photos by Kory Thibeault
After the pandemic forced a two-year hiatus, pioneering NorCal gathering High Sierra Music Festival returned to the Plumas County Fairgrounds in Quincy, CA on Independence Day weekend. Fans were thrilled to congregate for the long-awaited 30th anniversary celebration, albeit a couple years removed, and the ever-colorful musical smorgasbord did not disappoint.
HSMF 2022 boasted standout performances from The Nth Power, The SLiP, Skerik & the TrueLoves, Lettuce, Molly Tuttle & Golden Highway, ORGŌNE, and Samantha Fish, among many others. Headlining sets included Goose, The Disco Biscuits, Greensky Bluegrass, Pigeons Playing Ping Pong, and Joe Russo’s Almost Dead. Fresh faces on the High Sierra scene like Little Stranger, Anna Moss/Handmade Moments, Ghost-Note, and Cedric Burnside proved popular, and are evidence the festival remains committed to its progressive evolution, yet also rooted in tradition.
My first High Sierra was back in 2003, and I’ve been lucky to return half-a-dozen times since that fateful first voyage. It got a whole lot easier to make it happen when I relocated to NorCal in 2013. Yet this would be my first time covering the event in the media, as I feel like the twice-delayed 30th Anniversary deserves some appropriate pomp and circumstance. So that’s what we’re about to get into.
Quincy sits nestled in the Sierra Nevadas at 3,500 feet of elevation, surrounded by sparsely-populated forests and wilderness—the kind of scene that has remained somewhat frozen in time, though there have been box store additions since we last visited in 2019. This sleepy, quiet logging/mining town of yore might appear a peculiar place for a psychedelic music party in the glistening July sunshine, but over the past three decades, High Sierra has steadily led the way as a premier summer West Coast jam hub for festival-goers of all stripes, styles, ages, and adventurous agendas.
[Photo: Kory Thibeault, Peter Rowan & Railroad Earth]
Located east of the majestic Feather River canyon and its stunning scenic byway, the fairgrounds are tucked away in a park just off Highway 70. The area is host to seemingly endless greenery, alpine lakes, swimming holes, and slopes galore. The venue itself and its natural environs make for a cozy, intimate playground that can sometimes make denizens feel like they’ve traveled into a different space and time.
As has grown custom this holiday weekend, a large contingent of diasporic hippies descended on High Sierra 2022, returning to the beloved annual destination and tradition with the zest and joy that has defined the gathering since its nascent beginnings. With all the chaos, division, and violence going down almost daily in the default world, the festival and its coalescing community allowed for a necessary respite from the horrors we bear witness to the other fifty or so weeks of the year.
In the absence of two straight High Sierras, it was crystal clear just how amped people were to get back at it, and after it—and we did so with gusto. There was also quite a bit of dust. Several days later I’m still feeling the effects, particles embedded in my throat and chest. A lasting souvenir of sorts, but one that could be better mitigated moving forward, as the event has done effectively in years past.
Our krewe camped by the outskirts, an area formerly known as the Shady Grove annex, recently renamed to Camp 70, probably because it abuts against the road. We arrived later than expected with the festival already underway, yet some kind souls from Idaho made room for us in their sweet little area as we settled into the swirl on Thursday night after dark.
[Photo: Kory Thibeault, The War & Treaty]
High Sierra is a classic camping music festival, where people mostly park outside the domesticated tent dwellings and mini-villages and doggedly shuttle their gear in on wagons and wheelbarrows. Dedicated groups of veterans go on late-night land grab missions, swollen squads swiftly building modest but detailed compounds. There are New Orleans-style parades with puppets and brass that sashay through the center of town, Shabbat services complete with summer camp singalongs, Torah readings, and freshly baked Challah. High Sierra is a rather magical place where quirky-themed parties and silly Burner-centric activities run all day and deep into the night, before spilling into a renowned sunrise kickball circus that is as essential a part of the High Sierra experience as anything else you might stumble upon at any hour of the day.
And then there was the music, which once again stepped up and showed out in true High Sierra fashion.
