The tone was set on Friday as the dusk settled. A Texas band, Blue Water Highway, played as the sun dropped behind the western mountains and people began to file into an area at the front of the stage to dance. The band pulled out an accordion to accompany their catchy singalong country and a feeling that something special was in the air took hold.
The small eastern Nevada town of McGill (population less than 900) may not seem like a likely place for a music festival, but over the first weekend of June, more than 30 musical acts – quite a few nationally touring performers — from across the musical spectrum would take the stage set up at McGill’s central park and natural warm springs swimming hole for four days of performances.
The festival was called Schellraiser – named for its location near the Schell Creek Range – and the festival would bring performances to McGill with a lineup that read like a well-curated and eclectic mix of underground musicians on the fringes of national recognition.
The lineup was a varied mix of styles – with country represented with performers like Nikki Lane and Ruby Boots, rock bands like Houndmouth and the Old 97’s, dreamy softcore with performers like Black Belt Eagle Scout and Panda Riot, upbeat punk like the Paranoyds and Shannon Shaw.
The setting for the festival was surreal – with views of the mountains encapsulating the small park hosting the events and trees around its perimeter keeping the grounds shady throughout the day. During the evenings, daylight would linger in the sky while bats came out and darted across the sky above the lawn. And 70 degree nights meant that you could stay in a T-shirt for the nighttime performances. The single stage set up concentrated all the music in one area, so between performances it was easy to wander off toward the food vendors.
Two Bitch Bourbon sponsored the event and kept a bar well-stocked with their liquor. And periodic announcements were made that a local dispensary was offering a ‘Canna-Bus’ which would shuttle interested attendees to and from the festival parking lot to their nearby location throughout the day.
“I usually only come to Nevada when I want to gamble or when I want to see Shania Twain,” said Whitney Rose, one of the festival’s performers. “I don’t mean to brag but I put $2 into a slot machine and I won 30!”
The rural location was a recurring subject, as bands and performers often mentioned flying into Las Vegas, and then driving four hours to reach the festival. However, it seemed like both performers and attendees took advantage of the situation, with the old McGill Club bar, one of only a small handful of businesses in the old mining town, making a pretty popular stop once the nightly music ended at 10 p.m. While it was fairly easy to tell the residents from the locals, the contrast made for a friendly and entertaining atmosphere.
The other area where the party would continue after the end of the concerts was the Schellraiser Campground, which had glamping tents and car and tent camping a couple miles outside of town, where the late night air was filled with campers playing their own music or drinking beneath the dark starry skies. (Next year’s festival is scheduled to take place at an amphitheater currently under construction adjacent to the campgrounds.)
While much of the daytime environment remained pretty family friendly, as the sun went down it seemed like crowds were eager to start dancing. The small location seemed to lend a much more casual feeling to the festival, with artists typically packing up the large stage following their set and then heading over to the merch table to talk and take pictures with the audience. When punk band The Paranoyds invited a handful of audience members who were dancing with flags, the dancers ran onstage adding to the discordant and wild atmosphere created by the band.
Between songs, Old 97’s guitarist Murry Hammond told the story of how he received the chance to be the engineer on the Northern Nevada Railway, the tourist excursion train in nearby Ely. The festival itself was a benefit for the Northern Nevada Railway Museum, who is seeking to restore the old tracks running between Ely and McGill to begin routing the excursion train back out to the town.
However, the highlight of the weekend was during Nikki Lane’s set, in which she called up outlaw country’s JP Harris to play their Conway Twitty-Lorretta Lynn cover song “You’re the Reason Our Kids are Ugly,” from Harris’ 2017 album “Why Don’t We Duet in the Road.” Harris’ guitarist brought a large bottle of whiskey onstage, and the two were all smiles while sharing the bottle and the mic. (See Doug Fitzsimmons’ YouTube video below.) The song rambled on, eventually becoming a jam session. Lane called up friend Whitney Rose, and the three would take turns with the mic, dancing onstage for most of Lane’s set time. The remaining set list was all but abandoned, as the musicians shared the stage for the prolonged session. Those in the crowd cheered and danced, and the moment of musicians throwing out the normal concert routine and adapting to the friendly scene and beautiful location would set the tone for the remainder of the festival.