For those who haven’t attended High Sierra Music Festival, it’s difficult to describe the level of commitment its attendees put into this event. Now in its 28th year, High Sierra Music Festival 2018 was a fully functioning, self-sustaining, family-friendly community of revelry, offering an astounding variety of music and activities over the course of four packed days. Indeed, this amazingly curated festival was so chock-full of amazing options to keep everyone entertained, that one has the luxury of choosing their own adventure depending on their musical tastes. It’s very easy to come out of the weekend having experienced a completely different lineup of music than your neighbor.

Seeking some face-melting jams? Attendees at High Sierra Music Festival 2018 could get their fix with Twiddle, Pigeons Playing Ping Pong, Spafford, Lotus, or Jazz is Phish. Itching to get down to some dirty funk? You could dance ’til the sun comes up to Turkuaz, The Motet, Lettuce, Antibalas, or Foundation Of Funk. Or if Americana/roots rock is your thing, they had Sturgill Simpson, Chris Robinson, the Wood Brothers, the Barr Brothers, Fruition, and scores of other amazing acts.

And if four stages of music isn’t enough, there are the elaborate camps that attract musicians for secret sets, parades, yoga sessions, acoustic songwriter sessions, beer and wine tastings, and sunrise kickball for those truly committed to the party. Throw in four sets of String Cheese Incident, and you’ve got one hell of a festival that transcends any pigeon-holing and has managed to maintain its own special identity over the years.

String Cheese Incident – “Ramble On” – High Sierra Music Festival 2018


[Video: Michael Meyer]

Simply put, those who attend HSMF bring their “A” game, and the result is the best party of the year for West Coast music lovers. This festival is a veritable paradise of amazing music and playful, psychedelic mischief, and the excitement can easily be felt in the air just waking the fairgrounds. With such a wealth of riches, there’s no way to catch it all, but what follows are one music lover’s highlights from four straight 18-hour days of music at High Sierra Music Festival 2018.

Vaudeville Tent Late-Night Sets Are The Parties Of The Weekend

While there’s a wealth of amazing music during the daytime, temperatures reaching 90 degrees prevent the HSMF crowd from really letting loose. When the sun sets, the High Sierra mountain air drops 20 degrees or more, the costumes come out, and everyone is rejuvenated for nighttime revelry. After the main stage headliner set ends at 11:30, the late-night Vaudeville Tent set begins, and the party launches into the stratosphere. This year, celebratory sets by Turkuaz, The California Honeydrops, and Antibalas blasted us all into the night with grooves a-plenty.

Turkuaz’s set on Thursday night was an unrelenting, high-power blast of energy that didn’t let up for two hours. This band has evolved into a supreme party band—a funk machine that hits you over the head until you’re practically overwhelmed by the sheer force of the music—and this set was a relentless party. HSMF crowds are extremely in-the-moment and tuned into the music, bring the best out of musicians, and the band responded in kind on this night. They left it all on stage, sprinting to the finish line with a manic, hard-hitting take on Sly and the Family Stone‘s “M’Lady” that had drummer Chris Brouwers pounding the skins so hard it seemed like he would keel over.

Friday night saw The California Honeydrops take their time with their two-hour set, letting the music breathe and delivering their sunny soul music for a tent packed with happy, dancing people. The set built slowly, punctuated by a funky take on Allen Toussaint‘s “Yes We Can” and lots of call-and-response singalongs and breakdowns. Punctuated by a celebratory second-line horn riff, “Do What You Wanna” brought things up a notch, especially with guitarist Jimmy James from the Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio sitting in and adding some slinky licks to the music. A big second-line celebration with members of the City of Trees Brass Band closed the set, capping off a show heavy on the NOLA groove.

Antibalas had the slot of the weekend on Saturday night, and though the crowd was eager to get down, the 10-piece band was in no rush, opening their set with a slow-burn groove. The energy in the room gradually grew thicker and more palpable as the tent filled up with costumed festival goers eager to get off. Led by Nigerian-born Amayo on lead vocals and vibraphone, the patient band deliberately built their set with their infectious, trademark Afrobeat groove, stretching out polyrhythmic tunes like “Dirty Money” and “Gold Rush” without ever bringing the volume up too loud.

This veteran clan of musicians has become adept at creating a real vibe, and the Vaudeville Tent buzzed with an almost spiritual energy as the band chugged away with infectious dance music, repeatedly reminding us to offer “Deep, unconditional love” to our neighbors. It was nearly 75 minutes into their set before the band finally blew it wide open with a huge blast of a chorus, and the effect on the crowd was massive. Showing off their musical maturity, Antibalas crafted a slowly building arc of a set that peaked with an enormous, powerful, and fiery Afrobeat reworking of Bob Marley‘s “Rat Race.”

