High Sierra 2012 | California | Review | Photos

Words by: Dennis Cook & Eric Podolsky | Images by: Josh Miller & Andrew Quist

High Sierra Music Festival :: 07.05.12-07.08.12 :: Plumas Country Fairgrounds :: Quincy, CA

Josh Miller’s photo gallery for High Sierra 2012 is directly below the review, and you can pop over to Andrew Quist’s gallery here!

Huckle @ High Sierra 2012 by Josh Miller
Any long running festival eventually develops a feeling of semi-permanence, but the 22nd annual High Sierra Music Festival exemplified the virtues of tradition and community in a most tangible, happiness spreading way. For a few days in July each year, the Plumas County Fairgrounds surely brings to mind the old parable – albeit with earthy, bohemian under and overtones – that goes, “You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden.” Wherever one’s eye fell in 2012, there were giddy, switched-on packs of people, twirling hula hoops, hoisting heroically strong cocktails, and generally living in the moment in a way that chips away at one’s cynicism and makes one wonder why we don’t enjoy life a bit more outside of this temporary oasis. It’s a vibe that infiltrated the musicians just as powerfully as the patrons – though at High Sierra the line between “performers” and “consumers” is wonderfully blurred, and often the cat who knocked you out at the main stage in the afternoon is sharing a smoke with you at sunrise at the daily, ultra-silly, chaos kissing kickball game.

This year, HSMF brought out the usual veterans with their elaborately planned, Christmas light strewn camp setups as well as a noticeable influx of younger music fans drawn in by the fest’s increase in electronica-friendly fare. At times, the two streams didn’t mix entirely well – the folks drawn to song-based, Dead-leaning fare like Railroad Earth and Ben Harper aren’t interested in the agitated late night antics of folks brought to Quincy, CA by Lotus and Big Gigantic - but it’s heartening to see the organizers working on building the next generation of HSMF regulars, something also apparent in savvy modern rock bookings like Gardens and Villa and Y La Bamba (both bands near instant hits with both raver kids and crusty Jerry G lovin’ attendees – genuinely good music transcends all perceived differences). The crowd reactions at both sets from Mumford & Sons-esque The Lumineers and exhilarating originals Rubblebucket indicate these bands are on the cusp of much wider acclaim and success, confirming again High Sierra’s uncanny instincts in identifying future greats in their gestation period. What’s clear is this festival is building for the long haul, another 20-odd years in their sights, and they know that while they’ll always have hippie/jam band roots there’s new flowers blooming in the next crop of music fans coming of age today. It will be interesting to see how HSMF balances these elements while maintaining its homey/folksy feel, but one has every confidence they’re going to pull it off like a charm in the years ahead. (Dennis Cook)

Toots & The Maytals @ HSMF 2012 by Andrew Quist
Whether you're a long-time veteran or a first-timer, whether you're 7 or 77, there is one thing that everyone can agree upon: there is simply no place like High Sierra. Now in its 22nd year and more popular than ever (this year marked their first sell-out ever), this intimate gathering is a summer camp free-for-all – a place where true music fans can congregate with friends and revel in life for four full days. And when I say full, I mean full – the merrymaking goes well past sunrise every day, and the bands start up at 10 am sharp the following morning. Between the late-night shows, the secret RV sets, the front porch acoustic jams, the silent disco, the sloppy kickball, and the endless campsite hangs, sleep becomes a nagging burden to put off as long as humanly possible.

But the truly great part of High Sierra is its self-regulation. Despite an excellent zero police policy and practically zero security, this is one of the safest, family-friendly gatherings you can find – people are consistently kind and respectful, with nothing but smiles to go around day and night. This makes for a magical environment when it comes to music-making, as it's easy to tell that by their performances that the musicians feel this High Sierra magic as much as the rest of us.

This year saw New Orleans musicians representing big time, dominating much of Friday's lineup and turning the Big Meadow into a freaky festival French Quarter party. We also saw many up-and-coming young bands step up to the occasion, as the usual veteran headliners were somewhat missing from the lineup this year. This all combined to create one big rumpus of a festival that delivered the goods yet again. Like it always does, High Sierra scratches an itch that just does not ever get scratched in the real world. We're already counting the days till we get to scratch it again. (Eric Podolsky)

Dennis’ Thursday Highlights

Greensky's Paul Hoffman by Andrew Quist
1. Greensky Bluegrass - 5:15 - 6:45 – Big Meadow

