10 2018 High Sierra Music Festival Higlights & Photo Gallery
Words by: Scott Bernstein
Images by: Susan Weiand
High Sierra Music Festival :: 07.05 – 07.08.18
Plumas-Sierra County Fairgrounds :: Quincy, CA
Plumas-Sierra County Fairgrounds :: Quincy, CA
View Susan’s gallery after the list of highlights.
This year’s High Sierra Music Festival featured four days filled with memorable moments and impressive collaborations at Plumas-Sierra County Fairgrounds in Quincy, California. Organizers of the event presented a lineup that spanned multiple genres of music from jam to bluegrass to country to funk to roots and beyond. Festival-goers had plenty of options to choose from between noon through late night and at points there were tough decisions to be made. Yet the beauty of High Sierra goes well beyond the music as a community has formed around the festival with many returning to the site year-after-year.
Some of these longtime attendees have formed their own camps and host unannounced musical performances. One of these is Bitchin’ Kitchen, a tradition started by the late Larry & Denise Bressler. Bitchin’ Kitchen provided dinner for High Sierra attendees each night in exchange for a $10 donation and presented music from the likes of the Cris Jacobs Band, The California Honeydrops, Oliver Wood & Steve Poltz and Magic In The Other over the course of the event in a laidback and homey atmosphere. Bitchin’ Kitchen is a one-of-kind festival experience that helps explain what sets High Sierra apart from the many of the event’s peers that haven’t stood the test of time.
The weather in Quincy usually ranges from extremely hot during the time to cool at night. On Thursday, the temperature was downright mild in the middle of the day, a most welcome change. Friday featured a short rain shower and more moderate temperatures. However the heat High Sierra is known for was in full effect on Saturday and Sunday. High Sierra organizers widened a scrim above the crowd at the Big Meadow Stage this year to provide more shade for attendees, a most welcome change. There is also the air-conditioned High Sierra Music Hall, which hosts the festival’s famed Playshops. Each Playshop had a theme and brought together unique pairings of musicians. Then there’s the Vaudeville Stage which is covered by a tent to keep the sun at bay.
High Sierra organizers did an amazing job of curating this year’s lineup. There were plenty of High Sierra favorites on the bill including The California Honeydrops, The Barr Brothers, Fruition, The Nth Power, The String Cheese Incident and Chris Robinson Brotherhood. In addition, there were a bevy of acts new to the event such as Margo Price, Pigeons Playing Ping Pong, Twiddle, Spafford, Ghost Light and Jupiter & Okwess. Plus, Artists-At-Large Dan “Lebo” Lebowitz, Jennifer Hartswick, Natalie Cressman and Skerik made appearances with various acts throughout this year’s festival.
Without further ado, here’s a look at 10 of my favorite moments from High Sierra ’18:
Ernest Ranglin Receives The High Sierra Lifetime Achievement Award
Legendary Jamaican guitarist Ernest Ranglin made his return to High Sierra on the first night of this year’s event. A special moment took place at the beginning of the guest-filled set, when High Sierra Music’s Dave Margulies presented Ranglin with the inaugural “Ernest Ranglin Lifetime Achievement Award.” The honor bearing Ernest’s name will now be awarded at each future installment of High Sierra to a musician who has made an impact on the music world and on the High Sierra Community. Ranglin was also given a giant key to the city, which High Sierra organizers intended to have the Mayor of Quincy present to the guitarist before they realized Quincy doesn’t actually have a mayor. The 86-year-old guitarist showed off his inventive style throughout his set. Guests included Skerik, Scott Pemberton and California Honeydrops frontman Lech Wierzynski. Lech led a groovy rendition of Bob Marley & The Wailers’ “Lively Up Yourself,” while Pemberton went back and forth with one of his biggest influences on “Ball Of Fire.”
Ghost Light Opens With “If You Want It”
Ghost Light wasted no time getting down to business during their Friday afternoon set on the Vaudeville Stage. Keyboardist Holly Bowling, guitarists Tom Hamilton and Raina Mullen, drummer Scotty Zwang and bassist Steve Lyons showed off their chemistry by opening with an original tentatively titled “If You Want It.” Hamilton and Mullen’s harmonies on the hard-hitting rocker accentuated the song perfectly, while Bowling unleashed one powerful organ blast after another. The quintet took the opener deep and threw in the reggae-tinged “Nickels & Dimes” before finishing “If You Want It” nearly 20 minutes later. Ghost Light is still a new band with less than a few dozen performances under their belts, yet played with the cohesion of a veteran act.
Cris Jacobs Leads “(Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay” At Lebo’s High Sierra Ramble
Singer-songwriter Cris Jacobs made a big impression on festival-goers both with his own sets and his various sit-ins at High Sierra ’18. One of Jacobs’ guest spots took place during a Saturday afternoon Playshop entitled “Lebo’s High Sierra Ramble: 50 In The Rearview – Songs From 1968.” ALO guitarist Dan “Lebo” Lebowitz brought out Jacobs towards the end of the stellar Playshop to lead a few songs including an absolutely gorgeous rendition of Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay.” The rhythm section of Steve Adams and Ezra Lipp provided the perfect base off which Jacobs’ voice soared and Lebo’s lead guitar work cut through. The entire Playshop was a highlight of the event and here’s hoping Lebo is tapped to present songs from 1969 next summer.
