The 29th Annual High Sierra Music Festival wrapped in the early morning daylight on Monday, July 8, 2019, in Quincy, California as another resounding success. Standout performances were in no short supply over the Independence Day weekend. From top headlining acts Umphrey’s McGee and Dispatch, through lower card-surprises from Amo Amo, Ron Artis II, Star Kitchen or the Bay Area’s own local contest winners More Fatter all the way down to pop-up renegade sets from Santa Cruz based Wildflower & The Bees inside the camping areas.
Whether or not the band was on the bill hardly mattered. Every performance had something for someone, and sometimes the regular HSMF acts like The New Mastersounds or ALO could even be found performing at various campsites. You couldn’t go wrong with any choices. Musically, the weekend offered up zero regrets.
The event kicked off with the now-traditional “land-grab” where those first on the grounds sprint from their parking spaces to lay claim to a campsite on Thursday morning. While Shady Grove, Hillside Drive and the area between the Vaudeville Tent and Big Meadow Stage are some of the obvious and first scouted destinations, the Plumas County Fairgrounds offers expansive options for creativity in camping options. Even the barns or the open horse corrals along the edge of the grounds are fair game. As the weekend progresses, tents and EZ-ups start appearing along pathways and between camps, and the sense of a friendly neighborhood grew expansive.
Ask anyone that has ever attended HSMF, and they’ll tell you it’s a special festival. They will all have a unique reason, too. The individuality of the attendees and the variety of acts play a large part, too. There is too much onsite to possibly do and see everything, and that’s not an accident. It’s by design.
Additionally, the late-night options were three-fold. There was always a late set starting under the Vaudeville tent at 11:30PM, just as the main stage lights go down. There were also two on-site buildings that hosted indoor late nights. The indoor venues were available through purchase of a separate ticket for each night. You had the option of choosing from The Funk’N Jam House or the High Sierra Music Hall. The music ends under the Vaudeville tent by 2:00 AM the next morning, while the indoor venues both hosted a second act that will play until 4:00 AM.
Read along as we break down, day-by-day, all the things Balanced Breakfast experienced, tackling the sets we couldn’t manage at the end of it all.
THURSDAY, JULY 4, 2019 – HSMF 29 Day One
For my second High Sierra Music Festival, I was fortunate to be included as a part of “Space Camp”. I didn’t get to the festival grounds until close to 2PM, and unfortunately had to start my music viewing late as I added my footprint in Space Camp. Luckily, the campsite was right along the southern fence of the headlining stage, the Grandstand. This provided me the listening pleasure of Gene Evaro Jr. as well as Mandolin Orange. Evaro has been making a name for himself for a relentless and free-spirited touring schedule like a cyclone of positivity surrounding the Southwestern US. His music comes highly recommended and is best served live.
I did manage to make way to the stage for Karl Denson’s Eat a Bunch of Peaches tribute set to the Allman Brothers. Denson, an inimitable singer, and saxophonist fronts his band as a rock and roll preacher with a contagious fervor for funk. Some of the HSMF schedules were forced to under-go last-minute changes. Denson was called up for saxophone duties by the Rolling Stones for their North American tour, so having the opportunity to have him at the festival at all was a special treat.
The final main stage performance on Thursday came from Baltimore, MD based funky foursome Pigeons Playing Ping Pong. They had just come from headlining a two-set evening at Terrapin Crossroads in San Rafael and they were clearly riding a major wave of inspiration.
A huge “Whoopie” > “1999” > “Whoopie” sandwich preceded a 20-minute “F.U.” with a guest guitarist and honorary Mayor of High Sierra Music Festival and Artist-At-Large Dan “LEBO” Lebowitz of Animal Liberation Orchestra sitting in. Following the close of music on the Grandstand main stage, certain gates open and others close, changing the path and layout in that corner of the festival. This prompted several quotes and themes throughout the weekend about David Bowie’s Labyrinth.
Thursday’s Late-Night of interest included a second helping of Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe inside the Funk’n Jam House. Where his afternoon slot on the main stage was all about the Allman Brothers, the late-night set truly allowed Denson the chance to spread his wings and take the audience on a spiritual journey in sound.
