High Sierra Music Festival Day 1 – Nightlife begins

Tahoe Onstage

SoDown onstage in the Vaudeville Tent at High Sierra Music Festival. They seem to like it.
Tahoe Onstage photos by Tony Contini

In the blink of an eye, High Sierra Music Festival goes from uplifting singalong songs and the picking of guitar gods to the womp-womps of DJs.

Ernest Ranglin performed as the sun set on the first day of High Sierra. His set was interrupted by a host applauding the “founding father of ska and reggae” and acknowledging a great list of accomplishments, from being recognized by the Jamaican government to writing music for the 1962 James Bond film “Dr. No.”

Ranglin was accompanied onstage by The California Honeydrops saxophonist Johnny Bones. Everybody at HSMF — from the fans to performers to the staff — love and appreciate Ranglin’s tenor and presence.

“On behalf of the music community, I would like to present you with a lifetime achievement award,” a staff member said. “Quincy doesn’t have a mayor, so we’re all going to be mayor today and give you the key to the city.”

Tahoe Onstage

Ska pioneer Ernest Ranglin accepts the key to the city.
Tony Contini / Tahoe Onstage

For future recipients, the award will be named after Ranglin.

Some of his music sits between the blues and surfer vibes. He can articulate notes super high on the neck, beyond the first pickup. He can tremolo his way down a guitar with his left hand over the neck. He also directed his band with the rise and fall of his hands.

When I guessed how a band called The String Cheese Incident sounds, I pictured super weird or nuts. Maybe Claypool meets Grateful Dead.

Good to see mohawks at High Sierra, man.”

It’s neither. It’s actually chill as hell. They have multiple singers that put out family vibes like festival favorite Animal Liberation Orchestra (ALO). They play West Coast approachable, feet-in-the-sand, soft-jam rock.

“So good to be in California again,” a member from The String Cheese Incident said. “So good to be at High Sierra.”

Tahoe Onstage

Billy Nershi of The String Cheese Incident.
Tony Contini / Tahoe Onstage

SCI delivered two of four sets they’re scheduled to play throughout the weekend. Usually, the rule for photographers is “first three songs.” For these jammers, we were told, “First 15 minutes.” If it was the usual first three songs, we’d probably be allowed to shoot their entire two-hour set.

The crowd gave me the funky vibes I had imagined. Even a 15-foot-tall Jerry Garcia started dancing. The gigantic human-maned puppet was way too lifelike. He’s creepy, inanimate and yet has more dance moves than I do.

I never danced before HSMF. The four-day party in Quincy was the first fest I photographed back in 2010. I wasn’t in my right state of mind during a Widespread Panic set and I danced because I got the feeling. Since, I have photographed the fest six more times and dance whenever I feel the need. A lesson you learn is no one is looking and no one gives a shit. It’s a great release and part of every culture’s psyche. It’s a unifying force.

I watched as drunken, full-grown men jumped over children. Kids spun each other almost end-over-end inside hammocks. Someone’s going to break an arm, but who cares? You’re at a festival.

SoDown from Boulder, Colorado, provided all the womp-womps, but makes up for it with the inclusion of saxophone playing.

Tony Contini / Tahoe Onstage

From Ranglin receiving awards to SoDown yelling…

“High Sierra, what the fuck is up right now, yo?”

He played a little sax then dropped a mix of Outkast’s “Roses.” The audience at the Vaudeville stage was extremely stoked, but no one likes a DJ’s music more than that DJ. That’s a fact. SoDown was brimming with excitement with every build-up and break in his beats.

The freaks come out at night at HSMF, and many are ready for EDM, but there also are opportunities for heartfelt singer-songwriter showcases at the Troubadour Sessions, where four artists from performing bands take turns displaying their music to an intimate crowd of about 50 patrons ready for something with a little less decibels.

“I’d like to thank High Sierra for giving me a dark room,” said John Craigie. “Don’t get me wrong, I love the sun, but I can’t be as sassy as I need to be.

Coincidentally, Craigie’s Wikipedia page describes him as a “modern-day troubadour in the style of Woody Guthrie.” It also cites Mitch Hedberg as a comparison, and rightfully so. He was hilarious and quick-witted.

“My guitar isn’t working,” Craigie said.

Tony Contini / Tahoe Onstage

“Did you plug it in?” Lech Wierzynski of The California Honeydrops asked, jokingly.

Smoke cheese every day!”

“I did about the only thing I could do,” Craigie responded.

Craigie’s first song had the crowd rolling with laughter.

“The bar was raised,” Wierzynski said. “What do you do after that? I’m going to stick to the game plan. That’s what I learned from watching a lot of basketball. I’m gonna keep playing Warrior basketball up here.”

He sat at the piano, confessed his love for California, but said it lacked in the peach-department. He played a song about longing for a North Carolina peach. During a break that’s usually filled with a sax solo, he let the crowd scat away. He repeated the part to give them another opportunity and was joined by The California Honeydrops’ keys player, Lorenzo Loera. It was a brilliant role reversal.

Nights don’t end at High Sierra, they simply turn into mornings. There’s always a party, freak show or late-night set to experience. All you have to do is take a few steps in any direction.

  — Tony Contini

Tony Contini / Tahoe OnstageTony Contini / Tahoe Onstage

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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