High Sierra Music Fest 2011 | Review | Pics

Words by: Eric Podolsky | Images by: Josh Miller, Andrew Quist and Casey Flanigan

High Sierra Music Festival :: 06.30.11-07.03.11 :: Plumas County Fairgrounds :: Quincy, CA

ALO by Andrew Quist
Jump right to Josh Miller's gallery here!

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Let's get one thing straight: High Sierra Music Festival is the best-kept secret this side of the Continental Divide. Seriously. As a High Sierra virgin (it seemed like everyone I met was a long-time veteran), I was constantly amazed by the overwhelming sense of community which pervaded every aspect of the weekend. For one, there was absolutely no shakedown scene of any kind - instead of hawking their goods to make a buck, everyone just shared things with each other. There was also a complete lack of cell phone use all weekend, which speaks volumes to the in-the-momentness of these kind, considerate revelers. Camps were elaborate and well-planned, neighbors were friendly, welcoming and respectful, and there was not one negative encounter to be had with anyone over four days of reveling (i.e., no assholes to be found anywhere). Everyone came to party, and everyone brought their A game to do it right.

Now in its 21st year, High Sierra has been in the game long enough to anticipate every logistical aspect of throwing a festival to a tee. Everything was in its right place, so to speak, from the incredibly intimate grounds (campgrounds were mere feet from stages), to the hassle-free shuttle service from the parking area, to clean bathrooms and porto-potties, to hanging screens above the Big Meadow Stage field to provide much-needed daytime shade (temperatures had to be over 90 in the sun). All this came together to create an absolutely hassle-free weekend that flowed effortlessly from one sublime moment into the next.

Yonder Mountain String Band by Casey Flanigan
And then there was the music. Year in and year out, High Sierra manages to curate a lineup chock-full of genuine musicians – there is literally non-stop music from 10 am to 3 am and beyond, four days in a row. And while the mid-size lineup doesn't have the mainstream draw of other larger, heavyweight festivals, they wouldn't have it any other way. This is truly a musician's festival, and the High Sierra audience is comprised of hardcore music fans – there was practically no one in attendance that just came to party. All this combines to create a blissfully intimate, laid-back festival experience. In short, the idyllic feeling that pervades High Sierra spoils you rotten, and you are bound to be somewhat disappointed with any other festival you attend as a result.

Here follows one humble music fan's weekend highlights. Overlapping sets naturally meant that some performances were missed, while other fantastic sets didn't make it into the top five due to an overwhelming glutton of quality music (Skerik and Ruthie Foster's countless sit-ins, Maceo Parker, Yonder Mountain, Dr. Dog, Dawes, Jessica Lurie, etc, etc, etc).

Thursday Highlights

David Rawlings and Gillian Welch by Andrew Quist
1. Gillian Welch – 9:00-11:00 PM – Grandstand Stage
Capping off a perfect opening day dominated by bluegrass/folk acts, Welsh and her inseparable partner in crime David Rawlings delivered a breathtaking set of exquisite Americana that brought the entire concert field to an absolute hush. A front-row view of these two masters certainly helped, as the subtleties in their chemistry are readily apparent from close range. Simply put, these two breathe music like they share a brain. The intimate connection in their crystalline harmonies and guitar parts is stunning – Rawlings' unpredictable harmonies in songs like “Elvis Presley Blues” and “Red Clay Halo” hug and weave around Welch's voice with an effortless grace, while his immaculate soloing on songs like “The Way It Goes” and “Look At Ms. Ohio” was a fluid display of nimble virtuosity, all the more impressive considering he was recovering from food poisoning on this night (they had a bucket ready just in case). Welch's gorgeous songs take melodic motifs from the American folk tradition that make them instantly familiar to the listener, yet are distinct in their originality. A huge one-two punch of “I'll Fly Away” (the first of two very different versions played this weekend) and an out-of-left-field, reverb-drenched cover of “White Rabbit” ended the set, and sent us into the night with absolute peace of mind.

