Weekend Diversion: The Best Discoveries From The High Sierra Music Festival
The best-kept secret in music festivals and the six great new bands I found.
“Life is a festival only to the wise.” -Ralph Waldo Emerson
Every weekend, I try to bring you not only something wonderful, amusing, beautiful and/or entertaining about the world or Universe that’s not as deep as what we usually explore, but I try to bring you a song or a piece of music that you might not have heard before.
Well, last weekend — as you may have noticed — I didn’t bring you anything, because I was away at the 25th annual High Sierra Music Festival.
If you’ve never been to a music festival before (and I didn’t go to my first until I was already in my 20s), there are typically multiple stages going at once, with a variety of acts in a variety of genres. They last for 3–4 days on average, and range from a few thousand people all the way up to many tens of thousands. You camp, you meet a bunch of open-minded, awesome people, and you have an all-around awesome time. High Sierra is a mid-size festival with about 10,000 people, and it tends to be focused on folk, bluegrass, indie, funk, and singer-songwriter types, with some dance/electronica thrown in there, too.
The bigger names/acts are going to be the main draw in any given year, and High Sierra was no exception, with showstoppers like Galactic, String Cheese Incident and Joe Russo’s Almost Dead.
But my favorite part of music festivals is getting to hear bands or artists who I’d never heard live before, and discovering artists that I’d never even heard before at all. It’s this last thing — the discovery of new musicians — that I’m most excited to share with you. Last weekend, there were six new bands or artists I came across that I’m now huge fans of, including two that simply blew me away. Without further ado, here are my six favorite discoveries (for me) of the High Sierra Music Festival.
6.) The California Honeydrops. If you like bands with easy lyrics, uptempo energy, and that get into a groove that gets inside of your bones, the California Honeydrops are definitely a band you should check out live. The L.A. music scene isn’t something I normally get as excited about as other places, but part of the joy of festivals is that you get to challenge your own expectations and often wind up pleasantly surprised. They’re really good at jamming out, at playing to the audience and really getting into it without getting noodly or overly repetitive. By the end of their set, you will feel like you just had a party.
5.) Rising Appalachia. I’ve got to give plenty of credit to a band that can get me up out of my comfy seat at a festival and up dancing and moving, but that was no problem for Rising Appalachia. Their lyrics are thoughtful, their all-female harmonies are entrancing, and the music ranges from slow and melodic to upbeat and infectious. They totally overflowed their stage in terms of the audience they brought to them, and seeing them was a fantastic experience. Full confession, though, I left before their set finished, because I wanted to check out the band that wound up at #1 on this list…
4.) The Brothers Comatose. This bluesy-bluegrass band was right up my alley in terms of what I’d seek out at a festival like this, and they didn’t disappoint even a little. Great picking and harmonies of both instruments and voices, good songwriting and lyrics, and an awfully strong set made for a great experience. In the middle of their performance, they cranked out an amazing cover of the Grateful Dead’s Brokedown Palace, and their whole set was something that was easy to listen to and just enjoy. A lot of times, I find it hard to sit still and just listen to a 90 minute set, but for Brothers Comatose, it was the easiest thing in the world.
3.) Dan Bern. It’s really rare to run into a songwriter as honest, profound and universally relevant as Dan Bern is, but his lyrics were far and away the biggest and best intellectual surprise for me of the entire festival. Every song tells a complete and enthralling story, similar to Loudon Wainwright (except without being a total piece of crap like Loudon Wainwright), in that its introspective and you feel like you’re not only seeing into his soul, but also a little bit into your own. If you’re into music and lyrics that make you think, you should definitely seek out some Dan Bern.
2.) Shovels & Rope. I sat down to Shovels & Rope, hoping that they would be as good as their description promised they might be. They opened with the title track off their latest album, Swimmin’ Time, and wow will Cary Ann Hearst’s voice just blow you away live in a way that you can’t record on an album or in a YouTube video. Her collaboration with husband Michael Trent, Shovels & Rope, is an incredible showcase of outstanding musicianship, harmony, and a vocal powerhouse that you have to see to fully understand.
When they finished that first song, I said, “we have to see every song that this band has to play.” And it was remarkable.
The best music doesn’t just get you moving, doesn’t just make you think, but makes you feel something that nothing else can. I was amazed how much Shovels & Rope did that, just with a well-placed minor chord or a single note that didn’t land where I expected it would. That, combined with the power of Cary Ann’s voice, would’ve made the entire festival worth it for me. When they finished their set, I went over to the merch table and bought every single album of theirs they had for sale.
And yet, there was another band that takes the top spot of the festival for me, at least, if I’m being honest with myself.
1.) The Black Lillies. I was heartened sitting down for the Black Lillies at how careful and thorough they were during their sound check, all working hard together to ensure that their sound would come out great. Then they started off by diving into the song “Two Hearts Down” (above), and I was honestly surprised at how much I liked it. They’ve got a sound that’s a lot twangier than I’d normally listen to, but the combined power, excitement, harmony and instrumental fervor they brought to their songs sucked me right in. And as their set went on, I found myself dancing, completely enthralled, singing along to almost every song’s chorus, and simply blown away. Again, if they were the only band I’d found at the festival, it would’ve been totally worth it.
And then they played this.
After listening to this, I called it “the country November Rain,” because of how epic it was to me and how incredibly hard it rocked at the end after such a grand buildup. I was all set to put Shovels & Rope as my #1 find of the festival even after hearing the Black Lillies, but then I went to sleep the night after hearing them… and I dreamed about this song.
They played another set on the festival’s final day, and I left Jeff Austin & Danny Barnes’ set (who I knew and like) to go hear the Black Lillies again. And when they played this song again… I totally lost it. They not only were the most memorable musical act of the whole festival for me, they totally opened me up to a style of music I don’t normally even listen to. And yes, I bought everything they had for sale at the merch table, too.
So I hope there’s something in here for you to enjoy, and I’m so pleased I get to share a little bit of what was a great experience for me with you. Maybe you’ll even discover something new and positive for yourself, too.