Tales From The Tent – 2018 High Sierra Music Festival | JamBandsOnline.com

Tales From The Tent – 2018 High Sierra Music Festival

August 3, 2018

Review and Photos by Michael Pegram 


As the dust settles from nearly three weeks of music festivals and I begin to go through photos of the High Sierra, my tired mind awakens to the sights sounds and scents of arrival to the Plumas County Fairgrounds in Quincy.  As usual, I arrived Wednesday night to assist with some ambiance tasks as well as to get set up and ready to shoot come Thursday morning. The food vendors had yet to begin cooking, the busy sound of machinery and motion is all you could hear. The moon hid behind the earth at and the Milky Way was visible to the naked eye, the lights of the festival yet to block the stars from view. After checking in and securing my campsite near the Beef Barn (my usual spot) I investigated the grounds, watching the village grow with each passing moment, creatives and stage crews buzzing around in golf carts making sure everything was just exactly perfect for the event. I even stumbled upon a new yet hidden lounge made by some crafty fellows…but more about that space later, I promise ?

The following morning, I woke to the Big Meadow field full of tents and laughter as the scent of fresh cannabis, now legal in the state of California, wafted through the grounds.  There seemed to be more space in the grass this year, as well as shorter lines for food and showers, etc. The festival may have been undersold this year, who knows. All I can tell you is that it was easier to get around this year and easier to feel close to the music no matter how for back in the crowd you stood.

Pixie and the Partygrass Boys’ sweet and energetic sound drew me from the confines of my coffee cup to the Big Meadow stage for the first song of the festival. With songs born from days of skiing the slopes and drinking whiskey in Wasatch, Utah, their sound akin to a hug from an old friend, familiar but somehow new. The energy from these guys was a great way to start the morning and the festival. Musical cold brew on a hot summers day.

Upon recommendation from a fellow photog, I next saw Diggin Dirt open the Vaudeville stage with a fun funky rocky reggae groovin’ set of tunes.  Although the festival had just begun and many patrons were still tending to camp, these 7 dudes from Humboldt drew quite a crowd. Who could deny those horns? I just know we will be seeing more of them in the future. They have it all, good looks, funky licks, and enough charm to tame a leprechaun.

I knew John Craigie was playing on the Big Meadow next and after seeing him perform earlier in the year with High Sierra favorites ALO, I knew this was a must-see set. After meandering around and grabbing a slice o’ pie from the pizza guys I headed over to the meadow for some comedy gold by Craigie. I was stoked to see the Rainbow Girls backing his silly songs with perfect three-part harmonies. Once again, John had the audience in stitches. My favorite was his story about asking his Dad not to go looking at the pictures on his phone after his Dad found out about Grinder. A collective laugh or 100 is all we needed to get the party started!

Competing against Mr. Craigie was Magic in The Other, signaling the first of many Lebo performances and sit ins as a musician at large at the fest. It is hard to open the Grandstand stage on Thursday but Steve Adams and friends brought out the dancing crowds. Remember, this ain’t most people’s first rodeo and those who know, KNOW who to see at High Sierra.

I stayed at the Grandstand stage for both of the following acts as well, Rising Appalachia and The California Honeydrops. While both put on spectacular performances, their messages were as unique as their music. While Rising Appalachia had a more tribal and political edge (RESILIENT), reminding me of old time High Sierra favorite, Jules Graves, The California Honeydrops on the other hand brought their own dance sorcery to the main stage, completely enthralling the audience with silky smooth lyrics and the dance moves to match. It was great seeing Lorenzo stand and sway on his keyboard chair. Yeah, he was into it and we were feelin’ it!

One of my favorite bands, The String Cheese Incident was up next but I opted to skip the first set to cross a living legend off my must-see bucket list. If you have not heard the legendary Ernest Ranglin live or otherwise, you are missing out. Just like the Muscle Shoals boys or the Wrecking Crew, Studio One in Jamaica and its musicians are responsible for producing reggae hit after hit, the hired hands to get that funky ska beat. With credits ranging from Jimmy Cliffs Harder They Come to Toots and the Maytals hit 54-46 was my Number, Ernest has written and played the best reggae music in the word. It was awesome to see the 86-year-old legend welcome to the stage none other than the one and only timber rocker Scott Pemberton. These two masterminds played musical follow the leader and hide and seek just like two kids in a playground, happy as can be and constantly impressed by each other’s accomplishments on their rightful guitars. The set was by far the highlight of day 1.

