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Published: 2014/07/30
by Benjy Eisen

Reflections on High Sierra — a Meditation on the Current State of American Music Festivals

Since High Sierra fans tend to be lifers, they establish names for their independent “camps” and expand upon them year after year, claiming the same space in the campgrounds. In addition to all the bands that played at Chef Larry’s spot, groups from the New Mastersounds to the Slip have performed other such campground sets for other such recurring “camps” over the years. Still other bands, including Toubab Krewe, have played impromptu sets on the tops of busses, or in the food court, or wherever they could find space and a power supply. These sets usually weren’t planned more than a day in advance and, sometimes, weren’t even planned at all. They just happen. These musicians weren’t getting paid for their extra-curricular performances. They were playing music just to play music. And they were playing music for music fans who love music. There wasn’t a neighbor in any direction who would dare yell, “Turn it down.” But that doesn’t mean they didn’t shush people… for talking too loudly during a jam.

Concerts are supposed to be all about the music and, for the most part, they are. But festivals are not just about the music; they’re about the experience. They’re about forgetting who you are for awhile so that, on the ride home, you can remember exactly who you are. And who you are is a slightly better version of who you were before you got to the festival. Before you got to High Sierra (or Jam Cruise, or Oregon County Fair, or just a child’s handful of other ones). High Sierra is Burning Man for hippies. It’s catharsis and release. And it supports a whole different kind of “burner.”

High Sierra lifers will be the first to admit that it’s not just about the music, sure, but make no mistake: You don’t find your way to High Sierra in the first place unless you’re a serious fan — even if you’re not so serious, yourself. Like the revelers who danced until 3:45 AM in the Funk ‘n’ Jam House to the rock ‘n’ roll sounds of the Mother Hips. Local to the area (they formed in nearby Chico), the Mother Hips played music that was well-suited for performance in the fairgrounds of this authentic California gold rush town, because the very spirit of the Mother Hips’ music was born and raised here. Its heart is in this dirt, in these mountains, in this area code. It’s locally grown rock ‘n’ roll. And it rocked and it rolled with the best of them.

About 14 hours later, the Mother Hips returned to the stage, this time to rock an afternoon set in the Vaudeville tent. “We received such a wonderful response from the crowd,” Hips’ guitarist Greg Loiacono told me afterwards. “They were with us and for us the whole time. We all walked offstage exhausted but with huge smiles on our faces. There were a group of [costumed] ‘athletes’ in the crowd, who had arranged some very clever Hips cheers. They chanted them in-between songs. ‘H-I-P-S’ and what-not. They taught the cheers to other crowd members. It was extremely fun.”

Loiacono hit the stage again on Sunday, this time with his power-trio project, Sensations (featuring Tea Leaf Green’s Reed Mathis on bass and ALO’s Dave Brogan on drums). Up against Widespread Panic on the grandstand stage, Sensations played dirty rock ‘n’ roll with all the grit and all the glory of rock music’s nearly forgotten past, present in each groove. Mathis, in particular, gave a Sunday evening effort that was worthy of a Friday night. It was fresh, hungry and full of fury as Mathis proved (as he has, time and again) that he is one of the most badass bass players in America. A legend in jeans and a work shirt.

Mathis is a hard working musician with a short leash that ties him to his instrument and which, more nights than not, pulls him onto the stage. He used his time at High Sierra to do what he does best — make music with his friends. On Saturday night, he sat-in with the Incidental Animals during their Big Meadow set, for a spirited version of ALO’s “Falling Dominoes”

The Incidental Animals are an all-star side-project that was formed from opportunity last fall. The core lineup features Kyle Hollingsworth (String Cheese Incident), Jennifer Hartswick (Trey Anastasio Band), Dan “Lebo” Lebowitz (ALO), Steve Adams (ALO/Nicki Bluhm) and Dave Brogan (ALO). They anchored the Big Meadow stage on Saturday and then returned for a late-night show at the Funk ‘n’ Jam House on Sunday, playing two entirely different shows, despite the fact that they had less than half a dozen shows, total, under their belt. They’re not even a “real band,” per-se. That just made it all the more special, for both the musicians and the fans alike.

