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Columns > John Zinkand - Improvise

Published: 2005/07/07
by John Zinkand

High Times at High Sierra

I am writing this not more than 24 hours after arriving back home from the best fest in the west (anywhere?). The good vibes still linger in my heart and mind, the great music still rings in my ears, and the sunburn on my skin is still tender to the touch. I am relaxed, refreshed, rejuvenated, invigorated, and yes…a little tired. The whole trip was perfect which kicks in the d vu since I always seem to feel the lingering High Sierra love upon returning each year. So what made this year so darn special yet again? Everything. It’s the little details, the barely noticeable nice things, and the special vibe that one can’t truly understand from reading a review. High Sierra Music Festival is not just a music festival, it’s an experience. It’s almost too good.
Why is it so good, you ask? Well, like I said, it’s hard to put into words. I’ll give it a good college try, though, since I attended some college here and there in between Phish shows. First of all, an RV at a music festival is a little slice of heaven. Gone are the headaches of lugging gear, setting up camp, sweating it out in the hot sun, and then being almost too tired to dance afterwards. And having a fridge, a microwave, air conditioning, and soft dark place to sleep is just so key. I will not belabor this point, however. Enough said.

This year another benefit to having the RV was hanging out in RV town and meeting a ton of great people. From the kind old fellow Sharky who told us to raise our canopy higher so no one would hit their head, to Dave and family across the way who managed to see late nights, hang out, and generally rage while impressively taking good care of all the kids, as well. Then there was Bacchus who hooked us up with a Vaudeville Tent backstage pass just for lending him some Worcestershire, horseradish, pepper, olives and sprig of celery (guess what he was drinking). Of course, my lame ass didn’t even use the pass as I can sometimes be chronically antisocial, but what a kind gesture for some measly Bloody Mary fixins, right?

Every person on the staff is kind and helpful. Upon starting the entry process, it feels more like a time to get acquainted and find out how long both the staff and we festivarians have been coming to this awesome event. I told the woman who gave us our wristbands that I’d been coming since 1998, but my buddy Pete trumped me with his impressive record of attendance since way back in 1992. Smiles from tanned faces beam everywhere and light up the place. I’ve never seen anyone be mean or yell at another person in all the years I’ve been going. It’s the ultimate family vibe, too. We hung out with many of our neighbor’s children over the weekend and it was a pleasure. The parents teach their kids respect and it shows.

Then there are all the details that High Sierra remembers when putting together a festival. I rarely walked into any porta pottie when the thing was not almost completely spotless. They do such a great job at keeping them empty and quite clean. And for those folks who just can’t force themselves to walk into a porta pottie no matter how clean it is, there are also bath house with real toilets sprinkled around the grounds. The fact that some of those houses have showers (in addition to the shower trailer) is another key to making High Sierra the supreme shizzle that it is. It’s a full four days of music in some pretty serious heat, so a shower once or twice during the weekend is pretty important stuff. That brown paste one gets in between their sandaled toes after walking around the dusty grounds for a few days can be pretty gnarly.
Also, the vending options are great at High Sierra. There are tons of nice clothes and crafts made by great people who will chat with you as you browse their wares. The food booths are a step above what might be considered normal festival fare. Sure, there’s pizza and fries, but at High Sierra the pizza is organic. There are also organic teas (including yerba mate), organic fresh produce from local farms, and even frozen chocolate covered fruit kabobs. Basically, even if you forget to pack any camping food, you can still find something super tasty as long as you have a few bucks to spend. Don’t expect to score too much food "in the lot," however, as that scene is pretty much non-existent at this festival. The tiny bit of vending that is done is completed on the extreme down low, which keeps the scene very mellow and more focused on the music and good vibe.

The grounds themselves also help to make this such a great festival. It is nicely spread out, but not so spread out that one has to log miles and miles each day if they want to see music on three or four different stages. The sound is usually solid with no cross-over sound pollution from the next nearest stage. Every stage now has at least some sort of shade canopy to help keep dancers cool and out of the sometimes oppressively hot California sun. And because the festival ground is the Plumas County Fairgrounds, there are nice walkways and benches scattered around. And one can’t walk too far from any given spot within the festival grounds without finding a faucet that dispenses potable water very helpful after dancing an hour in the 90 degree heat.
And the folks here are pros. The folks in RV town are pros, too, but pros who obviously like their creature comforts more than some. The camping areas are like intricate Ewok Villages complete with tapestries, tunnels, connecting corridors to other camps, disco balls, shade canopies, huge parachutes, streamers, flags, decorations, etc. If you can think of something that would bee cool to bring, someone probably already thought of it and has it sitting at their campsite. These are no light weekend revelers, these are festivarians who are serious about their music, partying, and camping and it shows. People lend each other a helping hand, hang out and meet each other, and sometimes even dispense a free shot of rum from a water gun. There are couches, full rooms, kitchen areas, kitchen sinks, and even some solar shower areas. It’s a long festival and people bring all the comforts of home to really style things out, and all the caring and effort helps to create the extremely high vibe.

