By Sam Glaser
I am both a music lover and music maker. I’ve learned that the two are mutually exclusive; I have composer friends that minimize exposure to anyone else’s music in order to avoid being unduly influenced. I, on the other hand, regularly thank God for the gift of listening to music…any kind of music! Particularly when driving in LA traffic jams. I’m a fan of many local, US and international bands and I try to be a good groupie and sit in the front row whenever I can sneak out to their shows. I’m a regular at the LA Phil and LA Opera. I’m obsessed with jazz. I have over 3000 CDs of all genres in my collection and I still have my ear out for new sounds. My wife and I share in the Top 40 fun with our three kids and keep abreast of The Voice, Idol and America’s Got Talent. We admit to being both Beliebers and Gleeks. I used to brag that I like every style of music except Country. Well, thanks to dedicated honky-tonk friends I have been converted to the best of southern pedal steel, hillbilly, bluegrass, gospel and even yodeling.
I made another music discovery recently. It’s called the High Sierra Music Festival and I am convinced it is the ultimate musical indulgence on the planet. Sports fans have the World Series and the Final Four. For us music lovers, High Sierra is the Holy Grail. I’ve been to other festivals before, usually a single epic day of rock, R&B or jazz from which I return home with a smile on my lips and my ears ringing. But this High Sierra Festival is a binge of another dimension: a captive audience of 10,000 fans camp together at the Quincy Fairgrounds for four days with over fifty top-notch bands. Curated by someone who REALLY knows quality music. If there is any common denominator between the featured acts it’s a proven track record, years on the road, virtuoso musicianship, fun, upbeat tunes and a multi-genre sensibility with the ability to switch easily while keeping the groove intact. No Top 40 or Tribute Bands need
apply. The festival includes side show distractions like yoga on the hour, a kids play area, continuous Frisbee and hula hoops, (go Wham-o!) impromptu jam sessions and a delicious public swimming pool. Incredible alpine hikes are just down the road. And did I mention fifty of the hottest touring acts in the world?
Fellow music aficionado Rob Steinberg has regularly served as my host when I have gigs performing for the Jewish community of New Orleans. Rob is on a self-imposed mission to turn friends on to the best of the music-drenched Crescent City. He rarely leaves town save for this annual Sierra experience and has been mentioning for years that I’ve “got to try it someday.” Well, my excuse materialized in a unusual set of blessings (some might say coincidences.) Firstly, I was invited by Rabbi Yonah Bookstein to help lead the program at their annual High Sierra Shabbat Tentprogram (shabbattent.com is our Tzedakah of the Month below.) The staff provides a welcome refuge from the din and heat with free munchies, ice water, Shabbat meals and prayer services to ANYONE who is in need. July 4th weekend has always meant a pilgrimage to my folk’s home in Pacific Palisades where their shul has a gala BBQ on the parade route followed by beachside fireworks at my old high school. This year, however, my mom is in Israel visiting my brother’s family. My boys are counselors in summer camp in Wisconsin and my wife and daughter made plans to visit my other brother in San Diego. High Sierra here I come!
I flew into Reno, rented a Sonata and motored the hour and a half up to Quincy. I stopped at a market to load up with groceries, mostly breakfast stuff since I would be eating some meals in the Shabbat Tent. I was glad for the USB input in the car stereo that gave me control of my iPhone via the steering wheel controls…too cool! For some reason my phone defaulted into alphabetic mode. How interesting to hear my playlist of 2000 songs in that format rather than by full album. Over six hours of driving and I never made it out of the A’s! Since I have all twenty-four of my own albums in my digital library much of my music was featured in the alphabetical mix, much like an ultra-customized, grin-inducing Pandora station.
Over the course of the drive I must admit that I was both antsy and homesick. I was trying to remind myself why I had just abandoned my family, something I do fairly regularly thanks to my fifty-city tour every year. I was also worried that I had missed important bands (the event had started earlier in the day) and was hoping to set up my camp before nightfall. Thankfully, I found the festival box office lot easily, drove through a vast, dusty field to a helpful volunteer who welcomed me at my car, fastened on my wristband and sent me to park in a remote lot. I then shlepped my stuff to a shuttle stop and watched helplessly as several shuttles passed that were full or going “out of service.” Thankfully one finally arrived that could fit a few of the many people in line and because I was traveling solo I snagged a spot.