After Ernest, I headed over to the main stage to catch the second set of the Cheese. The Grandstand area was packed with people dressed in colorful regalia, neon and glow toys abound. Rage sticks were swinging and so was the crowd as I arrived in the middle of a raging Round the Wheel that went into an old school bluegrass fave, How Mountain Girls Can Love. While not my favorite set out of the three I saw, the Rivertrance>This Must Be The Place (Naïve Melody) was a smoker with some tasty psychedelic fiddle riffs provided by Michael Kang.

As the evening came to a close and the next day began, I wandered back to my tent to catch some sleep before doing it all again. Sure, I could have stayed up for some late-night shenanigans but my body knew that not only did I have the following three days to play, I was also doing another 4 day festival the following weekend and I had to preserve my energy.

Friday morning I awoke to a cup of coffee brewed by my bud Bret and we enjoyed sips while watching the people pass by our campsite. We greeted old friends and made new ones, or camp having a bench that was popular with sun stroked revelers. After fueling up on caffeine and acai, it was time to evaluate the schedule for the day.

I spent a lot of time just cruising the grounds on Friday morning and afternoon, enjoying a chicken wrap from the vendors and keeping out of the sun as much as possible even though it wasn’t as hot as many other years in Quincy. In the tradition of finding shade, I ended up in the High Sierra Music Hall for a Songs of Revolution Playshop with Magic in the Other featuring Nathan Moore. Ezra Lipp hand crafted this bay area based supergroup and the addition of Nathan was the icing on the cake. Steve Poltz even joined the fracas to add vocals to a powerful version of Black Sabbaths’s War Pigs,a fitting song for the times indeed.

Next I found myself following Steve over to the Vaudeville stage for his solo performance. We laughed, cried, even collectively groaned together whilst being captivated by his magic. I saw many Poltz sets throughout the weekend so I can’t remember the specifics of this one, but we did hear some great classics like Folksinger and I Want All My Friends To Be Happy. Happy we were after your set, Mr. Poltz.

Post Poltz I headed back to camp to regroup, gather my thoughts, adjust my gear, and prepare for what would prove to be the whole festival highlight for me, the Surprise Me Mr. Davis set at the Music Hall. The history of this band and its origins at High Sierra are the things of legend and as legend would have it, we were blessed that the Barr Brothers and Nathan were added to the bill. With some determination, Marc Freedman was flown out to California and the band was complete! Keep in mind, these guys do not play together really ever nor do they have the time to practice for this type of gig but true to SMMD nature, they hit the stage running, well kind of. The set began with Nathan off stage fittingly singing “The Man Behind The Curtain”. As the song developed, Nathan joined the rest of the band to a huge applause from the eager audience. Eager to devour the pure unadulterated rock and roll that is SMMD. The band played many of my favorite Nathan tunes including “Summer of My Fall” and the ever haunting “When a Woman”. They encored with Rolling Stone rocker, “19thNervous Breakdown” to much merriment and dance. Post show was all hugs and giggles, fans of the Slip and the Barr Brothers and Nathan speculating on whether we may get another set at some secret location later in the weekend, perhaps at some hidden lounge somewhere deep behind the barns. I told you we would hear more about that space later. I haven’t forgotten you.

After a big plate of seafood Paella from Gerard’s I made my way over to see The Spafford From Prescott. I had been hearing good things about the band prior to the festival and began streaming live shows on archive.org to get familiar with their sound before seeing them live. Sure, the audio on archive is great but seeing them live and feeling the energy they toss around the stage and audience is a whole other thing. I hate to make comparisons, I but this show was in rather Phish-like with some tension and release play as well as some serious type 2 jamming.

