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Published: 2014/07/30
by Benjy Eisen

Reflections on High Sierra — a Meditation on the Current State of American Music Festivals

It was sometime around 7:30 on Sunday morning when I approached the headless dancing bear. I was dressed in a marching band jacket, a Guns n’ Roses t-shirt, and a cowboy hat. That was from the waist up. Below the line, I had on green short-shorts with animal-print spandex for leggings. Perfectly normal attire for the occasion, but still… I felt underdressed.

The headless dancing bear wasn’t actually headless. And he wasn’t actually dancing. The slack-jawed, long-haired hippie inside the costume was holding the furry, blue bear head in his hands, as he surveyed the scene on the lawn. He had been looking for that head, hours earlier, after a late-night set by Lettuce. He seemed to apparate out of thin air, five inches in front of me, to tell me about his predicament. “Someone made off with it,” he explained. Still…he didn’t seem that concerned and neither was I.

“I’ll get head later,” he said, smiling.

“Debatable,” I shot back. He was joking; I was not. And I thought nothing more of the unexpected encounter.

But, sure enough, sometime in the shadowy pre-dawn, during the downtime between late-night shows and sunrise kickball, someone must’ve returned the bear head to our guy in the dancing bear costume; a missing piece that he was now holding at waist-level while he took in the screwball proceedings all around him.

“You found your head,” I said. Almost on cue, a man sporting an orange squirrel costume — head to toe, as if he was the mascot for a minor league baseball team — came up, ripped the bear’s head from his hands, and ran until he was out of sight. I grinned and said, “I stand corrected.”

As I watched the squirrel mascot disappear behind a building, I imagined that he ran straight onto a Warner Brothers backlot, reporting to Saturday Morning Cartoons for work. I looked at my iPhone. Almost 5:45AM, Sunday morning. “He’s six days early,” I said aloud. Without context, nobody could’ve possibly understood what I meant. That didn’t keep some strangers from chiming in: “Or six days late?” “Is that Eastern Standard Time?” “I could tell by looking at that squirrel that he was premature…”

A kickball flew above us and landed in a tree. A couple hoots and hollers from the other side of the field meant that two guys wrapped together in a sequined cape — or was it the girl in a zoot suit? — just scored a home run. That’s assuming, of course, that they made the required pit stop at second base to down a shot of Jameson. Meanwhile, a couple hundred fans of both music and altered states, from all walks of life, danced in the outfield to rhythms that only they could hear…on headphones. Three different channels were broadcasting live sets from three different DJs to each individual set of headphones. Which meant, even amongst themselves, everyone seemed to be dancing to a different drummer. And it was getting lighter and lighter out every moment. The sun was coming up in Quincy, California.

“Sunrise kickball” at High Sierra is one of those extra-curricular activities that — while not officially endorsed or even recognized by the festival itself — just could not be the same anywhere else in the galaxy. It’s the graceful absurdity of sunrise kickball, along with about 99 other weird, goldmine scenes over the event’s four days, that help make High Sierra Music Festival it’s own planet in the vast solar system of festivals orbiting the summer sun.

To switch metaphors, the festival circuit has erupted over America like the grand finale at a baseball fireworks show. There’s half a dozen bangs per second but it’s hard to differentiate one burst from the next — they all overlap. And it paints the sky alright, but you didn’t “ooh” and “ahh” over it like you did for that one bright starburst that rained glitter across the wide-open horizon. And it’s that lone explosion of sound and light — both the firework and the moment — that you remember most as you drive home from the ballpark. That’s the one you take with you. That’s the one that matters. That’s High Sierra.

Somehow, High Sierra has managed to be impervious to the Big Mac’ing of the American music festival. It has cleverly avoided the unimaginative programming and same-old attractions that have taken siege of almost every other music festival on the continent. At this point, most of the big name, major rock festivals have become carbon copies of each other, chasing their own tails, trying to compete by adopting whatever works at the festival next door. Some of them are even the EXACT same — there are two Coachella’s and two Austin City Limits. Exact duplications of themselves on consecutive weekends. Bah humbug. Every other festival tries to be like every other festival.

This is a gross generalization, of course. There are still some destination festivals — be they EDM, jamband, rock, or funk oriented — between our two coasts where the organizers have built choose-your-own adventure-lands, with atmospheres that encourage individual experience and with infrastructure that supports it. It is at these kinds of festivals where attendees get to participate in scenes that could never be duplicated, and where the narrative is vastly different for each attendee.