Sturgill Simpson Rocked Our Socks Off

As the biggest name of the weekend, Sturgill Simpson brought high expectations with him to HSMF, and people were unsure of what to expect from the genre-defying singer/songwriter. Would he have a horn section? It turned out that Sturgill came to Quincy to rock loose and hard. With a lean, four-piece band, he delivered the heaviest show of the weekend with a set of well-crafted tunes and raw, stretched out jams. His road-tested band delivered a set of well-written country-rock songs as huge, relentless, hammering, jammed-out excursions, with Sturgill’s grungy Telecaster guitar leading the way with solo after solo of dirty, raw riffs (there was even a “Machine Gun” jam in there somewhere). His young, monster drummer Miles Miller propelled the band through tunes like the chugging, B3-driven “Keeping it Between the Lines,” the swaggering “Brace for Impact,” and the reflective “The Promise.” And though it was difficult to make out the words to what he was singing, his distinctive, tossed-off, soulful southern drawl hit in just the right place.

Sturgill Simpson – “The Promise” – High Sierra Music Festival 2018


[Video: Michael Meyer]

Skerik & George Porter, Jr. Were Everywhere

With so many amazing musicians gathered in one place, the festival is a place where sit-ins are commonplace and bands are born out of impromptu jams. This year, at High Sierra Music Festival 2018, famed saxophonist Skerik popped up at every turn, both sitting in with bands and leading his own sets that brought together an all-star collection of musicians. Whether he was boogalooing it with the Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio, blowing a searing solo with George Porter, Jr. and Zigaboo Modeliste‘s Foundation of Funk Meters Tribute, or leading his own band through an eclectic, exploratory set, Skerik did it all and proved that he can hold his own with anyone.

One set led by Skerik was simply billed as “Skerik + Guests Improv Session.” This set ended up containing some of the best, tightest jamming of the weekend, mostly due to the presence of George Porter, Jr. on bass. Free of the limitations of Meters-style grooving, George was free to attack and drive the music forward in a surprisingly different way that showcased why he’s a living legend.

These grooves were slinky, free-form, and incredibly funky, and this was just one of many sets that George Porter played over the course of four days. He also held it down in a number of sets with Lebo + Friends jamming on Grateful Dead tunes and other classics, and was joined by his NOLA brothers—Zigaboo; Tony Hall; and Cyril, Ivan, and Ian Neville—on Sunday night to close the festival with a celebratory, loose set of Meters tunes played how they’re supposed to be played: with plenty of grease and soul.

Foundation Of Funk – High Sierra Music Festival 2018


[Video: Jessica Anne]

The Nth Power’s “Rebel Music” Marley Tribute Crushed Big Meadow

Led by powerhouse drummer Nikki Glaspie, The Nth Power typically plays as a power trio. But a special festival calls for a special set, and with 14 musicians on stage, the band crushed a super-well-rehearsed set of well-chosen Bob Marley tunes in a show that they debuted at Jazz Fest last year. They’ve returned to this set periodically since, but few expected such a powerful performance from the band. Singer/guitarist Nick Cassarino led the affair, nailing Marley’s lines with earnest, powerful, and soulful vigor. Nikki and bassist Nate Edgar were deep in the pocket, pushing and pulling the reggae groove, and the Big Meadow crowd skanked up a storm while singing along to awesome deep cuts like “Concrete Jungle”, “Iron Lion Zion”, “Kinky Reggae”, and “Zimbabwe.” Some trippy, dubbed-out breakdowns took things out there for a while before the set closed with a powerful “Get Up Stand Up > No More Trouble > War > No More Trouble > Get Up Stand Up” sandwich.

Discovery of the Weekend: Cris Jacobs

HSMF always does a great job of curating its lineup with a mix of old favorites and up-and-coming, hungry bands, and this year many discovered and were blown away by Cris Jacobs, a songwriter leading a muscular band that delivers earthy, genuine, rockin’ songs with a virtuosity that never feels forced. Throughout his set, Jacobs switched between Telecaster and cigar box slide guitar, each delivering a down-home, dirty tone that evoked the Delta in original tunes like “Mama Was A Redbone.” Rounded out by guitarist Jonathan Sloane on second lead guitar, the band ripped through their set, evoking Gov’t Mule in its heavy riffage and shredding dexterity. From Led Zeppelin/Black Sabbath riffs to barrelhouse barroom boogie, this band killed it and had the crowd wanting more by the end of their set.

You can check out a full gallery of photos from High Sierra Music Festival 2018 below, courtesy of Rex Thomson and Rex-A-Vision.