High Sierra Music Festival
July 5-8, 2007
The High Sierra Music Festival has always been about more than just music.
At its best it is about magic.
In the summer of 2007 that magic that was back in full force.
Thanks to the hard work and cooperative efforts of festival organizers and the city of Quincy, California, the Plumas County Sheriff's Office was not nvited to this year's festivities. Instead, sympathetic community volunteers walked the festival grounds as a peace keeping force. This allowed festival goers to freak freely and let the magic flow.
High Sierra was again the gem that all festivals should aspire to being. By focusing on the hottest mid-level and up-and-coming acts on the circuit, this four day music festival draws true music lovers to revel in sound and each other's company for a long and lovely weekend.
If "the heat" had been held at bay this year, the heat was not. As the fest opened Thursday temperatures climbed well past 100 degrees as campers settled in and built as many shade structures as they could.
The weather proved no impediment to the fun, however, as Vince Herman and Great American Taxi kicked off the music on the main stage, while Los Angeles' Shannon Moore entertained the Shady Grove stage with her hook-laden rock sounds,
The March Fourth Marching Band combined burlesque and acrobatics with their set, Salvadore Santana (Carlos' son) fused world rhythms, rock and hip hop, Garaj Mahal turned into a quintet with the addition of bassist Kai Eckhardt's extremely talented pre-teen son on drums for their complex fusion jazz, and That One Guy worked his unique instrument of pipes, reeds and loops.
Sol Jibe proved itself one of the hardest working and most delightful new finds at the fest by lending it's world beats and Latin rhythms to two different stages during the course of the day, winning new fans every time it played. The Waybacks offered their blend of bluegrass, rock and country sounds, Hot Buttered Rum tore it up in an acoustic way, while Zilla offered more electronic grooves. As Galactic's hard New Orleans funk closed out the main stage the heat had not yet yielded, lending a Southern feel (minus the humidity) to the proceedings.
When the outdoor stages were closed for the night at 11 the heat finally let up. Things may have eased up on the bodies of all the festival goers, but the music geared up for round two of day one.
Anders Osborne kept the New Orleans vibe going in the Funk N Jam House with String Cheese Incident's Kyle Hollingsworth on keys and Galactic's Robert Mecurio on bass before Soulive held funky court there.
String Cheese Incident's Michael Kang brought his electric mandolin to the African funk sounds of Chris Berry and Panjea in the Tulsa Scott Room before Kan'Nal rocked the psychedelic tribal groove there.
But it was the Yonder Mountain String Band that was still rockin' the Music Hall with it extremely energetic newgrass as the first light of dawn cracked the sky at five A.M. If there were those that were tempted to leave earlier, that temptation ended when Vince Herman came out and joined the band for "Cuckoo's Nest > Jack London" during the second set, including an extended, improvised romp with lyrics about what a dream High Sierra is.
all photos by Susan Weiand
Read on for Friday
While it was warm again as day two began, temperatures would not again reach the brutal highs of that first day, providing some relief. Some festivarians chose to hit the nearby swimming hole, while others opted for cold showers even though hot ones were available. Many others began cooking bacon, which seems to have become the breakfast of choice for serious festival goers. The combination of stomach-settling grease, water-retaining salt and energy-providing protein in a candy-meets-meat form was almost as popular as coffee and Bloody Marys for breakfast in camps throughout the fairgrounds.
This morning was when the magic became palpable. Start wondering where a friend was and they would appear. Realize you needed something and it would be offered before you spoke. Think you even wanted something and it too would manifest. "Careful what you wish for" became a running joke but the reminder seemed unnecessary because the positive vibe was everywhere.
Friday also featured many of the acts of day one on different stages at different times, providing opportunities to see bands missed when the inevitable tough choices among High Sierra's four stages and playshop room all operate simultaneously. Yonder rocked the mainstage just as they did during their evening set. The Waybacks, Anders Osborne (again with Kyle Hollingworth), Soulive and Kan'Nal all did it again in the broad daylight.
New acts were also showing up to join the fun. Brett Dennen was joined by members of ALO in an inspired Big Meadow stage set of his thoughtful, tender and utterly catchy songs. Xavier Rudd proved himself equal parts Ben Harper, Michael Franti, Keller Williams and tribal rocker as he wailed away on electric dobro and three different didgeridoos; if there is one word that characterizes his music it might be "love."
