“Let’s do this every year until we die!”
This phrase tore from my lips during Gov’t Mule’s pitch perfect main stage closing set on the final night of the 2017 installment of the High Sierra Music Festival as San Francisco stealth superstar and uber-shredder Eric McFadden lashed us to the “Whipping Post” after exploring our “Dreams” with the ever-mighty Warren Haynes. Expertly nuanced wildness, the music was cathartic and stirring, filled with complicated feelings and heart-powered, high-end musicianship, a moment one could inhabit with the fullness of themselves, safe in the company of others moving through similar experiences, each one sparked and driven by the music and something more, too – so, a performance absolutely in sync with what had come before over the hot, intense weekend.
If High Sierra were just a music festival it’d be a great one but what the organizers, participating artists, driven staff, and switched-on attendees have built over 27 seasons is a community that nurtures and supports direct, active engagement with life and creativity where inclusion, kindness, and openness are the guiding principles. Passing through the gates on Wednesday afternoon after a two year absence I was immediately brightened, stirred up by the flurry of colors and small happiness-making touches everywhere the eye fell, a joyful bustle of humans raising tents and inflating giant Uncle Sams and Day-Glo dinosaurs, beer flowing before the first band stepped onstage, and always someone ready to fill your cup if it be empty.
Even as a festival veteran, I’m still happily surprised at the chill, quintessentially Californian vibe that permeates the fairgrounds in Quincy. Even in my tenth time traveling to this woodland dotted temporary city on a hill, it’s still a treat to find a place largely nicer, more generous, and nakedly positive than the world at large. Conjuring such a space year after year, serving so many masters including the baseline necessity of financial sustainability, is a small miracle but one fueled by the powerful intentions and readiness to roll up sleeves and work of a small army of regulars and longtime staffers. Anchored by reliable festival draws (Trey Anastasio, Ween), HSMF 2017 proved one of the finest in the festival’s history, many arriving knowing little about most acts outside of the headliners and leaving with a raft of new passions. Love of music as a central organizing force in one’s life is perhaps the most common unifying thread here, especially if one likes to explore around the edges to discover new music. As usual, debates about obscure prog-rock and the finest Grateful Dead shows raged between sets. No one disguises what a possessed fan they are at HSMF. Most wear it as a badge of honor but they’ll also be the first one to break bread and open their wine jug to a new stranger-friend that heartily disagrees with them, ready to toast our differences in this shared musical nation. Coming to High Sierra on and off for 13 years, I’ve never seen an actual fight beyond some rowdy hecklers that quickly got shuffled off by security. Contrast that with the Beyond Thunderdome-esque bouts I’ve witnessed at Bonnaroo, Sasquatch and elsewhere and it’s one of the signs of unspoken self-policing one encounters here. As Warren Oates once said in Two Lane Blacktop, “We’re a big family but we know how to keep it together.”
High Sierra is also the rare festival that one could have a grand time roaming from campsite to campsite getting into random adventures without ever visiting a stage, absorbing sounds on the breeze and exploring all the tiny worlds along the pathways and hillsides. With a portion of regulars having done this for 20-plus years, the ephemeral aspects of another festival have become as crucial to High Sierra’s character as any year’s lineup. Camps and their crews have become landmarks and legends, a part of the unfolding tale of High Sierra that everyone involved helps write each year. Newcomers pick up on it fast, swiftly learning that they’re helping shape this happening and not just another ticket holder demanding entertainment. “Everyone is helpful, everyone is high, out on the road to Shambala.” The Three Dog Night classic’s words often ping around my head strolling the grounds, especially in the early morning hours as Silent Disco dancers wiggle & jerk on the grass as a rugby-like kickball game stirs childhood’s unrestricted pleasure in a bunch of cocktail spilling adults.
Traditions we make for ourselves, especially ones we dream on and tinker away at all year long between celebrations, are the most important traditions one can maintain. It’s a holiday of choice, a shared time we imbue with power by giving a part of ourselves to it, a piece of who we are offered up with heart and sincerity. While not everyone who comes to High Sierra approaches it this way, the vast majority do, and the specialness and uplifting energy of this collectively manifested annual holiday is palpable even if one doesn’t understand the how & why of it. Put more simply, High Sierra is a vision of a better world built on song that one can frolic in each Fourth of July weekend, and 2017 was an especially strong example of this world in action.
Day One Highlights: Thursday, June 29th
1. White Denim – 4:45-6:15 PM – Grandstand Stage
As bold and daring a two guitar, bass and drums outfit as rock has produced in the past decade or more, White Denim delivered a jaw-dropping set that would have impressed based simply on the spark throwing musicianship. But, this band has a catalog that just keeps getting richer over time, a varied mix of Yes/King Crimson level shred platforms, finger-snapping pop-rockers, and ballads that sink in deep. One saw most of the same faces on the rail the next day at their Big Meadow set.
