Review and Photos | High Sierra | Quincy
High Sierra Music Festival :: 07.03.14-07.06.14 :: Plumas-Sierra County Fairgrounds :: Quincy, CA
Read a full review after Andrew’s photos and be sure to check out a gallery of Whitney’s photos at the top of page two.
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union… The Preamble to the U.S. Constitution has few more tangible manifestations than the annual High Sierra Music Festival, where for four days we collectively chip away at the tribalism, venom, sheer stupidity, rank greed, rock throwing and perverse intractability marbling itself into the modern American psyche. Nestled amongst tall trees, cooling breezes lifting the heat from bronzing skin, strangers grab you to dance in the street or make you the best damn Bloody Mary you’ve ever tasted, nothing asked in return except a smile, a hug and the unspoken promise to keep the goodwill flowing.
Open hands and generous hearts mostly prevail against any negativity that creeps through the gates. One feels amongst friends even if it’s their first time strolling the tapestry draped oases, brightly lit RVs and streamer adorned tents. An empty cup is greeted with a newly opened bottled of Chianti and a grin from a new friend. This special, all-too-temporary community imbues one with the specialness of simply being human and alive, blessed to light-step through music of many hues, a different adventure at every turn and the richest, most unexpected conversations one could ever imagine. It doesn’t take long for walls to drop and suddenly one’s essence steps into the light and starts to speak truths about themselves, the world and just about anything else in the universe. Dionysus runs wild-haired along the pathways and stages, rib-aching laughter ringing to the sky, and the real color show arriving only once the stars come out.
High Sierra is permission to play, a hall pass from deadlines and budgets, an invitation to the People’s Party where time is fluid and there’s always a thick slice of cake left just for you. If all this sounds too good to be true, well, then you’ve probably never spent the Fourth of July holiday with the freaks, families and frolickers in Quincy.
There are very few things in our lives we can count on to be there for us year after year. As time marches on, people move away, get married, change jobs, babies are born, etcetera. That’s why it’s such a luxury to have the constant reassurance that High Sierra Music Festival will be ready and waiting for us come Fourth of July Weekend. The amazing folks running this little slice of heaven up in the Quincy pines have been at it for 24 years now, and have honed and perfected every logistical detail to a tee, making for the easiest, most carefree festival experience imaginable. Much of this has to do with the well-earned level of trust between the festival and the town of Quincy (zero police presence or security checkpoints), which is directly due to the well-earned level of trust between the festival and its almost unbelievably well-behaved, self-regulated audience.
This year, aside from the intimate, convenient confines and ample showers and flush toilets, there were beer tastings, Bloody Mary bars, World Cup screenings, yoga classes, parades, river runs, RV sets/dance parties, campsite jams, and the ever-present air of “there’s-no-place-I’d-rather-be” satisfaction radiating from every happy, costumed reveler you crossed paths with.
And then there was the music. Once again, High Sierra succeeded in curating an impressive, versatile lineup of artists for all musical palates. I for one was very pleased at this year’s bluegrass-heavy schedule, which allowed ample opportunities to get your twang on throughout the weekend. Between Punch Brothers, Dead Winter Carpenters, Trampled By Turtles, Sierra Hull, The McCourys (both Del and Travelin’), and Steep Ravine (who tugged some heartstrings with their version of John Hartford’s “In Tall Buildings”), the pickin’ was first rate. We were also lucky to have wizards Stanley Jordan, Scott Pemberton, Fareed Haque and RonKat Spearman spewing guitar pyrotechnics all weekend, though this was just the tip of the musical iceberg, as 16 hours of non-stop music four days in a row provided way more highlights than can be mentioned here. What follows is two guys’ takes on a marathon long weekend of music in paradise. It’s safe to say that most are already counting the days till High Sierra 2015 – it’s just too perfect a festival to miss.
Dennis’ Thursday Highlights
While none of us was present at the great land runs of the late 1800s, there’s more than a little of the same unbridled exuberance and hopefulness to the rush of people when the gates open on Thursday morning. While the vendors, staff, VIPs and few others are already settled in, the majority of attendees stake their spots in the early hours on Thursday, backpacks, tents and coolers in tow as choice plots next to stages or beneath thick pines – unlike most festivals there is virtually no segregation between performance and camping spaces with folks tucked in every which where -are claimed with a whoop. It’s an alarm clock of slapping sandals and trailing laughter that announces, “It’s on!” in a most delightful way.
