A Fourth of July journey back to a place where so much began
By Jaime O'Neill
"We're a cross between our parents, and hippies in a tent."
singer/songwriter Greg Brown, "Spring Wind"
I can't really claim to have "covered" the High Sierra Music Festival
that took place up in Quincy over the Fourth of July weekend. Yeah, I
was there for the whole four days, and yeah, I heard a lot of music
and inhaled a lot of secondhand pot smoke and saw more dreadlocks
than I'm likely to see this side of Jamaica, but because I am no
longer 22 years old there were things that transpired without my
reportorial presence, festivities that belonged exclusively to the
young or the wired, all those who were still boogeyin' long after the
cows went home and I'd found my way to a bed.
But one way I can claim to have covered this event rather
exhaustively is because in most ways I'd been there and done that
long ago, in that same place, with people who are now grown old, like me.
Quincy was my home for a long time, back when I was just out of
college and my daughters were little girls. Going there to write
about the High Sierra Music Festival was a sentimental journey I
shared with my wife, who took many of the accompanying photos, and my
younger daughter, Kelly, now on the brink of middle age.
When that daughter was 2 years old, we moved to the high country from
the Bay Area, part of a mini-migration of people in search of lives
we hoped would be more natural, more authentic, less pre-stamped from
a mold. Like hundreds of other remote towns, Quincy provided a stage
for a clash of cultures that sometimes turned violent.
I had long hair in those days, and the first time I walked down
Quincy's Main Street, a guy emerged from a gas station yelling, "Get
a fuckin' haircut, hippie asshole."
The man who offered that greeting had recently returned from Vietnam,
where he'd fought in a war I'd marched against through the streets of
San Francisco and Berkeley. A few years later, I'd find myself
sharing drinks with him when he was tending bar a few blocks down the
street at the Capitol Club.
And a year or so later, I left the Plumas Club one night just as
tensions were building between a handful of hippies and some local
loggers who grew increasingly offended by the language the longhairs
were using. A fight broke out that propelled a half-dozen of the
combatants through the joint's plate-glass window.
That division lingers. When I drove up the long road from Oroville to
Buck's Lake to spend this Fourth of July in my old hometown, the
first people I talked to at the summit warned me to stay away from
Quincy. "It's full of hippies this weekend," they said, and I
immediately felt that familiar "us-vs.-them" animus I remembered so well.
Though all was harmonious on the festival grounds, there were a few
townsfolk who still harbored the old xenophobia. As the festival was
drawing to a close, on the morning I was packing up the car to head
home to Butte County, I overheard the proprietress of our
bed-and-breakfast complaining to another guest about the "hippies,"
and about Obama. "Well, he may or may not be an American," she said,
"but he sure doesn't share our American values."
I'd liked this woman over the three days we were guests in her lodge,
eating the breakfasts she prepared for us, but I'd sensed immediately
that it would not be wise to let the conversation stray too far from
I remembered when so many people like me were so much more accepting
of people like her than people like her were inclined to be of people
like us. And, while I admired the life she'd led up on that
mountaintop, I sighed as I put the bags in the back of the car,
thinking of how much judgmental bullshit so many had endured at the
hands of people like her.
The High Sierra Music Festival is held on the Plumas County
Fairgrounds, a place where I first worked as a full-time college
English instructor when the entire Feather River College operation
was housed, temporarily, at that site, with partitions separating the
classrooms in those old exhibition buildings. The student body was
mostly hippified young men and women who a) wanted to get away from
their parents and b) were drawn by the back-to-the-land stirrings of
that time. The idea was to get a dog with a bandana around his neck,
a Frisbee, some weed, then move up to the country and paint your mailbox blue.
For a new teacher, all the conditions were bad. So, returning to that
temporary "campus" for four days of music was bound to be an
improvement over some of the time I first spent there four decades ago.
And it was. The entire event was blissful, with perfect weather and
an enveloping mellow vibe.
The Infamous Stringdusters' set on Thursday was the first I saw, and
the band offered an energetic display of bluegrass virtuosity. On one
rousing number, the band was joined by Vince Herman, formerly a
member of Leftover Salmon. He's a bear of a man known to all as the
"Mayor of High Sierra" because of his ubiquity there, sitting in with
lots of bands, including his own group, Great American Taxi.
