trio hold the record for most consecutive appearances at the fest, and for many they are the band we most look forward to seeing in the Sierras. I am from that tribe. Put Marc Friedman, Andrew and Brad Barr on the bill and I will show up – I don't even care who else gets booked. Part of this blind devotion is based on the fact that these guys just don't really tour anymore. These shows over 4th of July weekend have essentially become the only chance many of us get to see The Slip all year. The last time I saw them was at High Sierra 2008 and the time before that was High Sierra 2007. So, when I say that The Slip is the heart of High Sierra it is not hyperbole. They are the constant, the beat that pushes us forward, whether we know it or not. Their one job each year is to come out west and flood our systems with enough fuel to make it through another trip around the sun.

Over the course of two sets (9:15-10:45 in the Vaudeville on Saturday night and the 7:15-8:45 "sundown set" on Sunday) fans were treated to songs from across the band's vast career, but there was a clear focus on new material. Uncorking five brand new originals one couldn't help but hope for another Slip album and proper tour in the year ahead. All of the new stuff sounded incredible, with "Give The Devil Back Its Heart" taking a distinct African feel featuring both Brad and Friedman weaving lead guitar lines (Friedman generally plays bass) into intricate patterns as Andrew went tribal-rock. Other new songs found Brad on acoustic pushing a subtle gospel vibe and singing about "keeping the faith" or laying down huge chunks of distorted guitar. The new material was expansive with lots of room to blow out the jams, but they were also often far more focused with a keen pop eye that previous work may have lacked (at times). And adding to the enjoyment thoroughly were the several points over the weekend that The Slip sounded like The Who circa 1973.

HSMF 2009 by Krolick
Along with the sharp new songs, what perhaps impressed this forever Slip fan most was the guitar playing. We've long known Friedman is unquestionably one of the most talented bass players on the scene, but to see him crush the six-string was a joy. But perhaps even more than Marc, Brad had me captivated. He's always been a stellar guitarist, but this weekend I really noticed how refined, rich and just advanced Brad's technique is. He coaxes an ungodly array of varying sounds from his big green Guild jazz hollow body, shifting from clean spikes to messy guttural distortion and pedal stomping. Standing a few feet from the stage, I was overwhelmed with the notion that I'd put B. Barr up against any guitarist alive right now. Where you at Jack White! (I said I'd put him up, I didn't say he'd win).

While it wasn't all perfect – the first "Get Me With Fuji" fell flat (but the second one more than made up for it) and Brad's voice hit a few rough patches come Sunday (being up late Saturday night will do that) – but The Slip at High Sierra sure as hell packed the emotional punch only The Slip can do. And that's a big thing. There are places The Slip can only go as a trio. Spacey, crazy, deep instrumental areas, only accessible when a band operates on 15-plus years of mental telepathy. Whether we were soaring to "Airplane/Primitive," rocking to the new version of "Weight of Solomon," getting teary-eyed during "If One Of Us Should Fall" or almost starting a mosh-pit (a loving one, of course) with Nathan Moore during "Children Of December," The Slip once again seeped into the soil of High Sierra. (Kayce)

Surprise Me Mr. Davis

Surprise Me Mr. Davis :: HSMF 2009 by Krolick
So, we don't get to see The Slip much anymore, but we do get to see their alter ego, Surprise Me Mr. Davis featuring Nathan Moore on vocals, harmonica, acoustic guitar and the occasional magic trick. Moore is a long lost Barr brother and he fits like your favorite pair of worn down jeans. Fans in the know were treated to three sets of Davis: late night Friday, main stage Saturday and a super late Saturday night secret blow out at Camp Harry. The general assumption amongst die-hard Slip fans is that they're too smart for their own good, flying over the heads of most. Slice down some of the more daring instrumental passages and let Moore take over on vocals for Brad and Davis seems primed to break through to the masses. Songs like "I Hate Love," "Sisyphus," "Sleepy Head," "One Sick Knave" and "Summer Of My Fall" (featuring the line: "I opened the door, I opened the window/ she came through the wall/ it was the winter of my spring, the summer of my fall") are genuinely some of the best songs written this decade.

