Happy anniversary High Sierra Music Festival! This year marks the fifteenth anniversary of the best-managed, most enjoyable, and just plain old greatest festival on the planet. The beauty of this festival is there are so many diverse musical styles showcased throughout the weekend, that regardless of oneís musical taste, there truly is something for everyone. Each individual at the festival has the opportunity to create their own incredible adventure, and in all there are thousands of stories to tell. Since there are so many joyous escapades taking place at one time, I figured I would take you along for the ride through my own collage of personal musical highlights.
For reference point for those who have never attended this magnificent festival there are four distinct outdoor stages that are in close proximity to one another. The venue size in order of largest to smallest is, the Grandstand, Big Meadow, Vaudeville, and Americana. However this list does not include the various workshops, late night stages, makeshift top of RV stages, or the innumerable campground musical shenanigans that takes place all weekend long. Basically morning, noon, and night there are music and innocent mischief to be found, and here is a small sampling of some of the memories that I am taking home with me. With that in mind I wanted to write this review as a thank you to the musicians who gave all they had over the Independence Day weekend to make this High Sierra Music Festival one of my best musical experiences yet.
Collaborations were to be found on every stage at this yearís festival, and the musicians that seemed to really stand out, were the ones who grasped and embraced this concept. The crosspollination between so many talented musicians left my head and body spinning (as was the plan) and seeing many of my musical heroes on stage together created memories I will be holding on to for a long time to come.
Keller Williams is the first artist I thought to showcase, simply because he seemed to be everywhere the first couple of days of the festival. He co-headlined a marvelous late night gig with New Monsoon, performed guest duties at both Y.M.S.B and New Monsoonís respective late night sets that same night, and had a beautiful daytime set with his good friends Larry and Jenny Keel in tow.
Keller Williams and the Keels set at the Grandstand, was the perfect set for the hot summer day on Friday. The trio was musically tight, humorous, full of positive and creative energy, and the crowd received them with a truly warm welcome. I really enjoyed the ďLoserĒ medley that they busted out, with Beckís Loser book ending the Grateful Deadís unrelated song with the same name. Yonder Mountain String Bandís own Jeff Austin sat in for a few songs, including New Horizons that featured some of his fine mandolinist skill. It was a pleasure seeing Keller and the Keels work their magic together. This collaboration gave new dimensions to Kellerís playing, since he didnít have to create the entire musical landscape himself. Larry Keel added some searing licks on his guitar that was quite impressive, and Jenny laid down the low end on her stand up bass that together weaved musical magic.
Another musician who seemed to be everywhere the first few days was the saxophonist extraordinaire Skerik. Skerik is one of the most animated musicians on the scene today, and I really enjoy whatever project he adds his sax prowess to. He played in the Dead Kenny Gís, The Syncopated Taint Septet, and Les Claypoolís Fancy Band all within the first 24 hours of the festival. This was the first time I had the opportunity to see the Dead Kenny Gís, and I found them to be a terrific blend of funk, jazz, and psychedelic insanity that simultaneously feeds both the bodyís need for the groove, as well as the ears hunger for the sound. Jessica Lurie made her first of what would seem like hundreds (and trust me I am not complaining) of appearances along my musical journey at this show. Watching her and Skerik trading licks on their respective sax was a feast for the eyes, ears, and soul.
Yonder Mountain String Band was also in full force the first few days of the festival. Having just come off of hosting their own incredible String Summit festival at Portlandís own Horningís Hideout, I wasnít sure if I had already reached my peak saturation level with Y.M.S.B. After witnessing the insanity that took place at the late night set on Thursday night, Iím not even sure I have a saturation level at all with these boys. Their first set ended with an incredible run of On The Run> Looking Back Over My Shoulder> On The Run, which highlights an integral part of their Sheriff Saga bluegrass rock opera. Followed by Ramblin' In The Rambler> Reuben &Cherise> Ramblin' In The Rambler medley that left my mouth agape. Keller Williams joined them to open the second set for a few tunes including a hysterical version of Natural Woman. There was some bluegrass assistance from fellow Colorado pickers Hit and Run Bluegrass that followed that had our collective feet stomping and jumping. Their Grandstand show was terrific as well, and contained a beautiful encore cover of Neil Youngís "Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere" that featured Sharon Gilcrest on mandolin. Iíve learned to expect nothing less than a hoedown throw down every time I see these marvelous musicians from Colorado.
