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Published: 2001/08/20
by Rich Flaminio

One mans Odyssey – High Sierra Music Festival: How I Spent My Summer Vacation In One Weekend

Prologue The Journey Leaving Portland, Oregon at 7:30am, July 4th, I was filled with anticipation, having waited a full year for this day to finally arrive. The van was loaded, my traveling companion ready to go and the drive was on, not the longest roadie Ive ever undertaken, but seemingly endless when considering the prize awaiting at the finish. Our plan was to get within striking distance, less than an hour from Quincy, California, and then hole up until the gates opened for the full-on assault. First we had to run the gauntlet of highway patrolmen out on Independence day looking to spread their holiday cheer, then the challenge was to find camping on this, a popular camping occasion. Both tasks were dispatched with relative ease, as the cops all seemed to have someone else to chat with and we settled in to a lovely little spot on the north shore of Lake Almanor. After enjoying a firework show from the opposite shore and a couple of cold ones, we hit the hay with dreams of music and magic dancing in our heads.
Day One Getting In Entering the fest always seems to be the most stressful part of the weekend. Its all the uncertainty; where will we camp, where will we park, where are our friends, is my ticket at will call. No different this year but I ran the rats maze in a reasonable amount of time, found our allies in Camp Bzzzt!, and settled in for the weekend. Time for the music to begin, and I started off with some high powered bluegrass in the form of Railroad Earth (1), a six man outfit from New Jersey. They have bluegrass in New Jersey, evidently, and these guys provided plenty of fine pickin and a-singin, and would do so much more as the weekend would progress. There was a wide selection of groove and funk music to sample this year and two bands from the south bay area got it going early. Elephino (2) is a three piece powered by the powerful voice and Hammond B-3 organ of Nick Chargin. Netwerk:Electrics (3) six members incorporate Latin rhythms into their funk/jazz gumbo. Too bad festival sets are only an hour long as both these groups were just getting warmed up when they had to pull the plug. If I ever saw these guys gigging together, Id brew a full pot of coffee, pack a lunch and prepare for funk overtime. My first jaunt to the main stage and its for a band I adore, The Slip (4). These guys get better and tighter every time I see them. They had just played in Portland, and smoked, so I wasnt surprised when they did the same out in the sunshine. Speaking of Portland, next on the itinerary was Oregonian Caleb Klauder (5), on hiatus from his 9 to 5 job with Calobo, and joined by a full band including Calobo-mate Jenny Conlee on keys. Calebs set appropriately took place on the Americana stage, as he has become quite the curator of such music in Portland with his trad band Pig Iron. Festers were treated to originals and old time standards, and all was right with the world. Once again friends, off to the mainstage, but keeping in the NW for Seattles Living Daylights (6) and my weekends first sampling of the succulent sax of Jessica Lurie. This band has played every High Sierra Ive attended and let me just gush my appreciation. I Luuuuuuv these guys! Apparently I was not alone, as I heard the name Jessica on many lips over the course of the weekend. Up next, a late addition, but a stellar one. I was delighted to walk up to the showcase stage and be greeted by the hearty B-3 and smiling visage of Melvin Seals and the Melting Pot (7). The former JGB member provided a big dose of the family vibe and gave the fest a linkage to the fat man in the sky, which is always nice. Time for a short break from dancing, enabled by Jamie Janover (8), who was performing in the playshop. Jamie acted as an unofficial host, riding the grounds on his percussion-cycle, spawning jams and smiles everywhere he went. Slip drummer Andrew Barr sat in on cycle with Jamie on hammered dulcimer for an improv jam, the first of many brilliant combinations to take place in the playshop (formerly the workshop, until last year when the Radiators Ed Volker suggested the change in terminology). At about this point, I filled my mug with hard cider (a crucial mistake), and was off to the mainstage for Mike Clarks Prescription Renewal (9). I had just seen this band the previous week and was as amazed as I had been then. Clark was solid and spectacular, Charlie Hunter simply mesmerizing, Robert Walter added a ton of flavor to the mix, Skerik was the mad funkateer we all know and love up here, and when Fred Wesley started throwing down to a solid James Brown groove, you knew you were in for a funky good time, indeed! Unfortunately, the hard cider was not as good an idea as Mike Clark was, and I awoke in my van, discovering I had a lost time experience of some kind. I got myself together and headed for the High Sierra Music Hall, where the Steve Kimock Band (10) was slated to work their magic. The departure of Bobby Vega from the band, apparently ahead of schedule and only three days previous was daunting and Kimock worked in the new bassist, Leo Traversa, with a relatively short, unspectacular set. Maybe my grapes are a bit sour, since Im a huge Bobby Vega fan and was present at last years late night Kimock marathon that went two sets until 6am, but of all the late night performances, Kimocks finished up earliest, go figure. Maybe it was for the best as I had been impaired by a little over-enthusiasm in the imbibing department. Always seems to happen the first night
