High Sierra Music Festival: 07.01-07.04 | California

Dennis Cook's High Sierra 2010 Highlights

Zach Deputy by Susan J. Weiand
The Load-In
I have the good fortune of getting into the fairgrounds on Wednesday night, where only a fraction of attendees are about, setting up twinkling strings of lights and grilling while the first case of beer ices down. This allows me a front row seat for the main deluge Thursday morning when gates open and the majority of folks pour in. It's like a colorful, pleasantly musky land rush – wild, hooting and excited as little kids on Christmas morning. I pull up a chair and sip coffee while all this beautiful humanity races past, hauling costumes, coolers, hula-hoops and inflatable beasts in red wagons, ready for adventure and eager to embrace their new neighbors with open arms.

Tim Carbone
The violinist for Railroad Earth and The Contribution predictably played two unshakeably solid sets with RRE and guested winningly with Cornmeal, Great American Taxi and more, but just seeing him strolling about always stirs great cheer. He's earthy music in motion, and where he roams there's likely to be something sweet being played, often by him since it's hard to keep Carbone off a stage if he's got something to add. And trust me, he's always got something GREAT to add. White haired and worldly wise, Tim is one of High Sierra's archetypal spiritual figures, emblematic of the many musicians here that are eager to engage the whole of music and wrestle it into new, exciting forms.

Guerilla Sets
For all the sanctioned stuff on stages, there's nearly as much unofficial music making afoot at HSMF. From campsite pick-a-thons to lawn sets with portable amps, the players here exhibit a healthy disrespect for order, allowing the notes bubbling in their veins to rule them. Despite two Big Meadow sets, The Heavy Guilt could often be found rockin' exuberantly near the food court, as thrilled to be laying down their grungy goodness to a few wandering souls as they were in front of a large crowd. And they were hardly alone this weekend in carving out off- program opportunities for themselves.

Thursday Highlights

1. Zach Deputy - 1:15-2:30 PM - Big Meadow
The Big Meadow Stage is, well, big, yet Deputy filled it effortlessly, picking and singing like a young Bill Withers transposed to a large, hirsute new honky frame. Zach's looping prowess far surpasses almost anyone out there – yes, even the hallowed Keller – in terms of originality and more importantly, musicality. While loops can come off as gimmicky, they only serve the songs with Deputy and enable his one-man operation to actually sound like a band. He's got swell tunes and plays guitar with intoxicating flair. While Nathan Moore may have snagged top honors, based on the word-of-mouth this year, Zach was definitely the Deputy Mayor by popular consensus.

2. Rubblebucket - 3:30-4:45 PM – Vaudeville Tent
Brooklyn has another amazing band y'all need to check out. Building up from a foundation drawn from roots reggae and Afrobeat, Rubblebucket layered a crazed yet brilliantly woven hodgepodge of sounds atop their gut level rhythms. Like the finest original groups, there's an internal logic that makes it all work in a very immediate, flatly exciting way. With female led vocals reminiscent of Bjork and Patti Smith, the group swerves confidently – true performers all who genuinely entertain onstage - on the prowl and sinking their sharp incisors in at all the right moments. Their Friday set was even stronger, inspiring their trumpeter/co-bandleader to leap into the waiting arms of the fevered audience, where he was held aloft to continue playing. Those enamored of Yeasayer, Akron/Family, Tricky and Antibalas are heartily encouraged to dig into Rubblebucket, easily my best new find at HSMF 2010.

Surprise Me Mr. Davis by Jake Krolick
3. Surprise Me Mr. Davis – 11:30-1:30 AM – Vaudeville Tent
Suited up like friends at a wedding, SMMD unleashed all the magic and mojo that's made them a mainstay at High Sierra for years. The combination of Nathan Moore, The Slip and Marco Benevento proved a wondrous reminder of how fun and fulfilling rock 'n' roll can be. Sure, they jam a bit but it's the songs and their scintillating delivery that offer nourishing marrow to be sucked and savored. If Henry David Thoreau and Paul McCartney had formed a band it might sound a lot like Davis. And I had my personal high for the day at this set when Moore ordered the backstage masses onstage for a dance party during "Sisyphus," passing out hugs and smiles as he frolicked and enjoyed his bandmates beside us. 'Joyful' is the word that most springs to mind with SMMD, followed quickly by 'holy' (an impression resoundingly confirmed by the closing "As Long As There's One of Us Still Standing" closer).