1. Typhoon – 5:30 pm – 7:00 am – Vaudeville Tent
A blazing summer afternoon may seem an odd slot for this large, multi-limbed Portland band, particularly with lyrics like, “You were born in a hospital bed/ You will return to the hospital bed, my friend/ Life’s a beast that shits and eats from the same end,” but there was something so resolutely alive, artfully sculpted, and poignantly human about Typhoon that most gathered beneath the shelter of the Vaudeville tent surely felt present at a moment, or more accurately, a series of sighing, wailing, swaying moments that brought one close to the nitty-gritty stuff of life. Typhoon is a big band with a lot of moving parts, and frankly, I wondered if they could pull off the broad swings between whispery delicacy and pummeling grandiosity in their excellent studio work in concert. It took all of one song for this 11-person lineup to show that they were one body, the breathing and motion stitched together by a visceral collective commitment to the special, utterly fearless songs of lead singer-songwriter-guitarist Kyle Morton, who croons with a similar cracked intensity to Two Gallants’ Adam Stephens, the sound of men who see too much truth and have no choice but to sing about it. The facile comparison – which I heard from a number of folks in the crowd – is Arcade Fire, but Typhoon is a much more prayerful enterprise, the things they explore offering few pathways to big stages and glittery costumes but multiple routes to catharsis and deep, shared understanding about the hard stuff that inevitably comes our way.
2. Dead Winter Carpenters – 2:30-4:15 PM – Grandstand Stage
Ambition is attractive in an emerging young band, and this Lake Tahoe, CA quintet showed they have their sights set on big things in their Grandstand Stage opening set. Every element – songwriting, vocals, solos, group interplay – was sharper than any previous DWC performance I’d caught, and while some of their chummy playfulness has diminished what’s emerging is a band snapping at the heels of kindred ancestors like Railroad Earth and Leftover Salmon. With multiple vocalists and songwriters there’s a lot of variety, and steady touring has given the band polish and an easygoing facility with audiences. Despite the high humidity and mercury jumping temps at this year’s HSMF, there was a solid crowd grinning and grooving in the large, grassy field, a testament to their ever-expanding fan-base.
3. Scott Pemberton – 7:30-9:00 PM – Vaudeville Tent
Finally cooled off enough to really give one’s boogie shoes a workout, the charmingly hirsute and terrifically enjoyable Mr. Pemberton delivered dance music of a well-rooted sort, electro-aware but blues-based, full of shreddy delights but also seamlessly propulsive. In fact, it’s hard to figure out where Pemberton and his limber, muscular trio came from. They aren’t using anybody else’s blueprints but they’re sure as shit building a capering, high time stokin’ thang together. Pemberton is a fantastic guitarist – something he showed off in his “I’m game for ANYTHING” guest turns at other sets – but he’s not a peacock. It’s the music he’s after and it just so happens that he’s a damn blast to watch as he hunts down the notes for our pleasure and stimulation.
Eric’s Thursday Highlights
1. Turkuaz – 11:30 PM -1:30 AM – Vaudeville Tent
One of the best parts of High Sierra is discovering new bands, which are given prime slots to deliver the goods and blow minds of newly-won fans. And there’s no better slot for this than the late-night Vaudeville set, when the intimate tent is turned into a marathon party, energy bouncing off the walls in all directions. This was my first exposure to the nine-piece Brooklyn-based funk band Turkuaz, who blew the roof off the joint with a two hour set of dirty grooves. Led by guitarist/composer Dave Brandwein, the band tore through song after infectious song, backed by a full horn section and the freaky, unhinged, Betty Davis-like singing from Geneva Williams and Sammi Garett. Frankly, the set was a blur of a dance party for me, anchored by the thick, dirty bass lines of Taylor Shell. I do remember scream-singing along with a cover of The Beatles’ “I’ve Got a Feeling,” which was dropped at just the right time in the middle of the funk. There was no better way to jump-start the weekend than with a deep funk tent party, and this set did it just right.
2. The Budos Band – 10:00-11:30 PM – Big Meadow Stage
Budos brought the dark, sinister grooves to Big Meadow to usher in the first night of revelry. This band is unapologetically boisterous with their hard-hitting, punk energy – they’re not afraid to throw the kitchen sink at you if needed. Things got pretty weird there for a while — baritone saxophonist Jared Tankel was channeling the dark spirits with his deep squawks, driving the funk freakout in all its scary glory. As professional as these guys are, they’re not afraid to get raw and real, and we weren’t afraid to follow them down the rabbit hole into the abyss. These guys were in full on shaman mode on Thursday night, creepin’ and churnin’ the funk for Big Meadow to frolic in. This was the set that really jump-started the festival for me — it was all butter from here on out.