The Devil Makes Three is an old time string band on steroids, while the Drive-By Truckers rocked the house in a whiskey-soaked set to close out the mainstage in Southern style again.
The annual Camp Happiness cocktail party earlier in the day was set to feature the New Mastersounds at 4:20. Their drums were still in transit as the party began. No worries. Vince Herman, the very spirit of the festival, had stopped by. He picked up his guitar (after another rollicking set with Great American Taxi on the Shady Grove stage) had a mic taped to a keyboard, and proceeded to hold court with two members of Eddie & The Roughnecks on bass and keys and Sam Johnston (Box Set) on harmonica for over an hour of unalduterated joyuntil the New Mastersounds were able to take over.
After all that sonic goodness, Ivan Neville's Dumpstaphunk still managed to steal the best act of the day award with a blistering set of funk the way funk is supposed to be played — loud and dirty. Highlights included an Al Green tribute, A Rolling Stones cover, and the theme song from The Sopranos. Two basses, a kick drum that could be felt more than heard and some serious shredding from the guitar of Ian Neville had folks dancing for hours and talking for days.
Late night again offered something for everyone as SCI drummer Michael Travis' project Zilla and DJ extraordinaire Bassnectar provided electronica, The Waybacks and Hot Buttered Rum served up the grass, while The Phix's Phish tribute opened for Garaj Mahal's fusion in another room.
Read on for Saturday
Saturday began with temperatures still high but since they weren't as hot as day one, and people began to adapt, it was becoming more bearable. Some of Austin's finest took over during this day, including Guy Forsyth's Tom Waits inspired madness, Patrice Pike's conscious rock, and perhaps most importantly, Carolyn Wonderland.
Wonderland is equal parts Janis Joplin and Stevie Ray Vaughan. She clearly had the single best, most powerful voice at the festival and she can shred on the slide guitar. All while remaining conscious of what truly matters and humble too. Why Carolyn Wonderland is not a huge star is and shall remain a mystery. Her Vaudeville Tent set brought down the house.
Other inspired sets were turned in by ukelele wizard Jake Shimabukuro, the rollicking country of the Mother Truckers, Nickle Creek's Chris Thile's
solo project How To Grow A Band (featuring Greg Garrison and Noam Pikelny of Leftover Salmon), the African sounds of Asheville, North Carolina's
Toubab Krewe, the jazz of Bobby Previte's Coalition of the Willing, the crazy rock of Les Claypool and the old school bluegrass of Del McCoury. The Ryan Montbleau Band won many fans for its sweet rock on their first trip to the far west.
Again it was the closing act of the Vaudeville Tent in the midnight hour that stole the show for many, however. Something happened when JJ Grey & Mofro took the stage that mere talent alone can not account for. It was that old High Sierra magic that infected that Blackwater swamp rock this night and many jaws were set agape by the Jacksonville, Florida unit's new lineup featuring a horn section.
Before one could fully digest what had transpired, however, the late night fun began indoors. The funksters headed over to see the Meters inspired sounds of The New Mastersounds (with Papa Mali opening), those seeking heady trancefusion headed over to see the Disco Biscuits, while the largest crowd gathered to see the reunion of Leftover Salmon.
The sold out hall was first treated to Darol Anger's new supergroup, Strings for Industry. Anger is a true virtuoso on the fiddle, but when he gathered his new Portland, Oregon based unit featuring Tony Furtado on guitar and banjo, Scott Law on electric guitar, Tye North (formerly of Leftover Salmon) on bass and monster drummer Carlton Jackson the magic was flowing again.
But it was the Leftover Salmon reunion that drew the crowd. Playing their first gig as a full band since they went on hiatus at the end of 2004 (a gig two weeks before at Telluride was without keyboardist Bill McKay), it was like they never left the road. The band was on fire from the first notes and the crowd responded in kind. Drew Emmitt is a spectacular player and singer, and Vince Herman is a force of nature, but something happens when the two of them are on stage together that is far greater than the sum of the parts.
As if they could not get enough of playing together, the group kept it up until five thirty in the morning, going past the crack of dawn to dawn itself. As the last notes of "River's Rising" greeted th new day everyone wondered how Leftover Salmon could possibly top that on Sunday, the final day of the festival.