2. Chris Robinson Brotherhood – 11:30 PM–1:30 AM – Vaudeville Tent
Apparently, Chris Robinson had such a grand time at High Sierra last year with the Crowes that he couldn't wait to bring his new band back to rock out. The Brotherhood took the Vaudeville stage to a packed tent, and proceeded to deliver a mature set of raw, soulful blues-rock like only CR can. Robinson's band plays with a deliberate patience that lets their rootsy music breathe like a fine aged wine – there was a certain Dead-like swagger in the Brotherhood's loping grooves that went down oh-so-smooth, especially on the Dead cover “They Love Each Other.” The MVP of the set certainly went to lead guitarist Neal Casal, whose bright, tasteful leads on tunes like “Eagles on the Highway” and “Rosalee” were consistently satisfying. Honorable Mention goes to Adam MacDougall on vintage keys and synths, whose mastery of those old instruments gave the music an expansive feel. CR was clearly having a blast, and led his band into the wee hours with a powerful musical conversation that poured out pure and true.

Diego's Umbrella by Josh Miller
3. Head for the Hills – 3:15-4:30 PM – Big Meadow
Some afternoon bluegrass among the sun and pines was just what the doctor ordered, and Colorado-based Head for the Hills delivered the goods with unexpected style in their first appearance at High Sierra. What started out as a standard tight-as-a-drum bluegrass set took a surprise left turn into a very jazzy realm, as the band busted out some straight swingin' Dawg music with a complex David Grisman instrumental (something rarely attempted by today's young bands). Michael Chappell was especially fantastic on mandolin, delivering furious solos with precision and grace. Throw in some expertly picked originals, a frantic take on Ray Charles' “Unchain My Heart,” and a perfectly executed version of Paul Simon's “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover,” and you have an utterly satisfying set of eclectic string band music. The icing on the cake was a raucous, shit-kickin' take on John Hartford's traditional bluegrass tune “Way Down the River Road” to close the set (the first of five Hartford covers delivered by four bands this weekend, a stat I was ecstatic about). Supremely satisfying, top-notch pickin'.

4. Diego's Umbrella – 1:15-2:30 PM – Big Meadow
This Eastern-European funk-rock band from San Francisco started the festival right for me, and surprised the hell out of everyone with their awesome showmanship, matching suits, and high-energy gypsy grooves. Their unique combo of violin and Dick-Dale-like Telecaster riffs was infectious, and the band's blatant, tongue-in-cheek showmanship worked the crowd to a frenzy. A fun, rowdy take on “Hava Nagila” capped the set and ignited the first dance party of the weekend. A great start to an epic four days.

Friday Highlights

HSMF '11 Festivarian
By Casey Flanigan
1. The Infamous Stringdusters – 11:30 PM-1:30 AM – Vaudeville Tent
These guys played a fantastic set on Thursday afternoon, so I was inclined to check out their late-night tent set for more. Hands down, The Stringdusters win the prize for “best pickers” at High Sierra this year -- all six members are true masters of their instruments, and threw me for a loop with their undeniable chemistry and chops. Their energetic group interplay blows other bands out of the water, and their jams consistently reach epic heights of euphoria. But their ace in the hole has to be dobro player Andy Hall, who's tasty slide skills conjure up comparisons to the mighty Jerry Douglas, and color the music with that infectious twang which few bands can boast of. This gang of pickers blazed their way through a huge set of originals, sprinkled with some choice covers: Jeff Austin joined in for a spirited take on John Hartford's “Steam Powered Aeroplane,” and “Jack-A-Roe” was given some extra oomph. Bluegrass takes on a different feel when played at night, and this set turned furious as the night went on. Things got crazy after 1 am, when things peaked out with The Jam of the Weekend (IMHO): a soaring, uplifting piece of group improv that took us into the stratosphere. The crowd erupted, and the band answered with “Shady Grove” to take us home. Best bluegrass set of the weekend, hands down.