The programming at High Sierra has always curated a certain vibe. A brilliant blend of bands and performers that have all in one way or another descended from the psychedelic/improvisational Banyan tree, first born a couple hundred miles away in the Haight Ashbury hood in San Francisco about a half-century ago. There is something available at most hours for just about anybody who has found themselves drawn towards the jam scene over the past fifty years, and in some ways, High Sierra represents a vibrant primordial bosom of this culture, alive and well… kicking.
From wacky guitar-focused explorations, cutting-edge funk, bluegrass pickin’, and indie-jam forefathers to tribute workshops, young jambands du jour, gospel throwdowns, and eclectic performers and artisans with flavors that defy verbal classification, High Sierra is like a Baskin Robbins. That’s their brand; they’ve stuck to it, and still do it mighty well.
Goose – High Sierra 2022 – 6/30/22
[Video: Must Have Media]
If modern-day tension/release jams are your thing, that thirst would be satiated early and often, beginning with buzz-band Goose making their HSMF debut on the main stage Grandstand for two hours on Thursday night. Fans were certainly abuzz in the aftermath of Goose’s much-ballyhood two-fer at Radio City Music Hall just a week earlier; they received a choice introduction from JamBase co-founder & HSMF lifer Andy Gadiel before taking the stage. Later in the festival, sets from up and coming jambands like Spafford and Aqueous hit those same fans in a similar sweet spot on more intimate stages like the Meadow and Vaudeville.
Pigeons Playing Ping Pong, who’ve already developed a fanbase at HSMF, returned to deliver a Grandstand set on Saturday, followed by a full two-set late night affair in the Music Hall to close out on Sunday. If electronic-tinged jams tickle your proverbial fancy, Colorado’s Sunsquabi took people on a journey early in the weekend, as did electro-funk duo The Floozies, who drew a sizable crowd at the Meadow despite their slotting against Goose.
Andy Frasco & the U.N. – High Sierra 2022 – 7/3/22
[Video: Must Have Media]
Joe Russo’s Almost Dead performed a complete two-set show on Sunday night to close down the main stage, playin’ in the band beneath a beautiful crescent moon peaking betwixt the clouds. Across the way at the Vaudeville, Andy Frasco & the U.N. whipped the remaining revelers into a tizzy with a two-hour rock n’ roll circus. With his crack-band holding him down, the L.A.-based comedian/frontman danced the hora, drained a three, then got a flagrant technical foul because he just likes to cause trouble.
The Disco Biscuits – High Sierra 2022 – 7/1/22
[Video: Must Have Media]
Philly trancefusion/jamtronica godfathers The Disco Biscuits, who dropped some classics at HSMF 2003, made their first California appearance in over a decade. The quartet, who briefly called Santa Cruz home twenty years ago, took over the Grandstand for a non-stop three-hour tour, the longest continuous performance in the band’s lengthy, unpredictable history. Bisco closed out their summer 2022 jaunt with a hard-driving set that focused primarily on newer material, to the delight of some die-hards and the chagrin of others. They managed to work in an “I-Man” opener and “Caterpillar” closer, with much fresh produce sandwiched in between.
If bluegrass or acoustic music was more your speed, the options were typically numerous and ever-diverse. From jamgrass headliners Greensky Bluegrass, to Peter Rowan and Railroad Earth, to the next generation in upstarts Cryin’ Uncle, the pickin’ was particularly plentiful. I had the good fortune of popping into the Vaudeville Tent just in time to catch the delicate stylings of Molly Tuttle & Golden Highway reimagining “Cold Rain & Snow”. She and her brother Sully dusted off Bob Dylan‘s “From a Buick 6” along with a few of her songs that landed like love in the afternoon.
Greensky Bluegrass & Lindsay Lou – “The Chain” – High Sierra 2022 – 7/2/22
[Video: Max Berde]
Delightful duo The War & Treaty delivered their eclectic duet of soulful country, bluegrass, and R&B, and predictably were quite well received. As is their usual modus operandi, The California Honeydrops popped up all over the grounds, from officially scheduled stages to renegade sets at Bitchin’ Kitchen. Same can be said for the stupendous duo Handmade Moments, who continue to daze and astound everywhere they show up. (More on them later.)