What am I forgetting? Oh right, the music. Man, it’s always just too good. And there’s always way too much. As soon as I think I’m doing great as far as seeing lots of my favorite bands and remembering to check out lots of new ones, I talk to a neighbor or casual passer by. They are sure to tell about many other sets from different bands that were incredible. It happens all the time. There is just too much going on simultaneously to be able to take in even a fraction of it. This year, for instance, I didn’t get over to even one of the "Playshops." I missed a guitar playshop with Fareed Haque and Steve Kimock, I missed the Warren Haynes playshop, and I missed the Karl Denson jazz playshop. I usually like to see one or two of these very intimate engagements, but just didn’t get over this year…but it’s all good because there’s just so damn much music everywhere. One can find music almost anywhere at High Sierra; from me trying to play my acoustic guitar at my campsite (someone even complimented my playing he must not have read this), a real band playing a small rig set up on top of their RV, or the serious sets blaring away from the musicians up on the Grandstand Stage, there’s music nearly everywhere at any given moment.

I consider myself a music fan first and a happy and festive reveler second, so now it’s time for some personal musical highlights from this past long weekend’s festivities. Thursday we listened to a nice trancey set from Portland, Oregon’s own Surrounded by Ninjas on Grizzly Radio while partying. Skerik’s Syncopated Taint Septet (love that name, by the way) was a nice soothing set of jazz on a Thursday afternoon. While Les Claypool’s headlining Grandstand Stage performance was not one of my favorites, it was very entertaining. I heard the music was much more intense at his late night throwdown, however. The real highlight of Thursday for me, though, was the late night show I took in. I chose the smallest of the three shows and was treated to great performances from Perpetual Groove and Tea Leaf Green. Perpetual Groove opened the show, but I almost feel like they should have headlined. They have such a great, diverse sound with their beautiful vocals and jams that feel trancey but then have more direction than a typical trance jam. You suddenly realize that the jam is just wailing, the lights are spinning, and serious energy is spewing forth from the stage to the crowd and back. Tea Leaf Green are no slouches either, and their set was also very energetic and great to hear. I raged to Josh Clark’s guitar jams as long as I could before giving up and calling it a night around 4:00am.

Thursday was a slow day musically for me, while Friday was anything but. The set by Skerik’s project called the Dead Kenny G’s was incredible! Skerik was jumping around, Mike Dillon was jumping around (and even tried a stage dive near the end of the set), and the music was strange and pulsing. Skerik yelled garbled noise into the microphone on his saxophone while the rest of the band jammed over his rabble. Brian Haas from Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey was going off on the keys while Dillon pounded on various percussion instruments and his vibes. These guys’ chaotic sound is the complete antithesis to Kenny G., and they know it. Skerik even mentioned that if something bad were to happen to the smooth jazz player…he might help if asked. When I couldn’t take anymore of their chaos, I headed over to catch Garaj Mahal. Their set was incredible from start to finish and I danced the entire time with a happy grin on my face. It was warm and sunny, people were smiling and dancing, and life was very good. Every member of Garaj Mahal is an extraordinary musician and they just happened to gel perfectly for this set. The next show I saw was a high energy affair put on by the good folks from New Orleans known as the Soul Rebel Brass Band. Wow. These guys tore the roof off the Vaudeville Tent at 3:15 in the afternoon on Friday. Anyone that was there would agree. They brought the New Orleans funk that all party people love so well. They had us doing call and response, funky dance steps, and waving our hands in the air, working us like professionals. These guys played quintessential New Orleans funk with a little hip-hop thrown in for good measure, and the result was a funky good time that should not be missed by anyone. Check them out.

I had to go check out Gabby La La’s set alone since my friend went to check out Spearhead. Gabby is just so wonderfully bizarre. I had first seen her open for Les Claypool in Portland, and of course she is in Les’s band that played the previous night. As I approached the stage, Gabby’s fluorescent green hair caught my eye. She also had a tiger hat pulled slightly down over the top of her head. The songs are all sung in Gabby’s recognizable high-pitched tone, accompanied by a sitar and other knick knacks. And the songs are all wonderfully strange, silly, and fun. Gabby doesn’t kick down into high energy jams or dazzle with speedy fret board finger work, she’s just a singer/songwriter who performs her own unique brand of highly entertaining music. At High Sierra Gabby welcomed a steady stream of random guests, including a few to try their respective hand at this little thumb-bell piano like instrument. She played sitar and ukulele and made little random comments. It was a very odd experience. After Gabby I walked over to the Big Meadow stage for the funky instrumental sounds of the British band called The New Mastersounds. They played a bunch of tight, in the pocket grooves and the large crowd cheered them on and made them feel at home. It was easy to dance to their guitar and organ driven tunes.

