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Columns > John Zinkand - Improvise

Published: 2003/07/28
by John Zinkand

The High Sierra Chronicles

Prelude
A strange and wonderful dream and an intriguing and inviting piece of
music, both nearly impossible to capture and convey in words, were at the
center of this year’s annual High Sierra Music Festival in Quincy, CA.
Dreamlike for the sheer beauty of the setting, the excellent organization of
the event, and the incredibly good and happy people that come out to and
make this festival so darn special. Festivarians of all shapes, sizes and
ages come to this annual gathering and are totally into it. Even the new
inductees are quickly swept up in the rapid current of rabid excitement that
flows through the Sierra-Plumas County Fairgrounds over the first weekend of
July and is shared by organizers, musicians, and festival veterans alike.
With a top-notch musical line-up, great new organization and entry
procedures, and some of the nicest festival weather in recent memory, the
2003 edition of the High Sierra Music Festival will go down in history as
one of the most enjoyable ever.
Warming Up
Knowing the festival was just over the horizon, I felt as if I was awaking
from a dream. D vu with a new citrus twist bounced and bobbled in my
subconscious as I mentally prepared, not only for the festival, but also for
the warm-up run of shows I would get to see and hear before the official
date of festival embarkation. Each year there is a little flurry of post
and pre-fest shows on the west coast and I like to get my head in the right
place by taking them in. Both Umphrey’s McGee and the Fareed Haque Group
would be in the Northwest in the days before we picked up our RV at the
rental place and headed south. Since these are two of my favorite current
jambands touring (I’m a sucker for tasty guitar playing), the excitement
leading up to this monumental run of music and festie fun was almost
unbearable and had me amped like a Marshall stack.
I drove north to Seattle to catch Umphrey’s McGee play their first
Northwest show in close to a year the week before High Sierra. I was
impressed by the young band’s power, playfulness, and dedication. It’s
obvious that Umphrey’s is pushing musical boundaries, working incredibly
hard, having fun, and stretching out as much as possible. The first set was
peppered with many classic tunes and frenetic jams, with the ‘Jimmy Stewart’
jam being notable for its great moog synthesizer intro and quirky groove.
The new song ‘Wife Soup’ was pleasing to hear as it continues to develop
into a staple with its catchy lead vocal melody hook sung by Brendan
Bayliss. The second set was a high-energy romp of danceable tunes that
segued in and out of one another. A snippet of Van Halen’s ‘Hot for Teacher’ sung by drummer Kris Myers and some serious jamming during the
tune ‘Nothing Too Fancy’ were some of my personal highlights.
I awoke in a sketchy hotel room just south of Tacoma, WA with the verses of
Umphrey’s McGee’s tune, ‘The Crooked One,’ swirling in my head. It was a
great feeling to get my first taste of Umphrey’s in such a long time and I
was looking forward to more that night in Portland. After driving south and
then napping peacefully at home with visions of electric guitars jamming in
my head, I woke up and drifted over to the Aladdin Theater for another night
of musical mayhem. The show that night was sick. The sound in the small
theater was dialed in perfectly, full and loud, and the band was having a
great time. A standout version of ‘The Triple Wide’ in the first set, a
smoking ‘I am the Walrus’ first set closer, and an absolutely sick ‘All in
Time’ to end the second set were some of the juicier tidbits of the show.
As Umphrey’s McGee ended, I headed over to the Goodfoot Lounge to catch the
Fareed Haque Group. Fareed was not scheduled to play High Sierra with Garaj
Mahal this year, but instead was on the bill to play with his other band. I
arrived at the smoky little bar just in time for their second set. The band
plays a jazzy, exploratory, middle-eastern influenced mnge of sounds that
has a heart of solid groove. With a DJ, a tabla drum player, and Fareed at
the helm, these guys take their improvisations into some very unique and
interesting places. The following night Fareed’s band played the same venue
to a slightly smaller Sunday night crowd. But what the audience lacked in
size they more than made up for in enthusiasm. People happily chanted along
with tabla player Kalyan Pathak as he thrust his fist in the air, a smile
plastered on his joyous countenance, leading us in an energetic
call-and-response. As the evening ended I realized my warm-up was over.
One day of organizing, list-checking, and packing to go before picking up
the RV and steering it towards the Sierra Mountains of Northern California.
Warming Up Some More: The Southbound Highway
My wife dropped me off at the RV rental place on Tuesday morning while she
returned to the house for the final perusing of our checklists. Being
anti-mechanical in nature, I asked the gruff guy showing me around our hotel
room on wheels to go over everything twice. Reluctantly, he did so. After
all the controls, switches, storage tank systems, etc. had been thoroughly
explained to me, I hopped into the wildly uncomfortable driver’s seat and
drove the twenty-three foot Tioga Fleetwood six miles back home. Loading it
up with our stuff took surprisingly little time and we had ample space in
which to store everything we wanted. But we also only had three people
riding in the beast. I carried most of the heavy crap into the RV before
heading to the airport to pick up a friend flying in from out of town. When
we returned from the airport, everything was pretty much ready to go. In no
time we found ourselves lurching down I-5 in the cumbersome vehicle on the
Tuesday afternoon before High Sierra.