Vince Herman was later seen playing a morning game of kickball with fans rather than heading to bed. Your reporter managed to catch only two hours
of sleep after the Salmon set, but that is not the reason the majority of things he saw the last day were on the mainstage.
Read on for Sunday
For years now Maria Kelly has handled all the MC duties for the Grandstand Stage, but this year she could not be there. I was among the radio personalities given the honor to announce the acts there on Sunday. It was an honor and a real joy to do so. I did manage to catch the first hour of the Gospel Show on the Big Meadow stage while eating breakfast that morning, however, and what a way to start the day. Carolyn Wonderland, Patrice Pike, Papa Mali, Shannon Moore, Guy Forsyth and others really know how to start a Sunday morning! Sweet, rootsy, funky gospel goodness replete with prayers for peace is how to do it and they did right, song circle style. With all that talent on stage there was no way to do it otherwise and, man, did it work. If church
was always like this I would go every day.
As people started to wake up, however, it became clear that haze obscuring the mountains across the valley wasn't simple fog, it was smoke. A few scary thoughts crossed everyone's minds until it was learned that the major wild fire creating all that smoke was over 30 miles away, not moving in the direction of the festival, and not being whipped by winds on this still morning. So the smoke, which had settled into the valley overnight (and mostly dissipated by late afternoon), was an annoyance, not a threat.
Whatever else was going on at the festival (including sets by New Mastersounds, Eddie & The Roughnecks, Ryan Montbleau, Disco Biscuits, Chris Thile, ALO, the Budos Band, Brian Auger's Oblivion Express, I was content to be at the mainstage. After a set by Lynx, a unique young hippie woman whose music combines folk, looping, computer beats and conscious lyrics, Albino, a San Francisco-based Afrobeat band, got people dancing despite the heat and the smoke. The legendary Mavis Staples was up next, and the gospel theme continued into the afternoon. An hour and a half break and the evening's festival closing sets were lined up.
JJ Grey & Mofro were very good, even if they did not quite scale the heights they did the night before. Phish's Page McConnell (who played a previously unannounced solo piano playshop earlier in the afternoon) brought his new band on and truly rocked the house for two hours of inspired rock. McConnell may be the best leader to emerge from Phish, and he will certainly prove to be the most consistent unless Trey Anastasio eventually gets his shit together. I was never much of a Phish fan so it was a great surprise to me just how good this group is.
After some heartfelt thank yous from the festival organizers to the city of Quincy for stepping up to quell the the civil rights violations of the Sheriff's office the last few years and trusting them, and the festivarians, to take care of ourselves, Leftover Salmon took the stage again. With so little sleep and so much magic happening everywhere, it seemed a little like it was third set of a long Leftover Salmon show with some truly great tweeners as LoS took absolute command of the festival.
If their latenight extravaganza had been great, this was somehow even greater. It was more focused, tighter and had even more energy, if that is possible. Guests included Darol Anger for most of the set, Chris Thile on mandolin, Page McConnell on keyboards for song, and others, but mostly it was Leftover Salmon proving that they are now and always will be the very spirit of the festival. The group seems to understand the magic, chaos, joy and energy of the festival and turn it into sound. It's just that incredible. I for one hope they never stop playing together, even it is just sporadic summertime festival gigs every year.
Later on I wandered around a bit, tempted by the San Francisco party that ALO and Tea Leaf Green were throwing in one late night hall while Les Claypool or the Everyone Orchestra played in others, but instead went to a party I had been hearing about in Camp Harry in RV area near the Big
What a scene that was as Eddie & the Roughnecks (another UK funk band led by Eddie Roberts of the New Mastersounds) tore it up as people danced and talked. Eventually, however, I had to give into being tired and realize that it had really happened. High Sierra 2007 had gone on for four days — almost around the clock — with virtually no trouble, great amenities (note to all other festival producers: the importance of clean portapotties for the entire weekend can not be underestimated and is worth whatever it costs!), great food and drink and most importantly, great people.
The campers not only enjoyed the music and each other's company, they respected the space they were in. As the tear down began on Monday morning it was clear that people were bringing their trash and recyclables to the proper spots and leaving very little matter out of place for the Clean Vibes crew (who also did an amazing job) to deal with.
Let the news ring out throughout the land: High Sierra is back and believe it or not, better than ever. The Best Fest in the West is back!