Friday Highlights

1. Nels Cline Singers – 11:15-12:30 PM – Vaudeville Tent
His lead guitar role in Wilco has raised Cline's profile higher than ever, but it's in this formation one experiences the full, devastating breadth of his genius. Genius is a word I use VERY sparingly but witnessing the voluminous range and imagination of Cline's playing at this set it'd be hard to argue against it in his case. Surrounded by ultra-sympathetic, equally gifted collaborators Scott Amendola (percussion, electronics), Yuka Honda (keys) and Devin Hoff (bass), Cline handily shattered preconceptions about instrumental music, raging in a way that frightened some morning listeners (one of my camp mate's literally fled with terrified eyes during a particularly noisy, disorienting stretch). But, the ensemble was equally skilled at hushed introspection and bebop-ish interaction. Overall, just bloody stunning.

2. Dr. Dog – 9:30-11:00 PM – Big Meadow
When the last notes of this breakneck performance died away I muttered, "They make me SO glad there's music." Dr. Dog is surely a rock band, and all the Beatles, Band and Beach Boys references are apt, to a point, but there's something way more primal and fundamental going on with them. Their songs address life with unblinking honesty and joyful engagement, understanding that light and shadow are a dance and then giving us the melodies that choreograph our constriction shattering gyrations. Song for song, note for note, nobody played a better set this year.

3. Jerry Joseph and the Jackmormons - 11:30-1:30 AM – Vaudeville Tent
Jerry J was in full-blown preacher mode during this anthem-upon-anthem rock extravaganza. After playing several acoustic-leaning sets, the snarling rock animal inside Joseph and his mighty bandmates (bolstered with inspired extra percussion by Wally Ingram) let fully loose inside the steamed up Vaudeville, the tightly packed throng swaying and leaping like a congregation lit up from within. While often overlooked, Jerry's guitar strangling was miraculous this evening; the man is easily one of the most powerful, relentless guitarist alive. Beneath the hot, swirling lights, Joseph gesticulated and ranted like a man who'd crammed both Joe Strummer and Mick Jones into his compact body - a barefoot punk prophet and king of the motherfuckin' disco, too.

Saturday Highlights

1. Pimps of Joytime – 3:15-4:30 PM – Big Meadow
This set launched my repeated one word exhortation for the weekend: Hectic. The Pimps are on the funk like ink on paper, moving like calligraphy across the page where most make clunky block letters and sign with a thumbprint. Smooth but not too smooth, they captured the general bonhomie in the air yet kept things dirty enough to be credible. Clean funk isn't really funk at all. Their dynamics alone set them apart from the herd, with the whole band able to blast hard and instantly drop down to a compelling murmur and back again. Watching Brian J (vox, guitar, keys), Clark Dark (bass, moog) and Mayteana Morales (vocals, sampler, percussion) groove along the edge of the stage one felt compelled to reach down deep for all the Prince gymnastics they had in their dance trick bag. All killer, no filler.

Black Crowes by Jake Krolick
2. The Black Crowes – 9:00-11:00 PM – Grandstand Stage
While a 20-year Crowes veteran like myself might have liked to hear more than one tune from the band's two most recent albums (though "Oh Josephine" was mid-tempo ballad gold), this was a perfect festival set, peppered with bygone hits like "Hard To Handle" and anchored to material the band always plays well. What's highly enjoyable about the Crowes at this stage is how wonderfully consistent they are. From the sound of it many folks at High Sierra hadn't seen them since the mid-90s and were just about universally knocked on their tushes by this performance. The Crowes are one of the few rock acts one can mention in the same breath as Zeppelin, Aerosmith, et al. and this set ably showed why that is.

3. The Mother Hips/Dr. Dog – 11:45 PM-3:30 AM – Funk'n Jamhouse
Arguably the best late night combo this year – Pimps of Joytime opening for The New Mastersounds on Sunday being the obvious competition – the pairing of the Dog and the Hips was tangible proof that rock 'n' roll is anything but dead. Both bands played a little outside their comfort zone, especially the Hips who delved into some older fan faves and welcomed Nicki Bluhm and sublime Grambler lead guitarist Deren Ney for a mesmerizing, emotional version of "Jet Plane," a new Nicki tune that'll appear on her forthcoming sophomore album. So absorbing and enriching were both bands that it was easy to settle into the moment and really experience the music on a cellular level. By the end of Dr. Dog's headlining set I found myself leaping and spinning like my 3-year-old does when we watch School House Rock and every song is greeted like his favorite.