The Stringdusters came off the stage pretty jacked up, but Andy Hall,
dobro player and singer, still had ample energy to talk about the 15
to 20 festivals the band is doing this summer, including the
inauguration of their own "Festy Experience" in Charlottesville, Va.,
later this year.
"I love clubs, but the thing about festivals," he said, "is looking
out at a crowd of people, all of them so colorfully done up, and all
of them having such a good time."
After the Stringdusters' show, the constant exposure to the crowds,
the food, and the music began to blur, but here are some scenes from
an Independence Day weekend of American music held in a mountaintop
meadow known as American Valley.
Here are 13 ways of looking at a music festival:
1. On a blanket in front of me, a beautiful blonde uses her
boyfriend's lap as a pillow, stirring a response from him that brings
a lascivious smile to her lips. She gets up and goes over to whisper
something to one of her friends, then she and her boyfriend walk off
hand in hand in search of the privacy of their tent.
2. Six young guys, grubby from sleeping in the dirt somewhere, are
clustered outside a supermarket in East Quincy. It's a glorious
Friday morning, and they are sharing a makeshift breakfast of fruit
and muffins. When they've finished, they wander away, leaving a dozen
or so strawberry tops and muffin wrappers behind them on the sidewalk
in front of the store. They're boys free to wander, but not yet fully
enough grown to have absorbed the lesson their mothers may have
taught them about cleaning up after themselves and not leaving behind
evidence to feed the "hippie" stereotypes held by some of the locals.
3. Kate Gaffney plays a great set on Friday afternoon. This is her
first year as a featured performer, though she'd attended the High
Sierra festival before, as one of the thousands of fans.
Even in a musical galaxy crowded with shining stars, she seems
special, with a distinct voice and stage presence that win her new
fans. She does stellar versions of tunes by Bob Dylan and Woody
Guthrie, in addition to her own well-crafted numbers. By the time she
closes out her set with a song called "Tired Wired," the crowd in
front of the Grandstand stage has swelled, and they are on their
Interviewed backstage, she is elated. "Playing this festival is like
a waking daydream. That last song really expresses how this
experience goes for me, whether I'm performing or attending. I'm
tired wired, from early morning 'til late at night."
4. One of the guys waiting for the Avett Brothers' Saturday set to
begin is relating some of his prior experiences. Bragging rights
attach to an extensive résumé of music festivals, and this raconteur
of revelry is sharing his concert-going history with the somewhat
younger music fans near him. "A couple years ago, man," he says,
"those ridges over there were on fire, and after the sun went down,
the hills just glowed. I was so high. It was a trip, seein' the
mountain glowing like crystal, and the music just pumpin'. It was
fuckin' rad, man."
Most of the people here are young, looking for adventure and whatever
comes their way, but also looking for stories they can tell later,
some of which may even turn out to be true. When they re-tell those
tales years hence, even they won't know for sure.
5. As I make my way to hear the lightning-fingered guitarist Carolyn
Wonderland, I see a little boy wearing a T-shirt with Bob Marley's
face emblazoned on it. When the boy darts away, his father yells,
"Marley, come back here." My wife takes the boy's picture, then shows
his father what she shot. He beams, an expression beyond pride.
Gatherings like this are haunted by the spirit of Bob Marley, not
only because of the nearly sacramental use of ganja, but also because
of the one-world vibe.
6. From his cart, a guy who goes by the name Joe Peace dispenses
little ceramic talismans, all of them bearing the word "Peace" in an
array of languagesCatalan, Swahili, Estonian. He's made about a
half-million of them, and he's been doing it for 18 years. He plans
to continue making these peace pieces for the rest of his life. I buy
one with a design on one side and the word "Siochain" on the other.
That's "peace" in Gaelic.
7. The kids are alright, or better than all right, actually, judging
by the hundreds of them who are everywhere, some in diapers, being
wiped down with sunscreen by attentive young moms. And there are cute
little girls in fairy outfits, their faces painted, dancing to the
sounds their parents had come to hear. And there are 7- or
8-year-olds trying to master hula hoops and Frisbees, all of them
irresistibly cute, and nary a one ill-behaved.
8. Backstage, just before her first High Sierra set, Rhiannon
Giddens, of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, nurses her baby, Aoife.