Smiling so hard it made my face hurt, I couldn’t help thinking as Greensky dove hard into as unpredictable and exciting a jam tangent as I’ve ever heard – sandwiched between the oak-solid songwriting that is this band’s trademark – that if you like music, if it’s a cornerstone in your life’s foundations, then you must surely love this group of Michigan boys. Ostensibly a string band given their instrumentation, Greensky is actually a hybrid of rock and folk elements, the descendents of ground breakers like the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Oregon and New Grass Revival – i.e. risk takers who love a good story with hurt and heart to it. As the aforementioned jam exemplified, these dudes can play alongside the best of them – dobro wizard Anders Beck continually elicited lil’ gasps throughout this set – but the emphasis is on interplay and a mix of harmony and contrast that’s so smart and empathetic it makes other bands using the same tools seem lazy and showy. This set was a distinct pleasure, a heartwarming display of pure musicianship filled with darkness and light, understanding and playfulness, depth and beckoning reach. (DC)

2. ALO - 7:00 - 9:00 – Grandstand

There is a moment during the opening day of such gatherings where the music, mood and fine company coalesce and one realizes in a way felt more than cognitively realized that they’ve made the trip through the looking glass again into festival consciousness. For this writer, this welcome lightning strike occurred side stage during this wonderful sunset performance, where the California pop-rock champs affirmed their status as one of the most reliably entertaining units working today. It’s no small feat to get a huge crowd off, to make them grin, caper and sing along with lusty, un-self-conscious freedom, and ALO did just that, super serving their core fan base with staples like “Plastic Bubble” while simultaneously scooping up fresh ears with a sound that’s so easy to like it’s kinda ridiculous. The affable gentlemen making this music don’t hurt matters either, and anyone who discounts charm and good intentions as key factors in a band’s appeal is a fool – also, throw in a fearless affection for covers nobody else will touch (Dire Straits’ “Money For Nothing” went down SO well this day). This set - acted out in the shadow of a decrepit McDonald’s inflatable repurposed into grimy Buddhist splendor – could have been none nicer. (DC)

Dead Winter Carpenters by Josh Miller
3. Dead Winter Carpenters - 12:00 - 1:30 – Vaudeville Tent

It’s an unenviable position for any band, especially one just a few years old, to kick off a festival. The amount of pent-up energy and expectation amongst early arrivals almost guarantees a letdown for the audience (and a boomerang bummer for the group onstage). However, when pulled off with aplomb like this thoroughly enjoyable set from Lake Tahoe-based Dead Winter Carpenters (DWC), the opener can be a catalyst for high spirits that carries into the rest of the fest. Like Greensky, DWC is a string band but they’re increasingly working electricity into the mix and rhythm team Dave Lockhart (upright bass) and Ryan Davis (drums) infuse things with a most rock ‘n’ roll pulse. Mixing up cuts from their quality new long-player Ain’t It Strange with crowd pleasing covers (Neil Young’s “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere” sent up quite the hoot ‘n’ holler), the Carpenters showcased their varied vocals (fiddler Jenni Charles may be their Americana ace-in-the-hole) and undisguised eagerness to please. They want y’all to have a grand time, and the conscious design of this set implies they spend a lot of thought on just how to accomplish that goal. Some earlier DWC sets I’ve caught have been likeable but didn’t always reveal what was unique to this particular band, but this one caught my attention early and made me move in for a closer look as it progressed, drawing a larger and larger crowd that generated a dynamic feedback loop with the band that pushed them to a rousing, memorable performance. Keep an ear out for this bunch; they’re growing up nicely. (DC)

Eric’s Thursday Highlights

Mike Dillon
By Andrew Quist
1. Mike Dillon Band – 1:15-2:30 PM – Big Meadow

For many, NOLA-based vibraphonist/percussionist Mike Dillon and his young band were the first act of the weekend, and they did not disappoint in helping us to find our festival swagger. For those that aren't familiar with Mike D's antics, the man is some kind of maniac onstage. Bouncing between vibes, percussion, and tabla (!) and rapping like Anthony Keidis, Mike D led his band in a set of hard-rocking, freaky music that sounded like it was borne from the dark, weird clubs of Tom Waits' New Orleans. Guitarist/bassist Cliff Hines's crunchy pedal effects were extra-dirty, and the young, gorgeous trombonist Carly Meyers wowed us with her powerful horn blasts and spastically entrancing moves. Armed with bizarre songs that blurred the lines between punk, funk and jazz, Mike D spat out intricate vibraphone lines one minute and bashed his kit the next, all while rapping his surreal stories over the band's heavy riffage. Songs like “Rock Star Bitch Brass” (about meeting William Burroughs) and “I Saw George Porter, Jr. Playing Punk Rock With My Pal Skerik on the Jam Cruise” (self-explanatory) got heads banging, and set us up for what was to be an epic weekend of music. (EP)

2. Surprise Me Mr. Davis – 2:30-4:00 PM – Grandstand Stage

Comprised of what are well-known to be the Godfathers of High Sierra, this supergroup of sorts gave us the first chance to shake our bones and check each other out in the spacious field of the Grandstand Stage. With The Slip at the core and Marco Benevento on board as the ultimate X-factor, this band has all the elements needed to kill it on all cylinders.

