This past weekend, I made the twelve-hour drive from Los Angeles to Quincy, California to go to the High Sierra Music Festival. Well, more specifically, I drove to see Akron/Family, who were scheduled to play two sets over the course of the four-day fest. The sky, ashen with smoke, loomed overhead. California’s burning, and the air moaned with congestion.
Above the smoke of wildfires and the scent of body odor and patchouli, the sun still shone on the tie-dyed masses. The festival, a yearly tradition in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains, was comprised mostly of colorful, boisterous — if maybe a tad monotonous — jamband music. With thousands of people, five stages, delicious food, camping, singing, dancing, yoga workshops, Frisbee, and meditation, though, the High Sierra Festival was everything that I hoped it would be. Of course, once Akron/Family took the stage for the first time, it became so, so much more.
As the opening notes echoed through the pines, I had to battle my jaw to stay shut. It won without much resistance. The set started with “Phenomena,” from last year’s Love is Simple LP and proceeded to meander, both assuredly and nebulously, down a sonic rabbit hole so deep that only my tired feet knew they were still on this planet. The rest of my consciousness knew only love.
For the most part, the band played material unheard on previous recordings. This is the Akron/Family that I’ve always admired, a band that tirelessly and passionately pursues innovation in a way that seems both effortless and meticulous, whimsical and erudite. Their new material snaked through chord changes, complex rhythms, and immaculate harmonies with waterfall fluidity; no change was expected, and every one punched me in the gut. The crowd, more accustomed to the paint-by-numbers Phish clones, seemed at first confused, then delighted, by the challenge set forth by Akron/Family. Their technical proficiency, staggering emotional aura, and melodic depth were beyond anything I’ve ever seen before.
And I’ve seen a lot of shows.
[Note: the above photo is not from High Sierra – I’ll post one up if I can find one]