2. Fruition – 9:45-11:15 PM – Vaudeville Tent
The Portland-based Americana band’s boffo latest album is titled Labor of Love, and a more succinct description of their obvious joy in what they do when they get in front of an audience would be hard to find. With a first night of a festival evening crowd gathered, spirits were already high but the band quickly stoked the flames, returning the smiles of the front ranks with even bigger grins and singing ‘n’ playing that sweeps one up like a hug. It’s not to say there’s no darkness to what they do – their songwriting continues to steadily evolve and grow in emotional heft – but in the live setting, especially now that the rock ‘n’ roll urges inside this music have been fully unleashed, there’s a welcoming warmth, no one a stranger in the tent after this band had their way with us. Their strength and confidence at this set reminded me of Railroad Earth as they came into their own. Fruition is a band on the verge of great things and having a ball on the way there.
3. Tank & The Bangas – 12:00-1:15 PM – Vaudeville Tent
Earthy, quirky, and distinct as a the first taste of some exotic fruit, this New Orleans group kicked off the festival with peculiar grace, the musical equivalent of watching Tigger dance ballet, energy spilling everywhere but all the unusual choices and smart shifts into smoothness conscious, deliberate, invigorating choreography that made an audience of mostly first-timers wiggle gloriously. Tank & The Bangas put a boot to genre categories, scooping icy Bjork giggles into a second line stomp before the genius keyboardist and crazy tight rhythm team veer off towards Alpha Centauri…or maybe just the next whiskey bar. Their sound is a good time full of the unexpected choices – easy to access but hard to fully grok. Surrender to the sound and it will sure as hell take ya somewhere and tickle your fancy to teary laughter along the way.
Other Ones To Watch From Thursday
-The Record Company (good ass rock ‘n’ roll that delivered a classic wallop at late night set)
-Billy Strings (outstanding folk/bluegrass picker that oozes wide-eyed love for his craft who reportedly delivered a memorable tribute to Doc Watson on Friday, too)
-BIG Something (way curious, compelling stew of funk, hip hop and other grooves that blew up like a summertime surprise piñata at packed sunset set)
Day Two Highlights: Friday, June 30th
1. Sweet Crude – 11:15 AM-12:30 PM – Vaudeville Tent
This New Orleans band proved a real delight, the sonic and stage presence equivalent of fizzy lifting drink, joie de vivre delivered through music that mingles Louisiana-French, English, indie rock swerve, Cajun shuffle, and other winning ingredients. It’s a frisky sound but so come-hither – especially the powerhouse sweep of singer Alexis Marceaux – that one feels compelled to take the leaps between styles and moods with a daring grin to match the band’s own. Coming across like They Might Be Giants’ cousins one minute and tearing a hole in your heart the next with a swooning, skyward anthem the next, Sweet Crude made a profound impression on the early risers in Vaudeville, getting results when they advised us to “get your booty on the floor” and offering something a bit closer to the heart, too.
2. Deer Tick – 11:30 PM-1:30 AM – Vaudeville Tent
The band’s electric set kicked off with mischievous flair, “The Bump” as a perfect a bacchanalian party starter as one could hope to find as Friday night turned to Saturday, proceedings in full swing around the fairgrounds. Each step in this uproariously energetic performance was well placed if occasionally appropriately wobbly. The rowdy side of Deer Tick embraces working girls and grifters, drifters and delinquents, and the force of their playing and songwriting makes one care for these outcasts, too. At one point, a hippie Jesus in full robes with the stage lights illuminating him from behind emerged from the tent and stretched out his arms and a bunch of strangers spontaneously rushed to embrace him. Sometimes empathy thrives on the wrong side of the tracks.
3. The Nth Power/Earth, Wind & Power – 9:30 PM-11:30 PM – Big Meadow Stage
Standing at the crossroads between two stages I had to decide between the evil, winking devils in Ween or this positivity-packed salute to the music of Earth, Wind & Fire. My better angels steered me to this sunshine-in-the-dark extravaganza and my spirit soared by the end of this sincere, expertly executed homage. The primary band dressed in robes a la 70s EWF, guest after guest from Skerik to Jennifer Hartswick and many more joined the celebration of life and amour delivered through nostalgia-stirring singles and vibrant deep cuts. The steady flow of folks streaming in, laughing and rump shakin, throughout the show testified to the magnetic force of this ensemble. The Nth Power has stumbled into something special here.