3. Sierra Hull – 1:45-3:00 PM – Big Meadow Stage
Opening the Big Meadow stage with a sunny afternoon set, 23-year-old mandolin virtuoso Sierra Hull and her clean and true band of bluegrass pickers came all the way from Nashville for us Californians, and boy was it a great way to start the weekend. The girl’s mandolin tone is gorgeous, flowing like water with her fluttering, delicately picked lines. Add to that her pure voice, poignant original songs, and a band of Nashville pros that includes the incredible multi-instrumentalist Justin Moses (banjo, fiddle, and dobro), and this girl puts on a show like a breath of fresh air. Hull’s music strikes the perfect balance between jazzy, progressive newgrass and traditional country flavor — the original tune “Best Buy” was an old-fashioned fiddlin’ good time, while a fast-picked instrumental medley of “Whiskey Before Breakfast” and “Salt Creek” jump-started the first dance party of the weekend. I’ll certainly be following Sierra Hull’s promising career after this joyous set.
Dennis’ Friday Highlights
1. Greensky Bluegrass – 10:00-11:30 PM – Big Meadow Stage
While many relived the pleasures of 1998 with Lauryn Hill at the main stage, string lovers got a boisterous master class in pickin’ on the Big Meadow. With members of The Travelin’ McCourys and others joining them, it was evident how confident and capable this five-piece has become. They’d never say it themselves but Dave Bruzza (guitar, vocals), Paul Hoffman (mandolin, vocals), Michael Bont (banjo, vocals), Anders Beck (dobro) and Mike Devol (upright bass, vocals) can hold their own with anybody in their field AND they write significantly better original material than most of their contemporaries. As hot as the licks and extended, interwoven runs were this night, one kept coming back to the sturdiness of these tunes and how they aren’t just rehashes of bluegrass standards. However, their fine instincts for covers emerged in a shuddering, audience igniting version of Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain,” that was as well realized as it was unexpected. It is a joy to watch these guys work, and there’s never a doubt they’re pouring everything in them into the experience.
2. Chris Robinson Brotherhood / The Mother Hips – 11:30 PM-1:30 AM (CRB) / 1:30-3:30 AM (Hips) – Vaudeville Tent (CRB) / Funk’n Jamhouse (Hips)
One of this writer’s central complaints about modern rock is how it really wants to be dance music but has forgotten that rock ‘n’ roll is by nature a boot-scootin’ thing separate but equal to what’s happening in clubland. Maybe it’s the constriction of skinny jeans or something but much of today’s new rock has no swivel, no backfield in motion, no old time groin thunder. But, blissfully, this was not the case with the inspired one-two punch of late night sets from the Chris Robinson Brotherhood and The Mother Hips, where if you weren’t moving vigorously I’d have checked your pulse. It may be The Kinks’ that said “give the people what they want” but these two groups excelled at serving folks what they might not have realized they wanted or perhaps even needed -stand in the middle of either audience and you could watch people be charmed in real time. While the basic configuration of the CRB and Hips is standard issue rock instrumentation, they’ve each put their own stamp on the genre, offering odd angles and juicy twists inside music that’s as sturdy and ready to roll as any ancestor. It’s a much harder thing to accomplish than most understand, this variation within a well-established genre, but this evening both bands made it look effortless, swinging hard but giving ample leash to appealingly psychedelic tangents, gusto-stuffed solos, and just plain unassailably excellent rock ‘n’ roll that knows its history and is anxious to make some of its own.
3. Jonathan Wilson – 5:15-6:30 PM – Vaudeville Tent
Wilson is a rock musicologist with heart. There’s no mistaking his affection for ’70s jewels like David Crosby’s If I Could Only Remember My Name or crate digger obscurities like Gary Higgins’ Red Hash, but Wilson isn’t just another recreationist aping the moves of his forebears. This is the music that moves him and he’s succeeded where most others fail in creating new music in the same spirit with the same density and gently bucolic vibe. His late afternoon set arrived like a welcome breeze, his crack band serving the songs well and their leader in fine voice. It’s the kind of music where one catches a pleasant contact high the longer they linger in its undulating waves. With some fiery guest guitar from the CRB’s Neal Casal, this set was as nicely carved and gorgeously executed as one could want. And bonus points for diggin’ up Sopwith Camel’s “Fazon” and dusting it off for a lovely cover – pure creamy goodness.
