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The Evolution of a Grassroots Music Festival

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In the spring of 1998, after heavy snow over Memorial Day, a group of High Sierra Music Festival producers found themselves cross-country skiing into Bear Valley to scope the site for the event, only five weeks before its start. When they arrived at the snow filled venue, which sits at 7,100 feet elevation, they realized they needed to make a change — they couldn’t be dependent on unpredictable winter weather to throw a summertime music festival.

High Sierra has seen three venue changes in its 27-year history, each playing a unique role in its identity. The festival was born in Leland Meadows, where it lived from 1991 to 1993, hosting approximately 750 people a year for just $75 for a three-day pass. Next, it was moved to Bear Valley where it attracted around 3,000 attendees with a ticket price of around $100. After the snowy spring of ’98 the event was moved to Quincy, where, aside from a brief return to Bear Valley in ’99, it has remained with roots firmly planted. The Quincy location drew around 5,000 festival-goers in the beginning, and is up to around 8,000 projected for 2017 with a four-day pass running $285.

While High Sierra has gone through many changes, it still stands as a solid cornerstone of the California family music festival scene.

“From the beginning, the idea was to bring in eclectic offerings,” says High Sierra spokesperson Rebecca Sparks. “When we first started festivals were stratified. You had your bluegrass festivals, your rock festivals, etc. What we tried to do was to mix it all up and throw all that music up on one stage, one after the other.”

Moonshine Ink had the opportunity to speak with two acts who will add to this year’s festival's creativity: Keller Williams and RJ (Richard Julia) of the funk and R&B Bay Area band Midtown Social. Williams played his first High Sierra in ’97 and now boasts having nine under his belt. Midtown Social will be gracing the stage for the first time after winning a social media contest.

Williams, who is known for looping rhythms and dance-worthy jams, will be bringing a new act called Grateful Gospel to High Sierra this year. Grateful Gospel is “a loose interpretation of Grateful Dead tunes done in a spiritual, black gospel sort of way.” Since his start as a one-man band, Williams is honored to be “allowed to do such a thing.”

This variety of things began back in ’91, when Williams met and befriended String Cheese Incident. “I offered to open for String Cheese Incident for free and they took me up on it in the winter of ’96. While on tour in ’97, during my first cross-country trip with String Cheese Incident, I had my first taste of the big stage. That ultimately lead me to my first set at High Sierra in ’97 at Bear Valley. The set was from 10:40 to 11:10 a.m. on a side stage. It was hot,” Williams recounted.

Midtown Social drummer RJ has been working the Bay Area music scene for the last four years and has the potential to find a big break at High Sierra. With a new festival comes a new audience, an audience that extends outside the boundaries of one area and into the world of another.

All this comes as a result of winning the 2017 fan-supported battle of the band contest online. “We never thought we’d get into High Sierra in this manner of winning a battle of the bands type of thing, but to get an opportunity like this at a festival based around the idea of community really fits our vibe. Midtown Social is about aligning communities and bringing people together,” RJ said. This nine-piece band finds influence in “all those that absolutely crush soul, funk, R&B, like Sly and the Family Stone, Tower of Power, and Bill Withers,” according to RJ.

“It was a community effort,” RJ emphasized. The band got a lot of help from friends, fans and the music community as a whole, all of which seem to support Midtown Social in their quest. “We have been in the Bay Area for a bit and used our resources. Con Brio and Afrolicious helped us out on social media too.”

Even as the festival has grown and changed locations, High Sierra has held true to its core family festival values while bringing in A-list, nationally touring bands. “I will always cherish [High Sierra], especially the Bear Valley site as it was a real camping-off-the-grid vibe,” Williams said. “Quincy is definitely awesome too, as it has power, structures, and accessibility.”

Williams understands that the grassroots history of the festival is where the heart is, in the community. "But it’s really fun to play on big stages with giant amounts of speakers and feel that force of electricity both in the subs and the feel of the air you are pushing.” He said, adding, “Each one is a very special part of me. I love it all."

This is similar to the memories from the Bear Valley site shared by Sparks. “World class musicians like Bela Fleck were playing our showcase stage on a stool, with just a banjo on a simple platform, under the sun with no shade cover.”

It was always an adventure. Like in ’94: “Widespread Panic required more of our production than we had available on site. We were working generators and someone plugged in a coffee maker backstage and we almost had a full outage,” Sparks recalled.

The changing times invite new bands and new genres, but one thing High Sierra holds on tight to is an overlying good vibe. We asked Williams how the music scene has changed since his first High Sierra.

“As the [music] industry has progressed anything ever recorded is available at your fingertips wherever, whenever. That is a glorious step in the world of a music lover with attention deficit disorder, especially for those who need the punk rock next to the bluegrass, one after the next. You don’t need a big old book of CDs in a backpack. You just need to know where to look” Williams said.

The same can be said about High Sierra as a whole. Take this year’s lineup, for instance. On Friday alone there are the crazy psychedelic punk sounds of Ween on one stage, the funky soulful sounds of Nth Power on another, immediately followed by rockers Deer Tick in the Vaudeville tent.

It goes hand-in-hand with the way we all listen to music in Williams’ ADD style.

Info: $285/4-day pass, other admission options and vehicle passes available, camping on site, June 29 - July 2, Quincy, Calif.,

For more information about Keller Williams and to listen to his music, check him out on Facebook or

For more information about Midtown Social and to listen to their music, check out Facebook or

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February 14, 2019