High Sierra | 07.03 – 07.06 | California

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High Sierra Music Festival :: 07.03.08 07.06.08 :: Plumas County Fairgrounds :: Quincy, CA

By: Kayceman

High Sierra 2008 by Julie Blaustein
Wildfires are still raging through Northern California. Sparked by lightning storms on June 21, come July 2, the day before the start of to the 18th Annual High Sierra Music Festival, Highway 70 (a commonly used road to get to the fest) was closed and there were reports of poor air quality. Concern was spreading and there were rumors of a possible location change or even cancellation. Turns out the other primary route (Highway 80) was a little easier and by the time we heard the first notes of the fest the wind had changed and was blowing the smoke out of the valley. Everything was working out just fine, just like it always does at High Sierra.

The key is to just relax and let High Sierra happen. By staying true to their roots and keeping the festival an intimate, boutique-style event, organizers are able to give patrons a unique experience that is impossible to duplicate. There’s an ease to the proceedings, from getting into the grounds, to getting food and ice, to clean showers, to walking the short distance from one stage to the next, there’s never any stress and things just seem to roll along at the perfect pace. There are a variety of camping options, lots of shade, a swimming pool, the beautiful Feather River and you’re surrounded by giant trees and rolling green mountains. This is Northern California in all its glory, and there is no better place to celebrate America’s birthday than at High Sierra.

This relaxed atmosphere and slowed down pace dictates life at the festival. Work and worries, money issues and all the other weight that piles up on our backs begins to lift, revealing a simpler you, reminding us of the kids we used to be. High Sierra is summer camp for adults and it not only affects the fans, but also the musicians. Artists feel the respectful, positive vibe and it allows them to let down their guard and roam the grounds, interacting with fans. Unlike a lot of festivals, most of the talent sticks around for the weekend so they too can unwind. It’s common to see an artist checking out other bands, standing right in the crowd, dancing like no one is watching because they probably aren’t.

Musicians even rolled into campsite parties, JamBase’s Camp Harry was fortunate enough to host a bunch of bands (for both music and just beers) including Mike Gordon, who rolled in with a cymbal on his head, which Rotary Downs drummer Zack Smith played with the RV antenna for a bit. As Smith tells us, “Seeing Mr. Gordon at Camp Harry with a Zildjian 16″ deep crash on his head made me want to further the symbolic cymbalism while I wondered, ‘Why,’ and thus played the intro to ‘YYZ.’ I got one bar into it and Mr. Gordon had enough. I hope this didn’t delay any future musical or otherwise relationships.” What other festival could that conceivably happen at? Artists play impromptu gigs at campsites, on RVs and even in RVs at sunrise. There’s a freedom and simple joy to High Sierra that has made it a must attend event for those in the know. With so many festival options, such a poor economy and insane gas prices we have to pick our plans carefully, High Sierra is money in the bank. It’s always the weekend we long for most.

Akron/Family

Seth Olinsky – Akron/Family by J. Miller
Akron/Family is the only band to get two reviews in our High Sierra coverage (see Dennis Cook’s coverage on the next page); and I assure you they earned it. Having been relatively impressed with their studio work and hearing from multiple trusted sources that it was all about Akron’s live show; I made the difficult decision to skip one of my favorite bands – Surprise Me Mr. Davis – for Akron’s first of two sets at High Sierra. I was rewarded with a spiritual awakening. Exploding with light, energy and raw passion, active participation is required. This is more an experience than a concert, with an ancient, ritualistic nature to the proceedings. Throughout the show I found myself clapping (and I hate clapping during songs), throwing my arms over my head and chanting. This was wildly psychedelic, very risky, free-as-fuck music that screamed through the body. Just as dark and scary as they are beautiful and subtle, they constantly walked the fine line between creation and destruction, heaven and hell. The plethora of influences and distances traveled by this band is what sets them apart, but it’s their late ’60s, twisted American rock roots that fuel the beast.

The next day on the Big Meadow was even better. Once again accompanied by the guys from Megafaun and this time adding The Slip/Mr. Davis rhythm section of Andrew Barr and Marc Friedman for a few jams, the vocals were cleaned up and the songs even more fluid. They brought up a young friend of around twelve to play cowbell on top of the bass amps and there were more than a dozen percussion instruments handed to the front row. With all the drums, guitars, banjos and beatboxing (nice one Andrew Barr!) it was unlike anything I’ve put in my ears this year, and it very well may be the most overwhelming musical experience of 2008 for this scribe. After just two days with Akron/Family I’m fully on board, ready to join their cult.

Built To Spill

Headlining the main stage on the first night there was considerable buzz surrounding Built To Spill‘s set. Clearly the most “outside of the box” big name on the bill, if you were looking for something a little different, maybe a little louder and more distorted, this was the place to be. Having seen BTS both at festivals and in clubs I’ve consistently been more impressed with the later. Perhaps it’s playing in front of a less appreciative audience, maybe all those guitars just sound better bottled-up inside, or maybe they need more time to set up their massive sound and tweak all their gear; but whatever it was, they had a hard time fully getting on track. Some of the tempos seemed to fluctuate and the triple guitar attack was just a hair off target. That said, Doug Martsch and his team still tore up some tents with their swirling guitar meltdowns, specifically during “Going Against Your Mind” and set closer “You Were Right.” Although it may not have lived up to the expectations of die-hard fans, Built To Spill still put on one of the more enjoyable, and definitely one of the more rocking shows of High Sierra.

