Highest of high times at High Sierra Music Festival

Anders Osborne (right) performing at High Sierra. // Paul Piazza

This one time at High Sierra Music Festival, New Orleans singer-songwriter Anders Osborne “sampled all kinds of things” and wound up naked, prancing around the grounds. He recalled this moment last weekend, during the 26th annual High Sierra, in an intimate, candid workshop that was supposed to be about Southern songwriting.

“Anyway, I turn into a butterfly,” he said, and left the story at that.

Osborne clearly loves the hippie-friendly festival, which takes place every Fourth of July weekend in Quincy. Lots of artists adore it, returning year after year. It shows in their high-energy performances; their consistent gratitude toward the sound team, staff and volunteers; their mingling with every other smiling, friendly attendee throughout the weekend; and their blissed-out words on stage.

For example, singer-songwriter Steve Poltz—a High Sierra staple—interrupted his own comedic cover of TLC’s “Waterfalls” on Sunday. He blurted out: “This is the best show I’ve ever played.”

Similarly, rootsy, bluesy rock band the Record Company reflected on its High Sierra arrival: “Yesterday was one of the best days we’ve ever had,” guitarist Chris Vos said. “This is a magical place.”

The California Honeydrops paid tribute to New Orleans legend Allen Touissant. // Paul Piazza

Technically, Davis-based funk band Big Sticky Mess wasn’t on the bill. But the dudes jammed anyway. // Paul Piazza

One of the biggest surprise acts all weekend was the Accidentals, three nearly-teenagers who got hundreds dancing in what seemed like the very, very early morning with a blend of indie pop, folk, bluegrass, jazz and classical sounds. They wowed with intricate arrangements, witty lyrics and a disarmingly charming stage presence.

“I can’t believe it’s 10 a.m.,” said Katie Larson, an outrageously talented, 19-year-old multi-instrumentalist. “It feels like 5 in the afternoon.”

Along the same lines, electronic dance music duo the Floozies narrated an epic afternoon dance party with lots of funk and a little dubstep crunkness.

“That was the best 5:45 [p.m.] of my entire life,” producer Matt Hill said as the set wound down.

Funk was a constant, marvelous presence in a mishmash of forms. Of particular note were the California Honeydrops, who performed a few times over the course of the weekend yet always drew an enormous crowd, and the Main Squeeze, a sassy Chicago outfit with larger-than-life charisma.

At the same time, there was plenty of balance to the lineup and just enough diversity to keep things interesting. Acts like Elephant Revival, a gypsy-influenced folk five-piece, and psychedelic rock band Dr. Dog offered chances to chill out or groove depending on your mood. Late at night, you could choose a quiet singer-songwriter session in a dimly lit, cozy room prime for lulling you to sleep. Or, you could opt for a wild party. Or, eventually, a chaotic, no-rules kickball game that may or may not have featured a mini silent disco on second base as the Sunday sun began to rise.

I also appreciated the relative bounty of talented women on the bill: Samantha Fish and her blues-rock band stood out with her driving guitar and badass energy. Few others compelled so many to head bang.

Ben Harper & the Innocent Criminals headlined Saturday, the most packed evening at High Sierra. // Paul Piazza

Thievery Corporation brought a dozen musicians—and a couch for the sitar. // Paul Piazza

Yes, there were big-name headliners like Ben Harper and Thievery Corporation, but they didn’t really matter. Every day was full of fun, feel-good acts who actually put on a great live show, unlike most corporate festival lineups stacked with young bands who have one radio hit and not much else. More than that, High Sierra is about the people, the vibe.

Burning Man-esque parties go down in campsites—Davis funk band Big Sticky Mess played a packed one against dusty tapestries—and people graciously accept glitter bombs again and again. There’s a whole cast of eccentric characters: the dude with a leashed kitten named Milky Way Galaxy; the tiny children in tie-dye already learning the basics of fire spinning; the gentleman offering “refreshments in the form of pouring cold water over your feet,” who could later be seen dancing with his empty water jug as if it were a person; and, of course, the naked guy, prancing around the grounds like a butterfly.

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