With six uneventful hours on the road behind us, we arrived in Dunsmuir, CA
an hour or so after dark. The town is a rural speck of a place located in
the sparsely populated wooded hills a few miles south of Mt. Shasta. Fareed
was in the middle of his first set as we walked inside this bizarre room,
located next to a motel and a pool, called the House of Glass. Half of the
room is a roadside diner, basically. The other half is a large,
high-ceilinged rectangle that has a few scattered tables at one end and a
place where the band sets up on the other, but no actual elevated stage.
Glass windows from floor to ceiling give the place it’s name, apparently.
And since the House of Glass sits basically on top of I-5, it was hard not
to gaze down at the busses and semis rolling through the night from time to
time. It was one of the most wonderfully surreal and bizarre places in
which I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing a show.
The performance was great, too. The Fareed Haque Group was at least as
inspired as at their pair of Portland shows, with the entire band really
getting into it and giving it their all. During setbreak we hung out in the
RV and mixed up some drinks, deciding to forego paying for booze since we
had brought such an ample supply along with us (they only had beer inside,
too). Hearing the first few notes of the second set was our cue to get
inside and start getting down with the small but hard-boogieing crowd.
After asking how many of the thirty people or so in the audience were going
to High Sierra, Fareed ended a great second set with a string of CSNY
covers, including my personal favorite ‘Carry On’ as an encore. We all
grooved and the place became amazingly warm considering there were so few
people in the house. The woman who had taken our money at the door informed
everyone that they could swim for free in the pool just outside of the
venue. This sounded like a great idea until we were standing outside in the
crisp mountain air with temperatures hovering somewhere in the mid-forties.
It was at about this time that we realized none of us were in any kind of
shape to drive a vehicle, especially an RV, anyplace at all. I went back
inside the restaurant/venue, found the manager, and with surprisingly little
groveling, was granted permission to park our RV in the motel lot for free.
Nice! Thanks, braah!
We parked next to a friend who also rented an RV and was granted permission
to park for free in the lot. A small party flared up in our RV complete
with a viewing of the Bonnaroo DVD on my wife’s laptop computer. After a
solid night’s sleep, the morning came along with the inevitability of bacon.
We fried a good bit of it up along with some cheese-coated eggs and had a
tasty meal before finishing up the four hours of driving through the
mountains to Quincy, CA. An old high school friend of mine just happened to
move to Quincy recently and we met him at his apartment upon our arrival.
After taking some quick showers at his place (we were saving the RV storage
tanks for the festival proper), it was time to get back in a car and drive
to Tahoe City, CA for the evening’s festivities.
My Quincy buddy was kind enough to drive us the one and a half hours over
to the beautiful outdoor venue in Tahoe City. The River Ranch is a
sprawling upscale inn nestled in the rugged mountains just west of Lake
Tahoe. The entire property is perched right next to (and seemingly right on
top of) a roaring little river. We entered the back patio area of the inn
where the concert was being held. The band would play on the little stage
located just beside the river. Pine trees poked through the landscaped
patio here and there, and there was even a little outdoor dining area, which
was fortunate because we were starving. We walked over to the entrance of
the very fancy restaurant when we spied that, not only did they have outdoor
seating, but they also had heating lamps to keep patrons warm. Kick ass!
Just after we were seated next to the river and had placed our first drink
orders, the band took the stage. The view from our seats was slightly
obscured, but we could hear everything loudly and clearly. The entire
experience was a trip. I doubt I’ll get the chance to see Umphrey’s McGee
tear through staples like ‘The Fussy Dutchman’ and ‘Smell the Mitten’ at a
little outdoor venue in the mountains, sitting next to a raging river,
noshing on sesame-crusted seared ahi tuna and a medium-rare peppercorn NY
strip steak, while enjoying a pristine and starry nighttime sky again
anytime soon. And for desert we enjoyed a solid second set of dancing in
the cool nighttime air. It was very unpleasant when it all came to an end.
But in the blink of my red, drunken eye we were back home and crashed out on
the various couches and futons at my buddy’s place in Quincy.
Luck Be a Lady Tonight
Our original plan was to just wake up whenever and drive over to the
festival. We didn’t need to get there early because we had an RV! But
somewhere along the line paranoia took over, and we decided to forego eight
hours of sleep the night before the four-day festival so that we could get
in line early and hopefully get an RV hookup (an RV pass does not assure a
hookup at High Sierra, it’s still first come first served). We woke up
after sleeping only three or four hours at about 7:00am and drove the rig
down to the line-up point, eventually making our way to the end of a very
long, multi-laned line of RV’s. From the looks of things, we were very
late. People must have started lining up at 4:00am. Oh well, we figured we
would still probably get a hookup.hopefully. We shifted drivers and tried
to take naps but everyone was too excited to fall asleep. After what seemed
a very long time, the RV lines started to creep forward.
This was the peak of stress. All the lines started to move and everyone in
the vehicle immediately started to second-guess our line choice. Is that
line over there moving faster? Why do we always pick the slowest line?