As Spafford was wrapping up their set, the sun hid i behind a layer of high clouds, the kind that light up just right at sundown. As a landscape photographer by trade, this was looking to be an exciting night to have a camera! I switched modes from concert photography to landscape and grabbed my tripod and filters and went out looking for cool compositions to showcase the grounds as well as the colorful skies ahead. As the String Cheese Incident tore into set one, the light show left the stage and joined the sky for some serious sunset magic. I have never seen a more colorful sunset at High sierra in my nearly 20 years of attendance and I was completely stoked to be photographing it! Many people were stopped in their tracks as the sky changed from daylight blues to fiery oranges and reds, slowly fading to shades of purple before the night devoured any semblance of light and we were off to another wonderful and wild Friday night at High Sierra. I opted to leave my gear back at camp at set break to fully enjoy the final set unencumbered with camera gear. I found a group of friends near the front and we created a dance vortex, sucking in passersby before spitting them out the other side, all in good fun. The set ended with a raucous It is What It Is>Restless Wind that brought me back to the early 2000’s when SCI to me was job quitting music. Sure I’m older now and have different priorities but this jam brought me back to simpler times, if even for a brief minute. Behold the power of Cheese!

Hey, remember that hidden lounge I mentioned earlier? Well dreams do come true as the SMMD fans prayers were answered, we were to get a surprise Surprise Me Mr. Davis set it a hidden locale on the property. The show began with a song from The Slip. Yes, The Slip! Unfortunately, we were then harassed by security stating that we couldn’t have amplified music at camp but one of the founders of High Sierra found out about the show and rather than shut it down, he cooled off security and we were treated to a SMMD set after midnight for a small puddle of good friends. This, my friends, is why I keep coming to these things, special moments that cannot be planned or orchestrated, they just happen. And finding the magic is part of the fun!

After a late night, thanks to shade and earplugs, I was able to sleep in until nearly 11 AM. Tired and weary, I hydrated myself and went to seek the solstice of some music, place to lay  my head and take in the events of the previous evening. Did that just happen? Or was it all “So Close To Dreams”?

I found the answer at the Grandstand stage when my eyes met some of the other late night SMMD witnesses and we gave each other a nod, knowing what we witnessed was one for the books. On the stage was Mr. Poltz again, this time with a myriad of folks on stage providing some type of comedy relief.

Next up was Lebo’s Playshop celebrating the music of 1968. I caught a few tunes with George Porter trading licks with Lebo, the elder statesman playing the same pool as the kids, treating us to some call and response jams, like a child’s game of Marco Polo. I also caught the theme of Hawaii 5-0, written in 19689 played with Natalie Cressman and Scott Pemberton as guests. Too fun! Scott Pemberton lead the band in a slowed down and somewhat funky rendition of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Suzie Q from their debut album from 1968. While it is fun to see regular bands play, part of what makes high Sierra unique are these Playshops. Where else can you see so many musicians step out of their comfort zone and to produce such fun and exciting music that thrives on living at the edge of magic?

Another fun thing about High Sierra is the campsite parties. There are many theme camps at High Sierra and Camp Zesty is a role model as to how to throw a party. The crew from Santa Barbara and beyond are no slouches when it comes to getting it done right. This year’s theme was the color white. The traditional ice luge was filled with Horchata and rum, a delicious white concoction, made even better by chilling it as it runs down your throat and dribbles off the chin. A wipe and a smile and I ready to tackle the evening. But not before a shower to wash off all the dusty dirt, for it is Saturday night and you must look your Saturday best!

Fruition was on the Big Meadow stage just killing it with Zebulon Bowles from Hot Buttered run sitting in as I headed back from the party. Sure, I wanted to shower but I knew that fruition and their high energy rock-grass was gonna make me sweat, I put all plans of cleanliness aside and I got down and dirty in the dance floor with them. Like a box of chocolate, with Fruition, you never know what you’re gonna get. And like chocolate, I like it all! This was a real rocker of a show, far less bluegrassy than some other shows but the mandolin didn’t play second fiddle to the guitar. Mimi slayed dragons with that mando, keeping Kellen and Jay on their toes, even though Jay is always on his toes or just coming down from a spaceflight, his onstage persona defying gravity, space, and time. After the dust settled, primarily on me it seemed, it was off to the showers to prep for the nights festivities and what would prove to be another festival highlight for me, the Sturgill Simpson set.

But before Sturgill I had to make it over to Camp Bitchin Kitchen for the annual crawfish boil with the California Honeydrops. This event was hosted by chef Rhody in honor of Chef Larry who’s shortened life is celebrated by the many who were touched by his kindness and generosity. Hundreds showed up to pay respects and to eat the fantastic food cooked by Rhody and his dedicated crew. Piles of crawfish and corn and sausage and chicken was heaped onto the tables and a gumbo wsa seved on the side all for the small price of a 10 dollar donation. The Drops played for what seemed like two hours to an ecstatic crowd that couldn’t get enough of the music or the crawfish! Again, it’s these off the schedule events that make High Sierra the happiest place on earth, sorry Disney.

