High Sierra Music Festival returns with all-night jam sessions, good vibes

By Paul Piazza

Over the Fourth of July weekend, High Sierra Music Festival truly lived up to its billing as the “ultimate intimate festival experience.”

For four days, Quincy’s Plumas County Fairgrounds were transformed into an alternate universe of stunning sounds and intriguing sights for approximately 10,000 people. At any given time, campers might run into a festival artist as paths crisscross constantly in this friendly, temporary community.

Spontaneity is the key word at this event, which just celebrated its 25th anniversary. Music, dancing and parties pop up at any moment—often at the same time and frequently into the wee hours of the night. Or while in the line to take a shower.

There are scheduled band sets and workshops, but the most “in the moment” activities take place in an extemporaneous or impromptu setting. Just take Sacramento’s the Nibblers and Element Brass Band—the groups collaborated on a pair of unscheduled campground jams that attracted a dancing, sweaty mass of revelers, who overflowed a batch of easy-up canopies in the early July heat.

About 80 bands and artists play the festival, including headliners the String Cheese Incident—who played four sets over two evenings—along with Umphrey’s McGee, the John Butler Trio and the Word. Whereas last year’s lineup featured a bounty of electronic dance music and indie rock, this year’s festival stuck more to its roots: bluegrass, Americana, soul, gospel, bluesy rock, jam bands and other feel-good party sounds.

Something really notable is the high rate of collaboration between the festival’s artists during performances. One of the most memorable was when jazz vocalist and trumpeter Jennifer Hartswick, who often performs with Phish, joined the String Cheese Incident for a remarkable version of Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough.” Hartswick incited the crowd to shake and shout passionionately as she sang and punched out the song’s horn lines like nobody’s business.

Collaborations also took place on smaller stages. Saxophonist Karl Denson of Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe appeared at the festival for an 11:30 p.m. set before jetting out the next day to play with the Rolling Stones. At High Sierra, he was joined by Robert Randolph (Robert Randolph and the Family Band, the Word), drummer Nikki Glaspie (Nth Power, Dumpstaphunk) and Hartswick. Earlier the same day, Randolph’s supergroup the Word crushed it (with members of the North Mississippi All-Stars, Medenski, Martin and Wood) while Glaspie’s Nth Power had left a lasting impression with their set as well.

With all of this music binging, it’s naturally hard to choose what to watch because great acts often play at the same time. Galactic, the Slip and the Dustbowl Revival all played simultaneously on different stages, for example. Choices must be made.

Let’s not forget about those artist workshops as well: Hartswick demonstrated how to improvise, keyboardist Kyle Hollingsworth of the String Cheese Incident discussed beer and Scott Pemberton, Dan Lebowitz (Lebo of ALO) and Eric McFadden taught different guitar playing styles.

Many children attend High Sierra, likely because their parents were brought to the festival as children. There were plenty of activities for kids, including jellyfish art, daily festival parades and their own musical activities. I stopped at one point to watch ALO’s Lebo and Bo Carper of New Monsoon play some kiddie classics with a group of little ones on a cozy stage tucked behind the main festival thoroughfare.

If parents wanted a night out, the festival offered child care as well—a great option since much of the festival’s fun took place long after the daily schedule was over. Impromptu social gatherings and late-night music sessions started around midnight. After one of those sessions, the California Honeydrops and Element Brass Band burst out of the High Sierra Music Hall, followed by about 250 fans, in an impromptu Mardi Gras-style parade around the festival grounds. It started around 4:30 a.m. and went on for 45 minutes or so.

A couple days later, I ran across California Honeydrops vocalist Lech Wierzynski and complimented him on the fun of that early morning parade. He smiled and—in the true High Sierra spirit—said, “That wasn’t us, that was all of you guys.”

Lech Wierzynski // Paul Piazza

The Black Lillies // Paul Piazza

Element Brass Band jams with the Nibblers // Paul Piazza

Eric McFadden plays with Galactic // Paul Piazza

Jennifer Hartswick and Robert Randolph // Paul Piazza

Scott Pemberton // Paul Piazza

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