The Slip

Steve Adams (Big Light/ALO) during The Slip late night
By Scott Galbraith
High Sierra just wouldn’t be High Sierra without The Slip. Making their eleventh consecutive appearance (the only band to ever do so), these two sets are the only shows the band has played this year and it’s very likely they won’t play any others. Knowing this, it was difficult to tear myself away from most of their day set, but it was their late night set on Thursday that I was happy to be able to catch in its entirety. Packed into the Vaudeville Tent there was a palpable energy running through the crowd. Leaning heavier on more recent material – like the wonderfully updated reading of “Airplane Primitive” – it was impressive how easily these three were able to communicate. There are few bands as in-tune with one another as The Slip, and the fact that they all grew up together and have shared their lives is readily apparent when they’re onstage. Brad Barr‘s guitar work was sharp and nimble, moving from crunchy rock power chords to obtuse jazz runs and melodic interludes. Though certainly not perfect, when these three clicked they truly soared. Often led by Marc Friedman‘s inspired bass work, he and drummer Andrew Barr create a fluid stream of sound that allows the band’s vast instrumental segments – such as the freaked-out “Get Me With Fuji” – to move unhindered into new waters with ease. But as boundless and enthralling as their jams can be, The Slip are a mature band with a keen focus on songcraft, hooks and pop structures, making their cover of Paul Simon’s “The Boy In The Bubble” (which they played at both sets) a perfect choice for the festive High Sierra faithful.

Nathan Moore

Nathan Moore should be a star. He’s one of the greatest songwriters we have and the faucet is always on, pouring fresh songs out like water. He’s intelligent, funny, honest, warm, a little crazy and full of love, and so is his music. As the leader of Surprise Me Mr. Davis, Moore is able to get in touch with his wild rock & roll side, mixing with The Slip to become something bigger than either could be without the other, but it’s with just a solitary acoustic guitar and his open voice that we see deepest into his soul. Watching him strap on his harmonica while listening to him tell stories between songs, explaining their inspirations and deeper meanings, we’re reminded of folk legends like Woody Guthrie and pre-electric Bob Dylan. His ability to tap emotions and use his experiences to create unifying theories throws a rope around the crowd, pulling us all closer. Having stayed up the entire night before, even helping his team win the sunrise kickball game with a miraculous double-play, on Sunday Moore was a little beat up, his voice giving out just a bit, but he got lots of laughs and even a few tears as he performed “The High Sierra Heartbreak,” a song he wrote in the pre-dawn hours in a friends RV (he also lead a touching “You Are My Sunshine” sing-along in said RV). Nathan Moore is a true American troubadour, perhaps the perfect acoustic artist for Independence Day.

Dusty Rhodes and the River Band

Andrea Babinski – Dusty Rhodes and the River Band
By J. Miller
One of the great, relatively unknown outfits of the day, Dusty Rhodes and the River Band put on a rock & roll sermon under the California sun. Drawing from a wide swath of American roots music – from rock, country, folk and bluegrass to gospel, soul and psychedelia – the six band members made good use of their guitars, keyboards, violin, accordion, mandolin and more. Predominantly playing music off their stellar 2007 release First You Live, including great versions of “Ghost Trails,” “Dear Honey” and “Goodnight Moonshine,” it was impossible not be mesmerized by big Afroed frontman Dustin Apodaca. As the band swapped lead vocal duties, sang harmonies into each other’s mics and bounced around the stage, they were loose in all the right ways and they made a good argument for being the current incarnation of The Band. It was a few minutes later that they dove into one of the best versions of “The Weight” I’ve ever heard. After that it was all gravy, but when Dusty took the mic, jumped on the speaker riser and started preaching, we all went along for the ride. With hands reaching out to the crowd, Dusty pleaded, “If you just believe we can do this, if you believe in rock & roll, me, you and Obama can legalize marijuana!” Amen.