Post boil, the excitement of seeing Sturgill Simpson had my heart beating a million miles an hour. I though he was a great choice to close out the main stage on a Saturday night. Sturgill provided us with an unapologetic rock show. There were no flashy lights, as a matter of fact it was just pure white light, no motion, allowing us to focus on the lyrics unfettered. He gave a raw and powerful performance filled with lyrics that go beyond all expectations of a country rocker.

“There’s a gateway in our minds
That leads somewhere out there, far beyond this plane
Where reptile aliens made of light
Cut you open and pull out all your pain”

Does that sound like traditional country lyrics to you? This is some high shit. Other crowd favorites like The Promise and Long White Line were sing-alongs but I don’t expect any cowboys to sing these around the fire, they are better sung over a Marshall stack.

Again I opted to skip any late nights as I know my limits and still have another festival to photograph after this one. That doesn’t mean I went to bed without my fair share of late night mischief, but I’ll leave that up to your imagination, my reader friend.

Sunday at High Sierra. The culmination of three days of fun in the sun, late night parties, and being constantly on the move can play with your emotions and often can leave you drained. I felt quite the opposite this fine Sunday and I was a bundle of energy, wanting to spend time with all my friends before the village was deconstructed again until next year. I spent most of the day at friends’ campsites socializing and only seeing a select amount of music. I enjoyed the kids parade, walked through all the vendors and picked out a gift to bring home to my family, our own set of animal ears so we can go out and look goofy as a family. I ate many healthy treats including salads and smoothies, really pampering myself on this last day. I opted to photograph people enjoying the festivals many activates instead of pointing the camera at the stage. With the aim to photograph people, I captured some acts of love, gratitude, celebration, even sadness (I left those moments alone) and in doing so, I really felt how special this place is and how it attracts a special kind of person, one with a great sense of adventure and sense of humor, kind people willing to share sacred space and celebrate this thing called life with each other. In these times it truly makes me happy to know that there is a loving group of likeminded folks that can gather together for a few days and play. It gives me hope.

After lounging around most of the day I packed up my camera gear and headed to the mainstage for Billy Strings. This guy is the real deal. Trained by Brian Sutton, flat picker of the year, year over year, Billy surrounds himself with the best of the best and it shows. Already he is turning heads in the bluegrass world and some of his songs are instant classics, like “Dust in a Baggie.” I foresee this song joining in the canon of bluegrass standards in rotation. It is just classic songwriting!

“Well I used my only phone call to contact my Daddy,

I got 20 long years for some dust in a baggie”

Instant classic.

I caught the first few songs of the Wood Brothers set on the Grandstand stage but was informed that Steve Poltz and Nathan Morre were going to play together at Camp Bitchin Kitchen so off I went, looking ofor that High Sierra magic once again. And by golly, I found it! Over an Italian dinner we were treated to an intimate performance with some of the best songwriters in the world, all right here at this little campsite. But that campsite felt huge for these brief hours, the whole world circling this little space in time. The right place at the right time and the right ingredients to make cosmic stew. Yum!

Darkness fell upon Camp Bitchin Kitchen and I began to feel a chill in the air. It was time to get some layers and get ready to see another new band I had been hearing good things about, Pigeons Playing Ping Pong. And with a name like that, they gotta be fun, right? RIGHT! These guys were a hoot! Fun to dance etc, fun to watch! So much energy coming from these guys, the did not phone it in, they delivered! Who would have thunk I would dance so hard for the final set of the festival? I sure didn’t but I was gratefully rested and ready! These guys know how to party! They played the audience, not their instruments I tell ya! In your face funky but they left room for the music to breathe with big open jams, and dream sequences made musical. They were my favorite “new band” to discover this year.

As all good things come to an end, so does High Sierra. With a heart full of gratitude, I left the following morning back to my home in San Francisco to grab my family and prepare for another festival the following weekend. Looking back at these photos, I can hear the music, see that happy faces, and smell the mountain air as it smiles across my face. See you next year, High Sierra, my friend.

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