Review & Photos | High Sierra 2013 | Quincy, CA

Words by: Dennis Cook & Eric Podolsky | Images by: Andrew Quist

High Sierra Music Festival :: 07.04.13-07.07.13 :: Plumas-Sierra County Fairgrounds :: Quincy, CA

Dennis’ Introduction

After the rowdy, sensory blasting first day and night at High Sierra Music Festival, sleep eluding me, I wandered over to the daily kickball game that gathers at sunrise, the all-nighters and very early risers loosely congregating for one of the silliest, sloppiest sporting displays you’ll ever experience. It’s a scene further amplified in its strangeness by the Silent Frisco groovers in their headphones twerking and stumbling to frequencies unknown to the bundled up ballers around them, dancers occasionally yelping to the surprisingly quiet field, “This DJ is killing it! I freakin’ love this song!” It’s a rule of thumb for me (and not a few others) that it’s not a proper High Sierra if one doesn’t join this sweetly surreal scene at least once each year, and as I rounded the corner from the food court with a piping hot mocha in hand, I ran smack dab into a scene that’d be truly odd in any other setting: A tall dude in a storybook perfect Gingerbread Man costume yelling, “Ha, ha, ha, he, he, he! You can’t catch me!” as someone in a Tigger outfit pumped their legs in chase. High Sierra issues one a license to play, and it’s heartening how swiftly one adjusts to this kind of thing being the norm once they roll into this temporary city on a hill.

Face facts, most people don’t love what they do or how they spend their days. The world would be a happier place if they did, and the proof of this is evident every Fourth of July weekend at High Sierra, where one is surrounded by musicians, technicians, artisans, skipping children (of all ages), and plain ol’ patrons positively aglow with love for the present moment and how they’re living it. The contrast between the makeshift community that gathers on the Plumas-Sierra County Fairgrounds and the world just outside the fence (and the many worlds we leave miles away) is striking – this year in particular occurring in an atmosphere of racial and political divide unlike anything this country has faced since the 1960s. Kicking off on Independence Day, the 2013 HSMF celebrated the nobler universal truths that have defined and shaped America - the joyful, exploratory spirit, the yen for getting loose, and the affirmation that one can believe in and love who and what they want to without shame or worry. Clearly, this vision remains imperfect, in- progress or even downright broken in many places but in Quincy, CA one caught a glimpse of what it might be like to live in a land where nearly every face smiles, nearly every hand is extended in kindness and good cheer, and no matter where one roams there’s something interesting, engaged, and often eerily beautiful springing to life.

This year I was struck by migratory nature of many regulars, myself included, where one’s hand-selected crew returns over and over to the same plot of festival ground, many encampments becoming reliable destinations in the fest’s cartography, small worlds within worlds gleaming with twinkling light and paper lanterns as the slosh of fresh cocktails coming together echoes from bright morning to sighing late night. For many, this festival is in their blood, stirring a need more than a simple desire to return annually, and as it is special to them they strive to make it special for anyone who looms into their orbit, handing out food, misting strangers with cool water, and generally behaving very differently than most do at home with their actual neighbors. High Sierra allows one to lower their guard and embrace the here and now, and folks, you’ve never seen such a hugging horde of humanity. It rolls on 24 hours a day for four days straight. No matter the time, one can wander without agenda with the certainty that they’ll be drawn into capers of varying intoxication with laughter, dancing and great music laced through it all. You might not dig everything – the music or the well self-policed mayhem – but walk a few hundred feet further and you’re likely to find something you want to dive into, arms wide with a grin that lingers in the days after one has left Quincy. One truth this year brought to mind is proximity to bounteous creativity is good for the soul.

As usual, the music was generally high quality and eclectic, touching on regional talents, big names, and High Sierra regulars who reaffirmed why they’re so beloved. The collaborative spirit was especially strong this year, frequently catalyzed by the perfectly chosen Artists-At-Large Skerik (saxophonics), Jennifer Hartswick (vocals, trumpet), and ALO’s Lebo (guitars, vocals) – a trio that embodied the “I’ve got to get a piece of this wonderful musical thing!” spirit that seems to catch many musicians who attend HSMF as well as simply shining in their individual ways every single time they contributed to a wacky host of settings. The players here always seem ready to be turned on by what they’re seeing onstage, and then stoke those same energies each time they step up, be it a brief one song sit-in or their own spotlight sets. No one wants to be the one to drop the sonic hot potato, so one encounters these musicians at their best and most switched-on throughout the weekend. Most of the performers are working musicians, piecing together a livelihood any way they can, and High Sierra provides a much needed shot in the arm for such folks, bringing together quality artists with an audience generally enthused and open to whatever comes down the pike. Bands leave with new fans, sometimes lots of them, and that’s a lock solid guarantee.

One can surely quibble with some of the organizer’s picks but that’s almost always a matter of personal taste, and I never encountered a single act without at least a small, enthralled audience drinking in their offerings - and one suspects that’s not all that common even in a festival environment. There’s no discounting the symbiosis between the performers and attendees at HSMF, including the diligent, cool headed staff, the clever ambiance gnomes, the patient teachers of Blue Bear School of Music easing folks into being music makers and not just consumers, and the chill, effective security team that keep everything moving along with few hitches. Little occurs to bust up one’s dream state, and nearly every first-timer I spoke with told me how special High Sierra already felt to them after just a single installment. It’s little wonder why people plan their summer around this fest or spend the next year plotting out how they can better fuel this shared daydream next time out.

Eric’s Introduction

For those in the know, the days leading up to the kickoff of the High Sierra Music Festival always tend to bring with them a slowly creeping giddiness - knowing the revelry that awaits up in the pines of Quincy, CA makes the routine of “real life” just a bit more mundane in comparison. This time around, the 23rd installment of this music-lover's institution delivered smiles, dance parties, and unforgettable musical moments at every turn.

Capping attendance at around 10,000, the intimate grounds of HSMF may well hold the best run, convenient, hassle-free, and downright pleasant festival experience in the country (but don't tell anyone, it's our little secret). From the diverse musical lineup, to the vendors and facilities, to the community of campers that come fully prepared for four days of life-affirming good times, every aspect of HSMF is time-tested and proven, which allows one's weekend to flow unobstructed and free. But logistics aside, what truly makes HSMF a little slice of magic is the deep-rooted community of music lovers. Those who have attended know this, while those who haven't can only guess at the unprecedented openness and communal joy that runs through the weekend. HSMF is a place to shake off the stress of the outside world, a place to let it all hang out and see what weird, different places the day takes you.

This year's musical lineup was another well-curated, diverse mix of veterans and up-and- coming artists, with funk and Americana-roots rock represented especially well. Horn players were the MVPs of the festival though - this weekend was clearly a brass lover's dream, with horn sit-ins happening at nearly every set. And did I mention Mike Dillon? As an de facto artist-at-large, every set the man touched turned to gold, whether he was playing drums, percussion, or vibes. As usual, there was too much good music and too little time to catch it all, but it mattered little in the end, as transcendent experiences abounded at every turn. Yes, we're all pretty lucky to have this place to return to year after year, as it's clear that no other festival experience comes close to achieving the palpable magic that HSMF instills.

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