Part 2: 96 Hours of Music
Bob Weir & Ratdog
A kind vibe permeates the grounds as fans prepare for Bob Weir & Ratdog to deliver Saturday night’s headlining set. Old hippies share party favors as what looks like the biggest crowd of the weekend packs the main stage area for some “good ol’ Grateful Dead” music. At the beginning of this decade, Ratdog was generally viewed as a lesser entity to the more intense and psychedelic energy of Phil Lesh & Friends. But since touring with Lesh from 2002-04, Weir seems to have been inspired to take his game to a higher level as the Ratdog shows of the past few years have seen a dramatic increase in high-powered jams.
Weir and company deliver an opening pair of fan favorites with “Golden Road” and “Jack Straw”, yet the band seems stuck in second gear for some reason. But when they break out seminal psychedelic classic “Dark Star” in the number three slot, the magic begins. The unfinished “Dark Star” segues into a lively “Little Red Rooster”—when Weir sings, “the dogs begin to bark and the hounds begin to howl,” the crowd responds with a howling in kind. Jerry Garcia favorite “Big Railroad Blues” comes next and this is where the band catches fire—Weir sings the lyrics with playful authority while bassist Robin Sylvester and drummer Jay Lane conjure a smoking groove that gets the Saturday night dance party hopping. Keyboardist Jeff Chimenti, guitarist Mark Karan and saxman Kenny Brooks all weave in their lines with expert skill as the band gels.
Sensing a possible early overload from the hyped-up crowd, Weir brings things down a notch with a superb solo acoustic rendition of the Beatles’ “Blackbird”, a staple of the Ratdog repertoire since the day of Garcia’s untimely departure from the planet in 1995. The band then takes a mid-tempo turn into the political territory of Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”. They follow this with a stellar up-tempo take on “Liberty”, one of the last tunes that Garcia contributed to the Grateful Dead catalogue, as the revolutionary spirit of Independence Day weekend is further conjured—“Ooh, Freedom / Ooh, Liberty / leave me alone to find my own way home.” Weir then throws a curveball with “The Days Between”, another of Garcia’s final tunes—a ballad that never became a particular crowd-pleaser. But here, Weir elevates the song with a more elaborate arrangement the song lacked in its Grateful Dead days.
The band takes “Days Between” into an unprecedented psychedelic territory, but it all makes sense when it segues back into the second verse of “Dark Star”, drawing a triumphant cheer from the adoring crowd. The latter section of “Dark Star” becomes a psychedelic tour de force, with Weir and the band exploring each passage and visiting any number of alternate realities and sonic landscapes. Karan’s lead work is superb. Having recently participated in a 45-minute exploration of the song (when sitting in with Phil Lesh & Friends for their May 14 performance of the Dead’s 1969 Live/Dead album) seems to have had a noticeable effect on Karan’s approach. The High Sierra crowd basks in the results. This is Ratdog 2.0, light years beyond where the band was in its early years.
Weir brings the set home with purpose as he leads the band into a rousing rendition of “One More Saturday Night”, a high-energy Chuck Berry-esque number that closes the set with a flourish. The band then encores with the apropos “U.S. Blues”, once again rocking the song with an energy that the Dead version lacked in latter days. The show is a definitive triumph and sends the crowd dispersing into the evening elated.
Charlie Hunter Trio
Over at the Vaudeville Tent it isn’t long before the Charlie Hunter Trio is throwing down a set of their trademark jazzy funk-rock jams. The grooves are well received as the tent is absolutely packed. Hunter’s virtuoso skills on his own unique guitar have continued to evolve, as he now delivers a more danceable brand of tunes than he did a decade ago.
Those who find themselves up at dawn are treated to an epic sunrise as the smoky conditions in the area cause the rising sun to appear like a fiery comet shooting slowly up into the sky. It’s a superb performance from Mother Nature, appropriately on par with all the great music being played throughout the weekend.
It’s a slow rising crowd on Sunday and with good reason. Most festivals last for only two or three days. But here’s High Sierra heading into fourth day. Many fans are taking it easy in the early part of the day, just trying to regain some energy. Blues rock guitarist Robben Ford hits the main stage at 2:15 pm and does his best to get things going, but the combination of hot sun and no shade leaves him playing to a sparse crowd.
A bit of shade can be found over at the Big Meadow stage though, and those who venture there are treated to one of weekend’s breakout surprises from the everybodyfields, out of Tennessee. The band’s smooth alt-country Americana sound fits the sweltering afternoon just right. With pedal steel guitar from Tom Pryor over soaring vocal harmonies from guitarist Sam Quinn and bassist Jill Andrews, the band’s sound feels like a slice of alt-country heaven. The aching harmonies on “So Good” fill the soul with a spiritual/sonic manna that marks the band as one to watch.