Other Ones To Watch From Friday
-The Travelin’ McCourys (main stage host Tim Lynch put it perfectly after their set; “If there’s a better bluegrass band out there I’ve never found them.” Their take on the Dead’s “Loser” was one of the fest’s standout covers)
-Hard Working Americans (The true shamanic, liberty raising power of HWA wouldn’t emerge until late Saturday but it’s hard not to love a set that begins with “For a good time call” and ends with a blazing take on Chuck Berry’s “Hail Hail Rock ‘N’ Roll”. Patriotism is rarely so badass)
Day Three Highlights: Saturday, July 1st
1. Terrapin Station Tribute with Lebo – 1:30 PM-2:45 PM – High Sierra Music Hall
One of the unique features of HSMF is the daytime Playshop series, where very talented musicians curate showcases for great songs or broad musical ideas. The first set of daily Playshops are usually picking sessions open to everyone run by the SF-based Blue Bear School of Music. Each day offers 3-5 unique, only-at-High-Sierra tributes and spotlights featuring player combinations that will likely never be duplicated elsewhere, where the best of Northern California’s jam scene meet up with legends and national touring artists and sparks fly. Without fail, some of the best music that happens at HSMF each year occurs during these old school cuttin’ sessions. The passion, preparation, and potency of the Playshops cannot be oversold. This is a forum for musicians to show off their influences and affections, and most recognize and respect what they’re doing is more than just another fest set.
One of this year’s best Playshops was put together by ALO guitarist-singer Lebo (Dan Lebowitz) who gathered a crack team to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Grateful Dead’s Terrapin Station album, which they played in its entirety in what proved a poignant reminder of the record’s stirring power and what a beautiful platform these songs are for self-expression beyond the blueprint offered. Joining Lebo (Weir) were Stu Allen (Jerry), Ezra Lipp (Billy), Murph (Phil) and Jordan Feinstein (Keith) with Paige Clem (Donna) joining as needed. A lot of folks play Dead music these days but few inhabit the material and take possession of it like this band did. Every good thing about these songs shined in their capable hands as they balanced respect for the original versions and the men who crafted them with their own thoughtful filigree and shadows as the set progressed. Put another way, these songs – incredibly familiar to most in the crowd – burst with new life, the timeless nature of the Grateful Dead catalog boldly evident in their skillful handling of the material.
2. Ain’t Wastin’ time No More: A Gregg Allmann Retrospective feat. The Guitarmageddon Band – 3:30 PM-4:45 PM – High Sierra Music Hall
Guitarmaggedon is a long running Bay Area collective of six-string superheroes and their allies. Terrapin Crossroads regular and Blue Bear instructor Sean Leahy has lead the group for a number of years, and this weekend he outdid himself in putting together several mind-blowing ensembles for the Playshops. To wit, this last minute request by HSMF organizers to honor the recently departed Gregg Allman. Guitarmageddon had done an ABB tribute years ago and Leahy (Dickey Betts for the day) brought back former Guitarmageddon leader Simon Kurth to reprise his Duane role (and he delivered down to flamboyant Duane facial hair) alongside a cavalcade of pickers including Eric McFadden. But the coolest surprise of this set – which included “Statesboro Blues,” “Midnight Rider,” “Stand Back” and the song that gave this tribute its name – were the phenomenal female singers who voiced these songs including Carolyn Wonderland (who slayed ALL weekend in every guest turn and in her own blues-powered sets), Lesley Grant (Katdelic, Lebo & Friends), Pamela Parker, and Paige Clem. Gender shifting the lead vocal served as a reminder of what an ace vocalist Gregg was and just what great singers like these can do with these tunes, especially when backed by such muscular, forceful playing by every cat that jumped onstage. The nature of Playshops is too many musicians contribute over the course of a couple of hours to note them all but the goal is not a spotlight on themselves but on music they cherish and want us to adore, too. Mission accomplished and then some by Leahy and his well-chosen pack.
3. Jerry Joseph & The Jackmormons / Hard Working Americans – 11:30 PM-3:30 AM – High Sierra Music Hall
The right music can actually help someone dance their way out of their constrictions. Funkadelic was not lying ‘bout that and they’d surely have given a high-five to this powerful, electric late night pairing. What each does is most assuredly rock but what they’re reaching for, what they’re trying to grasp and share with us, are much bigger concepts than a mere good time. Oh, both bands wanted that for us too but Jerry J snagged something of God in his short, sharp opening set that began meditatively with “Supernatural” before building to a bursting out of one’s skin expansiveness especially during “Wild Wild West> North> W.W.W.” and closer “Speedwater.” Not to be outdone, HWA emerged from the smoke on a quest to remind us what real freedom – in the world and perhaps more importantly inside our heads – looks and feels like. If you don’t think rock ‘n’ roll can achieve such ends then you weren’t in the room as people got LOOSE, shedding inhibitions and giggling and crying and passing a ludicrously massive joint given to the flock by sometimes-good-sometimes-bad Rev. Todd Snider, a sacrament of workaday rebels gathered together to punch at fascist ways and hug our brothers and sisters just because.