Building on the spirit of High Sierra, the Incidental Animals welcomed a rotating cast of special guests, which, in addition to Mathis, also featured: Stanley Jordan, Scott Law, Ross James (Terrapin Family Band), Fred Torphy (Big Light), and the T Sisters. Naturally, both sets were cover-heavy and included classic anthems such as “Piece of My Heart,” “Tax Man,” and “Higher Ground,” alongside surprise choices like “Always in Love” by Wilco and New Order’s “Bizarre Love Triangle.”

“I’m leaving High Sierra with a full cup and I feel honored to have had the opportunity to collaborate with so many fantastic musicians,” Lebo told me in the aftermath. “What a festival!” Indeed, at High Sierra, the musicians feel proud to be there, proud to perform, proud of their music and proud of the people they get to perform it for. No musician told me this, but they didn’t have to — it’s in the way that they walk and the things they say between songs. And the way they play their instruments.

Thursday night’s grand opening on the grandstand stage featured a sunset set by Lord Huron followed by STS9’s first NorCal show with their new bassist, Alana Rocklin. And, true to her last name…well, you get what I’m saying. New blood equals new life and, as a result, STS9 sounded more inspired than they have in, perhaps, years. Rocklin hasn’t changed STS9’s overall sound so much as given it a swift kick in the pants.

On Friday night, Ms. Lauryn Hill made the audience wait for her arrival, sauntering onstage about 15 minutes beyond fashionably late (following a lukewarm “introduction set” by her DJ). Meanwhile, across the fairgrounds, the boys in Greensky Bluegrass were going full steam ahead in their jam-heavy Americana-laden throw-down on the Big Meadow stage. They delivered something that Hill simply could not this round: jammed-out, improvisational takes on the Fugees’ “Ooh La La” and “Ready or Not.” (Hill, a founding member of the Fugees, sings on the originals and performed “Ready or Not” during her High Sierra set as well).

After the fact, I asked Greensky’s Paul Hoffman about the clever, if ballsy, move. I had been wondering just how premeditated that moment was. “I was inspired to sing those songs while we were laying a solid groove down,” he said. “Spur of the moment. That happens sometimes… I like the Fugees and knew it was likely that Lauryn Hill was playing it at the same time. Maybe someone was caught in the middle of the stages wondering which was up and which was down.” (If so, they wouldn’t be the first person ever at High Sierra to wonder that.)

When I asked Greensky’s dobro master, Anders Beck, about the Fugees teases, during sunrise kickball on the morning after, he smiled and said, “We like to do things like that.” The spontaneousness of those moments are as much fun as dancing to Greensky’s well-oiled Pink Floyd and Bruce Springsteen covers, which they played during their late-night set the night before, in the High Sierra Music Hall.

Other musical highlights of this year’s High Sierra included psychedelic cowboy Sturgill Simpson singing country songs about blazing up and blasting off, an infectious dance set by Brooklyn funk collective Turkuaz, East Coast jamtronica in the form of Dopapod, future indie-rock breakouts Typhoon, and the viciously demanding and challenging creeper music of Darkwave — another all-star group, this one featuring John Medeski, Skerik and Lettuce’s Adam Deitch.

Meanwhile, back in the campground scene — on Friday afternoon, I briefly sported a tutu and fishnets, to compliment my cowboy get-up, for Camp Sporque’s annual “fashion show,” somewhere deep in Shady Grove. The theme this year was “Like…woah,” and there were no rules for the runway. My interpretation of the theme manifested itself as a confused Texan cowboy cheerleader, who galloped and steered a small stuffed antelope across a painted starscape. Like…woah nelly! (If you want something done right, do it yourself.) Before long, the “fashion show” turned into a dance party and when the camp DJ put on Madonna, I was already ready and properly, um, “dressed” to get into the groove.

