As the 18th annual High Sierra Music Festival approached, some doubt was cast in the smoky air from the wildfires that plagued Northern California. Word was the main access route to Quincy might be closed off. The fires were still burning so recklessly around Plumas County, there was even speculation the entire festival could be cancelled. This fortunately did not occur and fans were treated to four days and nights of big festival vibes in a small festival setting, resulting in a glorious Independence Day weekend of near-utopian peace and harmony.
The main route in from Highway 70 was closed off near Oroville, though, meaning most travelers had to go further east to Truckee and backtrack up Route 85 or take a circuitous canyon detour around Bucks Lake. The detour extended the trip by quite awhile, although it did offer some beautiful canyon scenery.
High Sierra Music Festival 2008
Traveling out of the Bay Area on July 3 is always a dicey proposition. Even in this foul year of rising gas prices and economic downturn, traffic was still agonizingly heavy all the way from San Francisco to Sacramento and beyond toward the Sierras. Campers who were really on the ball traveled up the day before, leaving the traffic to late arrivals. Festival organizers were well aware of such potential issues though, as the first day of the festival wasn’t exactly front-loaded with top draws.
But just about everyone had arrived by the time Idaho alt-rockers Built to Spill hit the main stage for Thursday’s headlining performance. Powered by three guitars, the band’s psychedelic sound sparkles as it soars across the starry night sky; the Big Dipper seemingly pouring cosmic ooze down onto the stage.
Now it’s onto the late night action. On each night, one band performs for free in the Vaudeville Tent, while two or three other double-bills are offered in the late night music halls for extra ticketing fees. Depending on your mood and taste, these extra fees could be well worth it for four or five extra hours of entertainment. On Thursday night for example, The Slip plays the Vaudeville Tent; the Mother Hips, a band going through an impressive musical renaissance over the past year, are playing for $18; trip-hop star Bassnectar for $22; and rising jam phenoms Blue Turtle Seduction for $12.
Opening for Blue Turtle Seduction is Phix, a Phish cover band that can’t seem to help keep getting back together even though they’ve supposedly broken up. The band delivers the goods with a truly Phishy sound that has the room moving to a variety of Phish classics. The key to the band’s sonic success is bassist Brian Adams, who delivers the dynamic low-end without which a Phish cover band would just sound like a garage band. He’s also the one member of the group who bears an uncanny resemblance to his likeness, as if he could be Phish bassist Mike Gordon’s younger brother or cousin. The highlight of the set is a stupendous rendition of “Divided Sky”. The classic tune is delivered with as much energy and precision as any “phan” could hope for, with guitarist Paul Murin nailing every one of Trey Anastasio’s licks.
Blue Turtle Seduction
Lake Tahoe’s Blue Turtle Seduction proceeds to rock the house with two sets that blend bluegrassy rock with pop, funk, a little bit of punk, and an ever-positive vibe. The weekend dance party is now in full effect. BTS also kick off a revolutionary patriotic spirit that stays strong throughout the weekend, demonstrating that today’s rockers are more socially conscious than radio and TV programmers might have the public believe. BTS get things going in that direction with their soon-to-be-classic call to arms “Government”, a rousing sing-along number on which charismatic vocalist Glenn Stewart urges that, “the people must lead for the leaders to see.”
Late night activities also include nightly fire-dancing performances that draw large crowds of “oohs” and “ahhs” each night for compelling performances from Flamebouyant Productions and Instruments of the Now. With fireworks out of the question due to the dry conditions, the fire-dancing shows provide a nice alternate stimulation to the visual senses.
The weather is downright perfect all weekend, with high temperatures around 80 and lows in the high 50s. Unlike the sweltering and humid climate of Tennessee’s Bonnaroo Festival, Quincy’s temperate weather allows fans to rock and roll all night and still sleep all morning. Those who are able to rouse themselves before noon, however, can partake in organized morning sessions of meditation, pilates, and yoga in a centralized meadow called The Lawn, which is surrounded by Tibetan prayer flags. The spiritual West Coast vibe is in evident effect.
The heat is peaking when High Sierra vets New Monsoon hit the main stage at 2:15 pm on Friday for a 90-minute set that is as hot as the mid-day sun. Lead guitarist Jeff Miller delivers a stream of hot licks as the band tears into their classic rock-inspired sound with a summertime abandon that fits the 4th of July mood to a tee. Despite the heat, New Monsoon’s rocking sound draws a sizable crowd. It’s here that the festival shifts into high gear.
Shortly thereafter, Bustle in Your Hedgerow—an instrumental Led Zeppelin cover band featuring the Benevento-Russo Duo on drums and keys—delivers a strong set on the Big Meadow stage. Guitarist Scott Metzger and Ween bassist Dave Dreiwitz round out the tight quartet as fans revel in scintillating versions of “Immigrant Song” and “The Wanton Song”, powered to a higher level by Benevento’s inventive lead organ work.
Unlike some of the nation’s bigger festivals, none of the stages or campgrounds are too far from any of the others at High Sierra, meaning fans can come and go with minimum effort. This is the key to High Sierra’s trademark big festival vibe in small festival package. For food and drink, a plethora of tasty cuisines and beverages are offered at reasonable prices. But if you want to go back to your campsite for a cookout and happen to have a boom box, you can still listen to live music on the festival’s Grizzly Radio, which has four separate stations for each stage! This is the type of value-added service that makes the High Sierra Festival a hard bargain to beat. Another vital service is provided by water trucks that regularly wet down the main roads of the campgrounds to keep things from getting too dusty.
