Live Music: 2013 High Sierra Music Festival

Written by Concert Reviews, Music

High Sierra Music Festival is easily one of the happiest places on earth. People return year after year (after year). They bring their kids. They fill up inflatable pools. They make signs that light up and camp with dozens of friends and family who fly in from all over the country. They stay up all night and then all day and then all night again. It’s a hard party to deny, and High Sierra has cultivated a magic over the years that instantly binds people to the experience.

High Sierra just celebrated it’s 23rd year over the 4th of July weekend and it ended up selling out, but it took longer than most people thought it may with Robert Plant headlining. Though High Sierra attracts a crowd of around 10,000, it’s defined by an intimate spirit, sure with the knowledge that a festival can still be profitable without forcing attendees to buy overpriced food and booze, and can still be well-run without oppressive rules or security breathing down everyone’s necks. It’s mostly volunteers who man the show, which means no one seems to know what’s going on, but that also represents a like-minded solidarity among all the people there, even those working.  (No power tripping or hierarchy here.) There is no pretension, no douchebags, no gutter punks, just music and smiles and art and dance and family and friends and sunshine. Lots of hot, beating sunshine.

My personal High Sierra highlights were bountiful, and every moment during the four days I spent in Quincy felt sacred, whether it was plunging into the pool during the late afternoon heat or walking around with my sister to find a smoothie in the morning. But I managed to narrow the experience down to my own top 10, and i present them to you below, in order of how the highlights unfolded throughout the weekend.

“Going to California”, Robert Plant’s Sensational Shape Shifters, Grandstand, Thursday night
This song never fails to move me. Even while getting jostled and distracted by the ever-thickening crowd during the height of Plant’s set, a poignant memory about this song, also at a festival, but nine years earlier and 3,000 miles east, delivered by mandolin days before I moved to San Francisco, transported me back there in an instant. I was reduced to the music and my memory, and nothing else mattered.

Pimps of Joytime, Grandstand, Friday afternoon 
I only made it for a few songs of Pimps’ of Joytime’s late-night show on Thursday night–my sleeping bag just made too good of a case for me to resist. But at High Sierra most artists play multiple sets, so I got some sleep without regret, comfortable knowing I’d catch them again the next afternoon at the Grandstand. And their funky soul party was just awesome during the daytime.

Twilight Parade, Friday evening
Though billed nightly, the parades always feel serendipitous, and I only happened upon this one by chance. A cast of street musicians, dancers, puppet holders, and regular Joes ambled down the road in a spectacle of color and music, and it evolved into a blissful dance-along drum circle. Spontaneous improvisation personified.

Emancipator, Vaudeville, Friday night
It takes a lot to lure me away from Claypool, but lured away I was but stirring electronic music of Emancipator and live violinist Ilya Goldberg. Intending to only check out a song or two before heading back to Primus I was instead captivated through the rest of their show–so captivated that I watched the entirety of their late night Saturday set as well.

Gramatik > Silent Disco, Late Friday Night
Somehow I found myself still standing after a raging late night dance party (soundtracked by Gramatik’s live guitar over laptop production), and made my way to Silent Disco where I expected to ring in the dawn with the legendary, annual renegade kickball game. I didn’t quite make it to sunrise (I was close!) but I was treated to the prismatic lightshow projected into the tall trees ringing the field and the surreal image of a few hundred silent dancers getting down to sounds no louder than a twinkle to any onlooker not transmitted in.

Renegade NVO Set, On Top of an RV, Saturday Evening
There are always a few pop-up shows at High Sierra, many of them on top of an RV. It’s always a thrill running into one, and the live electronica by San Francisco four-piece NVO was a perfect complement to the fast-falling night and buzzy energy all around.

Thievery Corporation, Grandstand, Saturday Night
I’m from the DC area, so Thievery Corporation has a special place in my heart. I always love their live show, which has evolved and taken on so many different forms over the years. Their two-hour headlining set on Saturday night kept me and most of my crew in front of the Grandstand for the duration. Their globally tinged music was made especially vivacious by the bass player, whose stage presence was more like theater and whose manic meanderings all over the stage served to bring a bit of special oomph to their set.

“Ohio”, Anders Osbourne, Vaudeville, Saturday Night
Unearthing those first early notes of Neil Young’s “Ohio” from Osbourne’s wailing guitar, and hearing the song meander and tease and ultimately take the shape of Young’s classic… yes.

“Faithful Man”, Lee Fields & the Expressions, Vaudeville, Saturday Night
Lee Fields is one of my favorite artists, and there’s little that gets me more excited than hearing him belt out his signature Daptone soul. I mistakenly only caught a few tracks during his late-night set on Saturday night, but “Faithful Man” was among them. While there are lots of other songs in his catalog that I love more, the live rendition on this night, polished and assured and brimming with emotion, brought the house down.

The High Sierra Community, Here, There, Near, Far
I’ve spoken a bit of the community and camaraderie among the festival-goers, and people all weekend everywhere you turned were beaming and just awesome to be around. Here are a few reasons why:
– My friend lost her wallet on Thursday night and it turned up at lost and found on Monday, with the entirety of her cash, and everything else, still intact.
– Kids no more than five-years-old were shlepping glowsticks with the sale’s pitch, “One dollar a piece or two glowsticks for three dollars.”
– Our neighbors offered us bacon, every morning.
– You need simply make eye contact with a person to share a smile or a high-five or a spray under a ubiquitous hand-pumped water spritzer.

Thanks to High Sierra, and all the people who made it so special, for another amazing year!

Check back for a photo gallery, coming soon.