The Playshop covers sets—located indoors in the Music Hall during the midday musical programming across the other four stages—are among my favorite High Sierra traditions, and I trust I’m not alone. This year’s tributes once again ran the gamut, from Red Hot Chili Peppers‘ Blood Sugar Sex Magic and Beastie Boys‘ Check Your Head, to New Orleans OG Bobby Charles, the iconic Muscle Shoals, The Who’s Who’s Next, J.J. Cale, and much more. Festival favorite Steve Poltz could be found collaborating with friends for a Playshop tribute to the dearly-departed John Prine, as well as performing his material and Billy Strings covers to dedicated throngs of adoring HSMF fans.
ALO’s LEBO is another wildly-popular HSMF lifer who seemed to be rocking out almost all the time, as usual in a variety of configurations. This year would be no different, as LEBO welcomed a smattering of friends to his stage over the course of multiple days and late nights, for originals and a bevy of classic hits of yesteryear. Lindsay Lou, Scott Pemberton, Skerik, Tea Leaf Green, Cris Jacobs, Ron Artis II, and the list goes on—High Sierra has cultivated a reliable assembly of musicians who never fail to please the people every time they return to these hallowed grounds.
LEBO & Friends – “Shakedown Street” (Grateful Dead)
[Video: Sean Fagan]
There is neither enough time in the days nor ink in the well for any writer to cover all of the incredible music offered on the tasty HSMF22 menu. There are numerous tapes and videos in circulation if you are interested in checking out or revisiting various highlights from this year’s 30th anniversary festival. Everybody has their own preferences and priorities. These are a few of my favorite things from High Sierra 2022.
The Nth Power
I’d be remiss if I did not begin with The Nth Power, who performed at Peach Festival in Pennsylvania on Friday before taking a cross-country red-eye flight and delivering no less than three phenomenal sets at High Sierra 2022. Drummer Nikki Glaspie, guitarist/vocalist Nick Cassarino, and bassist Nate Edgar delivered the goods in abundance, beginning with another in their tremendous tribute lineage, a scintillating Steely Dan set that set the Meadow Stage aglow on Saturday night.
The trio welcomed former keyboardist/vocalist Nigel Hall, keyboardist Peter Levin, plus ⅔ of The Regiment Horns—Leon Silva (sax) and Sean Erick (trumpet)—for an absolutely stunning run through some Steely Dan chestnuts, highlighted by “Peg” > “Black Cow” to open, a thrilling take on deep cut “Caves of Altamira”, a crunkalogic reimagining of “The Fez”, and the performance’s pinnacle, a wide-open “Home At Last”. At one point in the set, the band teased a forthcoming GAP Band tribute set in the works, something exciting to look forward to down the road. A robust “Do it Again” was sung by Hall, deftly segueing into the title track from Aja. With an inverted intro, the pristine number was revealed in all its magnificent opulence, complete with the iconic Steve Gadd double-helix drum section masterfully recreated by Ms. Glaspie.
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The following morning gave us another installment of a treasured High Sierra tradition in the Sunday Gospel set, this year hosted by The Nth Power and their fantastic friends. One of the most rewarding musical experiences in my recent memory, as Nth invited Nigel Hall and guitarist Adam “Shmeeans” Smirnoff (Lettuce), vocalist Adryon de Leon (ORGŌNE), keyboardist Peter Levin (Trouble No More), saxophonist Skerik, Leon Silva, and Sean Erick to join them for some Holy Ghostin’. Every cat on stage wore their Sunday best to this annual church sesh, save for Skerik, who apparently didn’t get that memo, or maybe didn’t pack any proper attire.
As our country slides towards dystopian division, masquerading as a bastion of freedom and tolerance while we implode and burn from the inside out, the scene on this stage was a bit different. What I saw and heard on the Meadow Stage was a collection of artists—Black, white, gay, hetero, Islamic, Jewish, and Christian—aligned all as One, a group of friends and family diggin’ so very deep to sing songs that gave glory to something far greater than themselves. This brand of Gospel is the sacred music of the Black church, and was delivered as medicine, in the most soulfully funky fashion imaginable. A preposterously potent performance, nothing short of life-affirming at a moment when maybe I/we needed it the most.