Eventually, we got our shit together and relaxed as the lines started to
move at a promising and consistent basis. As we edged our way up, we saw
that there was a sharp right turn to make through a couple of wooden fence
posts, but that only one RV at a time could go through even though there
were five lines of RV’s. A major bottleneck, as one can probably imagine,
ensued. It was a stressful and antagonizing ordeal trying to pinch through
that little hourglass while fighting off other anxious festival patrons in
their enormous rental RV’s; but we battled valiantly, muttering obscenities,
and eventually squeaked through the hole. And there was much rejoicing!
Now we were all getting psyched. We were no longer in the five lanes of
dreck, but in the quickly moving single lane about to enter the fairgrounds.
Moods soared as toothy smiles flashed brightly as the morning sun. We would
move a few feet, and then pause. We could see the RV’s being parked in
RV-Town and were anxious to stake our claim to some property in there.
Inching forward slowly but surely, we finally arrived at the front of the
line. Only one RV stood between us and the entrance to the fairgrounds. So
we waited. And waited. And waited some more! After realizing that twenty
minutes had gone by with no movement, we began to get worried. Were we
really about to miss getting an RV hookup in RV-Town by only two measly
spots?
Yes and no. No, we would not be in RV-Town, but yes we would have a
complete hookup.right next to the Big Meadow Stage smack dab in the middle
of all the action! A feeling of joyful anticipation came over us as the
traffic started to move and the guy told us to turn left and enter the
fairgrounds up by the stage areas. Before we knew it we were being guided
right next to the Big Meadow Stage, about a hundred feet from the vending
areas, late night music halls, and multiple stages. I backed the RV into
its parking place and we all tumbled out of it giddy with excitement. The
woman who stepped out of the RV next to us looked at me and we both smiled
and stammered something like, ‘Ohmigod. I can’t believe this is our space.
OhmiGOD!!’ We set up camp like a well-oiled machine. Our canopy was
erected, lawn chairs put out, and RV all hooked up, including a tie-dye
sheet hanging from the hood, in less than thirty minutes. All that was left
to do now was enjoy four consecutive days of the best damn fest in the west.
Faster, Higher, Furthur
One of the best things about this year’s High Sierra Festival was the bevy
of positive changes that were made. Lining up and entry was more orderly,
music tents were enhanced, sound systems were upgraded, a new late night
venue appeared, new shaded camping areas were added, port-o-potties were
kept cleaner then ever, and the list goes on. From beginning to end there
just seemed to be a more organized and orderly feel to the event. And
though there were probably slightly less people attending than in years past
due to the Dead tour in progress and Phish tour about to begin, the extra
steps taken by the promoters and organizers to make this festival run more
smoothly than ever were no hallucination.
Instead of sleep-deprived festivarians clogging up the main artery of Route
70 in the wee morning hours before the event, this year people were told to
line up on Lee Road behind the festival grounds. This simple step helped to
alleviate much of the stress that occurs each year. Whereas local law
enforcement drove up and down Route 70 telling everyone to stay in the
shoulder and keep off the road over bullhorns in year’s past, there was zero
police presence on Lee Road this year. Instead of a long, single file line
that runs down a roadway, folks were lined up in the outer parking areas and
wrapped around so no traffic even spilled out onto the actual roads. Not
letting any patrons in on foot until 11:00am also made the scrapping for
quality camping space much fairer for everyone than in recent years. People
with tarps were not allowed to walk in early and save space for their
friends, so it was more of a first come first served deal. The last two
years I was in line by 6:00am but, by the time I got inside, folks had
thrown tarps down all over the Shady Grove camping area to reserve space.
Another major improvement was an overall upgrading of the actual concert
spaces. For years the Showcase Stage was crammed back behind some of the
buildings on the grounds. But as more and more great bands appeared on that
stage, the small space became progressively more cramped. They had tried
switching the direction of that stage a few times, but it always seemed to
leave the crowd or band in the blistering sun and with not enough space in
the crowd area for everyone who wanted to be there. This year they did away
with the Showcase Stage altogether and created a new and bigger stage called
the Big Meadow Stage. They enlarged Showcase and moved it to the middle of
the big meadow, traditionally a place for camping, and erected shade tarps
over the entire audience area. The new set-up made the Big Meadow a
comfortable new space for everyone.
Other improvements of stages included upgrades in the quality of sound
systems everywhere (although there were quite a few glitches this year at
times). And the Vaudeville Tent was a completely different animal. Gone
are the days of a tiny little hot tent with a sub par sound system. The new
Vaudeville Tent had tons of space, an additional shaded tent section in the
back, a beer booth on the side, tie-dye sheets and psychedelic screen for
eye-candy, and even a few misters attached to the sun-exposed side of the
tent to help keep the dancers on the sunny side moist and cool. Other nice
additions included using the Tulsa E. Scott building, traditionally a spot
for daytime ‘playshops’ and group improvisations, as a new and cheaper late
night venue. This was a great addition for folks who feel a bit strapped
when asked to pay the extra twenty dollars to see one of the major acts play
a late night show.