Other Ones To Watch From Saturday
-Ott & The All-Seeing Eye (a hypnotic merger of electronica, dub, and Massive Attack-like singing, this U.K. band drew new listeners to them with subtle gravity throughout their thankless time slot opposite the Trey Anastasio Band. Even for folks that think they don’t like electronic-based music, Ott and his gifted crew may charm the hell out of you.)
-Butcher Brown (A perfect morning wake-up set in the Vaudeville Tent revealed an instrumental ensemble that draws from Steely Dan, 70s Grover Washington & George Benson, and other smooth ancestors with monster chops and the instincts to understand that quiet and underplaying can be just as powerful as talking loud. Modern accents show this ain’t no nostalgia bag, too. Further investigation is warranted.)
-Polyrhythmics (There’s an awful lot of talented-enough, catchy-enough, enjoyable-enough soul & funk bands working the festival and club circuit. That said, the Polyrhythmics proved a cut above the competition in just about every aspect. The tunes hit their mark each time, and the flow between musicians is flat-out fun and engaging. Terrific first impression.)
-Trey Anastasio Band (Hey, I’m not Phish fan – far from it – but listening to TAB’s second set over the Grandstand fence as I helped watch over the sleeping little ones of a bunch of Phishheads with Tea Leaf’s Josh Clark I kept having to break off from our conversation to say, “Damn, this is a really, really good band. They sound like they’re having the time of their lives.” Respect where it’s due. Trey has one of the hottest set of players right now and he’s lighting up fans in a huge way.)
Day Four Highlights: Sunday, July 2nd
1. David Lindley – 1:30 PM-2:45 PM – Vaudeville Tent
While the ceaselessly chatty crowd didn’t all realize it, sitting at the heel of a master storyteller, singer-songwriter is a gift that should be treasured. High Sierra sets up a few moments like this every year and if one tuned out the noise Lindley’s set was a festival standout, intimate and funny, mind expanding and graceful, lyrical and comforting. Lindley has spent a lifetime traveling the globe gathering tales and instruments, and he shared some of his best stuff in the time allotted. His voice is of another time or maybe outside time, Jung’s Bard strumming exotic strings and stitching bridges between continents, showing us the gap between Africa and “New Minglewood Blues” isn’t nearly as far as one thinks. An extended riff on his drinking days classic “Tiki Torches At Twilight” closed the set and showed off his comedic talents, but if one quieted down the most moving moments were when his delicate, assured playing reached past our defenses and he could whisper in our ears, “All men are brothers. Lay down your pride and pray.”
2. Bokante – 4:00 PM-5:15 PM – Big Meadow Stage
Named for the Creole word for “exchange,” there were several Snarky Puppy offshoots that appeared at HSMF 2017 (all of which delivered in a big way alongside SP’s Sunday Grandstand set which made them a LOT of new fans) and for my money Bokante was both the most promising and unique. A combination of styles and sounds we haven’t heard before, this music is patient and determined, controlled in all the right ways until it lets loose in rock ‘n’ roll grandeur married to ancient vibrations and sexy AF undulations. Roosevelt Collier’s lap steel danced with the Snarky Puppy guitarists as deep rhythm scientists and siren singers floated and bent around the string assault. Fans of Tinariwen, Tortoise and Bill Frisell’s more exploratory work will simply plotz over this band.
3. Gov’t Mule – 9:30 PM-11:30 PM – Grandstand Stage
We end where this review began, riding the Mule into the midnight hour. One hesitates to call a set “perfect” but this was damn near to it. They began with a block of early classics that made longtime fans like myself nearly burst with joy doing the “Thorazine Shuffle” and wondering when our mule and 40 acres was gonna arrive. Warren Haynes and company’s ability to read an audience and give ‘em what they need is greatly under-appreciated, and for a final big gasp after the embarrassment of pleasures of the preceding days they hit just the right notes, including heavy nods to Haynes’ old band leader in ABB, the dynamic, emotion-stuffed versions of “Dreams,” “Come And Go Blues,” “Soulshine,” “Kind of Bird” and “Whipping Post” serving as celebrations of Gregg’s life and an aid in mourning his absence from the world now. But, this band does not sleep and “Traveling Tune” and the defiant title track from their new 2017 album, Revolution Come… Revolution Go, show there’s still lots of powder in their arsenal. This band can play virtually anything and the choices they made at High Sierra fit the final stretch, bittersweet mood of many folks to a goddamn tee. Seen these boys a whole bunch of times but ain’t never seen them better than this tightly drawn performance.
All photos by Andrew Quist, check here for the full gallery..