Surprise Me Mr. Davis by Andrew Quist
Armed with Nathan Moore's casual yet powerful baritone, the band took Moore's big stories and elevated them to Springsteen-ian proportions – tunes like “High Sierra Heartbreak,” “When A Woman,” and “One of Us Standing” were grandiose in their sweeping power. On the flip side, when Marco took control, the band shape-shifted into a freaky groove-party band, evoking MMW with their ample chops. Bottom line, these guys have all the talent needed to play whatever the hell they want – any style is within their mastery, and they take full advantage of that fact. (EP)

3. Lotus – 9:30-11:15 PM – Big Meadow

Lotus' set kicked off right as darkness set in, and they wasted no time in easing us into their blissful, breakbeat world of pulsing, funky trance. The music was freaky in all the right ways, and the band's dynamics were telepathic. Lotus has an uncanny ability to slow down and speed up time with their music – once they're cookin' in all their danceable glory (and if you let yourself surrender to their flow and lock your psyche to the groove), you can effectively be taken through the wormhole. It's clear that this band is in the business of mind journeys, and if you let yourself go there, they can take you to places that you did not expect to go, all while dancing your face off. (EP)

Dennis’ Friday Highlights

Matt The Electrician
1. Matt the Electrician - 11:30 - 12:45 – Vaudeville Tent

Often at High Sierra it’s a lone person armed only with a voice that resonates with the full spectrum of the human condition, a backpack full of killer songs, and a single acoustic guitar that walks away with one’s heart. Past discoveries in this same spot (often at this same early morning time) include Ashleigh Flynn and the man who would go on to be Mayor of High Sierra, Nathan Moore, and 2012 brought us the streetwise, huge soul gift of Austin’s Matt the Electrician. Sad about having to leave HSMF right after his set for another festival in Canada, Matt flowed from story to song to stories within songs to spontaneous moments with the crowd with the supreme showmanship and undeniable raw talent of Todd Snider and Robyn Hitchcock. Matt is a modern equivalent to prime Loudon Wainwright III and John Gorka with the tale-spinning gifts of Spalding Gray rolled into a soft spoken, tattoo adorned package. Pointing out the virtues and pitfalls of an 8-month vacation from the working week grind and injecting humor into his pathos like a true chef, Matt was a delight – which is a word one should use with care. His tales offer one freshly angled perspective on their own plight, and his instincts for reading an audience kept the emotional tone shifting with expert grace. Just as he’d stir a tear with a reminder that “you’re not the only one” who feels the way you do, he’d veer into a belly laugh about bacon trees and how their “fruit” longs to be in our bellies. He closed with the single best cover of Rick Springfield’s “Jessie’s Girl” I’ve ever witnessed, mingling a personal story with a sincere reading of the hit that culminated in us being told there was a literally a bit of Rick inside all of us. The cover was so smooth and effective it must be a regular in his trick bag, but like all blessed vaudevillian bards, Matt is so good at what he does that nothing feels rote or routine – it’s all happening in the minutes we share and one leaves better for the experience. (DC)

2. Garage A Trois - 3:00 - 4:30 – Vaudeville Tent

This was one of the most agro, terrifically bonkers Garage A Trois performances I’ve ever witnessed…and I’ve seen them bunches of times. There is always a “dare-ya-to-do-it” energy to the sparring, gesticulating combination of Skerik (saxophonics), Mike Dillon (percussion, vibes), Stanton Moore (drums) and Marco Benevento (keys), but they seemed particularly interested in seeing how much tension, build and release wow, and sharp, pointy-toothed sound they could release on this wearingly hot afternoon. It’s hard to explain but that evil undercurrent – largely stirred up by the sulphurous instigation of the sax man – was strong at this set. Nothing outright malevolent per se but one got a chill a few times if they submerged themselves fully in Garage’s torrent. This was a good one to be up close to so you could watch the non-verbal communication and wildly expressive faces onstage. If there’s four guys who LOVE making music more than Mike D, Stanton, Skerik and Marco I’ve never encountered them, and part of their respective cults is their passion and fearlessness in service to music in the archetypal sense. All that was on full-throated display in the Vaudeville Tent, where once again, even after 10 years hard-focused on what they do, I walked away thinking these guys are sonic superheroes. (DC)