The Gospe According to Nth Power – High Sierra 2022 – 7/4/22
[Video: Must Have Media]
Later that same waking day, The Nth Power performed a late night set to close down the festival in the Funk n’ Jam house after ORGŌNE. For their third segment of the weekend, the band would partially rock as a power trio, and bring Silva and Erick back to the stage for some proper funk. The Nth Power took the remaining revelers on a run through their own marvelous songbook of originals with some detours into previous tributes like Earth, Wind & Fire, The Meters, and Bob Marley. In a weekend brimming with onstage brilliance, The Nth Power were unequivocally my MVPs of High Sierra 2022.
Anna Moss/Handmade Moments
Vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Anna Moss, best known from idiosyncratic duo Handmade Moments and also the frontperson of Anna Moss & the Nightshades, is an absolute revelation no matter what stage, porch, barn, wheelbarrow, garden, mineral building, or festival camp she chooses to bless with her myriad talents. Miss Anna was not even on the festival’s billing proper; she was a late addition to collaborate with LEBO on several of his sets. Joining LEBO’s crew, Moss shined on “Tumblin’ Dice”, “Rocket Man”, and a rollicking “Shakedown Street” during a lengthy set late into the night in the Music Hall on Friday.
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Naturally, she brought her partner-in-sublime Joel Lunsford to the party, and the Handmade Moments duo could be found doing pop-up sets all over High Sierra town, from the Foam Tub hang to Bitchin Kitchen and numerous points between. You have not really lived until you’ve seen this woman beatbox, play standup bass, bass clarinet, acoustic guitar/bass, all inside just a few wonderfully weird songs. And please believe, homegirl can sang! Wherever they set up at HSMF22, Anna and Joel previewed tracks from their forthcoming album End The Wars, and played a couple from Paw Paw Tree. Both members joined up with the California Honeydrops, Rainbow Girls, and many more. I’ve been screaming it into the sky for a few years now; Handmade Moments—and now Anna Moss & the Nightshades—be sure to keep your eyes and ears on.
Though the band has been on hiatus until very recently, The SLiP remain an integral part of the fabric of High Sierra. At one point, they held the record for most consecutive appearances at the festival with eleven—a perch that may have been bested in the seven years since they last performed at this veritable home away from home. Dating back to 1999’s HSMF in the former confines of Bear Valley, there have been countless classic shows from The SLiP at this fest, and the terrific trio who hail from Providence once again would deliver the goods like only they can.
[Photo: Kory Thibeault, The SLiP]
Thursday night at 11:30 p.m., JamBase co-founder, internet-music pioneer, and longtime band manager Ted Kartzman—a HSMF lifer himself—grabbed the mic at the Vaudeville Tent and gave the boys a proper introduction, like a proud coach at the high school reunion. The SLiP promptly took the stage and uncorked a tour de force in precisely what makes this band indie-jam godfathers, and lightning in a bottle. Opening with “Children of December”, the Barr Brothers (Brad on guitar and vocals, Andrew on drums) and bassist Marc Friedman unveiled a torrent of their most treasured tunes, including (but not limited to) “Get Me With Fuji” and “If One of Us Should Fall”, as well as a resonant, dark, and brooding take on “Wish You Were Here”. There’s something uniquely special about cramming into the cozy confines of the Vaudeville tent after the sun has long set, collectively blissing out with the right cats at the wheel, spilling into the stars well past the midnight bell. Few bands step into this slot quite like this one, and Thursday night proved they still remain on their game.
The following afternoon, The SLiP would commandeer the Music Hall for a buoyant covers playshop set that won’t be soon forgotten. Fans got the Led out early with Zep’s “Heartbreaker”, later AC/DC’s “Long Way to the Top” got The SLiP bar-band treatment. HSMF regular Scott Pemberton joined in on a pair of John Lennon tunes in The Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows” and John’s “Jealous Guy”. The boys really whipped the audience into a frenzied crescendo and a fiery encore, finishing with their own reimagination of The Band’s timeless “The Weight”, before segueing into their own seminal “Dogs on Bikes” to bring it on home. Victorious High Sierra homecoming for The SLiP from Rhode Island.
