High Sierra Music Festival 2019: Recap & Photos

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Images by: Susan Weiand

High Sierra Music Festival was held for the 29th time last weekend. It was my first time attending the four-day event held at Plumas County Fairgrounds in Quincy, California. Outside of six years in Seattle, during which I had two kids, my life has been spent residing in the Midwest, and HSMF always seemed like an all-too-distant, if not utterly enchanting, world away.

After a four-hour flight, the subsequent scenic five-hour drive from the Bay Area through the majestic Plumas National Forest helped set the tone for the week. Outside of the locals, getting to HSMF takes time and effort and the sense that “we made it, let’s rock” permeates across the fairgrounds.

A sense of tradition was also palpable, from the perennial campsites, parades, impromptu stages, returning performers, intimate troubadour sessions, unique playshops and constant stream of veterans sharing sage advice on how to get the most out of HSMF. And though I was a first-timer, I never felt like an outsider.

Thursday
Jul 4, 2019

The weekend began with a well-fit set by the folky rockers Rainbow Girls, which was followed by the duo Mapache’s sweet harmonies.

Mandolin Orange played the Grandstand Stage and drew strong responses from the audience. The set was a strong display of the wide range of talents – vocal, instrumental, songwriting – of not only Andrew Marlin and Emily Frantz, but of their supporting band members as well.

Getting to catch Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe Eat A Bunch Of Peaches in person was a treat. Denson really let his band mates shine, especially guitarists D.J. Williams and Seth Freeman.

Pigeons Playing Ping Pong proved that even though they weren’t technically “headliners” they can put on a show worthy of the first day’s final Grandstand Stage slot. Guitarist Dan “Lebo” Lebowitz joined the band on “F.U.,” one of Lebo’s many appearances I caught over the weekend.


Friday
Jul 5, 2019

The first set I caught on Friday was Reid Genauer & Folks with Lebo and guitarist Scott Metzger among the “Folks” sporting the Strangefolk/AOD frontman. The breezy early-afternoon set featured Genauer leading a memorable version of the title track to his recent album, Conspire To Smile.

Jennifer Hartswick brought her band to HSMF consisting of drummer Nicki Glaspie, guitarist Nick Cassarino, keyboardist Rob Marsher, trombonist Natalie Cressman and bassist Dezron Douglas. JHa displayed her bandleading A-game for this set and Saturday’s performance which featured songs from Hartswick’s 2018 solo album, Nexus.

I caught part of Dawes’ main stage set and was impressed by their musicianship. Frontman Taylor Goldsmith spoke passionately about how lucky the band felt to be welcomed back to HSMF, and emphasized that they don’t take their fans for granted. Their set ended with a rousing “When My Time Comes” (which later was covered on a different stage by The Lil Smokies with Greensky Bluegrass’ Paul Hoffman sitting-in) and a poignant “All Your Favorite Bands.”

One of the new(ish)-to-me acts that was more than impressive was Too Many Zoos. The funky trio’s infectious and relentless grooves had the crowd at the Meadow Stage fully energized and dancing, with some climbing the trusses supporting the shaded area in front of the stage.

Among the most standout sets of the weekend was Artist-At-Large Skerik and Galactic drummer Stanton Moore leading the Emerald Quintet. With Metzger on guitar, Andy Hess on bass and Robert Walter on keys, the five musicians effortlessly interacted with each other as if they were a well-established band. A colleague of mine at JamBase was right: these guys should tour.

As much as I wanted to stay for the entire late-night tribute to Marvin Gaye, what I managed to catch of The Nth Power’s set in the Vaudeville Tent was soulful and fun. Cassarino and Hartswick were clearly having a good time performing Gaye’s beloved classics.


Saturday
Jul 6, 2019


The single best set I saw at HSMF was Del & Dawg – legendary bluegrass musicians Del McCoury and David Grisman. Watching those two was a special treat, as they worked through an improvised setlist, entertaining the audience with history lessons about the tunes often featuring Bill Monore, Earl Scruggs and other legends of bluegrass. A truly memorable moment came after McCoury and Grisman finished “Man Of Constant Sorrow” when Grisman declared the performance was for Jeff Austin. A roar from the crowd surged in response and held strong for several powerfully emotional minutes. Grisman also came back to sit-in with The Del McCoury Band during their subsequent set.