ALO's Zach Gill by Josh Miller
3. Surprise Me Mr. Davis / ALO – 11:45 PM – 4:45 AM – High Sierra Music Hall

A late night set that showed what rock might be like if The Beatles had actually won the war on popular culture. The proverbial water was warm inside the toastier-than-comfortable Music Hall, and if one let go, sang when prompted, and danced without care then quiet freedom and a smile that doesn’t quickly fade was the reward. While each band has their experimental elements, it was the sheer fun of the material and its bouncing execution that carried the night. If the universe were fair both acts would be radio/commercial staples that banished the many industry designated half-talents crowding the airwaves, but for those paying attention like the colorful, roiling throng at this late night revel it’s almost sweeter to have ALO and Surprise Me for our very own. I’d love to see both groups reaping riches and playing big stages nationwide, but there’s no denying the pleasure in spinning inside their charms as they throw out tunes of classic single quality, digging their fingers into the music in real time, living the moment so powerfully that the rest of us feel our own moment swell and shine. The main event for this set was ALO’s end-to-end tackling of the Steve Miller Band’s Fly Like An Eagle album. In short, they handled it perfectly, each tune going to the right singer, and guest turns from Scott Law, Jeff Pevar, Railroad’s Tim Carbone and Marco Benevento coming at all the right times. Further proof ALO (and Surprise Me) rock: All these musicians not only played with them but stuck around to watch the show with rapt expressions and real applause. Sandwiching the Miller Band record with their own compositions made the subtle point that ALO is making the same kind of broad appeal rock as the accepted titans in the genre, and it’s to be hoped that more program directors, festival organizers, etc. take note of this and put them in key slots where they always sparkle. (DC)

Honorable Mention

The evening sets from Deer Tick and Delta Spirit were just the blast of hairy chest rock ‘n’ roll one needed after a long day of hybrid musical forms. Both bands, openly friends as pronounced numerous times from the stage during these sets, get after rock like it’s the only cause worth fighting for. Each exhibits just the right amount of sloppiness and chops to really make a performance soar, though I was far less impressed with the guitar smashing shenanigans at both sets than most in attendance. When The Who did it there was a reckless rightness to it but 40+ years on it just seems like a waste and a stunt to me. However, the frontmen in both bands seemed sincere in the move so who am I to question their motives? In the end, Delta Spirit and Deer Tick spit fiery breath out of a beast whose days sometimes seem numbered when faced with the uber-success of crap like Nickelback and Maroon 5.

Eric’s Friday Highlights

Deer Tick
By Josh Miller
1. Deer Tick – 9:45-11:15 PM – Big Meadow

I didn't realize it 'till this set, but it had been a long time since I had experienced some good ol' fashioned, crankin' rock 'n' roll. After a full day of great music, Deer Tick's alternately raucous and delicate set hit us unexpectedly with its raw honesty, emotional resonance, and brute force. Bandleader and main songwriter John McCauley wears his heart on his sleeve, for better or for worse – sometimes its ugly but it’s always real - and for that reason Deer Tick's music is truly affecting. A garage band at heart, they can rip into classic rock material with a Clash-like snarl, and are not afraid to boogie out classics like “Down South in New Orleans,” which they delivered with a dirty punk edge. McCauley's songs are infectious and the band's harmonies on his original ballads are gorgeous, but conversely, McCauley can also get real raw with some guttural, primal screams. The real kicker was the end of the set, though, which was arguably the Greatest Rock Show Ending Ever: the two covers “Summertime Blues” and “Fight For Your Right to Party,” followed by the Ramones-inspired punk original “Let's All Go To The Bar,” followed by McCauley smashing the shit out of his guitar and throwing the shards into the audience. Rock and Fuckin' Roll. (EP)

2. Delta Spirit – 11:30 PM-1:00 AM – Vaudeville Tent

Having received a warm welcome last year, Delta Spirit returned to High Sierra again this year for one performance only – and they had a hard act to follow, going on directly after Deer Tick's monster set. Thankfully, lead singer Matthew Vasquez and company delivered in a big way, moving us all with their emotive, heartfelt, guitar-driven rock. Songs like “Time Bomb” and “California” were expansive in scope and powerful in their execution, and the five-piece band rocked us into the night like pros. Vasquez climbed on the PA, waved a Colonial American flag, “The Star Spangled Banner” was played on guitar, and we rocked the fuck out. Not to be upstaged, Vasquez also smashed his guitar to end the set, but alas, it would not break. No matter, he got an “A” for effort. A stupendous performance. (EP)