Perpetual Groove at the Vaudeville later that night did not disappoint. These guys performed another solid set of music with beautiful vocals and highly enjoyable instrumental ebbs and flows. The crowd was a little sparse at the beginning of the set, but it was packed and thumping by the end. Everyone was totally into it. The band blew everyone away with a nicely played encore version of Lionel Richie’s All Night Long to close the show. The only thing we really caught music-wise after that was some of Bill Frisell’s set. It was very good stuff and the guy is a great guitar player. But it was a mellower set than we were in the mood for. Instead we partied the evening away at the RV listening to various performances and radio cuts on Grizzly Radio. Sometimes it’s nice to just chill and catch up with old friends, and with the luxury of four full days at this festival, it’s nice to be able to do so without feeling too guilty about missing tunes. And the radio simulcast of every stage is sick, too.

While I had many little asterisks on my schedule for each band I wanted to see and a day chock full of music carefully planned, the previous night’s drinking took quite a toll. We awoke in a dry-mouthed haze at about 1:00pm and tried to get it together. Unfortunately, it never really happened. We mostly listened to the stages from the campsite on the radio, took showers, and rested up. My highlights of the music I actually made it out to see included Maktub, Gov’t Mule, and the Benevento/Russo Duo. Each band has a strikingly different sound, which is yet another thing that makes High Sierra such a great festival the varied styles of music. Maktub played their soulful grooves to an appreciative early evening crowd. Then Benevento/Russo exploded with energy on the Big Meadow stage just afterwards. We danced hard to their grooves and were impressed again by the amount of sheer sound put out by just two guys. Then Gov’t Mule just wailed. They rocked the crowd extremely hard with powerful, skillful guitar solo after guitar solo by Warren Haynes. His trademark soulful voice is always a crowd favorite, too. The encore of the Stone’s Wild Horses included a soft and melodic Steve Kimock solo on pedal steel guitar. We raged late into the night until about 4:00am walking around and checking out the always fun, colorful, and interesting late night scene.

On Sunday we decided we would make the most of the final day of music. We were well rested from oversleeping the previous night anyway, and were ready for a full day of music, partying, and fun. I caught the tail end of nice set by Portland, Oregon’s Scott Fisher Band. Scott used to play keys and sing in another Portland band called Soular a few years back, so I was curious to see what he was up to. He played an energetic and danceable sort of pop-groove music. He has a nice voice and there were some nice hooks, but there were also some more extended instrumental jams, as well. Then we caught the very tail end of Michael Manring’s set of bass pyrotechnics. The guy is a technique monster and was doing all sorts of wild things when we arrived. He soloed for quite some time in a barrage of tapping, slapping, plucking, harmonics, and other feats of bass ability that made my head spin. While the You’ve Got a Friend medley encore was mellow, it was still impressive because the guy is such a talented player.

After recharging a bit back at the RV we headed back to Vaudeville yet again to check out the band Meltone. These guys are billed as Japan’s very own jamband and are apparently native Japanese guys who just love to play jamband music. It was interesting to see their little scene of Japanese fans, heads, family, and friends there in the crowd impressed that they were playing in front of such an energetic American audience. The band plays frenetic guitar jams and grooves that build and build into explosive peaks. They are a tad repetitive, but it’s fun and danceable music nonetheless. And their skills and potential to keep evolving were readily apparent. Meltone left us a little rattled with the chaotic power jams, so ALO on the Grandstand Stage next was the perfect change of pace. They played song after song of lighter, happier fare that had the crowd doing circles and spins all over the field in the soul-warming, late afternoon sunshine. Food at the RV to recharge for the final night of festival while listening to Kottke & Gordon on the radio was next on the agenda. After that we were ready to head over to the Grandstand Stage one more time to catch the impressive headlining set by Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe. He ran through many crowd favorites, welcomed guests, and generally had everyone grooving with more energy than could reasonably be expected by Sunday night. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, shaking your groove thing to a little live Karl Denson music now and again really is good for your soul.

After a very full day, we continued to rage back at the campsite while listening to Benevento/Russo Duo’s opening late night set from the Funk-n-Jamhouse on the radio. As they were ripping it up hard on stage, we were doing the same back at the RV campsite. On this final night, we had made pretty good friends with a number of our neighbors and we all partied and hung out together happily. But eventually it was time for us to head over and check out our late night show for the final evening, Garaj Mahal. These guys are just so great. They put on a very aggressively groovy and danceable show, which was perfect for the occasion. Everyone was dancing heartily late into the night while the band played long funky jams and some of their classic tunes like Meatless Patty. A highlight for me was when Jessica Lurie was invited up on stage to play sax and stayed for many tunes and jams. I miss seeing her play with the Living Daylights on a regular basis like I used to. I heard Garaj Mahal played until about 5:00am that night, but I had to bail around 4:00am or so as I unfortunately lost all steam.
The next day…yesterday…was a painful blur of sun, mountains, roads, and gas stations. It’s about a nine and a half hour drive, which is long. Next year I’ll be flying into Sacramento or Reno and renting the RV there. But we made it back uneventfully, just the way I like my long drives. I returned the beast this morning and then I came home to check my e-mail and find a gentle reminder that columns for this site are due today. So here I sit, tired and bedraggled, writing feverishly to meet the deadline. I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did. Well, there’s no freaking way, man. Like I said, High Sierra is something that simply must be experienced first hand to be fully understood and appreciated. I bet we can go even higher next year. Hope to see you there.

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