There are more festivals than ever these days, but one of the longest running is still one of the best. High Sierra is relatively unique in how it blends the best elements of a large festival with many of the comforts and amenities of a smaller festival. The four stages do have overlapping sets, so some tough choices still come up. But many of the bands play twice, enabling attendees to catch at least one of the performances. The 10,000 capacity size creates the overall vibe of a big festival, but overcrowding issues are rare and there are many intimate moments that can’t be found at the larger festivals. And then there’s that laid back Northern California flavor. There’s nothing but good vibes in all directions all weekend.
The biggest challenge is landing a decent camping spot, as many attendees will travel up the day before to snag the most coveted turf to set up their elaborate campsites. If you don’t arrive in the first wave, you’re either scrambling to find some shade on a hillside or having to settle for a satellite lot where you have to take a shuttle to the festival grounds. But once you get settled in, there’s four days and long nights of fiesta fun to satisfy even the hardiest of party animals.
The first day usually has softer schedule since organizers know many people are spending half the day just getting settled in. But by early evening you had Animal Liberation Orchestra (ALO) at the Grandstand, while The Slip played simultaneously at Big Meadow with up and comers Papadosio at the Vaudeville. The Slip had broken the longest running streak for consecutive appearances at the festival (twelve) when they missed 2011, but were back in force here. The innovative trio rocks with a jazzy, spacey flair that drew a good crowd, though ALO was definitely bringing the heat too. Keyboardist Marco Benevento was spotted in the audience checking out his friends in The Slip, and it would only be the first of many appearances for Benevento over the weekend.
It was during the 9:30 pm set from jamtronica quintet Lotus that the festival really came alive. The band’s high energy sound that mixes fluid jams with tight grooves and pulsing beats has been growing steadily in popularity over the past few years. This was reflected here in a festive crowd that was rocking the glow bling for the first big dance party of the weekend. There was even one rager who had somehow hooked up a glowing seahorse to a segway that he was bouncing around on, adding extra flair to the scene.
You had to leave Lotus early if you wanted to see any of Matisyahu at the Grandstand, but that’s festival life (and Lotus would play again with a Friday late night show.) Many of these decisions wind up being dictated by which stage you’re camped near, with beverage runs and/or rest stops being periodically necessary throughout the marathon weekend. The Hasidic Jew reggae rapper was delivering a high energy set of his own though that was certainly worth catching the end of.
There was no soft scheduling with the Thursday late night shows though as two of the festival’s biggest draws were pitted against each other. STS9 vs Galactic was a tough choice, but the bands would also play back to back on the Grandstand the next night. But many wished these two performances would have been on separate nights.
STS9 rose to the occasion by throwing down an old school show that found the band focusing on their more organic material, with the laptops of bassist David Murphy and guitarist Hunter Brown left on the shelf. This vibe was signaled with the opening sequence of “T.W.E.L.V.E”, “Ramone & Emiglio”, “Frequencies” and “Some are Angels”. There was an angelic vibe in the air as the show took on the flavor of the band’s early Bay Area shows from a decade ago. That era was also when STS9 first played High Sierra and Murphy made no secret of the band’s joy in being back. By the time it was all over, it was just past 4 am and most fans had been partying steadily for at least twelve hours. Rest and relaxation were the next order of the evening. But if you passed by a friend’s pimped out party lounge campsite that had a big disco party going on, you were probably hanging out for a little bonus party time. Ah, High Sierra.
If you had shade, you could sleep until 11 am or even high noon, which was most necessary if you were up until 5 or 6 am. Getting going each day was a leisurely process for most, but if you were camped near one of the stages you could hear music from your campsite just fine. Hence the noon set of Brokedown From Bakersfield was heard by many still at their sites. Formed at last year’s High Sierra Festival by several members of ALO along with Tim Bluhm from The Motherhips, his wife Nicki Bluhm and Scott Law, the band delivers a New Riders of the Purple Sage-style honky tonk blues that sounded great in the early afternoon.
Most folks were ready to start grooving again by 1:45 pm though when Greensky Bluegrass played the Grandstand while The Motet delivered their “Funk is Dead” tribute to the Grateful Dead at the Big Meadow. It was easily one of the most electrifying sets of the weekend as the band re-worked the Dead’s classic tunes with their own signature afro-funk stylings. As they crushed “St. Stephen” and “Estimated Prophet”, it became clear that the band had really worked out the material. A pinnacle moment occurred at the end of the set with a sublime “Dark Star” segueing into an ultra-funky “Scarlet Begonias”, and then back and forth between the two for one of the most crowd pleasing jams of the weekend.