Saturday night, I had to take an RV break in order to put on a milkman costume. Despite everything I just said, I don’t particularly like wearing costumes. I much prefer my everyday outfits…ties, black jeans, definitely not fishnets. But sure enough, there I was, putting my legs into white denim and trading in my trucker hat for a milkman cap for reasons that I could probably explain but that will never really be clear. And they don’t need to be. It’s High Sierra. Things just get…weird. And, as Hunter S. Thompson once instructed us, that’s when it’s most important to go pro.

Dressed for a specific occasion, I did indeed have a destination. But I swung by the Vaudeville tent on my way there and a rather enthusiastic lady came running up to me, arms flailing like she was trying to catch the last taxi on Earth, obviously excited about something. She looked me up and down and grunted, approvingly. In keeping with the established uniform of milkmen everywhere, I was dressed head to toe in white, except for a 2” black bow-tie. “We’re having an all-white party in an hour at my camp!!” she said. “You have to come!!”

“An all white party? Lady, that sounds racist!” I joked. I had to pass. “I’m already on my way to another camp party.”

She probably wasn’t a big Phish fan and, either way, it didn’t register with her that I was actually dressed as the Harry Hood mascot — a direct reference to Phish’s song of the same name. Except, of course, that I was also packing a water pistol. It was meant to represent a particular side of Clint Eastwood — Dirty Harry. Yes, friends, it was a mash-up costume: Dirty Harry Hood. The lady trying to get me to attend her all-white party didn’t get that. But she didn’t need to. There was no right or wrong.

Costumes mean nothing more, in the end, than fun and mischief. And, tonight, my mischief was meant for Camp Harry. Of all the independent “camps” at High Sierra, Camp Harry might just be the one that most embodies the spirit of High Sierra. It’s the dynamic encampment — 14-years strong — of an ever-expanding group of friends from the Bay Area. Throughout the years it has hosted unannounced sets by Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers, Surprise Me Mr. Davis, Nathan Moore (solo), the Loyal Scam, Perpetual Groove’s Brock Butler, Rotary Downs, Eddie Roberts, and others.

And while, according to their rules, you have to be cooler than Milhouse to enter, seven years ago it was the camp’s inclusive nature, commitment to weirdness, fun and frolic that influenced my decision to move clear across the country, from Pennsylvania to California. It was one of the best decisions I ever made and I made it on a Sunday night at High Sierra. I wanted High Sierra to be my local festival, for its soul has grabbed a much bigger piece of my heart than a festival like Captain Morgan’s Jam on the River, or Budweiser’s Made In America ever could.

Seven years after first stumbling upon Camp Harry, I showed up to their (“our”) “Hooray for Harrywood” party well-prepared, with the faces of friends I love so much scattered in chairs all around. I missed the ice luge at some other camp, and probably a dozen other theme camp parties. They all would’ve been cool, I’m sure. But Harry’s was the best.

The concept behind “Hooray for Harrywood” had something to do with a mashup of Hollywood and festival culture. Apart from Dirty Harry Hood, other arrivals on the red carpet (and, yes, there really was a red carpet), included RJD2Pac, Charlie Chan and the Chocolate Factory and a modern-day Hans Solo and Princess Leia chaperoning a very spun Yoda. (The OG wookie, Chewbacca, was off being a passed-out wook somewhere.) The stars came out at night, alright. All together, they formed some kind of new constellation. I found myself surrounded by magnificent music, colorful commentary, cosmic comics, and enough brilliance to light my path for another year. Guidance for my journey.

All told, it was another memorable night at High Sierra.

Of course, if you’re reading this and you went to High Sierra, you’re probably scratching your head right about now, because I likely didn’t so much as mention a single thing you experienced or did during your entire time there. And your time was just as incredible as mine. And that, my friends, is the best part of it all.

In a world of dime-a-dozen music festivals, High Sierra rocks its own quarter.

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