Annual West Coast rock ‘n’ roll festival rises to show what the counterculture is really all about
Summertime in California brings many traditions, and the High Sierra Music Festival (HSMF) is one of the best. Music fans from all over the West Coast gather at the Plumas County Fairgrounds for four days and nights of near-utopian peace and musical harmony that comes just about as close as modern times can to approximating what the legendary “San Francisco scene” of the 1960s was reportedly all about. The lineup is always focused on psychedelic jam rock and all its tangents, building off the musical revolution that grew out of the Bay Area.
The drive from the Bay Area is always a treat, taking festivarians through the beautiful mountain canyons of the Plumas County National Forest where it’s not hard to imagine Bigfoot and the like hiding out up in the hills. This year’s Conscious Alliance poster for the festival even featured Bigfoot strumming a banjo in the mountains.The 27th annual edition of the HSMF comes during the 50th anniversary of the legendary “Summer of Love”, and organizers have this in mind in the festival’s welcome guide:
“This year, we can’t help but look back 50 years to the Summer of Love, the summer of 1967, a year that brought us the Monterey Pop Festival… which became an inspiration and template for future music festivals like the one you find yourself at right now. But the hippies of that era would likely refer to what’s going in the political climate of these United States now as a “bad trip” with the old adage “the more things change, the more they stay the same” coming back into play. Here we are in 2017 with so many of the rights and freedoms that were fought long and hard for over the past 50 years being challenged, reinterpreted or revoked seemingly at warp speed.
It’s high time to embrace the two basic tenets of the counterculture movement. First is PEACE. PEACE for your fellow human, PEACE within and PEACE for our planet. The second principle brings a song to mind — and while the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band gets all the attention on its 50th anniversary, it’s the final track on their Magical Mystery Tour album (which came out later the same year) that contains the most apropos song for these times. ALL YOU NEED IS LOVE. LOVE more, fear less. LOVE is always our answer. Come back to LOVE. Have a beautiful High Sierra.”
The message is on point because peace and love were foundations of the rock ‘n’ roll counterculture, along with the notion that those ideals could be a platform to bring about a more enlightened society and “inevitable victory over the forces of old and evil” as Hunter S.Thompson wrote in his famous Vegas eulogy for the ‘60s. FUN is another key element, something the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia cited as his primary motivation in putting the band together in 2017’s new four-hour GD documentary Long Strange Trip. This key point about peace, love, and fun is what alt-right agitator Paul Joseph Watson from Infowars.com misses completely with his utterly clueless suggestion earlier this year that “the alt-right is the new counterculture”. No sir Mr. Watson, you and your ilk aren’t even in the ballpark.
Once festivarians get their camp sites dialed in, the fun begins with a string of musical treasures that starts on Thursday afternoon and keeps going all weekend. White Denim rock the Grandstand in the late afternoon, doing their best to get the party started amidst the 90-degree heat. Bands rarely draw a big crowd to the main stage in the afternoons due to the lack of shade, as fans have to pace themselves to last all weekend. But one of the strategic designs of High Sierra is that many of the bands will perform twice, so there’s another chance to catch them later on in the weekend. Being from Austin, Texas, White Denim knows how to deliver in the heat, and they show off a revamped sound here. The band has gone through some lineup changes in recent years and seemed to have lost some of their mojo. But there’s some hot rocking here as they display a new lineup that’s cut the replacement for the second guitar slot, and substituted a keyboardist to give the band’s sound a reinvigorated boost behind the dynamic low end of stalwart bassist Steve Terebecki and singer/guitarist James Petralli.
BIG Something takes the Big Meadow stage in the 6 pm hour and their funky cosmic sound makes a fun fit for High Sierra. The band also has the most intriguing item at the merch stand with a t-shirt that features a flying saucer beaming down an alien by some pyramids, leading some to wonder if BIG Something is altogether from this Earth?
GALACTIC / Photo: Jay Blakesberg
The cosmic theme continues with Galactic hitting the Grandstand at 7 pm and kicking the High Sierra party into full motion with their patented blend of New Orleans funk, acid jazz, and high-octane classic rock. Drummer Stanton Moore and his krewe always bring a festive vibe and with the sun starting to go down, fans flock to rock with Galactic. Singer Erica Falls shines on a charged rendition of Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone”, as the band infuses the song with a higher energy level to transform it into a groovy arrangement that puts a new spin on the ‘60s classic.
