(Originally written for jambands.com1)
ALO, STS9, Surprise Me Mr. Davis and More Highlight High Sierra 2012
Similar to its sister festival Delfest, High Sierra is a smaller, purer offering than most of today’s big name music festivals, a quality its setting reflects: the festival takes place in Quincy, CA, a rural mountain town home to about 1,700 and, perhaps more tellingly, the sole fast-food franchise in the entire county. It’s a music fan’s music festival (though sponsors Lagunitas, New Belgium and Sierra Nevada certainly won’t dissuade beer enthusiasts) with a lineup eclectic and diverse enough to prove it.
With that in mind and no further ado, here’s a recap of the excellent weekend of music that was High Sierra ’12.
The festival-opening set by folk rockers Dead Winter Carpenters established the precedent for beautiful weather as well as quality music on Thursday afternoon, catering to both the sunshine and eager audience with songs from their new release, Ain’t It Strange. (Not to be confused with the track of the same name by Dr. Dog, who played the festival back in 2010.) Meanwhile, newcomers Delicate Steve lived up to the subtle, NPR-driven hype they’ve accrued over the last couple of months with an up-tempo set chockfull of guitar-driven genre phobia.
ALO seized the Grandstand around 7PM to ease the masses into the first few hours of a memorable evening with their first of three performances during the festival. In festive form, the band blew up their inflatable Buddha Renault after three songs of their Sounds Like This-heavy run. Highlights included a righteous rendition of the Dire Straits’ “Money For Nothing,” a sit-in by bass-virtuoso Dave Watts on—you guessed it—the cowbell, and the comforting notion at set’s end that they would be back twice more by the time Monday morning rolled around.
For late night, Sound Tribe Sector 9 gave the audience their money’s worth and then some (one desperate fan was offering four times that at the door), taking over the High Sierra Music Hall from 1:30AM to 4AM. Their wee-hours show was a stripped-down affair that harkened back to the early days of STS9. Lit by basic stage lights, the band performed the entire set without a laptop in sight—a real treat for jam purists and a great end to the first night of High Sierra 2012.
Despite having an all-but full schedule for the weekend, come noon on Friday, ALO members Dave Brogan and Dan Lebowitz were revved and ready to rock with side-project Brokedown In Bakersfield. More than merely paying tribute, the band imbued new life into old standards of the Bakersfield sound, tipping their ten-gallon hats to Buck Owens, Emmylou Harris, Merle Haggard and others in turn.
Soon after, Greensky Bluegrass took to the Grandstand in their second performance of the festival with high-spirits and a slew of thigh-slapping ditties. The boys are renowned for their covers, and much like their show on Thursday (which saw them covering Springsteen’s “Atlantic City” and ending on a rendition of “Gumboots”), the band bounced from original to tribute on Friday as well, including a scintillating version of the Little Milton-via-Grateful Dead groove “That’s What Love WIll Make You Do.”
The hep horns of Galactic brought so much Big Easy flavor to Quincy that you could practically smell the gumbo. Numbers like “Hey Na Na” off their new album Carnivale Electricos dazzled and made it all but impossible to stand still. The High Sierra veterans played with panache, thanks in part to an appearance by ALOdrummer Dave Brogan and vocals from Corey Glover, who lent the band his songbook for Living Colour-single “Cult of Personality.”
Late night at the High Sierra Music Hall on Friday proved fascinating. After another solid showing by Surprise Me Mr. Davis,ALO kicked off a special event they dubbed “1976: Where The Wild Things Are Dazed And Confused.” The show started off orderly enough with a few originals, but took a turn when the band brought a fan onstage. The fan held up several different album covers and eventually grabbed hold of Steve Miller’s Fly LIke An Eagle, whichALO then promptly launched into headlong. After playing through side one, the band froze in place until the fan hopped back up on stage and flipped the record over, triggering “Take the Money and Run” and the second half of Fly LIke An Eagle followed by a few more originals to bookend the band’s novel set and end the night.
Chicago hip-hop/jazz/funk wunderkinds Kids These Days might barely be old enough to buy lottery tickets, but their energy and technical prowess more than compensated for any lack of experience. The seven-piece came off like a radio hit: catchy, likable and most importantly, damn fun.
Similar in size, horn capacity and city of origin (but little else), eclectic jam darlings Rubblebucket proved a smooth transition after Kids These Days into what Saturday night had in store. Their hour-and-half performance at the Big Meadow stage was a dance riot; standbys “Silly Fathers” and “Came Out Of A Lady” glowed especially bright, rendering a transfixed audience blanked out in their weird brilliance.
Over at the Grandstand, Ben Harper reminded everyone that the cult-hero of the 90s has still got the chops to headline, pulling out tracks from across his discography and laying down an inspired version of “Friend of the Devil.” Meanwhile, over at Big Meadow, Big Gigantic expanded the sound of their two-piece with the help of Lettuce’s horns section, riling up the crowd with the former’s brand of hype DnB.
The last show before the late night sessions was courtesy of grit rockers Deer Tick, who championed a packed and pandemonious show that had them spraying down both stage and crowd with Silly String and whipping frisbees throughout the Vaudville tent on Saturday night. Oh, and there was music: highlights included the down-and-rowdy anthem “Let’s All Go To The Bar” and Divine Providence opener “The Bump.”
Vaudeville tent-openers Nicki Bluhm and The Gramblers started the final day of High Sierra off right with selections from their measured, soulful catalogue. Bluhm’s vocals were as on point as ever, complemented beautifully by her backing band and special guests Scott Law and ALO guitarist Dan Lebowitz. Ending the show on a playful note, they encored with Funkadelic’s hip-shaker “Can You Get To That.”
Split Lip Rayfield drew a heap of curious onlookers—perhaps due in part to “Stitchgiver,” Jeff Eaton’s ingenious one-string gas-tank stand-up bass—and hooked them with well-crafted progressive bluegrass medleys. Later at the Grandstand, Red Baraat covered any trace of bluegrass left behind and took the stage from Appalachia to India, the slew of strings replaced by a throng of horns and two drums. The music itself was celebratory and rhythmic—an absolute blast.
High Sierra veteran Marco Benevento did not disappoint during his set at one of the Vaudeville tent’s final shows of the weekend. Benevento played a range of older songs before giving the audience a sample of what’s to come in throwing up a track from his upcoming album TigerFace entitled “This Is How It Goes” with Rubblebucket’s Kalmia Traver on vocals.
Another incredible High Sierra in the books, and it’s no wonder that this is one of the longest running music festivals in the country. From the locale to the show-goers to the bands, High Sierra blends all the ingredients for what makes a memorable festival into an end product that’s better than its parts. That it has managed to stay so intimate in its consistent quality throughout the years is a credit to its organizers, who seem to be as weary of going corporate as the town of Quincy itself.