And the additional camping areas, partly in response to losing a big chunk
of the Shady Grove area to a skate park, were excellent. Organizers laid
down sod and turf in many of the extra camping spaces and even staked down
shade tents to help keep campers cool in the heat of the day. The addition
of the ‘Grand View’ campground was also beneficial for those people wanting
to ‘car camp.’ While many argue the view there was not so grand (unless you
like grand views of rusted out tractors), having a space to park and camp
next to your car was a very favorable option for some folks. Another
noticeable improvement included awesome food vending options like fried
calamari treats and delicious Santa Cruz juices. The newly chalked out
walking paths around the Big Meadow Stage, Big Meadow Camping, and
Vaudeville Tent made getting around through the dense sea of campers more
organized and easier than ever before. Finally, with the new camping
setups, it seemed everyone was mashed a little closer together. But instead
of this being an unpleasant aspect of the new setup, I think it gave the
festival a more palpable feeling of family and togetherness.
The Only Way to Fly
Of course, that’s an easy impression to have when looking down at the whole
scene from the rooftop of an RV. This year being ‘the best high sierra ever’ (we kept saying that quickly worn-out catchphrase over and over all
weekend) for my crew was due, in part, to the styling accommodations we had
in our rental RV. After setting up camp on Thursday we all just relaxed in
the RV for a while doing some light snacking and partying. Because we had a
full electric hookup, we had the windows and front door open but the AC
blasting. It was quite a great feeling getting hot and sweaty dancing like
a freak in the hot summer sun while other folks looking on must have been
thinking, ‘That guy’s gonna burn himself out dancing so hard so early.’ But
dancing and sweating like mad early in the day is an option when there is an
icy cool box of comfort waiting for your return.
Since our RV was parked right next to the Big Meadow Stage, it quickly
became a gathering place for many of our friends. At one point we had an
extension chord coming out of the RV with a blender plugged in and we were
making many rounds of ice-cold tropical frozen rum drink concoctions.
Whenever privacy or a break from the heat was needed, we could head inside,
but still listen to any of the stages we wanted to on Grizzly Radio. During
the evening sets of music at the Big Meadow Stage we climbed on top of the
RV, laid down some blankets, sipped on beer, and watched and listened from
up there. The view of the stage and lights, campers, and distant mountain
range as the sun set was perfect.
I loved being able to make it out to the late night shows if I wanted to
this year. In year’s past I usually had to skip most of the late stuff due
to lack of sleep from getting baked out of the tent early in the morning.
But this year we had no problem raging the late nights for as long as we
wanted and still enjoying plenty of quality sleep. We blocked the light
coming in the RV with various sheets, pieces of cardboard, and duct tape.
Sleeping in air-conditioned comfort until 11:30am each day was a heavenly
and very welcome addition to this year’s fest. Throwing on our personal pot
of coffee, grabbing grapefruit juice from the fridge, and microwaving some
food to eat whenever we felt like it seemed like a dream come true. I didn’
t even have to drink out of a dirty, dusty camp cup one single time!
And even though the lines for showers weren’t nearly as long as they
usually are, it was very nice to have our own private shower. Walking out
of that shower into an air-conditioned room to a freshly cooked meal was
unreal, especially while live music blasted away from the close-by Big
Meadow Stage. Shit, next year we’ll remember to bring some Pillsbury cookie
dough so we can even bake up some fresh chocolate chip cookies. Other
possible additions include a baby pool and a mini ping-pong table to set up
on our front porch. Oh, the possibilities!
There Was Music, Too
The music line-up was definitely one of the best ever. Although there were
some noted omissions of festival veterans such as Leftover Salmon and The
Radiators, overall there was an extraordinarily high level of musicianship
on all stages. Many of the bands I had never heard before the weekend were
some of the bands that I was most blown away by. I count on High Sierra to
introduce me to new music each year from a pool of national talent and they’
ve delivered every year. Some of the past bands I learned about for the
first time through High Sierra include Galactic, The Big Wu, Psychedelic
Breakfast, RAQ, and Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey – and this year was no
different. I even made the extra conscious step this year to see bands I’ve
never heard or haven’t seen as much as opposed to sticking with the now
familiar jamband scene staples like Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe, Sound Tribe
Sector 9, and Steve Kimock. If there was an option of something new or less
familiar, I was on it.
The first music I heard on Thursday afternoon was from the band called
Mountain of Venus. I had seen this band for the first time the prior year
at High Sierra and figured I would check out their progress (since they have
a penchant for skipping the NW on their national tours.ahem, manager
Aaron?). What a difference a year can make! They had the Vaudeville Tent
pretty darn packed with warm mid-day bodies when we arrived. Lead vocalist
Tanya Shylock has found a comfort level on stage that feels totally natural
as she sings, sways, and generally gets down to the music. And all the band
members play more than competently with guitarist Michael Pascale displaying
an incredible gift of serious skills. Mountain of Venus gets my nod for
most improved band. The highlight of the set that afternoon was a
rollicking cover of ‘War Pigs’ to end the set, dedicated lovingly to Dubya.