Day Two Getting It I made the decision to buckle down and get to work experiencing as much music as humanly possible, with mood or mind-altering substances taking a back seat. Fridays menu included a lot of varied flavors, and I wanted to get a good taste. Acoustic Syndicate (11) got things rolling in a hurry out on the mainstage as the power of music and sunshine soothed my aching head. From North Carolina, these guys have been turning heads and winning ears in a big way of late, and did the same here in Quincy. Let me take a moment here to sing the praises of Grizzly radio. I had a little Walkman with me and was tuned in to music all the time, whether I was listening to the stage I was walking away from, or the one I was walking toward. I love this aspect of High Sierra, long live Grizzly radio! I hopped up to the showcase stage for yet another bay area funk group, Tree O Frogs (12). SF must be a very funky place to live these days with all this great groove music happening. Maybe they should have a festival someday. Next it was back to the playshop where a bluegrass sit-in (13) featuring Jeff Austin and Dave Johnston of Yonder Mountain String band, flat picker Larry Keel and Leftover Salmons bassist Greg Garrison was scheduled. Bluegrass was played, discussed, and played some more, much to the crowds delight. This provided a natural segue to Tony Furtados (14) set on the showcase stage, right outside the door. Having missed Tonys performance the previous night (damn you, hard cider), I made certain I was present and accounted for at this one. Tonys music fits this festival like a glove, and the assembled fans definitely kicked up some dust. Next on the menu was a phishy flavored dish, Tea Leaf Green (15), another band having just made a swing through Portland. They were energetic and fun, obviously inspired by the setting, a common thread through most of the bands on the roster. Once again, time to drop the funk and Robert Walters 20th Congress (16) definitely fit the bill, peppering the participants with their brand of jazz/groove fusion. Walter had already swung the B-3 the night before, but was still spinning the Leslie hard and wowing the folks. I was only going into the playshop to use the bathroom (cant stand those porta-potties), but when I saw that the Bass Session (17) was about to begin, I decided to hang around and see what developed. Well, what developed was Marc Friedman of The Slip, Arne Livingston of Living Daylights, and Tye North, Salmons previous bassist, working the low groove for all it was worth. Together these fine musicians demonstrated that Spinal Taps Big Bottom is not the only or most effective use of three bass guitars in conjunction. I stayed as long as I could, but had to drag my carcass off to the Americana stage for an intimate performance from the Jazz Mandolin Project (18). One of the great aspects of High Sierra is that it gives fest-goers a unique opportunity to get up close and personal with up-and-coming and world-class musicians. Jamie Masefield definitely qualifies as the latter. A quick jaunt down to the mainstage meadow for one of the friendliest bands in the known universe, the Yonder Mountain String Band (19). These guys were made for this festival, as theyd like nothing better than to sing and play all night and all day. Heres a hint; try to camp next to these guys if you just want to hear non-stop music all weekend! Reports say they tore up the mainstage at Telluride headlining Saturday night, no small feat, although one that was repeated here. While the majority of the crowd seemed to stay in anticipation of Steve Kimocks upcoming set, I took advantage of the break to dig Jacob Freds Jazz Odyssey (20). They were holding down a mean groove on the showcase stage, fueled by Brian Haas mad playing on the keys. A quick check of Grizzly radio indicated that Steve Kimock (21) was ready to begin, so I bopped on back to where I had left my friends to check the groove. This set was a lot looser than the previous nights fare, which seemed a bit forced. The jam was still a bit shaky, undoubtedly the product of not enough time spent playing together, but still, a beautiful sunset punctuated by Steves beautiful guitar lines is about as good as it gets. Melvin Seals sat in to once again provide the chain to the past, while extending a hand to the future. Back to Camp Bzzzt!, just for a cold one, and lo and behold, here was Railroad Earth (22), performing a guerilla set on top of their RV. This was a trend that had really bloomed this year, so much so, that I almost thought that organizers had instructed artists to play at least one campground