West Virginia proves its motto every time I visit: "Wild and Wonderful." The state is a hotbed of music festivals every summer, thanks to the lack of possible noise complaints and the bevy of wide-open space. Always an interesting travel, I braved it once again to attend the Higher Ground Music Festival on the weekend of June 26th – 28th.
Waking up at 2:30am on Thursday to drive the final shift of the trip, I discovered a damp, foggy, mysterious mountain state waiting for my attempt at navigation. Accompanied in the cab by HGMN’s Drew Willardson, I wrangled the RV up and down hills and in and out of dense fog as native West Virginians sped fearlessly by. After seven hours of interstate driving and 30 miles of twisty one-lane byways, we arrived at the gates of Sunshine Daydream Campground. We parked the RV as the sun slowly emerged from behind impossibly green mountains. Through the thick morning fog, the sight was truly amazing.
Sunshine Daydream (SSDD for the rest of this article) is a gorgeous, huge, festival-ready farm located in the town of Terra Alta. There's a barn at one end of the property that houses late-night events, side stage performances, and entire festival lineups. The rustic structure holds about 300 people and offers an interesting club atmosphere in the middle of nowhere. Past the barn, vendors stretched for about 100 yards towards the main stage. The view of the stage afforded a spectacular backdrop as artists performed in a natural frame of towering mountains and rolling pastures. When I was on the way to the site's shower house one morning, wild horses could be seen romping through the hills.
After a day of final preparations, the music finally began at sundown on Thursday. With about half of the 1000 presale attendees on site, Zen opened the fest up with a set of psychedelic country jams that reminded me of The Recipe. NYC's ulu was up next, and they deserved a better slot! Throughout their set I could not help but think that ulu is The Hulk of jazz/funk. They seem to hit a little harder than most of the funk bands in our scene. Their memorable show featured a nifty take on David Bowie's "Space Oddity" and the crowd-pleasing "SMB." Expressive, intense, and a joy to watch, ulu is one of the most under appreciated bands in the world. Addison Groove Project seemed very happy to be at the festival, and that joy leaked into their set. The relaxing night of music wound up with a jumpin' set from Al & The Transamericans. Comprised of Al Schnier (moe.), Gordon Stone, Eric Glockler (Strangefolk), Vinnie Amico (moe.), and Kirk Juhas (freebeerandchicken), the band plays lively upstate Americana that has its roots in the earliest form of "roots rock." With few brain-teasing musical passages but a wealth of solid songs and pure rock energy, Al & The Transamericans presented an entertaining set of "three chord songs with a story" that included moe. regulars like "Waiting For The Punchline" and "Mexico."
Friday began with a bolt of confusion. Since part of the original promotion team backed out of the festival, some bands were dropped from the bill and schedule changes were made. Early on Friday, attendees wandered the grounds in search of a schedule of bands. Spookie Daly Pride kicked off the main stage that day, and they aren't exactly the kind of music I would pick for first thing in the morning. Thankfully, the Bomb Squad came up next and provided one of the hottest sets of the weekend. The post-pregnancy Jen Durkin is still as fiery and satisfying as ever. The diminutive fireball took the stage amidst a thick swirl of funk to unleash an unearthly cry of "West Virginia, mountain MAMA!" Their set included tasty renditions of "Sophistafunk," "Ready 2 Ride," "Keep On Movin'" and the percolating "Gemini." A longtime HGMN supporter, Durkin gave us a big shout out from the stage and came by the booth for a while after the show. The Bomb Squad set the tone for a weekend highlighted by NYC bands.
The Slip performed next, and my mid-day glance at the campground revealed little growth in attendance numbers. Those who witnessed The Slip's set were treated to a roller coaster of a show with plenty of twists and loops. The Slip moves effortlessly between chaotic group improvisation and slippery compositions that bend the mind of the listener. Though some folks said that the set was very similar to their set at Bonnaroo, it was highly enjoyable and it's great to see this band still evolving. In stark contrast to The Slip's moody maneuverings was the next act on the main stage, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. Tapping into the same proficient pool of talent as always, DDBB romped through a typical set of their tuba-rooted New Orleans brass overload. Guitarist James McLean always impresses me the most, slashing through the simmering funk horn madness with inventive and edgy solos.
By dusk, it had become clear that this festival was probably not going to be a success for the proprietors. The wide green hills of the grounds were still in plain view as Friday grew older. I believe there were about 2000 people at the event, but the majority seemed content to hang out by their campsite, throw Frisbees or footballs, and eat. I made it to the Barn Stage to catch most of a set by Guest, a prog-fusion band from Ohio whose CD I have enjoyed for quite some time. Their live performance changed my opinion of them completely. I had never seen the quartet live, and their style is extremely intense and travels well beyond the polished vibe of their debut album, Entrance. They are definitely a band I would travel to see again! They have such a full-bodied, technological sound.
