Camping out at Hickey Festival

Lauren Espina

All photos by Harland Spinks

“To me, West Coast music is unique simply in its relationship to our environment,” explains singer/songwriter and guitarist Ash Reiter, a Bay Area resident and the creator of Hickey Fest. With nothing but the dream of uniting the vibrant California music community, outside the typical realm of dimly lit bars and music venues, she organized the three-day camp-out, partnered with the locals and invited over 30 bands and all their friends and fans to the Redwoods for a rock and roll festival with virtually no fourth wall.

The atmosphere at The Peg House was electric when I pulled in during the late afternoon of June 20, the eve of the summer solstice and the first day of Hickey Fest. The Black Cobra Vipers from San Francisco were finishing up their set, using their approachable pop-tinged psych rock to soundtrack the warm, crisp air of Leggett, California, while the crowd slowly grew, collecting under the billowing canopy that covered the patio between the stage and grill in shades of green. Crossing the 101, I drove into the Standish Hickey campgrounds, and the further I went the less I could hear the crowd, the passing cars. The further I drove the more the surrounding redwoods swallowed most of the sky and all of the festival buzz, and suddenly it was just another camping trippeople bustling from site to site, setting up their tents, taking firewood inventory, and stocking the onsite cabinets full of food and booze. We were secluded in peace and quiet but simmering with the promise of the days and nights ahead.

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“The setting was contagiously holy. Everyone had a piously Muir-like tinge to their eye, with no high-fives left hanging in the darkness,” describes Gregory Di’Martino, vocalist and guitarist of Black Cobra Vipers. “It wasn’t about the quantity of listeners, but the quality, knowing the guests were all there with the right reasons, to listen, to move, and be moved by the music and atmosphere alike,” he continues. “Unlike city gigs, where you might say ‘Hi’ and accidentally touch hands above the hummus, here you’re trapped in a cell of trees which equalize everything, voiding all status.”

Bassist of Black Cobra Vipers, Julian Borrego says it simply: “It’s a somewhat surreal and humbling experience to be playing your music for an audience which seems to be essentially Nature itself.”

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Back across the highway, Annie Girl & The Flight took the stage just after sunset. As they unfolded a tight set of hypnotic psych-folk songs, driven by the imitable vocals and casual stage presence of Annie Lipetz, the audience gathered closer and closer to the stage, crowding especially tight to guitarist Josh Pollock’s amp.

Unleashing a fury of guitar wizardry, Pollock navigated his pedal board like a mad scientist, leaping up and crashing down to the swell of each transition while maintaining a solid foundation for Lipetz’s vocals to dance on, light as air and coated with emotion.

Providing what would be one of the most memorable sets of the weekend, Annie Girl ushered in the night and set the tone for the primitive scene back at the campgrounds: fires burning at every other site, groups of audience members and bands doubled-up in campsites, pulling out their own instruments and playing a catalog of campfire sing-a-longs. As we got deeper into the night, people wandered around to other campsites, finding their friends and meeting new ones, finishing bottles of whiskey in clouds of smoke, getting their hands on some substance-enhanced chocolates and completing what was described as the “mellow” night of the festival.

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“Hickey Fest isn’t just a music festival,” Lipetz begins. “It’s a transcendental spiritual bonding trip, a chance to see a large amount of friends, to make new friends, and spend copious amounts of time in the vicinity of incredible humans. You aren’t stuck in a noisy bar or crowded venue… There’s tons of great music and space to truly hang… Enough for an adventure.” She continues, “And fuck… look at the stars. Hike down to the river at midnight and look at the larger than life projections on the side of a cliff—it’s one hell of a party.”

I woke up Saturday to the sound of birds and a parade of cars squeezing in for the main day of the weekend. The morning of the summer solstice, the longest day of the year, began with a bacon breakfast burrito from The Peg House while the yogis cleansed the night off with a session of Showga, an amalgam of live music and yoga that was founded by the Bay Area’s Katie Colver. Cellar Doors took a  two p.m. set after having missed their initial Friday slot due to some worse-than-average 101 traffic. Offering a lighter aesthetic than the muddy psychedelic garage rock the San Francisco band is known for, the power trio adapted to the casual day-time setting while still maintaining their sinister undercurrents.

Lead vocalist and guitarist Sean Fitzsimmons explains, “This was our first experience traveling into the Redwoods and I have to say Ash Reiter organized an incredible event with a very eclectic and talented group of musicians. There were so many great bands we were introduced to and it was cool to see so many familiar faces from the Bay Area.”

He describes, “Being able to go jump in a river after playing our set was pretty amazing. You don’t always see poison oak, ticks, and/or eels at a standard concert hall so that was a nice change of pace.”

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As the afternoon sun rose higher and heat began to beat down on, I went to check out the scene by the river. A short hike down from the campgrounds, the South fork of the Eel River pools into a watering hole that was littered with a mix of pale, tattooed bodies (we don’t get much sun in San Francisco), and the sun-kissed figures of our Southern California peers. A modest current moved between the coarse beach and the adjacent rock face, which people repeatedly scaled and leapt from, down into the icy water.

Di’Martino paints the scene: “For hours I floated on an inner tube in the Eel river watering hole watching a grinning maniac leap 30 feet from a rock ledge.”

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At the Peg House, San Francisco-based outfit Sandy’s leaned toward to surf side of its pop music to maintain the summer vibrations of the day. Frontman Alexi Glickman played to the crowd with an intense, stunned impression on his face that contrasted with the sunny riffs coming out of the monitors. For its final song, Sandy’s transported the crowd to a 1960s beach party with a twist-worthy version of The Surfaris’ “Wipe Out”.

