Perhaps it gets to the point as a writer that you become too close to something, too wrapped up in the beauty of a thing that you cannot adequately, or objectively report on it? Sitting down and trying to review this year’s installment of the Lost Sierra Hoedown has been nearly impossible. So much so that I asked some of the performers and attendees to help me out. At this point Lost Sierra Hoedown is far more than a music gathering, it is a four-day tornado of mountains, music, fellowship with friends that have become family, and reaffirmation. There was something different this year, there was a deeper sense of connection in that ephemeral community that nearly everyone felt. This seventh year, held September 19 – 22 at the Johnsville Ski Bowl in Johnsville, CA, there was a sense of permanence now that maybe just has not been felt before. Perhaps it was that or just the consistently met expectations we experience year in and year out and know that they will be fulfilled beyond capacity before the weekend even starts. Whatever it was, it resonated. People came away this year convinced that something was different but unable to truly explain just how they knew it and that’s the thing right? The best experiences cannot ever be fully articulated. Let’s try though.
“The moment we arrived on the scene this year, music, stories, laughter and friendship welcomed us with open arms. It has become a reunion on and off the stage. The musical collaboration was beautiful – almost unreal. I can’t help but feel like family. It’s like nothing I experience anywhere else.” – Tim McCaffrey, The Three to Get
Days before heading up or down or over to the Hoedown, you start thinking about the faces you know you’ll see and the familiar sounds you’ll hear. You get excited about the new bands you’ll see, the weather you’ll experience and the endless sea of smiles. When you crest the hill and come down into the Johnsville Ski Bowl, if you’re a Hoedown veteran, especially this year, it really did feel like coming home. The kids running, the hum of the generator and the gnarled wood siding of the Intorf Lodge. There’s no apprehension of “getting in” anymore. You know where to go, what to do and, where you might feel anxiety at a larger festival, at the Hoedown you simply slow down.
“I knew it would be a special year the moment I pulled up and had no idea why, but it was and that’s Lost Sierra” –Marty O’Reilly, Marty O’Reilly and the Old Soul Orchestra
The music this year, particularly Friday and Sunday nights, was spectacular. We moved constantly from the inside of the lodge to the deck to the big tent for one incredible performance after another. We watched Burning Pictures from Santa Cruz become living proof that a band (not the individuals but a BAND) can find itself reincarnated to again breathe music into the world. This begs further explanation. Joe Kaplow, Bobcat Rob Armenti, Elliott Kay and Mikey Whalen love The Band. So much so that they played the The Band’s Brown Album on Sunday as it was the 50th anniversary of that album’s release. They don’t try to sound like their heroes, but perhaps unknowingly they channeled those heroes over the weekend.
They backed Willy Tea Taylor in the big tent on Friday and together they executed what many would arguably call the best set Will has played in his seven years at this thing. They backed the second half of Jordan Smart’s set on Sunday and did the same thing but with Jordan (anyone who saw their set-closing “Under the Ground” knows what I’m talking about). They played Joe Kaplow’s set on Saturday and showed how their own music is in no way to be denied – it is as fresh and vital as anything out today.
So just like The Band backing Ronnie Hawkins and Bob Dylan, just like The Band playing their own magical sets, these guys showed us that there is SO MUCH to look forward to in their future. But then they took it one step farther. On Sunday night they became the backing band for the Hoedown Allstars set, a show that took pretty much every musician who was left on site and allowed them two songs to put a full stop on their own weekend’s performances. Let’s just call it what we all quietly saw it as: It was a Last Waltz inspired Hoedown-ending epic and Burning Pictures kept everything afloat. Sorry for the detour here, but all that needed to be said.
“Hoedown, for me, is always an intimate filling up on friendship, music and the woods. The family there is of our choosing and therefore gets closer each year we return.” –Annie, Hoedown Harbinger of Harmony
Another moment that needs to be highlighted was Marty O’Reilly and the Old Soul Orchestra’s set immediately following Tim Bluhm and the Coffis Brothers AWESOME show on the deck (and this whole Tim Bluhm/Coffis Brothers pairing deserves its own paragraph but suffice it to say that if these guys are within a two hour drive of you at any given moment, you need to get in your car and make the haul – its that good). Marty and the fellas played a sneaker set over by the burn barrel, fire blazing, with only a single orange light and their how headlamps to illuminate the scene. They played through their amps, like so many buskers but they owned the next hour and a half. The crowd encircled them and sang along, Marty exhorted that while they may not play the Hoedown every year, they will BE at the Hoedown every year, echoing the sentiment that this thing we have all had a hand in creating has become a unmovable, beautiful respite amidst the rest of a busy calendar year. They played with abandon, as only this band can, sometimes throwing their heads back and laughing in the moment and the connection and the fun.