Corey Glover
By Josh Miller
3. Galactic – 6:30-8:30 PM – Grandstand Stage

While Galactic has been considered the preeminent NOLA funk party band in all the land for years now, they have long lacked the right frontman to give their grooves a voice and make their shows truly dynamic. Now, finally, with the addition of Living Colour's Corey Glover on lead vocals, Galactic seems to have found the last piece of the puzzle. Glover has one hell of a set of pipes, and his presence opens a world of possibilities for the band, making them a real force to be reckoned with. Their take on Allen Toussaint's vocally challenging “Yes We Can” was prime, and as the sun set behind the Grandstand Stage, the party got bigger and bolder. The ever-present thick n' chunky rhythm guitar of Jeff Raines locked things down with the rhythm section of Stanton Moore and Robert Mercurio, who were soon joined by Mike Dillon on percussion. Glover's extended vocal solo-rap on “What is Success?” was outstanding, and then things got heavier when the Stooges Brass Band joined in for a five-horn, elephant-stompin', boisterous brass throw-down. The riff-rock-funk reached an apex with a tuba solo during “Buck It Like A Horse,” and a spot-on, gritty encore of “Sympathy For The Devil” was the icing on the cake. It felt like Jazz Fest in the pines. (EP)

New Orleans Piano – 1:00-2:15 PM – Artist Playshop – High Sierra Music Hall

A welcome break from the blazing sun outside, this joyful indoor set of James Booker/Professor Longhair-inspired NOLA stride piano was a real surprise. The one-off band featured Marco Benevento (the man was everywhere all weekend) and CR Gruver of the New Orleans Suspects on keys, dueling and weaving in and out of each other's licks with playful passion. And with the all-star rhythm section of NOLA jazz legend Johnny Vidacovich on drums and Radiators/New Orleans Suspects bassist Reggie Scanlan, the two-step grooves were pushed and prodded with nimble dexterity. Marco and CR alternated between an upright piano and electric keys, and when things got cookin' the result was pure ragtime gold. Their dueling stride licks were pristine on rollicking takes of old-time classics like “Goodnight Irene,” but the highlight for me had to be Marco's jubilant, rolling instrumental take on “Sunny Side of the Street,” which had me stompin', smilin' and clappin' like it was springtime on Frenchman St. (EP)

Dennis’ Saturday Highlights

Rubblebucket by Whitney Bekolay
1. Rubblebucket - 7:30 - 9:00 – Big Meadow

No band may have been happier to be back at High Sierra than these Brooklyn/Vermont kids, who picked up a lot of new fans with their 2009 HSMF debut (present company included). They took the large stage adorned with lights and powered by a hunger to swell spirits and blow minds. Beginning with a fill-in drummer because their regular guy was hung up by travel hassles (he would jump in late in the set), Rubblebucket exuded wide-eyed joy, plying a sound that’s as modern and individually drawn as anything happening in 2012, and literally shaking with happiness at being smack dab in the middle of so many freaky people. Crowd surfing with stilt walkers from MarchFourth Marching Band (who killed it all weekend at HSMF), the band painted rail riders, shimmied without shame, and generally behaved in a way that made one LONG to engage with them in any and all ways. That they did this while working carefully arranged, seemingly simple but actually complex tunes with some of the most muscular playing all weekend was the most impressive part. I love spectacle as much as the next concertgoer but it’s the meat in the sandwich that really matters, and Rubblebucket was juicy, salivation stirring prime rib (apologies to our vegetarian readers but the metaphor doesn’t work as well with soy alternatives). (DC)

2. Brokedown In Bakersfield and Railroad Earth – 11:45 PM – 4:00 AM – High Sierra Music Hall

Classic country revivalists Brokedown In Bakersfield (which includes members of ALO, Scott Law, and Tim & Nicki Bluhm) warmed up the late night with grinning ease, tapping into the spirit of Merle Haggard and other foundational country icons and showing us this music still has plenty of relevance and enjoyment inside of it. What may have started as a lark has turned into a visible passion for these players, with BIB playing with a beautiful tight-loose feel at HSMF, the singers really inhabiting enduring ditties like “Six Days On The Road” and Loretta Lynn’s “Fist City.” Heck, they’re even looking more and more like the Redheaded Stranger’s backing band circa Shotgun Willie! Said it before but it bears repeating: Brokedown In Bakersfield is a good time waiting to happen and a winning surprise for any festival savvy enough to book them.

