Tales from the Tent – High Sierra Music Festival 2017 | JamBandsOnline.com

Tales from the Tent – High Sierra Music Festival 2017

July 19, 2017

Photos and Review by Michael Pegram 
Dry grass and wet lumber.  The aroma that greets you as you turn right onto Lee Road to check in is as sweet as your mother’s home cooking. And just as inviting. High Sierra Music Festival. The best place to be for the 4 days leading up to the Fourth of July. Period. And those of you who attend know this all too well. This alignment of space and time in perfect harmony happens for only 4 days each year and its magic is not to be missed.

Per usual, my girlfriend and I arrived on Wednesday night and checked in early to help out the Ambiance Crew with any loose ends before the festival. After pitching our tent in the usual spot, I climbed up a ladder behind the stage in the Funk’n Jamhouse to hang some long Mylar strips for the light to play off of to add some visual stimulation to the late night shenanigans. After a few hours of catching up with friends we headed off to sleep, knowing we would be waking to a newly built village, with known camps in their usual spaces and late arrivals scurrying for land on the hillside. Which, now terraced, ain’t so bad a place, save for the insects if you don’t batten down yer hatches quite right. 
We awoke Thursday morning and walked straight to the Java-A-GoGo booth in the food court near the front entrance to the Plumas County Fairgrounds. I ordered mine with a raw cacao boost that always seems to make the morning heat more tolerable while providing an added boost of energy to get from stage to stage with 30 or so pounds of camera gear slung around my shoulder and hips.  
After some coffee and catching up with friends we headed over to the Vaudeville stage for Tank and the Bangas.  Hailing from New Orleans, Tarriona “Tank” Ball is no stranger to the stage.  With unmatched vocals and a goofy persona, Tank has a way of captivating audiences with spoken word while the Bangas lead them down a musical rabbit hole, full of fun funk and fusion. A High Sierra first timer and a welcome addition.  
After getting completely Tanked we headed over to the Big Meadow stage to check out Sweet Crude. I had heard their name a week earlier when they announced that their van had been broken into in San Francisco and most of their gear had been stolen. Luckily they were able to play on some loaned and rented gear and their set did not disappoint! Members of the band the Craft Brothers, and Alexis Marceaux, have Cajun French roots (hailing from Louisiana) and that deeply rooted heritage is celebrated in their music. What I found most compelling was that with 6 people on stage, there wasn’t a guitar in sight. No, this band is fueled by big drums, fearless fiddle, and smooth sounds of the synth. If this is a sign of the great new music I will be discovering in the next few days, I’d say we are off to a damn good start! 
After an afternoon of dancing (and only the first day) I headed back to the food court for a chicken wrap and some shade.  I found the chicken wrap but the highly coveted shade was scarce so I brought my afternoon provisions back to camp. After a quick power-nap I headed over to the Grandstand stage to see the Jeff Austin band. I just love his brand of maniacal mando picking and his back up band can plunk and screech with the best of them! 

Next up was San Francisco based conscious funk outfit Afrolicious at the famed Vaudeville tent.  Man, these guys have it all…the looks, the chops, lyrics with meaning and songs that shake yer hips. Uncontrollably. With front men like Peacemaker Joe-Cheo McGuire and Antonio Theodore and cookin’ horns, they brought the heat more so than the dry summer sun. Afrolicious worked the crowd into frenzy after frenzy with their unique brand of voodoo funk and transcendental grooves. As I too am from San Francisco, I look forward to many night getting lost in the fray with the ‘Fro. 
To cap off my Thursday night, I headed to the Grandstand stage for Galactic and Sound Tribe Sector 9, both great choices to begin 4 nights of parting in the mountains with friends. A highlight of the evening was when Jay, Mimi, and Kellen from Fruition joined Erica Falls and Galactic for some down home southern soul. In between sets I snuck on over to the Big Meadow stage to catch some Billy Strings. As hardcore bluegrass aficionado, his skills were not lost on me.  With 12 time flat-pick champion Brian Sutton as his mentor, this young “Nashville cat” chose to be a small fish in a big pond while honing his chops in the city of guitars. With a voice like a young Tony Rice and an even faster approach on the guitar, I can’t imagine how good this guy is gonna be once he is seasoned! His song choices were fun, playing tunes from the String cheese Incident to Bad Livers, he had a little something in his set for everyone. While Galactic provided the funk, STS9 shined its light on pure psychedelic trance grooves to perfectly close out night 1 at the Grandstand as well as set the stage for late night fun to come. 

