The Vibrant Images & Untouchable Highlights of 2019 High Sierra Music Festival (FESTIVAL RECAP/PHOTOS)

Jim James

It’s a common and necessary human need and it has happened as long as humans have walked the earth. We gather, create art in various forms (most notably music) and commune together in tribes. So, when High Sierra Music Festival time rolls around every year there is a clarion call that almost instinctively causes many of us to turn our heads toward Quincy, California and begin our annual pilgrimage into the mountains. Some of us have made the trek for over twenty years, some ten and some have only just made their first journey. Whatever the case, we gathered there and for four days we danced and ate together, we watched our kids run around and play. We laughed and sang and some of us even cried a time or two. We set aside four days of our lives to reset and rediscover the magic of art and music and hopefully that sent all of us home a little brighter, cheerier and strengthened us to face what can seem to be dark days ahead. 

It would be impossible to go through and recap everything about this year’s High Sierra, so I wanted to put together a top ten. Before you hem and haw about all the sets I didn’t mention, realize that I know that live music performance is about as subjective to individual taste as the way two people interpret their first sip of the same beer. This is my top ten and feel free to comment below and share your favorite moments and let’s keep this vibe high and rolling. 

Pamela Parker at Sierra Nevada Camp

Marty O’Reilly and the Old Soul Orchestra all weekend

If you know me or follow my writing, you know that I love this band more than just about any other. So, it was with extreme gratification that I watched hundreds of other folks, people who had never heard these guys, “get it”. And Marty and the OSO worked really hard this weekend, from their inaugural set at the Vaudeville that left heads shaking in disbelief to their absolutely rocking combo of “Letters > Preach ‘Em Now” on the Big Meadow stage to their tear-jerking “Take It To the Floor” playshop over in the High Sierra Music Hall, these guys were everywhere playing no less than six sets over the course of the weekend and cementing their place in the lore and collective memory of this festival. It was rad to watch them level up their career in Quincy and they deserve every accolade you throw at them. This band has bent genres to create a wholly unique sound that utterly defies any comfortable description. Unique music deserves attention. Listen to this band.  

Marty O’Reilly and the old Soul Orchestra

Toubab Krewe on the Big Meadow Stage Thursday

While Pigeons Playing Ping Pong, Thursday night’s headliner, was tossing out some rather ordinary jamband/funk, over on the mainstage, Toubab Krewe played a set that was as tight and engaging as when they first played the festival many years ago (2006?). This group of guys, fascinated with the music of Mali, have taken traditional African instruments (like the Kora) and blended them with electric guitars and drums to create long and trancey instrumentals that can find audience members dancing with abandon or focusing in on the precision playing all at the same time. This was a special “one and done” single set appearance at High Sierra for these guys out of Ashville, North Carolina and they made the absolute best of it. 

Soul Queen Sunday: A Tribute to Aretha Franklin @ the High Sierra Music Hall

Like Marty O’Reilly and the Old Soul Orchestra, Royal Jelly Jive charged into their inaugural High Sierra with serious swagger. They played like festival vets not wide-eyed virgins. In addition to their two blistering stage sets on the Vaudeville and Big Meadow stages, they played a tribute to Aretha Franklin on Sunday in the High Sierra Music Hall that beggars description. Never have I see the Music Hall so packed and yet so perfectly harmonious. Lauren Bjelde’s touching song intros provided context for Aretha Franklin and other Soul Queen songs that left some breathless, others crying and more dancing. This band, with their own brand of gypsy soul, is another that you will hear from in a big way soon if you’re not in on their thing already. They too leveled up in their career this past weekend and left many seeking out their sounds and talking about their performances. 

Lauren Bjelde

Mandolin Orange @ the Mainstage, Thursday

I wasn’t ready for how impressive this band’s songwriting is. Somehow, they had escaped my radar despite my wife’s repeated urges for me to dig into their catalog. There was something – one moment – in which it all came together during this sunny (but not oppressively hot) afternoon where the music mingled with the scene so perfectly that I cried. The idea that so many people and their children could be so perfectly happy in one spot made me wish the same for the world. Can we not take some of the magic and harmony of a music festival and bring that back to our daily lives in a way that will inspire others around us to do the same? It was a heady thought born out of heady lyrics, beautiful instrumentation and ideal surroundings. 

Mandolin Orange

St. Paul and the Broken Bones @ the Mainstage, Friday

There is NO ONE out there that plays ANYTHING like this Soul unit out of Birmingham, Alabama. I can’t even get into it because I have yet to unpack all that I saw, packed into a ninety-minute set. I saw Paul Janeway (vocals) eat his microphone cord. Seriously. I saw him shatter sound barriers with his voice and when he needed a break, his consummate band simply took over, powering through funk and soul jams while Paul sipped some much-needed tea side stage. I heard no less than five people declare Paul to be their new spirit animal – it was that good. 