Samantha Fish – High Sierra 2022 – 7/2/22
Guitar phenom, blues sorceress, and brilliant songstress Samantha Fish returned to High Sierra after a six year absence, wowing huge crowds with her steamy blend of fierce and sensual. Fish rocked the Meadow Stage on Saturday and the Grandstand on Sunday, unveiling a new, streamlined R&B/soul sound by way of tracks from her latest LP Faster. Fish also delved into her bag of choice covers like “Either Way I Lose” by Nina Simone and “Don’t Let it Bring You Down” by Neil Young. Ably assisted by HSMF vet Ron Johnson on the bass, plus Sarah Tomek on drums and Matt Wayne on keys, Samantha Fish wielded a sinister axe and blended that fury with the touch of a smooth operator. Let’s hope it’s not another half-dozen circles around the sun before Fish finds her way back to these NorCal mountains.
Femi Kuti & Positive Force
[Photo: Kory Thibeault, Femi Kuti & Positive Force]
Femi Kuti & Positive Force took over the Grandstand Stage on Saturday for some contemporary afrobeat steeped in fiery, funky Nigerian traditions. Sharing the stage with his son Made, Femi—who recently turned 60—was a shining light of inspiration, offering priestly benedictions between songs. Femi blazed it up on saxophone and keyboards as he led a super-dialed troupe of instrumentalists and dancers through his polyrhythmic catalog with joyful aplomb. Fans who persevered in the midday sun were rewarded with a rollicking run through father Fela Kuti’s timeless afrobeat anthem “Water Get No Enemy”.
Marco Benevento – High Sierra Music 2022 – 7/3/22
With bassist Karina Rykman doin’ her solo thang back East at the Peach, Marco Benevento—who also performed a headlining set with JRAD later in the night—dialed up old friend and collaborator Reed Mathis for a Sunday afternoon trio set on the Grandstand. Mathis and Marco have a storied history together, particularly at High Sierra, dating back almost two decades. When Marco first fired up his trio out West many moons ago, he would draft Reed and Andrew Barr of The SLiP for the OG mission. This iteration would include David “DB” Butler on drums, but the vibes remained old school with a wonderful “Greenpoint” opener and “Real Morning Party” closer, bookending an exploratory set that mined a few of Marco’s newest creations along with the classics.
The Funk! (Ghost-Note, Lettuce, ORGŌNE, Skerik & The Trueloves)
[Photo: Kory Thibeault, Ghost-Note]
The unfathomably funky Ghost-Note made their long-awaited HSMF debut at the 30th anniversary, and the badass crew made no bones about getting familiar with the festivities. Like The Nth Power, Ghost-Note rocked three full sets over two days, making an indelible mark no matter what stage they raged. Led by all-world drummers Robert “Sput” Searight and Nate Werth, plus kaleidoscopic bassist MonoNeon and criminally underrated keyboardist/vocalist Dominic Xavier Taplin, Ghost-Note wasted no time Thursday night getting busy on the Vaudeville to set the weekend on fleek from jumpstreet. For their Friday afternoon Playshop in the Music Hall, the team dug deep into 1970s funk jams, bustin’ out Average White Band, GAP Band, James Brown, Al Green, Graham Central Station, and the Isley Brothers.
Ghost-Note chased that midday sesh with an evening throwdown on the Meadow Stage, mixing in a couple tunes from their critically acclaimed full-length LP Swagism. They dedicated a song to master djembefola and GN-collaborator Weedie Braimah, then spent most of the set leaning into brand new joints from about three-dozen compositions the boys have laid down since the pandemic pushed pause for the cause. Lookout for hot new bangers like “Sugarfoot”, “Mr. Groover”, “JB on Layaway”, and “Papa Mike’s Kitchen”. If the HSMF renditions were any indication, the next round of Ghost-Note cuts are shaping up something serious.
Celebrating their own 30th anniversary—and the 20th of their debut LP Outta Here—legendary hip-hop funksters Lettuce returned to High Sierra and made their presence properly felt, as is their custom wherever and whenever they choose to land their Voltron spaceship and bless up the masses. The late night LETT ticket to the Funk n’ Jam House was easily the toughest to come by over the course of the four days. Nearly two hours of bombastic fury delivered from 2:00–4:00 a.m. on Saturday was Grade A Lettuce uncorked live ‘n’ direct in a very intimate setting. Highlights from the late show included a ridiculous run through “House of LETT”, “Trapezoid” > “Vamanos”, and later a diabolical “Mt. Crushmore” that segued (unplanned) into Herbie Hancock‘s timeless funk chestnut “Chameleon”. A set-closing “Madison Square” gave way to a slow’d ‘n’ throw’d “Thank You For Talking to Me Africa” by San Francisco funk/soul pioneer Sly Stone.