I came to the realization a few years back that I really can only handle one late night performance, otherwise the next day or two can be difficult to get any work done at the fest.  So I opted for some sleep instead of any late night music with the intention of waking early and doing it all over again. 

Friday morning began with a cool shower, coffee and a drum play shop with Stanton Moore of Galactic fame. The air conditioned Late Night Music hall housed the play shop and the cool air was a welcome respite from the blaring heat outside. Stanton had the kids in the room completely enthralled and at the end of the play shop he came out and greeted the kids, letting them know that with practice, they too can be a great drummer and perhaps have their own band someday. 
After the inspiring play shop  I decided to brave the hot summer sun and went to the infamously hot Grandstand stage for a little lovin’ from High Sierra favorites, Fruition.  While still early in the day, they drew quite a crowd and performed songs both old and new. They did a delicious version of Bob Dylan’s Queen Jane Approximately as well as my favorite original tune, Mountain Annie. So far this Friday was off to a good start! 

I was told that Con Brio was a not to miss show, especially as a photographer so I packed up my gear and trudged across the tundra to the Vaudeville show where I was treated to perhaps the best performance of the weekend. Con Brio is all about fun and dance and soul! With a charismatic front man right out of an 80’s boy band, complete with the knee-torn overalls and black leather boots, Ziek McCarter danced and sang his way through high energy songs while whipping the crowd into a frenzy.  I got exhausted just watching him! The audience did their best to keep up but no one could out-boogie Ziek.  
I decided it was time to head back to camp and relax for a bit, the wicked dry heat of summer making itself hard to forget. I had a big night ahead of me and I needed to pace myself.  As  i mentioned before, I can only handle one late night these days and I chose to let it all hang out for both Mike Gordon band and Galactic and I needed these minutes of downtime. The rest of my crew needed a respite as well and we had a fantastic time back at camp making jokes and sharing fruit. My girlfriend and I even got a few minutes of restful shuteye in before rejoining the festivarians to see White Denim nearly burn down the Big Meadow stage. These Austin Texas rockers treated us to some punchy and poignant tunes. While they didn’t jam out as much as many other bands at high Sierra, their brand of psychedelic post punk prog wasn’t lost on the crowd. Feeling refreshed, I rocked out with Denim as the sun began to set and Friday night began to morph into that familiar yet uncharted territory where sounds are not just heard but seen and time starts playing tricks on you.  
Speaking of time, I had better make it over to the main stage to photograph one of my all-time favorite freaks, Mike Gordon of Phish fame. And boy what a set it was! Just imagine Mikes goofy stage antics and songs from The Phish From Vermont but multiplied by 11! I was having way too much fun dancing and giggling and often times forgot to take photos! While playing only one song currently in Phish rotation, his set was full of delightful originals as well as debuted three new songs. His supporting band, with Jimmy Kimock and longtime friend and former Max Creek guitarist Scott Murawski, is a s solid as the thumping bass… This band is built to last. 

As the evening progressed I decided to enjoy the rest of the night sans camera. Our camp skipped the Hard Working Americans set and opted instead for the funky soul dance party at the Big Meadow stage. Dubbed Earth Wind and Power, funk outfits The Nth Power joined up with the TAB horns and special guests to recreate songs from 1970’s hit makers, Earth Wind and Fire. This by far was the highlight of the whole festival for me. The soul dripped off the stage and the audience ate it up. T’was a dance party for the ages. And as it was Friday night, the festival was just beginning to wake up and people were settling in for a long night of moving and grooving. 
We had tickets for Galactic at the Late Night Music Hall and made sure to arrive early to secure a good dance spot for opener Afrolicious.  After an hour or so of voodoo funk, they cleared the stage and made room for High Sierra late night party legends, Galactic. Stanton Moore and crew have been dazzling dance floors for over 20 years now and they don’t show any signs of slowing down any time soon. They whipped the crowd into a dancing funk frenzy in just minutes time and before you knew it, the room was oozing sweat and sensuality with bodies writhing under the lights, the doors bursting at the seams as people tried to sneak in as energy escaped out through the cracks. My body, aching from a full day (into morning) found itself on autopilot after Galactic left the stage and the next thing I knew it was already tomorrow and I had still managed to get enough sleep to feel refreshed enough to do it all over again. 
 After some coffee and breakfast crepes I loaded up the camera gear and checked the grids. And once again I was confronted with choices but the good thing is there is no bad choice at High Sierra. I can always find something redeeming from the selected talent, even from a genre I particularly may not favor. Lo and behold the magic of High Sierra, new band discovery! 