"What they don't tell you when you go into this," she says, "is that
if you're in a full-time working band, you've gone into business.
We've got six people who depend on us for their salaries. You've got
health insurance and all the other stuff that comes with running a
business. Sure, we'd like to give all our energies to making music,
but business makes its demands. Back in 2007, I thought we were going
to die, but things are really starting to move for us now."
Dom Flemons, one of the Chocolate Drops, plays banjo, jug and bones.
He decks himself out handsomely in a bowler hat and suspenders,
looking like he could have stepped out of a tintype taken in the Deep
South during Reconstruction. "We just played the Fillmore in San
Francisco," he says. "Joan Baez came backstage to say some nice
things. That felt really good."
A few minutes later, the band takes the stage to deliver a rompin'
stompin' performance that makes clear why Baez liked 'em so much. It
was a jubilation.
9. The Preservation Hall Jazz Band does their thing to perfection,
infusing large numbers of people with the joy of being alive. When
they close out their set New Orleans style, marching off stage into
the milling crowd while playing a dozen or more choruses of "El
Manicero," it is like the definition of the best party you can
imagine, everyone happier than they were on the day they first fell
in love. Ben Jaffe, the tuba player, attracts a bevy of lovelies, and
when the song ends and everyone is outside in the sun, just about
every female who's heard the band play wants her picture taken with
him. I ask if I can borrow his tuba since it seemed to work some
serious magic, but he says it's also necessary to know how to play it.
10. Darol Anger and Republic of Strings are on stage in front of the
grandstand arena, doing an extended improvisation. Off to my right,
three guys are smoking a bowl of dope. One of thema fellow in his
mid-30smakes eye contact with me, extends the pipe, and says, "Want some?"
I say, "No, thanks," and he looks at me a bit warily because I now
fit the profile of an older guy of the kind known to induce paranoia
in the hearts of people smoking dope openly in daylight.
After a few moments, I go over, put my hand on his shoulder, and say,
"Last week, I celebrated 16 years of sobriety, and you're the first
person to offer me a hit of anything in a very long time. I thank you
kindly for your hospitality."
"Oh man," he says. "Congratulations, dude. Is it gonna bother you us
doing this so close to you?"
"No," I say, "not at all."
I wander off to get some water. When I return, my wife tells me that
he'd come over after I left to tell her how cool it was that I had
those 16 years sober.
It is a true live-and-let-live moment. Now if we can only pass the
initiative to legalize pot so we can be as accepting of people who
smoke pot as that guy is of people who don't.
11. Quincy sits at an elevation of 3,500 feet. By the time the Black
Crowes take the stage on Saturday night, it's gone from hot and dry
to cold and damp, chilling those who've managed to acquire sunburns
despite lavish applications of sunscreen. The lights from the stage,
along with the clouds of dry ice, give an otherworldly aura to the
scene, enhanced by people adorned with day-glo headbands and
wristbands, all of them strobing as they move in time with the music.
The Black Crowes' set is magical, as my daughter experiences it,
having taken up a position just a few yards from the stage. I am
farther back, beginning to share the chill with some of the more
scantily clad, but everyone seems just as happy as Crowes front man
Chris Robinson, who is all smiles. "California smells better than
anyplace else," he says between numbers, a reference to the purple
haze, perhaps, or maybe to the smell of the pines.
The band plays mostly older favorites ("Wiser Time," "Remedy," "Thorn
in My Pride") and seamlessly works in a couple of new ones ("Oh
Josephine" and "Been a Long Time"). Most of the womenmy daughter
includedfind it hard to take their eyes off Chris Robinson. Of him
she says, "He's an infectious dancer, and an amazing singer and
showman. He gets so caught up in the music, like a skinny, bearded
Janis Joplin with Mick Jagger moves."
12. It's hard to imagine a crowd this large, drinking this much beer
and occasional tequila shooters, with virtually no fights and no
macho posturing. In this place, some 30 years ago, I once attended a
rodeo, sitting in the hot sun in the bleachers, drinking cup after
cup of beer to fend off the heat as I watched guys get thrown from
irritated livestock. As that afternoon wore on, the beer began to do
its work, making lots of guys in that grandstand start to think they
were bigger and badder than they were. One of those guys was me,
cowboyed up in boots and a wide-brimmed Stetson.