Most of the growing crowd is sitting throughout the set, but attentive nonetheless with appreciative applause between each song. Quinn tells the crowd that Andrews is looking for a ride back to San Francisco and there’s no doubt the charismatic bassist will find a willing driver with ease. The band caps off their set with a magnificent alt-country take on the Smashing Pumpkin’s “Today” that wows the assembled crowd, a large number of which mass at the side of the stage to buy CDs from the band afterward, and/or offer Andrews that ride.
We’re into the homestretch now as the Charlie Hunter Trio hits the main stage at 5 p.m. for another set. Like a number of other bands, Hunter is playing multiple sets on different stages throughout the weekend. The band still sounds great, but can’t quite match the energy of their late night throw-down. Right after this set, the everybodyfields appear again on the Radio Stage, which offers short sets for the radio listeners. It’s near constant music for 96 consecutive hours.
Former “one-man band” Keller Williams leads his new band onto the main stage at 6:45 p.m., with bassist Keith Moseley from the String Cheese Incident, drummer Jeff Sipe, and guitarist Gibb Droll forming a rocking quartet. The heat has finally cooled off to the point where a large crowd has now gathered, as Williams leads the group through a high energy set, clearly having a ball. Moseley and Sipe form a stellar rhythm section and one senses that this newly formed unit is just scratching the surface.
At 7:45 p.m., Blue Turtle Seduction hits the Big Meadow stage and delivers another high adrenaline set that turns out to be one of the festival’s best. Mandolin/fiddle player Christian Zupancic and guitarist Jay Seals are putting out a lot energy, the crowd is feeding it back and Blue Turtle is riding the wave, totally in the flow. The band throws down one catchy, uplifting song after another and the crowd parties like its still Saturday night. The mood is truly festive and one gets the sense that BTS will be playing the main stage at High Sierra 2009.
The Blue Turtle set ends at 9 p.m. sharp, just as Michael Franti and Spearhead are coming on for the final main stage set of the festival. Franti and crew have been one of the decade’s best success stories, growing from a club band to a festival headliner and showing that being a band driven by socially conscious themes is not an impediment to success. Just the opposite—the band’s growing popularity stems from their conscious vibe, along with their feel good grooves.
The band delivers a rocking set appropriate for the finale of the main festival. “East to the West” is a particular crowd pleaser, with Franti intoning that “God is too big for one religion.” Later, Franti shares a touching story about having a son at a young age and being stressed about not having as much personal freedom. He tells of how this caused him to have to prioritize his time, which led to an increased focus on music, and the writing of a large number of songs while essentially babysitting. As the band steams toward the finish, they rev the crowd up for one of the biggest charges of the weekend with “Yell Fire”, a high-energy ode to imminent spiritual revolution. It’s the perfect capper to the Independence Day weekend.
But the fun’s still not over yet. Most festivals don’t have late night acts on the last night. But this is High Sierra, so serious party animals can still choose from a Buckethead / Eric McFadden Trio show or a pairing of New Monsoon and EOTO (End of Time Observatory.) EOTO, the new live electronica act from String Cheese Incident percussionists Michael Travis and Jason Hann, kicks off the late night party at the High Sierra Music Hall with a scintillating set of psychedelic dance jams. The smoking grooves have an otherworldly quality that seems to take over listeners’ bodies the moment they enter the hall. The duo has clearly been refining its skills throughout the year and it pays off here.
New Monsoon hit the stage around 1:15 a.m. and fire off two more strong sets that finally bring the festival to a close. Railroad Earth’s Tim Carbone sits in for much of the show on fiddle, as he did with the band earlier this year at the Fillmore, and the chemistry is almost as if Carbone is a full-time band mate. Lead guitarist Jeff Miller seems to hold back a bit with Carbone present to share the leads, but it gives acoustic guitar/banjo player Bo Carper a chance to shine, which he does. New Monsoon are clearly in their element in the late night atmosphere, delivering a seamless show that keeps the party rocking all night with rich harmony vocals and one crowd-pleasing song after another.
By the time the next morning rolls around, campers are already departing and the bittersweet feeling of the festival’s end fills the air. But as fun as this was, the music wasn’t just about good times. The entire festival was interspersed with songs that directed listeners to the problems of this world and the solutions needed to make it better. It’s an idea first put forth when the San Francisco socio-cultural revolution of the 1960s swept the nation; the concept that rock and roll can be an effective tool for creating a more just and harmonious society. At the High Sierra Music Festival this idea was still alive and well, and while music might not have all the answers, it can at least point us in the right direction.