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A High Sierra Music Festival virgin no more: A look back at my first time

HSMF

A Slip ‘N Slide is one way to beat the heat at the High Sierra Music Festival.
Tahoe Onstage photos by Larry Sabo

For years, I’ve avoided music festivals. I don’t fare well in the heat, I’m not particularly fond of camping, and, perhaps most importantly, I don’t have the attention span to watch hours upon hours of live music. To put it simply, I’m a bit of a puss who would rather stay home and listen to the same Stevie Wonder albums than put myself in a position to watch bands I might not enjoy. It’s not a terrific quality but one I stand behind.

This year, however, I was given the opportunity through Tahoe Onstage to attend the High Sierra Music Festival to interview and review bands. I decided to go and wound up having a great time with some unforgettable characters. Here’s a breakdown of the elements that made my experience so eye-opening:

High Sierra crowd 2015The weather

During the day, by my estimate the temperature was approximately 361 degrees, so I spent most of my time looking like a puffy, agitated boil. Luckily I had a lot of sunscreen, water and beer to get me through the days and into the perfectly comfortable evenings that make sleeping in a tent a welcome experience.

After the first day, the heat isn’t really that much of a bother.

High SierraThe people

For a lot of people there, the experience was almost spiritual. I spoke with plenty of folks who go every year and have built their summer schedules around the festival due to a deep relationship with the music and the artists playing.

I was expecting a lot more burnouts to try to sell me acid as I passed the gyro stand (only happened a handful of times) but it was mostly people who, when you passed them in the campgrounds, made eye contact and asked thoughtfully “Hey, how’s your day going?” From the moment I arrived I was overwhelmed by the sense of community in an event as fleeting as a music festival.

The only person who truly bummed me out was the one I overheard saying “You gotta hydrate to vibrate, bro!” and that says more about how jaded and curmudgeonly I am than anything else.

HoneyHoney

HoneyHoney in the Vaudeville tent.
Photo by Tony Contini / Special to Tahoe Onstage

The music

I like songs. I get pure joy out of hearing a well-crafted and concise piece of music; that’s why I’ve never been able to get into jam bands. I understand that there’s something beautiful about a human being able to improvise and convey emotion through an instrument in a way that flows and moves but I just don’t have the wherewithal to listen to someone to shred a pentatonic-based guitar solo for the better part of 10 minutes.

A lot of the groups at High Sierra were jam bands and while it still doesn’t do anything for me, I’m now glad it does something for others. The String Cheese Incident and Umphrey’s McGee had audiences hooked from the first note and I understood for the first time that it wasn’t just the music or the musicianship that brought the crowd. It was the experience, it was the camaraderie, and yes, to some extent, it might have been the drugs.

There were also a lot of country/bluegrass bands and soul/funk bands that I fell in love with like HoneyHoney and Con Brio. It was at those shows that I realized how eclectic High Sierra’s lineup is. The range of artists on High Sierra’s bill illustrate that the festival’s management must be as open-minded and inclusive as the attendees.

Tahoe Onstage

Lake Street Dive debuts at the High Sierra Music Festival.

HSMF TOP 10 BANDS 2015
(a list within a list)

  1. Lake Street Dive
  2. Con Brio
  3. Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe
  4. The California Honeydrops
  5. The Black Lillies
  6. Galactic
  7. HoneyHoney
  8. Fruition
  9. The Main Squeeze
  10. Jennifer Hartswick

The location

About an hour-and-a-half drive from Truckee, Quincy, California looks like a postcard. Seeing the view of the mountains beyond the main stage brought each performance a sense of serenity. The town itself had a sleepy quality even with the influx of people, and the lack of McDonald’s or Starbucks was a welcome change of pace.

If I lived in Quincy I could imagine becoming protective of it and dreading the festival week but the locals were welcoming and kind. Children set up lemonade stands in their parents’ yards and locals pointed festival goers toward the best places to eat. The ability of a small, local community being able to embrace an event like High Sierra is a testament to the easy-going, peaceful nature of the festival itself.

I genuinely hope to go next year.

Tahoe Onstage

The Black Lillies, from left: Bowman Townsend, Cruz Contreras, Trisha Gene Brady, Mike Seal, Jonathan Keeney, Sam Quinn

Ben and T SisterHigh Sierra

About Spencer Kilpatrick

Author Spencer Kilpatrick graduated from the University of Nevada, Reno with a degree in English. He hates the Lakers and his top three emcees are Blu, Earl Sweatshirt and Nas.

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