High Sierra Music Festival 2022
Photo: Susan J. Weiand

The Torch Burns on at the High Sierra Music Festival

Four straight days of at least 13 hours of live music per day pushes even the hardiest festivarian to the limit, but the festival’s 30th annual edition demands nothing less.

It’s the summer of 2022, and the High Sierra Music Festival is finally back on the calendar for its 30th-anniversary edition from June 30 – July 3, after the incessant COVID-19 pandemic forced cancellation in 2020 and 2021. Anticipation is therefore running extra high, with many of the nearly 10,000 patrons viewing High Sierra as the pinnacle of the summer concert calendar.

“This is going to be the best High Sierra ever!” one fired-up compadre proclaims, suggesting that the three-year wait will have attendees going extra wild this year. High Sierra is typically the biggest party of the summer for the jam-rock and funk crowd though, so it feels great just to get back on the road again to the good old Plumas County Fairgrounds in Quincy, California. 

This year’s Grandstand headliner group features a diversity that embodies the festival with rising jam-rock buzz band Goose scoring the prestigious headliner slot on Thursday; the jamtronica pioneers of the Disco Biscuits returning for their first California show in over a decade on Friday; jamgrass rockers Greensky Bluegrass on Saturday; and Joe Russo’s Almost Dead closing out the main stage action on Sunday with their high octane approach to the music of the Grateful Dead. Then of course there are two other stages and two late-night venues, with music going from noon to 3:00 am each day.

GOOSE / Photo: Susan J. Weiand

The Grandstand performances from Goose and JRAD that bookend the festival turn out to be particularly notable. Both bands deliver top-tier performances with an electrifying vibe that stands out above the pack, with an added impact due to what these two bands have come to represent in the grand scheme of the scene.  As fate has it, Goose rolls into High Sierra riding some truly incredible milestone momentum. Not only did they headline Radio City Music Hall in New York City for two sold-out shows the prior weekend, but they also hosted guest appearances on night two from both Father John Misty and Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio. 

Goose’s adventurous cover of Misty’s “I’m Writing a Novel” on a 2020 stream performance revealed a band with eclectic taste and a daring approach to expanding their repertoire. The song’s gonzo vibe also fits right in with the psychedelic rock scene. But it was the appearance of Phish’s Anastasio that really made headline news across the rock ‘n’ roll counterculture. 

As the leader of the band widely considered the Gen-X heirs to the Grateful Dead’s psychedelic rock throne, Anastasio is arguably the most authoritative voice in the scene. It looks like “Big Red” is starting to feel it’s his turn to share the vibe, as he also sat in with rising jamgrass phenom Billy Strings just days after jamming with Goose. At age 57, Anastasio is now only two years younger than Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh was when he invited Anastasio and Phish keyboardist Page McConnell to play as members of Phil Lesh & Friends at San Francisco’s Warfield Theater for the legendary comeback shows from his liver transplant in 1999. 

GOOSE / Photo: Susan J. Weiand

There seems to be a synergy in play with the Phish guitarist jamming with Goose right before their trip to High Sierra, where the Trey Anastasio Band was the Saturday night headliner in 2017. Hence all manner of philosophical debate about a theoretical torch has ensued.  Did Anastasio pass “the torch” to Goose? Not really, since Phish is still going strong but the team-up certainly does represent a stamp of approval. Such debate is an endless rabbit hole though – did the Grateful Dead pass said torch to Anastasio when they chose him to fill Jerry Garcia’s shoes at their Fare Thee Well stadium shows in 2015? Had Phil Lesh already passed it to Anastasio & McConnell in 1999 at the Warfield, followed by his guest appearance with Phish that fall?

Is there just one singular torch? Or can the flame be shared with multiple bands? Did the Grateful Dead start the fire? All of these questions will continue to be debated. But one thing which seems certain is that the High Sierra Music Festival serves as sort of a keeper of the flame, with playing the festival being akin to taking on some of that flame.

GOOSE / Photo: Susan J. Weiand

Goose comes out on Thursday night with an intention of demonstrating they understand that with great power – and approval from on high – comes great responsibility to crush it. Jambase.com co-founder Andy Gadiel introduces the band, alluding to both the torch talk and High Sierra’s family vibe when he says, “This has always felt like a multigenerational event…”  Goose gets it going early with guitarist/vocalist Rick Mitarotonda and keyboardist/guitarist/vocalist Peter Anspach connecting in a melodic jam on “All I Need”.  It’s apparent right off the bat with this soaring 15-minute jam that the quintet are high-level players with genuine chemistry. Then they take it right to the next level with the intriguing “Earthling or Alien?”, a cosmic funk explosion that seems to ripple across the cosmos. Anspach sings out the big question of “Are we Earthling or alien?”, while the band funks it up over a monster groove. 