What I discovered first was a roomful of musicians, many of whom I have made friends with through the years, performing the Grateful Dead’s, Terrapin Station, in its entirety. With Stu Allen and Lebo at the helm, we knew we were in good hands. It takes a special type of player to captain this ship and in Stu and Lebo we trust! This was pure improv magic. I got lost so many times int the music that when they came back around, all I could do is laugh! Captain Trips himself would have been proud. They navigated the ship through the dark corners of my mind and into the light of day  as the Terrapin Station Suite came to an end and I ventured out into the Saturday sun looking for my next adventure.

I was excited to see Greyboy All-Stars on the bill as they hadn’t been touring for quite some time.  With Karl Denson on sax and Robert Walters on keys, this band is a force to be reckoned with! I had forgotten how solid this five piece band was. Sometimes it is hard for a band to fill the Grandstand Stage during the day due to the extreme heat and lack of shade but people came out in droves, regardless of the weather conditions! Some like it hot and they found the heat with Greyboy! 
Everyone loves a parade and when it involves kids, drums and stilts, count me in!  I marched with the parade back to camp, keeping time with the drums and provoking smiles for the stilted ladies while my camera finger fired off shot after shot. The costumes and props were so well done I couldn’t do them justice in photographs. That is one of my favorite things about High Sierra. There is so much to participate in. Parades, games, sing-a-longs, play shops. This is summer camp for adults! 
But what summer camp features Trey Anastasio as camp counselor for the night? This one right here, you betcha! I settled down for a while, recharging my batteries both physically and mentally for two nights of TAB.  A long time Phish fan, I was beyond excited toe and photograph tonight’s performance. The photographers were only allowed to shoot for three songs and that was fine by me. After the third song I ran my gear back to camp and secured it for the evening. I came back in no time at all and boogied hard for the rest of the set.  As my friends know, my favorite song is, “Sand,” and I always seem to get lucky and hear it live. Tonight was no different and as the first notes bubbled out from Treys guitar, I grinned from ear to ear, feeling lie I just blew out all my birthday candles in on breath! My wishes came true and we all had a delightful time in the mountains watching magic being created before our very eyes. Thank you Trey for a real good time!  
My girlfriend and I began a tradition a few years back; we begin our Sunday morning with a hot shower and an hour long massage from the fine folks near the main stage.  The key to this is to book the massage in the morning before the Grandstand Stage opens as it is the quietest place in the festival at this hour. Feeling brand new after the massage, we headed over to the food court to grab some calories to get through the day. Sunday is traditionally a slower day for me and this year was no different.  The focus of the day was to visit friends and see what music I would stumble into in the process. With no musical focus I made it over to the Shady Grove camping areas for the first time during the festival and I was stoked to see how creative people have gotten with that space.  There were some great theme camps that rivaled the well-established camps in the Big Meadow area.  RV town was rocking and by the looks of it you couldn’t tell it was a Sunday. Everyone was still dressed in their Saturday best. 

While visiting friends and camps I managed to squeeze in a few sets of music before Gov’t Mule took the stage to close out the festival.  I saw Carolyn Wonderland spread her magic across the Big Meadow as well as witness the quiet oddness that surrounds David Lindley at the Vaudeville stage.  The real kick in the pants set for me was the Keller Williams’ Grateful Gospel set with Stu Allen and company. This was perfect sunny Sunday afternoon music. After three nights of debauchery this is just what the body and soul needed.  I also caught the Achilles Wheel set at the Big Meadow.  These guys are bound for greatness so make sure to check them out while they still play smaller venues. I give these guys one more year before we see them headlining venues like The Fillmore in San Francisco. Their honest and homespun approach to rock is infectious as noted by the swaying crowds. They played a set earlier in the festival which I’m now bummed to have missed. I can’t get enough of the Wheel! 

Warren Haynes and Gov’t Mule took the stage to close out the festival just around sundown. It was obvious the High Sierra crowd loved Warren and by the sound of the cheers after the first song, you would have thought it was a Saturday night! Warren’s unique brand of soulful blues coupled with his gravelly voice has always appealed to my senses and I just sat back and took it all in.  Sunday night is always a tough night for me as I’m saddened by the thought of this beautiful village being taken apart and gone by morning. Gov’t Mule’s powerful sound provided the soundtrack to the recent memories playing back in my brain…the silly conversations late night with strangers, the collective oooohs and aaaahs when the music is just right, the spray of water from a toddler when you just can’t stand the heat.  These are the things I will miss most about High Sierra.  
That and the smell of dry grass and wet lumber.


Photo Gallery by Michael Pegram

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