RRE's Carbone & Skeehan
By Andrew Quist
While Railroad Earth’s main stage closing set on Sunday was as resonant and pitch perfect as any I’ve ever witnessed, it’s always a pleasure to watch them swerve and soar in the wee-wee hours. These are seasoned, massively talented guys, and given the loosened boundaries of a late night set, RRE ranged around in a most engaging and stimulating way. Starting with a skip to their step, the band unleashed a voluminous variety of styles, each man seemingly digging a touch deeper and enjoying their job a bit more in the midst of a terrifically connected, turned on audience. Sometimes the feedback loop between the stage and the stalls is palpable, and without being too big a hippy, there was a lot of love in the room. RRE showed off their adventurous side, too, particularly during a spellbinding "Goat" sit-in from ”Delicate” Steve Marion, one of this year’s Artists-At-Large, who continually added intuitive oomph to every guest turn he took with a wide array of bands. Scott Law also infused some cool electric guitar into one of the best renditions of "Seven Story Mountain" this band has ever pulled off. (DC)

3. Elephant Revival - 12:30 - 1:45 PM – Vaudeville Stage

Sometimes a whisper or a carefully phrased word offered softly can be just as powerful as bombast and sharpness. Elephant Revival exemplified this notion at this early afternoon set, a cooling breeze in a place with no wind under an unsparing sun. The collection of talents, unique songwriting voices, and sheer personality in this band is staggering, though offered up without the usual bluster and obvious ego one frequently encounters in really fine musicians. Elephant Revival’s way is to seduce with a come-hither aura, tickling the mind and gently curling toes – seriously, I quite unconsciously dug a pretty little hole in the grass below me during this set with my grimy-beyond-reason feet. The diversity within their ranks almost seems too strong for everything to gel but gel it does and wonderfully so – an experience rich and interesting and genuinely cool to watch unfold. (DC)

Eric’s Saturday Highlights

Lettuce's Neal Evans by Andrew Quist
Royal Family Ball (late night) – 1:30-5:30 AM – Funk'n Jamhouse

Though technically considered Sunday morning, this all-night marathon of groove capped off Saturday's festivities and blasted us into the morning – and we hardly knew what hit us. The show started off with a set of Soulive, which saw the Brothers Evans and Eric Krasno diving into some serious acid-jazz grooves, especially when they were joined by jazz guitarist Grant Green, Jr. for an extended guitar-duel romp.

But this was just a warm-up for the main event. Lettuce took the stage at around 2:30 AM and proceeded to annihilate everyone present with a non-stop three-hour set that took the funk and turned it on its head. This is a much different band than then Lettuce of years past – after the departure of Sam Kininger and Nigel Hall as full-time members, the band has re-invented itself as a slinkier, more psychedelic, all-instrumental powerhouse. But make no mistake, this night was all about bassist Erick “Jesus” Coomes, who appears to have emerged as the de facto bandleader. Before an audience of hardcore party troopers bathed in black light, Coomes's bass led the band in a full on groove deconstruction of epic proportions, funking us deeper and deeper into the night. Together with drummer Adam Deitch, Coomes stretched, syncopated and pushed the liquid grooves into unexplored places. Lagging just behind the beat, Jesus and company were knee-deep in what can only be described as the Lettuce Swagger. By the time the band finished their last song at 5:30 AM, Coomes appeared overwhelmed with excitement and gratitude, and I was ready to collapse with giddy exhaustion. As I wandered out into the early morning sunlight, it was clear to me that this was hands down, THE show of the weekend. (EP)

High Sierra 2012 by Josh Miller
2. Ryan Bingham – 4:45-6:15 PM – Grandstand Stage

A true Texas good ol' boy, Ryan Bingham (of Crazy Heart fame) delivered a set of southern fried drinkin' music that was probably the best surprise of the weekend for many. With Bingham's authentic, gravelly voice at the helm evoking early John Cougar Mellencamp and delivering lyrics about drinkin', lovin', and fightin', his band fired off song after song of fantastic good-time country with a grunge edge. The lyrics to songs like “Tell My Mother I Miss Her So” and “Hard Times” are about as real as it gets, evoking the rural Texas life to true effect. The set alternated between heartfelt country and thick n' dirty, slide-guitar-driven juke joint riff-rock (“It's me motherfucker, I'm knocking on the door!”), and by the time Bingham finished with a moving acoustic take on “This Land is Your Land,” the crowd was effectively won over by this massively talented young songwriter (accounts report that there may or may not have been panties thrown onstage). (EP)

