High Sierra: A Close Knit Community Festival in the High Sierras of California

Written by Tom Hellauer & Brendan Foster
Photos by Tom Hellauer & Tony Contini

Festival goers who spent their Fourth of July at High Sierra Music Festival in Quincy, California did not regret it—with 59 artists who brought their best, many of whom played more than one set. There were over 102 acts and four days of camping in a beautiful mountain meadow.  Artists took over six stages, each with its own vibe, and the crowd equally participated in creating a special weekend in the Sierra’s.

The performances on the main stage, otherwise known as the Grandstand, were palpable.  Pigeons Playing Ping Pong, Karl Denson’s Eat A Bunch Of Peaches, Dawes, Dispatch, Galactic, Jim James, Umphrey’s McGee and others performed top notch shows at this stage.  Not only were some of the biggest names at the festival showcased at the Grandstand, but the lighting and sound production were dialed in making any performance caught at this stage quite the head turner.

However, artists who played at the five smaller stages were no slouches and often had more intimate crowds. People often chilled out on blankets and in camping chairs and some had picnics in the shade of the Vaudeville Tent and Big Meadow stages, while also dancing hard at times. Jennifer Hartswick Band and Star Kitchen both played memorable sets at these stages respectively that were some of our favorites of the entire weekend.

We caught two Late Night shows in the Funk’n Jamhouse. On Friday, Big Something got people moving with their easy going synth fused jam tunes, followed by a two and a half hour Manic Focus set of new, old, and unreleased electro hip-hop goodness.  On Saturday, TAUK and Pnuma both played incredible sets, energizing the crowd with upbeat, funky, and experimental sounds. Pnuma’s trio of artists had previously disbanded in 2008, taking a ten year hiatus before coming together to perform again in 2018.  Alex Botwin, the band’s keyboardist and Pretty Lights Music label artist, said the band’s return to HSMF after more than a decade was a meaningful moment in their lengthy careers.  Both Late Night shows started at midnight and ran until around 4 a.m., creating a mature vibe meant for those who wanted to go all night.

Music didn’t stop at the stages though, as impromptu jams and DJ sets broke out on corners, in campsites, and throughout the entire Quincy Fairgrounds all weekend long. The entire scene had very much a communal, collaborative feel that saw close interaction between artists and audiences.

This “scene”, including the collaborative vibes felt at High Sierra, can be traced back to the Grateful Dead community who helped bring the festival to fruition, and have kept the easygoing hippie spirit of HSMF alive in full for twenty-nine years. More so than many music festivals one can find themselves at these days, High Sierra had a large focus on the involvement of festival goers in performance activities all weekend.  One such activity that we happened to stumble upon at 10:30 a.m. Friday morning was the “Funk Jam with Sean & Eric”, a playshop at High Sierra Music Hall where people could bring their own instruments and join Sean Leahy and his friend Eric in advanced, semi-improvisational jam sessions.  It was incredibly fun to see musicians stretch out of their comfort zones and grasp on to the vibe being set by professionals.  A great way to start the day.

One of the bands we were most excited to catch was Umphrey’s McGee, not only because I love their music and their live shows even more, but because a key member of the band won’t be performing with them after the end of 2019. Lighting designer, Jefferson Waful, recently announced that he would be retiring from touring with the band to pursue other professional interests at the end of this year, so I was beyond thankful to catch what could be the last Umphrey’s set in Northern California with Waful in control of the stunning light show that has accompanied the band for a decade.  The two hour set was extremely fulfilling and included many extended jams of fan favorites as well as a cover of “Let’s Dance” by David Bowie featuring the legendary saxophonist, Skerik.

This was our first year attending High Sierra and we both walked away wanting to return next year.  Quincy, California has something very special going on every year during the Fourth of July, and it would be ill-advised to never experience the culture and vibes that make High Sierra Music Festival a favorite amongst the NorCal festival scene.

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