Jim James by Josh Miller
2. My Morning Jacket – 9:00-11:00 PM – Grandstand Stage
Having played High Sierra back when they were still an up-and-coming band out of Louisville, KY, MMJ returned this year as a much different group, having since conquered the music world with their own eccentric, indefinable music. Jim James is more of a showman/shaman than ever, working the crowd with ample stomping and head-banging. Decked out in fuzzy boots and a trenchcoat, James and Co. broke the festival wide open with the first arena-sized rock show of the weekend. Using their vastly varying catalog, MMJ took us on a journey all over the sonic spectrum, and back again. Starting with a few stranger tracks from their new album Circuital, the set soon took a turn into a flying V rock fest with churning, power chord anthems like“Off The Record” and “I'm Amazed.” They then ventured into darker, weirder realms with a run of carefully crafted, slow-burn songs supplemented with electronic backing tracks, a trend the band has been leaning on more heavily these days. James sufficiently creeped us out with his otherworldly falsetto, which modulators made sound even more epic.

After more dark, introspective music, James took us out of the mellow when he traded his guitar in for a cape, and the rock show broke wide open. Things got furious with the one-two punch of “Holdin' On To Black Metal” and “Highly Suspicious,” and it only got freakier and heavier from there. Unlike the 45 minute set they were squeezed into at Outside Lands last year, the band was given over two hours to stretch out, and the serious, heavy jams were broken out in the last third of the show. Rocking you into submission is what MMJ does best, and we were sufficiently floored by the final chords of closer “One Big Holiday.” Overall, a thoroughly satisfying spectacle/musical experience.

Dan Lebowitz & Scott Law by Andrew Quist
3. Brokedown In Bakersfield – 12:15-1:30 PM – Artist Playshop – High Sierra Music Hall
The biggest surprise of the day had to be this one-off country band, which was assembled to pay tribute to the raw, rocking country music that was born of artists like Merle Haggard and Buck Owens, a sound that emerged out of Bakersfield, CA in the 1950s as a response to the slick, mainstream Nashville sound of the time. The well-rehearsed band featured Tim Bluhm of the Mother Hips, his wife Nicki, Scott Law, and Steve Adams, Dave Brogan, and Dan Lebowitz from ALO. Considering this was a one-gig band, everyone was super-tight and served the song like a good session player should. Tim Bluhm squeezed those twangy licks out of his Telecaster like a pro, and Lebo's pedal steel shone through nicely on tunes like “Silver Wings,” “Mama Tried” and “Silver Threads and Golden Needles.” This was pure, unadulterated country music that got everyone's day started right.

4. Orgone – 7:15-8:45 PM – Big Meadow
After a sweltering day in the hot sun, it was a huge relief to comfortably dance to some dirty soul-funk as the sun set behind the Big Meadow stage.

Orgone by Casey Flanigan
Hailing from L.A, this big-band brought us into the evening with classic R&B grooves and a raucous four-piece horn section. At one point Ivan Neville sat in on the organ, and bassist Ethan Phillips laid down some dirty Paul Jackson-style jazz-funk bass lines, to the delight of everyone and their booty. I don't remember this set too well (reveling 15 hours a day takes its toll), but I do remember dancing my pants off as the sun dipped beneath the pines. This set included one of those life-affirming moments, when I stopped, looked around at everyone dancing and smiling as the low sun hit their faces, and realized that there was no better place to be, anywhere.

5. The Travelin' McCourys – 2:00-3:00 PM – Grandstand Stage
Of all the bluegrass to be had on this weekend, these guys were the most authentic of them all, as they bear a direct lineage to Bill Monroe, the father of bluegrass music (Ronnie was quick to remind us that this year is Monroe's 100th birthday). In short, this was flawlessly executed old-time bluegrass, pristine in its delivery. This group, featuring Ronnie and Robbie McCoury on mandolin and banjo, respectively, is essentially the Del McCoury Band minus Del on guitar, and Andy Hall from the Stringdusters filled the empty guitar spot for the set nicely. One after another, they delivered song after song of sizzling, tight-as-a-drum pickin'. A fantastic cover of John Hartford's fiddle song “Vamp in the Middle” was a highlight, as was an original written about Del called “The Old Boy.” The set closed with a fast, catchy take of “Walk Out in the Rain,” an obscure Dylan outtake from Street Legal that was later recorded by Eric Clapton. This was the true High and Lonesome Sound, and there was no better place to hear it than up in the pines of the Sierras.

