When the music came to Quincy
A Fourth of July journey back to a place where so much began
“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 pleasantries.
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 feet, cheering.
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 languages—Catalan, 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 them—a fellow in his mid-30s—makes 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 women—my daughter included—find 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 guys—loggers, rodeo riders, Indians—all 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 well-behaved audience.”
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 containment channels.
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 so mindlessly.
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.