As we returned to our RV after the MOV set, we heard a wonderful sound
wafting over from the nearby Big Meadow Stage and we quickly turned on
Grizzly Radio to enhance our listening pleasure. A band called Reorchestra
was jamming it out and impressing me with their instrumental grooves and
ability to get funky and jazzy simultaneously, two musical styles that are
right up my alley. The band struck me as much more than just another funky
jazz band from the Bay area, though, with very skilled players, creative
song writing, and a tasty flair for Afro-Cuban funk.
For the next few hours we just chilled by the RV and listened to the Big
Meadow stage sounds. As a High Sierra veteran, I realized that pace is one
of the keys to making it through all four days and late nights of the
festival. Since there was no band I felt I needed to see playing for the
next few hours, we chilled and listened to Home at Last and then the OM
Trio. The guys at Home at Last had good skills and played a song-oriented
set, but they seemed to lack a certain feeling – or maybe it was confidence.
I had heard good things before the festival and I honestly felt this band
fell a little short of those expectations. The wacked out, psycho-jazz,
trancey pulses of OM Trio were as weird and enjoyable as I’ve come to
expect, however. These three guys do some crazy shit and emit a huge sound,
especially considering they are only a bass, drum, and keyboard trio. After
this, we walked back over to the Vaudeville Tent to see the Sun Ra Arkestra.
The place was packed in anticipation of this legendary band’s performance.
Many players, all decked out in colorful garb, coated the entire stage. It
seemed as if everyone had a horn of some sort and the sounds the band made
were delicious. From straight-ahead jazzy ditties to a loud and swirling
chaos, they had the full house tuned in big time. I couldn’t help thinking
that this was a very important set to witness since so many of the jamband
scene’s great artists often site the Arkestra as one of their major
influences.
As soon as that was over we walked right back over to the Big Meadow stage
to catch my currently favorite band, Umphrey’s McGee. Apparently lots of
folks had the same idea because the area was slam-packed with freaks. We
weasled our way down in front of the stage as the set was scheduled to
begin. Due to some technical problems, however, it was another twenty
minutes or so until the band finally took the stage. I passed the time by
chatting with some Umphreaks while we waited. Their set was solid, but not
the mind-numbing jam infested craziness I’ve come to expect. Highlights
included a nice version of ‘Peter Gunn Theme>Every Breath You Take,’
‘JaJunk,’ and a personal favorite that I had yet to hear on my Umphrey’s run
up to that point, ‘In the Kitchen.’ The entire set seemed a bit strained
due to the late start and when the final song of the set, ‘Syncopated
Strangers’ was cut off mid-song due to curfew, it just felt strange. I love
any Umphrey’s set, but this one will not go down as one of my favorites.
After a full day enjoying tunes while running mostly on adrenaline and
relatively little sleep, we started to get a little bit tuckered. We did
not buy any late night tickets for that night. Our philosophy was that if
the place was going to be packed enough to be sold out, it wasn’t a place
that we necessarily wanted to be. And many of the late night options did
sell out. We headed over to the Vaudeville Tent to catch the end of New
Monsoon’s set there until 1:30am. These guys came through Portland a few
months back and were very entertaining. They had nice song writing, and a
mellow Latin vibe to their jammy little tunes. At the Vaudeville Tent,
however, they were playing like a band possessed. I don’t know if they were
feeding off the energy of the crowd or the Sierra Mountain Range, but
guitarist Jeff Miller was playing some of the most energetic and frenetic
solos I heard all weekend. Eruption after eruption of intense energy blew
through the Vaudeville Tent, impressing everyone there. When the set ended
we milled around outside of the late night Funk-n-Jam House and listened to
snippets of Papa Grows Funk and Robert Walter’s 20th Congress. Both bands
were emitting funky grooves and it was fun hanging out with all the late
night party people, but by 3:00am we decided to call it a night. It was a
short walk back to the RV and welcomed sleep arrived in no time.
Lots of Music
I was gently nudged awake by some serene sounds penetrating the ice-cold
walls of my darkened RV around 10:30am. It was some sort of gypsy trance
music that had a little bit of a twang to it. I checked my schedule to see
if my guess was right and it was! I was being awakened from musical dreams
by the soothing sounds of Portland’s own Taarka. I can think of no better
morning mood music for the second day of High Sierra. While cooking up
breakfast in the kitchen, the next band took the Big Meadow Stage, a band
called Bockman’s Euphio. I certainly had never heard of them before, but I
was intrigued by their description in the schedule: ‘Bockman’s Euphio offers
neck-breaking rock, funky rhythms, trance and fusion. With bits of
improvisation and a stage presence as engaging and unpredictable as their
music, fans can expect only one thing: the unexpected.’ SOLD! We enjoyed
the set of erratic, engaging, sometimes random music very much. It was
challenging but pleasurable and I look forward to seeing these guys again in
the future.
With pacing still in mind, we cold-kicked it at the RV patio for a few
hours as we trolled through the Grizzly Radio stations and tuned in anything
we had never heard before from the many stages. We sampled Scott Law and
Code Green and Shanti Groove before heading over for our first Grand Stand
Stage set performed by the one and only Soulive. I was amazed at the volume
when we got over there because the band was blasting away very loudly. We
found a shade-barren swatch of scorched earth on the left side of the field
and danced hard in the hot sun. Soulive’s groove is so phat and Neal Evans
on Hammond B-3 and Eric Krasno on guitar are both standouts. They played
tune after tune of groovy, soulful, slinky jazz-funk numbers that had the
place moving, even under the hot sunny skies.