set! A fairly large crowd developed and a splendid set break was enjoyed by all. I was off to the mainstage to heed the festival call when I was hijacked by a ruckus coming from Jakas campsite. Jaka (23), a five man marimba ensemble, was not scheduled to play till Sunday, but were already camped and had the whole shebang set up and rollin. I danced for a while until the Salmons cries of Festivaaaal could no longer be denied. When I walked into the meadow, Leftover Salmon (24) was already in progress and festivating mightily. The new rhythm section and keyboards really flesh out this irrepressible band of merry makers and their mainstage set was the best Id ever seen from them. Knowing I had plenty of Salmon leftover for the next day when they played late, I dragged myself away to catch the end of Umphreys McGee (25), from Chicago. These guys have a tight, funky sound with just a hint of Phish phlavor, and a buzz about them nearly ten stories tall. The crowd responded in kind, and I proceeded to hear many Umphreys conversion tales over the course of the weekend. Next on the menu was a gig I myself had a little something to do with as Hanuman (26) performed guerilla-style in the food court area. I had asked the organizers permission to do a partially amplified gig and was denied, but the boys found a plug-in on a light pole, and we were in business! Another Seattle band that I just love, Hanuman got funky and entertained all the folks heading back and forth from the camps to the late night festivities. I went back to camp planning on a cold one and beddy-bye, but instead ended up with a combo wristband on my hand, allowing me entrance to both late night venues. Weary and sore, I wandered off to enjoy Karl Densons Tiny Universe (27), and found myself rejuvenated by the sound the little man was throwing down. This guy was everywhere all weekend, playing with as many folks as he could; heck, you couldnt turn around without tripping over Karl! I made sure I caught a healthy dose of Sound Tribe Sector Nine (28) as well, music that I like to call organic techno, and they had a large crowd of flailing festers bopping hard to their acid-jazz. I wandered back to catch the end of KDTUs set, and finished up back with STS9, tired, aching, satisfied. Both these bands have come a long way since their last HSMF appearances, and the people of the night showered them with much deserved adulation.
Day Three Getting It On Saturday morning found me feeling strong and positive, albeit a little stiff, champing at the bit for the days music. It was going to be a heavyweight bout of epic proportions: me versus the festival. The early rounds find the combatants feeling their way around the ring as Jamie Janover (29) serenaded the sleepy shady grove campground with his beautiful hammered dulcimer improvisations. I positioned myself under a tent on the side where I could watch the rising and falling of Jamies hammers and was fascinated. Hanuman (30) on the mainstage proved to be equally compelling, opening the days schedule with a sweet set of their middle-eastern delta funk. Jarrod Kaplan drummed in the sun, delighting the early arrivals. The middle rounds of a boxing match can be crucial, and the festival took a big swing with a playshop performance I had been eagerly anticipating since the moment I saw it scheduled on the program. Melvin Seals, Robert Walter and Dave Pelliciaro (30), all on Hammond B-3 organs for one hour, and when I walked in and saw Arne Livingston and Dale Fanning from Living Daylights setting up the rhythm section, I knew I was in for a treat. The three organists sat in a U shape, facing each other and proceeded to riff off each other, winking, smiling, surprising, one-upping, and filling in behind. I had never heard a sound like this, and may never again. During the course of the hour they worked out on a blues theme, a Professor Longhair style groove, a James Brown theme and closed with a three way solo version of Amazing Grace that almost converted me! Melvin shifted gears into When the Saints Come Marching In, bringing the congregation to their feet en masse, where they danced in the aisles, shouting and clapping, like an old time revival. A magic, uniquely High Sierra moment. An hour plus delay in the beginning of Spearheads mainstage set allowed me the opportunity to check out Uncle Harlens Band (32) , local boys from Sacramento. A fairly standard roots rock band, they were well received and had a number of fans in attendance. Got to love that home court advantage! Finally, Spearhead (33) was prepared, apparently victims of overbooking and underestimation of the time involved in getting a tour bus to Quincy. Once the set started all of that was forgotten as Michael Franti, one of the most engaging and powerful performers youll see on this planet, took the audience by the hand and taught them some things they might not have known about soul and hip-hop, ably assisted by birthday boy MC Radio. After dancing in the sun for an hour, I sought out a cool, quiet place and some soothing tones from San Franciscos Noe Venable Trio (34). Unique instrumentation (guitar, acoustic bass, violin), and vocalization