Music festivals have exploded in quantity across the nation in the 21st century, but one of the longest-running remains one of the best. The 28th annual High Sierra Music Festival delivered everything the festival is known for: four days and nights of diverse music spanning the jam-rock/improv spectrum, intimate artist playshops and troubadour sessions featuring unique all-star lineups, and a plethora of good vibrations for peace, love and a better world.
With last year’s festival featuring a theme touching on the 50th anniversary of the fabled “Summer of Love”, the 2018 edition pushed the envelope in the same direction with playshop sets featuring “Music for the Revolution” and “Songs from 1968”. But High Sierra certainly wasn’t just honoring classic rock from the past as this year also featured festival debuts from a bumper crop of emerging buzz bands including Twiddle, Ghost Light, Spafford, Pigeons Playing Ping Pong, and Magic in the Other.
There were some challenging conflicts with overlapping sets from bands that seemed like they shouldn’t be competing against each other for an audience, but most would play on two different days during the festival to offer multiple opportunities. It was impossible to do it all, but such is life in an era where rock ‘n’ roll inspired by the socio-cultural musical revolution of the 1960s continues to thrive under the radar of the mainstream music scene. “High Sierra is the best community in rock and roll,” declared one of the participants during the “Classic Album Hour” playshop on Saturday that featured Little Feat’s Waiting for Columbus. It was a sentiment that garnered a knowing cheer, for it is indeed tough to think of another festival that can match the good vibe quotient of High Sierra.
Jamrock stalwarts for more than 20 years, the String Cheese Incident headlined the first two nights of the festival to get things going with a classic flavor. Late arrivals who missed most of Thursday’s action could still partake in late night treats though as Arizona spacerockers Spafford headlined the Funk’N Jamhouse while the High Sierra Music Hall featured Lebo & Friends Presents: Fiyo on the Mountain. The latter tribute to the Grateful Dead led by Animal Liberation Orchestra guitarist and regular High Sierra maestro Dan “Lebo” Lebowitz was prefaced by a smoking 75-minute set from rising Vermont jamrockers Twiddle.
Twiddle wasted no time jumping into the deep end for their High Sierra debut as they opened with “Syncopated Healing”, a signature song with cathartic lyrics that functioned well as a theme for High Sierra: “Let the good vibrations keep you rolling on strong, Relax and dream one day at a time, Let the beauty of the music start to heal your life…” The song’s incendiary jam fired up the band’s dedicated fanbase to launch a hot set that never let up. Twiddle rocked at a sustained energy level with guitar wizard Mihali Savoulidis and keyboard phenom Ryan Dempsey displaying their tight melodic chemistry throughout, while bassist Zdenek Gubb and drummer Brook Jordan laid down one deep groove after another.
Lebo & Friends upped the ante with a scintillating two-hour set that funkified Grateful Dead music in ways rarely seen before with an all-star lineup here featuring the legendary George Porter Jr. from the Meters on bass, the one and only Melvin Seals from the Jerry Garcia Band on keyboards, Ratdog’s Jay Lane on drums, and the dynamic duo of Natalie Cressman and Jenn Hartswick on trombone and trumpet. Cressman and Hartswick — High Sierra headliners last year in their primary gig with the Trey Anastasio Band — returned here as “artists in residence” and helped push the vibe higher throughout the weekend.
The band crushed a “Shakedown Street” opener to launch a set that was an extended highlight reel, perhaps highlighted by a unique trifecta where the ensemble sandwiched the Meters’ “Fire on the Bayou” in the middle of the Dead’s traditional “Scarlet Begonias>Fire on the Mountain” combo with very groovy results. Twiddle’s Savoulidis also sat in for a funky jam, enhancing his growing GD portfolio (having already jammed with Phil and Grahame Lesh on multiple occasions). Horns always elevate GD music to a higher level, and Cressman and Hartswick were on point here with impressive sonic alchemy.