Saturday Highlights

Warren Haynes Band by Casey Flanigan
1. Warren Haynes Band – 9:00-11:00 PM – Grandstand Stage
Most didn't know what to expect from the Big Man's new band. Warren has played High Sierra a few times before with the Mule, but his new approach to soul music most likely took many by surprise. And for those who were skeptical, his headlining set proved that Warren can do whatever the hell he wants, as he absolutely crushed it. This band he has put together is the heaviest soul band in the world. Over the course of two hours, Warren brought the house down with his own searing original interpretations of soul music. He has surrounded himself with an all-black band of R&B players, including Ron Holloway on sax, Ron Johnson (formerly of Karl Denson's Tiny Universe) on bass, Nigel Hall (of Lettuce) on keys and vocals, and the monster Terrence Higgins on drums (you have to be a monster to play under Warren's solos). The setlist was comprised mostly of tunes from his new Man In Motion album, all of which are quintessentially Warren-sounding and incredibly powerful live, especially with Ruthie Foster on guest vocals. After a searing take on Hendrix's “Spanish Castle Magic” and the groovin' original “Sick of My Shadow,” the gospel came out full-force with a huge vocal duel between Ruthie and Warren, which saw Warren's soulful side erupt and brought the night to a whole 'nother level. This moment was a truly powerful experience, and one of the highlights of the entire weekend.

Things were brought down a bit for a nice cover of “That's What Love Will Make You Do,” and Ivan Neville joined in on organ to help close the set in typically crushing Warren fashion. Warren's thick Marshall tone is always satisfying, but I had forgotten just how consistently hard he rocks on every solo. A nice Nigel Hall Rhodes intro led into the obligatory “Soulshine” encore, but nobody expected it to segue into a gorgeous take on Van's “Tupelo Honey” before leading back into “Soulshine” to close it all out. The entire set was a profound musical experience, and just further proof that there is no one in the world that can hold a candle to Warren Haynes.

Dumpsta's Ian Neville
by Andrew Quist
2. Dumpstaphunk (late night) – 1:30 AM-4 AM – Funk'n Jam House
These guys played a nasty afternoon set on Friday, but the late-night show was where it got real down n' dirty. Wearing a shirt that read, “I will funk you to death,” organist Ivan Neville led his band in an onslaught of heavy grooves, a relentless barrage of slap bass leads that pounded our weary asses into submission. Of note was their brand new drummer Nikki Glaspie playing just her second show with the band after their messy public break-up with Raymond Weber. She didn't miss a beat, fitting like a glove between the duel bass-in-yo-face attack of Tony Hall and Nick Daniels, who weaved in between each other with ease, somehow never stepping on each other's lines. With over-the-top takes on “Papa Was A Rolling Stone,” “You Can Make It If You Try,” “Standin' In Your Stuff,” and on and on, we danced till we couldn't dance no more. Add Skerik into the mix blasting out of the gates like a man possessed, and you have one hell of a freaky party that got more psychedelic and hazy as the night went on. I believe there was a cover of the Stones' “Miss You” in there somewhere, but mostly the set was a blur of pure crushing funk. It peaked out somewhere around 3:30-ish with a bombastic slap bass duel which just slayed us and left us to stumble into the night with feet a-throbbin' from too much funkin'.

