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Published: 2002/07/24
by John Zinkand

The Friendly Folks of High Sierra

The High Sierra Music Festival in Quincy, CA is the quintessential west coast jamband music festival. From its humble beginnings in 1991 as a mostly local bluegrass and acoustic music festival to its current state as a premier jam band destination, the festival has managed to blossom into a major event while remaining true to its roots. These days excitement-stirring major national acts abound on the bill every year, but bluegrass, folk, and groove from the west coast are still at the heart of the event.

This year’s musical line-up was arguably one of the best so far. Bands like MMW, Umphrey’s McGee, Bruce Hornsby, Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe, Yonder Mountain String Band, Sector Nine, Garaj Mahal, and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band were just a few of the well-known headliners. With the reputation of being one of the best run and most laid back of any festival in the scene, it’s no surprise that High Sierra has steadily increased in popularity over the years. Whereas in years past one could roll through the gates at 11:00am and still have their pick of ample camping spots, more recent years find people lining up outside and struggling for a tiny piece of shady camping real estate, if they’re lucky. Of course, struggling is a relative term because this is a small festival. The huge wait to get inside is about two hours long, very tame by most standards (and in comparison to festivals like Bonnaroo and Gathering of the Vibes where waits were reported to be as much as 10-12 hours long).

It’s easy to see why High Sierra is becoming more popular. One can count on lots of crafts, lots of choices at the food booths (including organic and vegan options), tents, RV’s, showers, quality facilities, cool parades with strange floats, activities for the kids, and swimming at the pool in addition to the hours and hours of great music available to one and all. Then there’s the sun. What California festival would be complete without it? And when you’re in sunny California expect to see a big old helping of happy, hippie, tan, and beautiful California freaks. Well, they’re not all Californians, but the vast majority are and it shows. For example, I stick out like the big, pale, Oregonian sore thumb among most in attendance.

With the popularity of music festivals in general on the rise, I thought it might be interesting to talk to a few Festivarians and see what their different thoughts, motivations, and opinions were surrounding High Sierra. These folks were all very well spoken and represent a nice cross-section of fans. I met all of the following interviewees randomly while walking around the Shady Grove camping area on Saturday afternoon.

JZ: What’s your name, how old are you, where are you from?

Matty: I’m Matty Flave, the Pass Out King. I live in Eugene, OR and I’m 28, I’ll be 29 in a month.

JZ: Why did you come to the festival here?

Matty: Sixteen hours of music a day. Four days. More than I can handle is just about right.

JZ: And what’s your favorite band here? What band made you want to be here?

Matty: The bands, there’s at least two or three that made me want to come, but.the experience itself is way more important than one or two bands. Five or six stages of music for twelve, up to sixteen hours a day. Boom shakalaka. Boom!

JZ: What’s the best experience that’s happened to you here so far this year and what act are you still looking forward to most?

Matty: I got the smile. I’m well-fed, well-rested.well inebriated. Satisfied and ready to fly on Saturday afternoon. I’d be remiss if I did not acknowledge Yonder Mountain String Band’s late night set tonight as something I am looking forward to.

Matty was a nice enough fellow. He was definitely pretty happy and festive. I felt like he was very knowledgeable about the music but just wasn’t in the mood to talk too much shop at the time. I think a certain amount of people are here primarily for the good time and break from the daily grind. Matty, while a definite fan of the tunes, seemed to have more of a “weekend-warrior” mentality and seemed to be ragin’ pretty good. He was sun-burned, had an alcoholic beverage in his hand, and planned on heading to the pool next, not to a music stage.

I then moved on to another gentlemen as he was walking down the middle path of Shady Grove that comes out into the on-site parking lot near a row of porta-potties. Leon looked to be in his mid-twenties to early thirties and had some great thoughts to share.

JZ: What’s your name and where are you from?

Leon: I’m Leon from Sonoma, California.

JZ: Is this your first year at High Sierra?

Leon: To this festival? Definitely not, I’m a veteran. I’ve been coming to this particular event for the last four years, but I’ve been going to festivals for like, ten years.

JZ: What was the main draw for you to come again this year?

Leon: Um, Sector Nine. I love those guys. They’re good people. They lived in Santa Cruz for a little while and I think they moved to Colorado now.

JZ: What’s been your favorite act so far?