I found it disorienting arriving at this party-in-progress, especially since most of the 10,000 guests had already settled in. Just inside the entrance I found the Shabbat Tent and was overjoyed to see familiar faces. Thankfully Rabbi Yonah had already set up my tent in order to save the space. He gave me a hearty hug and a hand getting my stuff to the campsite after I stashed my refrigeratables in his cooler. I had arrived around 7pm and the heat had abated somewhat…now my tent was only 90 degrees inside. I inflated my air mattress, made the bed, unpacked my gear and then escaped the sauna to hear my first artist of the thirty or so that I would eventually audition. Three main venues had cascading schedules to allow rowdy overachievers like me to see nearly everyone on the bill. The Grandstand is a huge, outdoor mega-stage set up in the center of a dirt track speedway with enough space for the whole crowd. Big Meadow is a partially shaded, partially muddy concert space surrounded by the RV camping area. Finally, Vaudeville, my favorite venue, is a more intimate open wall tent andhoused the most raucous bands. This tennis court sized space is surrounded by a grassy field on one side and on the other, the tents of a dozen lucky campers that must have run FAST to secure these prime locations. Their “chill” areas are shaded with canopies and tapestries and they abut the concert space so all they have to do is hang out on their lounge chairs.
The Grandstand headliner that first night was Robert Plant and his new band, the Sensational Space Shifters. I was prepared for a self-indulgent, esoteric rock/bluegrass set but instead Plant rewarded the stoked crowd with AMAZING renditions of Zep songs. I was transfixed at the power that he held in his grasp: he could woo the crowd with a sweet new ballad or create an immediate frenzy with the first measure of a classic standard like Black Dog or Whole Lotta Love. I must admit that in spite of the power of the performance I was not entirely present. I met plenty of considerate people but at one point was rebuffed by a muscle-bound brute that decided no one was going to get closer to the stage than him. Halfway through the set I met some wonderful clothing vendors whose booths lined the perimeter of the field and had abandoned ship to dance to Plant. I bonded deeply and with these new friends and managed to enter a head-space of unity with the sweaty, happy mob. If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.
After the show my friends walked me back to their booth filled with brilliant handmade batik clothing and I found that the vendors had their own private community as their booths linked in the rear with hammocks, lounge chairs, tie-dyed tapestries, tables, food and drink and everything needed to make this annual four day pilgrimage a pleasure. Clearly these folks were here for more than making a buck. I called Rob Steinberg to check in and see if he wanted to go to any of the late night shows which play nightly from midnight till 4am. I mentioned that I was in someone’s clothing booth and he said, “Oh, Ciara and John?” Another “Large world, well managed” moment! We agreed to meet for the midnight shows and he felt confident he could get me a ticket. The festival itself is $200 for the four days of music, camping and fun. Late night (11:30pm-4:00am) is a $25 bonus price per venue…there are 2 to choose from and both had sold out.
After a bit of hassle we managed to get tickets, largely because I took initiative and stormed the box office to ask for tickets in Rob’s name. Rob was horrified that I cut the 40 person long line but I just did the “look like you know what you’re doing” thing and simply asked if his name was on a list. He lectured me on festival etiquette, not something I wanted or needed to hear; I had already perceived that this gathering was different that other “survival of the fittest” concert experiences. Clearly, brotherhood is the bylaw..but to sit in a line of wishful thinkers for a sold out show? Anyway, we had our “miracle tickets” and jumped around to three amazing bands: Newgrass founders Leftover Salmon and the extraordinary party bands Pimps of Joytime and Orgone.