The second show of the Funk’N Jam House on Thursday was the highlight of the day, and I’m glad I stuck around. Admittedly, I’ve only seen The Disco Biscuits once, at Summer Camp. I liked it, but they don’t play out West at all anymore so I never see them. A friend of mine kept talking up Marc “Brownie” Brownstein‘s new band Star Kitchen, and reluctantly I agreed to give it a shot. I couldn’t have been more wrong about what to expect.
Featuring guitarist Danny Mayer (Eric Krasno Band), keyboardist Rob Marscher (Addison Groove Project, Matisyahu) and drummer Marlon Lewis (Lauryn Hill, John Legend), Star Kitchen is built to groove. During the late-night Natalie Cressman kicked off her birthday(!!!) singing and playing trombone on a handful of songs. Following Cressman’s sit-in, Pigeons Playing Ping Pong guitarist Jeremy Schon flocked on stage and brought a funky twist to the end of the evening.
After the music ended at 4AM, most of the festival retired to their campsites. Some went straight to The Lawn to set up for Sunrise Kickball and partake in the tail end of the Silent Disco. One of the coolest things I noticed about the Silent Disco this year is that it was not regulated just to DJs or Producers – groups like The Tony Glaser Band were plugged in and turned up loud – yet only audible in the headphones. It was surreal to walk by a band playing their hearts out, fans singing along, and only being able to hear the clack of the 1-beat on the side of a drum and some rhythmic shuffling.
FRIDAY JULY 5, 2019 – HSMF 29 Day Two
After a hearty brunch at Space Camp, I found myself starting the day briefly catching the tail end of Gene Evaro Jr.‘s final set of the weekend on the Big Meadow stage before making my way to the Vaudeville Tent for one of Northern California’s favorite female folk trios, the Rainbow Girls.
The first half of their set was quiet, slow and introspective. Most of the audience listened intently, seated on the grass. Soon after Caitlin Gowdy, Erin Chapin and Vanessa May began the John Craigie tune “Rough Johns”, Craigie himself stepped out from backstage to lend his voice to the tune. Then the Rainbow Girls invited special guest drummer to take the throne. With the addition of a drummer, the audience was now mostly standing and the whole vibe turned on its head.
The New Mastersounds had their festival weekend kick off on the Grandstand main stage about an hour after Rainbow Girls’ set ended. I had the pleasure of listening to the beginning of the set while recharging at Space Camp but soon made my way back across the grounds to the Big Meadow and Vaudeville stages.
First, I caught the new-to-me DJ and producer Templo. Templo used his afternoon slot for a very chill, relaxed down-tempo set. It was just as easy to sit back and listen to on the ground as it was to dance to. He had played the final set of the night in the High Sierra Music Hall the night before, from which a bombastic array of glitch and heavy drops sounded common.
Following Templo was the Cris Jacobs Band on the Big Meadow stage. Jacobs was making plenty of rounds throughout the festival. Earlier on Friday he and his band performed a tribute set of Creedence Clearwater Revival tunes during one of the musical playshops in the High Sierra Music Hall. Jacobs also was coming off a hot mid-week excursion around SoCal and Terrapin Crossroads performing with Phil Lesh’s Terrapin Family band both as an opening act and guest guitarist. The Phil run with Jacobs culminated in an afternoon 4th of July gala on the TXR outdoor waterfront stage.
One of the first major schedule conflicts reared its head next. Jennifer Hartswick Band was starting under the Vaudeville tent only fifteen minutes before Dawes hit on the Grandstand stage. Half an hour from the start of Dawes, Too Many Zooz took the Big Meadow stage for an interstellar subway ride.
After catching a few songs from Dawes and refueling at camp, Star Kitchen was calling my name. Having had almost a day to digest their late-night set, I determined that Star Kitchen was a cannot-miss set, and they proved me right. Although I missed out on St. Paul & The Broken Bones destruction of the backline drum kit on the main stage, Star Kitchen offered an unparalleled clinic on the modernization of classic feel-good funk.