3. Rubblebucket – 7:30-9:00 PM – Big Meadow

After discovering these guys earlier this year, I was pumped to see them deliver their brand of indie-Afro-horn-funk in a festival setting. Rubblebucket is a party band, pure and simple, and they succeeded in delivering a stomping good time to the Big Meadow revelers as the sun went down, despite needing a sit-in drummer for the first part of the set (their drummer missed his flight). All the dancing inspired by the band's horn-centric grooves resulted in a dust cloud forming over Big Meadow, but that was all part of the furious fun. Things really got cooking near the end – in the middle of a swanky band groove, frontwoman Kalmia Traver jumped into the crowd to paint a few faces (and a pregnant belly). This was followed by some collaboration with MarchFourth Marching Band, who contributed stilt-walkers (who crowd-surfed), rig-climbing horn blowers, and general freakiness to the closer “Came Out Of A Lady,” which is Rubblebucket's best, most infectious song. After this crazy performance, we were more than ready for whatever the night had in store. (EP)

Dennis’ Sunday Highlights

Nicki Bluhm & The Gramblers by Andrew Quist
Vaudeville Tent – All Day

Sunday’s highlight for me stretched from stem to stern beneath the shady confines of the Vaudeville Tent. Nearly every year some of HSMF’s most adventurous, surprising programming takes place in this tent - and in general the planners have a knack with sequencing each stage so one can happily stay put and still enjoy a diverse array of sounds - however, the Sunday lineup at Vaudeville this year was flat out spectacular, a ceaseless display of gifted musicians making music worth throwing one’s self into without reserve. Even when I wandered away to peek at another stage (Gardens & Villa really are da 80s-tinged modern rock bomb), I always returned to sounds that literally made my body and mind vibrate on a better frequency.

The day began in about as lovely a way as a festivarian could imagine with Nicki Bluhm & The Gramblers. At the risk of over-selling them (given my championing of them from Day One), this lady and her fellas have all the makings of one of those bands that brings happiness and song to millions – I’m talking some Tom Petty style Everyman mojo with a most alluring feminine edge. They ain’t quite stadium ready yet but the promise is right there before our eyes and ears, and as this set showed, they’re evolving into better & better entertainers, accentuating the smiling interactions between the clearly-in-love-with-each-other bandmates and showing off Nicki’s increasing awareness of how to best use her charms onstage. It’s a neat trick to sway an audience and Bluhm is getting real adept at leaving a crowd grinning ear to ear. Perfect punctuation to the set: A gathered around one-mic rendition of Van Session favorite “Can You Get To That” delivered with bona fide street corner soul worthy of the Funkadelic original.

Bonnie Payne & Ben Sollee by Andrew Quist
Following Bluhm was the eye opening, positively thrilling (often in a quietly delicious way) performance from Ben Sollee, a man taking cello into strange, great new places. A lazy comparison to Sollee’s solo work (a different animal from his more high tone role in Abigail Washburn’s Sparrow Quartet) is Andrew Bird, but there’s something earthier and more immediately human about Sollee’s work. Joined by mind-blowing drummer Jordon Ellis (dude is on to, as the kids say, some next level shit), the pair produced a lush, enveloping soundscape that wanted for nothing. The songs were largely catchy but barbed with complications that don’t fully unlock on a single listen. A lovely version of “Dear Companion,” the title cut from a 2009 collaboration with Daniel Martin Moore (another emerging singer-songwriter worthy of close inspection), was a standout, along with a final one-two closer of Paul Simon’s “The Obvious Child” and a Fiddle/Sticks encore where Ellis played Sollee’s cello like a drum while Sollee stroked the strings. Elephant Revival percussionist Bonnie Payne guested on the Simon cover, ripping her washboard with such style that Sollee hopped up from his chair, pulled out his in-ear monitors and glided up close to her to converse through their instruments eye-to-eye. Everything about this set made one hungry to explore more of Sollee’s music.

Marco Benevento by Josh Miller
High energy performances from Rubblebucket and day closer Mocean Worker followed, as well as a sloppy-charming afternoon set from Nathan Moore with the mayor a touch more bedraggled than usual on his fourth day but nevertheless armed with songs that fly straight to one’s soul and a voice like a beautiful bruise to sing them – truly one of the last great bohemian troubadours.

