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High Sierra Music Festival

by Jed Nussbaum on July 18, 2017

photo by Stuart Levine

The fact that High Sierra Music Festival celebrated its 27th year this year is a testament in itself to the powerful musical community it hosts and inspires. The California festival offers one of the most relaxed atmospheres of any four-day event, where the musicians come to chill as hard as the audience comes to party. Combine top-notch artists and surprising collaborations with longstanding High Sierra traditions like kickball matches at dawn that you can hear from across the fairgrounds, and its no wonder why so many in the audience consider themselves lifers.

This year's headliners covered the musical spectrum, from STS9's jamtronica dance party to Ween's venture into the weird. Trey Anastasio Band stretched out over two sets of pure funky joy, and Gov't Mule closed out the main stage for the weekend with a deep tribute to the Allman Brothers, including a rousing “Whipping Post” that had Warren Haynes trading licks with guest guitarist Eric Sardinas, a longtime High Sierra Veteran.

Artist Playshops are often the best sets at High Sierra, and sets like bluegrass guitar prodigy Billy Strings' tribute to Doc Watson and Lebo and Friends' interpretation of the Grateful Dead's album Terrapin Station were standing-room-only. Even more creative was the Heavy Metal Hoedown, a mashup band delivering mostly acoustic versions of rock and metal classics, reaching its apex when Mimi Naja of Fruition stepped up to belt out Soundgarden's “Outshined,” followed by her bandmate Jay Cobb Anderson's rousing version of Led Zeppelin's “Trampled Under Foot.”

Funk and Electronic-leaning acts dominated the late-night shows, with tickets to see Lettuce and Boombox in more intimate indoor settings selling out in advance. Corey Henry and the Funk Apostles' late show had the packed Vaudeville Tent shaking and sweating like a psychedelic gospel revival. During the day, it was anybody's game; White Denim delivered sexy rock 'n' roll grooves while funky upstarts Tank and the Bangas drew large crowds to see what the NPR hype was all about. The Nth Power demonstrated a massive dose of chops during their own soulful set, and dug deep for an Earth Wind and Fire set featuring TAB's horns, sax genius Skerik and others.
More musical discoveries were found in the campsites, where musicians not on the official lineup staged guerilla sets. The folky harmonies of Bear Market Riot and upbeat eclectic rock of Lumbercat won over new fans and brought the communal artist-audience connection full circle.

Authors: Jed Nussbaum