By the time Guest wrapped up, Keller Williams was set to take the audience by storm on the Main Stage. Opening with "Vacate," Keller enraptured the crowd for the length of his 90-minute set. "Vacate" gave way to "Stagger Lee," which drew a huge response from the decidedly Dead-loving crowd. Ingenious as always, Keller made the most out of a brief sound dropout by exclaiming, "What the hell was that?" Catching his outburst inside of a loop, it digitally repeated itself over and over to hilarious effect. Keller was spectacular as always, serving up great versions of old-school faves like "Chillin'," "Yoni," and "Stinky Green" plus an unusual "Boob Job" and the crowd-pleasing "Best Feeling." Before and after Keller's set, DJ Logic kept the sparse crowd moving with some serious backbone funk grooves from various eras.
Galactic's headlining spot turned into a very memorable happening that included many guests. As if this powerhouse band isn't wonderful enough, they have been putting on some incredible shows lately and Higher Ground was no exception. The song that sticks with me the most is the show-stopping "All Behind You Now," a tune rife with snorting guitar, decadent mid-tempo rhythms, and righteous vocals. DJ Logic eventually joined the band for a few tunes and then Keller Williams and a sampling of brass from the Dirty Dozen emerged for a stunning version of the instantly recognizable "Hamp’s Hump." Even after this memorable day of music, none of the folks in attendance seemed to care. Nobody was talking about the music, and few people left the raging bonfires in the campground that night. Sure the crowd was small, but I have never seen more lethargy at a festival when it comes to paying attention to the music.
Saturday came with the promise of more wonderful music, and I hoped that the atmosphere of the festival would improve. Topaz's early slot took place under more perfect weather, but was still lacking in listeners. I know that you could hear the music very well from most of the campground, and I wonder if that is why more people didn't venture to the stage. Topaz has constructed a new band since I saw him last, but the group as a whole hasn't lost a step and I was more impressed than I have ever been. Their commonly coined jazz/funk has a strong Afro-beat feel that always reminds me of the Kuti family with its revolutionary tones. Topaz plays music for urban uprisings!
The rest of the day, while populated with great music, was marred by schedule mix-ups and long delays. The amount of CDs we heard from the PA was frighteningly proportionate to the amount of live music. DJ Logic jumped into his slot after Topaz and threw down more bulbous bass as the attendees waited for guitarist Charlie Hunter. Logic's set continued almost twice as long as scheduled due to a few non-specific mishaps in the Charlie Hunter camp, one of which resulted in a busted saxophone. Fortunately, the Karl Denson crew was already on site, sax man John Ellis borrowed some brass from Denson, and Hunter was able to reconstruct his trio. Moving through a comfortable set of tunes, Ellis and drummer Derrek Phillips gave Hunter the terra firma he needed to craft his brain-boggling guitar expressions. Though the setlist was pretty much the same as the last time I saw them, Hunter never fails to defy the laws of everything. It seems impossible, especially when you are hearing it live, that there's no bass or keyboards in the band.
The always hyped-up Robert Randolph & The Family Band was next to take the stage. The highlight of their set was a scorching instrumental "Good Times Bad Times" with guests Karl Denson and Soulive guitarist Eric Krasno. For me personally, the rest of the set was a little repetitive. It's like, okay, we know that the pedal steel makes that wicked scream when you slide all the way up, and we know that there's going to be girls dancing on stage during "Shake Your Hips"!
Soulive came on shortly after and delivered the best set of the festival. Armed with a growing arsenal of new songs and a trove of trusty favorites, Soulive wowed the audience with their individual instrumental mastery. Neal Evans, whose left hand boasts more responsibility than anyone besides Charlie Hunter, alternately stirred the groove with his melodic right-hand playing on the keys and his steady leftie organ-bass talent. By the end of their fantastic set, Karl Denson, DJ Logic, and Charlie Hunter had all joined the party on stage.
After that rippin’ set, Karl Denson's Tiny Universe faced a serious challenge in their headlining spot. The band came through with no doubt left behind, working the modern funk mojo that makes them one of the biggest players in the live music scene. KDTU also contributed something that was mostly lacking from the day: vocals! As amazing as Soulive, Hunter, and Topaz were, it was nice to finally hear some singing.
An amazing lineup, sparse attendance, and shaky organization made Higher Ground an enjoyable but largely vibe-less event. Try as the bands did, even they couldn't generate that whoosh of energy that makes a festival memorable. Before Karl Denson's set, the promoter pleaded with the crowd to attend their other events lest they lose the ability to continue throwing festivals. No matter how good the lineup, the weekend you choose can be pivotal, and Higher Ground might have gotten lost between Bonnaroo, the July 4th holiday, and High Sierra. I’m glad the bands did their part at our first (and maybe last) Higher Ground Festival.
Words by: Bryan Rodgers
Images provided by Sunshine Daydream
JamBase | North Carolina
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