The song’s funky cosmic vibe recalls Phish’s legendary summer ‘97 tour, when the Vermont troubadours evolved their sound in a funkier direction as they crossed the country toward a tour finale festival at the forming Loring Air Force Base in Limestone, Maine (where documents retrieved by activists through FOIA revealed there had been a documented UFO incident in 1975.) All of which led to speculation that Phish was setting up the event as an attempt at initiating contact in a Close Encounters of the Third Kind style, via music, light, and color

Goose seems to be reaching for some of that cosmic flame here and doing so in a triumphant fashion. It’s a song that we find ourselves continuing to sing throughout the weekend and so, PopMatters, therefore, awards Goose with “Song of the Festival” for “Earthling or Alien?” The band has won the crowd over after just three songs and they keep it going with another big jam on the uplifting “Hungersite”, from their just released new album Dripfield

GOOSE / Photo: Susan J. Weiand

The quintet never lets up, delivering a set that never wanes in energy while also impressing with the quality of their songwriting. The combo of musicianship and songwriting is what would seem to have enabled Goose to leapfrog some of their peers into a headlining slot here in their debut appearance at High Sierra. Goose is also very democratic with their music, releasing the soundboard recording for free streaming within the week.

But rather than cover the festival in a chronological manner, PopMatters would like to move ahead to the Sunday night headlining performance from Joe Russo’s Almost Dead (JRAD). Technically speaking, JRAD is a Grateful Dead cover band. But the quintet performs the music in such a hypercharged manner that they seem to be helping the songs evolve in fresh ways. Drummer Joe Russo of course played in Furthur with the GD’s Phil Lesh and Bob Weir from 2009-13, while guitarists Tom Hamilton, Scott Metzger, and keyboardist Marco Benevento have all played as members of Phil Lesh & Friends. 

JRAD / Photo: Susan J. Weiand

Russo and Metzger even played in Lesh’s band just a month earlier, in a scintillating show at the Frost Amphitheater in Palo Alto on June 4, ever moths to the flame with Lesh still spinning his sonic wizardry like no one else can even after all these years. Regular bassist Dan Dreiwitz is on tour with Ween, so pinch hitter Jon Shaw fills in as he has before and does so ably. 

If fans want to talk about carrying the torch, JRAD has to come to mind. But JRAD aren’t just carrying a torch, they’re pouring gasoline on it while shooting off fireworks and dropping bombs in such an explosive fashion that they’ve become one of the top bands on the scene. There is perhaps a lesson here, which is that “the torch” is not really passed per se but shared to create multiple torches and then carried by all who have served as moths to the flame.

JRAD flips the script by opening with the bluesy ballad “Black-Throated Wind” and using it as a platform for an incendiary jam that’s more reminiscent of a “Jack Straw” jam with Hamilton shredding fiery licks like there’s no tomorrow. The first set also features hot jams on “China Cat Sunflower”, “Cumberland Blues” and “Shakedown Street” which find the band firing on all cylinders. There’s a sense that the band understands headlining the last night of High Sierra is a big deal. A short set break gives way to a sparkling second set that opens with a shimmering take on “Foolish Heart” and a smoking jam on “The Music Never Stopped”. 

“Music Never” is one of those songs that really capture the essence of what both the Grateful Dead and the High Sierra Music Festival are all about, with the tale of “a band beyond description…  a rainbow full of sound… they’re setting us on fire… we forgot about the time… and the band keeps playing on…” The anthemic “Help on the Way” is another timely number that arguably epitomizes the psychedelic rock ‘n’ roll counterculture vibe like no other. One of the Dead’s most dynamic songs, the lyrics call out the capitalist race to the bottom while seeking a better way: “Tell me the cost, I can pay, let me go, tell me love is not lost, Sell everything, Without love day to day, insanity’s king… Without love in the dream it’ll never come true.” The dream is very much alive here at High Sierra with JRAD absolutely tearing it up.

JRAD / Photo: Susan J. Weiand

The quintet concludes the set with a truly multi-dimensional performance of “Playing in the Band”. The entire stage seems like it might be about to levitate and there’s a moment where it looks like keyboard maestro Marco Benevento is the one orchestrating the whole thing, as a telepathic tone scientist with a Jedi connection to his bandmates. Russo hints at Benevento’s larger role in the grand cosmic scheme of things at the end when he thanks the audience and speaks of how it was the keyboardist who got The Benevento/Russo Duo booked at High Sierra in 2002, and then they drove across the country to play their first ever festival gig.

