Relix 44: High Sierra Music Festival

Benjy Eisen on October 15, 2018
Relix 44: High Sierra Music Festival

photo by Stuart Levine


Welcome to the Relix 44. To commemorate the past 44 years of our existence, we’ve created a list of people, places and things that inspire us today, appearing in our September 2018 issue and rolling out on throughout this fall. See all the articles posted so far here.


An Elevated Gathering: High Sierra Music Festival

High Sierra isn’t just a music festival. Sure, music is the centerpiece, the main reason why fans eagerly anticipate the weekend’s arrival and why the producers take such care to curate a crowd-pleasing lineup, but the event’s appeal extends far beyond its stages.

There are campground parties—in which headlining artists have been known to show up and play or eat—the now-traditional sunrise kickball—which is strictly for the domain of the still-ups, not the just-ups—and an endless carousel of ever-changing sights and sounds.

There are parades, jugglers, unicyclers, face painters, daydream believers—and by night, the entire fairground turns into one giant costume party. At all times, it can be difficult to tell who is the professional “talent” versus who is just having fun.

High Sierra shares as much of its spirit with Mardi Gras and Burning Man as it does with Gathering of the Vibes or All Good. Which is one reason, perhaps, why in this crowded space of summer festivals—where every town, big or small, in America now has its own music summit—High Sierra continues to draw loyal legions from around the globe to its remote location in the heart of Plumas National Forest. High Sierra doesn’t have fans—it has participants. Attendees are invested in the experience making them as important to the takeaway as the performing artists themselves.

Before becoming a national sensation, Sturgill Simpson performed on the smaller Big Meadow stage (and returned this year to headline Saturday night). Pretty Lights once played a lightly attended afternoon set in the Troubadour tent, while Bassnectar played an intimate late-night rager. The festival has even spawned its own house legends, who return almost every year, such as Lebo, Nathan Moore and Surprise Me Mr. Davis (who used High Sierra as the backdrop for their special reunion shows this summer).

High Sierra’s history of taking the right chances on the right newcomers, as well as its role as
a battleground festival capable of breaking acts on the West Coast, certainly is important to its identity as a long-standing summer institution that has withstood the industry’s whims and fancies. But the music is still the star of this interdependent solar system, in which the light from its sun encourages life to thrive on orbiting planets. Those orbiting planets then spin off into the night on all different sorts of journeys with destinations unknown.

No matter how much the year has taken from you—no matter how beaten down, confused, frustrated, lonely, broken-hearted or torn up you may feel for any and all of the reasons—if you come to High Sierra with an open heart, you inevitably go home a hero.


This article originally appears in the September 2018 issue of Relix. For more features, interviews, album reviews and more, subscribe here