High Sierra Music Festival Day 1: Before the sun sets

Tahoe Onstage

Lech Wierzynsky blows away the High Sierra Music Festival on the opening day.
Tahoe Onstage photos by Tony Contini

There’s a buzz in the air. The potential energy is slowly becoming kinetic. Parked cars line the main drag a couple blocks away from the Plumas County Fairgrounds. More cars stop to unload way too much gear for four days in front of the main gate at the 2018 High Sierra Music Festival.

People are still figuring out which way is up. Huckleberry Finn-looking fools hold hands with their ladies, wearing fox tails and rodent ears. Local kids ride around on bikes to check out the scantily clad visitors. It’s but noon on the first day and some already need help standing up while others’ feet are so dirty it’s like they’ve never worn shoes.

Tahoe Onstage

Fresh and ready for High Sierra, fans get in tune.
Tahoe Onstage photos by Tony Contini

First-time performers feel out the first-day crowd. Longtime HSMF artists know day sets, especially on Thursday, come with a certain vibe. Colorful festivalgoers slowly start to dance and the artists thank them for it. It’s more important to stay hydrated than to be totally stoked.

The wind kept the first day cool, but most still clung to their patch of shade. It’s common to find people laying down in front of the Vaudeville and Big Meadow stages with a hat over the eyes, feet slowly moving to the beat.

As you walk around, shouts and sounds from shows blend together from the amplified stages to pop-up shows from marching bands between parked vans. Circles of players and listeners slowly gyrate. All roaming, all looking for something, most finding it.

Tony Contini / Tahoe Onstage

Liam McCormick of The Family Crest

The Family Crest from San Francisco, California, boiled over with energy even during their sound-check. They stopped “Beneath the Brine” short and someone from the crowd yellow, “We were there, man!”

“There’s more where that came from in 5 minutes,” flutist Laura Bergmann said.

Liam McCormick, frontman and leader of the group, said his parents were in the audience. This was his first time playing at the festival. He showcased impressive vocals feats of range and volume control. The band shifted through compelling time changes and slowly got the crowd to its feet.

“Alright, we got a good energy going,” McCormick said. “We’re good.”

Tony Contini / Tahoe Onstage

Y La Bamba’s Luz Elena Mendoza

Y La Bamba’s frontwoman Luz Elena Mendoza has played HSMF before. She was happy for her fans’ instant support.

“Thank you for being here with us,” Mendoza said. “We’re doing this together.”

Their vocals sound laced with a chorus effect, but it’s mostly the twin voices of Mendoza and their keys player. Interludes are filled with ethereal swells and scattered guitar scratches. Their bassist produces driving crawls up and down her instrument.

Mendoza sings in Spanish, shakes a shaker and strums her guitar from underneath the neck with left hand. She is brimming with skill, passion and dexterity. She reaches to the ground to play with effect pedals then gives the audience her passionate, loving voice. The rest of the band solemnly stares at her during solo parts as she plays her guitar and sings.

Toy Contini / Tahoe Onstage

The Motet’s Lyle Divinsky

The Motet’s singer, Lyle Divinsky, danced around barefoot in a Mary J. Blige T-shirt, mouthing the horn lines to the upbeat funk music. He was slowly getting the crowd switched over to night mode. He shuffled, two-stepped and got hands clapping.

Audience members started toking up and thick, stinky marijuana smoke filled the outdoor venues.

“I’m gonna go ahead and say y’all came to party today,” Divinsky said.

Each member of The California Honeydrops from Oakland, California, came out wearing overalls, one pair held together by carabiners.

“We’re getting nice compliments on these overalls,” vocalist and trumpet player Lech Wierzynski said. “I didn’t know you were ready to dance on a Thursday, High Sierra.”

I caught up with their drummer Ben Malament in-passing and he said it’s the first time he’s worn overalls while playing.

“We just shot a music video on a farm, so we decided to show up in costume,” Malament said. “It was actually kind of annoying. It felt like I was adjusting a bra strap the whole time.”

Wierzynski introduced a song as an ode to his 97-year-old grandma. He explained some of the wisdom she bestowed upon him. She said to not let some orange man get you down. Lots of the people in the world are always worried, and now it’s our time to be concerned. Keep love in your heart while you fight the good fight.

“It’s a good day if you’re at High Sierra,” Wierzynski said. “It’s a good day if you jumped in the river on your way over. It’s a good day if you just got here.”

— Tony ContiniLarry Sabo / Tahoe Onstage

Tony Contini / Tahoe Onstage

California Honeydrops

Y La Bamba

Tony Contini / Tahoe OnstageTony Contini / Tahoe Onstage Tony Contini / Tahoe Onstage

Related story: The Family Crest has a unique approach.

About Tony Contini

Photographer and journalist Tony Contini graduated from the University of Nevada, Reno with a bachelor's degree in journalism and a minor in art photography. He loves working with bands and telling stories. Photography portfolio: https://www.TonyContini.com

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