When I visited the men's room near dusk, my boot heels made an
assertive sound against the wood planking, and, after I relieved
myself, an idea born of beer entered my brain. At the door to the
men's room, I turned to look back at some 20 or so guysloggers,
rodeo riders, Indiansall waiting to take a piss.
In a loud voice, I said to that assemblage of men who were all at
least as drunk as I was, "I can kick anybody's ass in this whole place."
Some of those guys knew me, a mild-mannered English teacher at the
local community college, no one's most feared foe. They looked at me
with puzzled faces. Budweiser-stupid, I waited for any or all of them
to accept the challenge I'd just offered.
God looks out for fools and drunks. But later that evening, fights
broke out all over, and lots of guys wound up in jail.
Without the mellowing marijuana can bring, so much beer almost always
leads to blood seeping into the dry summer dust of those fairgrounds.
But not over this Fourth of July weekend just passed.
13. I miss seeing Chico's own Mother Hips, but Zach Deputy, a one-man
party machine who plays an impromptu set from atop his bus, has a
couple hundred people dancing with abandon on the promenade between
stages. And Ozamatli, the 10-piece band from L.A., turns in a
kick-ass set on Sunday night just when no one thinks there is
anything left that musicians can do.
Two days later, I called Plumas County Sheriff Greg Hagwood to get
his assessment. As it happens, the sheriff went to school with my
daughters. He estimated that 10,000 people attended this year's
festivities, creating their own temporary town, twice as big as the
one that hosted them.
"There were no assaults related to the festival," he said, "just a
couple of arrests for public intoxication. The promoters put a lot of
emphasis on security. The prevailing mindset of the High Sierra
festival is very positive, and they draw a fairly affluent and
The festival took place less than a half-mile from the sheriff's
office. When the breeze was right, chances were that clouds of
marijuana smoke from the fairgrounds wafted in through his office
window. How did he feel about the flagrant disregard of existing laws
against smoking dope?
"We have 25 percent fewer officers than we had 10 years ago," he
said. "With that staff, we can't enforce the laws against smoking
marijuana. I don't endorse it, but with the resources I have, there's
not much I can do. When it comes to cocaine or LSD, we don't look the
other way, but I just don't have the personnel to do much about pot."
On the third day of the gathering, as Trombone Shorty and Orleans
Avenue were whipping the assembled revelers into a sweaty lather, I
spotted a woman with a T-shirt that read, "Unfuck the World," a bit
of folk wisdom that probably deserves a place in Bartlett's Quotations.
As those thousands of peculiarly adorned human beings whooped and
hollered in an attempt to leave the woes of the world behind, the oil
was still pumping into the Gulf of Mexico, and men, women, and
children were still being blasted into oblivion in Iraq, Afghanistan,
and other places where human differences spill out of their
Trombone Shorty ended each song with a shout-out to the
audience"Everybody feelin' all right?"secure in the roar of release
and delight that would follow, all of it seeming to say, let's unfuck
the world, stop ruining our planetary home, stop killing one another
Given the opportunity, Trombone Shorty and his cohorts could probably
get a nun, a rabbi, and an imam boogeying together. The band was as
tight as a rubber band on a Sunday paper, sounding like a mix of The
Jazz Crusaders, Sly and the Family Stone, Jimi Hendrix, and their own
damn selves, a hard-driving ensemble making sounds that thumped
through all the divided human hearts. They did an extended jam on
"American Woman," revitalizing that tired old song as dusk began to
settle. With just a little more volume, Trombone Shorty might have
resurrected all those buried just over Cemetery Hill, the little rise
that divides Quincy and East Quincy.
There's a reason music was at the heart of the anti-war movement, and
the environmental movement, too. It might seem sappy to write it so
plainly, but music is an affirmation, linking us one to the other
when the band is good, the vibe is right, and the spirit is strong.
The world is indisputably fucked up, a condition obvious to all but
the deluded. A lot of people gathered up on the mountain over the
Fourth of July weekend to lend a little energy to unfucking the world.
Beethoven defined music as "the mediator between the spiritual and
the sensual life." Judging by the good, good, good vibrations the
music created at the High Sierra Music Festival, we might yet unfuck
the world if we can get the measure of that mediation just right.