Eric’s Friday Highlights
1. The Mother Hips – 1:30–4:00 AM -Funk’n Jamhouse
God knows how I’ve lived in California for six years and never seen The Mother Hips perform. Thankfully, my first Hips show was a true rager. As an introduction to the band, I couldn’t have asked for more, as the 24 year chemistry shared by these guys was on full display for this marathon, wild, late-night set. The band performed as a true unit, churning out fine-honed and patient rock tunes with flair — guitarists Tim Bluhm and Greg Loiacono played off each other telepathically, stretching the music to new places on a dime. Playing to die-hards, the Hips’ music was given plenty of room to breathe in this setting, and songs like “Magazine” and “Time Sick Son of a Grizzly Bear” were given a freewheeling rock treatment before opening up into free-form, swaying jams. Another highlight was a passionate take on ”Born Under a Bad Sign” that saw guest guitarist Scott Law join in and dig deep. “Deep” was indeed the key word for this set, as the band was clearly inspired by the crowd and the setting. It didn’t take a Hips veteran to tell that this was a special show, whether it was your first or 50th. The good-ol’ honest rock ‘n roll of the Hips was on full display on this night, and I’ll certainly be seeking it out again soon.
2. Chris Robinson Brotherhood – 11:30 PM–1:30 AM – Vaudeville Tent
Once again, the late-night Vaudeville slot delivered in a big way, this time with a patient, well-simmered psychedelic set by the CRB that organically built to a sprawling, grand climax, pushed by Robinson’s raspy, soulful rave-ups. The beauty of this band is its lack of rush to get somewhere -these guys swagger along with a feel-good, easy, Dead-like boogie, and it’s a joy to experience. It was somewhere in the middle of this set that I truly let my guard down and dropped into the real festival flow -that no-worries, completely-in-the-moment groove of being exactly where you need to be at any given moment that High Sierra fosters so damn well. CRB played it cool and easy, and helped me get there with a breezy, soulful take on Three Dog Night’s “Never Been to Spain.” Things started to pick up with a chugging take on “Tomorrow’s Blues,” which led into sprawling, muscular versions of Dylan’s “Tough Mama” and a rockin’ “Ride” that saw Robinson getting seriously soulful while Neal Casal threw out mean guitar licks. The band peaked the set out with one woolly, exploratory, sprawling jam after another that hit all the right spots and sent us into the night ready for whatever came our way. CRB is like a fine wine that’s smooth going down and leaves you with a grand buzz after a healthy dose.
Both the honed, tasteful and gorgeous virtuosity of Chris Thile‘s Punch Brothers Grandstand set and the huge dance party of Greensky’s Big Meadow set were epic for very different reasons.
Chris Thile’s band of virtuosos delivered a progressive yet playful set of American string music that went perfectly with the setting sun. Filling the Grandstand field with interweaving melodies and unexpected chord progressions that went past traditional bluegrass music, the band flowed with a supreme effortlessness. Songs like “Watch ‘at Breakdown” and “Magnet” were fun, fast-paced, and catchy, but surprising in structure. Just watching Thile’s animated facial expressions was entertaining enough -he was clearly having a blast making this unique music. The highlight of the set, though, had to be a full-on, to-the-note arrangement of a Debussy composition that made my hair stand on end. This was exquisite, first-tier music-making at the very highest level.
By contrast, Greensky Bluegrass brought a whole other kind of vibe with their brand of bluegrass virtuosity. Their Big Meadow set brought the shit-kickin’ dance party like no other band all weekend, and tore the roof off with fast pickin’, great songs and covers, and a huge sit-in by Ronnie McCoury. A perfect take/singalong of Paul Simon’s “Gumboots” made me wish the original had dobro in it, while McCoury lent some red-hot, 64th-note solos to a blazing-fast, jammed-out version of David Grisman’s instrumental “E.M.D.” These Greensky guys can pick with the best of ’em, and clearly have the fire in their bellies, as they all played like men possessed. This was probably the biggest bluegrass set of the weekend, and that’s saying a lot with all the talent that graced these stages over four days.