That sets the stage for Thursday’s Grandstand headliner STS9, returning heroes who debuted at High Sierra as unknowns in 1999 and first rose to headlining status in 2012. The band’s unique jamtronica sound and spiritually-oriented themes have made them a leading voice in the modern jam rock scene, conjuring a big dance party here. Some fans find the band’s set a bit heavy on newer material from 2016’s The Universe Inside, but the quintet’s chemistry rises above as usual. Tunes like “The Unquestionable Supremacy of Nature” and “Hidden Hand Hidden Fist” offer the deeper themes for those who track such matters, before the new “Light Years” finds the band digging into a sharp groove with some spacey ambience. The set is not at the level of last November’s San Francisco shows, but ever reliable anthems like “Inspire Strikes Back” and “When the Dust Settles” still provide a climactic conclusion.
STS9 / Photo: Jay Blakesberg
Thursday’s late night action features a Grateful Ball with the Travelin’ McCourys & Jeff Austin Band in the Music Hall, followed by San Francisco’s The Brothers Comatose. The five-piece string band has built up their Bay Area cred with 2016’s City Painted Gold. “We wrote this album living in San Francisco as it was changing from a weird, art friendly mecca to a place that only super rich tech workers could afford,” guitarist Ben Morrison reveals at the band’s website. “Things started changing — venues were closing down, and artist and musician friends moved away. What is San Francisco without its weirdos? That’s what the song ‘City Painted Gold’ is about, and that’s why it’s the name of this record.”
The Brothers Comatose have tapped into San Francisco’s ongoing existential cultural crisis here, and that sense of longing for the city’s rich cultural past infuses their music in a way that endears the band to fans. Here the band offers up a stellar version of the Rolling Stones’ “Dead Flowers” that demonstrates their ability to take a relatively simple classic rock song and infuse it with an extra dynamic to provide a fresh sonic flavor. Making it through the late shows can be a challenge sometimes though, depending on what condition one’s condition is in. Fans who feel compelled to get some rest, however, know they can still catch the band again on Saturday afternoon.
THE BROTHERS COMATOSE / Photo: Jay Blakesberg
Friday June 30
The early part of Friday finds many attendees taking it easy and trying to avoid getting too much sun. The playshops in the Music Hall offer theoretically air-conditioned refuge, although the cool factor can wane and border on stuffy when the room gets too full. But Billy Strings offers up some tasty tunes with a “Doc Watson Tribute” set that finds the youthful Nashville-based guitar flat picker delivering a clinic on Watson’s influential old time acoustic guitar stylings.
One of the festival’s surprise highlights goes down next in the same room when Bo Carper from New Monsoon and Dan “Lebo” Lebowitz from Animal Liberation Orchestra lead a “Heavy Metal Hoedown” with special guests in the form of artist-at-large Eric McFadden and Mimi Naja from Fruition. The set reveals how many Gen-X jam rockers grew up on hard rock and metal, as the ensemble employs acoustic instruments to reveal how heavy these songs still are at the stripped down level such as the opener on Ronnie James Dio’s “Holy Diver”. A deep catharsis occurs when Naja belts out an electrifying tribute to the late great Chris Cornell on a spine-tingling version of Soundgarden’s “Outshined”. Those who missed Fruition’s earlier sets are now kicking themselves a bit, but one of the extra beauties of High Sierra is discovering new artists during guest appearances like these. A timely rendition of Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” is another winner, as is Naja’s return at the end for another Cornell tribute on Audioslave’s “I Am the Highway”.
Then it’s White Denim throwing down a charged set at the Big Meadow stage. The band’s dynamic sound goes over better here than it did at the Grandstand, with a little bit of shade and cool breezes enabling fans to get into the groove as the quartet delivers infectious high energy jams. Steve Terebecki’s ever-compelling Rickenbacker bass grooves really pop here, while the band’s sound seems to take on a fresh dimension with the keyboards boosting the band’s psychedelia.
HARDWORKING AMERICANS / Photo: Jay Blakesberg
Hard Working Americans hit the Grandstand at 5 pm, and while the afternoon heat is still a factor, the band delivers a hard rocking sound with a high jam factor to draw in a curious audience. Fans who have caught the jam rock supergroup over the past two years are surprised to see that guitarist Neal Casal is MIA, later reported to have left the band due to time management issues since he’s also the hard working lead guitarist for the Chris Robinson Brotherhood and for his own Grateful Dead-related side project Circles Around the Sun. But HWA still has one of the more dynamic rhythm sections in the business with Dave Schools and Duane Trucks from Widespread Panic on bass and drums, while singer Todd Snider has carved out a reputation as a frontman with some compelling mystical mojo rising.