made this near-classical/folk fusion stand out from the usual festival fare. The festival kept swinging through the middle rounds and Garaj Mahals (35) gig started out with a near knockout as the prize for First Speaker Set On Fire was awarded! The set ended with a bang, too as Karl Denson and Bela Fleck dropped in. Back to the shade of the vaudeville tent for some experimental grooves provided by Drums & Tuba (36). Their CD Vinyl Killer is one of my faves of the year and their live show is riveting. Lots of cool looping effects and a unique two-hand, two-guitar style made D & T one of my favorite bands to stupidly gaze at. The Slips (37) showcase stage set was even tighter and more focused than their mainstage show and had the area packed in all directions, heads eagerly bobbing and feet moving. Speaking of having an area maxed-out population-wise, Yonder Mountain String Bands (38) Americana stage set was packed to capacity and beyond as the guys who have become one of the most popular acoustic acts working the scene today showed why, with an hour of knee slapping, hootin and hollerin bluegrass and other American music. More power to less power! As the bout stretched into the later rounds, the festival had a slight advantage, and it was now time for one of my personal faves, Bela Fleck and the Flecktones (39). Apparently, I wasnt alone as a good number of musicians and festival staff turned out to watch these gifted instrumentalists do their thing, joined by Paul McCandless on sax and other assorted wind instruments and Paul Hanson on electronically altered bassoon. Never thought Id say these words, but man, that bassoon rocked! Let me paraphrase the HSMF pamphlet and say that Bela and band exemplify so much of whats to love about music and High Sierra. Eclecticism – weaving together elements of bluegrass, funk, jazz, country and world music, innovative people and colorful characters and the desire to adventure and explore new territory, easily accomplished when youve got the sheer musical virtuosity of the Flecktones. Couldnt have said it better myself. Upon arrival back at camp I found another guerilla RV Railroad Earth (40) set taking place and since we had front row seats, I enjoyed more fine bluegrass music from my favorite New Jersey band at the fest. Karl Denson (41) was determined to have everyone hed appeared with over the course of the weekend sit in with him and his Tiny Universe on the mainstage, and it was a crowd with Bela Fleck, Jeff Coffin, Fareed Haque, Paul McCandless, Paul Hanson and Jarrod Kaplan all joining in the fun. A tight, fun, jammin set that was easily one of the festivals top five. After a quick reload at Camp Bzzzt!, I was off for the deadly one-two combo of Little Feat and Leftover Salmon, but before the Feat could start stepping, I was distracted once again by the happy percussion emanating from Jakas (42) campsite, a pleasant alternative to standing around in a crowded hall, waiting. I made a mental note to be sure to see these guys at their actual scheduled gig, but ironically, it didnt happen. Hearing the commotion inside of Little Feat (43) coming onstage, I went in, positioned myself right up in front, and enjoyed a sweet acoustic set from these longtime jamband standard-bearers. Sailin Shoes and Juanita definitely benefited from the stripped down treatment, and when Paul Barrere exhorted the crowd that everything I do gon be funky from now on, you could tell that many folks were adopting this credo as words to live by. The Feat were as dynamic and engaging as I had seen them in recent years and we all, by osmosis, got a little funkier that night. Back at the campground I heard music coming from the direction of the vaudeville tent, and hurried over, hoping to catch the last bit of Living Hanumama (44), a one off reunion of the Seattle band Tough Mama. The personnel tonight featured Scott Law and Tige DeCoster of Hanuman, Arne Livingston and Jessica (a single name entity at this point, shed become so familiar) of Living Daylights, organist Dave Pelliciaro and others, always others. Their gig was scheduled to conclude at 1:15am, but I arrived at 1:10, and at 1:50, when I dragged myself off to see the Salmon, they were still burning bright, delivering the standing eight count, and playing some of the hottest stuff Id heard all weekend! I hated to leave but I absolutely had to see what Leftover Salmon (45) had up their collective sleeve for the late night performance, and was duly rewarded as the parade of guest appearances continued with Karl, Bela, Larry Keel, Reed Macgregor Foehl and members of YMSB wandered on and off stage till nearly 5am. As I exited, I noticed moe. was still going strong and stopped to watch from the back of the funk-n-jam house just long enough to think I should make sure to give these guys my attention the next evening, having never seen them before. It had been a great, long day of music and I had not only made it through, but got stronger (as did the music) as the day wore into night and back again, setting the stage for what was to come. Final scorecards placed the bout as a draw with both the festival and myself clear winners.