Rotary Downs

Coming all the way from New Orleans, with two day slots and a late night throwdown at Camp Harry, Rotary Downs left a serious mark at their first ever High Sierra. Although guitarist/pedal steel guru Chris Colombo was unable to make these shows because his wife was giving birth to their second child, NOLA hot shot Chad Viator (from Lafayette band Arbor Vitae) did a bang up job on guitar, covering all of Colombo’s parts while injecting his own style (nice slide work) into the mix. Also new to the stage was second trumpeter and keyboardist Michael Girardot. Not only did Girardot prove the perfect addition to his band Rotary Downs, he also added tasteful trumpet work to Surprise Me Mr. Davis’ late night show. While it’s true that RD have horns and are a distinctly New Orleans band, they are most definitely a gritty rock band that isn’t afraid to dip into whatever form of sound inspires them. Watching drummer (and famed photographer) Zack Smith slam the skins it was obvious that no one has more fun than Smith. Led by vocalist and guitarist James Marler, it’s his opaque, hyper-intelligent lyrics and dry, Stephen Malkmus-style singing that defines the band, but it’s the group melodic, dynamic, patient tension-building jams that make them special. Wowing the crowd with standout tracks like “Feast In Squalor,” “B/W” and “False Protection” from their breakthrough 2006 album Chained to the Chariot, it was the new, unfamiliar material that reminded us why Spin just named them one of the top NOLA bands to watch, as well as why Rotary Downs won “Best Rock Band” in NOLA’s Gambit Weekly’s Big Easy Awards. Perhaps the Downs guys said it best on their website: “We had NO IDEA how awesome High Sierra would be until we experienced its majesty a few weeks ago. The ultimate intimate festival in the Sierra Mountains of Northern California treated us so well, we still feel all warm and fuzzy about it… we smiled so much it hurt. See you there next year!”

Critters Buggin

Mike Dillon – Critters Buggin by Susan J. Weiand
When Critters Buggin is playing you go, it’s that simple. With only five dates scheduled for 2008 (all in the summer and two of them at High Sierra) this was a treat of the highest order for fans of the freaky. For many, this is the band that introduced us to, and perhaps even defines, saxophone manipulator Skerik. Working with his partner in crime, percussionist Mike Dillon as well as bassist Brad Houser and drummer Matthew Chamberlain, it’s Chamberlain’s high-profile, big time session work with artists like Tori Amos that forces Critters to be a side project. One can only dream of what would happen if Chamberlain could dedicate a real slice of time to this avant-noise-rock-mind-melter of a band. Although their day set was fun, it was late night in the Funk’n Jamhouse where they truly excelled. Twisting from ambient electronica to thundering percussion to free-jazz squawks and dubbed-out meanderings, Critters utilized samples, loops and lots of traditional instruments to create a world completely unique to these four genius-weirdoes. And just when it seemed things were at a peak, Tortoise guitarist Jeff Parker joined the fray, adding his angular licks to an already overwhelming wall of sound. Selections such as “Critters Theme” (from 1994’s Guest) and “Mount Blasta” (off 1997’s Host) stuck out, but this set came off as a single entity, blending lines, pushing boundaries and dragging listeners through a heady, outro experiment in sound.

James Hunter

British R&B soul singer James Hunter was one of the biggest surprises of High Sierra this year. Stumbling past his Big Meadow closing set on Friday night it was impossible to not walk over and get a look at this outstanding, rich voice. The band (including a baritone and alto sax duo that could have come out of the Stax heyday) was a slick group of guys, all dressed in suits, and they never missed a step. Listening to Hunter sing in a classic, timeless 1950s/1960s manner it was obvious why Van Morrison called on Hunter to tour and record with him, but it was equally apparent why Hunter broke out on his own. One of the greatest showmen I’ve ever seen, Hunter knew how to use his powerful voice, not to mention his guitar and fancy dance moves. When he sang “No Smoke Without Fire” and “Class Act” the girls screamed like he was Elvis Presley.

Big Light

Torphy, Bifulco, Adams – Big Light by Scott Galbraith
Rising from the fertile San Francisco music scene, Big Light is a band on the move. Led by singer-songwriter-guitarist Fred Torphy, the band’s catchy, hook-heavy pop songs and psychedelic instrumental moments have made fans of Surprise Me Mr. Davis, Apollo Sunshine (AP drummer Jeremy Black produced their self-titled 2008 debut) and even pulled ALO‘s Steve Adams into the fold making him the official bass player. Performing two early morning (10:45 a.m. is early for a festival) sets and one afternoon RV bash, it was the balance of touching songs like “Hard Knocks” (with the refrain “you remind me of my sister with your heart of gold”) with grittier, more experimental selections like “Heavy” (with it’s stadium-sized hook and ginormous guitar jam) that made fans of everyone in attendance. While this is Torphy’s band, it’s the team he’s assembled, including wild keyboardist Colin Hoops and rock-steady drummer Bradly Bifulco that gives this band life. Coming off High Sierra the buzz around Big Light is growing and it seems clear that next year they’ll be on a bigger stage with a better time slot.

