For the past 22 years over the 4th of July, 10,000 music loving souls have descended on the little community of Quincy, California transforming the Plumas County Fairgrounds into a spectacle of music, people, and celebration in the name of High Sierra. Dare I say this is one of the happiest places on earth? (I’ll dare.) The experience is as rewarding as it gets: High in the mountains, the setting is intimate, clean, and beautiful. Most bands camp and play multiple shows throughout the weekend. You can walk around to any of the stages with your own food and booze. The days are hot and sunny, the nights cool and clear. The people, many of them longtime attendees, are fun, warm, and welcoming. With kids underfoot, color, ambiance, and décor abounds. Smiles stay plastered. For me, it’s the best kind of fest. Unlike other music festivals I attend, the lineup does not dictate my attendance, or experience; just being there is so cathartic, celebratory, and all-out fun. This year’s lineup was eclectic, as always, with bands ranging from rootsy (Delta Spirit, Railroad Earth, the Devil Makes Three) to rock (Built to Spill, Heartless Bastards, Deer Tick) to electronica (Big Gigantic, Sound Tribe Sector 9) to funk (Galactic, The Motet, the New Orleans Suspects).
I’ve had a tendency to get extremely longwinded when I’ve written about music festivals; there’s just so goddamn much to talk about. The party goes 24 hours for days on end. But no one really wants to read all that. No one really wants a diary-style account of my experience. So as much as I’d like to blab on and on and on, recounting every detail of last weekend, I am going to practice moderation for once. With difficulty, I was able to narrow it down. I present to you my 5 personal highlights.
The Motet: Funk Is Dead!
New life in the songs of the Dead. I never thought it could happen but I’ve fallen in love with a woman and her name is Kim Dawson. The drop-dead gorgeous female vocalist for the Motet had literally everyone talking the whole weekend long after two powerhouse performances during which they exclusively played songs of the Dead. As a self-proclaimed Deadhead, there is little else I could ask for at a music festival (well, except maybe the original band, but whatever). With three vocalists and a guest horn section, the sprawling ensemble funked out some of the best songs of the Dead’s massive repertoire—I got to hear personal faves like “Franklin’s Tower,” “The Music Never Stopped,” and “Shakedown Street.” Their first set was Thursday late night opening for Galactic, where the charismatic Dawson’s voice stole the show. The following afternoon, they owned the outdoor stage with classic funky Dead tunes while little kids took turns spraying the audience with a hose so we could dance and delight in the blistering heat to such classics as “Scarlet Begonias,” “Fire on the Mountain,” “Morning Dew,” and “St. Stephen.” Love!
Sunrise Silent Frisco
Signature gem of the weekend. Staying up all night is super hard, especially when you’ve been drinking in the sun all day and dancing all night. But pushing through is well worth it when you have a Silent Disco awaiting you. Silent Frisco (the San Francisco chapter) brought 1,000 headphone sets and a handful of DJs—including MoPo, U9lift, Manclub, and guests—and turned up the dial on those of us who managed to stay awake until it kicked off at 3am each night. And if you are having a good enough time dancing in what looks like silence to any onlookers to stay up until sunrise, the best tradition of High Sierra (for many years running now) is still to come: The sunrise kickball game, during which wasted, costumed, all-night party people take over the grass and play a whacked out game of renegade kickball. All are invited to play. All are in the line of fire. Consider that the ball players are also participating in the silent disco, thus dancing and playing in silence but for the music in their ears, and it’s the most hilarious thing I’ve seen in quite some time. In this early morning mayhem, it’s easy to get a second, third, or fourth wind and pretend that sleep is a mere luxury.
My favorite surprise. From my camping spot—situated conveniently right between two stages—the music of Red Baraat flooded in on Saturday afternoon and lured me up into the blazing hot sun to behold their set of bombastic world fusion. Red Baraat is the kind of act I’ve come to associate with High Sierra—highly stylized and full of soul with heavy instrumentation all delivered by a colorful cast I’d never before heard of. I learned later, after looking them up online when I got home, that Red Baraat is a nine-piece hailing from Brooklyn and that main percussionist in the front (who captivated me with his infectious smile and eye contact) was bandleader Sunny Jain. Their sound melds “Indian Bhangra beats with big brass accompaniment”, resulting in a marriage of Go-Go, Latin jazz, and funk that is distinctive and full of flavor. Excellent stuff!
Dance party in the dark. When the sun goes down, the glowsticks come out, the ubiquitous little kids go to bed, and all hell can finally break loose. In our case, it was the set by Big Gigantic that got my whole crew up and out together for the first time of the weekend, dancing around to the sounds of a DJ who was accompanied by live sax and live drums. Live sax with a DJ! This is the kind of show that, back in San Francisco, would be taken over by 16-year-old ravers, but here at High Sierra it was mostly a bunch of us nerdy aging hippies and everyone was all smiles. Big Gigantic was a highlight among many people I talked to throughout the weekend… goes to show that good and inventive electronica goes a long, long way.
Dead Winter Carpenters
Joyful, soulful afternoon music. Give me fiddle, give me stand-up bass, give me an afternoon drinking beer in the sun, lazing about with friends in front of the main stage, and you get one of my favorite moments of the weekend. Dead Winter Carpenters don’t do anything new, but what they do they do wonderfully (do, do, do)—folkyAmericana with samplings of bluegrass, country, and rock. The act works flawlessly together and brings to the stage a feeling of endurance, of perpetual shine; by sound alone, you probably wouldn’t know they are young and relatively new to the scene. It’s the kind of music with old soul, that transcends trends and demographics—and it was exactly what I wanted to hear early on a hot summer afternoon, setting a tone of bliss for the rest of the day to follow suit.
It’s hard to stop here; the highlights abounded! I heard so much wonderful music throughout the weekend. Honorable mentions go out to the consistently great Lumineers whose “Hey Ho” has apparently become a sing-along anthem after its Bing commercial spot; my longtime loves the Devil Makes Three; the weekend-changing trailer showers (showering at a festival is an incredible treat!); the chaotic, messy, and awesome Talking Heads showcase; classic Galactic late-night, Sound Tribe Sector 9’s unbelievable lightshow, and the magnetic afternoon folk of Y La Bamba.
If music festivals are your thing, High Sierra has it all. And it sold out for the first time ever this year, so apparently I’m not the only one who thinks so. Like every good thing that eventually catches on, the slow burn of High Sierra’s success has been an essential ingredient to its allure. It’s a magical little world up there, high up in the mountains, brimming with charm, enduring year after year, sustained by its own vision, bringing the people and the music together sans corporate sponsorship or stupid rules and regulations or bullying security or any of the things that mar other fests that have gone in other (more commercially driven) directions. As a model in festival success, High Sierra is hard to beat.
Check out some more photos from the festival.