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Published: 2012/08/03
by Jed Nussbaum

High Sierra Music Festival, Quincy, CA – 7/5-8

Photo by Harmony Villandry

By now, the secret that High Sierra is the best little ol’ music festival in the West has been let out of the bag. When the event is treated as a top destination by the musicians on the lineup, though, it’s no wonder that thousands of voracious music addicts filled the campgrounds’ capacity for the first time in the festival’s 22 years. This is undoubtedly an event arranged, attended and performed by diehard music fans. Add outlandish sunrise kickball games, incredible campground sets, and four days of unbeatable weather and you’ve got the kind of party that can sustain itself for as long as High Sierra has.

High Sierra’s principal charm is the collaborations that hide around every corner. Artists-at-Large like Mike Dillon and Marco Benevento seemed to achieve complete omnipresence – Dillon played on stages with everybody from Texas songwriter David Garza to funk heavyweights Galactic (who also turned on the rock ‘n’ roll with guest vocalist Corey Glover of Living Color fame), and Benevento played an integral role in groups like the HS supergroup Surprise Me Mr. Davis and Garage a Trois. The festival’s artist playshops gave a unique license to performers looking to jam, including sets like the “Ramble Gramble,” a full set of The Band’s music in tribute to Levon Helm that featured members of ALO, Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers, and Big Light, among others. The Guitarmageddon playshop had the festival’s top guitar shredders going toe to toe through an entire set of Talking Heads numbers, and Greensky Bluegrass hosted a picking circle full of all-star ‘grassers, including members of Railroad Earth, Elephant Revival and the formidable flatpicking talents of Scott Law.

High Sierra took the time to pick their headliners well. Matisyahu’s continued collaboration with instrumental dub-metal act Dub Trio added surprising depth to his catalog, creating a set that covered the upbeat, hook-laden songs that brought the reggae singer into notoriety, but expanded past that into the heavier realms that Dub Trio is well known for. Ben Harper proved his amazing diversity as an artist once again and STS9 unquestionably brought in the best light show of the weekend. But as with any festival, some of the smaller acts were the real treat. Folk groups The Lumineers and Elephant Revival had no trouble luring in full crowds with little more than stellar songwriting and sparse instrumentation. Deer Tick’s packed set at the Vaudeville tent proved that plenty of attitude, distortion and silly string can go a long ways, and Steve Poltz took the prize for being the most engaging, long-winded and totally bizarre solo act of the festival with songs like “Handjob on a Churchbus.”

Some festivalgoers grumbled at having to buy additional tickets to late night shows, but those that made it through the doors realized the extra value of seeing these acts in more intimate settings. ALO kept the audience in suspense with promises of covering an entire classic album, before tearing through Steve Miller’s “Fly Like an Eagle.” Meanwhile, Lotus brought ample amounts of swagger to the stage and hosted an all-night dance party that had the entire room spinning in perpetual motion. Railroad Earth proved they could take their string-powered jams to incredible depths, and Split Lip Rayfield and The Devil Makes Three delivered a resounding stomp at the end of the weekend that left the audience with blisters on their feet and smiles on their faces.

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