During their Funk'n Jam House late night set something happened that I'd never witnessed and it shook me hard. Coming out of "I Want To Get To Heaven Before I Die," the tempo was brought way down and The Slip started creating a strange canopy of digital noise and atmospheric buzz. Moore came to the mic and started talking over the haze, almost giving a speech that had me seeing visions of a new type of political leader. He spoke of taking back the government, of making it ours, urging us to realize it is OURS - we are the government, we are the country, WE ARE AMERICA. If you don't like it, change it. Pulling this type of thing off is incredibly hard and often falls flat and feels preachy. Here it filled us with inspiration.

Also of note were a few new Davis songs, one that felt like The Beach Boys if they kept eating acid and the other felt like "Papa Was A Rolling Stone" with Jimmy Page playing guitar. And I'd be remiss if I didn't make mention of Trevor Garrod (Tea Leaf Green) sitting in on Rhodes for the Camp Harry set. With an official High Sierra sound guy doing the Camp Harry boards, this was the best Camp Harry party ever. Big Light into Nathan Moore into Surprise Me Mr. Davis at the super-intimate Harry jam was the stuff of legends. I stopped taking notes and let the love train run me over. (Kayce)

Big Light

Bradly Bifulco - Big Light :: HSMF 2009 by Miller
There was no better introduction to this festival than a hungry Bay Area band. Capturing the opening spot on the main stage, San Francisco's Big Light opened Thursday with "Rainbow Eyes" as meandering beats and blasts of guitar reverberation echoed out over the fairgrounds. This was the second time that Big Light had "officially" played HSMF. The folk-rock band features Fred Torphy (lead vocals), Bradley Bifulco (drums), Steve Adams (bass), Dan Hurley (keyboard) and new, sonically gifted shredder Jeremy Korpas (guitar). As Korpas (aka Swordfish) destroyed "Heavy" you could just tell that the band had been playing a bunch as they waxed out a poetic set. These soon-to-be indie darlings stretched their legs on their latest tour with Nathan Moore. The next day their Friday set was also intriguing and featured a "Caution" that was filled with Torphy's Jeff Tweedy-esque vocal styling. Bifulco's punchy playing snuck up on us as we took in their music at the Big Meadow stage. It's the ease and grace that Big Light plays their own material with which separates these guys from the pack and makes you realize that not enough younger bands try to cultivate that comfort level. Torphy, along with Adams, Korpas, Bifulco and Moore have created a small side project called The Dun-Four, showing that they have depth beyond anything you could imagine. Late night Saturday after a strong opening set by Big Light at Camp Harry, The Dun-Four busted out two tracks, "One Beautiful Girl," a charming a cappella style song style that has yet to leave my brain, and the just as catchy "Mañana." This was one of those rare and wonderful moments that make small festivals like High Sierra so special. (Krolick)