Continue reading for more on High Sierra…

By: Dennis Cook

The Mother Hips

Bluhm & Loiacono – The Mother Hips By J. Miller
The Mother Hips rolled out two nigh perfect but utterly different performances, piling on weird, rubbery elongation at their Thursday late night set and then making folks sigh and sway at the Friday Big Meadow afternoon session. By all appearances they’re a classic four-piece rock unit, but one had only to pry just a few millimeters below the surface to find rich layers full of diamond wisdom and peculiar tunings, subtle life lessons and bedrock fundamentals. Their philosophy going into the late night gig was, according to drummer John Hofer, “to play until they shut us off.” The gargantuan setlist drew from their entire 15-year catalog, hitting the sledgehammer pop of “Rich Little Girl” and the squirrel-y elusiveness of “Figure 11.” The sheer range, potency and mind-blowing musicianship they displayed made this one of the most thrilling, unpredictable sets this year. Guitar solos soared and ripped in unpredictable directions while the rhythm boys created an endless, strong undercurrent. The Hips kept things rolling past 4:30 a.m., when, in fact, the powers that be gave them a quick bum rush and raised the house lights within seconds of the last notes. That they had an utterly lovely, fan faithful set left in them the next afternoon was impressive. In a just world, folks would know the name ‘The Mother Hips’ the way they do The Rolling Stones. The Hips are a living, breathing classic in every respect and this weekend only cemented that fact.

Gov’t Mule

At this point, you kinda know what you’re in for with Gov’t Mule, and their Friday headlining set offered few surprises. That’s not to say it wasn’t enjoyable; there’s a lot to be said for burgers-and-fries comfort music, all greasy and salty and good going down. They have shaken up their setlists, and the High Sierra selections ranged through crystal jazz jamming and dub reggae pockets on the way to familiar fare like “Thorazine Shuffle” and the obligatory “Soulshine” encore. Ivan Neville‘s sit-in on keys during “32/20 Blues” was a ball, too. Primarily the child of hirsute ’70s hard rockers like Mountain, Humble Pie, et al., Gov’t Mule does electric blues rock as well as anyone ever has. There’s no shame in being good at that, and if sometimes it feels like we’ve revisiting the same ground, it’s never really an unpleasant return.

Railroad Earth

Warren Haynes – Gov’t Mule by Susan J. Weiand
Railroad Earth has turned into a tremendous live band. Not that they were ever really wanting, but both their Friday late night and Saturday main stage sets were powerful, amazingly well played and paced for maximum effect. Their ability to read a crowd, to anticipate their desires and adjust in the moment was apparent at High Sierra. Combining traditional folk instrumentation with a lock tight rhythm section, they are the natural progression of something started decades ago by Fairport Convention, Pentangle and even The Byrds – folk music married to rock, which then honeymoons somewhere quite different. There’s both modernity and antiquity to RRE, and the tension between the ages adds much to their excellent and ever-growing song list. Unlike many bands on the festival circuit, it’s not the covers that garner the most attention but their originals, which are obviously gaining increased dearness with their fans. Saturday’s late afternoon set was better attended and perhaps even more warmly received than RatDog’s headlining performance immediately afterwards. It’s worth noting that kind of love in the air, and in this instance it’s totally warranted.

Bob Weir and RatDog

Oh how I wanted to like RatDog‘s headlining set on Saturday. Long a champion of Bob Weir and his rambling, jazz-inflected, blues rock warriors, it was frustrating and disappointing to listen to them work into “Dark Star” and find my mind wandering because the music didn’t demand my attention. It’s hard to put a finger on exactly what was off. They played well together, the solos were nicely constructed and the song choices were top flight but very little gelled completely. While it’s been their ballsy character and irreverence for traditional arrangements that’s made RatDog so engaging in recent years, this gig relied too heavily on nostalgia and the abundant goodwill the Dead’s catalog holds for many of us. Guitarist Mark Karan played his ass off, the one true standout of the night, and it was wonderful to see him back in action after his recent health issues. Everyone else played well, too, but some indefinable spark one expects (and it’s probably unfair to expect it) was missing. Not bad so much as just not all there.

Cornmeal

Allie Kral – Cornmeal by Susan J. Weiand
Cornmeal opened for Railroad Earth’s late night gig and damn near charmed the pants off more than a few of us. There was something elegant yet homey about their playing and compositions, and the gusto they put into everything from the very first minutes was impossible to resist. They play bluegrass like a sophisticated cousin that takes bits from the Grateful Dead, ’70s psych, country and more. Like myself, you may have a hard time tearing your eyes off their clear firebrand, violinist-singer Allie Kral, whose imaginative playing kept sending jaws to the floor at this set and during her guest appearance with RRE the next afternoon.

Benevento/Russo Duo

The Benevento/Russo Duo either completely click live or else ramble a bit self-indulgently. Fortunately, a big reduction in tour time and myriad creativity sparking side projects delivered the pair at their warmest and softly charming at their Thursday main stage set. Beginning in a comforting haze, the Duo very slowly turned up the heat, hitting the boiling point only after building up some trust. With Marco Benevento‘s keyboard array bumping against Joe Russo‘s percussion rack, they danced between spotlight outbreaks and bled over into one another’s sound, letting things get messy if it fueled the music. “You all know Joey Russo? Well, it’s all true,” offered wiseass Benevento, who opened things up to “Q & A time” for a minute. While most couldn’t hear the shouted inquiries up front, we did get Benevento’s snarky retorts (“Indica versus sativa tonight at 3 a.m. on the main stage!”) The “aah shucks” moment occurred when Benevento was handed his baby daughter Ruby after Russo had briefly used her as a hand percussion instrument (as any parent will tell you, great sound but VERY unpredictable). Ruby banged at the keys for a moment in the simplest but perhaps nicest solo of the weekend. The Duo’s endless builds and straining for resolution made for a compelling, if easy going, stretch of electronica-jazz-classical-rock.