“There are so many jams that happen in our community, so many times it’s like, these seven musicians getting together and they throw a name on it. A lot of the musicians are really professional, and it always sounds great, but a lot of times these seven have never played together or rehearsed even, and they’re expected to know all the songs, for better or for worse,” Brownstein told JamBands.com in an interview. “I’ve done a lot of those and they’re a lot of fun. It’s great. But, after doing things like that, I got the urge to play these types of songs but with a consistent group of people that had been rehearsing. I was getting into doing modern takes on classic funk and soul, but I wanted to spend time working on the music—to bring something more polished; a really solid product.”
With the core band of Brownie, Lewis, Marchser, and Mayer, bringing in guests to perform is an even more seamless exercise. On the Big Meadow stage for their sunset set, Star Kitchen welcomed Trey Anastasio Band horn players James Casey (saxophone), Jennifer Hartswick (trumpet) and returning from the late-night appearance, trombonist Natalie Cressman for several songs, including the Stephen Stills classic “Love The One You’re With” featuring Hartswick on vocals. Also returning to the action was Pigeons Playing Ping Pong guitarist Jeremy Schon for a funky take on the Billy Preston classic “Will It Go Round In Circles”. Check it out below:
The next act on the schedule was the top-billed headliner, Dispatch. An interesting choice to some festival-goers, as Dispatch’s draw on the West Coast felt smaller than some previous headliners. Many opted instead for Stanton Moore & Skerik’s Emerald Quintet featuring Scott Metzger, Robert Walter and Andy Hess closing out the Big Meadow stage. With Dispatch being a longtime favorite of this reporter, however, the opportunity wasn’t going to be wasted.
Dispatch has been playing the long game since returning to touring eight years ago. Their most recent studio release, America, Location 12, was recorded in Stinson Beach, north of San Francisco and released to a small crowd on a summer afternoon in Santa Cruz, CA. Since then, Dispatch has slowly been growing their reach, and it felt like the last two years since releasing America, Location 12 culminated in this headlining set.
The first three-quarters of the set was loud, raw, rock and roll with the classic and ethereal multi-part vocal harmonies that set Dispatch apart from other groups early in their career. I was in attendance at the 2011 reunion show in Chicago, and their performance at High Sierra Music Festival was one of the biggest I have ever seen from them. One of the biggest highlights of the weekend came at the beginning of the acoustic portion of the set.
Dispatch convened in the middle of the stage, bearing a striking similarity to the stripped-down Santa Cruz show, and performed a section of acoustic songs. The began with a wholly inspired version of the Grateful Dead’s “Uncle John’s Band”, backed by the emotional weight of performing in a “missing man formation”. Longtime fans of the band may have noticed that original bassist, “Sweet” Pete “Repete” Francis, was not onstage. In fact, shortly before the release of America, Location 12, Francis announced that he would refrain from touring due to a worsening struggle with mental illness and depression.
Of all the headlining sets on the Grandstand stage, only Dispatch (vs PPPP, UM, and GSBG) were slated for a 90 minute set instead of 120 minutes. They played the most songs, and even though they stretched a number of them out, Watch some of the set below:
Following the Dispatch set ending at 11:30 and just before midnight, a wedding ceremony and brief dance party reception took place at Space Camp. Unfortunately, taking part in the merrymaking of the joyous moment, I missed the first late-night option in the High Sierra Music Hall, Diggin’ Dirt. Luckily there was still more music to be heard, from NOLA superstars Galactic. The recent proprietors of NOLA staple Tipitina’s all but solidifies Galactic’s legacy among the annals of modern funk. Drummer Stanton Moore, bassist Robert Mercurio, organist Richard Vogel, saxophonist and producer Ben Ellman, and trumpet player Shamarr Allen took the stage with force. The limiters were off and the funk was out of this world. One standout cover was the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy For The Devil”.