The new lead guitarist shows he can tear it up, although he’s got big shoes to fill with the way Casal catalyzed the dynamic jams. The daily High Sierra parade of giant puppets, stilt-walkers, and assembled freaks enters the grounds in the middle of the band’s set, lending an extra festive vibe to the proceedings with Snider seeming like the perfect ringleader for a three-ring rock ‘n’ roll circus. He speaks of his “campaign of chaos” while imploring everyone to rise up into unity on “We’re All in This Together”. It’s a timely tune for 2017, and the rocking energy here sets the table for the band’s impending late show on Saturday night.
MIKE GORDON / Photo: Jay Blakesberg
Bassist Mike Gordon from Phish leads his solo band onto the Grandstand stage at 7:15 pm for a funk-filled 90-minute set. With Phish oddly bypassing the west coast on their abbreviated summer tour, these High Sierra sets from Gordon and guitarist Trey Anastasio headlining on Saturday night are as close as California gets this summer. Gordon and his band come out with a purpose on a hot version of “Say Something”, then continue throwing down funky grooves and fiery jams to keep fans engaged. A new song that implores fans to “shake it out” seems promising, as the band gels on a dynamite jam that has fans indeed shaking their tails. Performances of the Talking Heads’ “Cities” and Phish’s “Meat” are crowd-pleasers as well, with this set being one of the weekend’s most consistently high energy affairs.
WEEN / Photo: Jay Blakesberg
Eclectic indie alt-rockers Ween follow Gordon with a fun show filled with their typically wide-ranging genre tastes that cover everything from psych rock to punk, country blues, and grunge. Perennial favorites like “Transdermal Celebration” and “Piss Up a Rope” find the mythical Ween brothers in fine form, with Dean Ween rocking deliciously fuzzy power chords and hot guitar licks. They’re not really a jam band and some of their songs sure are weird, but that’s something that’s generally appreciated here. Some fans want more danceable funk, and Ween delivers with “Your Party”, where the band throws down a vintage ‘70s rhythm & blues groover with some great electric piano jamming to highlight the set.
Deer Tick takes the Vaudeville stage at 11:30 pm for a raucous late set, although the band’s sound seems to have evolved into a harder-edged punk direction that catches some fans a bit off guard. The band’s early albums featured some heartfelt bluesy Americana rock, but there’s little of that to be heard here with the set focusing on heavier hardcore punk and garage rock. Perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising from a band that has performed full “Deervana” sets covering Nirvana in the past, but this Deer Tick seems like an almost entirely different band than they did in their last visit to High Sierra in 2012. Back in the campgrounds afterward, one tent is heard playing the older country soul and delta blues Deer Tick songs deep into the wee hours, as if searching for a sound they hadn’t found earlier.
Saturday July 1
Saturday tends to be the main event at High Sierra and today’s schedule offers a full plate. It’s too hot for most to head to the sun-drenched Grandstand for The Brothers Comatose at 12:45 pm, but one of the beauties of the setup here is that fans can grab some shade in surrounding areas or maybe even one of the hammocks dotting the landscape and take in the music in a sublimely relaxing manner that soothes the soul.
Dan Lebowitz and Stu Allen / Photo: Jay Blakesberg
The Music Hall is packed for one of the weekend’s most anticipated sets to honor “The 40th Anniversary of Terrapin Station” with a complete performance of the Grateful Dead’s classic album led by the dynamic guitar duo of Dan “Lebo” Lebowitz and Stu Allen. The pair are regular cohorts with GD bassist Phil Lesh at his Terrapin Crossroads club in Marin County, making them well-suited to lead this performance along with fellow Terrapin players Ezra Lipp on drums and Jordan Feinstein on keys and an unknown player introduced as “Murph” on bass who more than holds his own. The set is charged from start to finish with Lebo and Allen throwing down twin guitar leads, while Lipp delivers truly dynamic percussion to conjure visions of Bill Kreutzmann in his prime. Paige Clem makes a great guest appearance to help the boys out for delightfully jammy takes on “Dancing in the Streets” and “Passenger”, filling the Dead’s Donna Jean role with spirited vocals and a sassy presence to spark the players to higher heights. The band even jams on the obscure “Sunrise”, before a masterful rendition of the entire “Terrapin Station” suite.
The Greyboy Allstars draw a bigger than normal crowd to the Grandstand for their 3 pm set because hey, it’s ace saxman Karl Denson and his seminal acid jazz groove machine. There’s still a premium on shade though. This makes getting a taste of a mate-infused craft vodka cocktail mixed with coconut water, pineapple juice and lime from a Libation Station into a surreally refreshing beverage experience, enhanced in sublime fashion by one of Denson’s classic jazz flute solos. Then there’s renowned hippie troubadour Keller Williams playing an overlapping set at Big Meadow, which fans could just catch the end of if they stayed til the end of Greyboy’s set. But both artists would play again on Sunday.