Benevento also played the Grandstand stage with his solo trio earlier in the day in the 1:45-3:15 slot. Regular bassist Karina Rykman was absent due to having her own gig back east at the Peach Festival in Pennsylvania (with many bands flying across the country to play both festivals), but stalwart scenester Reed Mathis fills in for a fun set with groovy jams on songs like “At the End of the Beginning” from the keyboardist’s new self-titled album.

The climactic Sunday evening fun then continues with the late shows where Orgone opens for The Nth Power, opposite a two-set performance from Pigeons Playing Ping Pong. The Maryland-based jam-rockers of Pigeons generate a stellar vibe with their funky guitar-driven jams and psychedelic light show, conjuring a very groovy late-night dance party. Lead guitarist Jeremy Schon (who would no doubt be played by Andy Samberg if a biopic about the band were ever to be made) makes a big impression.  Schon traded fiery licks on an impressive jam with guest Dan Lebowitz during the band’s grandstand set on Saturday evening, and he puts on a guitar clinic here in the late show. Pigeons hit peak zeitgeist on “Mission KillPossiBill”, a dazzling instrumental mashing up the “Mission Impossible” theme with “Battle Without Honor or Humanity” from the Kill Bill Vol. 1 soundtrack for one of the weekend’s most memorable jams.

Pigeons Playing Ping Pong
Pigeons Playing Ping Pong / Photo: Ming Poon

But then even after Pigeons concludes their monster late show around 3 am, music junkies can still wander across the walkway to the Funk’n Jamhouse and find The Nth Power crushing a sensational version of Earth, Wind and Fire’s “Shining Star” for yet another magic moment. The soulful trio of drummer Nikki Glaspie, bassist Nate Edgar, and singer/guitarist Nick Cassarino formed at a late-night jam session at the New Orleans Jazz Fest in 2012, making them a perfect fit for High Sierra. 

The trio also led a great set at Big Meadow with multiple guests to start the day billed as “The Gospel According to Nth” (not to mention a Steely Dan tribute set on Saturday night), but it’s here in the final set of the festival that the trio shines the brightest. The band excels at classic funk and soul, but they’ve got their own gems too with uplifting songs like “A New Day” from 2021’s Reverence album and “Only Love” from 2015’s Abundance. Cassarino really shines when he implores listeners to “shine on” during  “A New Day”. He also vocalizes a key sentiment that has long pervaded High Sierra when he tells the audience that “We can make this world a better place”, as he encourages everyone to keep the faith that we can still change the world (similar to the sentiment expressed by Femi Kuti at the Grandstand on Saturday.)

And then – wandering out of the Funk’n Jamhouse after The Nth Power has concluded the festival’s schedule – one can still stumble upon more musical transcendence. A person could find a friend during the Nth Power set, start walking toward their campground to hang out, and come across some other festivarians who have set up a little DJ table to spin some tunes. A handful of people are getting down to a groovy electrofunk number where a vocalist sings the memorable lines, “Come on take a ride on the good life baby, You got nothing to lose on the upside, there ain’t no shame in the getdown”. There are about ten people getting down here with psychedelic glow bling, and it feels so good to keep the festivities going.

Googling the lyrics the next day, one learns the song is “Nothing to Lose” by The Floozies (featuring Eric “Benny” Bloom from Lettuce on trumpet) , a duo that had actually played two sets during the festival but ones that had conflicted with Goose on Thursday and with Lebo’s “Solid Gold Late Night” on Friday. And so one of PopMatters’ favorite songs of the weekend comes from an act we missed altogether but now can’t wait to see again – only at High Sierra! (having previously caught The Floozies’ festive aftershow party following Trey Anastasio’s Ghosts of the Forest show at the Berkeley Greek Theater in 2019.) 

High Sierra also deserves credit for not selling out beer vending rights to the corporate swill merchants as most festivals have. Sierra Nevada Brewing continues to be the festival’s beer vendor of choice, appropriate on multiple levels with Sierra Nevada Pale Ale remaining a popular choice as it has for three decades since first trending on the Grateful Dead tour in the summer of 1992. It’s a versatile brew that hits the spot day or night, though the festival also features two offerings from Calicraft Brewing with their Coast Kolsch which makes a great daytime refresher, and their Cool Kidz Juicy IPA that hits the spot in the evenings.