Les Claypool had a busy weekend as well. He had a headlining slot the opening night of the festival on the Grandstand with his new Fancy Band, as well as a late night gig the following night. Les also had one of the most interesting and entertaining sets of the weekend, with his mockumentary fake jamband Electric Apricot. Les Claypoolís headlining slot on the Grandstand was full of anticipation, and I was all too excited to see what his new lineup had to offer. They opened up by bringing the heat with a raging version of "Highball With the Devil," but from there the set lagged. In all honesty I was a little disappointed by their Grandstand set, but for the Claypool fans out there, the next two incredible shows of his more than made up for this lackluster performance.
The late night Les show was pretty amazing. The Slip opened up by not only bringing some of their jazz infused jams to the masses, but they also brought up the Bennevento Russo Duo to jam prior to Lesís monster set. The Slipís performance was quite remarkable, especially considering that Brad Barr would become pretty ill the following day. Lesís late night set raged from the first note till the close of the show. His Fancy band is stocked with incredibly talented musicians, such as Skerik, Mike Dillon, Jay Lane and the eccentric Gabby La La. After opening with an intense version of Holy Mackerel sandwiched around a little taste of "Tomorrow Never Knows," the show was off and rampaging. Jessica Lurie once again made one of her appearances throughout the weekend for a couple of tunes, and added some nice flavor to what was already a thick and tasty musical stew.
Yet the best Les moment wasnít at either of these shows, and he wasnít even wielding his customary bass. Electric Apricot was one of the funniest and most impressive shows that I saw all weekend. What makes this even harder to believe is that this was only their 4th official show together. The four-piece Electric Apricot had a workshop in the quaint Tulsa E. Scott building. For all intents and purposes Electric Apricot is really is a faux jamband, founded by Les Claypool. All four members have pseudonyms in which they have created to back their clichť hippie personas. Even Les donned a wig; a Rolling Stones shirt, and sat gleefully behind a tie-died drum kit. The lyrics were hysterical with overly hippyfied songs, and so were the visual accessories on the stage (burning incense and sage, sandals, apricots of course, and tie-dye galoreÖetc) that together all added to enhance this elaborate spoof. From the opening song of "Burning Man" I couldnít keep myself from laughing out loud. It was not only the hilarious lyrics, or the over the top stage antics (imagine Les bouncing around the front of the stage with a huge grin on his face playing mini-bongos) that really impressed me, it was the expert musicianship and absolutely fired up jamming that left me wanting more. The lead guitarist, Brian Kehoe, must have had some of the fastest fingers Iíve ever seen. Watching his flying fingers soaring up and down the fret board really blew me away.
Another band that seemed to be at two or three places at once was the Benevento Russo Duo. They seemed to be everywhere; from an opening slot with Matt Butlerís incredible Everyone Orchestra late night on Sunday, to an afternoon slot on the Big Meadow stage, to Marco Benevento even filling in for an ill Brad Barr with The Slip, to the Karl Denson improvisational workshop, they really were everywhere and we are so lucky they were. For two musicians to be able to create such a full sound on their own is truly a remarkable feat. They even got the speakers on the Big Meadow stage to begin smoking. You know a band is throwing it down hard, when smoke begins to rise above the stage without the assistance of smoke machines.
Similarly Garaj Mahal left their mark on High Sierra with both an incredible Grandstand show in the blistering heat of the mid day sun on Friday, as well as closing out the festival with an incredible late night performance at the Music Hall on Sunday. Throughout their multiple slots they invited a wide range of musicians to grace the stage with them, including Reggie Watts, Samantha Stollenwerck, Al Howard, D.J. Fly, and even Kai Eckhardtís son Danilo. The variety of guests over the weekend just highlights their musical flexibility. Danilo, who couldnít have been more than 9 years old, sat in on his mini drum kit during the Friday Grandstand set, and drew a huge ovation from the crowd. It was incredibly touching to watch the proud pappy Kai feed off of his sonís playing, and the audienceís passionate response in turn. I literally had chills. At the late night set Garaj even hosted a pajama party fashion show. Garaj always brings such a positive energy to their music, and I truly enjoy watching the interplay of each of these talented musicians every chance I get.
