Can’t decide whether or not to get gone? In anticipation of the big, bad body bake that is the Summer Festival season (buy your SPF60 now, people!), PopMatters spends this week revisiting the highs and lows of last year’s most scintillating soirees.
There’s a palpable sense of remove from the normal life in High Sierra. Climbing the serpentine rural highway through dark green pines and high rising rock walls, one feels the ordinary begin to drop away. You might well be on the road to Rivendell, Shangri-La, or maybe even Grandma’s House.
The feeling only intensifies as you pass through the fairground gates, where post-modern gypsy encampments wink and flutter in the summer breeze. Every Fourth of July weekend for 16 years, a few thousand folks have climbed above the city bustle to enjoy a temporary reprieve from the 24-hour-a-day rush below.
This year’s headliners included My Morning Jacket, Bela Fleck, Nickel Creek, Keller Williams and the Disco Biscuits, but with close to seventy acts to choose from, the range of genres and moods was astonishing.
The organizers of the festival have an ear for primo regional bands from around the country. This makes for a lot of unfamiliar territory, which lends itself to the discovery of new favorites. Last year, I came home in love with SF’s harrowing folk howlers Two Gallants, avant-jazz maniacs the Dead Kenny Gs, and heroically gifted mandolin duo Chris Thile and Mike Marshall. All were first-time listens. This year there were veen more new names, confirming the festival’s enormous desire to present fresh, often strikingly non-commercial, sounds.
In most cases, each group plays twice during the festival’s four days. This helps eliminate scheduling conflicts and affords listeners a second opportunity to enjoy someone who knocked them over on the first go-round. Many of the bands camp onsite and mingle with the masses. There’s an informality and camaraderie that’s unlike any other music festival I’ve attended. You frequently find yourself sharing beers with the artists who floored you earlier in the day. The musicians seem to enjoy the atmosphere as much as the attendees, and it inspires relaxed, spontaneous performances.
Case in point, My Morning Jacket’s late-night Friday set. While the days are spent outdoors, once the moon is high, things move inside to elaborately decorated spaces. Jim James and his Olympian rockers performed in a room he came to call the “Arctic Tent”—a place of snowflakes, spliff-smoking polar bears, and glowing rollergirls.
Like a curvaceous, undulating dream, MMJ slowly built a massive wall of sound that permeated every corner of the hall. It felt like the most exquisite high school dance one could imagine, and the urge to sway gently with a stranger during beautifully bruised jewels like “Hopefully” was strong. Besides extended, exploratory runs through cuts from Z—especially the skippingly bombastic “It Beats For You” and a twistingly exploratory “Off The Record”—they dipped way back in their catalog, revealing the classic pop genius that’s always been present but is only now being fully revealed. All was unrushed, and James’ eyes glimmered with a playful twinkle, and his between-song patter further lured us into the collective spell.
It was completely different from the widescreen rock of their main stage performance the next night—one which more closely resembled their head-of-steam onslaught at Bonnaroo a few weeks earlier. MMJ’s late night sojourn had a completeness of character and luxuriant emotional depth. There are no halfway measures with this band. They reach into the very dark and light of you. Maybe not all are ready to have their essence stimulated but creeping past the 3 a.m. hour, a roomful of us exhaled a collective sigh, drunk on the Louisville moonshine, warmed from the inside, carried away by terrestrially bound angels.
However, not everything works such profound magic. Given the high volume of families and aging Woodstockians, High Sierra has a weakness for muddy mélanges—folk-jazz, tribal-bluegrass, new age rock—that create non-threatening background that can a times seem a little boring. Bands like Blue Turtle Seduction, Sneakin’ Out and Chris Berry & Panjea meant well but came across like Putumayo Records samplers brought to life.
Diversity can be swell but when applied with a lightness of touch and Alan Alda sensitivity it rubs me the wrong way. Perhaps a youth spent at Black Flag shows has forever sanded away any taste for such lite fare. I do not begrudge those who choose to sway to these uber-gentle sounds, but a number of the entertainers did make me quicken my steps away. After all, you can only stick around for so long when Irish fiddles join African drums and some white dude starts chanting about world peace.
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High Sierra has its fair share of innocuous acts, sure, but in recent years the festival has also opened the door to some healthy aggression. Apollo Sunshine wielded a rusty saber of sound as they expanded on the promise of their superb, eponymous 2005 album—their gorgeously unpredictable mix meshing the Beatles’ pop savvy with Mission of Burma’s uncompromising ferocity. Grinning, the trio hacked away at themselves, feeding the crowd with chunks of human essence, a kind that inspired strangers to sing along to tunes they’d only just met.
Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey
Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey set aside their recent, more classically-minded jazz bent on Saturday afternoon in an effort to answer the dizzy hypothetical “What would a speed-addled Meters sound like doing Zappa covers?” Their set smiled back at 2000-2001 JFJO, a beautifully spastic, jelly bodied entity like no other. One is instantly floored by their stratospheric musicianship. Whether quietly unearthing the heart of Mingus or putting a buzzsaw to convention, Brian Haas (keyboards), Jason Smart (drums), and Reed Mathis (bass) play with an unfiltered passion that unlocks mysteries, rejuvenates circulation, and lays waste to most of the stuff that dares to call itself jazz these days.