Leon: Well, Sector Nine played on Thursday so I missed that show. But so far this year I have not seen any shows. I just got here. I’m a late arriver.

JZ: And what’s the deal with that?

Leon: Honestly? I don’t want to pay one-hundred forty dollars to get into a festival and then pay seventeen dollars to see a late-night show. And forty dollars for camping/parking.

JZ: So I take it this is not your favorite festival?

Leon: This is a great festival because look at these trees they have here for camping (as he talks he puts his hands up in the air and points at the tall pine trees looming all around us in the camping/parking area). If you’re not bitching about the money The other drawback, and this is a drawback to all festivals I’ve seen in Northern California late in the summer, is the amount of dust we inhale here all day long. People should figure something out about that. Recognize that when we dance on that surface out there, that is State Fairgrounds. Horse manure is mixed in with that dirt, we dance on it, and it gets in our lungs. It’s a serious health issue and nobody really seems to care about it, there’s gotta be something more we can do. I was just at Mountain Aire and it was very dusty, too. The best festival I’ve been to this year so far was the Family A-Faire at Horning’s Hideout near Portland, OR. Overall, High Sierra is a very well run festival, though. The people and security are great.

Leon does have some good points. For those folks that have never been to a west coast festival and are saying, “What the Hell is he talking about? Our festivals are in fields here and there’s no horse shit getting kicked up into our lungs!” Here’s the deal. It’s very hot and dry in California with no humidity at all, and when large groups of people walk and dance on the dry dirty surfaces around festival sites, a yellowish dusty haze gets kicked up and is inhaled by everyone. By the end of one day when you blow your nose you get only brown dusty boogs and you can feel the harshness of it in your lungs and the back of your throat. It is a definite problem. I remember them spraying down the dusty surfaces with water sprayers more at Bear Valley to keep the dust from flying, and I really wish they would do it more in Quincy.

My other thoughts on Leon’s take is that he is being pretty nit-picky due to his frequent festival experiences. I do know many people like Leon who think High Sierra is expensive since you have to pay for the late-night shows and on-site parking in addition to the ticket price. My thoughts are that it’s not really necessary to go to the late show every single night. In fact I’ve found that if you even try to, most likely you’ll end up missing a large portion of the daytime music. I love High Sierra for the opportunity to see lots of different styles of music while being introduced to the smaller up-and-coming bands. My other thought on the expense is that if you plan early enough, you can buy your four day pass for only ninety dollars. High Sierra offers a discount for early purchasers. If you buy early, you can get a four day pass and the parking pass for one hundred twenty five bucks. Add two late night shows and your total cost comes to around one hundred fifty bucks for four full days of camping, activities, facilities, tons of bands, etc. Seems pretty affordable to me.

After saying goodbye to Leon, I turned down the path and headed toward the family camping area of Shady Grove. I walked for a very long time until I was deep in the far end of the section. I turned right and walked into the thick of things. That’s where I met Aaron near his family’s tent. It was interesting to hear a very different opinion on the cost of the festival from this very quiet and low-key fellow.

JZ: What’s your name, how old are you, where are you from?

Aaron: I’m Aaron, I’m twenty-one, and I’m from the So Cal, L.A., Orange County Area.

JZ: And what was the main draw for you to come all the way up here this year?

Aaron: The main thing that drew me, hmmm Medeski, Martin and Wood, Leftover Salmon, Keller Williams, Karl Denson. Four days and the fact that it was only around one hundred twenty bucks. A great deal compared to other things that are going on.

JZ: And is this your first year at High Sierra?

Aaron: This is like my first camping festival I’ve been to. I’ve been to, like, one festival show a couple years back that I didn’t do, you know, the whole camping thing.

JZ: Are you a big jam music fan in general? Do you go out and see these bands in bars at home?

Aaron: I try to see whatever I can in So Cal. Um, I probably go out to see a show once every two months, maybe every quarter. I do have two small children, but I didn’t really go out much more before them, really, either. I’m more of a casual music fan, I guess. I’m into Phish a lot. I’ve seen them play a few times. I’ve seen the Trey Anastasio Band even moreI saw the last two So Cal shows.

JZ: There are other music festivals in California. Why did you pick High Sierra?