Sunday Highlights

1. Poor Man's Whiskey - 12:00- 1:15 PM – Grandstand Stage
Shirtless in an Uncle Sam long coat, Eli Jebediah and the rest of PMW were a lively reminder of some of the very cool things about Americans and American music. Taking their cues from a wide assortment of influences like Old & In The Way, Woody Guthrie and Dr. Hook & The Medicine Show, Poor Man's reminded us that we need to live our lives sometime and maybe this was the right day to dig in. Their music is a celebration of the right things in life, and they're all phenomenal musicians to boot. By turns folksy and rockin', they move along rhythms that are hard to resist and sling lines that you'll find yourself quoting to your friends later. A 100- watt stage presence and spot-on knack for covers (they closed with Tom Petty's "American Girl" in honor of the holiday) further up the ante. I see a lot of live music and can assure you there are few more charming, enjoyable groups going than Poor Man's Whiskey.

Allmond Bros Clan by Susan J. Weiand
2. The Allmond Bros Clan – 4:30-6:00 PM – High Sierra Music Hall
A tribute band is a tricky thing. Genuflect too much and you're a boring recreation, stray too far off the blueprint and folks won't recognize the source material, which is a central aspect to a tribute's pleasure. This Allman Brothers homage led by Guitar Player Magazine's Jimmy Leslie (who plays the Dickey role) gets the balance just right. Unlike the Grateful Dead, Beatles or Stones, few bands cover the Allmans because it is a separate language that swirls gutbucket blues with jazz sophistication. Just as most of us don't speak Esperanto, Allman-ese isn't common and it was exciting to see this large band teach themselves how to talk eloquently. Unlike today's ABB, the Allmond Clan uses the At The Fillmore East era as their Rosetta Stone, and one suspects their grasping at these numbers mirrors the Allmans' own during that time period. Simon "Eli Jebidah" Kurth was a fire hose of great guitar riffing as Duane "Sky Frog" Allmond, and stellar guest turns from Sean Leahy, Josh Clark, Greg Loiacono and Lebo added further air guitar heft to the session. PMW's Josh Brough was also murderously good as Gregg “Allmond Boy” Allmond, attacking the organ and vocals with the gusto of a young Gregg. Most of us weren't able to see ABB when Duane was alive but the hunger for that music remains. The Allmond Bros Clan fulfills that appetite in a way that honors Duane's memory by really wrestling with this music in a quite alive way. Festival bookers take note: Don't let the other guys get to this project before you.

Also worth mentioning that Simon Kurth also recently took over the reins with Guitarmageddon and blew out the doors on Friday with a White Stripes focused performance. If Kurth is involved I can just about guarantee two things: It's going to be entertaining as hell and the musicianship will make you salivate. Beyond that it's best to trust his instincts and go for whatever ride he's offering.

3. Carolyn Wonderland - 11:30- 1:30 AM – Vaudeville Tent
With The Mother Hips delivering yet another unbelievably great set before her, it was somewhat of a surprise that Carolyn Wonderland captured my final slot for the weekend, but damn if the tiny Austin blues belter didn't take my heels out from under me. I'm intensely picky about the blues and, like many grumpy old men, feel that maybe the best purveyors are no longer with us or not long for this world. I reject slick, modernized blues, and thankfully Wonderland and her on-the-money drummer and multi-tasking keyboardist (he provided keyboard bass, too) dealt in only the real stuff. Carolyn can shred mightily and her tone is gritty, loud and impolite. Glorious! She's got compositions that sit well next to the Bo Diddley and the like in her arsenal, and she's got an odd, alluring stage manner that draws you in but also makes you feel like she might cut you if you looked at her wrong. She's got depth and her band swung like all get out. As perfect a nighttime ramble as High Sierra has ever offered.

Continue reading for Kayceman and Susan Weiand's highlights, plus some video highlights...

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