Dennis’ Saturday Highlights
1. Hard Working Americans – 11:30 PM-1:30 AM – Vaudeville Tent
Todd Snider has long been one of the best friends the working man (and woman) has in the music game but there’s something ferociously blue-collar patriotic and downright inspiring about this newly minted, freakishly inspired gathering of talents. In the wake of Occupy Wall Street, the 2008 financial collapse brought on by Clinton and both Bushes, and the ever-more-apparent class divide in the U.S., this band is timely as hell – succor to time clock punchers who just need some uplift and understanding to go with the first beer and gentle toke after their daily labors. Joining Barefoot Todd in this grubbily noble endeavor are CRB shredder Neal Casal (guitar, backing vocals), Widespread Panic bass beast Dave Schools (whose pocket playing and playful interaction with the others, especially Casal, made me dig the dude more than ever), Great American Taxi keyboard magician Chad Staehly, drummer Duane Trucks, and the group’s secret weapon, Jesse Aycock, a Tulsa killer with some of the sweetest guitar/lap steel licks to hit these ears in ages – Schools perfectly described him the next day as “that kid standing in the corner who looks about to do his homework that suddenly unleashes playing that blows the top of your head off.” While an album of original material is in the works – there’s no mistaking the bubbling chemistry and promise of great things to come – HWA’s initial phase finds them inhabiting a collection of fantastic songs by folks like Hayes Carll (“Stomp and Holler”), Kevn Kinney (“Straight To Hell”), Will Kimbrough (“I Don’t Have A Gun”), Randy Newman (“Mr. President Have Pity On The Working Man”) and Frankie Miller (“Blackland Farmer”). The combination of material, fresh musical relationships and Snider’s emerging proletariat preacher at the helm generated an energetic state of happy surprise onstage, the obvious enjoyment of the musicians hitting the overflowing Vaudeville scene like a pulsing wave that bound people together and made us follow our filthy wife-beater wearing reverend in chants of “I don’t want to hurt nobody!” and other humanizing, buddy-can-you-spare-a-dime hymns. With this powerful unit at his back, Snider reached new places as a singer, sometimes so shatteringly real and honest it made one shiver and other times as confidently cocky as any man alive (the dude really sells the line, “I’m like James Brown only white and taller!”). Simply one of the best sets I’ve ever witnessed at High Sierra and one hopes the fest brings ‘em back next year, perhaps with a side of solo Todd and a set or two with Great American Taxi backing him (closes eyes, scrunches face in wishful hope).
2. Ashleigh Flynn & The Back Porch Majority – 1:00-2:30 PM – Grandstand Stage
Everyone smitten with Lucinda Williams, Patty Griffin and Gillian Welch should run, not walk, and immediately spin A Million Stars, the latest album from this Portland, Oregon-based singer-songwriter. Taken into the open air at High Sierra in a lovely day-starting Grandstand set, Flynn’s newest songs stomped their boots, plucked heart strings and generally charmed the britches off folks. Flynn is funny and slyly sincere, a storyteller able to snag details from the immediate moment, the night before, and whatever else floats into view to forge stage banter filled with off-handed wisdom and earthy understanding – fitting given how her tunes bulge with both traits. Backed by one of the most intuitively graceful bands at this year’s HSMF – Kathryn Claire (fiddle, vox), Jen Forti (washboard contraption, vox) and Ted Russell Kamp (upright bass) -Flynn revealed what a whiskey drinkin’ gal with a big heart and a lot of bruised living behind her can do, embracing humanity as it is and not as we might like it to be. I dig her undisguised feminism, which smacks less of what Joan Baez and Gloria Steinem stirred up and seems more interested in simply making sure the contributions of women – particularly the outlaws and rabble-rousers of America’s past – aren’t forgotten. Balancing the scales is always a good thing AND an intrinsically American value. “Here’s another song about drinking too much booze…and I recommend you do it. Hair of the dog and all that,” cracked Flynn, and her observations about the 24/7 nature of things at High Sierra were on-point and often hysterical. Everything about her set and the second set on Sunday in the Big Meadow made me tell the band afterwards, “I could listen to y’all play every day” (especially if they play such a nifty version of John Prine’s “Paradise”). So nice in every little way.
