About This Festival
The lightly populated wildlands of northern California are ideal for creating alternative realities—there are plenty of communes and quirky tuck-away towns to testify to that (In fact, once the region tried to breakaway from California altogether). One of the coolest celebrations of this independent ethos is the High Sierra Music Festival. If there was a banner festival for this never-never land, HSMF is it.
Set in a quintessential mountains-and-rivers Pacific Northwest landscape, the festival puts a counter-culture spin on everything: the food is organic, the atmosphere unbounded, the attire one-of-a-kind, and the music pioneering. It’s a scene that stands in contrast to the manufactured music, processed foods, and conventions that plague the mainstream. Does this festival achieve utopia? Many of the festival’s dedicated fans would say ‘yes’ --an affirmation backed up by not only the magical vibe that makes every season seem like “the best one ever,” but also the lack of security problems that can blight other festivals. At HSMF, for four days at least, peace is not just a dream.
The core value of the HSMF is good music. The festival was founded in 1991, and has since grown from 20 artists on one stage to a 10,000-person event with more than 50 performers. Four days is hardly enough time to pack in all the musical goodness, but the organizers do their best with a nearly 96-hour binge of bluegrass, funk, reggae, jazz, electronic and some whimsical fusions like “newgrass” and “country punk.”
Big names lend big cache to this small festival--like Robert Plant, Ben Harper, Thievery Corporation, Ani DiFranco and Primus--but the organizers get a real hit off surprising the crowds with great unknowns, like Umphrey’s McGee and Tea Leaf Green—groups who instantly grew their fanbase with their performances there. Regardless of genre or level of notoriety, HSMF musicians aren’t afraid to spontaneously jam together, “cross pollinating” their styles and giving the crowd the sensation that they are witnessing the genesis of whole new genres on the spot: like when tabla master Trilok Gurtuand the banjo-wielding Béla Fleckcame together to create an otherworldly blend.
Such dynamism is necessary to keep discerning listeners on their toes. Your typical HSMF attendee is a not casual music fan looking for a soundtrack to drink a Budweiser to, but true sommeliers of sound. Their honed ears savor the slightest nuances of rhythm and note in their favorite songs. They track set lists, and compare one song version to another, and capture the shows on tape (unsurprisingly, the founders and producers of HSMF festival are Grateful Dead tour veterans).
This shared musical obsession draws the same crowd year after year, and the festival is beginning to take on a multi-generational quality: kids that grew up with the festival are now bringing their own kids. The Rockin' Nannies babysitting service make this easy, and plus there are plenty of activities to keep the little cuties busy; the clown Gumbo Wobbly heads off a kid parade, and Gala, the wood elf, is on hand to teach them about the magic of plants.
True to the bohème West Coast spirit, the sense of family at the festival is not limited to shared genetics. The “High Sierra Family” is pretty elastic, and chances are if you come year after year and hang your hammock at the campground, you’ll feel part of it. Even the stage performers mix into the family, so don’t be surprised if you find yourself sipping a tea next to Les Claypool, or if Leftover Salmon’s front man, Vince Herman, serenades your campsite from the back of a golf cart. You might even end up jamming with your favorite performer at a music clinic. It is this sense of intimacy that sets the HSMF apart.
Philanthropy is a big part of the festival, and just by purchasing a ticket, you’ve already contributed to the High Sierra Foundation. This organization raises funds for social justice, music and art organizations and relief funds. The environment is also high on the priority list; the festival generators run on biodiesel and all plates, cups, and cutlery are turned into compost.
The HSMF is festival is held on Fourth of July weekend, but there will be no rockets-red-flare or bombs-bursting-in-air at the Plumas County Fairgrounds. It’s unlikely that you will feel like you’ve missed out on anything. The world-class musicians at this festival ignite plenty of creative fireworks when they take to the stage together, and the free-spirited mores of this northern California crowd means that there will be no shortage of independence to celebrate.