After sweating and dancing for Soulive and a quick cool down in the
air-conditioning, we sat out on our RV patio and took in the sounds of
another band none of us had heard before, Perpetual Groove. These guys had
all of the feeling in their vocals that I felt Home at Last was lacking.
They sung each of their melodious songs confidently. Harmonizing must come
naturally for these Georgians, because each tune was sung beautifully,
including a vocally challenging cover of a Paul Simon song. A refreshing
aspect of this band was there lack of a standout soloist. Instead of songs
giving way to one huge guitar or piano solo, these guys built their jams
with more of a rhythmic groove and trance feel that was totally danceable
while still being interesting. Mofro took the stage next and performed a
solid set. While not nearly as jammy as most bands at the festival, Mofro
used soulful vocals, a funky tight groove, and concise tunes to construct
their sound. It was the perfect background music for our sunny afternoon of
drinking and partying.
Next it was time to go back over to the Grand Stand Stage to witness the
Steve Kimock Band’s set. I heard that the prior night’s late night
performance was out of control and was hoping that Steve and company saved
some juice for the rest of us. The energy of his set there was phenomenal
as the band blistered through many Kimock Band staples. Rodney Holmes on
drums and Arne Livingston on bass were laying down a seriously thumping
foundation for Steve to solo over. He played with more direction and energy
that afternoon than I had seen in quite some time, converting me once again
to the realm of true Kimock believers. Rodney Holmes has got to be one of
the fiercest drummers out there, too. At times it was down right perplexing
watching a human vibrate as fast and furiously as he did.
We gathered our blown minds off the dusty field by the main stage, and then
floated back over to the Vaudeville Tent. Unfortunately, we only caught the
last song of Tea Leaf Green’s set. But it actually wasn’t that impressive
to me as it seemed a bit slow for a set closer. With things running late,
the plan was to wait for Papa Mali at the Vaudeville Tent before heading
over for the late night show with Fareed Haque Group and Umphrey’s McGee.
After waiting for quite awhile by the Vaudeville Tent, we decided to go back
to the RV and chill there with a beverage or three. As we rounded the
corner behind the Big Meadow Stage to go back to the RV, we were blasted by
an aural and visual assault. I could tell from the funky beat that this was
some music from New Orleans, but I didn’t know which band. A quick check
with the schedule informed us that we were listening to the big festive band
of Anders Osborne. It was a sound barrage as multiple drummers, horn
players, guitarists, and percussionists, were all up on the large, packed to
capacity, stage. The beat was so infectious that there was no way to walk
by the stage at that time and not stop and at least dance a little. Even
tabla player Kalyan Pathak from the Fareed Haque Group joined in with the
festive musical anarchy that was taking place up on stage. And to top it
all off Chief Monk Bordreaux was dancing on stage with a partner, both
decked out in full Native dress including massive feathered headdresses. It
was truly a spectacle to behold.
After some post-Anders drinks back at the site, I had to go over by the
late night halls to visit a nice clean Port-O-Pottie. That’s when I heard a
pleasurable sound blasting from the Tulsa E. Scott Building, the very spot
in which I was slated to see my late night shows later that night. I
quickly perused my schedule to find out that a band called Hobex was opening
for Fareed and Umphrey’s. I ran back over to the RV to grab my friends, and
then we all went back to check out more of Hobex. These guys were so damn
good, even if we were just about the only folks enjoying their sounds in the
room at the time. I was floored that I had never heard of them before. The
sound was steeped in the southern rock and soul tradition, but yet it was
distinctively unique at the same time. The vocals of lead guitarist Greg
Humphreys were full of feeling and gritty soul that one might expect from a
southern band. The bassist, Andy Ware, had pristine vocal ability and a
quirky, almost Mike Gordon-like, stage presence. The keyboard player was
incredibly talented, too, taking great solo after solo on his Korg and
harmonizing well with the rest of the band. With quality songs, a heaping
helping of southern soul, and loads of jamming capability, Hobex was my
favorite discovery at this year’s festival.
But the night was just getting started. The one-two punch of Fareed and
Umphrey’s was scheduled next. This combination felt very fitting since I
started this whole crazy adventure off with those two bands in the
Northwest. Fareed’s set was everything I’ve come to expect, but not more.
I was really hoping for some interplay with some guest musicians during both
sets, but it was not to be. Fareed was rather bitter about the small stage
and even thanked ‘the host of special guests that I had invited and were
scheduled to play with us tonight but couldn’t fit on this little stage’ at
the end of the set. The room was full, but not even close to packed by the
time a very fresh looking Umphrey’s McGee took the stage with a vengeance.