But that’s not how it goes for most festivals, anymore. Sure, half the crowd caught one band while the other saw another. But even those who saw opposing anchor bands experienced pretty much the same basic trip. After all, it was handed to them. All they had to do was show up. Preferably with some cash in their pockets.

Festivals these days share similar lineups, follow the same formats, and have the same ferris-wheel by the entrance. Last year, if you missed the Red Hot Chili Peppers set at any given festival on any given weekend, you could’ve jumped a couple states over and a few weekends down and you would’ve seen virtually the same set. Pound for pound and, nearly, song for song. And your experience would’ve been mostly the same. You may have even enjoyed a slice of Spicy Pie on your way home.

But High Sierra is not your older brother’s festival. Well, okay, so Ms. Lauryn Hill’s headlining set on Friday night came straight out of a paint-by-numbers book. The performance was a cut-and-paste job. And, sure, it elicited the same varied commentary from the crowd as her sets at other festival stops, earlier this summer. With big headliners come big productions. We all get that. But most of the music of High Sierra tends to be made in the moment. Collaborations and good, ole’ fashioned jamming happen around every corner. Often spontaneous. Usually, unpracticed.

This year, for instance, Stanley Jordan jammed with Jennifer Hartswick, while being backed by members of ALO and String Cheese Incident. If you missed it, perhaps you were too busy watching Les Claypool get out there in the jam-o-sphere with Beats Antique. (Claypool was a surprise guest; he wasn’t even listed on the lineup).

Look, High Sierra didn’t invent the idea of the all-star jam. Bonnaroo has the Superjams and they tend to be on a scale twice as grand (and twice as rehearsed). Super-sized with super results. But at High Sierra, everything is liable to turn into a “super jam.” Ad hoc. On a moment’s notice…or less. They’re just not billed as such. Just like High Sierra’s kindred spirit, Jam Cruise, the amount of genuine jamming and spontaneous artist cross-pollination is an undeniable part of the event’s charm and an integral part of its identity. It’s a huge part of it. But it’s not the whole story.

High Sierra is not a spectator festival; it’s a spectacle festival. Every person on the property becomes an active, integral part of a single organism and it is the organism, on the whole, that drives people to drive all the way to this small town in the middle of Plumas National Forest — part of Northern California’s Sierra Nevada region — four hours from San Francisco and 90 minutes from Reno, year after year. They’re just trying to unplug from The Machine and charge themselves through the electric veins of The Organism for four days. Detach themselves from their insular lives of endless work and play cycles and attach themselves, instead, to a freewheeling multi-beast as it stomps through rodeo grounds in the wild west. It’s a vacation, sure. But it sure as fuck isn’t relaxation.

There aren’t many nearby hotels, per-se, but, at High Sierra, it’s too much of a risk to stay offsite. You end up missing out on some of the best moments. Sleep also necessitates missing many of these moments, so people do their best to minimize it. Some, in fact, barely do it at all. Those are Kerouac’s mad ones, the ones who are “mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time.” And I try to be like them by being nobody other than myself.

When I was younger, I went to festivals to find myself. Now, I go to festivals to lose myself. To get lost in a string of moments until, soon enough, I realize I’m talking to a headless dancing bear at 5:45 in the morning, watching a human squirrel run off with his head.

After an early arrival on Wednesday night, I didn’t even have enough time to unpack my car or claim my spot on the RV when our neighbors made themselves known — they wanted to feed us dinner. We had the good fortune of camping next to Chef Larry’s encampment, where he designed a special menu (nothing too fancy, just your ordinary campground food. You know —- scallops, fried chicken, duck confit and, oh yeah, crawfish) to feed the community. There is a donation bucket that gets generously filled, but nobody is turned away. Bands not only show up to eat, they also show up to play unannounced sets, right in the thick of it, with tents and RVs scattered in every direction. During different pit stops at my RV throughout the weekend, I spied both the Budos Band and Greensky Bluegrass chomping down. Others, too.

Chef Larry’s culinary celebration climaxed on Sunday night with 100 pounds of crawfish (FedEx’ed straight from New Orleans — arriving fresher than the funk) while the California Honey Drops — still dripping from their official sets at the festival proper — unwound by playing a bonus round at Chef Larry’s. I had to step around people eating and dodge a dozen dancers just to get into my RV, five feet from the makeshift stage. It was the closest I came to thinking I was roughing it. You know, with all the musicians and crawfish and dancing, oh my.

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