The 27th annual High Sierra Music Festival continued the event’s tradition of featuring some of the best guitarists in the world. The crop of pickers ran the gamut in terms of style, skill, and genre but all brought something unique to the table. Here are my top four from the opening two days in Quincy, California.
- Hamish Anderson – This Australian blues guitarist stuck closely to traditional ’60s Chicago blues with his leads and took a conventional approach to the instrument; substituting flash and speed for melody and familiarity. He was an instant favorite for electric blues purists with a cutting tone and licks that were reminiscent of the three Kings (B.B., Albert, Freddie) as well as early Eric Clapton. Anderson’s rig is simple, with only a handful of pedals, and he’s admittedly “the least guitar gear-y guy ever” but with a touch as lissome as his, he doesn’t need much to clearly communicate his musical leanings.
- James Petralli – I still can’t pin down exactly what kind of band White Denim is but their musicianship and songwriting was among the best of Day 1. At times they sounded like a modern psych-rock group but also easily fell into Allman Brothers-esque jams and classic rock-sounding hooks. Frontman James Petralli, also a soulful vocalist, was the driving force for the Austin-based rock band and writhed his way through inventive solos through the duration of their set at the Grandstand stage. His serpentine melodies laid the groundwork for when he laid into more explorative lead breaks. Petralli uses a Gibson 135
2. Chris Vos – The frontman for Los Angeles-based blues power trio The Record Company has his hands full throughout performances, regularly switching between electric and acoustic guitars, lap steel and harmonica. These extra efforts, however, only add to the workman-like aesthetic of The Record Company. Through his heavy blues playing, Vos made the Big Meadow stage feel like a dive bar, and the evening’s energy was drastically improved because of it. What Vos’ playing lacked in imagination it more than made up for in sheer intensity and delivery. Lead-wise, Vos is reminiscent of 60s blues-rock guitarists like Steve Marriott or Blue Cheer’s Leigh Stephens.
- Benjamin Andrews – Even having seen Con Brio each of the previous two years at High Sierra, Andrews’ playing still elicits the same “oh, fuck” response from me that it did the first time I saw him -in this case “oh, fuck” is mumbled with a smile and something resembling a sarcastic full-body eye-roll. Unlike many of the guitarists at High Sierra, Andrews doesn’t take a lead on every song and he doesn’t need to — his playing is impactful and memorable enough that he can take his time to stir the crowd into a frenzy when he feels it’s necessary, usually near the end of Con Brio’s set. Andrews’ blinding chops and strong sense of rhythm keep his playing ever evolving.