3. Incidental Animals – 10:00-11:30 PM – Big Meadow Stage
Ringed by friends and colleagues onstage and welcoming a steady stream of gifted guests, this new project featuring ALO’s Dan Lebowitz (guitar, pedal steel, vocals), Steve Adams (bass, vocals) and Dave Brogan (drums, vocals) with SCI’s Kyle Hollingsworth (keys, vocals) and Jennifer Hartswick (vocals, trumpet) – the gal this writer nicknamed “Secret Sauce” after last year’s appearance as a artist-at-large at HSMF – threw a big ol’ party. Incidental Animals is the epitome of a festival attraction, anchored by expert players, open to surprises and ready to poke pleasure buttons with a winning mixture of strong originals and pitch perfect covers. Coming off the considerable high of the Chris Robinson Brotherhood’s main stage set – the CRB is truly on a mission to make sure everyone at their shows gets just a lil’ higher – I doubted I’d have a more cockle-warming good time on Saturday but lo and behold Incidental Animals picked up the high spirit torch and ran for the gold. There’s loads of potential in this bunch and nigh endless possibilities depending on the variety and willingness of other musicians at a fest to jump in and romp with them.
Eric’s Saturday Highlights
1. Bill Frisell -GUITAR IN THE SPACE AGE! -5:40-7:10 PM – Big Meadow Stage
After catching Bill Frisell play a fantastic midday set to a practically empty, scorching Grandstand field a few years ago, I was glad to see him get a Big Meadow set on the smaller stage this year. A late afternoon slot was the perfect setting for this unique set, which saw Frisell explore the early 60s world of rock with a whammy-bar-heavy selection of instrumentals in the Les Paul style. Played in his unmistakable liquid drip of a tone, languid, melty takes on The Kinks’ “Tired of Waiting for You,” Link Wray’s “Rumble,” The Beach Boys’ “In My Room” and The Byrds’ “Turn, Turn, Turn,” were achingly beautiful with the sun going down behind the stage. After a while, things turned supersonic when Frisell and guitarist Greg Liesz broke the reins and unleashed some real out-there space guitar explosions, pinging trails into the ether before drawing back in to centered, drone groove experiments. This was music to meditate to -peaceful, sonically exquisite, and fucking gorgeous. Closing with the old staple “Shenandoah” put the beauty over the top, and cemented this set as the most affecting music I experienced all weekend. Simply stunning.
2. Ernest Ranglin & Avila -Playshop and Big Meadow sets
After a standout performance in 2011, we were lucky to have 82-year-old Jamaican jazz-reggae guitarist Ernest Ranglin back at High Sierra. Backed by Avila, a crack band of Bay Area pros laying down loose and mellow riddims, Ranglin seemed happy and grateful to be given the opportunity to play his trademark liquid, jazzy guitar licks over the course of two different sets. The first outing was inside the High Sierra Music Hall for a Playshop, where Ranglin was joined by Bill Frisell and other special guests to trade some playful solos. Though it took a while to settle into the jam session, things started grooving nicely, thanks to Tracorum drummer Ian Herman, who cemented the set with his seriously creative reggae chops, pushing the music forward at every turn. The second set of the day was a party at Big Meadow, where ALO’s Dan Lebowitz joined in the fun. Though Ranglin seemed a bit confused at times (there were issues with tuning his guitar), flashes of brilliance still shone through in his flowing, playful lines. It really didn’t matter what was played -a loose cover of “Franklin’s Tower” was memorable -as these sets were all about hearing Ranglin take solo after creative solo. It’s safe to say that everyone in attendance, including Ranglin, seemed supremely grateful to have the chance to experience this moment in time, as the man is truly a living legend.
Comprising three members of ALO, Kyle Hollingsworth of String Cheese Incident, and Jen Hartswick, this friendly group threw a whole bunch of happy festival vibes our way for a relaxed set of ALO and SCI tunes and covers. This set amounted to a High Sierra All-Star jam session of sorts, with everyone getting their moment to shine. Lebo led the way with his clean, jazzy guitar lines, while Hartswick’s endlessly creative trumpet gave the songs an extra kick at every turn. Highlights included bassist Reed Mathis sitting in to funk up the ALO tune “Falling Dominoes,” while Hartswick’s passionate vocals on “Piece of My Heart” brought the house down. The set ended on a delightfully cheesy note, with Hollingsworth delivering an extended take on SCI’s “Can’t Wait Another Day” to a field full of happy hippy dancers. This was fun, fluid music for a carefree crowd.
