REVIEW: Logging town becomes jam epicenter at the High Sierra Music Festival

Too Many Zooz performs at High Sierra Music Festival at Plumas County Fairgrounds in Quincy on July 5, 2019. Photos: Michael Smyth.

QUINCY, California — The High Sierra Music Festival, held annually at the Plumas County Fairgrounds, might seem like an odd place for the epicenter of the West Coast summer jam scene. It’s a tiny logging and mining town that hasn’t changed much over time. Set off Highway 70, just east of the picturesque Feather River canyon, it both braces and embraces every July 4.

High Sierra Music Festival

Attendees at High Sierra Music Festival.

The hippies cometh and the 29th annual HSMF continued the traditions over the four-day Independence Day weekend. Escape was the name of the game, in a Las Vegas sort of way; though substitute pine forest and 3,500 feet of elevation for the glitz of the strip. Attendees came as they were, or as whomever they wanted to be. Each day there was an aspirational dress “theme,” but that didn’t always work out. High Sierra was a camping festival, with most staking out their claim for the duration.

The festival’s vibe remained the music scene rather than being seen. Coachella this wasn’t. There were 102 acts on the bill, but of course it wasn’t possible to take them all in. Still, we tried our best, catching about half. Much of the unique programming usually takes place at the late night performances, but we didn’t attempt to cover those this year.

Pigeons Playing Ping Pong, HSMF

Pigeons Playing Ping Pong perform at High Sierra Music Festival.

Like usual, the festival’s lineup was wonderful curated with a blend of popular acts across a comfortable range of genres. Pigeons Playing Ping Pong stepped up in weight class a bit to headline the first night, while more traditional top billing acts Dispatch, Umphrey’s McGee and Greensky Bluegrass did the honors over the weekend.

The middle of the High Sierra Music Festival lineup was loaded with up-and-coming acts, many of whom were introduced to attendees for the first time. The highlights included Royal Jelly Jive, Toubab Krewe, Gaby Moreno, Diggin’ Dirt, and most notably, Too Many Zooz. The New York brass trio introduced itself on the tented Vaudeville stage Thursday night and made a strong impression. The group’s late afternoon set on the Big Meadow stage the following day—a time usually set for food and recharging for the long night ahead—turned into a churning, bumping rage.  Saxophone, trumpet and a bass drum is all it took to turn 1,000 mellow hippies into a “Lord of the Flies” mob. By the time saxophonist Leo P climbed out of the crowd, even he looked a little bewildered by what had just happened.

High Sierra Music Festival

An artist paints during a performance at High Sierra Music Festival.

While new experiences are the great surprise, High Sierra Music Festival is known for the artists that come back year after year, and some who even attended as teenagers. Attendees could again expect special on-stage collaborations. Artists-at-large Natalie Cressman, Jennifer Hartswick, Skerik, Lebo and Maxwell Friedman popped up in set after set.

Many of them ended up playing with the Nth Power at a two-hour Marvin Gaye tribute, and also teamed up with Stanton Moore of Galactic for a couple of New Orleans and Texas blues and funk sets along with the Emerald Brass Quintet.

Marcus King, HSMF

Marcus King performs at High Sierra Music Festival.

As Sunday arrived the notion of one last push to finish the marathon was palpable. The campers were a little more subdued and some even had to return to real life early. It’s a shame those people had to miss The Marcus King Band on the main stage.

High-tailing it from Denver after having played Dead and Company show, the South Carolina guitarist played with blistering speed and bend on the strings of his Gibson ES, making us wonder if he might cause a forest fire. His band, which doesn’t make it to the West Coast too often, was also talented, recalling the Allman Brothers or Tedeschi Trucks band.

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