St. Paul and the Broken Bones

Stanton Moore and Skerik’s Emerald Quintet @ the Vaudeville Stage, Thursday

Since their inception years ago, the “late night” Vaudeville Tent shows have become some of the most memorable and talked about gigs at High Sierra. Thursday night’s performance by Stanton Moore and Skerik fell right in line with all of that. Joined by Robert Walter on keys, Natalie Cressman on trombone and Scott Metzger on guitar, this was some seriously straight-ahead funk. This band had the Vaudeville hot and sweaty and booty-shaking abounded. It was a proper celebration for the twentieth anniversary (the emerald anniversary) of the year that Skerik and Stanton Moore, one of the funkiest pairings in music, met for the first time. 

Stanton Moore

ALO late night @ the Vaudeville Stage, Saturday

And it was back to the Vaudeville Stage for the Saturday night “late night” ALO set. Honestly, I watched this one from a distance, content to not wade into the potentially historic crowd that swelled well past the walls of the tent, pushing their way inward and craning to hear every note. I was ecstatic to listen from a few hundred feet out and this also afforded a fine view of what became a single living organism that moved as one to the vibrant sound of this one of a kind band. Honestly, I used to just be “okay” with ALO – I found them too bright and happy all the time but now I definitely get it. We NEED ALO in this world – their levity, their positivity and their vibes not to mention the depth and strength of their grooves. It was a total pleasure to watch the crowd respond to the sounds from the stage and all in the tent become a single entity. It was a scene I will never forget. 

Zach Gill of ALO

Del McCoury and David Grisman @ Vaudeville Stage Saturday

We knew it was going to be special, but we might not have known just how special. We sure got the idea as soon as that first song was finished, and the crowd erupted in cheers that grew to a deafening pitch and managed to shut down the performance for a solid three minutes. That roar needed to happen, Del and Dawg needed to know how much they were loved and respected. Here were two masters of their genre, on stage and playing together in one of the rarer appearances of the weekend. It was an honor to share space with these giants of Bluegrass and to hear their stories, laugh at their jokes and truly rejoice in the music – uniquely American music to which they have given their own mark.

And I’m going to slide this one in here because I can. The Travelin’ McCourys’ set at the Big Meadow on Saturday night might have been the finest played set of the entire festival. If I were twenty again and ready to cash it all in and follow a band around the country, I would have woken up on Sunday morning and followed those guys to the next town. Never have I heard such perfectly and passionately played music. Jason Carter’s soaring fiddle over Ronnie McCoury and Allen Bartram’s harmonies was literally as good as it gets. There’s a reason this band won a Grammy and I saw it right there in front of me! 

 

Grisman and Del McCoury

Cha Wa @ Vaudeville Stage Saturday

Cha Wa brought the deep New Orleans funk to High Sierra this year. They brought the spirit of Mardi Gras Indians too. In a year in which we lost Dr. John; his spirit danced all around the Cha Wa performances. These guys have that gris-gris planted deep in their DNA and it was amazing to watch their audience git DOWN to their sound. This is a band to watch in the coming weeks, months and years, as they perfect what they are doing. In the meantime, it’s just greasy goodness. 

Cha Wa

Sunday Good Vibes w/ Shook Twins and Friends @ Big Meadow

It was something my wife wanted to see, and we headed over to the stage for what turned out to be one of the truly golden sets of the weekend. With a revolving cast of friends that included Vince Hermann from Leftover Salmon, Marty O’Reilly and the Old Soul Orchestra, Erin Chapin from The Rainbow Girls and the inimitable John Craigie himself. They played warm songs, feel good songs like Petty’s “Wildflowers” or Lennon’s “Imagine” but the centerpiece of the set had to have been Craigie’s “We Got Stoned at the Family Reunion for Obvious Reasons”. It was simply an enjoyable, zero drama, acoustic set in the sunshine on a Sunday morning – the start of the home stretch of a four-day marathon celebration and it was the perfect way to begin saying goodbye and begin looking forward to next year. 

Shook Twins Good Vibes Set

And that’s it, but it wasn’t all. There was some amazing playing by Leftover Salmon, Andy Frasco and the UN laying waste to the Big Meadow stage on Sunday night (I seriously I thought I saw smoke when they finished covering Rage Against the Machine). Those were the moments – these are the moments. The ones that make us feel truly alive in the moment. Your thoughts will most certainly vary and that’s totally okay. The beauty of music is that it is a magical language that is entirely open to interpretation and personal enjoyment. It is why we can all come together once a year and celebrate perhaps the greatest of all human artistic endeavors – sound ephemeral and lasting but for a second so that we will seek out year after year after year. Thank you, High Sierra Music Festival, thank you to the organizers, the staff, the volunteers and, most of all, thank you to all the musicians and friends that make this big beautiful thing so beautifully unique and special. Let’s challenge each other to bring a piece of that light and beauty back into a world that desperately needs it. Until next year! 

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