SATURDAY JULY 6, 2019 – HSMF 29 Day Three
Saturday morning started with the traditional sunrise kickball. At High Sierra Music Festival, kickball was every day including Monday morning to close the festival. The hilarity of the whole thing comes from the mingling of those playing and an equal or greater number of those just hanging out in the field, unsuspecting of the game and their proximity. People tied themselves together for multi-person base runs and points. One man kicked a home-run and ran the bases all with his genitalia tucked between his legs. He even slipped on Third Base but he made it. On the perimeter, giant bubbles were being born and the silent disco was still in effect. It was organized chaos at its finest.
About five hours later, after a nap and some breakfast, I made my way to the Vaudeville Tent to catch another Cris Jacobs set before making my way to Ron Artis II & The Truth on the Big Meadow stage. Artis is a true artist, and anyone that missed either of his performances owes it to themselves to catch a performance ASAP. The man was practically bleeding from the heart on stage, leaving nothing in his tank. Waterworks were aplenty throughout the crowd and his fancy fretwork was more than impressive. If you’re looking for expertly crafted soul music forged in a fiery heart, look no further.
Artis was followed by CHA WA. Cha Wa is a New Orleans based band that came about in 2014, shortly after bandleader and drummer Joe Gelini moved to the city from attending Berklee in Boston. Their second and most recent album, 2018’s Spyboy, was produced by Ben Ellman of Galactic. That album was recently nominated for a Grammy award. Together with frontman J’Wan Bordeaux the band aimed to give traditional New Orleans music a modern twist. In Gelini’s words, “We wanted to take the roots of what we love about New Orleans brass band music and Mardi Gras Indian music and then voice it in our own way.” Definitely keep an eye out for these guys as they continue to rise within NOLA musical circles.
Following the Cha Wa set under the Vaudeville tent I made sure to catch my first helping of Amo Amo, another sleeper surprise hit for me. Amo Amo is led by frontwoman Love Femme and backed by a tight, locked-in set of musicians. Love handles lead vocals and a bit of guitar, Omar is also lead vocals with lead guitar, Alex is on keys, Shane on bass, and the band’s heartbeat, Justin on drums.
Femme, a session musician herself, was a fan of her four bandmates’ previous group, the Mother Tongues. “I used to just go watch them and dance for hours,” she tells Billboard. There was talk about her singing on some of their recordings, but that never transpired until the Mother Tongues was in the studio with My Morning Jacket’s Jim James during 2017 and Femme “just showed up” after taking part in a video shoot. “I came in with my backpack and just started singing with them and ended up staying there for five hours,” Femme says. “Omar (Velasco) wanted me to join. Jim thought it would be cool. I didn’t know exactly what I was going to do; They thought I would show up and maybe play the triangle or sing some backgrounds or play some guitar, but I ended up being pretty central to the writing process of this album.”
I passed on what I heard was an incredible set from David Grisman and Del McCoury as the duo Del & Dawg that lead into a hot performance from The Del McCoury Band under a packed Vaudeville Tent and instead made the trek across the festival site for Galactic’s performance on the Grandstand stage. They were joined by an incredibly powerful vocalist and ran through several of the same tracks they performed the week before in Santa Cruz, but they also dug deep into their catalog for an overall more blues-orientated performance than typically delivered. One major highlight was a cover of Paul Simon’s “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover”.
Following the Galactic set, I needed to make time to eat, and unfortunately, Jennifer Hartswick’s Band was in the opposite direction of where I needed to be. I returned to Space Camp and prepared for the descent into Horse Camp, almost directly behind the grandstand stage where another group of friends was camped. Horse camp was loaded with good food, great vibes, and the best people. They had constructed a stage and when local bands like More Fatter weren’t gracing the camp with their funk, the campsite attendees could be found putting on jams all weekend. But once we heard Jim James‘ set starting, it was time to move.
James is a phenomenal frontman and dedicated to his craft. Love Femme and Omar Velasco from Amo Amo joined James onstage singing background vocals. They were a stoic and dreamy counterweight to the high energy almost thrash-guitar style of Kevin Ratterman. James performed a wide array of songs from across his solo career, including a lot of material off of his latest release, the dual albums of Uniform Distortion and the stripped-down, acoustic framework of the same songs as Uniform Clarity. The set ended with the powerful “State of the Art”, with the bombastic light show and wild, almost erratic movements on stage giving the audience at the Grandstand stage a boost of anxious energy as the sunset.
