Featured Column:Highs and New Lows: High Sierra 2006
The High Sierra Music Festival is always a greatly anticipated summer musical event with a uniquely west coast slant. With a family vibe, great tunes, and high times, many west coasters eagerly anticipate this annual musical Mecca as much as Jazz Fest, Jam Cruise, or Bonnaroo. Tucked away in the tiny little Northern Sierra mountain town of Quincy, CA, High Sierra is a special event that cant quite be captured in words. The scenic setting, the impeccable organization and set up, the friendly staff, the great food, the clean porta potties, and the good jam music loving people all come together seamlessly to make this event unlike any other in the jam scene. This year things were a little bit different, however. The music was still great and overall the vibe was very high, but there were quite a few significant downers that were heretofore unheard of at what is commonly referred to as the Best Fest in the West.
But before the griping and groaning about the negatives, lets explore the positives that High Sierra Music Festival 2006 offered. First of all, there were new entry procedures this year. From all accounts they went swimmingly. Folks with will call tickets drove up to a will call window, but stayed in their cars. Friendly and festive staff members sauntered over to each car, picked up photo IDs, and quickly returned bearing tickets. The smiling, talkative staff exudes a genuine feeling of welcoming. With the new site for will call ticket pick up, things went smoother than ever this year during the normally hectic entry time.
Stages were colorfully decorated and the usual high quality sound systems, excellent decorations, and additional shade and misters were very enjoyable. The High Sierra General Store is in its third year at the fest and sells various sundries such as flashlights, batteries, water, shampoo, etc. Although they could easily gouge the somewhat captive festival enthusiast, the prices are reasonable. This year also added the edition of a peace pavilion where discussion groups talked about a range of subjects including the devastation of New Orleans by Katrina. The big central lawn by the pavilion is also the site of yoga, Pilates, or tribal dancing. And the usual special little touches like the shower trailer, the chill dome, a nearby pool, parades, childrens activities, Grizzly Radio, and artist playshops were still in full effect. With the sun shining high in the sky each day but the thermometer never rising much above the mid 80s, the weather couldnt have been better.
The music was incredible. Railroad Earths main stage and late night sets will both be fondly remembered by bluegrass loving festivarians, while ReBirth Brass Bands high energy performance at the Vaudeville Tent on the first night will go down in High Sierra history as one heck of a funky good time. Umphreys McGee returned with gusto to the festival after a hiatus of several years to perform an incredible late night show with a series of guests including Keller Williams, Jake Shimabukuro on electric ukulele, Eric Levy, and Alan Hertz to name only a few. Not to mention Umphreys epic two hour headlining set on the main stage on Friday night. The Zero reunion with the additions of Melvin Seal and Donna Godchaux was widely reported as being one of the absolute highlights of the festival. ALO had a particularly energetic main stage performance that ended with about 40 people on stage for a decidedly Joe Cocker influenced version of Little Help From My Friends. The Greyboy Allstars funked things up with a groovy main stage performance to close out the festival Sunday night. But the list goes on and on. The Radiators rocked the Big Meadow with an afternoon set on Friday, a young band called The Brakes from Philadelphia, PA showed much promise as they whizzed through a set of catchy tunes at the Vaudeville Tent, and The Motet showed they are coming back on the scene as a force to be reckoned with by performing a rhythmic and funky main stage set on Saturday. Also needing mention are the intimate playshops. Tea Leaf Greens Josh Clark spearheaded a Guitarmageddon playshop – guitarists like Papa Mali and the Disco Biscuits Jon Gutwillig shredding on extended guitar jam after jam. There was the intimate, quiet performance and informative discussion with Steve Kimock and Jerry Joseph. And also the great paring of mandolinist Chris Thile from Nickel Creek and Bela Fleck. Organizers have made steady, consistent improvement in the sound and stage over the years at the Tulsa E Scott building where the playshops are held.