However, for sheer exultant vah-vah-voom the day’s winner was the Marco Benevento Trio with the keyboard kid joined by bassist Reed Mathis (Tea Leaf Green) and drummer Andrew Borger. The three hold quite the flowing, seemingly effortless chemistry, which helped in making the crazy quilt of styles, textures, etc. blend together nicely. Didn’t matter what they were laying down because it just sounded together and natural in their hands. It’s hard to pinpoint where Benevento is coming from since most guys who play at his stratospheric skill level tend to be jazz dudes that wear their influences as badges of honor. Marco is the epitome of a free-range musician, a hungry mind and capable limbs masticating the bewildering array of choices available in the 21st century digital age. What comes of this process is redolent of the best parts of electronica (Aphex Twin, Squarepusher) mingled with the melody and quicksilver invention of cats like Art Tatum and Ran Blake plus…a whole bunch of other stuff. If that comes across as a copout so be it but I prefer to luxuriate in Benevento’s muse, experiencing it more than analyzing its components. This set highlighted Marco’s urge to tickle an audience, playfulness not just a spice but a major component of what makes his music work so well. The fun factor went way up when Rubblebucket lead singer Kalmia Traver joined them to perform the two songs she recorded with Marco for a recent 7-inch single. Girl knows how to ride a vibe and the vibe was strong & on at this set. Other members of Rubblebucket and various other friend-musicians in the wings made their way on and off the stage, culminating in an ad-hoc percussion ensemble on the finale that generated such a pulse of plus-sign energy in the tent I thought the whole place would explode into a rainbow. Music can make a big difference in our lives, transcending language and reason and worry and confusion to bring us into a better state of being. Marco and his merry band did that at High Sierra, and I can’t thank them enough for doing what they do.

Eric’s Sunday Highlights

Silent Disco at Dawn by Josh Miller
Railroad Earth – 9:15-11:15 PM – Grandstand Stage

I couldn't think of a better band to close out High Sierra than Railroad Earth, whose free-flowing, joyous sound thrives and breathes free in the festival environment. Playing to an ecstatic field of revelers getting in their last hurrah, the boys brought us along on a winding journey through light, into some weird dark places, and back out again. In a band filled with so much raw talent, Tim Carbone's fiddle playing once again shone though as the music's guiding light. The Force truly flows though Carbone, who is a true conduit for that x-factor which can elevate a very good band into a transcendent one. Led by Todd Scheaffer's husky vocals, songs like “Elko” and “Way of the Buffalo” were given the extended treatment this night, and lead into a perfect finale consisting of the bouncy “Warhead Boogie” followed by a reflective, hushed goodbye in the guise of “Genesis,” a emotional deep cut from Jorma Kaukonen's Quahalbum. Encoring with “Bird in a House” (their anthem of sorts) and the bluegrass party of “Peace on Earth,” RRE sent us away with a radiant, life-affirming glow. (DC)

2. Built To Spill – 7:00-8:30 PM – Grandstand Stage Making their second appearance at High Sierra, Boise, Idaho's Built To Spill treated us to a big set of hard-rocking, heartfelt songs that stood out as some of the most pure and uplifting music created all weekend. Bearded bard Doug Martsch somberly led his equally serious band through song after song of inspiring, melodic rock 'n' roll that moved us with its powerful delivery and inspired, peaking triple-guitar climaxes. Fantastic tunes like “Distopian Dream Girl” and “It's Strange” were performed with a weighty, unadorned honesty that cut away at the bullshit and aimed right at the core of your psyche. The no-frills intensity and stern focus of this band made it clear that these guys takes their craft seriously, but they certainly weren't afraid to dig into some snarling grunge riffage and let loose a good distortion jam, too. And though this performance thematically reminded us of Deer Tick and Delta Spirit's raw rock sets, this was a band of true veterans at work, taking us to school with their time-tested brand of rip-roaring indie rock. (EP)

3. Split Lip Rayfield – 12:15-1:45 PM – Grandstand Stage

It was a shame that Split Lip Rayfield was slated for such an early set in the scorching sun of the Grandstand Stage, as their ripping set of punky, old-time country and bluegrass was played to a practically empty field. This Kansas-based banjo/mandolin/bass trio approaches their music with a super-charged punk aesthetic, playing with a rickety, hand-cranked sound that's rusty around the edges in all the right ways (kazoo playing helps this). The band's locked-in, hyper-fast picking and arsenal of catchy songs made for one hell of a show – the rugged, loping character of songs like “A Little More Cocaine Please” is hard to resist, especially when you realize that bassist Jeff Eaton is playing a one-stringed bass made from the engine of a 1965 Ford. The band was also able to switch things up with ballads like the breakup/drinkin' tune “One Six-Pack At A Time,” which paced the shit-kickin' pickin' party nicely. This good-time set was the perfect pick-me-up for many who I'm sure were struggling to rally following a big night of rabble-rousing. (EP)

Continue reading for Andrew Quist’s Photos From High Sierra 2012...

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