Day Four Getting Saved Sunday is traditionally a day of rest, but not this Sunday, as the program featured the most diverse assortment yet, beginning with Noe Venables (46) showcase stage performance. This was quiet, sensitive music, and sad to say, although beautiful, it didnt translate especially well to this setting, especially when the band was in danger of being drowned out but an enthusiastic reading of The Lorax from the nearby kids stage! Olu Dara (47) had no such problems, but then again, he had the mainstage sound system guarding his back. Ive played Olus CDs on my radio program, Portland General Eclectic (shameless self-promotiondid I mention it airs every other Monday night on KBOO-90.7fm, Portlands listener sponsored community radio station?) for the last few years now, so I was familiar with his laid back blues stylings, but you could tell a lot of folks were hearing him for the first time and enjoying it, nodding their heads approvingly. Yet another great aspect of this festival is that it allows you to see your faves multiple times and another opportunity to stare stupidly at Drums & Tuba (48) was welcomed and taken full advantage of. These guys are unique and fresh, with a sound like no other, a welcome addition to the community. The female contingent at Camp Bzzzt! convinced me to tag along to see Libby Kirkpatrick (49) out in the shady grove, not that any undue arm twisting was necessary as I think Libby is a fine singer/songwriter/guitarist, and cute as a button, too! All of these notions were bore out and her performance was like that of a sweet singing, slightly sarcastic angel. If the number of fellow musicians who turn out to watch a performance is a sign of respect, then Trilok Gurtu (50) was the most universally revered artist on the bill. I took up a position right at the fence in front of the stage where I could watch this master Indian percussionist at work and found myself shoulder to shoulder with Futureman, nodding his head and taking time out to be just a fan. Some yahoo wanted an autograph, or something, but I knew better than to bug a drummer when hes watching another drummer that intently. Joining Futureman at the front or side of the stage were Bela, Victor, Jeff, and the Pauls from the Flecktones, Living Daylights, Hanuman, Jamie Janover, Alan Hertz and Fareed Haque from Garaj Mahal, and others. It was a special moment that we all shared as the artists became the audience for Triloks entrancing set. The drummers in attendance particularly, almost seemed to be taking notes! From one special moment to another as Spearhead (51) held court on the tiny showcase stage. The chant All the freaky people make the beauty in the world went out and was taken to heart by all within earshot, and when Michael Franti instructed the crowd to take all the positive AND negative energy that had been building up and direct it towards the sky, a roar resulted that probably could have been heard echoing through the mountains like thunder! These guys were flying, and this set was another definite top five performance. From the boldly emotional to the brilliantly intellectual, I took advantage of a special playshop featuring Bela Fleck and Trilok Gurtu (52) on banjo and tabla, respectively, to sit down and rest my weary feet. This little slice of India meets Americana is the kind of thing that only happens at HSMF, a product of the nurturing environment; that being, if you group enough creative artists together closely enough, and keep them there long enough, something interesting is bound to occur. This was also the closest thing to a nap Id get all day as I was able to close my eyes and meditate as an unlikely combination mixed together like coffee and cream. After another long, loud playshop ovation I was off to see the Jazz Mandolin Projects (53) mainstage gig which found the band rocking much more steadily than on the smaller stage they appeared at the day before. Jamie Masefield does for the mandolin what Bela Fleck did for the banjo, establishing it as a valid jazz instrument, not just a toy for country and bluegrass pickers. I had planned to catch some music during the break, but my body suggested I take a seat and have a bite. Always listen to your body at a festival! Nourished and refreshed, I was prepared for Little Feat (54) as they performed electric on the big stage. Highlighted by a rambling Dixie Chicken with the seemingly ever-present Bela Fleck, the Feats set proved that these jamband veterans still have plenty of steam for the next millenium. I popped off to the showcase stage and was afforded the opportunity to experience the last part of The Motets (55) set. They were rocking mightily with guest artists I couldnt get close enough to identify. It was