Several friends asked why I didn’t bring my wife. First of all, none of the venues have chairs. Anywhere. Secondly, your boogers turn black from dust inhalation. It’s 90 degrees and there’s precious little shade and no air conditioning. You get to camp with thousands of other people in close proximity and the bathrooms are a block away. With lines for the stalls. And mosquitoes. Thursday night there was a five-foot space on one side of my tent, allowing me to enter along the dense corridor of tents from the nearby road. By Friday midday, another half dozen tents had filled the aisle…now there was no way to get back to my tent area without shimmying through the forest of ripstop nylon. That first night my queen size air mattress sprang a leak, leaving me a thin yoga mat to cushion my fifty-year-old bones from the uneven ground below. I lay there imagining my wife sharing this yoga mat with me after a day of travel, crowds, heat and inebriated people…better to do this one on my own.
I got to sleep at 4:30am and had the privilege of a private concert right outside my tent at 6am when one of the late night revelers decided to practice his guitar. I tried to get back to sleep with the aid of earplugs but by 7:30 my tent got so hot that I had to flee. I figured that I’d have to take a nap in order to get through the day and still be dancing latenight. But where would I nap? Now I understood why I saw countless people throughout the fairgrounds passed out on the grass, in hammocks, and some, face down in the dust on the edges of the concert venues. Remarkably, no one bothered these people, save for the occasional Samaritan trying to carry them to safety. I realized that one of the crucial elements of this utopian festival is the fact that in spite of arduous conditions, everyone is smiling, peaceful and looking out for one another.
Perhaps I feel so comfortable here because High Sierra is a microcosm of the perfected world paradigm that has motivated the Jewish People for millennia. Of course the peace and harmony is drug induced for many, but the fact is that 10,000 individuals of all faiths, ages and income brackets seem to get along famously. The emphasis is on how much one can share and give rather than the grabby nature of our typical city life. One inter-act MC announced that there are “no strangers” here at High Sierra. The people next to you are just best friends that you haven’t yet met. Some might say that a Shabbat Tent at a “hippie rock festival” is an oxymoron. I think it makes perfect sense.
I searched the fairgrounds for a good place to daven. Certainly there must be an isolated tree and some shade! My efforts proved fruitless in this maze of humanity and I strapped up in the middle of the Vaudeville tent. I believe I was one of only two people wearing a kippah at this festival. The other was Rabbi Yonah who stuck mostly to the confines of the Shabbat Tent, leaving me as the official wandering Jew for the weekend. I lost count of how many people “outed” themselves as members of the tribe. One family of wild-eyed stoners saw me praying that morning and sure enough, the patriarch was a Jewish pot farmer from Northern California. Another woman and her daughter Shaina watched as I shuckled nearby. Shaina had never seen tefillin and had all sorts of questions for me. They live in Oakland and go to a Reform synagogue. She and her family adopted me and became regulars in the Shabbat Tent. If only for connecting with this one family, the whole Shabbat Tent experiment was worth it.
I swapped my tallis bag for my yoga mat and headed out to the main lawn for an hour of Hatha yoga with a hundred new friends. Some didn’t have mats but still participated even though their lithe, sticky bodies were getting covered with dirt. Our transcendent leaders were a Jewish couple from San Francisco that tag-teamed over the course of the vigorous hour-plus workout. I returned to the Shabbas tent for a hearty breakfast of Peanut Butter Cheerios and then dashed off to the first concert of the day. Over the next few hours I crammed in four incredible acts: guitar slinging Scott Pemberton, a vastly innovative player with radical, unorthodox technique, incredible folk/rock party bands The Tumbleweed Wanderers and The Revivalists and then a neophyte up-and-coming band, Houndmouth.Houndmouth is a youthful quartet of “easy on the eye” musicians that were having a tough time winning over the ambivalent crowd. Something switched on during their set. I think the initial bias against these seeming pretty boy (and girl) posers disappeared in the light of their excellent material, great vocals and competent musicianship. I have never seen a band overcome indifference to this degree; by the last several songs the audience was SCREAMING for more.
Thankfully Rachel Bookstein had offered to buy me a new air mattress when she was in town shopping for food for Shabbat. After helping her unload a minivan stuffed to the rafters with groceries I pumped up the new bed and then ran for a mikvah at the local public swimming pool a few blocks away. Once again I was faced with a long line of people, this time waiting for the chance to swim. You could only get in when others got out and even though it was already 5pm no one looked like they were ready to leave the coveted H2O. Like every other interaction this weekend, I reframed and relaxed rather than stew in my typical impatient state and therefore had the presence of mind to engage some great people in line, allowing the time fly by. I swam a dozen awkward laps around the crowd, watched divers compete for the most elaborate flip off a diving board contest and then pulled off a discrete mikvah in one of the corners. Perhaps the most unkind moment of the week was when the crowd in the pool started cheering for a heavy-set woman to attempt a cannonball. She did not welcome the attention and was stuck in the spotlight as she jiggled on the diving board.