3. Ernest Ranglin – 7:15-8:45 PM – Big Meadow
This is one artist who I never thought I would get to see live. At 79, jazz-reggae guitarist Ernest Ranglin is considered the father of funk and reggae, having practically invented ska back in the 50s – without him, these genres simply wouldn't exist. We were lucky to have him at High Sierra, and as this was the first reggae show of the weekend, people were ripe for some serious skanking. A crack band was assembled to back him up for these shows, comprised of Yossi Fine on bass, the Monophonics horns and others, and the result was a playful set of jazz-ska and reggae which got everyone moving as the sun went down. Ranglin still has all his chops, and his solos were playful and agile, delivered with a fine, clean jazz tone that sounded great over the riddims which drummer Inx Herman and Fine laid down. Switching from simple melody lines to lightning fast licks, to rhythmic and chordal soloing and back again, Ranglin had us in the palm of his hand. After some up-tempo ska, artist-at-large Audio Angel joined the band for a chilled-out, fantastic take on The Abyssinians' “Satta Massagana” before launching into a skanked out cover of Toots' "54-46 (That's My Number)." It's not often you get to see a legend work his craft, and this was one set that will stay with me for a long time.

Spanish Bombs by Josh Miller
4. Spanish Bombs feat. Chuck Prophet & Chris Von Sneidern perform London Calling - 11:30 PM-1:30 AM
I had never seen Chuck Prophet before this set, but it certainly won't be the last time after this performance. Tackling all nineteen songs on The Clash's London Calling is no easy feat, and the band Prophet assembled for the task pulled it off with a rip-roaring energy and passion. Hearing the songs one after another in a live setting was a minor revelation, like discovering the album again for the first time. My personal favorite is “Hateful,” which they delivered perfectly. The number of genres infused into this one album is pretty staggering, and the Bombs delivered all the ska, rockabilly and punk inherent in this record with just the right amount of grit and grime. Prophet's voice has just enough rebellious sneer to deliver Joe Strummer's vocals convincingly, and he knows how to work a crowd better than most. A fist-pumping party for the ages.

5. Cornflower – 10:00-11:00 AM – Big Meadow
The sounds of Cornflower were what most camped in Big Meadow awoke to on Saturday morning and there couldn't have been a better way to start our day. Cornflower is a one-man band who utilizes loops to craft joyous choral music. At times sounding like Bobby McFerrin with a hip-hop beat, other times like George Michael at his late 80s best, this music was a breath of fresh air, a gospel celebration of life, and the perfect soundtrack to our bacon, eggs and Bloody Mary breakfast. We all started our day on the right foot thanks to this set.

Sunday Highlights

HSMF Shaman Nathan Moore by Andrew Quist
1. Bill Frisell's Beautiful Dreamers – 2:30-4:00 PM – Grandstand Stage
It's a real pity that it was over 90 degrees in the sun for this set, as many people missed one of the most euphoric, blissful experiences of the weekend. Playing to a nearly empty, shadeless field, Frisell and his trio of Beautiful Dreamers delivered an immaculate, introspective set of shape-shifting, free-thought improv that transcended beyond any type of genre classification. Violinist Eyvind Kang played double duty as bassist, plucking and looping basslines on his axe, while drummer Kenny Wollesen wasn't afraid to follow Frisell into the outer realms of sound and rhythm. The spacious music these three created was a musical conversation that veered into whatever ream they chose to take it.

Shifting from straight jazz, into the wide open spaces of Copelandian America, into blues and reggae, it was a trip to witness Frisell and Co. deconstruct any given “song,” turn it inside out, melt it into abstract expressionism, and emerge from the ether as something else altogether. The band's quiet, introspective playing was at once completely locked in and structureless at the same time – the fluidity and crystal-clean purity of the sounds coming off the stage were just breathtaking in the mountain setting. There were recognizable motifs present here and there, but no chordal structure to hold on to – this band exists beyond such formalities as chord progressions. One definitive melody played was a gorgeous, harmonics-laced take on “Shenandoah,” which was a slightly mystical experience to hear up in the mountains. I came away from this set with a peaceful glow and a centered mind. Truly awe-inspiring music.

