June 21-23, 2007 Mendocino County Fairgrounds, Boonville
Better Than: Watching Rockers on DVD
Now in its 14th year, the Sierra Nevada World Music Festival has become somewhat of a Northern Californian cultural institution. Every year, the festival smoothly chugs along, presenting world-class talent, a lively yet family-friendly atmosphere, and some mellow folks intent on chilling out as much as possible. As usual, this year’s event brought together both a gathering of the vibes, and a gathering of the tribes. In addition to your basic hippie remnants and eco-conscious vegans, there were hardcore Rastafarians, ethnic music junkies, and good ol’ fashioned party people looking to enjoy live music (and smoke massive quantities of marijuana) in a natural, outdoor setting. The 707 crew was definitely in the house, as was a sizable Bay Area contingent. Most folks had been to at least one “Sierra” before, and everywhere you looked, people were reconnecting with old friends or forging new connections. It was the type of scene where you’d wake up in the morning, peer out of your tent, and hear camouflage-clad dreads reasoning about the infinite virtues of the late Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie I while enjoying their first spliff of the day.
The festival bill was dotted with acts from all parts of the world, from Mexico to Spain to Africa to France, yet as is usually the case, roots reggae dominated the lineup. So far, “Sierra” has resisted the temptation to appeal more to younger crowds by booking slack-mouthed dancehall artists; thankfully, the roots reggae artists spanned a range from contemporary stars Richie Spice and Turbulence to classic Jamaican icons like Bunny Wailer, Barrington Levy and Sugar Minott. Another sign of progressive consciousness was the inclusion of female artists like Queen Ifrika, Malika Madremena, and Les Nubians, who kept the gender balance intact.
Temperatures soared into the high 70s and low 80s during the day -- woe to he or she who forgot sunblock -- yet most of the hotness happened right on stage. Some of the highlights included torrid sets by the ageless Barrington Levy, and the Sierra Leone Refugee All-Stars -- who flowed effortlessly through reggae, dub, and highlife. Tony Rebel and Chezidek also went over big, as did Richie Spice, the roots crooner who recently topped the reggae charts with “Brown Skin.” Turbulence was also a hit, especially when he gave his biggest hit “Notorious” the epic treatment, complete with false starts and teaser build-ups. Yet for all the fire the Rasta gentlemen provided, the most satisfying set of the weekend came courtesy of Afro-Franco divas Les Nubians, who jammed through selections from their two albums with a fierce intensity. Maybe it was the live band backing them or maybe they were just feeling irie that day, but they easily made up for some of their somewhat disappointing concert performances in the past with a stellar set which touched on soul, jazz, reggae, and Afro-Cuban elements. During their biggest hit, “Makeda” -- an ode to the Queen of Sheba -- they encouraged all the ladies in the house to find their inner Makeda. As the weekend wound down with a set by Ojos de Brujo, people were overheard already making plan to attend next year’s show.
Personal Bias: I got there Saturday, so I missed Friday’s performances by Toots and the Maytals and Carlinhos Brown (reports said they were good).
Critic’s Notebook: Irie Dole and I-Vier of the bay’s own Jah Warrior Shelter crew held down the sound system duties with some criss 45s; North Bay rap/reggae artist Wisdom was seen passing out flyers for Reggae Rising, the next big NorCal reggae festival, which happens August 3-5 in Humboldt County.
--Eric K. Arnold