Following a shower in the pool facility I relished in the feeling of being cleansed of the coating of dust and sunscreen and I returned for services at the Shabbas Tent with a smile on my face. I led a sweet “service” consisting of a series of common denominator Jewish folk songs sung arm in arm. Rabbi Yonah did his best to make everyone feel included and tap into the magic of Shabbat in spite of our cacophonous surroundings. We ate a delicious dinner prepared by Rachel and the JConnect staff while hearing the stories of those individuals who happened upon the tent. Some non-Jews were in attendance and for a few of them it was their first experience with the Jewish Sabbath. Hosting this varied crowd of guests created an uncanny Avraham Avinu ambience. With the tent open on all four sides to all who wanted to enter, we had the opportunity to interface with a diverse and curious self-selected group that in all likelihood would not otherwise be celebrating Shabbat. Just as we finished dinner the nightly parade passed by, pausing at our corner to engage our group in a wild, erotic dance led by Cirque du Soleil-style performers on stilts and an ad hoc twenty piece drum corps. When official candlelighting time arrived I davened a proper Kabbalat Shabbat and Ma’ariv on my own and then headed out to the evening’s festivities.
First I heard a band called White Denim and then on to the headliner Primus whose music was dark and industrial and didn’t seem appropriate for this light-hearted crowd. I left halfway through to check out the very impressive Lord Huron and then snuck backstage with Rob for the John Scofield Uberjam. I’ve never loved Scofield’s sound but in this format with cleverly chosen groovy loops to keep the festival crowd moving, his vast chops were palatable and exciting. Backstage access included the perks of flowing beer and snacks, a true bonus since I was in Shabbat mode. I had to summon deep-reserve energy for late night festivities as Rob scored the elusive tickets yet again and we enjoyed a fantastic set with Fruition and my new favorite bluegrass band, the Infamous Stringdusters. At about 4am there was still a considerable crowd milling about around the concert hall. One of the women that I had met earlier at Shabbat Tent was selling kosher brownies and offered me a few imperfect ones to satisfy my late night munchies. Hard to imagine that I was going to get even less sleep tonight; sure enough there was so much conversation around my tent that I didn’t nod off until 5am.
Morning came early at 7am when the commotion started in the tents around me. I tried to sleep through it but eventually the sun rose to the point where my tent was getting a direct hit, making it immediately uninhabitable. I repeated my davening-yoga-breakfast routine and then enjoyed a long distance Frisbee game with some guys with excellent technique. Hucking the disc with such abandon gave me a CU Boulder déjà vu. Thank God for the eruv! Then on to the Grandstand where I got to jump around to the funky grooves of Moksha and Rubblebucket. Enhancing my pleasure was the fact that both bands had crack horn sections and burning keyboardists. Thanks to my magic wristband I was able to frolic in the front row and have my fill of complimentary drinks and munchies. At one point the Rubblebucket lead singer jumped over the fence and into the pit, dancing with all of us in a frenzy. Then the rest of the horn section followed suit, eventually getting lifted up on people’s shoulders as they continued to play. About ten of us in the front row were welcomed on stage when they returned and we clambered up the enormous subwoofers to dance on stage with the band. Yes, this was an unusual Shabbas!
After a delicious tuna fish, humus and salad lunch back at the Shabbat Tent I schmoozed with several more guests. Some passersby opted to enjoy the quiet and shade and passed out on our beanbag chairs. All good. I met an Alabama-based band called Earth Noodle that was standing at the periphery of the tent wondering what it was all about. I invited them in and fed them and then requested that they sing Amazing Grace with me. For two of them we were the first Jewish people that they had ever met; how cool that their first impression was of such giving, happy people. By now five-year-old Shaina had adopted me as her best buddy and spent the entire time in my lap or daring me to chase her.
