High Sierra Music Festival 2022
Photo: Susan J. Weiand

The Torch Burns on at the High Sierra Music Festival

Four straight days of at least 13 hours of live music per day pushes even the hardiest festivarian to the limit, but the festival’s 30th annual edition demands nothing less.

Other standout performers at the 2022 High Sierra Music Festival

A rundown of other notable performances has to start with The Slip, who were rocking a packed Vaudeville Tent on Thursday when those who were at the grandstand for Goose arrived to find a very heady scene. The under-the-radar, yet still influential Northeast trio were at the forefront of the burgeoning psyche-rock scene in the late ‘90s and through the turn of the millennium. It’s heartwarming to see them back in action at High Sierra, as the trio’s unique blend of jazzy influences with melodic Americana and indie alt-rock generates a vibrant sound that fills the tent for another two hours much to the delight of the captivated audience. 

The Slip has apparently played High Sierra more times than anyone else, and their artist playshop covers set the next day displays a wide appeal with sparkling signature versions of Paul Simon’s “These Are the Days”, Led Zeppelin’s “Heartbreaker”, the Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows” and AC/DC’s “It’s a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock ‘n’ Roll)”.

Then there’s another High Sierra homecoming with San Francisco rock ‘n’ rollers Tea Leaf Green. The band seemed to be on the verge of a breakthrough to the next level when PopMatters caught a stellar sold-out show at the Fillmore in 2008, but that breakthrough inexplicably never came, and they eventually wound up splintering. TLG thankfully still gets back together from time to time though, releasing a new album with 2020’s Destination Bound.  Here the quartet gets a midnight late show slot on Saturday night and a 5:45 pm set at Big Meadow on Sunday with both sets turning into a joyous homecoming.

Reed Mathis
Reed Mathis / Photo: Susan J. Weiand

Tea Leaf Green acknowledge their long and winding road with “Keeping the Faith” in the late set, as singer/keyboardist Trevor Garrod sings of keeping that faith and moving on. Garrod’s got one of the most soulful voices in rock and he shines throughout both sets (as well as a Saturday afternoon playshop duo set with Reed Mathis covering Bob Dylan songs.) Melodic tunes like “One Reason” and “Give Me One More Chance” are standouts, as well as cathartic psyche-rockers like “Space Hero” where guitarist Josh Clark sings, “Just trying to find our place in the human race…” An electrifying jam on the anthemic “Sex in the ‘70s” generates a raucous vibe as the band makes every minute count and yes, “it feels so fucking good!” 

When Tea Leaf Green hits the Big Meadow stage the next day, it feels even more festive with the late afternoon summer party vibe in effect. Bassist Eric DiBerardino is clearly relishing every moment, with an enthusiastic grin on every tune as he and drummer Scott Rager power uplifting takes on “Red Ribbons” and “If It Wasn’t for the Money”. Garrod shines on the bluesy “Shelter” from Destination Bound, a zeitgeisty number that leads into the groovy “Kali Yuga” where he sings of how devils have danced on his doorstep and angels sang in his yard. The set also features guest jams with former bassist Reed Mathis on guitar for three songs, including the funky “Let Us Go” with trumpeter Eric “Benny” Bloom from Lettuce. A monster jam on “Taught to Be Proud” wraps the set in style and it’s so great to have Tea Leaf Green back at High Sierra.

Samantha Fish
Samantha Fish / Photo: Susan J. Weiand

The set was part of another strong stretch on Sunday, sandwiched between vibrant Grandstand sets from Kansas City blues rocker Samantha Fish and Vermont jam-rockers Twiddle. Those who might have thought Ms. Fish was an Americana artist are pleasantly surprised to discover she’s a woman of significant blues power, as her trio throws down a set of fierce rockers while she shreds hot lead guitar licks on fiery tunes like “Watch it Die”. 

Twiddle follows with a fun set that unfortunately overlaps with Tea Leaf Green, as opposed to their late-night set where they crushed a series of smoking jams. But the quartet draws a good crowd at the Grandstand and gets a great vibe going at the end of “Lost in the Cold”, where the audience sings along with guitarist Mihali Savoulidis on cathartic lyrics about how “It’s hard to see the future when the present doesn’t suit ya.” Mihali and keyboardist Ryan Dempsey have some high-level jammy chemistry on display as they rock the Grandstand.

Ghost-Note / Photo: Susan J. Weiand

Ghost-Note throw down a groovy dance party that packs the Vaudeville Tent on Thursday, showing that the band’s growing popularity continues to rise. Big Meadow seems like a better venue for the group, and they pack that too on Friday night opposite the Disco Biscuits. Led by Snarky Puppy drummer Robert “Sput” Searight and percussionist Nate Werth, the group also features former members of Prince’s band. The ultra-funky “Spunky” – a contribution to 2021’s Truth to Power Project album – proves a catchy showcase for the group’s style. In between these sets, the group rocks a Friday playshop set of “70s Funk” to another packed house in the Music Hall with stellar takes on classics like “Sex Machine” and “Take Me to the River”. 

Still more notable moments from the 2022 High Sierra Music Festival

The Disco Biscuits
The Disco Biscuits / Photo: Susan J. Weiand

The Disco Biscuits headline on Friday night in their first California appearance in more than a decade and the absence shows as they don’t draw as large an audience as the surging Goose did on Thursday. But the Biscuits still have their devoted base, with one pack of fans flying out from New Jersey for their first High Sierra so that a couple can get married before the show and have the Biscuits as their wedding band. The jamtronica pioneers give the couple a shout-out to start the show and jam out with plenty of energy, although their sound seems to have drifted in a more electronic direction over the years that isn’t for everyone. But the band delivers a three-hour performance with no break that is hailed as their longest ever to create another momentous High Sierra moment.