Marco Benevento Trio

Marco Benevento :: HSMF 2009 by Miller
The Benevento Trio's Thursday afternoon set met my expectations and then some. Their slot started a few minutes late due to Marco Benevento having to rush from Reno, NV to make his 4:30 p.m. stage call. The music was striking; all draped in eccentric keyboard work and covers galore from the Trio's new album, Me Not Me (JamBase review here). They opened with "Bus Ride" and let the crowd warm to their free-range jazz jams. Reed Mathis' smile was as widespread as the High Sierra pines were tall. Mathis is such an amazing bass player that many are quick to simply say he killed it, but with the Marco Benevento Trio it's a bit different. Mathis had his moments, but it's what he holds back that is the magic of his selflessness. He allowed Andrew Barr and Benevento the freedom to slaughter the jam out of the "Real Morning Party" that ended just like the Brooklyn CD release parties version with a monstrous saloon style jam that shook the main stage and led into a rhythm heavy version of My Morning Jacket's "Golden." Again Mathis sat back and let Barr place in all the subtle flourishes as Benevento did his dainty finger surgery. He removed note after note and placed them out in the world all shimmery and drenched in sunlight for us to enjoy. The Knife's "Heartbeats" started as fragments of smoke and free jazz as the crash of cymbals stirred up swirls of dust from the edges of the stage. Deerhoof's "Twin Killers" brought out the fun center cut jam of Disney's "Pink Elephants on Parade" before the Trio ended by tearing through a deconstructed version of Led Zeppelin's "Friends" with the force of a can opener. My main highlights of the following day's Vaudeville tent show were all based around Marco's two-year-old daughter. She danced on stage, next to Mathis for a while as he thumped away and then ran across the front of the stage to daddy's side. After Skerik finished sitting in she even offered him her too-tiny-for-an-adult chair to rest. The interaction between her and the band was priceless. (Krolick)

Umphrey's McGee

Umphrey's McGee :: HSMF 2009 by Krolick
Umphrey's McGee is not one of my favorite bands. I honestly don't know how someone could put them in their top five category – or even their top ten. Their awkward song arrangements and quirky instrumentation, the staple of their sound, is a bit too abstract for a band that could ever think about breaking into the mainstream. But every time I see the Umph I am literally blown away by the musical talent members of the band display. The dueling guitar battles of Jake Cinninger and Brendan Bayliss and the amazing talent of drummer Kris Myers (in contention for Best Drummer at High Sierra 2009) is undeniable. They're a strange band whose unique sound is really unmatched by any other out there. Their sheer talent is what has bolstered their notoriety in the jam scene and led them to be hailed as the heir apparent for the jam thrown. After taking a three-year absence from High Sierra, the members of Umphrey's were visibly giddy with excitement when they played both their late night and headlining day sets. Arriving on a stage that was already burning hot from Pretty Lights' intense set, Umphrey's went into an odd choice for their first song – "Bright Lights, Big City." Seeing that the High Sierra grounds are nowhere near a city or any sort of urban sprawl, the song seemed slightly out of place. Maybe irony is what the members were trying to get across by playing the song. A few tunes in, the band busted into crowd favorite "The Triple Wide," which was an obvious good choice for Umphrey's to bring out of their song arsenal. The trance-like melodies of the track diffidently helped individuals who were still recovering from Pretty Lights' set. When the boys ripped into the obscure Police classic "When the World is Running Down You Make the Best of What's Still Around" it seemed to fit the mood of the evening, especially seeing that it was nearly 3 a.m. and there was no foreseeable end time for the music. As Umphrey's progressed through their late night gig it seemed like the band was not playing as tight as they could have. The solos were not as mind-jarring and the vocals seemed lackluster. As the clock ticked on, the band closed out their second set with "Cemetery Walk II" then a strong encore of The Beatles' "Dear Prudence." The crowd and band were obviously worn out as the show ended at nearly 5 a.m. With no more music happening festival-goers were forced to walk back to their tents as the sun started to rise over the mountains in the distance.

All the pre-conceptions I'd held about Umphrey's not hitting their mark at High Sierra, as indicated by the band's late night performance, were smashed by their headlining day slot on Friday. Picking up where they left off the previous evening with "Cemetery Walk," the band got things started with one of the best cuts off their most recent album, Mantis. Next came "Miss Tinkle's Overture," a staple of UM's live shows. While the song is not one of my favorites it seems to sum up what the Chicago six-piece represents - dizzying guitar virtuosity, unrelenting cymbal and tom work and well crafted bass arrangements. The hits kept coming as the band busted out seasoned classics like "Bridgeless," "The Bottom Half" and covers like a super dirty and sexy reading of the Motown great "Heard It Through the Grapevine." Looking back, Umphrey's McGee's two shows at High Sierra did not do much to change my opinion about them. In fact, their performances further cemented my thoughts about the band. They're still strange, almost impossible to categorize in musical sense, but amazing musicians nonetheless. (Gillett)