Bustle In Your Hedgerow

The Sparrow Quarter by Josh Miller
It would be easy for Bustle In Your Hedgerow to be some gimmicky bullshit. In fairness, one’s appetite for cheese and pomp is tested by this instrumental Led Zeppelin cover unit comprised of Joe Russo (drums), Dave Dreiwitz (bass, also of Ween), Marco Benevento (keys) and undeniable group superstar, guitarist Scott Metzger (RANA, American Babies). But, watching them thumb down the Zep pleasure button during their Thursday late night opening set for The Mother Hips and again the next afternoon in the Big Meadow, one had only to surrender to the Valhallan splendor of their BIG, BIG ROCK thang and grin. The audience frequently jumped in to carry key vocals – a “la la la la la la” or Plant-ian “way down inside, woman, you need me” – and usually with zero prompting from Bustle. What always makes me happiest about this band is the fully ’70s, large amp, shreddy burn Metzger brings to the table. It’s a fool that steps into Jimmy Page’s boots, but Scotty is a glorious fool that makes those heels click and skip. Even with all the other mayhem and melody happening around him, Metzger demanded our attention from top to tail. If anyone is paying attention, he’s one of the under-sung treasures on his instrument. Hats off to Tom Hamilton for picking Metzger up for the American Babies, who plied roots rock at its finest at their very winning Friday Big Meadow set.

Abigail Washburn and the Sparrow Quartet

Abigail Washburn and the Sparrow Quartet were a total delight at their Thursday main stage set. Take seriously any ensemble where Bela Fleck plies his skills in service of another musician/composer’s work. Add in the staggeringly talented Casey Driessen (violin) and Ben Sollee (cello) and you have one of the most gifted, enjoyable and exploratory acoustic groups today. You’d be hard pressed to find a bigger Uncle Earl fan than myself but Washburn’s banjo and natural, unique voice shine most brightly here. Grabbing hunks of 78 rpm hot jazz, Eastern Chinese folk, bluegrass and chamber music, they offered up a great conversation to eavesdrop on. Minute details and subtle resonances abound in their interplay, which proved that seated musicians could make a good-sized festival crowd lean in and focus. Washburn introduced “Great Big Wall In China” as “a kind of meeting between Woody Guthrie and that great opera writer Puccini up on that mountain.” The Sparrow Quartet erased distance and revealed the intersecting lines inside seemingly disparate music in the sympathetic vibrations of their voices and instruments.

New Monsoon

New Monsoon by Susan J. Weiand
Having seen a great many New Monsoon shows it still comes as a surprise that they keep evolving and finding fresh ways to explore their music and get it across with greater clarity. Their Friday main stage set was idyllic, pairing the perfect setlist for a postcard lovely summer day with stellar playing. Drummer Sean Hutchinson and bassist Marshall Harrell are driven cats out to make their mark, and that youth wave has swept up the others, making them refine and accentuate the many good things inside this band. Older cuts, like “On The Sun,” were given a fresh face; in the case of “Sun,” a razor sharp funk feel. With their mutating catalog, their ceaseless melodic grace shined on Friday, rushing from banjo to kick drum to searing electric guitar to ebullient piano. New Monsoon pours jazz fusion, stadium rock, high-end folk and considerably more into a single vessel, and while in the past it wasn’t always able to contain such multitudes, today’s incarnation has shaped something sturdy and beautiful that holds every drop.

Aphrodesia

Thirteen people is a LOT to wrangle but Aphrodesia made it seem easy on Friday. One of the few acts to fill up the massive main stage, they conjured a “Holy Ghost Invasion” that crept into our pores and heated us from the inside out. While grounded in Afrobeat and other Motherland flavors, Aphrodesia also draws heavily from American funk and soul pioneers like Sly Stone and James Brown, something reflected in their gift for performance. They haven’t forgotten the value of being entertainers as they’ve explored global politics and social disorder on record. There’s a sensual core and dusky vibe to them, and the tattered, moon age carnival tart costumes on their trio of female singers gave one a gateway into their complex but very appealing world. Mesmerized by hips and lips and wonderful, unpredictable voices, one could miss how much was going on musically and intellectually. Step back, let the elements rise and fall, and one discovered a gorgeously marbled marvel of cross-continental flavors. Friday was hard charging and firmly in the pocket, subtle shades sliding into brilliant colors that cut across one another to create new stripes in a rainbow of human creation. Well fucking done, folks.

EOTO

Trombone Shorty by J. Miller
There’s not a lot terribly original about EOTO but there’s no denying their pleasure in making this quasi-futuristic, improvised dance music. In 1995 this sound was new(ish) but today it’s just blip-blonky good fun. It was hard to tell who had a better time on Friday night in the Vaudeville Tent – the hopping, twirling dancers on the grass or Michael Travis and Jason Hann. If you don’t over think it too much, EOTO is fun; scrape at it and it’s oddly sad, like a chrome and neon shopping mall, once so shiny and new, that’s fallen behind the times.