Lebo and friends
Lebo and friends / Photo: Susan J. Weiand

Lebo’s “Solid Gold Late Night” on Friday in the Funk’n Jamhouse turns into another three-hour marathon as guitarist Dan Lebowitz, bassist Steve Adams, drummer Ezra Lipp (all from Animal Liberation Orchestra) and keyboardist Adam MacDougall lead a dance party that focuses on hits from the ‘70s & ‘80s. Everyone in the band wears a gold track jacket as they rock one groovy jam after another in a fabulous set that feels like a house party at the much beloved Terrapin Crossroads. Highlights include The Fixx’s “One Thing Leads to Another” with guest guitarist Brad Barr from The Slip, a deep psychedelic jam on Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” with singer Anna Moss, and a raging closer on the Grateful Dead’s “Shakedown Street”. 

It’s largely the same crew when Lebo & Friends perform a playshop set on Saturday featuring songs from 1972. Highlights include Elton John’s “Rocket Man” with Anna Moss and a big solo from Lebo, a rocking take on the Stones’ “Tumbling Dice”, and a deep jam on the Dead’s “Bird Song”. The set concludes with a smashing rendition of David Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust”, sung by the inimitable Steve Poltz with Lebo ripping another stellar guitar solo to deliver the big jam that many fans wanted when Phish left such a jam on the shelf during their otherwise sensational Halloween 2016 performance of the Ziggy Stardust album in Vegas.

Spafford / Photo: Susan J. Weiand

Arizona jam-rockers Spafford are another returning act that debuted in 2018. Their late-night set in the Music Hall on Thursday seems to suffer from low attendance and going a little too far out into deep space. But catching the end of their Friday set at Big Meadow following The Slip’s playshop set proves rewarding, with the quartet rocking out on the infectious “Lovesick Melody”. This is Spafford at their best, with bassist Jordan Fairless singing out cathartic lyrics about “this fragile thing we call life” before he and guitarist Brian Moss trip the light fantastic on a stellar jam that has Big Meadow getting down on the good foot.

It takes some willpower to get up and get going in time to catch bluesman Cedric Burnside in a high noon set on Saturday at Big Meadow, but the effort proves worthwhile to hear Burnside’s gritty blues stylings. Grandson of blues legend R.L. Burnside, the singer/guitarist has a vibe that rings out with that vintage authenticity on classics like “Rock Me Baby”. The set is at times a bit too low-key considering the early hour where energy is needed, but Burnside’s latest release I Be Trying from 2021 is easily one of the most compelling blues albums of the past few years. When he sings, “I wake up in the mornin’, Sun shinin’ on my face, I drink a cup of coffee, I might roll me a J,” on the album’s “Typical Day”, it feels like a High Sierra anthem.

Skerik & the True Loves
Skerik & the True Loves / Photo: Susan J. Weiand

Then there’s Skerik & the True Loves rocking the Vaudeville Tent with a retro funk power that could energize any weary soul. Sax maestro Skerik has been involved with a wide variety of projects over the years, but this has got to be one of the grooviest units he’s ever put together. He’s got a full horn section around him with polyrhythmic percussion for a high-energy retro funk sound that feels like it could be soundtracking a cool ‘70s cop show or cosmic cowboy movie.

Femi Kuti
Femi Kuti / Photo: Susan J. Weiand

Femi Kuti delivers a truly vibrant Grandstand set of afrobeat jams on Saturday. There’s an uplifting vibe here that comes from the combination of the music’s dynamic rhythms and the socially conscious viewpoint that the son of Fela Kuti infuses into the music. “There’s a storm coming… bringing love and togetherness, and that’s why they [the powers that be] are afraid,” Kuti says toward the end of the set. “Using music to fight for the people, good vibrations spread beyond borders we know. You will find the energy to prepare yourself to continue fighting and teach our kids to fight.” 

This timely message of using music to empower the people and spread good vibrations is what the rock ‘n’ roll counterculture has always been about, and it’s heartwarming to hear such sentiments expressed at High Sierra here in 2022.

Greensky Bluegrass
Greensky Bluegrass / Photo: Ming Poon

Greensky Bluegrass struggle with sound issues early on in their Saturday headlining set, with the bass way too high up and annoyingly oversaturated in the mix. But the band eventually gets things dialed in for some great guest jams, with Chris Jacobs sitting in on a splendid rendition of the Traveling Wilburys’ “Handle With Care”. Greensky has a strong new album out with 2022’s Stress Dreams, and mandolinist/vocalist Paul Hoffman shines on the album closer “Reasons to Stay”. Lindsay Lou joins in to sing with Hoffman on the poignant “Past My Prime”, before taking the lead vocal on a shimmering cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain”.

Lettuce / Photo: Susan J. Weiand

After spending most of the Saturday late night action with Tea Leaf Green and Twiddle in the Music Hall, we were compelled to catch the end of the Lettuce late show in the Funk’n Jamhouse. The band has a solid new album out in 2022’s Unify, exemplified here with an inspiring performance of the uplifting “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright”. This is the kind of funky anthem that really hits the spot at High Sierra, with the band singing out about how “Change is in the air… we stand as one, unity all around us has begun…”

And last but not least, we can’t not mention the “Guitarmageddon: Check Your Blood Sugar” playshop on Sunday that saw a big cast rocking out on tunes from both the Beastie Boys’ Check Your Head album and the Red Hot Chili Pepper’s Blood Sugar Sex Magik. Bay Area keyboard man about town Jordan Feinstein provided the funky keys here, as well as a great lead vocal on “Mellowship Slinky in B Minor”.

When it’s all over, this reporter has witnessed more than 52 hours of live music over four days and is in need of a vacation from his vacation. Long live the High Sierra Music Festival, one of the greatest events in the world.