The Disco Biscuits

The Disco Biscuits :: HSMF 2009 by Krolick
So, if you're a Disco Biscuits fan you've probably already heard about the massive sound problems plaguing the late night show, but quite honestly it only led the Philadelphia band to perform one of the wildest sets of music I've heard from them in quite some time. The show started with a jaw-dropping transition from Orchard Lounge's set directly into "Run Like Hell." From there the show was a free-for-all of unexpected moments, some good while others just fell flat. After a short break around 4:00 a.m., Marc Brownstein emerged holding a small scrap of paper and said that the curfew was dropped and so they played until about 5:15 a.m. The last section early Sunday morning was very sinister, dirty Disco Biscuits that featured some severe vocal samples and a wild Aron Magner playing intensely on the keys. The band filled the early morning with lots of interesting jams and heaps of risks. Some earlier portions of the show were just bizarre, like the transition into "Svenghali." Some of the later risks paid off with huge rewards like the "Digital Buddha" > "Orch Theme" > "Digital Buddha" sandwich. During the peak of "Digital Buddha" they even managed to slide in some "SexyBack" samples that made the floor quake with delight. This combined with the quadraphonic sound and a killer version of "Astronaut," plus working lights, and you had yourself one wild finish to an eventful yet weird Disco Biscuits show. Overall, Sunday's main stage closing set was a solid showing; a quintessential Disco Biscuits festival set that probably even won over some new fans. It was interesting hearing four new songs to open the set. "I-Man" and "The Great Abyss" were my highlights of the night, each filled with liveliness. It was a wonderful experience seeing firsthand the love that is shown to The Disco Biscuits on the West Coast, and I'd recommend that any East Coast fan trek out west to catch them in a whole different light. (Krolick)

Dr. Dog

Dr. Dog :: HSMF 2009 by Krolick
The first late night shows of High Sierra are always electric. People are amped up as the weekend is just getting under way (and just getting weird) and the energy takes on a physical element, wrapping around your legs and torso and shooting straight into your skull. Walking into the Funk'n Jam House for Dr. Dog's set (opening for Tea Leaf Green), I bumped into TLG guitarist Josh Clark. Speaking of electric, homeboy's eyes were aglow and we shared a moment as he proclaimed, "I'm just excited to play a bill with these guys!" The Dog came to play and wasted no time, instantly tossing us down a well, where guitars were swirlin' and whirlin' like Dervishes. Every time I see Dr. Dog they are bigger, badder and better. Thursday night at High Sierra was perhaps the best I've seen (the electric excitement thing definitely didn't hurt). People were going nuts to "Old News," "The Arc" and everything else they dished out. After the late night Thursday set, Dr. Dog was the talk of the town.

Carrying the momentum straight into their Friday Big Meadow set there was a bigger crowd and they delivered just as big a show. With Beatles structures and harmonies but with nastier guitars, whatever Dr. Dog is smoking, I want some. With all the brilliant, red-faced screaming of bassist/vocalist Toby Leaman and perfect counter-point/tasty lead guitar of Scott McMicken, the religious undertones could perhaps get lost in the psychedelic roots hoe-down, but don't be fooled - they carry God's word. And certainly not in some lame-ass preachy manner, I mean the real God's word delivered with open-ended spiritual rockers that not only allow you to be set free, but make you believe in something bigger. Sitting atop an RV with some of my closest friends just 50 yards from the stage I closed my eyes and felt the perfect breeze blow my troubles away. The sun was beginning to set, I was surrounded by mountains and trees, Dr. Dog was playing "Hang On" and I knew this was one of those special moments I wanted to lock away and remember forever... or at least until tomorrow. Life simply does not get much better. (Kayce)

HSMF 2009 by Miller
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