Trombone Shorty

Trombone Shorty puts on a hell of a show. Both pure New Orleans stomp funk and something a little leaner, cleaner and today, Shorty and his vise-tight band, Orleans Avenue, hit the Vaudeville like a happy storm on Saturday night. There’s no substitute for charisma and the buoyant energy of young men, and these boys have both in crazy abundance. Vibrating with soul, their musicianship and showmanship are impressive, especially for such a relatively new act.

Izabella

Izabella is a band to keep your eyes on. Their Thursday Shady Grove set ranged from Return To Forever-esque jamming to the sugary funk of Shuggie Otis’ “Strawberry Letter 23” (their take the equal of the iconic Brothers Johnson hit version). For Izabella, “jam band” means something positive but neither is it a straightjacket that demands every tune be stretched and bloated with improv. Their originals are dead solid with hooky lines like “Thank you for the kisses, girl/ Thank you for the food you taught me to cook.” This is exultant, flowing music, and follows in the Bay Area tradition of great forebears like the Sons of Champlin. Plus, lead singer Brian Rogers sings with genuine soul, which is pretty bloody rare in this vocally challenged age. Their self-description of “dance rock with a cherry on top” fits this consistently entertaining new group very well indeed.

Scott Amendola Band

Blue Turtle Seduction by Susan J. Weiand
The Scott Amendola Band put intelligence to groove early Saturday afternoon in the Big Meadow. Amendola is a drummer that recognizes talent and a bandleader that knows what to do with it. This stellar trio with keyboardist Wil Blades and guitarist Jeff Parker (Tortoise) funked shit up proper but also gave the serious musicos in attendance plenty to consider. There’s terrific smarts to Amendola’s work, and just leaning in to watch their gears turn and lock was a real pleasure. Was it jazz? Sort of. Soul? Yeah, though I’d call this trio soulful first. More than anything, it was great instrumental music that never once made you wish there were vocals or another instrument in the mix.

Blue Turtle Seduction

Blue Turtle Seduction filled the wee hours Thursday night with a bubbling, topplingly fun vibe. Everything about them danced, from the tunes to their demeanor to their growing, very engaged fanbase. The theme was “Punk Rock Pirates” and they offered up well played takes on the Misfits (“Astro Zombies”) and The Clash (“Guns of Brixton”) for the beautifully trashy costumed audience, but the overriding energy was a quasi-futuristic party planet – somewhere other than a building in the Sierras, where motion and color and joy swirl into a taste your body eventually craves. The other cover choices further reflected their range – an inspired reworking of Pearl Jam’s “State of Love and Trust,” a jaunty take on Wyclef Jean’s “Perfect Gentleman” and R. Kelly’s “Ignition (Remix).” Blue Turtle is a slow burn, and the ‘seduction’ at the end of their name is a clue to those that think they’ve got them figured out after a few minutes. Take a little more time, leave your preconceptions outside and actually listen, and you may find a more complex, modern group than you expected. Beyond that, they work tirelessly to create a good time for anyone who steps inside their sphere, and that alone is worth props.

Robben Ford

Papa Mali by Susan J. Weiand
I felt a right fool for having missed Robben Ford live before his Saturday afternoon set. There’s not a lot of singers or guitarists one can reasonably compare to Buddy Guy but boy howdy does he deserve it! In the Big Meadow, Ford laid us flat with six-string pyrotechnics that teetered between hyper technical dazzle and nearly-off-the-rails wildness. Combined with his keening, sweet & sour singing, a curious and appealing blend of warmth and funky phrasing, and one great song after another, Ford’s performance was one of those amazing surprises that High Sierra’s programming offers open-minded participants.

Papa Mali

Papa Mali has the authority of an elder bluesman mingled with a shaman – a true crossroad walkin’, folklore funkin’ bundle of serious mojo. Talk to the man and he’s sweetness incarnate, an articulate lover of a huge range of music (we discussed our shared mania for The Felice Brothers after his Saturday main stage set) and a gracious soul that warms your cockles. Put him onstage, especially when the lights go down (like during his crazy, twisty, intense Friday evening late set in the Vaudeville Tent), and this honeybee can sting with the best of ’em. Parts echoed early ’70s John Lee Hooker, others Dr. John’s “Nighttripper” period, but ultimately he’s a unique soul. Papa brought it on “bon temps roule” style at his afternoon main stage show but it was his evening ramble that truly ignited his dark light magic. He’s one for the ages.