Less than an hour to go before Umphrey’s McGee took a two-hour headlining slot, I didn’t want to get too far away. I refueled at Space Camp, rounded up some straggling campers and made my way back to the main stage.
For their return to High Sierra Music Festival, Brendan Bayliss, Joel Cummins, Jake Cinninger, Kris Myers, Andy Farag, and Ryan Stasik crafted an interesting, highly danceable and heavy rocking setlist. They started the set with four standalone takes on mostly new favorites. “Attachments”, “The Silent Type”, “Speak Up” and a classic “Plunger”. While maybe unimpressive on paper, each song was stretched out and featured a heavy amount of jamming and took up the first 52 minutes of the set. Only “The Silent Type” clocked in less than 10 minutes.
The second half of the set opened with a 35 minute “Mantis” > “1348” > “Mantis” and featured one of the best jams of the weekend during the transition into “1348”. Next, the band invited saxophonist SKERIK to the stage to lend his horn on the David Bowie hit “Let’s Dance”, really driving home the ultra-dancey vibe that the band emanated all set. They exited the stage for a brief, five-minute break before re-emerging for a three-song encore, beginning with “The Triple Wide”. Cinninger left his post on guitar to join Cummins on keys for an, especially spacey jam. He returned stage right for a swelling guitar segue into “Hajimemashite” and the show ended with the band finishing the “1348” they started during “Mantis.”
I almost had my doubts about staying for the entire encore, because as soon as UM ended at 11:30, Animal Liberation Orchestra (ALO) were kicking off their now-traditional late-night performance under the Vaudeville tent. ALO is a rocking, loving and feel-good band that jams. They have a devout following known as “Shapeshifters” after one of the band’s songs. By the time I’d made the trek to the opposite end of the festival grounds, the crowd was packed tightly and spilling out from under the tent on all sides. Together, guitarist Dan “LEBO” Lebowitz, bassist Steve Adams, keyboardist Zach Gill and new permanent drummer Ezra Lipp showed HSMF vets and newcomers why California loves this band so much. Listen to the show here on Archive.
Early in the set, they debuted their recently released single “Get To Do It Again” from the Creatures Vol 1 EP featuring The Motet drummer Dave Watts on percussion. Watts remained on stage for nearly the rest of the set, which also saw sit-ins from PPPP guitarist Jeremy Schon on “Try”, 15-year-old keyboard wizard Maxwell Freidman on “Living In A Plastic Bubble” and guitarist Josh Clark on “Blew Out The Walls”. All of the guests then exited the stage and ALO closed the set with their classic tune “Maria”, featuring a cut of the new Vampire Weekend tune “Harmony Hall” in the middle.
In deciding to stick it out through the whole ALO set, I only managed to catch The New Mastersounds‘ late night in the High Sierra Music Hall. Guitarist Eddie Roberts and vocalist Lamar Williams Jr. were both sporting eccentric paisley sport coats, handmade ad decorated by a High Sierra Music Festival vendor. The band broke deep into their catalog and covered songs from James Gang and the Sneaker Pimps.
SUNDAY JULY 7, 2019 – HSMF 29 Day Four
Sunday I woke up the earliest I had all weekend and I was still late to the 10:30 am set from the Bay Area’s own More Fatter. Led by the brothers Márk and Theo Fédronic, this young band from San Francisco earned their Sunday morning spot through an HSMF local band contest. Over the course of the spring, More Fatter beat out a slew of Bay Area bands. Check out this video of them performing their original tune, “Livin’ in a Museum” from their 2017 album where are you:
I wandered campsites capturing vibes and photos in the early afternoon, mostly hanging around the Grandstand stage and listening to Joe Craven and the Sometimers. During the early afternoon, this brand of bluesy background music couldn’t have been outdone. It was a perfect way to get people moving on the final day of the festival.
Just behind the Grandstand stage, set up at an intersection of walkway off the beaten path a band had set up. Wildflower and The Bees, a new band out of Santa Cruz, CA, set up under an EZ-up and gathered quite a crowd during their 45-minute set. I didn’t stay too long, however, and had to keep moving.