Fareed Haque, the incendiary lead guitarist in Garaj co-hosted a guitar workshop with guitar legend Steve Kimock that was absolutely gorgeous. The Favorite Things that closed the workshop was one of the more beautiful pieces of live music I heard all weekend, and both of these incredibly talented guitarists fit together so well. They both shined throughout the festival at their respective sets, and seeing them perform together was a treat that left both my eyes and ears completely content.
Steve Kimock also headlined a late night gig on Saturday night at the Funkín Jamhouse, with the Mother Hips opening. The Steve Kimockís band ripped the second set with an inspired Itís Up To You, and then brought out Jessica Lurie to add her own playing to weave around Kimockís masterful guitar work. Steve Kimock also headlined the Big Meadow stage on Friday night. Both shows featured his incredibly unique way of phrasing his musical stream of consciousness, and contained some beautiful interplay between him and his band mates.
Karl Denson has to be in consideration for the M.V.P. of the festival, because it seemed that every jam he and his Tiny Universe band mates engaged in turned to musical gold. He entered the festival with a late night performance that almost blew the roof off the High Sierra Music Hall. It may have been the best dance party of the weekend. A major highlight for me when they busted into an extended "Star Wars" jam, which made this closet sci-fi geek ecstatic. Everyone who was lucky enough to get inside this way sold out show, felt much love for Karl and his Tiny Universe. There was so much love in the air at this show that two of my newly made friends, who had met at H.S.M.F. a few years back, got engaged during the set break. Now that is what High Sierra is all about!
In addition Karl D. headlined his own workshop on the art of improvisation in the intimate Tulsa E. Scott building, which provided for one of the most interesting and musically superior collaborations of the weekend. Karl invited Garaj members Kai Eckhardt, Fareed Haque, and Alan Hertz, The Benevento Russo Duo, Jessica Lurie, Chris Littlefield, and even Kai Eckhardtís son Danilo, who received the biggest ovation of all. The playing and improvisation at this show was superb, and I canít wait to get my hands on the recordings of this jam fest.
Karl was not done there. He headlined the final slot on the Grandstand of the weekend, which contained another magnificent performance. His own band grabbed the crowdís attention throughout the show with their funky grooves, and once he began bringing up a variety of guests, the party closed out the festival on the right note. Karl brought up Maktubís talented front man Reggie Watts, Jessica Lurie, and the incredibly animated African Showboyz to basically take this four-day party home on a raging note.
Govít Mule and more specifically Warren Haynes, deserves a lot of respect for the beautiful music that they brought to the stage. They headlined the Grandstand stageís Saturday night slot, and brought the house down. They seem to have broadened their sound since the last time I saw them, and I was truly impressed with how tight their interplay was throughout their set. Steve Kimock was even brought up as a guest to add his beautiful lap steel sound to a cover of the Stones' "Wild Horses," where Warrenís vocals were absolutely gorgeous.
As luck would have it I was in transit during this collaboration, and had to rely on the recordings to hear what I missed. This was because word had spread that Peter Rowan was a special unannounced surprise guest that would be playing with Hot Buttered Rum String Band at the Big Meadow stage at the same time as the Mule was finishing off their Grandstand set. I took my chances, and headed out to catch some of the best bluegrass picking I would see all weekend, and it was well worth it. H.B.R.S.B. invited the aforementioned legend Peter Rowan, as well as the talented duo of Mike Marshall and Chris Thile who played earlier in the day, and the versatile mandolinist Sharon Gilchrist whose guest appearances throughout the weekend were often and always enjoyable. It was bluegrass heaven, and the audience responded in kind with a rousing thank you after the show.
Warren Haynes hosted his own workshop where the fans in attendance were given the privilege of having this living legend serenading them with only his acoustic guitar in hand. There was even room for fan questions, which really made the intimacy of this workshop all the more tangible. He covered the U2 classic "One," and dedicated "The Real Thing" to the recently departed Bay Area music industry legend Chet Helms, and opened up to the audience about a plethora of intimate inner thoughts. At one point Warren described his own musical evolution as a child as starting with gospel music that acted as a gateway into funk and soul music with Sly and the family Stone and James Brown being specific inspirations. From there he heard the likes of Cream and Jimi Hendrix, and his love for the guitar was truly born. I fully enjoyed getting up close and personal with such a musical genius, and after hearing in his own words how he came to love the music that he plays, it makes all the more sense.