Gene Ween by Josh Miller
2. Ween – 9:00-11:00 PM – Grandstand Stage
The oddballs of the festival, Ween pulled no punches in giving us the full-on Brown treatment. Rude, crude and bizarre, Dean Ween's skillful rock guitar and Gene Ween's cartoonishly elastic voice delivered song after hilarious song of genre spoofs, hits and oddities. You could see the unfamiliar stare in disbelief as Gene sang, “Boopity bop boop bow, Mr. Richard Smoker, you're a poopy poker,” or “Suckin' dicks under the promenade.” These guys are all sorts of fun, especially in a festival setting – come on, it's very hard not to love a rockin' little ditty called “Waving My Dick In The Wind.” After an appropriate Fourth of July tribute in the off-kilter “Freedom of '76,” things got freaky mid-set with the tribal funk of “Voodoo Lady,” followed by an appearance by Skerik on the aristocratically themed “Your Party.” The Rick James-inspired “Monique The Freak” and Funkadelic-inspired guitar instrumental “Tear for Eddie” continued the party, but things really broke open with a left-field cover of David Bowie's “Let's Dance” (incredibly, the second time the song was played that day), with Gene doing his best hilarious Bowie impression. Perhaps their most twisted, subversive song, “Spinal Meningitis (Got Me Down),” was saved for the end of the set, and the anthemic “Roses Are Free” closed the show in boisterous fashion. Very glad I caught this, though many around me seemed bewildered.

3. Los Amigos Invisibles – 4:30-6:00 PM – Grandstand Stage
I had seen these guys years ago and remember it being awesome, so it was no surprise that Los Amigos delivered the goods with their practiced and professional Latin funk-rock. That's not to say it was too dull though – these guys brought the disco party like nobody's business. This was slick, synthed out disco in the best possible way, like a latin Chic. Along with some sneaky teases of Radiohead and The Cure that disappeared just as you placed them, they rocked the first full-on cover of Bowie's “Let's Dance” of the day. It was apparent that these guys would destroy in a club setting, and I have every intention of catching them next time they're in town.

Rebirth Brass Band by Andrew Quist
4. Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey -11:30 AM-12:45 PM - Artist Playshop – High Sierra Music Hall
This early afternoon indoor set was treated as a “discussion & performance” of JFJO's latest record, Race Riot Suite, an ambitions composition written by lap steel guitarist Chris Combs. The piece is about an affluent black community in Tulsa, OK which was burned to the ground in 1921, and the cover-up that ensued. Regardless of its somber nature, the music grooved hard in the unique and twisted way that only JFJO can. Skerik sat in for the entire set, soloing on the challenging chord progressions with dexterity, and bassist Jeff Harshbarger was nimble and agile on the upright bass. The history lessons given by the band in between songs were a bit awkward, though the music more than made up for it. This was my first time seeing the new lineup, and I love the new band. Combs' wild and frenzied lap steel licks fit perfectly with Brian Haas's carnival-esque piano escapades. There's nothing like some good afternoon jazz to get your day going right.

5. ReBirth Brass Band (late night)– 1:30-3:00 AM – High Sierra Music Hall
This was the last hurrah for those who still had enough energy in their tank after four days of non-stop action to duke it out with some second line stomping. I've seen ReBirth a bunch in the past and had mixed feelings, but this incarnation was tight, funky and fun in all the right ways. While I remember them being a bit sloppy and formulaic in years past, this band hit everything right. With only three horns and a tuba, the lean lineup didn't step on each other's toes, and though my dogs were barkin' and I was severely sleep deprived, I joined the last of the hardcore revelers to bid High Sierra adieu. A Micheal Jackson medley kept things going, and a rousing, soul-stirring finale of “I'll Fly Away” sent us all back to our tents with visions of NOLA dancing in our heads. It was an epic finale to an epic weekend, and you're damn sure I'll see you next year.

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