I struggled for some limited space in front of a wind fan as the fiery set
of music began with a jolt and a burst. Although it was 2:30am, the Umphrey
‘s boys were on fire from beginning to end. It was almost vicious how they
ripped into song after song, jam after jam, while the unsuspecting crowd
(well, some of us were suspect, I guess) tried to endure the cacophonous
onslaught of powerful jamming the band dished out. After completing the set
opener ‘Get in the Van,’ the band picked up from where they had been cut off
the previous night, right in the middle of the song ‘Syncopated Strangers.’
The rest of the set was a powerful blur of staples including ‘Nothing Too
Fancy,’ ‘Prowler,’ ‘2×2,’ and ‘Utopian Fir.’ When the show finally came to
an end we were all exhausted. With a full to overflowing day of music under
our belts, we crawled back to the RV at around 4:30am and crashed out.
So Much Freakin’ Music!
As day three of the festival arrived, I felt pretty sluggish. The day
before was a serious energy drain, but it was well worth it. Our strategy
for Saturday was to pace ourselves by chilling out with Grizzly Radio while
partying at the site most of the day. The plan was to listen to Grizzly
Radio and then head over to any stage where the music sounded like something
that might move us. Well, it’s tough to move when pouring frozen rum drinks
down your throat on a 90+-degree day. After some friends came over and our
site was converted into a small but raucous party place, we decided to stay
put and enjoy the sounds of the nearby Big Meadow Stage for the entire day.
Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey was up first and they played their mutant jazz with
plenty of energy, even in the hot sun. Both keyboard player Brian Haas and
drummer Justin Smart had their shirts off for the entire set while bassist
Reed Mathis leaned back, closed his eyes, and got busy. They played all
sorts of random sounding grooves before Jessica Lurie came out to sit in
with them at the end of their set. Jessica has a reputation of being able
to adapt her sax playing to fit any band’s style – and with JFJO she had her
work cut out for her. But she pulled it off brilliantly as the band worked
a jam into a fairly rhythmic groove so she could blow one of her signature
badass solos.
We let the Disco Biscuits music become mostly the background tunes for our
party, although I felt their vocals were much stronger than the last time I
had seen the band over a year ago. Then Seattle’s own Maktub took the stage
and changed the vibe up completely. In a festival full of acidic guitar
solos and high-energy bluegrass jams, it was nice to have this added dash of
variety. Their smooth and laid-back 70’s R&B sound soothed my hot, sweaty,
music-drenched soul. Later in the evening we climbed to the roof of the RV
to watch Les Claypool’s set. I think we enjoyed having that killer view up
there more than the actual music. Les is dark and quirky which are two
words not often used to describe the High Sierra Music Festival. I enjoyed
the change of pace, but I know many festivarians felt that his vibe might
have been a little too twisted. I heard he did get into the High Sierra
spirit at his late night show when he invited a young, aspiring bassist of
about twelve years of age up on stage to play bass with him. I’m sure it
was a dream come true for the kid (and probably his mom or dad, too). Karl
Denson’s brand of funky grooves was our final music for the night. He
always delivers music that fuels any dance party, and this night was no
different. Steve Winwood even sat in for part of the set on keyboards much
to the approval of the large crowd. To put it simply, Karl is good for your
soul.
After a day of hot sun, many drinks, and not enough sleep, we decided to
crash so we would be as rested and energetic as possible for the final day
of the festival. We slept pretty late and finished up breakfast the next
day just before Umphrey’s McGee’s Grand Stand set was about to start. A
cover of Led Zepplin’s ‘The Song Remains the Same’ greeted us when we
finally got to the front of the stage underneath the beaming mid-day sun.
Looking around, I could tell many folks were running low on energy on this
final day. But as festival veterans who had been diligent in our pacing, we
had plenty of energy left. We danced super hard to this very solid set and
even spied Mr. Les Claypool grooving to the music on the side of the stage.
During the set a tortilla war erupted and guitarist Brendan Bayliss picked
one up off the stage and whipped it out into the crowd. Later in the set he
apologized for having hit a baby in the head with a tortilla.
After forty-five minutes of cooling down in the air-conditioning, it was
time for some breakfast.Psychedelic Breakfast that is. They blistered
through an hour set of quirky psychedelia with guitarist Tim Palmieri
shredding like a mad man on his guitar. Tim is definitely one of the guitar
prodigies in the jam scene. Although the crowd was mostly seated at the
start of the set, by the middle of the second tune everyone was either up
and dancing or quickly scurrying out of the way of more and more shuffling
feet. The highlight of the set for me was the raging closer of ‘Whipping
Post.’ The band asked Tanya Shylock of Mountain of Venus to be their guest
on the vocals for the song and she really wailed it out. The only thing I
can compare this twenty minute long shredfest to would be the late 80’s
Phish versions of the tune. It just kept going and going while increasing
in intensity until it felt we all would burst at the seams, making for a
definite highpoint of the festival.
We chilled for a bit and then I headed over to a music journalism workshop
being hosted by Relix editor Aeve Baldwin and Relix contributor Dewey
Hammond. They mostly just answered questions, but also imparted some wise
information in regards to writing high-quality and targeted query letters.
Andy Gadiel was there and it was nice to be able to put a name with his
face, too. However, this second day of the workshop was more of a follow up
to the previous day that I had missed in lieu of enjoying some good times.