By the evening, the audience was packed in tight and battling day-drunk delirium with burgers from the Peg House grill, whose staff graciously served the exponentially filthy and intoxicated crowd without complaint, though I have a feeling they felt just the slightest bit of satisfaction every time they called an order in the middle of a band’s set“Emily, your order is ready,” “Peter, your order is ready,” “Anthony… Your order is ready,”providing each band with a joke that never got old and solidifying the casual, down home nature of the entire event.

This quip was particularly amusing during Tomorrow’s Tulips’s performance. The bleached-blonde-haired trio from Costa Mesa played a killer set of pretty slacker rock, but the true entertainment came in the moment between songs. “Are we bringing you down?” singer and guitarist Alex Knost asked, before conceding, “We’re only getting higher.” They giggled through their 40 minutes, nailing each song with fat smiles on their faces and mimicking, “Jon, your order is ready,” “Kyle, your order is ready.” The band held nothing back and earned a huge ovation from the audience when they walked off stage, still laughing.

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After stand-out sets from San Francisco’s pop purveyors of Sonny & the Sunsets and Sugar Candy Mountain, the project of Oakland-based artist Will Halseywho played drums in seven different outfits over the course of the weekendAllah- Las played their headlining set to a raucous crowd. Paired with the analog liquid-light projections of Mad Alchemy, which washed the stage in celestial hues and organic, languid shapes, the band’s true-to-recording renditions of songs like “Don’t You Forget It” and “Catamaran” moved the audience in manic dancing fits and sent the atmosphere of the modest Peg House into a wild frenzy.

Although Allah-Las played the last set of the night, the party continued down by the river. As the late-night crowd congregated on the beach with acoustic guitars, Mad Alchemy projected their light art onto the neighboring cliffs, and the juxtaposition between the swirling images and star-studded night sky was truly stunning.

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The dust settled on Sunday morning, and most of the festival attendees and bands slowly made their way to the Peg House for more music, looking worn and entirely satisfied. The festival’s stellar lineup continued with The Tambo Rays, a San Francisco-based band whose playful manner and chilled-out pop songs mirrored the crowd’s triumphant exhaustion. “We’re the Hungover Rays,” vocalist and guitarist Brian DaMert joked. “Jim, your order is ready,” laughed his sister Sara, who held it down on vocals, keys and a headless Steinberger guitar.

San Louis Obispo’s Sparrows Gate kept the same energy, churning out their massive folk rock sound as the day reached its hottest hour. Between a sweet version of “Copper Kettle” and “Lavender Mellow”, lead vocalist Zeb Zaitz confessed, “This is hard!” and it must have been. The heat collected under the hot air balloon-like overhang, which blocked the sun but acted like a sauna.

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Oakland-based artist and the brains behind Hickey Fest, Ash Reiter took the stage as the day began to cool down. Welcomed with sincere, grateful applause, she and her band lifted the air like a cool breeze with warm melodies and an unadulterated pop sensibility. Wearing a sun-hat, sunglasses and a summer dress and looking pink around the cheeks from just a little too much river lounging, Reiter exuded serenityrelieved to have pulled off a second year of Hickey Fest.

Everyone is Dirty turned the energy up with their own distinctive blend of punk-tinged art rock. Led by powerhouse front woman Sivan Gur-Arieh, who shreds an electric violin like a rock and roll sorceress, the band exuded an authentic strangeness that was both refreshing and jarring. At one point, Gur-Arieh’s mic and violin stand fell over, breaking off the topmost peg of her violin in the process. When they completed the song, she picked the peg off the ground, held it up and growled, “The fucking Peg House!” with an exasperated yet slightly astonished look on her face. She finished the set with fire behind her eyes.

Unaffected by the blow to her beloved violin, Gur-Arieh shared her experience of the weekend: “Every singular memory is a part of why this festival was so awesome for me. Basically, it’s what happens when an intimate group of musicians and music lovers get together and totally take over a forest for three nights. Soulful childish chaos.”

She continues, “After this experience, I realize that this kind of retreat is truly beneficial for us. We musicians are kind of nuts, freedom-seekers, and we need a place to go for a few days and frolic around together, share our music with each other around campfires, dance madly in the dark to ELO, and just be completely ridiculous and romantic. What a privilege. Campfires stay lit for days by an ever rotating cast of people singing cozy songs sung by anybody who happens to be sitting around it at that moment holding the guitar.”

Slowing down the evening, Chris Cohen offered his melodic soft rock, singing from behind a drum kit along with a bassist and keyboardist. While his mellow performance seemed like a fitting way to end the weekend, The Blank Tapes from Los Angeles took the stage next and dished out one of the more surprising sets of the weekend. Along with Will Halsey on drums and bassist DA Humphrey, singer/songwriter Matt Adams ditched the sing-a-long beach party vibes of Vacation and let lose a psyched-out, guitar-heavy set and proved himself a master of rock and roll’s favorite instrument. He drove home nearly every song with a distorted guitar tangent that left many in the audience no choice but to stop dancing and shoot piercing stares in his direction.

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Though most of the festival-goers had left by the end of Sunday night, off to the real world where there are more decisions to be made than “River, campfire or music?,” those who stayed held on to the Ultimate Camp-Out vibes of Hickey Fest until the sun came up on Monday morning. Gur-Arieh says it best: “At the expense of sounding cheesyat Hickeyfest there’s a whole lot of sharing and friend-making going on. It’s real and it’s sweet. I felt like I was in Wizard of Oz and Where the Wild Things Are put together: lots of walks down yellow brick roads with new friends, being animals, and lots of exciting shadows moving around campfires. I had escaped out of this and that rut and into a dreamy haven in the trees.”

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