Trey Anastasio Band / Photo: Jay Blakesberg
The buzz then builds toward the headlining performance from the Trey Anastasio Band. Sure his fans would rather see him with Phish, but they’ll take what they can get and seeing him here in his debut appearance at High Sierra fits with the Summer of Love vibe because there are few other musicians who have done as much to keep the psychedelic rock counterculture going in the 21st century like “Big Red” has. “Gotta Jiboo” is an early highlight as the band grooves out on a number that was debuted in TAB, but became a Phish staple.
The new “Everything’s Right” demonstrates Trey’s more mature songwriting style of recent years, a melodic rocker that still holds a bluesy edge with lyrics that provide endearing evidence of how Trey has embraced his role as a leader in a movement to help save the planet through higher vibrations. The song is a clear sequel to Phish’s “More” from 2016, in which the band sings of “vibrating with love and light in a world gone mad” because “there must be something more than this”. The band finds a tight groove here, with Trey and backing singers Jen Hartswick and Natalie Cressman harmonizing on the “Everything’s right, so just hold tight” chorus before going on to sing of how “this crazy world” is turning, “the long night’s ending”, and “the sun is coming up”. It’s the kind of tune that offers fans some metaphysical hope that everything’s going to be alright, despite the assault on humanity from Trump’s foul domain of greed and avarice.
Another Phish classic closes the first set in stupendous fashion with the uniquely infectious groove of “Sand”, in which the protagonist calls out an oppressor: “If you can heal the symptoms but not affect the cause, then you can’t heal the symptoms”. Here the horns of Hartswick, Cressman and James Casey add another element to boost the groove in jazzy fashion, along with the ladies’ sultry backing vocals as fans relish in the groove while Trey digs deep for licks that conjure visions of Jimi Hendrix’ Band of Gypsys.
The second set is a whirlwind of musical stylings, highlighted by deep jams on the older “Night Speaks to a Woman” and the newer “Liquid Time”. The latter song seems inspired by the band’s cover of Dire Straits’ “Sultans of Swing”, taking a sublime groove and using it as a springboard for one of the weekend’s best jams as the music starts to play the band. Trey digs in on some higher level lead guitar here that sounds more like classic Phish, as his bandmates all lock in to create a sound that’s greater than the sum of the parts. An electrifying rendition of “First Tube” seems like it might launch the stage into space to close the show, but it’s only the end of the set. The band returns for an encore that closes with a high-octane “Push On Til the Day” that finds Trey pulling out all the stops to crank up the energy to maximum overdrive. He jumps, he spins, he rocks out all around in a shamanic-like fashion during the jam’s furious climax to harness the power of the music, ultimately concluding with his now traditional Jedi-like raising of his guitar like a lightsaber for maximum feedback. Donald the Hutt beware!
The Hard Working Americans provide the late night party for the rock ‘n’ roll crowd in the Music Hall, hitting the stage shortly before 2 am and rocking the night with their vintage blend of classic rock, psychedelia, folk and mystical musings from singer Todd Snider. “Dope is Dope” is an endearing anthem here, as the band digs into a bluesy flavor. Snider has described the band’s most recent studio album Rest in Chaos as being along the lines of “the book of Genesis… as inhabited by a spirit resembling Philip K. Dick”. That heady vibe comes alive during the psychedelia of “Roman Candles”, where Snider sings of shooting off Roman candles in Rome so “that way nobody thinks you’re crazy”. Snider seems to have had his battles with mental demons, as did visionary author Dick, whose last novel Radio Free Albemuth was based around a theme of musicians being guided by mystical forces to put subversive subliminal messages in their music to inspire revolution against an oppressive Nixonian-like regime. This vibe serves as a springboard for a number of stellar jams, as bassist Dave Schools and drummer Duane Trucks seem to feed off Snider’s quasi-mystical mojo to get into deep grooves where the guitarists then cut loose.
Snider, Schools, and Trucks have developed some deep chemistry during their tours over the past few years, which is evidenced throughout this show and on the band’s impending new live album We’re All In This Together, recorded during dates in 2016. With Widespread Panic having ramped down their touring, Schools and Trucks have extra time on their hands. This gives Snider a great opportunity to take Hard Working Americans to the next level, a taste of which High Sierra receives here.
