High Sierra | 07.03 – 07.06 | California
High Sierra Music Festival :: 07.03.08 07.06.08 :: Plumas County Fairgrounds :: Quincy, CA
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.
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.
By Scott Galbraith
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
By J. Miller
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!”
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.
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The Mother Hips
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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 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
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.
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.
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
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.
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Surprise Me Mr. Davis
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
By Josh Miller
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.
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!
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Images by: Josh Miller
|Miles Seaton – Akron/Family|
|Miles Seaton – Akron/Family|
|Doug Martsch – Built To Spill|
|Brett Nelson – Built To Spill|
|Fred Wesley (with Groovesect)|
|Dave Dreiwitz – Bustle in Your Hedgerow|
|Scott Metzger – Bustle in Your Hedgerow|
|Joe Russo – Bustle in Your Hedgerow|
|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|
|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|
|Fred Torphy (Big Light) & Nathan Moore|
Continue reading for even more images from High Sierra…
|Eric McFadden & Papa Mali – Blues Workshop|
|Eric McFadden Trio|
|Ivan Neville sitting in with Mike Gordon|
|Fred Wesley (with Groovesect)|
|Sean Lehe – Izabella|
|Keller Williams & Keith Moseley – WMDs|
|March Fourth Marching Band|
|Wil Blades & Scott Amendola|
|Sean Hutchinson – New Monsoon|
|The Heavy Pets|
|Bob Weir – RatDog|
|John Skehan – Railroad Earth|
|Tim Carbone – Railroad Earth|
|Michael Girardot – Rotary Downs|
JamBase | High in the Sierras
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