Aaron: Mountain Aire looked interesting, but then I saw High Sierra. There’s just so many more bands. Les and Trey headlined Mountain Aire and they’re big in the jamband scene and they’re great, but I did get to catch them both play in So Cal when they came through. For me, this number of bands in one location is what a festival should be about.

Aaron’s view drives the point home about the value of High Sierra. A pass for the Mountain Aire Festival, for example, was one hundred bucks when bought in advance, one hundred twenty on the day of the show. The catch here is that the festival is only a two day event and there is an additional fifteen dollar camping charge. Sure, some of the names were a little bigger at Mountain Aire, but overall, High Sierra is the most bang for your buck. Aaron realized this and was willing to drive the twelve hours from Southern California. It’s cool to see people like Aaron coming out to the festival and having such a positive experience. Here’s a young guy that must be struggling hard to support his family and has little time to go out. He decided to spend his money and vacation time at High Sierra. When he arrives, he feels welcome and that he’s getting a great value. It’s nice to know that people who don’t frequent the shows and scene as much feel welcome when they visit the jam band community.

After walking out of Aaron’s campsite in the family area, I headed down the woodsy path until I ran into a young girl and began talking to her. She also was new to the festival and brand new to the entire jam band scene, so her perspective was fairly interesting. She reminds most of us how we first got into the whole scene.

JZ: What’s your name, how old are you, where are you from?

Caroline: My name is Caroline, I’m 18, and I’m from Lafayette, CA which is in the San Francisco Bay Area.

JZ: And what was your main draw for coming to the festival this weekend?

Caroline: A bunch of my friends listen to the music and all these bands. They’re always trying to get me into it so they brought me along. This is my first year here and some of my friends’ first year, but they follow all these bands, so

JZ: And have you gotten into it? Are you enjoying yourself?

Caroline: Um, actually, yeah, I really like it. It’s pretty chill music. I usually listen to a lot of quiet musicsome classical music. I wouldn’t say I’m into the improvisational music scene, but I really am enjoying myself. I could see getting into it, though. For sure.

JZ: And what’s been your favorite aspect of the festival over all?

Caroline: The people. For sure, the people. I love the scene here, like, the people are just so outgoing and friendly and, like, they have activities for everybody. I mean, the circus (Circus Contraption is a featured attraction that combines music and performance at High Sierra) was just, it was awesome. And, I don’t know. People walking around with fairy wings. Where do you see that? You know? I think everybody should come to this festival at least once.

JZ: Any constructive criticisms?

Caroline: No. Well, clean the bathrooms out a little faster.

I agree with most of what Caroline had to say, especially about the many activities besides music available. From the Circus Contraption, to the pool, to face-painting and kids activities, this festival does a good job of pleasing everyone. When she made the comment about where else one could see people with fairy wings, I wanted to say, “Well, there’s String Cheese shows, Rainbow Gatherings, other Festivals, etc.” I resisted and smiled, however, realizing that we all start out in this scene as newbies with limited experience at some point. Her open mind, happy face, and eager attitude reminded me of when I first walked around a Grateful Dead parking lot back in 1989. It’s good to see younger folks getting into it, though. The wheel is turning and you can’t slow it down

After being energized by Caroline’s bubbly young personality, I headed back down the path in search of more victims. As I walked past the porta-potties near the “glo-light tree,” (people threw glow rings and shiny colorful stuff all over this one tree in the campsite which made for a very cool effect on Saturday and Sunday nights) I ran into another young lady. This girl did seem a little more hip to the jam scene and perhaps a little more road weary, as well (in other words, she didn’t look as fresh and clean as Caroline).

JZ: What’s your name, how old are you, where are you from?

Maisey: My name’s Maisey and I’m from Detroit, MI. I just graduated from High School.

JZ: How did you get here to California?

Maisey: We drove in. We’ve been going to a few festivals, so We went to Telluride Bluegrass Festival [in Telluride, CO] and the Northwest String Summit [near Portland, OR].

JZ: So what’s your main draw to High Sierra? Wouldn’t be the bluegrass, would it?

Maisey: Um, well, we’ve been following around Yonder Mountain a bit. They play late night tonight, and we’re leaving after that, so it’s kinda like end of the festival for us. After the show we’ll drive straight back to Detroit. I have to work on Monday, so I’ll be tired, but it’s a crappy job, so it’s fine.

JZ: What has been your favorite act so far and what are you looking forward to?

