High Sierra Music Fest 2003
Russo/Benevento absolutely cranked the Vaudeville Tent the first afternoon when festival-goers usually take the time to gear up and head out for the nighttime shows. This duo cranked out such a powerful sound, however, that campers in the surrounding fields poured into the tent to see what the commotion was all about. Those that came to experience were not disappointed, as the pair closed off their set with three raucous Led Zeppelin covers. The crowd ate it alive, rocking along while wondering how this ensemble could provide more sound than seemed possible from two instruments.
Keller was the main draw Thursday night, and got the crowd engaged when his openers “Thin Mint>People Watching” featured some skilled vocal looping. Keller scatted one line, looped it, paused one measure, scatted the same line in vocal harmony, then after he had the vocal harmony looping perfectly, he skillfully lilted a melodic line bouncing on top of his pre-existent vocals. K-Dub then took a turn for the better when he dropped into the BeeGees cover “Night Fever” with the melodic verse:
“Then I get night fever, night fever We know how to do it. Gimme that night fever, night fever We know how to show it.”
“Standing on the moon” was an unknowingly perfect pick, with a sliver of the moon perfectly positioned behind the stage so that a few concertgoers in the exact right position could just barely spy the yellow orb hanging in the sky behind Keller onstage.
After Keller, the contented crowd filtered out of the venue into the town square as a house band played a relaxing set to lure partiers into the night. With candelabras framing the stage and white Christmas lights in the trees, some wandered by with loftier late night ideas dancing in their heads, while others stopped and listened to this soothing outtro for their first night on the festival grounds.
Friday morning I headed to the indoor playshop stage to get a break from the sun where Papa Mali, Anders Osborne and J.J. Grey from Mofro collaborated as part of the Singer/Songwriters playshop. These artists also discovered they had something else in common as they gravitated towards discussing the influence of the South (Austin, New Orleans and Northern Florida, respectively) on their songwriting.
Anders pointed out that warmer weather makes people more emotive, as opposed to his native Sweden where most people are timid and more cerebral. He also noted that New Orleans, as a port city, was in the unique position to bring together a variety of instruments and people together, where a wide variety of influences commingled for the first time. The playshop format was the perfect setting for these artists to show their soulful songwriting, emotive singing mettle. The audience was treated to a powerfully slow-tempoed “Blackwater” sung by JJ and featuring gritty guitar solos from Anders and Papa. Although it was the first time the three had been onstage together, this fact was not easily discernable, which prompted such questions from the audience as “When is your album due out?” and “How long have you guys been playing together?”
Kaki King was another highlight, as the out-of-the-way Vaudeville Tent filled up with those who had heard grand things about this young, skillful guitar player. Kaki uses an intricate finger tapping method on the guitar to evoke rhythmic instrumental explorations that lead the ear and amaze the eyes. Get up close and watch the speed and accuracy of Kaki’s hands sometime if you get the chance.
We headed to the Big Meadow to catch Mofro, and were pleasantly surprised when Papa Mali walked onstage with the rest of the band, made himself comfortable next to JJ, and settled in for the whole set. Mofro started the set off with “Blackwater” and “Air”, then pulled out a rare “White House”. J.J. enjoyed singing this version so much that the following day at the Grandstand stage he noted that after retiring “White House” for awhile, he decided to sing it two days in a row. J.J. then introduced Robert Walter, who had just come from his “Vitamin B3 Summit” playshop, and settled in at the Hammond to show off some newly acquired Hammond vitality on “Nare Sugar”. With his fingers grinding the keys, and his chicken elbows flying in the air, Robert dragged climactic wavering notes across the boards.
Sound Tribe Sector Nine headlined the grandstand stage on Friday, bringing their brand of drum and bass organic techno to the biggest crowd of the festival. Members of the Phoenix Rising fire dancers enhanced the visual aspect of the already intense light show. During one tune, a male and a female dancer faced one another, swinging chains 360 degrees in both hands with a dangling ball of fire at the end, then stepped closer and closer until their bodies were interlocked arms swinging fire around each other in sync.
STS9’s set closer “Moonsockets”, and their encore “Today” were by far the musical highlights of the show, finishing the set strongly and leaving the believers salivating for Tribe’s late night show scheduled for the following night.
I was excited to catch Yonder Mountain String Band, they always seem to have a blast at festivals, especially High Sierra, but it seemed that they got off to a bit of a slow start with their song selection on Saturday. The highlight of the first part of the set was Jeff’s vocals on “Deep Dark Hole in the Hill”.
Jeff then asked Benny Galloway on stage by saying, “We didn’t think people would like this album, but hell, some people like it, so fuck it.” Not the most encouraging intro for the crowd goers who were hoping for some hard driving jamgrass.
Benny sang “I Love My Job” with the clichéd vocals featured as a centerpiece, “Working like a dog, for that two dollar bill.” At the end of the tune, Benny theatrically swung his head to the side both ways, glancing at two Yonder boys on either end, demonstratively referring to the payday he receives from the band for his songwriting duties. The act seemed a bit overplayed, and the songs a bit flat, as he continued on singing lead on a few more tunes.
Yonder eventually redeemed themselves, however, covering the Rolling Stones “No Expectations” with passion, then striking the last chord of the song with an extra tinge of a dark, evil chord, and immediately dropping into the Beatles’ “Northern Song” to finish the set.
Tea Leaf Green picked it up several notches with a great set at the Big Meadow. The band opened with Kali Yuga, stirring the crowd who was mustering up the energy to dance as the sun set behind the band. “Warmup” was another highlight, as Josh dropped into a tease with a knowingly sly grin, and tore away at eight bars of the lead riff to “Moonsockets”, STS9’s epiphany from the Grandstand Stage the previous night. After “Ride Together”, “Papa’s in the Backroom” and “Asphalt Funk”, I had to duck to the men’s room for a break.
On my way back, I ran into the festival parade making their way around the fairgrounds. A wave of banner carriers, snare drummers, sax players, stilt walkers, general freaks and a huge Jerry Garcia puppet suit cruised by in a full cacophony of regalia.
When I got back to the Big Meadow stage, Eric McFadden of PFunk fame was onstage, tearing up the six strings with Josh. The two San Francisco shredders admired each other’s licks as they traded back and forth to finish up the set.
Karl was the headliner at the Grandstand Stage for the night. He was the perfect act to finish off the main part of the festival….no High Sierra goer can rightfully resist shaking it to Karl’s boogie-funk. Special guests Steve Winwood, Fareed Haque and Skerik didn’t hurt the cause either as the lights and smoke wafted out over the crowd.
On Sunday morning we packed up camp and headed to the food court to grab some eggs. The sounds of the soul classic “Lovely Day” floated over from the Big Meadow as we stood in line for food, so we decided to bring our food over to the stage to chill out to some morning tunes before hitting the road and heading back out into the real world. Once there, we were greeted by a larger than normal A.M. crowd and an army of hoopers and dancers donning furry animal costumes bouncing to the music, all of whom seemed more awake and cheerful than expected for the fourth and final morning of an epic festival. ALO’s liberation of the animal spirit proved just the thing to get everyone up and moving on this sunny Sunday morning.
We walked away from the Big Meadow for the last time, headed to our car, and loaded ourselves in, getting ready for the drive home. Our long, wheeling ride of a July 4th weekend was well reflected as we flipped on the car radio, and tuned into the local “Grizzly Radio” broadcast from the Big Meadow Stage as ALO proclaimed in singing their chorus “We’ve all got an animal….We want to liberate!”
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