Ivan Neville’s Dumpstaphunk rocks the main stage in the late afternoon with a funky sound driven by Neville’s New Orleans roots. Neville is one of many artists over the weekend that promotes an appropriately patriotic, socially conscious vibe. One particularly funky jam finds Neville singing, “Bush didn’t help us, Cheney didn’t help us, did nothing for Katrina… we gotta turn this thing around, we gotta help those people out.” The band also delivers a groovy cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son” that’s clearly aimed at the same culprits.
Next up on the main stage is the real Phish bassist Mike Gordon, who is currently touring behind a new album. After hitting the road over the past few years with a variety of partners, it’s an intriguing opportunity for fans to see Gordon fronting his own band. The man known to “phans” as Cactus delivers a great set reminiscent of the free-flowing, groovy vibe Phish became famous for. Gordon tears into the new songs with a dynamic attack highlighting why he’s gained a rep as one of the planet’s finest bassists. He also delivers a fresh take on Phish’s “Meat”, and kicks off the weekend’s Beatles love fest with a great “She Said She Said” that sounds delightful in the summer breeze.
Friday night’s main stage headliner is Gov’t Mule, with guitarist Warren Haynes delivering his ever-bluesy brand of guitar-driven rock to the nighttime crowd. The set leans a bit heavily on Mule’s old standbys, perhaps slightly disappointing to those who thought Haynes might seize the Fourth of July occasion to offer up some more timely material. But an entrancing cover of the Beatles’ “Dear Prudence” wins the day, featuring a deep jam that is a highlight of the festival. “Unring the Bell”, from the band’s latest album High and Mighty, invokes a vibe of revolutionary dissidence with outspoken lyrics like “Fake liberty is just another form of hate / Unring the bell before it’s too late.” Encore “Brighter Days”, from the same album, rocks the house with some smoking slide guitar and positive vibes for a better future, setting the stage for the band to close things out with “Soulshine”, Haynes’ classic contribution to the Allman Brothers’ catalogue.
By Saturday morning, the skies have taken on a distinct haze due to the forest fires and attendees are being advised from the main stage PA that anyone seeking relief could find fresh air in the air-conditioned environs of the Mineral Room. An amusing incident occurs when one young fellow is brought back to his campsite by festival security and ordered to take four hours of bed rest. He’s told he will be summarily ejected from the premises if sighted on the festival grounds during this time. Since the fellow in question had clearly gone past his limits to reach a frazzled state, the order of mandatory bed rest actually seems like the most compassionate course of action for everyone concerned. It demonstrates that, unlike many large events, festival security is aligned with the same wise folks running the whole show.
The lack of shade in the main stage area makes it difficult for the Chicago Afrobeat Project to draw much of a crowd for their early afternoon set, but they nonetheless throw down some sharp polyrhythmic grooves that pay tribute to Nigerian Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti. Over at the Big Meadow stage, the Akron/Family delivers a mid-afternoon set that starts off a little shaky but builds strongly until their “freak machine” has the crowd rocking out. One jam takes on the psychedelic flavor of the Grateful Dead’s “The Other One”, while the set closer begins with a beat-box jam that finds the crowd inspired to follow the band’s lead by making circle, triangle and square shapes with their hands while chanting “yeah yeah yeah.” The Slip follows Akron/Family on the Big Meadow stage with a set of jazzy space-rock jams. The trio hasn’t seen their star rise much over the past decade, but has continued to follow their own muse and developed a rep as musician’s musicians. Their sound fits right in at High Sierra.
The festival is set up in such a way that you never know what you might see while traveling from one point to another. Walking back toward the main stage area in the late afternoon, one could encounter the Gamelan X crew, a world music group that would play the Shady Grove stage on Sunday and who had staked out a prime camping spot along the main drag. The group uses their prime location to deliver impromptu performances throughout the weekend to whoever might be passing by. Their diverse ensemble includes a set of four giant gongs, with one or two people sitting inside the gongs banging them with a hypnotic rhythm that’s in tune with the other instruments. In this location, one can walk right up, stand next to one of the gongs and receive a sublime vibration-fueled healing.
Walking through the same corridor on Sunday evening, one could encounter a beautiful topless young lady who has painted “free hugs” across her chest, and is offering those hugs to anyone whose eyes light up at the prospect of some free love. The 40th anniversary of the Summer of Love may have been last year, but the vibe lives on thanks to this free spirit. Passing by The Lawn, a squadron of hula hoopers of all ages is in action throughout the weekend, as the spirit of peace and harmony continues to flow.
Railroad Earth hits the main stage at 6:20 pm for a two-hour set of melodic, bluegrassy rock. New Monsoon guitarist Jeff Miller sits in for a tune that catches fire for a hot jam between he and fiddler Tim Carbone. Later, Cornmeal fiddler Allie Kral sits in for “Peace on Earth”, a tune that creates a great snapshot of the entire High Sierra vibe. The jam is fairly simplistic, but the gorgeous dual fiddle work from Carbone and Kral fits the early evening summer mood just right. Mandolinist John Skehan keeps a striking rhythm behind them and it’s clear that Railroad Earth, like the festival organizers, have some serious chemistry going.
// Notes from the Road
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