Dennis’ Sunday Highlights
1. Guitarmageddon: Southern Rock – 4:30-6:30 PM – High Sierra Music Hall
Once again this Playshop closing tradition proved a boisterous HSMF highlight, a celebration of great music past and great musicians present hell-bent on kicking up a great fucking time – the kind with lots of spilled beer and fists in the air and people belting out the words like nobody was listening as they work up a healthy sweat with cavorting strangers. This year’s theme focused on classic rock staples from the South – the Allman’s “Blue Sky” opener made the world glow a bit brighter and the inevitable but still delightful closer “Free Bird” ignited the pack who’d taken the full two hour shred packed journey through Drive-By Truckers’ “Three Dimes Down” (growled convincingly by Lesley Grant, who was great each time she stepped up in different settings this weekend and also nicely handled The Black Crowes’ “Twice As Hard” at this set), Marshall Tucker Band’s “Can’t You See” (featuring most of The New Up plus FatCat’s Mark Schuh on lead vocals), The Outlaws’ “Green Grass and High Tides” (played and sung with goosebump raising bravado by New Monsoon’s Jeff Miller), the weirdly inspired pick of Charlie Daniels Band’s “Saddle Tramp” and other drawl rich stunners. Corralled by music director/six-string bad ass Sean Leahy, Guitarmageddon is a showcase for Bay Area talent, most of whom deserve wider recognition and bigger audiences. Along with Leahy, the core band was made up of Ezra Lipp and Dave Brogan on drums, Tracorum’s Fletcher Nielsen (keys), and bassists Murph Murphy and Steve Adams. But, as the project’s name implies, guitars are the stars and longtime ‘Geddon acrobats Lebo (ALO), Josh Clark (Tea Leaf Green) and Miller were joined by many of the fest’s tastiest guitar heroes – RonKat Spearman, Scott Pemberton, Greg Loiacono (The Mother Hips), Pamela Parker and probably a few more I’m forgetting. You see, Guitarmageddon, by nature, is a blur of bodies and notes, rehearsed just enough to be solid but ready and welcoming to chaos and spontaneity. It takes huge talent and sheer balls to jump into this playground but the results are just so bloody satisfying, where the instilled memories we bring to these songs get stoked and altered by the free floating imagination onstage. Put another way, they make one love what we already love more and introduce us to new things to love, like say, the musicians up there doing the do and all their home bands and sundry projects. A big ol’ high-five to Lonesome Locomotive’s Michael Rosen for channeling dear departed major loss to rock Ronnie Van Zant on the three Skynyrd numbers (“Gimme Three Steps,” “Sweet Home Alabama” and the ‘Bird) – they ought to kick that off-key talentless caricature Johnny Van Zant out of the band and give Rosen a tour to show ‘em how it’s done. With Jack Daniels and his relatives flowing freely onstage and off, this was a goddamn great time. Put this set – no matter who they pay tribute to – in ink on your High Sierra dance card every year.
2. RonKat Spearman’s Katdelic – 10:15-11:30 PM – Vaudeville Tent
Best damn Funkadelic music I’ve heard in ten years. Yes, I’m putting it that straight and clear, kids. As a lifelong funkonaut – my first P-Funk show was Funk On The Green in 1979 in Oakland (age 12) -who lost faith in the George Clinton lead outfit about a decade ago, Katdelic was like making out with an old flame I’d really, really, really missed. Every feature was just right – the clothes and hair, the tough musicianship, the alluring mix of wildness and expert control, the pheromones pouring off the stage and right back from the getting down crowd. It was almost enough to make a man slip on a diaper in tribute to the late Garry Shider and remind everyone around that you got a thing, I got a thing, everybody got a thing. And this ain’t no ghost dance! Sure, they nail the classic P-Funk cuts with aplomb but the original tunes hold their own against one of the great American songbooks. This is precisely where most funk falls apart for me – the tunes – and RonKat has the goods, as well as fine instincts for what old numbers to trot out and where to place them in the mix. A incendiary guest turn from Stanley Jordan, who’s current look was a natural fit for Katdelic, just amped things up to ri-dunk-u-lous. I’m now officially up for the downstroke ANY time RonKat and his crew wanna work the churn!
