Schellraiser Music Festival – McGill, Nevada | June 2-5, 2022
Reviewed by Katie Barber
Photographed By Katie Barber and Evan Barber
Though Nevada’s northeastern region remains one of the West’s best kept secrets, the towns of McGill and nearby Ely pull an ace out of the sleeve with the new Schellraiser Music Festival. The festival’s name is adopted from the neighboring Schell Creek mountain range and imbues its mission to fundraise for a local cause. This year: the Nevada Northern Railway’s work to restore locomotives and expand the historic rail’s footprint.
A short drive past the Utah state line and tucked away in the gorgeous expanse of Steptoe Valley, Schellraiser boasted an expertly-curated lineup of 30 bands over the course of four days. A mix of Country, Rock, Punk, and Americana awaited festivalgoers, many of whom had made their way across I-80 from Reno and Salt Lake or caravanned from as far as Missouri. Also in attendance were locals who had grown up in McGill, bringing with them stories of the mining town’s history and memories of riding their bikes down to the very same park where the festival stage stood.
The small-town setting encouraged a sense of shared nostalgia, and McGill’s charm took hold as soon as the music started on Thursday afternoon. The lucky punctual attendees on the inaugural day of the festival were treated to the western warble of Oregonian Margo Cilker and her band, who set the tone perfectly by nodding to the surrounding area not only with their americana sound but through the lyrics of songs such as “That River:” With the shepherds and the records to keep her company / Took a room at the old Basque Hotel. She encouraged the audience to get up and do cartwheels, but not to get too rowdy “because I don’t know how far the closest hospital is.”
Jason Hawke Harris followed Cilker in his second performance since the pandemic began, and took the crowd on a journey through modern country and delicate ballads, complete with piano accompaniment and slide guitar twinge. After some new tracks made their world debut, the band’s final song “I’m Afraid” had everyone in the park up on their feet dancing and earned them a standing ovation.
While the Schellraiser crew turned over the stage, attendees wandered over to the funnel cake stand, ordered some Indo Bowl curry, grabbed a drink from the beer wagon, and made conversation. One group, flying a homemade flag adorned with a pretzel logo, was in McGill because many of the artists on the festival lineup had performed during their DIY virtual “Pandemic Pretzel Social Club” concert series; they showed off the t-shirt they were asking many of bands to autograph in commemoration of live music’s return.
Whoops and hollers filled the air around the park when Chuck Mead and his Grassy noll Boys took the stage. The three piece coaxed the crowd into some call and response throughout a catchy set that included a cover of rockabilly classic “7 Nights to Rock” and originals like “Tap Into Your Misery.” After his sign off (“It’s been a business doin’ pleasure with y’all!”), it was Jaime Wyatt’s turn to re-infuse some kickass female energy into the day.
Wyatt’s voice carried beautifully across newer tracks from her 2020 album Neon Cross, older tracks such as “From Outer Space” and “Wasco,” and on a cover of Merle Haggard’s “Misery and Gin.” Although Wyatt had come from Nashville, her band was composed of all Salt Lake-based musicians, including Wyatt Lowe (Wyatt Lowe & the Mayhem Kings) on guitar and vocals, Denney Fuller (The Boys Ranch et al.) on bass and vocals, and Eric Stoye (Triggers & Slips) on drums. If she hadn’t told the crowd, no one could have guessed that they hadn’t been playing together for years.
A highlight of the weekend was the six piece group the Vandoliers, aka “Your favorite punk band’s favorite country band.” They were exactly that, starting off their set with a ska-adjacent brassy number that forced everyone up and dancing within the first few notes. Lead vocalist Joshua Fleming made his way all over the stage alongside Travis “McFiddlesticks” Curry on the fiddle, who channeled a genuinely wild energy that had everyone beaming at the performance. The entire band played like they were entertaining a packed late night venue, just the right amount of quintessentially country and infectiously loud as the sound vibrated around the park and across the sagebrush. “My job was to come here and put a little noise pollution in these beautiful mountains,” Josh exclaimed, thanking the crowd for showing up and making a point to invite everyone to enjoy their square toe/steel toe blend of music.
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They were a perfect lead in to the night’s last two bands, The Last Bandoleros and The Dirty River Boys. As the sun set, The Last Bandoleros took the stage in suave suits and brought an energetic “Tex Flex” sound with tracks like “No More No Mas.” Serious laughs ensued with the hilarious “Friend Zone:” You wanna be her lover / But she takes you shopping with her sister and her mother. The set was complete with a wardrobe change into colorful ponchos, and the group covered “Sin Un Amor” by Los Panchos. Despite their proximity, the mariachi influences of their San Antonian music were contrasted by the grittier gothic sounds of El Paso band The Dirty River Boys, whose dark lyrics fell in sync with the setting sun.
An upright bass adorned with unspecified animal pelts complimented the sounds of drums, mandolin, banjo, harmonica, and electric guitar. Boots were stomping and heads were shaking with “Desert Wind” and Ketchum’s “Small Town Saturday Night.” The group also covered CCR’s “Susie Q,” on which the harmonica was prominently featured. “Ya’ll ready to raise some hell!?” was the introductory phrase for the fitting “Boomtown,” which told the tale of outlaws on the last frontier and black smoke rising from the trains. Someone handed out glow sticks to the kids in the crowd, lighting up the lawn in a rainbow of running colors. In keeping with the theme, everyone raised a glass for the group’s final song, “Raise Some Hell,” bringing the night to an upbeat close.