It was then just a hop, skip and a jump over to the Vaudeville stage where semi-supergroup Garage a Trois was having a funky party of their own, mixing in some free jazz style curveballs as well. With Galactic’s Stanton Moore leading the way on drums, Skerik on sax, Mike Dillon on percussion/vibraphone and Marco Benevento on keys, this is a high profile unit. Then you also had the classic Jamaican reggae ska sounds of Toots & the Maytals at the Grandstand, although many preferred to take that in from camp due to the sweltering heat.
New Orleans acid jazz-funk kingpins Galactic were back in action at 6:30 pm at the Grandstand for one of the weekend’s best sets. Another peak occurred when Living Color vocalist Corey Glover joined the band (as he’s been doing on occasion for a couple years now). Glover powered through a deep take on Galactic’s “Heart of Steel”, while also leading the band through a turbo-charged blast on Living Color’s mega-hit “Cult of Personality” that blew everyone away. There were only 45 minutes between the end of Galactic’s set and the start of STS9’s headlining set, so you could either catch The Lumineers at Big Meadow or perhaps just retreat to camp for a pit stop. It was only too bad that rising indie-rock/alt-country/garage rock phenoms Deer Tick were scheduled for Big Meadow during STS9’s set. This was a terrible conflict for those with diverse tastes in rock ‘n’ roll, but Deer Tick were thankfully scheduled for another set on Saturday night.
STS9 flashed another side of their multi-dimensional vibe by bringing out a huge light show here, as this set was one of the “Great Cycle Spectacles” performances that the band has been touring behind in 2012 in honor of the Mayan calendar’s impending conclusion this coming Winter Solstice. The band’s elaborate pyramid lighting structure featured the glyphs from late great Mayan scholar/prophet Jose Arguelles’ Dreamspell interpretation of the Mayan calendar, which STS9 has been into for years. They also had a huge Starfleet-style control panel across the front of the stage, making it look almost like the stage might take off for the stars at any time. This was also the second most crowded set of the weekend, showing that STS9 were one of the festival’s top draws.
The band’s soaring new song “20-12”, premiered last year, was an early highlight. The up-beat melodic jam had the throng grooving to sounds that seemed aimed at conjuring the planetary peace and harmony which the metaphysical community has long dreamt of for 2012. Other newer tunes like “When the Dust Settles”, “Vapors” and “Simulator” made for a strong sequence as well, showing a band that is not content to use their older material as a crutch. But then the quintet came back with the classic trilogy of “What is Love”, “Circus” and “Evasive Maneuvers”, with the latter’s jam building wave after wave until it felt like the Starship Enterprise was jumping to warp speed on a mission to save the galaxy.
The Friday late nights pitted Lotus against ALO. For those who had caught the STS9 show, moving on to see a newer band that’s been influenced by STS9 seemed appropo. Hence the Lotus show was very well attended and the band threw down a long dance party that kept fans grooving into the wee hours.
Saturday found the Dead Winter Carpenters warming up the Grandstand in the noon hour with their rootsy mix of rock, folk and bluegrass, a great sound for the early part of the day. Soulive followed with their funky acid jazz sound that features the B3 Hammond organ of Neal Evans and the virtuoso hot licks of guitarist Eric Krasno. A “Come Together>Eleanor Rigby” jam was a prime highlight.
The hot sun still made it difficult to draw a crowd even by the 4:45 pm start time for Ryan Bingham, but this one was certainly worth venturing out for. The Texas troubadour was breaking in a new band, but the tunes still sounded great and the crowd kept growing throughout the set. The rocking yet laid back sound of “Dylan’s Hard Rain” sparkled, with Bingham’s soulful voice providing a mid-day catharsis. “Hallelujuah>Depression” was another highlight, with a sweet melodic jam that seemed to recall “The Wheel” from the Grateful Dead. Bingham certainly has some hippie in him, which he revealed further with the psychedelic bliss of “Bluebird”. The rousing 90-minute set closed with a raucous romp through “Bread and Water”, a Texas tribute that sounded just as good in California.
The breakout performance of High Sierra 2012 occurred shortly thereafter at Big Meadow with Brooklyn’s Rubblebucket throwing down a raucous dance party that had the whole meadow jumping. The band’s mix of horn-driven Afro-beat funk with melodic soul and rock was downright infectious, with energetic singer Kalmia Traver pumping up the vibe further with her exuberant enthusiasm. This was one of those sets where you could just feel a collective sense of victory encompass the area, as well as a young band winning a lot of new fans. The energy level soared off the charts with “Came Out of a Lady”, with the band simply crushing the sharp funky groove in ecstatic fashion. The audience reveled as Traver and two of her horn-playing bandmates crowd surfed through the jam. You can never predict when you’re going to suddenly stumble across your favorite new band, but it’s always a special moment when it happens. And it’s bound to happen at a festival like High Sierra.