Maisey: Well, I’m excited to see Dan Bern tonight, so it was a big draw for this one for me. Let’s see, we saw Leftover Salmon which we also saw at Telluride and I’m excited to see Medeski, Keller Williams. Overall I’m having a great time. I’ll probably be back next year.

I thought Maisey broke the mold a bit. Here was a young girl from Detroit, MI and her main draw to the festival was bluegrass music. Most eighteen year olds don’t even really know what bluegrass music is, never mind driving all over the U.S. to go to different bluegrass musical festivals. Personally, it took me awhile to even be able to appreciate bluegrass as a form of music. I’ve always been an electric guitar and psychedelic jam fan and naturally assume most younger people are into the electric guitar jam bands or the more trance/techno slanted stuff. It’s good to have one’s preconceived notions busted up a little, and High Sierra is a perfect place for this as it draws such a wide array of different types of people. The last two folks I spoke with, for example, were both over the age of fifty.

JZ: What’s your name, where are you from, how old are you?

Brent: My name’s Brent. I’m 61. I’m from San Jose, CA.

JZ: Why did you come to the High Sierra Music Festival this year?

Brent: Um, I come up here to relax and watch everybody, listen to the bands, and you know, just enjoy what’s going on and seeing what the kids are into watching how mellow everything is, the people are…same reason you’re here.

JZ: Any band in particular that you came to see?

Brent: No, no, no. My 36 year old daughter loves these bands and she wanted to come here and see it. And she said, Would you like to go?’ And I said sure I would.

JZ: So she’s into the whole scene?

Brent: Well, she knows all the bands. I don’t know if she’s into the scene, I mean she doesn’t have any tattoo’s or piercing’s, is that a qualifier?

JZ: Not at all. I don’t either. Any band’s you’ve seen that you enjoyed?

Brent: Yeah. I really liked, well, I think they’re called Flying Lu. They were hot. Really super hot. So that’s the kind of music I like. And I also like the band that was just playing here [on the Americana Stage called] Green Genes. I also liked Jaq or Raq or Faq

JZ: RAQ from Vermont?

Brent: Yeah, that’s it. And this band here playing [on the Americana Stage], what’s their name? Jupiter Coyote, I think.

JZ: Any final thoughts or constructive criticisms for the Festival?

Brent: Oh yeah, sure, well you know that. Better camping, ya know? This has been the way it’s been since, and I went to the first one back when I was a young man, it was in Sonora, CA It was absolutely beautiful and I understand that those people that rented them the land were jerks, but Actually, this is a beautiful spot but look (grabs handful of hard dusty dirt and pine needles on which he is camping). I mean, we could be camping in the K-Mart parking lot for all that matters. You know what I’m saying? Or we could be in a grass field someplace with a pond and all of that. Or in a nice valley someplace where you’d have oak trees and whatever, but, you know, no matter where it is someone has to empty the shitter! (laughs)

JZ: Did you ever go when the festival was held in Bear Valley?

Brent: I was there and it was ok. The problem with Bear Valley was, it was a great site and easy to get to, but the problem with Bear Valley was that the facilities were really shy. I mean, we were in a farmer’s field and there was cow shit everywhere. But what I did like about Bear Valley was that there was good mountain bike riding, which is what I’m into. But I like it here. I’ve met great people and have had a great time.

Brent was a nice laid-back guy who had some interesting points. As a matter of fact, I would highly recommend each band Brent mentions as very good. I hadn’t seen any of them before, but happened to see them all in the days leading up to Saturday. Green Genes did a killer version of the Beatles “Old Brown Shoe” and had a kick-ass rockin’ sound with just a little bit of bluegrass twang. Jupiter Coyote is a similar ensemble. And Flying Lu is a killer little jazz band from the Bay Area that really smokes. I enjoyed the few minutes of their Showcase Stage set I was able to see.

It’s nice to see older folks come to the festival. While Brent acted as if he was old and didn’t know the bands, you can tell he was very young at heart and, in fact, did enjoy the music a great deal. I like the open minded aspect of many High Sierra families. It’s nice to see fathers, daughters, aunts, and brothers come together and have fun in a music festival setting. Being brought up on the east coast by conservative parents, I would never even ask my parents to attend a festival with me. There’s no way they would ever go. It’s good to see a more laid back approach and very family oriented scene here with a full array of babies, toddlers, kids, teenagers, adults, and older folks making up the crowd.