“Its like going to a big family gathering but all the cousins go ‘take a walk’ for four days in the mountains” –Jordan Smart
There was just too much good music to possibly cover it all here. Desiree Cannon had her beautifully played set on Friday. Her vocal stylings were smoky and sultry, and she had the mid-afternoon crowd rapt in attention. Hubby Jenkins played Thursday night in the Lodge and his set became as much a lesson in African American musicology as it was a show. Hubby was able to draw connections in contemporary popular American music that found their well deep in Africa, drawing those lines with his banjo and guitars and his deep knowledge and respect for where our music originates.
The River Arkansas played so hard late night in the lodge on Friday that the foundation of the old building quaked with boot stomps and the rafters peeled with hoots and hollers. There is something about that band that appeals on multiple levels. Mike Clark’s lyrics seem to smile as they leave his lips, while Macon Terry’s bass lines thump with an almost jug band swagger while Rachel Silker weaves fiddle lines through it all. The music is a call for fun, plain and simple and that is exactly what went down in the lodge that night.
Aviva Le Fey may have been the counterpoint to the The River Arkansas’ good time music. Aviva played a sweet songwriter set in the lodge that highlighted the heart-breaking song. You know, the “sad songs make me happy” kind of ethos. Aviva is cracking the scene with an honesty in writing and a beautiful voice and an infectious smile that almost immediately endears her to her audience. And Sam Chase and the Untraditional played a show so unhinged that one audience member climbed onto the support poles of the tent, hung upside down and dropped straight into frenzied crowed (not an advisable move but . . . so Rock n’ Roll).
You know, maybe the most beautiful jewel in Lost Sierra Hoedown’s crown is that it annually draws one of the finest folksingers of our time, Nathan Moore, away from his home (and newlywed bliss no less) in Staunton, Virginia. It takes a lot to get Nathan in a plane these days but he’s always at Hoedown and that we can go about our year knowing that at some point at the end of September, we will have the chance to sit down in that lodge and listen for a full ninety minutes to the man pontificate, play, sing, and, yeah, forget some lyrics fuels many of our fires. It says a lot about an event when that guy won’t miss it. And in addition to his solo set, Nathan Moore, with his compatriot Lex Park and joined this year by Tim McCaffrey (Little Fuller Band and The Three to Get), the trio formed the backbone of the Collaboratory.
The Collaboratory is a tent set way up on the hill above the bowl where late-night wanderers find their way into an experimental music environment akin to the old Acid Test days and where beer flows like wine and the party literally does not end (at least until well after sun up). This is where the weird gets normal and the normal gets hella weird. The stage is open to all comers to lay open their psyche to a crowd of swaying listeners. You might see the musicians swap instruments mid-song and never lose the groove. It is the late-night heaven you need when you just can’t sleep.
“My first year at Lost Sierra I didn’t know if it was the smallest festival or the biggest party I’d ever been to. It hadn’t been since the early days of High Sierra that I felt like I was present at the revolutionary cusp of such an important, inspiring wave of talent. I’ve always romanticized artistic scenes through history, from Warhol’s warehouse to Dorothy Parker’s Algonquin Round Table, the idea of artists gathering and pushing each other to new heights has always been the dream. At Lost Sierra, that’s what it feels like. The quality of the songs and musicianship, across the board, is so extraordinary that I have to think history is gonna look back and say, ‘So that’s where it all started!’ There is, without a doubt something magical happening at this gathering in the Johnsville Ski Bowl.” – Nathan Moore, The Whole Other
The Hoedown is on its third sold-out year now, so it is getting safer to assume that the word is out, and that people are getting it. That is a testament to its organizers and their crew. Azariah “Z” Reynolds and his partner in this whole Hoedown thing Drew Fisher have created something beyond special and built it out of a pure and singular idea, that there can be such a thing as a festival without fences and that people can be trusted to help each other to have the best weekend of their lives. Those guys, their crews and their families go through a lot over the course of a year to make that weekend special. They daringly try new things and tweak the event as it goes yet keep it comfortably familiar at the same time. They work endlessly to make sure that everyone in the ski bowl is taken care of and that it is worth every dollar an attendee spends. So, this is a thank you to them for giving us a place to be and to smile and revel. Most of us cannot imagine our year without The Lost Sierra Hoedown. And I’ll leave you with this thought from Willy Tea Taylor, undeniably the Hoedown’s true spirit animal:
“The women that played this year melted my face. The feminine presence was radiating. This year’s Hoedown was a true feeling of what life could and will be. We all pulsed together, and the richness of words and music were of the finest collective of musicians I’ve ever been a part of. It left me with a sense of purpose and really felt the impact songs have on our world. I’m so very optimistic in this life when songs like that are vibrating the earth. I had a pretty good time.” –Willy Tea Taylor