Will Bernard

Will Bernard by Susan J. Weiand
After many years of being a revered musician’s musician, Will Bernard is finally getting some of the attention and kudos he richly deserves. A ceaselessly tasty guitarist, Bernard’s playing is a friendlier but no less brilliant cousin to the endlessly (and justly) lauded Nels Cline, who happens to be his peer and friend in the Bay Area jazz/experimental scene that Bernard inhabited for years before moving to NYC. Thursday in the Vaudeville Tent, Bernard and his ridiculously tight band chomped on grooves with grinning tenacity. Their knack for hold-and-release explosions kept the energy high and ears tuned in as Bernard cruised with the mercurial flow of Steve Cropper (Booker T & The MG’s) and obvious ancestor Grant Green. But, there’s more razor sharp teeth inside his bite – in the whole band really – than these touchstones. More simply, these guys were kinda mean in a really cool way.

Ashleigh Flynn and the Killdeer Orchestra

Sunday opened with Ashleigh Flynn and the Killdeer Orchestra under the Vaudeville Tent charming the sun from its hiding place. Some of the finest singer-songwriter stuff these ears have heard in a few years, Flynn and her boys (Portland’s wonderful acoustic explorers Sneakin’ Out under a new guise) beguiled a smiling audience that grew steadily throughout their set, drawing in passersbys with the sheer fineness of their picking, singing and composition. Seriously, I haven’t been knocked back by a female songwriter like this since I first encountered a young Patty Griffin or Nanci Griffith. Flynn’s uncommonly real tales possess an amazing eye for detail that situates one in the moment and captures all the small things we miss as life unfolds but ultimately prove to be the most important aspects of our experiences. Like the best outsiders, she captures all the ache of waiting on the sidelines as the pretty people glide across the dance floor, so much more graceful and beloved than we will ever be. Combine that fantastic raw material with a full-bodied, womanly voice and collaborators that tucked subtle, inspired complications into what can be well-worn territory and you had one of the festival’s highlight this year. And their facility for quietly upending traditionals like “Rocky Top” and “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” (carried along by typewriter percussion!) added icing to what was already a real joy. I will be seeking out Flynn’s new album, American Dream, forthwith.

The Lee Boys

The Lee Boys by Susan J. Weiand
The Lee Boys demand your attention from the instant they step onstage. At least that was the case on Saturday when they took a bunch of barefoot hippies (and their associated comrades) to church. Their steel guitar driven rush reminded us that one doesn’t need a steeple, pews or even the clergy to tap into the divine – God is everywhere and frequently most potently inside musical notes like the ones the Boys dished up. They rarely slapped a Bible or even mentioned the Almighty but there was plenty of Holy Spirit spilling out of their hop and strut. If it’s true that you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink, well, The Lee Boys have figured out that you just have to make folks thirsty before you offer them something to slake their dryness.

Akron/Family

I leave each Akron/Family performance feeling like I’ve gone through a cosmic meat grinder – all pink and new and tender. Without question, their Friday Vaudeville and Saturday Big Meadow sets were my personal high marks for High Sierra 2008, far more than a spot of brilliant music, a true and lasting experience, a moment of complete presence, ingenuity and passion. Describing their sound is like the old adage about “dancing to architecture.” It is what it is – a fantastic, scorched, verdant amalgam of rock, jazz, blues, folk, punk, avant garde and kid’s music strains. Both childlike and bug ass wild, Akron/Family drilled down to a ground of reality that made the earth shake and the air shimmer for some of us. Their undisguised exuberance engages one, offering a chance at profound experience and not just another concert. It’s more than a little off-putting if you’re not ready to throw down with them but what became clearer to me than ever at this festival was what you put into it with Akron/Family returns to you threefold. Much of what we imbibe musically is pure pleasure or distraction. Akron/Family might make us better people, helping us shed old skin and rise out of our constrictions through the power of song and sound. As I told them with kisses on their foreheads after each set, they make one glad to be alive.

Continue reading for more on High Sierra…

By: Andy Tennille

Surprise Me Mr. Davis

Marc Friedman – Surprise Me Mr. Davis by Scott Galbraith
Going into High Sierra 2008, there were a few acts I’d marked on my schedule as “can’t miss,” and Surprise Me Mr. Davis topped the list. Despite having regularly stopped through San Francisco the last several years on their way to and from the festival, I’d never had the opportunity to catch them, but this year’s lineup afforded several opportunities to see the foursome in action.

The Slip has been around forever, or so it seems. As one of the preeminent ’90s jam bands, the trio has played nearly every hole-in-the-wall venue and graced every festival stage our country has to offer, but it wasn’t until the winter of 2003 that they met their musical match in Nathan Moore. Legend has it that Surprise Me Mr. Davis was formed when Moore was snowed in at The Slip’s Boston apartment and the result of being holed up for a week was their 2004 self-titled debut released on Butch Trucks’ Frogville Records.

For their Big Meadow stage set at High Sierra, the quartet drew from their album, but beyond the song selection, it was apparent that Moore’s presence enabled the Barr brothers and Marc Friedman to relax and just play, something akin to The Band’s backing of Ronnie Hawkins or Bob Dylan. The trio moved and grooved behind Moore’s capable singing and hefty songwriting and delivered one helluva set. But more than anything, what Surprise Me Mr. Davis proved is that the whole is often times greater than the sum of its parts.