Lettuce – High Sierra – 7/3/22
[Video: Jessica Anne]
Lettuce’s Nigel Hall twice rocked with the aforementioned Nth Power during his stay at HSMF 2022—a group he helped found and continues to collaborate with. Eric “Benny” Bloom would later join Hall with Skerik & The Trueloves before Lettuce took the Meadow stage for the final set of the weekend.
Led by bassist Jesus Coomes laying down the low end theories in a marvelous turquoise kimono, the sextet battled through onstage monitor issues to drop the hammer with authority. LETT opened with a rollicking “RVA Dance” from Unify, their recently released masterpiece. That joint segued slickly into “Lock it in the Pocket”, an obscure funk banger from Philly sax legend Grover Washington Jr. Then came some dark, demonic Miles Davis in a brief “Black Satin”, culled from 1972’s underrated On the Corner. The boys peeled off the brand new “Shine”, a lush and laconic Smirnoff-penned number that recalls A Tribe Called Quest. They also dove deep into some Native Tongues with a take on Busta Rhymes‘ “Fire it Up” instrumental. Naturally, Bloom and saxophonist Ryan Zoidis invited their buddy Skerik to the stage for the appropriately titled “Squadlive”, an old school LETT jam from 2008’s RAGE that was the final slice of Lettucefunk for HSMF22.
ORGŌNE – High Sierra 2022 – 7/3/22
[Video: Jessica Anne]
SoCal vintage soul squadron ORGŌNE were scintillating both times they took the High Sierra stage. Saturday night at the Vaudeville Tent, the veteran vibe junkies showed and proved just why they are among the finest purveyors of classic garage funk and fatback soul jams over the past two decades. Singer Adryon de Leon blessed the fest with her gifts for the Sunday morning gospel affair before joining ORGŌNE late-night in the Funk n’ Jam House for what she’d later reveal was her final show with the band for the foreseeable future. It was all love and a few tears as Sergio Rios, Dan Hastie, Sean O’Shea, the divine Ms. de Leon, and the rest of ORGONE roared their way through a choice selection of original platters, some as recent as Moonshadows, others from the early days. As is their classy custom, ORGŌNE spiced things up with a few sexy covers. This writer’s highlights included William DeVaughn‘s “Thankful For What You Got” and Jimmie Thomas‘ “I Sold My Heart to the Junkman”, which ORGŌNE recorded with Cyril Neville a few years back. The latter’s lead vocals were sung by vocalist/percussionist Terrin Ector, who came out from behind the congas to do the Uptown Ruler proud.
Skerik & the Trueloves
Skerik & the Trueloves Ft. Eric Benny Bloom & Nigel Hall – High Sierra 2022 – 7/3/22
[Video: Jessica Anne]
In addition to popping up all over the festival as an artist-at-large, inimitable saxophone madman Skerik performed two sets with his uber-funky Seattle compatriots The Trueloves. Drummer David McGraw, bassist Bryant Moore, percussionist Iván Galvez, and four horn players—trombonists Jason Cressey and Greg Kramer and saxophonists Gordon Brown and Skerik. The Trueloves mixed things up with songs from their debut LP Famous Last Words, Color Red sophomore record Sunday Afternoon, and a couple of 45s in between them. As to be expected, Skerik and his funky-soul krewe threw down the goods with reckless abandon, both in the Vaudeville tent on Saturday afternoon, and Sunday night on the Meadow. The latter included a full-set sit-in from the superhumanly talented Nigel Hall and a choice trumpet solo from his Lettuce bandmate Benny Bloom.
High Sierra Music Festival is kind of the grand-daddy of ’em all, and I’m proud to report that it remains the down-to-earth, folksy, vibey gathering it’s always been. It was a heart-filling joy to return to Quincy once again and congregate with this community, dance to the music, eat, drink, be merry, and play Prankster kickball at sunrise. To all the artists, staff, volunteers, administrators, and producers of HSMF 2022, thank you for a real good time.