To hear greatness in its germinal stage is intoxicating. Bookending the festival, San Francisco’s The New Up was all prickly erogenous zones and contemporary disquiet. The quintet channels the future-forward zeitgeist of Radiohead, Lake Trout (who they covered), Talking Heads, and TV on the Radio. Singer E.S. Pitcher is a dizzying blur of hips and lips, seductive as memory with the sharp tang of the lash—a thoroughly modern frontwoman that’s actually a woman, and not some whiney little girl.
Superb, tight playing fuels a compellingly varied approach broad enough to rope in tweakers, hippies, and library bound indie kids. Subtle electronics and processed flute scuttle predictability, and while their predominantly compact compositions avoid bloated excess, there are enough guitar tangents to appeal to Pavement and Ween fans. They take the slinky flexibility and slippery genre sense of the jam scene and give it razor sharp teeth.
Singing about how “lonely machinery distracts us from our lives,” there’s a sense of giddy desperation in their sound that feels downright prophetic. Cute as hell in a scruffy sort of way, the New Up have the makings of a “Next Big Thing.” They’re a Luaka Bop band waiting to happen, a tastemaker cooked up from a recipe book of their own design—funky and frightening, intimate and anthemic, switched-on in every lil’ way.
Good songs rocked with sincerity are always appealing, and two major sources of both this year were Mississippi’s Shady Deal and Philadelphia’s The Brakes. Sounding like boys who grew up with Widespread Panic playing in their cribs, Shady Deal are rough like steel-cut oats, filling and hard and probably really good for you. Take a spoonful and you’ll taste the metal-accented guitars and barley-hard vocals. Take another and you’ll pick up a ‘50s Sun Studio flavor filtered through vintage Lynyrd Skynyrd. The specter of old blues, full of foreboding and dry earth roughness, permeates things. Pretty it ain’t, but it sure feels real. Shady Deal has an unabashed affection for what’s come before. The tunes are catchy as shit and they look just like a bunch of wild-eyed, rock lovin’ southern boys should. I’d see ‘em again anytime.
Less hard but more tunefully nuanced, the Brakes reminded us of how good pop music can be. No wheels are being reinvented but, man alive, these boys roll with harmonious ease. To be honest, I expect very little from a band I’d first heard on an H & R Block Tax Cuts TV commercial (they’re responsible for the ear-worm “Sometimes You Make Me Feel Special!”). I was going to skip them altogether, but walking past I heard something with the juicy bop of Matthew Sweet, later Replacements, and the Posies. There’s a bouncy push to the clean vocals and exceedingly youthful energy. Lines like “Maybe it was you that put a little chill in my wind” linger, and they’ve got big enough ears to pull out an obscure Traffic classic like “Empty Pages.”
People at High Sierra actually sit and listen to the quiet music. What a concept! Musicians can whisper, tentatively bringing their soul out into the light and mountain air, and audiences hush up. It’s strikingly different than most festivals and speaks to the abiding love of music that fills this place.
My “quiet moment” was a Sunday-morning service from the Tom Freund Trio. Completely unfamiliar with Freund, I heard a more honeyed version of Steve Earle’s voice telling me to take my troubles and drop them in the deep blue sea. On stage, they blended acoustic guitar, hand percussion, stand-up bass, and surprisingly melodic harmonies. Addressing a crowd spread out lazily on the grass, Freund said, “I’m gonna play stuff to help me wake up, too. Y’all look pretty worked.” By the fourth day of recreational chemistry and near non-stop stimulation, his music was a balm to the spirit.
By the third song, I realized that Freund is a treasure trove to be mined for emotionally satisfying gems, a future staple of mix CDs and lonely, late nights. Only afterwards did I discover Freund is a longtime collaborator of Ben Harper and Victoria Williams, a man that Graham Parker calls “the best singer-songwriter operating today.” The songs speak for themselves: quality heaped upon quality, small worlds vibrating with all the good and bad stuff that fills a day. Call it vibrant verisimilitude or, more crudely, mighty real shit. His lyrics are the kind you write down because a part of you realizes you’ve just heard the truth. A couple favorites were: “I’m not going to show you where I keep my sanctuaries/Because you’ll come in with your tractors and put up your shopping malls” and “I’m gonna lay down my weary blues like a barnstorming plane to your bedroom.”
Aided by blues marvel David Jacobs-Strain for much of the set, Freund offered up tunes that the wind or rain might write—natural and graceful, filled with organic fury and non-homogenized love. In reaction to the police shakedowns that occurred throughout the weekend, he delivered a pointed, oh-too-timely cover of Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” that snarled far more than any of the recent high ticket priced CSNY reunions. You can place Freund in the stellar company of John David Souther, Michael Martin Murphey, David Wilcox, John Gorka, and Neal Casal—songwriter’s songwriters who help us process the daily grind in ways that leave us guardedly hopeful about what lies ahead.
And that’s what this weekend was all about. For any minor quibbles about programming, there’s little doubt that High Sierra is the friendliest, most diverse, and downright hospitable music festival in the West—and, quite likely, in the whole United States. They craft a safe, beautiful, freedom-loving oasis that hums with musical promise. If the fates allow, I’ll be back every year.