Hitting the High Notes - 2004 High Sierra Music Festival DVD

The goal of any good music film is to show what it was like to be at the venue when sparks flew from the stage, not necessarily the truth of the moments captured but the essence of the event that transpired. Most celluloid sequences just don’t get the job done—cutaway shots to insignificant visual images, show-offy camera angles that disrupt the flow of the music, short-changed artists with solos edited and brutal slices that choose not to expose the skinned-knee portions of any really good musical set.

Such is not the case with the splendid “Hitting the High Notes” which portrays a sudden magical city arising in the middle of gorgeous scenic Northern California while floating along its 100-minute trip as if we are journeying along on one magnificent day, instead of four from July 1-4, 2004. That’s a helluva long sentence but, hey, that’s what the film made me feel—what a great festival. Not quite Smilefest, which, to me, is the one festival that transcends the genre to offer historic music in a very comforting and pleasant environment. The High Sierra milieu captured on the DVD is also quite rustic but, it seems a bit Californian with the need to talk a lot and explain everything, instead of just listening to the wonders that surround. Show, don’t tell—you know what I’m sayin’? Too often, the filmmaker spends a good two, three minutes interviewing this chap and that lass while the camera should be focused upon the stage—a mistake that certainly wouldn’t be made in North Carolina.

Too harsh? Let’s just say I’m very familiar with the California vibe as I lived there most of my life. The smug CA liberal hasn’t the sense of the quiet Oregonian, tenacity of the Colorado native or the Soho cat that shows the taste not to linger too long in Nirvana, lest ye dine on the fruits of a West Coast Guvna, eh Arnie S.? I’ll be back, indeed.

Enough of that. How’s the music in the film? I didn’t care for the long takes of a member of Leftover Salmon and members of the Hot Buttered Rum String Band tootling around on golf carts. Why film this when you’ve got scores and scores of great bands playing on the various stages? You skipped Tea Leaf Green coverage for this stuff? However, when the musical gems do arrive, it’s worth the price of the DVD. The Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey improvisatory take on “Santiago” is perfectly nailed on the screen. This is revelatory music played by a trio who seized the late eve vibe to make quite a stand, much like Lotus did in their atmospheric set at Smilefest 2005. Particle has an awesome stab at “Fox Force Five” and The Radiators do a teeth-rattling, bone crushing version of “Little Sadie.” There is also excellent footage of Leftover Salmon roaring through “Breakin’ Thru” and Donna the Buffalo playing a sublime “Rock of Ages.” Again—a filmmaker faces a challenge in documenting a musical event. Here, director Jason Koornick hits the high note suggested by the title. My only other complaint is the choice of interviewing Robert Walter of 20th Century fame and Al Schnier of moe. instead of showing more footage of their sets. I suppose the production team may have had problems getting releases signed by these two acts. Otherwise, what the heck?

Should you get this DVD? Yes, for the Particle, Donna the Buffalo, Leftover Salmon and Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey performances but, also, for the life-affirming moment when the young female banjo player meets her idol, Jerry Douglas, and he plays a sweet little jam on mandolin as she duets on her banjo, smiling throughout—a High Sierra moment that was both unique and spiritually poignant. Truly, any aspiring musician’s dream come true. Next time, the filmmakers should dwell on these moments without all of the chatter between the notes—a little more North Carolina, instead of North California…

- Randy Ray