Ben Harper drew the biggest crowd of the weekend to the Grandstand for his Saturday night headlining set and showed a veteran savvy by opening with the Grateful Dead’s “Friend of the Devil”. This set a crowd-pleasing tone and classic tunes like “Diamonds on the Inside” and “Burn and Shine” pleased further. The anthemic “Burn One Down” might have been the song of the weekend, with Northern California well known for its support of such activity. But there was also yet another electronic dance party happening at Big Meadow, as Big Gigantic drew a big crowd of their own with their mix of saxophone and soulful synth lines over psychedelic dub-step grooves.
11:30 pm saw Deer Tick taking the Vaudeville stage and drawing a packed crowd for a barnburning set. Vocalist/guitarist John McCauley writes and sings songs with no pretension and, like Ryan Bingham, his earnest gritty voice just soothes the soul. He’s a chameleon who can mimic Paul Westerberg or Kurt Cobain (as he did in the band’s stunning “Deervana” set at SXSW last year), but Deer Tick is increasingly owning the day on their own. You could once again sense the triumphant vibe of fans discovering a great band that they hadn’t previously known too well. Conflict continued though as Brokedown in Bakersfield were soon coming on to open the late night show for Railroad Earth. Nicki Bluhm delivered a timely version of “Walking After Midnight,” and man about town Marco Benevento also sat in for a great jam.
The Americana rock of Railroad Earth was a bit of a change up in the late night slot from the two previous nights. But like STS9, this was a band that’s grown from playing the smaller stages at High Sierra to headlining status now, with this show preceding Sunday night’s closing performance on the Grandstand. The band took their time getting it going here, but really picked it up in the second set. The great chemistry between the band members was on display with a stellar jam on “Mighty River” that saw the pickers riffing out in glorious delight.
By the time Sunday morning rolled around, many attendees were spent. But there was still one more day to go. The easy-going vibe of Steve Poltz was just what the doctor ordered for a lazy sunday hangover afternoon, as he spun amusing tales about traveling to Mexico with ex-girlfriend Jewel and gonzo capers involving Mitt Romney’s tour group getting their spaghetti sauce spiked with marijuana. Rubblebucket played again at the Vaudeville stage and delivered another festive dance party. The band mixed it up by covering Blondie with a great “Heart of Glass>Rapture>Heart of Glass” and then scored once again with “Came Out of a Lady”, featuring more crowd-surfing horn players and a dance cop playfully trying to bring order to no avail. It was again clearly evident that Rubblebucket is a band who is really going places.
Built to Spill rocked the Grandstand with their psychedelic alt-rock sound, adding a welcome bit of the grunge vibe to the festival. There was another major conflict when Marco Benevento and Lettuce opposed each other in the 8-9:30 slots, but the Big Meadow and Vaudeville stages are only about five minutes apart so you could see easily catch some of both. Eric Krasno was going for broke on lead guitar for Lettuce, with the band throwing down some deep grooves that had the crowd really getting down. But if you went back over to the Vaudeville stage for the end of Marco Benevento’s set, you were treated to a guest appearance from Rubblebucket’s Kalmia Traver. Benevento said he had caught the band in Burlington, Vermont and knew he had to call Traver after just one song. They then wrote some tunes together, two of which will appear on Benevento’s new album. He described one as “the single”, which was pleasing enough. But it was the second tune that he described as “a fifteen-minute exploration” which really wowed the crowd. The set closer also featured several other members of Rubblebucket for an exuberant and ambitious jam that was easily one of the weekend’s top highlights.
Railroad Earth then brought it full circle with their headlining set to close down the Grandstand. “Like a Buddha” was an early highlight, injecting a great mid-summer peaceful vibe into the air. But like the night before, the band kept building the energy throughout the show. “Black Elk Speaks” saw singer/guitarist Todd Sheaffer and company going into the well for one of their deepest tunes, which then led to a big jam on “Warhead Boogie”. A “Peace on Earth” encore closed out the main festival with a perfect sentiment following four days and night’s of musical peace and harmony.
But unlike most festivals, High Sierra offers late night action on even the final night to satisfy the die-hards, with Big Gigantic and The Devil Makes Three headlining the late slots against each other. Big Gigantic built off their memorable set from the night before, with saxophonist Dominic Lalli and drummer Jeremy Salken throwing down another groovy electronica fiesta that focused heavily on the dub-step whomp that the night owls seem to never get enough of. The jazzy flavor from Lalli’s sax helps the duo avoid the repetitive whomp-whomp that can plague some acts in the oversaturated dub-step field these days, and so it was that Big Gigantic closed down the festival in style. This was highlighted by a guest appearance from Eric Krasno, who helped the band out on “Fire It Up”.
When it was all over, there were 10,000 sated music fans. Some will say that too much is never enough, but here it was just about just right.