Friday July 6
Those who were up until 4:00 am to see Lebo & Friends or Spafford could still get six or seven hours of sleep and have just enough time to grab some breakfast and make it back to the High Sierra Music Hall for one of the weekend’s must-see playshops, Magic in the Other & Friends Present “Music for the Revolution: Songs That Move the People and Shape the World”. Showing why they were the Bay Area’s most promising new band of 2017, Magic in the Other made their High Sierra debut on the main stage the previous day and then led this inspiring set that repeatedly energized the assembled with counterculture rock classics. If you like jamrock with a jazzy flair and a socially conscious edge, Magic in the Other is your band. Led by drummer/vocalist Ezra Lipp (one of Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh’s rotating crew of “Terrapin All-Stars” at his San Rafael club Terrapin Crossroads), the innovative trio also features bassist Steve Adams from Animal Liberation Orchestra and ace guitarist Roger Riedlbauer creating a transformative and uplifting sound that has quickly endeared the band to a growing fanbase that eagerly awaits the band’s impending debut album.
The set opened with a stirring rendition of Florence Reece’s 1932 anti-establishment classic “Which Side Are You On?”, popularized by Pete Seeger and here also featuring lyrics from Ani DiFranco’s version as well as some timely new ones from Lipp such as “Which side are you on, it’s about a shifting consciousness that will bring an end to war… We’ve got Nazis in the White House, might sound harsh but wake up it’s true, The news is fabricated, lies are common place as day, Teens are dying by the dozens, Congress looks away, Now is not a time for silence, it’s time to stand up and respond…” Lipp drove the anti-war vibe home by following with a smashing version of Black Sabbath’s ever relevant “War Pigs”, featuring vocals from the inimitable Steve Poltz who conjured glory from his alt-rock past with the Rugburns to bring the house down.
MITO called on another Terrapin All-Star with vocalist Jeannette Ferber stepping up to sing Loretta Lynn’s “The Pill”, a song originally banned by radio until popular demand made it a #1 hit. Ferber knocked the song of female empowerment out of the park while Lebo provided the signature pedal steel guitar parts. Nathan Moore sang Country Joe & the Fish’s “I-Feel-Like-I’m Fixin’-to-Die-Rag” with some fresh lyrics referencing Iran and Mar-a-Lago, followed by Lech Wierzynski from the California Honeydrops singing “People Get Ready”. Natalie Cressman and Jenn Hartswick re-appeared for “Compared to What”, while Lebo fronted for a majestic “The Times They are a Changin'”. The set concluded with a flourish as Wierzynski and Ferber joined Cressman and Hartswick as well as Delvon Lamarr and Jimmy James on a groovy “Everyday People”, before the MITO trio closed with their rocking rendition of “What’s So Funny Bout Peace Love and Understanding”.
It takes a bold artist to lead this type of set in an era where many music fans will claim they don’t want to hear about socio-political matters when they’re trying to have a good time. But as rock ‘n’ roll has proved time and again, music can also be a force for spiritual awakening and higher consciousness even as its helping people get their groove on. Lipp and MITO have leaped to the forefront of a modern movement to rekindle music’s consciousness-raising power at a time when it’s needed more than ever. Phil Lesh himself expressed similar thoughts just two days earlier at his 4th of July show at Terrapin Crossroads when the counterculture rock pioneer concluded the show by declaring that “We need to keep fighting for our independence” because Americans have become “an occupied people… by people who shouldn’t be there,” alluding to the Trump regime’s foul takeover of the government.