Sunday July 2
Many look at Sunday as recovery day to take it easy, as there are few festivals that last for four full days. But the hardiest of High Sierra festivarians will rise up and carry on. Grupo Fantasma brings Latin flavored orchestral funk from Austin, Texas to the Grandstand in the early afternoon. They’ve got a lively sound and have played some high profile gigs over the years, but it’s still early, and so fans can’t spend too much time in the sun. The afternoon’s main attraction follows with Keller Williams’ Grateful Gospel featuring Stu Allen, a two-hour set of Jerry Garcia classics given a spiritual gospel treatment from Keller, Stu, a four-woman chorus, and some stellar organ work. This is a set of which High Sierra dreams are made for “The Followers of Saint Jerome” (a Garcia fan group on Facebook.)
The opening “Sisters and Brothers” sets the tone, with Keller and the ladies ad-libbing “We can all be together shaking our asses when we make it to the promised land”. Ever a master of spontaneous improve, Keller throws in a line about the bright “High Sierra morning sunrise” during “Midnight Moonlight”. “Eyes of the World” and “Franklin’s Tower” find Keller and Stu rocking out on extended jams of GD classics, with Keller mixing it up again when he sings “If you get confused, listen to Stu Allen play…” One of the weekend’s most cathartic moments occurs with a brilliant arrangement of “The Wheel” that seems to call down angels from the heavens. Majestic harmonies on the classic chorus with subtle guitar interplay brings High Sierra into a state of sacred bliss. Eight minutes of almost meditative transcendence then gives way to a rocking jam on a dynamically syncopated “St. Stephen” that ignites the congregation.
Throughout the set, Keller shows time and again why he’s become a go-to player for festivals looking to add some Grateful Dead flavor, while Stu Allen shows again why he’s come to occupy Garcia chair #1 at Terrapin Crossroads. Both musicians were touring Deadheads themselves before they developed pro music careers, and it shows every time out. An up-tempo “Ripple” encore concludes the set with a flourish, as Keller and company continue to offer endearingly fresh takes on old classics that demonstrate the staying power of this music.
Walking back toward Big Meadow, one’s ear could catch a strain of someone absolutely shredding Jimi Hendrix’ “Manic Depression”. Following the ear leads to the Music Hall where artist-at-large Eric McFadden is once again leading another peak moment in the Guitarmageddon: Summer of Love tribute set. McFadden is absolutely melting face, and it’s great to hear Hendrix represented for he too was a key figure in 1967’s music revolution. The set concludes with a monster rendition of Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit”, featuring McFadden with two more guitarists including a lady who looks like she stepped out of an Austin Powers movie. She can play, and she can belt it out, and the Summer of Love energy is again invoked with vibrant force. Then fans can still get to Big Meadow in time to catch Achilles Wheel deliver the day’s second rendition of “Franklin’s Tower”, as they crank up a big jam on a more traditional arrangement of the GD classic.
Lebo & Friends launch the festival’s stretch run with an early evening set featuring the great Melvin Seals on keys, and a hot rhythm section of Bobby Vega and Jay Lane. Melvin even takes the lead vocal on JGB staple “That’s What Love Will Make You Do” before throwing down a huge B3 organ solo as the ever-present influence of Jerry Garcia continues to extend through the weekend. Warren Haynes and Government Mule wrap the Grandstand action with a powerful show that features some stellar new material as well as a tribute to the recently departed Greg Allman.
Mule fans can always count on Haynes to deliver a little social commentary in his music when it’s called for, and both “Stone Cold Rage” and the title track from the new Revolution Come… Revolution Go album sizzle with a hard-edged bluesy flavor that seems directed at the powers that be in D.C. The revolutionary theme is most fitting with the 4th of July approaching, as is the Allman Brothers tribute that follows since they were one of the most all-American bands of classic rock history. Eric McFadden pops up again here to team with Haynes for smoking jams on “Dreams” and “Whipping Post” that bring the main stage action to a rousing conclusion.
The Greyboy Allstars provide the action for the night owls, packing the Music Hall with party people who know that the late show is where Denson and his mates are really in their element. The audience here is well lit, with the band’s funky grooves conjuring some kinetic action on the dance floor that has some flashing back to the band’s debut appearance at San Francisco’s Fillmore Auditorium in the spring of 1999. There’s even a community vibe of strangers stopping strangers just to offer a party favor for those who feel like they’re dragging.
In the end, festivarians leave Quincy with the invigorated feeling that comes from the special type of event that keeps the utopian ideals of the Summer of Love’s counterculture revolution alive. The world may be going to hell in a bucket under the foul agenda of Trump and his economic hit men, but here at High Sierra the dream of people coming together to unite for peace and love under the banner of feel-good music lives on as long as the music plays every Independence Day weekend.