On the other end of the festival, Midnight North put on an incredibly fun and loose set full of originals and covers like CSNY’s “Suite Judy Blue Eyes”. Guitarists and vocalists Grahame Lesh and Elliott Peck combined harmonies and traded verses with keyboardist/vocalist Alex Jordan all afternoon. The hopeful, yet hard-hitting style of rambling rock and roll is given new life with bands like Midnight North, and their train is still roaming.
Following Midnight North’s rambunctious afternoon slot I made sure not to miss out on the third dreamy appearance of Amo Amo, this time under the Vaudeville Tent. The band was incredibly moving and grateful for their opportunity. They showed off their chops by stretching out some of their original tunes and really taking them to new places that you don’t hear on their self-titled debut record, released in April of this year.
Steel Pulse was the soundtrack to my dinner from the grandstand stage. I wanted to go and catch the rhythm first hand, but it was also the perfect soundtrack to rest my feet to at camp. I left camp as soon as The Marcus King Band started on the Grandstand stage, urging as many of my fellow campers to come with to catch Andy Frasco & The U.N. on the Big Meadow stage.
I’d heard reports over the summer that Andy Frasco was the highlight set of the year at Summer Camp, and after catching his show first hand in October 2018 opening for Pigeons Playing Ping Poing, I knew it wasn’t an exaggeration.
To the delight of many, Frasco’s set was off the wall. The band had wrapped a 4AM set the morning before and hopped right on the plane for High Sierra. Frasco began the set chugging whiskey and calling a manager over with a bag of giant mushrooms. The set was rowdy. Check out the first half of it here:
After 15-year-old piano prodigy Maxwell Friedman joined on “Let’s Talk About It”, I left the second half to catch TAUK. I love TAUK, but one of my only regrets of the festival is not sticking it out longer at Andy Frasco’s set and missing Vince Herman of Leftover Salmon and the most legendary mosh pit to hit HSMF during a cover of Rage Against The Machine’s “Killing In The Name Of”.
TAUK held down the final set of the Vaudeville tent, overlapping with Frasco. Their 10-song set featured more new TAUK than I’d heard in years. Familiar tracks like “Afro Tonic” and “Revenge of Weenus” were outshined by “Cocoa Butter” “Convoy” and a cover of Nirvana’s “All Apologies”. The end of the set also featured Maxwell Friedman sitting in on keys. I left the Vaudeville tent with just enough time and camera life left in me to make my way to Greensky Bluegrass’ headlining festival-closing set.
Greensky Bluegrass closed out the Grandstand stage with a wild and raucous performance dedicated to Andy Goessling and Jeff Austin, who were each memorialized with poster board images flanking the band on stage. Michael Bont, Paul Hoffman, Mike Devol, Dave Bruzza and Anders Beck also dedicated the Jerry Garcia classic “My Sisters and My Brothers” early in the set to Jeff and Andy.
After a nearly 13-minute version of “Take Cover” the five-piece string band welcomed saxophonist Skerik to the stage for three songs. The Phoffman original “Jay Walking”, Paul Simon’s “Gumboots” and the GSBG original “Run or Die”. The set ended with an impressively long and well-segued “All For Money” sandwich that included an eleven-minute “Kerosene” as well as “In Control” > “Can’t Stop Now”. They ended their set with a single song encore, “What You Need”. Check out the full show here:
Unfortunately, I did not have the bandwidth to navigate to a fourth late night in a row, and missed out on what I hear was a fantastic set both Leftover Salmon and the final scheduled performance of the weekend with John Kadelic’s Fellowship of the Wing.
All in all, the 29th High Sierra Music Festival was an amazing experience and we are already ready for the 30th anniversary to come this time in 2021. With all of the incredible music, I was able to catch, there were still TWENTY-FIVE sets that I missed and wish I were able to make. Some I blame on my legs and the photo gear I lugged, others were impossible due to scheduling conflicts. But the fact remains, there is too much goodness at High Sierra. Whatever you do go with, you can’t pick wrong.