Samantha Stollenwerck, one of the most inspiring songwriters on the scene today, and the Ritual graced the Grandstand Friday morning with a powerful array of uplifting songs that left a broad smile on my face, and a little boogie in my bootie. A.L.O.ís Dan Lebowitz even added some of his slick guitar stylings to the set to add some spice to enhance the musical concoction. Samantha and The Ritual also had another set at the Americana stage that showcased Maktubís Reggie Watts with some vocal assistance. Samantha could also be seen adding her incredibly powerful vocal talents to some terrific jams at the amazing late night Everyone Orchestra set, where it seemed that at points there may have been fifteen dynamic members on stage at once, as well as an appearance at the Garaj Mahal late night festival closing set. Samantha has such a powerful stage presence, and is a newer act (at least for me) that left me truly inspired.
Michael ďHow you feelin'Ē Franti, as he is now lovingly described, and Spearhead also lead the crowd through a musical adventure Friday evening on the Grandstand. He had the crowd engaged and responsive throughout his set, and his unending reserves of energy and lyrical passion oozed out from behind the mic. I do have to admit that this act left me feeling a little flat because this would be the only appearance of this politically charged lyricist all weekend.
There were two bands that won my heart as my favorite new acts of the festival, and coincidently both brought their musical prowess from an international setting. The New Mastersounds are an incredible British funk band that seemed to create more campground buzz than any other act. Their late night set opening for Karl Densonís Tiny Universe was tremendous, and I became hooked on their funky grooves almost instantaneously. I hope they do a nation wide tour here in the States, because this would be a tour that I would love to support.
Meltone is a Japanese jamband that received such a warm response wherever they played. It didnít matter if it was the Vaudeville tent, which featured an inspired collaboration with Jessica Lurie, the Americana stage, or jamming on top of an R.V., Meltone knew how to get our collective booties shaking, which is a formula for success in any language. It seemed after each performance the crowd size kept growing, which is symbolic of the positive buzz they created throughout the weekend.
Al Howard and the K 23 Orchestra also deserves honorary mention, because every little taste of the soulful funky stylings of this act made me thirst for more. Unfortunately my self imposed strict musical schedule left me missing much of their sets, so I have made a promise to my self that next time around I will make sure to leave my dance card open when they take the stage again.
Sunday afternoon featured Leo Kottke and Mike Gordon joined by Bahamian drummer Neil Symonette, who played a highly enjoyable set together on the Grandstand. Their collective sound was smooth and flowing, and their playing overlapped with each other perfectly to create some harmonious grooves, that at times had me feeling like I should be lounging on a tropical island sipping a pina colada. Hearing Mike on the acoustic bass was another added pleasure for this long time Phish fan. This would also be my first opportunity to check Leoís guitar work out, and he really impressed me with his fluid playing, and his story telling left me laughing. Of interesting note was the fact that as Mike recalled he does actually have a clone, in which the song by the same name was penned. They explained that the title track of their upcoming album Sixty Six Steps was written about the highest point in Neilís home country of the Bahamas, which from all accounts is a perfect place to watch the sunset. They even played a sweet version of "Ya Mar," which left me recalling my Phish days gone by. My one complaint was the fact that this would be the only time we would be graced by the presence of these immensely impressive musicians all weekend, and with other musicians making surprise appearance after surprise appearance, I was still hungering for more by the time the festival ended.
In all honesty this review could have contained a hundred more descriptions of different musical events that occurred throughout the weekend, or even a completely different focus on all the incredible adventures that took place between friends and family without musical accompaniment. The depth of oneís experience at H.S.M.F is what makes this more than just a music festival. As a writer it has proven a challenge to accurately capture all of the experiences at this festival, because simply put, the nature of this festival is beyond words. All I can say is High Sierra Music Festival is heaven on earth for any fan of incredible music, joyous celebrations, ecstatic jubilation, and mental relaxation. If you have been here before you know exactly what I am talking about, and if you havenít yet made a H.S.M.F., I hope to be seeing you Independence Day weekend 2006, because I know Iíll be there.
Photographs of African Showboys, Al Howard, Ben Kaufmann, Karl Denson, Mike Gordon and Warren Haynes courtesy of Josh Miller
Photos of Skerik, Marco Benevento, Les Claypool and Steve Kimock courtesy of Susan J Weiand
Photos of Keller Williams, Danilo Eckhardt and Michael Franti courtesy of Mike Raziano