The afternoon was filled with more fantastic music and I had to get second and third winds to find the strength to dance. I enjoyed powerful sets by the nonstop monster lineup of the Greyboy Allstars, Barr Brothers and Thievery Corporation and then at 11pm returned to the tent to lead Havdalah. An intimate group gathered as we lit the candle and smelled the spices as I led the songs with my voice and melodica. In attendance was Dave Margulies, one of the founders of the festival, who commented that Shabbat Tent would have a higher profile in the next year’s event. He doled out backstage passes to the Vaudeville tent, allowing the whole Shabbat Tent staff to enjoy the festivities during Lee Field and the Expressions electrifying old-school set. Before I left however, a family that missed Havdalah insisted that I walk with them back to their RV to include the rest of their group. Some high school musicians were leading a full bore jam session in front of their RV next door and it seemed impossible to lead a service amidst the din. I tried another tactic: during a blues number I simply chanted the Havdalah prayer in the form of a blues tune and grooved everyone along to a shavua tov.
Late night I met Rob once again for the funk of Jelly Bread the prog rock jamming of Moe. These seasoned musicians put in overtime with dueling guitar solos that were through-composed, with tight as nails breakdowns and a three pronged vocal attack that included their virtuoso bass player. At 3am I walked over to the Mineral Hall where an unlisted acoustic set with Naked Soul was taking place. I am now a die-hard fan of this spiritual, musical foursome. The focus and connection was palpable as all fifty or so late night fans felt blessed to be in the presence of these four gifted artists. I saw some of my Shabbat Tent chevre and we gave each other a look that indicated we were so happy to be part of this experience. Once again I had to force myself to bed in spite of my exhaustion. Just too many good times to be had.
On Sunday I was determined to hit the trail and was ready to miss a few bands to do so. I had printed out the directions before leaving LA to Gold Lake, commonly recommended online as the nicest hike in this region. After breakfast I waited for the shuttle to the remote parking lot and then drove about 15 miles out of town to a rowdy, well-banked dirt road through the pine forest that gained about 2000 feet of elevation. The path terminated at a dusty, neglected campground by the partially drained Silver Lake. I slathered on some sunscreen and started up the beautiful two-mile hike that traversed a ridge with views on either side. There were times when I lost the trail and at one point a poorly marked fork that left me guessing if I had chosen the right path. Finally I spied my destination below, a round, pristine green-blue body of water surrounded by spectacular granite cliffs. There were a few other families there and I schmoozed with one of them as their dog frolicked in and out of the high 70′s crystal clear water. I stripped down to my underwear and dove in, swimming to the center of the lake, floating on my back and staring deeply into the blue sky. When I returned to shore the families were both departing, leaving me along to frolic, sing and do yoga in my birthday suit. True High Sierra splendor.
I drove back to the fairgrounds and this time found a parking spot a few blocks away meaning I wouldn’t have to endure the remote lot and that God-forsaken shuttle. I walked back into the melee of bodies, heat, dust and the pulsating beat, grateful for my morning respite. My first destination was the annual Guitarmageddon jam, a Festival tradition where the top guitarists of the resident bands relish in 80′s hard rock glory. The head banging audience pumped their fists in the air to Stones, Journey and Zeppelin standards. After that I auditioned David Mayfield, Anders Osborne and then another epic set from party band Jelly Bread. By the time I got to reggae heroes Steel Pulse at the Grandstand I was out of gas. Nothing left. I had long since pushed past the second wind mark. One of my neighbors broke out a Emergen-C packet which I downed with a double espresso ice coffee and a pair of Advil. That got me dancing again in the front row for one of the tightest reggae shows I’ve seen. I befriended the hot and exhausted folks behind me who were pressed up against the barrier fence. I took initiative at one point and surprised them with a tray laden with backstage refreshments to slake their thirst. I could see the joy in their eyes as they were revived by the gift and likely poised to pay it forward. Following a great backstage hang with some new friends that were running the festival’s beer concession I ran back to the front row to cheer on Moe, which gave a stellar set that featured many of the luminary sidemen that were on hand.