Lesh’s immense influence on the music scene popped up again during the next set as Steve Poltz entertained at the Vaudeville stage. Ever the engaging storyteller, Poltz told a mystical tale of how he was going to be playing a Dead song with Keller Williams at another festival the following weekend but that he’d become apprehensive when organizers requested that song to be Lesh’s “Box of Rain”. Poltz related concern over learning the complex chord changes and how he’d asked if he could just play “Ripple”, which he already knew. Organizers remained firm on “Box of Rain” however and Poltz went on to speak of how hearing certain songs at times one might not expect can actually be a sign from above. He spoke of hearing “Box of Rain” on a radio station where it was followed by a number of unrelated songs, then hearing it again in a random store. He then knew he had to deliver the song, which he did here with a beautiful version that took on a sublime feeling when cloudy skies started emitting rain drops on those who were standing just outside the tent. With temperatures in the 80s, the sprinkle felt great and created a downright mystical sensation.
Cris Jacobs and his band had opened for Lesh & the Terrapin Family Band at that 4th of July show and here threw down another rocking set at Big Meadow that blended blues rock, soul, funky and country for a vibrant sound. Those not fully rested from the previous night could even take in the set from a nearby hammock and still hear the band just fine. When Lebo & Friends took the main stage at 3:30 pm with the same lineup as the previous night’s late show, it kicked off an eight hour block of almost non-stop rock ‘n’ roll from some of the festival’s most rocking artists to test even the hardiest of festivarians.
Here the band delivered an entirely different set of non-Dead tunes, yet still brought the same infectious energy as the night before. But the set soon conflicted with Twiddle at Big Meadow, where the Vermont quartet continued to bring the high energy jams to a charged up audience. Fiddle player Zebulan Bowes sat in to jam on “Hattibagen McRat”, leading to a furious conclusion as guitarist Mihali Savoulidis and keyboardist Ryan Dempsey led a dazzling jam on “Gatsby the Great”.
Fifteen minutes after these sets ended, Ghost Light hit the Vaudeville stage for their High Sierra debut. A new band that just debuted in March, Ghost Light combines the virtuoso musicianship of guitarist Tom Hamilton from Joe Russo’s Almost Dead with the equally virtuoso talent of keyboardist Holly Bowling, guitarist/vocalist Raina Mullen and a dynamic rhythm section with drummer Scotty Zwang and bassist Steve Lyons. Quickly surging to acclaim for both their high level jamming and their unique sonic vibe that blends some rare alt-rock power with jammy melodic goodness, fans have declared that the Ghost Light is lit. The quintet opened strong with the infectious syncopated funk of “If You Want It” and never let up. The instant classic jam vehicle is a showcase for the vocal harmonies of Hamilton and Mullen, as well as the instrumental chemistry between Hamilton and Bowling.
A trying dilemma soon arose when jam-rock quartet Spafford hit Big Meadow at 5:45, while soulful funk rock ensemble Turkuaz was taking the main stage at the same time with Ghost Light still playing until 6:45. Those who couldn’t tear themselves away from Ghost Light’s magnetic power could only catch the last 15 minutes of Spafford, where ace guitarist Brian Moss was melting face as he and his cohorts wrapped their set with a vibrant dose of crowd pleasing “electro-funk therapy” on their soaring jam vehicle “Electric Taco Stand”.
It wasn’t long then until the String Cheese Incident hit the Grandstand for their two-set headlining performance. One of the bands that has helped make the High Sierra Music Festival the counterculture rock beacon of light it’s become over the past two decades, SCI built a pleasing set that leaned more on their bluegrassy roots as a gorgeous sunset began taking place that was enhanced by uplifting tunes like “Joyful Sound” and a set closing romp on Led Zeppelin’s “Ramble On”. The second set found SCI going deeper into the psychedelic trance rock they’ve specialized in here in the 21st century, with a colorfully mesmerizing light show enhancing scintillating jam rock classics like “Desert Dawn” and “It Is What It Is” to take the crowd to huge peaks of ecstatic groove bliss. Electric mandolinist Michael Kang ripped smoking hot leads, while guitarist/vocalist Bill Nershi presided as the hippie ringleader he is while also contributing the rare fan favorite “Windy Mountain” as an appropo mystical ballad for the setting.