The last person I caught up with was a woman who was camped next to the main walkway near on-site parking in the Shady Grove camping area. She was a little older than most and was smiling and having a good time at her campsite. Having attended this festival previously, Pam voiced some strong opinions on certain things she saw go a little differently this year. I think she accurately voiced the concerns of many in attendance at this year’s festival.

JZ: What’s your name, how old are you, where are you from?

Pam: I’m Pam from Mammoth Lakes, CA and I’m fifty three years old.

JZ: How long have you been coming and what was your main draw this year?

Pam: This is my second year attending. I came because I liked it so much last year. It was so good. I came here last year to meet with my son and his wife and his friends,and it was just so much fun. My son’s more of the jam fan. He’s got a band, too. Yeah, they’re called Old Man Clemens. They’re from Humboldt County.

JZ: Any band in particular you came to see?

Pam: Yes. I came to see Bruce Hornsby and last year I came to see Bela Fleck. I saw Bruce play last night. It was real real good. I wanted to go see his workshop, but I got there too late. I mean, you needed to be there way ahead of time. I stood, like, outside and caught a few words that he said, and that was all.

JZ: Any up-and-coming bands you liked?

Pam: They’ve all been good. I need to keep track of names better.

JZ: As long as you’ve been enjoying yourself.

Pam: The bands, the music, the whole setting is excellent. There’s a lot of variety. The music crosses over a lot and because there’s so much going on at once, there’s something for everyone. The yoga workshops, and the belly dancing, and the African dancing, I did all that, too. I didn’t even know that other stuff was going on, but, yeah, I participated in it.

JZ: Anything you would change? Any constructive criticism?

Pam: Yeah, I hope it would be taken as a constructive criticism, but right at the very beginning on my way into the festival and a couple times since I’ve been here I mean, it’s we, the people. We, the people, don’t think it’s right to have police here with dogs when we have done nothing wrong. I saw them before I even got through the gates. And I don’t partake in anything [illegal].

JZ: You felt guilty until you proved yourself to be innocent?

Pam: I didn’t feel guilty. I felt like some kind of a child that hasn’t really done anything wrong but, you know, the parent’s, they’re overbearing. I think that was a real negative force. If it was effecting me in that way I don’t think that police should be coming on this property and searching cars with dogs. And this was not here last year. There are, what, seven thousand people here? And I bet you a lot of them feel the same way I do. They need to organize. Especially younger people who aren’t considered to have opinions or thoughts, if they just sit back and let other people make decisions for them, nothing’s ever going to happen. They need to get together in a nice, strong, organized fashion and keep it the kind of festival they want.

JZ: Yes, I thought that it was a bit ironic that as we entered the festival on our country’s Independence Day we were confronted with police and dogs assuming we were guilty. What a way to celebrate our freedom.

Pam: Right. Well, that’s what patriotism is, though. That’s what makes America great, because we can change things if we organize. Not to harp but, at my age, over the last few years, I’ve realized how important it is to not be passive. That’s consent.

Pam was a great person to choose as she brought up some of the issues that were considered to be major concerns of many surrounding the festival this year. Here’s an older drug free woman who attends the festival to visit with family and friends, and she turns out to be the spokesperson for the harsh police presence felt by everyone in attendance this year. In an environment like High Sierra that fosters total creativity and freedom among it’s attendees, the police presence did seem harsh. I saw the dogs and cops going through some kids’ car while they stood on the side of the road handcuffed. This was a first for High Sierra and all indications point to it being a last, as well. Apparently, a police sheriff on his way out of office was just getting one final kick in at the festival he apparently did not like very much. Most Quincy residents and officials welcome the influx of tourist dollars the annual event brings to the small mountain town each year, however, so a repeat of this type of behavior by local law enforcement is not expected.

High Sierra is a magical place where people from different places and backgrounds can converge in peace and happiness for a four day weekend in July. This California festival has roots back to the Sixties, as long-hair, colorful clothes, jamming music, and a social and political consciousness pervade the scene. A common love of musical adventure draws together these different people with their unique backgrounds and interesting perspectives . The four days of fun and music may be what attracts these friendly folks of High Sierra to Quincy each year, but it’s these friendly folks who make this annual event so darn special.

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