I sought out my late night buddy Rob but he was back at his apartment with an aching back. Tired as I was I decided to splurge for the Greyboy/Moksha show and was not let down. I danced with all my new friends gathered from a four-day marathon where I met wonderful people at every venue. I found that I remembered everyone’s names, a phenomenon that I can’t always accomplish. I think that it was due to my focused efforts in the Shabbat Tent to serve as a light onto nations, spreading a compassionate Jewish presence in this alpine love fest. Just like the connections I make when I lead a Shabbaton weekend and really can “get” everyone that I meet, I feel similarly present in this milieu.
By 4:30am on this last night there were markedly fewer people still awake. I wandered the nearly deserted fairgrounds back to the Shabbat tent where I found Shimon and a few others gathered around a smoldering grill. Shimon had found some meat that wasn’t cooked up on Shabbas and was preparing it for the ride home the next day. I helped him get rid of some perfectly spiced hamburgers, thrilled to have my first taste of meat over the weekend, just when I was ready for a midnight (or mid-morning) snack.
After a few hours of sleep I packed up my gear before the sun got too stifling. I made sure I left my campsite in zero impact condition and shlepped my gear a few blocks to the fairground entrance. After a quick breakfast and earnest goodbyes at the Shabbat Tent I loading up my trusty Hyundai I headed up to Lassen Volcanic National Park. My demeanor had changed fundamentally since the first day of the trip. Now I was suntanned, relaxed and buzzing with the new friendships and musical discoveries. My nearly new rental smoothly negotiated the winding mountain roads where breathtaking vistas unfolded around every corner. A brief hour and a half later and I was at the entrance to this striking high alpine environment for the first time in my life. While it doesn’t compare to Yosemite and Kings Canyon to the south, it is a spectacular destination with unusual hikes and a volatile history. After a film on park history and plate tectonics and discussions with the rangers I left the headquarters for a quick six-hour tour. The ranger told me it would be about a one hour drive through the park and then another two hours back to the Reno airport, plus whatever side trips I took. I crammed in visits to the popular bubbling springs and mud holes of Bumpass Hell (yes, that’s the real name) and a hike to the intimate but spectacular Kings Creek Falls. A sweet 62-year-old recently retired moviemaker accompanied me on one of the hikes and we spent the time talking of exotic travels and photography techniques.
I sensed that I was running a bit late and started to panic each time I was caught behind the occasional motor home on the curvy two-lane road. I could pass at will largely because I didn’t have my wife freaking out in the front seat each time I attempted a daring maneuver. By the time I got to the northern park entrance I had around two hours to make it to the airport and I fretted when I saw that I still had over one hundred fifty miles to drive, much of it on isolated two lane roads. As my iPhone cascaded through all the A’S in my music library I sped through gorgeous Sierra forest and then down into the flats along the 395 to Reno. At the first sign of civilization I stopped to splash water on my face and down a double Frappuccino. With about 42 minutes to go before my flight I pulled up to the airport and left my car at the curb as I sprinted with my suitcase in order to make the 40-minute bag check cutoff. Then I burned rubber out of the airport to a miracle gas station that I found blocks away. Then I hustled back to the rental car return, ran across the driveway with my overweight bags and through security to my gate where I davened a quick mincha and boarded my plane. As the sun set over the golden Sierras our Southwest plane flew down to the lights of LA, returning me to the arms of my deeply understanding wife.
I’m so thankful to Rabbi Yonah, and his staff for their selfless commitment to bringing an “out and proud” Judaism to music festivals across the US. Part of my incentive to write this novel is to thank the backers of Shabbat Tent for giving me the chance to be a big shot and help in the mitzvah of radical hospitality. I’m grateful to Dave Margulies and the other founders for their efforts in nurturing this epic festival. I felt deeply connected with many of the vendors who have made High Sierra their destination for over twenty years and welcomed me into their family. Thanks to Rob Steinberg for over a decade of friendship and for serving as a “courier” in terms of bringing so much quality new music into my life. Finally, thank God for the gift of music, mountains and an adorable, forgiving wife who lets me spread my wings. Hope you can join us next year!