Pixie & The Partygrass Boys Appreciate Where They Came From
I was a little surprised and thrown off when multiple audience members shouted “play the vagina song!” during Pixie & The Partygrass Boys’ Big Meadow Stage set on Thursday afternoon. The refrain was repeated throughout the performance and at one point the Utah-based band’s frontman woman Katia “Pixie” Racine told the crowd they were saving that one for later. On Thursday night I caught the quintet’s set at Bitchin’ Kitchen, where they unveiled “Appreciate Where You Came From,” a.k.a. “The Vagina Song.” Racine sang hilarious yet apropos lyrics in the honor of the female body part which had me cracking up throughout. Pixie & The Partygrass Boys proved more than a “one funny song wonder” as the acoustic five-piece presented a high-energy brand of jamgrass featuring tales of growing up in Utah, touring the country and more.
Sturgill Simpson Deconstructs “The Promise”
Country singer Sturgill Simpson delivered one of High Sierra ’18’s strongest headlining sets. Simpson led a four-piece band consisting of drummer Miles Miller, bassist Chuck Bartles and keyboardist Bobby Emmett on a fierce set that saw the group work in plenty of soul, R&B and rock to the mix. “Call To Arms” and “Keep It Between The Lines” both gave Sturgill plenty of chances to show off his intense and frenetic guitar skills, but the quartet sounded best on a reworked and emotional version of “The Promise.” Simpson first covered the ’80s new wave hit for his breakthrough album Metamodern Sounds In Country Music. “The Promise” played at High Sierra was a more barebones rendition featuring authoritative lead vocals from Sturgill and stood out as a highlight of one of the festival’s best performances.
Surprise Me Mr. Davis Brings Set To Climax With “Sissyfus”
Troubadour Nathan Moore, guitarist Brad Barr, bassist Marc Friedman and drummer Andrew Barr teamed up for their first Surprise Me Mr. Davis performance since 2015 on the Friday afternoon at High Sierra ’18 in the High Sierra Music Hall. SMMD fans were also treated to surprise set from the quartet later that night in the Beef Barn. Highlights from the Playshop performance in the Music Hall were plentiful including a “The Man Behind The Curtain” opener that saw Moore emerge from behind a curtain, a stunning cover of The Rolling Stones’ “19th Nervous Breakdown” and an unhinged “Sissyfus.” The latter thrived from Brad’s potent lead guitar work, Marc’s steady bass patterns and Nathan’s robust vocals. While attendees didn’t receive a The Slip reunion from Brad, Andrew and Marc; the threesome – who have played High Sierra more than any other act – seemed excited to share the stage together. Here’s hoping the song choice of “Last One Ever” to end the main set wasn’t an ominous sign of what the future holds for SMMD and The Slip.
Twiddle Teams With Zebulon Bowles On “Hattibagen McRat”
Vermont jam quartet Twiddle made the most of their 75 minutes on the Big Meadow Stage during the Friday afternoon of this year’s festival. Twiddle was supposed to perform at the 2016 installment of the festival, when numerous travel issues led them to miss their sets. Guitarist Mihali Savoulidis, bassist Zdenek Gubb, drummer Brook Jordan and keyboardist Ryan Dempsey were in fine form during a performance that saw fiddler Zebulon Bowles add to a scorching rendition of the upbeat “Hattibagen McRat.” Bowles sat-in with a number of bands throughout the weekend with his Twiddle guest appearance standing out as the best among them. The quartet’s set-closing “Gatsby The Great” was also a highlight of the Big Meadow set thanks to impressive interplay between Savoulidis and Dempsey throughout.
Margo Price’s Band Debuts “Casey Jones”
Singer-songwriter Margo Price played the Big Meadow Stage on Saturday afternoon while funk revivalists Lettuce performed on the main Grandstand Stage. Price didn’t draw a big crowd thanks in part to going up against festival favorites Lettuce, but those who caught Margo’s set were in for a treat. Margo and her powerhouse band reeled off material from the acclaimed All American Made and Midwest Farmer’s Daughter at a fevered pace. The crooner not only impressed with her heartfelt vocal delivery and solid guitar work, but she hopped behind the drum kit for a section of the set that included a cover of the Grateful Dead’s “Casey Jones.” Margo’s steady beat and throaty vocals on her band’s first version of the Workingman’s Dead classic (she had performed the song previously with other bands) made “Casey Jones” a winner and a special moment that showed she understood the spirit and ethos of High Sierra.
Storytime With John Craigie
Troubadour John Craigie not only entertained with his music but also with the stories he told at the Vaudeville Stage on Friday morning. One of the stories Craigie told came ahead of his 2013 song “I Almost Stole Some Weed From Todd Snider.” As the name of the tune implies, the troubadour nearly copped marijuana from Snider during a concert featuring both musicians. Craigie always wondered how Snider felt about the song he wrote until Todd presented John with a jar of weed on that same Vaudeville Stage in 2014. John Craigie held the crowd in the palm of his hand as he told the engaging story and went on to perform the song.
Rising Appalachia Dance With Joy To “Medicine”
Sisters Leah and Chloe Smith brought a joyful spirit in leading Rising Appalachia, who wowed with their Grandstand Stage set on Thursday afternoon. While Leah and Chloe sang about often deep and serious topics including the injustices of the world, they took time to dance with one another and to engage the crowd which built in numbers with every passing song. The multi-instrumentalists were joined by percussionist Biko Casini and bassist/guitarist David Brown for a set filled with roots music put through their modern filter. Leah and Chloe’s harmonies were haunting and breathtaking especially during a performance of the 2014 single “Medicine,” a song that honors the traditions of folk medicine including the use of plant-based medicine as a tool for healing.