3. One Big Guitar – 1:45-3:00 PM – Grandstand Stage
It’s kind of amazing how much musical history, organic chops and old fashioned good vibes is contained in the three guitarist-singers of this quite charming new project for Dan Lebowitz, Scott Law and Bo Carper. It’s a pickin’ circle that’s deceptive, seeming at first loose as a goose but the woodshedding – both together and all their years on their own – and dedication to craftsmanship and tradition underpinning each number. Trading lead vocals, listening attentively and accenting each other’s selections with smiling knack, the trio was the embodiment of an ideal summer afternoon where one is cooled by gently wise words and pushed along by good melodies. Not to overuse the word in this review but One Big Guitar just oozes potential, the worlds of country, folk, rock and blues colliding in such a warm, inviting way in this trio. A real pleasure to sit at their heel and be told stories and serenaded with awesome songs.
Eric’s Sunday Highlights
1. Darkwave – 11:45 PM–1:00 AM – Funk’n Jamhouse
The very last set of my High Sierra experience may have been the very best one. This future-jazz trio, comprising John Medeski on synths and modulators, Skerik on amplified sax, and Adam Deitch on next-level breakbeat drumming, bent my mind with a sonic power surge. Make no mistake, this music was on another level, sonically speaking. Medeski was in full-blown mad scientist mode, tweaking his Moog board to emit deep vibrations of energy, which Deitch channeled into complex, morphing, danceable worm-hole beats of every kind imaginable, including some straight house music. Somewhere in all this was Skerik, a man possessed, playing his most twisted, diabolical, and maniacal lines -squeaks and dirty squawks pushing the shape-shifting music to its next place. I couldn’t help but interpret this band as playing energy -their approach to sound and soloing was on a different plane, almost Eno-esque in its progressive approach. To end the set, Jen Hartswick joined Skerik and band for a grand, avant-garde, “Ascension”-like horn freak-out climax that may have shifted my brain’s chemical composition. This music was truly lightning in a bottle, and I don’t expect to experience anything like it anytime soon.
2. Widespread Panic – 8:15-11:30 PM – Grandstand Stage
What better way for a Panic newbie to experience this band for the first time than two sets up in the High Sierra pines. My initiation into the whiskey-soaked world of Spreadheads was an immensely enjoyable one, thanks to a happy, party-hearty crowd and a great, second set that took us on a real ride. Going into the show, I was most excited to experience guitar god Jimmy Herring close-up, as this man and his magic fingers should be deemed a national treasure. His soaring, soulful leads ended up being the icing on the cake for me at this show, as the band gave us a down n’ dirty set of scorchers and slow burns, punctuated by John Bell‘s sinister, Howlin’ Wolf-like growl of a voice, expertly delivering songs about whiskey, drugs, and the Devil. A shredding, first-set take on Vic Chesnutt’s “Watching The Sleeping Man” gave a good taste of the dangerous vibe that this band can foster, which continued with the second set opener “Thought Sausage,” getting weird and funky before dropping into Curtis Mayfield’s “Pusherman.” Other highlights included some nasty Herring shredding on “Airplane” dropping into a mean, creeping JB blues showcase in “Me and the Devil Blues,” a huge bomb explosion of a jam in “Impossible,” and JB doing his best David Byrne with closer dance party “Life During Wartime.” Topping it off was guitarist Eric McFadden sitting in for the double encore, trading searing solos with Herring and completely holding his own. A fitting, mean take on Tom Waits’s anthemic “Goin’ Out West” (“where they’ll appreciate me”) sent us off right, and left me impressed and satisfied with my first Panic experience.
This Bay Area band stole a few hearts with their two sets on Sunday, delivering two very different, equally feel-good performances that covered everything from old-time jug-band music and Dixieland to sweet soul and funk. After a rowdy late-night set on Saturday, their daytime Playshop set indoors at the High Sierra Music Hall was a welcome relief from the scorching heat, and offered us a rare chance to experience the band at its most stripped down, featuring upright piano, acoustic guitar, and washtub one-string bass. Lead singer, guitarist and trumpet player Lech Wierzynski sings and plays clear and true, and knows how to work a crowd better than most anyone. This was in full effect for the band’s Big Meadow set a couple of hours later, which brought more funk than one can usually expect from these guys. The band’s devoted fans were out in full force for this set, and helped elevate the afternoon to a true party -the “Hot Tub” closer whipped the crowd into a daytime dance party froth that rivaled any all weekend. The Honeydrops embody and channel the freewheeling High Sierra spirit like few other bands, and their festival sets are starting to become the stuff of legend. Here’s hoping they’ll be back next year.