I caught a bit of dremoPaul Hoffman and Mike Devol of Greensky Bluegrass in the Music Hall where playshops and late nights are held. I also stopped by for part of JHa’s set, caught a bit of The Lil Smokies and was happy to listen to Jim James echo around the fairgrounds while I got some nourishment and shade.

Though I had seen Umphrey’s McGee more than any other act on the lineup, I was not sure what to expect going into their headlining set Saturday night. The band loaded their two-hour performance with upbeat, dance-inducing and rocking improvisation. Skerik was on stage for a cover of David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” and the guys closed things with a big encore of “The Triple Wide” into “Hajimemashite” into the ending of “1348,” which was initiated earlier in the set.

The sense of tradition was perhaps most apparent during the ALO late night set at the Vaudeville Tent. From this first-timer’s perspective, it looked like all of the HSMF vets were out (and still up) for this set. ALO brought out 15-year-old keyboardist Maxwell Friedman to sit-in. The truly impressive young musician wowed me all weekend during sit-ins with KDTU, JHa and several others. A sea of fans flooded the stage to dance with the band during a cover of Captain & Tennille’s “Love Will Keep Us Together.”

I managed to make it to one of the notorious separately ticketed late night sets in the Music Hall. British funkers The New Mastersounds were onstage late Saturday/early Sunday for two straight highly energized hours. Near the end of the set, guitarist Eddie Roberts introduced their current frequent collaborator Lamar Williams Jr. (son of former The Allman Brothers Band bassist Lamar Williams) to sing lead on a cover of “Ain’t Wastin Time No More.”


Sunday
Jul 7, 2019

My Sunday started with another U.K. band, the reggae legends Steel Pulse. I stuck around to see part of the truly colorful – both visually and musically — Mardi Gras Indian band from New Orleans Cha Wa.

Grahame Lesh was at HSMF not only to play a couple of sets with Midnight North, the guitarist/bassist also joined the Sisters Of The Strawberry Moon set on Sunday afternoon. Led by guitarist Luther Dickinson, the recently established project also features Birds Of Chicago and Sharde Thomas. Beyond Dickinson’s searing Gibson guitar tone, what resonated from this set were the captivating vocal performances delivered by Thomas and Birds Of Chicago’s Allison Russell.

Another healthy dose of Southern-tinged soulful rock came out of The Marcus King Band’s Grandstand Stage set. Current fill-in keyboardist Peter Levin seamlessly meshed with the others in the group, intertwining organ solos with King’s gritty guitar runs.

The long week of nearly constant music was coming to a close, but I managed to check in with TAUK for about half of their set. They kept the sizable gathering of festival goers that assembled for their performance enlivened with their steady stream of tension-filled peaks.

There were memorials for Jeff Austin and Railroad Earth’s Andy Goesseling on their fairgrounds and backstage behind the Grandstand. Greensky Bluegrass placed the large photos of Andy and Jeff that had been backstage on both sides of the stage and dedicated a performance of “My Sisters And Brothers” to the late musicians. GSBG also brought out Skerik to amp up a run of “Jaywalking,” “Gumboots” and “Run or Die.”


I’d be remiss if I didn’t commend Bitchin’ Kitchen, not only for the amazing food they prepared each night — including one of my top three meals ever served on a paper plate — but for the impressive performances held there all weekend. Ron Artis II & The Truth, Marty O’Reilly, Mapache, Gene Evaro Jr., Cris Jacobs, Lebo, and members of the California Honeydrops, Dave Watts of The Motet, John Cragie and others. And of course, the JamBase All-Stars led by our own David Onigman, featuring Natalie Cressman, Rob Marscher, Sean Leahy, Eric DiBerardino, Scott Guberman, Jake Alexander, Marcus Schmidt, Connor Casey, Maggie Forti and Graham Onigman.

Clearly, music is what has brought people to High Sierra for nearly three decades. But it’s also clearly not just the music, it’s the spirit of community and camaraderie that comes from spending time in a gorgeous setting with people willing and wanting to escape for a long weekend of joyous fun.

It may have taken me 29 years to get to High Sierra Music Festival. I hope it doesn’t take nearly as long to get back.