Night owls had multiple options with the Motet and the Nth Power teaming up in the Music Hall, while Lotus and So Down played the Funk’N Jamhouse. But the surprise dance party of the night went down at the Vaudeville stage where the California Honeydrops packed the space to overflow capacity with a groovy set that had strangers getting friendly with strangers because they had no other choice since they were jammed up right against each other. The soulful Oakland band seems to have evolved their groove level quite a bit in recent years, with frontman Lech Wierzynksi leading a heartfelt rhythm and blues review vibe that had fans getting down for two full hours as the set ran well over it’s scheduled end time.
Saturday July 7
It was still 15 minutes shy of high noon when JAZZ is PHSH hit the Vaudeville stage. The brainchild of brothers Adam and Matthew Chase, the band explores the music of Phish in an instrumental fashion with a jazzy sensibility that remains a slave to the groove. The band’s rotating lineup had special stars here with Felix Pastorius on bass and Natalie Cressman again vying for High Sierra MVP with another stellar performance. Opening with Phish’s seminal jam vehicle “Tweezer” was a bold move, especially since the weak link in most Phish cover bands is the bassist (with few able to conjure the Atlantean funk power and sonic range of Phish bassist Mike Gordon.) But the son of jazz legend Jaco Pastorius was more than up to the task, laying down big grooves with tone science mastery. Cressman’s trombone lifted every song higher and it was a treat to hear her getting to stretch out in a Phishy setting.
Another playshop treat followed with “Lebo’s High Sierra Ramble: 50 in the Rearview” performing songs of 1968 in the Music Hall. Here Lebo served as musical orchestrator again as he and Steve Adams and Ezra Lipp formed the core band that took the audience on a dazzling time travel trip. Highlights were numerous including Natalie Cressman and Jeannette Ferber on vocals for Aretha Franklin’s “Chain of Fools”, Cris Jacobs fronting a great version of Otis Redding’s “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay”, and George Porter Jr. joining in on bass with Lebo and Lipp for an electrifying performance of Jimi Hendrix’ “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” that had fans feeling like they could chop down a mountain with the edge of their hand.
The Barr Brothers hit the main stage at 3:15 pm and at first seemed like they might be too mellow for such a slot with the temperature now moving into the 90s. But the band soon conjured the needed energy as guitarist Brad Barr and harpist Sarah Page started weaving melodic lines that got drummer Andrew Barr going as the group raised the jam factor. Fruition followed at the Big Meadow stage in the 4:00 pm hour with a uniquely vibrant sound that blended folk and soul with psychedelic rock and alternative.
The renowned funkateers of Lettuce took the mainstage at 5:30, yet there was another compelling all-star playshop in the Music Hall at the same time with “Classic Album Hour”: Little Feat’s Waiting for Columbus. Simon Kurth and his band Mescalito were the core unit, receiving a little help from a number of recognizable friends. Kurth said they were looking at this set like a mythical extra show from the tour on which the classic live album was recorded, so the songs were not played in the same order making for some surprise. The Cris Jacobs Band starred on “Spanish Moon”, with Jacobs really boosting his classic rock cred on the vocal and a monster jam where he and Kurth traded hot licks to get the audience fired up. Holly Bowling came and went throughout the set and starred on a big finish as she helped lead a huge funky jam on “Feats Don’t Fail Me Now”, before delivering a gorgeous solo to further elevate a beautiful sing-along version of “Willin'” that closed the set in cathartic style.
Grace Potter returned to High Sierra for the first time since 2007 to rock a 90-minute set on the Grandstand during the golden hour, where a classic High Sierra sunset helped conjure some transcendent vibes. Potter played largely the same set she was touring behind in 2015, but she’s still one of the most dynamic female performers in rock and it was another treat watching her command the main stage on a Saturday night. She said her classic rocker “Stop the Bus” was actually written around the time of her previous High Sierra visit, and she mixed things up by playing the song as a solo acoustic ballad. There was still plenty of rock power to spare in hot tunes like “Turntable” and “Paris (Ooh La La), with Potter rocking out on keyboards, guitar and as an energetic frontwoman conjuring visions of Stevie Nicks and Tina Turner.