this kind of cross-pollination that really ran rampant at this years fest and made it very special for all of us in attendance. Artists meeting and playing with and watching other artists, a sense of community and shared adventure that transcends a simple music festival. So the scene was set for my first experience with Buffalo jamband sensations moe. (56) I found them full of energy, a healthy dose of showmanship and willingness to rock out, a couple of things that have gone fairly well ignored in this genre. I stayed down in the middle for most of the set, absorbing the vibe, tasting the sensation. Not bad, must check these guys out again next time they come to my town. Once again, Bela Fleck popped in and was joined by Victor Wooten, who proceeded to give a couple lessons on bass. My cue to move on at these affairs is usually the words this is our last song, and following this strategy, was able to enjoy the last 40 or so minutes of Hanuman (57), who were preaching the gospel of acoustic music to an enthusiastic congregation in front of the showcase stage. These guys terrific sound and great spirit have been a generous gift to High Sierra audiences the last few years, and I, for one, hope that I will continue to be able to enjoy their artistry on Quincy stages in July in years to come. The late night venues beckoned and with combo wristband firmly affixed, I prepared for a long evening of club hopping. Garaj Mahal (58) got things started in the funk-n-jam house with a stellar set that featured an appearance by Sabine Kabongo, vocalist from Zap Mama, who had performed with Trilok Gurtus band earlier. Cut short rather abruptly, Fareed Haque said, "dont worry, well be back, were going to play all night! Mr. Haque would prove to be correct, but I had other business to attend to in the person of Bela Fleck and the Flecktones (59). Their late night appearance at Bear Valley in 99 was one of the highlights of that fest and this set was no different, highlighted by some spirited jamming and a long, improvisational version of Stomping Grounds. Belas always my first pick to headline any festival whether it be bluegrass, jazz, or High Sierra and he delivers like Fed Ex in this environment. One last refill of the old beer mug back at Camp Bzzzt! (Thanks to Theresa, Freda, Beth and all the other bugs for the hospitality!), and it was off to the funk-n-jam house for the weekends finale. I passed Max, another insect, on the way. Still going? he asked. One more band! I replied. One more band indeed. The Slip (60) were scheduled to conclude the festivities with a set slated to begin at 3am, but only the first two songs were exclusively performed by the three members of that band. The boys were joined by Fareed, Kai Eckhardt and Eric Levy from Garaj Mahal, Dave Watts of The Motet, Sabine Kabongo, Jeff Coffin, Jessica Lurie, Libby Kirkpatrick, and whomever else I may be forgetting! The sound was amazing as it had been all weekend on every stage (mad props to the brutally overworked sound guys!), the performances were pure genius, and the vibe was so thick you could swim in it. I remember thinking, Its 5:30am, these guys are still rocking righteously, and theres still almost 200 people here going nuts. THIS is why I came. At the conclusion, just before 6, the crowd of stalwarts gave a massive cheer. Not necessarily for more, but certainly a great big thanks and love to the musicians, and not just the ones who had finished playing, but to all the great men and women who were so giving of their creativity, sweat, and soul over the last four days. I skipped back to camp, weeping tears of joy.
Epilogue Ive heard it said that music can change things. I dont know about that, but I know music can change people (because its changed me), and people can change things. I also can bear witness to the power music can wield because Ive been fortunate enough to enjoy, experience and generally have it rubbed in my face four days a year for the last four years, courtesy of the High Sierra Music Festival. The constant bombardment of input at this fest reminds us to live each moment fully and also to enjoy the silence between the notes of our lives as much as the song itself. I cant remember saying the words Have fun as many times, nor can I recall having this much fun. HUGE thanks to Roy and Rebecca, my bud Theresa, the wonderful staff and volunteers, the guys who pumped out the porta-potties (they never get thanked enough!), and all the freaky people who make this celebration of the moment such a smashing success. I know Ill be back next year and every year after that. As for my own personal change? Lets just say that everything I do gon be funky from now on.

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