And at the end of the meeting we had a mock press conference with some bands
members’ including Tanya Shylock from Mountain of Venus and Jon Gutwillig
from the Disco Biscuits. Jon mentioned that he drinks tons of liquid and
that he actually may drink close to forty cups of jasmine tea each day to
help him sustain energy. I jokingly asked how he had time to write music
since he must spend most of his time in the bathroom after drinking all that
tea.
When the workshop ended, I headed back over to our site where folks were
partying and getting ready for the evening’s festivities. We climbed up on
the roof of the RV again to get a bird’s eye view of the Jessica Lurie
Ensemble set. While enjoyable, the set wasn’t something that stood out
above and beyond the rest for me. I’m used to seeing Jessica rip and squawk
crazy energetic solos on her sax with The Living Daylights. With her
ensemble, she did some nice sax work, but the band had a much mellower sound
and feel than I’ve come to expect from her with the Daylights. It’s
interesting to note that Jessica actually did some singing with her
ensemble. She could carry a tune well enough, but her voice was
surprisingly low and her range was fairly limited. Signal Path followed
Jessica on the Big Meadow Stage and performed a spacey, trancey, far out
set. Electronic music, sound effects swirled with pulsing beats, and
instrumental playing make up a very unique sound for this young band from
Montana. They didn’t just dabble in electronica, they embraced it
whole-heartedly by churning out bucketfuls of trance grooves that were
danceable but never felt forced. Traditionally not a big fan of the
electronic genre, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed these guys and their
rhythmic, futuristic, psychedelic sound.
The final night arrived much faster than we wanted it to and we had to make
a decision. Should we see Michael Franti and Spearhead on the main stage or
check out something we had never seen before? Keeping with our new music
theme of the fest, we decided to jet over to the Vaudeville Tent and see a
set by Mighty Dave Pellicciaro and Pandora’s Box. There might have been
forty or fifty people in the audience. The band consisted of Dave on Hammond
and keys, a trio of horn players front and center, Scott Law on guitar,
another guy on lap slide guitar player, a bassist, and Dale Fanning at the
drum kit. This very intimate set was an ass-shaker as the horn players each
took funky little solos fueled by Dale’s energetic, almost maniacal,
drumming. Before we knew it Mighty Dave himself was front and center asking
people up on stage and generally talking shit and having a good time. They
even asked me if I would come up on stage and sing some backing vocals,
which I did. The whole experience was pretty surreal. I slipped back into
the audience and was dancing with my friends when a freak decked out in
tie-dye pants and a shirt came robot walking out onto the stage. He was
wearing a motorcycle helmet that had a huge disco ball mounted to the top of
it and was acting very strangely and alien-like. Suddenly the guy beside me
pulled out a flashlight and shined it on bizarre tie-dye robot man’s disco
ball helmet and beams of light shot all over the tent. The beat was
thumping and everyone danced hard while enjoying the festive chaos of this
crazy set.
Next it was time for the final music of the entire festival for us, a
late-night gig with ALO, Moonshine Still, and Perpetual Groove. We missed
all of ALO but caught the entire Moonshine Still set. They delivered a
psychedelic and often humorous barrage of music that still has me shaking my
head. With generally great vocals, interesting songs, and raw jamming
power, these guys have major potential. I felt like I was exploring outer
space at times as the keyboardist made bizarre sounds and otherworldly
pulses during jams that explored all sorts of interesting places. No matter
how weird things progressed, however, the hook always came back to keep us
grounded. Perpetual Groove took the stage next and we stayed to boogie for
only about an hour. They were a great choice for a final night’s late night
because they can be counted on to put out a solid, danceable groove for a
long time.almost perpetually. We danced until we just couldn’t go anymore.
It felt like we were sleepwalking as we did the zombie trance walk back to
the RV. With four sunny, music-packed days under my belt, I slept harder
that night than I had the entire festival.
Afterward
On a normal day the alarm clock usually wakes me up and then I hit the
snooze button. This sets the alarm to go off again in eight minutes while
giving me a brief chance at getting some more sleep. Usually when my head
hits the pillow after that first alarm and before the second has gone off, I
take off into a vivid dreamland. For whatever reason, I dream most vividly
in these fleeting moments; sometimes I see civilizations rising and falling,
detailed dialogues happening, or old friends in unusual places. But as the
snooze alarm rings out all of that detail is lost to my consciousness, never
to be experienced again.
When the piercing beep of my friend’s alarm woke us up a few hours after we
went to bed after the final day of the festival, I felt just like that.
Could this be the end? Did these four magical, music-filled days really
just happen? And music is like that, too. When it’s over there is a subtle
memory, but the experience is deeply rooted in the now. Nobody’s really
sure if the intensity of the experience was real or imagined. High Sierra
is an intensely beautiful recurring summer dream where we have the
opportunity to delve deeply into the collective unconscious through
exploration of the mystical and ancient art form of music. I know in my
heart that it is my destiny to return to this festival. It’s an annual
pilgrimage that molds a deep and spiritual dream into fleeting reality every
summer.

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