Sister Sparrow & the Dirty Birds drew an enthusiastic and adoring audience to the Vaudeville stage for their 9:30 pm set, with singer Arleigh Kincheloe displaying some compelling mojo as she led the Brooklyn soul rock band in a crowd-pleasing performance. It felt like a bit of a flashback to the California Honeydrops’ set the night before, with the band putting out a groovy soulful vibe that was clearly winning friends and admirers with each tune.
Then it was back to the Grandstand for the headlining set from Sturgill Simpson, who had earned serious cred with a rousing headlining performance at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park last fall. It was there that many Bay Area music fans who viewed Simpson as a country star discovered he was also a rocker, with a band that can deliver a bluesy classic rock sound at times recalling early Aerosmith and other classic rock bands of the ’70s. There were some slower tunes that led the energy to wane a bit for a Saturday night at High Sierra, but Simpson showed he could blend country twang and rock power with master style on gems like “Turtles All the Way Down” where he sang of meeting Jesus, the devil, Buddha, reptile aliens and taking all manner of drugs in the quest for enlightenment on the way to discovering love was the only thing that would ever save his life.
There was yet another conflict though as jamtronica rockers and High Sierra veterans Lotus were lighting up Big Meadow in the 10 pm hour. The mostly instrumental band has rocked the same stage in the same time slot before and know how to conjure a groovy High Sierra dance party, as evidenced by large crowd that was getting down here. The band capped the set with a fiery jam on the soaring “Gilded Age”, with rippling guitar melodies over a pulsing groove that seemed to transport the audience to a higher plane in time and space for one of the weekend’s most triumphant jams.
There was still plenty more music for the night owls though with Ghost Light taking the Music Hall stage at midnight for a high octane set that dazzled the senses with the band’s multi-dimensional sound. Vocalist Reina Mullen starred as an alt-rock goddess on a mesmerizing “Lead Weight” opener that set the tone for a powerful set. Guitarist Tom Hamilton and keyboardist Holly Bowling were letting it all hang out, driving big jams with their synergistic chemistry that seems to far exceed the short time the quintet has been together. Then there was the late late set with Pigeons Playing Ping Pong throwing down a raucous jam session blending funky grooves and space rock to keep the crowd partying down into the wee hours. The band’s feel good vibe clearly won many new fans, fitting right in like High Sierra vets.
Sunday July 8
Those who had to depart on the early side of Sunday could still take in a High Sierra tradition with the Gospel in the Hallplayshop set, where Bo Carper & Lebo led another all-star group digging into spiritual traditionals. It wasn’t the peak highlight of last year’s Grateful Gospel set led by Keller Williams & Stu Allen, but it was another stellar string of performances that was a perfect way to start a High Sierra Sunday. JAZZ is PHSH followed with another high energy set at Big Meadow with Natalie Cressman clinching her MVP performance, rivaling the likes of Stanton Moore at New Orleans Jazzfest for the number of sets she contributed to.
The only saving grace of missing Sunday night’s headliners was not having to grapple with the perplexing three-way dilemma presented by competing sets between the Chris Robinson Brotherhood on the Grandstand, Pigeons Playing Ping Pong at Big Meadow, and an all-star Foundation of Funk set where George Porter Jr. was joined by Meters bandmate Zigaboo Modeliste, Cyril Neville, Ivan and Ian Neville, and Tony Hall for a New Orleans-style jam session featuring the ever-influential music of the Meters.
This perhaps encapsulated the theme of High Sierra 2018: so much incredible music that even those with clones wouldn’t be able to do it all. The festival also showed that at a time when some skeptics try to claim that the rock counterculture has long since faded, it’s actually thriving at a truly vibrant level…