The weekend was also filled with fun moments like making new friends in the campgrounds, jamming on the acoustic guitar at the campsite, raging late into the evening, or making a Bloody Mary for a hungover tent mate. Its always interesting to see musicians watching other musicians perform. I couldnt help but notice that Victor Wooten was watching and listening very attentively as Michael Manring displayed his incredible virtuoso bass playing talents at the Americana Stage on Sunday. Having left three quarters of the way through Manrings set, I hope I didnt miss a Victor sit-in. But as high as the music and the vibe was for the most part, this year had some extreme low points that had not been as prevalent in recent years and had not existed at all in the late 90s when the festival first came to Quincy. This was the year the cops decided to try and make a bundle off of peaceful folks who were hurting no one and just trying to have good time. Which is very strange considering how extremely low key this festival really is. At High Sierra, there isnt anything that could even be considered a Shakedown Street – where relatively open vending, trading, and selling of unlicensed goods, clothing, or drugs is prevalent. The people who attend this festival are generally a little older and more laid back than at a fest one might see on the east coast. The folks that like to party bring their own party favors and use them responsibly, for the most part. But for whatever reason, the Quincy cops decided to harass people very aggressively this year, resulting in 47 arrests and probably lots of bail and fine money.
Once darkness fell, the cops came out like some sort of jackboot clad nightmare. There are various accounts of unnecessary harassment from festival goers. People were intimidated, unnerved, and in many cases arrested. There have been reports and online babble about police quietly listening to conversations from outside of tents and then searching aggressively if someone even mentioned drugs or marijuana. Cops were riding around in carts, walking through all the campgrounds with dogs, and generally intimidating folks with their harsh stares and rude behavior. There are some accounts of police entering the late night venues and busting people for public intoxication. Several horror stories about busts, jail time, and unkind treatment can be read at the High Sierra Message Boards. Not that there hasnt been some police presence there every year since the festival began, but this year it was on a completely different level. There was a tangible vibe of fear and intimidation once darkness fell unlike any other year Ive experienced in my 8 years of attending this event. Another downer was the crime level of this years festival. I brought my girlfriend along to enjoy her first High Sierra Music Festival. I mentioned how Ive camped many years and aside from a few unruly revelers, theres nothing to fear in the campgrounds. People are generally very nice and amicable, theres a lot of partying and revelry, and things are rarely if ever stolen. Imagine our surprise when we awoke Friday morning to find that her backpack had been stolen from our site. Assuming that maybe one of our friends took it by mistake, we quickly visited his campsite where he informed us that not only did he not have our backpack, but his was stolen, too! We searched among the trees and hills of the Hillside Campground and came upon another person walking around randomly in this somewhat remote spot. What are you doing, looking for a stolen backpack? he asked. Apparently stolen backpacks were a fairly widespread problem in the Hillside Campground this year. Sometimes backpacks were discovered up on the hill, emptied of their valuable contents, and then discarded. Through talking to folks over at the central dispatch area, we also discovered that the thieves discarded some backpack contents they considered worthless in a park several miles from the festival site.
While the music was undeniably high as usual, the scene generally filled with good people, and the organization second to none, the extreme hassle of the aggressive cops and stolen personal items put a downer vibe on the festival unlike any I had ever experienced. It deeply saddened me to see this happen at a festival I consider to be so very special. The folks at High Sierra have already made a public announcement acknowledging this aggressive police behavior and have stated that all options are on the table to rectify the situation, including moving the festival. After many happy years of attending, I think I might just sit next year out. I would like to hear first hand accounts of 2007 before risking such bummers again. I work hard for my money all year and go to Quincy over 4th of July weekend to spend it, enjoy the music, relax, and have a good time not to feel fear of intimidation, prosecution, or thievery. Whether improvement involves working out a deal with the local authorities or moving the festival altogether, I hope that this once mighty bastion of ultra kind festivalness can return to its glory days of old.