Eric McFadden Trio

Harley Prechtel-Cortez – TWU
By Josh Miller
With the cobwebs of Friday night’s festivities lingering in the midday sun, Saturday’s music got off to a ferocious start with the Eric McFadden Trio. Augmented into quartet status for the weekend by percussionist Doug Port, the Trio – with James Whiton on double bass and Paulo Baldi on drums – blew through an hour-long set of dark originals interspersed with a few choice covers, including an absolutely incendiary cover of The Clash’s “Guns of Brixton,” an instrumental jam and a slowed-down take on Outkast’s “Ms. Jackson.” With a new album out this summer, EMT continues to be among the best of the Bay Area bands. Should they gain some consistency in the drum seat, it’s only a matter of time before San Francisco’s best-kept secret becomes a household name for rock fans across the country.

The Weather Underground

While many groups on the High Sierra bill are habitual attendees, returning every year to perform in front of a sea of familiar faces, a few bands make their festival debut each July and have the opportunity to grow their fanbase in the process. For The Weather Underground – frontman Harley Prechtel-Cortez, bassist Ryan Kirkpatrick, drummer Diego Guerrero and guitarist Sho Bagley – High Sierra 2008 marked their first foray into festival gigging, but the immediacy and urgency of their mid-afternoon Thursday performance was well-received by the small crowd gathered at the Big Meadow stage. By the time the band took the stage the following afternoon at the Vaudeville Tent, word-of-mouth praise had spread across the festival grounds and the High Sierra faithful had packed the shaded stage to see what the buzz was about. Drawing songs from across their three, self-released EPs, TWU delivered an electric set that had the crowd calling for an encore and thus cemented the Los Angeles-based quartet as one of the festival’s biggest surprises.


By: SuperDee

Charnett Moffett

High Sierra 2008 by Julie Blaustein
Bassist Charnett Moffett – named after his father, jazz drummer Charles Moffett, and mentor, jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman – was born with an undeniable gift for improvisation. He is a prime example of a musician that just feels the music and what he plays comes out effortlessly and naturally. Somehow, he is able to put this innate sense into words as he did at the improv playshop at High Sierra. Joined by Andrew Barr on drums, Marco Benevento on keys, Stephane Wrembel on guitar and Laurence Scudder (Ryan Montbleau Band) on viola, Charnett gave a lesson on how to listen to other players and combine sounds to create one. In a very cosmically charged session, we learned that “all sounds are created equal” and that all keys can blend together to create something beautiful. And then he proceeded to drop jaws by playing a distorted Jimi Hendrix style “Star Spangled Banner” on his upright. Truly an inspirational High Sierra moment!

And with that we start planning for the 19th installment of the High Sierra Music Festival. It’s the one place we know we’ll be each and every year!

Continue reading for images from High Sierra…

Images by: Josh Miller

Akron/Family
Miles Seaton – Akron/Family
Miles Seaton – Akron/Family
Akron/Family
Buckethead
Buckethead
Doug Martsch – Built To Spill
Brett Nelson – Built To Spill
Mike Gordon
Charlie Hunter
Fred Wesley (with Groovesect)
Michael Franti
Dave Dreiwitz – Bustle in Your Hedgerow
Scott Metzger – Bustle in Your Hedgerow
Joe Russo – Bustle in Your Hedgerow
American Babies
Nathan Moore
Brad Barr & Nathan Moore – Surprise Me Mr. Davis
Brad Barr & Marc Friedman – The Slip
Chris Gangi & Allie Kral – Cornmeal
Allie Kral – Cornmeal
Ivan Neville & Tony Hall – Dumpstaphunk
Skerik – Critters Buggin
Dustin Apodaca – Dusty Rhodes and the River Band
Bela Fleck Workshop
Keller Williams
Marco Benevento & Andrew Barr – Camp Harry
Warren Haynes – Gov’t Mule
Bob Weir – RatDog
Tim Bluhm – The Mother Hips
Greg Loiacono – The Mother Hips
Todd Sheaffer – Railroad Earth
Ryan Montbleau
Langhorne Slim
Monophonics
Fred Torphy (Big Light) & Nathan Moore

Continue reading for even more images from High Sierra…

Images by: Susan J. Weiand

Emmitt-Nershi Band
Aphrodesia
Eric McFadden & Papa Mali – Blues Workshop
Eric McFadden Trio
Robben Ford
Dan Lebowitz
Mike Gordon
Ivan Neville sitting in with Mike Gordon
Fred Wesley (with Groovesect)
Sean Lehe – Izabella
Akron/Family
Keller Williams & Keith Moseley – WMDs
March Fourth Marching Band
Nathan Moore
Monophonics
Buckethead
Wil Blades & Scott Amendola
Joe Craven
Dumpstaphunk
Michael Franti
Charlie Hunter
Sean Hutchinson – New Monsoon
The Heavy Pets
Bob Weir – RatDog
John Skehan – Railroad Earth
Tim Carbone – Railroad Earth
Ryan Montbleau
Trombone Shorty
Vida Girls
Carolyn Wonderland
Michael Girardot – Rotary Downs

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