Attendees who took advantage of the festival’s camping options made the short trek to the campground, situated on 80 acres of land north of the park. Under the stars, the Lotus Belle tents glowed a warm yellow and looked like something out of a travel magazine. Just hours before, the solar-powered grid had come online to light the immaculate glamping-style tent, which was furnished with a queen-sized bed, furniture, lamps, gorgeous rugs, and 5-star hotel quality bedding. A power source was provided for those in the tents, as well as additional blankets. All campers had access to multiple-stall luxury restroom and shower trailers, and some chose to pitch their own tents or bring an RV onto the property.
In the morning, the sun illuminated the mountains to the west for a picture-perfect desert scene. Some campers headed into town to check out the sights, and others gathered around at one of the tents for a morning jam session with guitars and other instruments. Towards 12 pm, some individuals had made their way to the McGill park and were setting up their camp chairs or claiming spots on the grass. The first band of the day was The 40 Acre Mule, who no doubt rolled in with the Old 97s and their tour bus parked on the side of the road.
Isaiah Evans on guitar and vocals kicked off the second day of the festival alongside a swinging saxophone and upbeat drums. The group took the audience through tunes that would fit right in at both a rural dessert bar and a particularly wild 50s sock hop. The varied sounds of the first acts on Friday embodied the spirit of the festival well, a combination of genres that still fit perfectly into the surrounding scenery. Included in this was Daniel Markham, who offered more of a pop-like take on rock ‘n roll with his three piece band.
JP Harris earned the title of “Patron Saint of Schellraiser” over the weekend, drawing a huge crowd early on in the day for his buzzy beats and smooth country vocals. Fans of the pedal steel rejoiced, as the first one appeared on stage and accompanied Harris on “Badly Bent” and “South Oklahoma.” Before “Two for the Road,” Harris recounted how the song was featured on a Dennis Quaid movie when he first started making music, leading him to believe he’d be coming in via heliport to fests like Schellraiser (he showed up in a minivan). The relatable lyrics of his songs had couples slow dancing across the park, onlookers swaying to the rhythm of the band.
Likely winner of “furthest traveled” for Schellraiser was Lucette (Lauren Gillis), who came with a full band from Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. A haunting pedal steel introduced her first song, which featured equally haunting vocals and lyrics: I pray that one day I reach the top of the hill. After “Angel,” from her 2019 record produced by Sturgill Simpson, the group realized Gillis’s piano was transposed, and as the crews attempted to fix the wiring, the group riffed between the guitar, drums, and pedal steel.
As Blue Water Highway’s borrowed keyboard arrived, Lucette carried on effortlessly with “Muddy Water.” The crowd cheered and whistled throughout the set, which had spectacular upbeat moments on unreleased songs and took cinematically dramatic turns on tracks like “Deluxe Hotel Room” and “Utah.”
Country artist Whitney Rose took the stage after Lucette. “I usually only come to Nevada when I really need to gamble or I really need to see Shania Twain or I really need to see Wayne Newton,” she told the crowd in between perfectly twangy songs like “Arizona” and “The Devil Borrowed My Boots.” Following Rose was Blue Water Highway, whose musicians all took turns switching between the various instruments—the drummer on bass, the bassist on accordion, the keyboardist on tambourine—to deliver an indie-rock-country vibe that invited more than a few people closer to the stage to enjoy.
As birds came out to catch the bugs as the sun set, a perfect yellow-orange hue was cast above the valley. Nikki Lane and her band were greeted by wild cheers; some attendees had arrived just in time to catch some of the group’s new songs such as “First High” and an unreleased track from her forthcoming album Denim & Diamonds: As long as I can be good enough for you / It’s good enough for me drifted melodically across the crowd. Lane invited JP Harris back on stage to accompany her on an extended cover of “You’re the Reason Our Kids Are Ugly,” complete with mid-song insults and banter. Invited also were Whitney Rose and a bandmember of Harris’s, who brought enough alcohol for the whole group to enjoy as they transitioned into “Why You Been Gone So Long,” splitting up the verses and sharing a bottle, guitar, and a few dance moves. The audience cheered on the impromptu jam session as Lane’s band expertly followed the trio’s lead.
Lane dedicated a couple of songs to the women in the crowd, including a young girl she had met earlier in the day. Her last song “Denim & Diamonds” was an infectious, head-banging anthem for badass women everywhere: ‘Cause I can do whatever I wanna / All by lonesome/ If that’s a problem / Well you can’t say shit. Any in the crowd who weren’t already fans of Lane were certainly converted by the end of the performance.
One of the most highly anticipated artists was alternative country rockers Old 97’s. People gathered close together at the base of the stage while the wind picked up a bit and brought with it 90’s classics “Jagged” and “Indefinitely,” as well as newer songs from their most recent releases. The audience went wild not only for the music, but also for the stories the group told of taking a ride on the train engine in Ely. “Only fitting we do a train song right now,” said guitarist Murry Hammond before launching into “West Texas Teardrops.” The group played long into the night, encouraging a whole lot of dancing and singing along as the clouds parted and stars emerged.
Saturday’s lineup started off with White Rose Motor Oil, a self-described “cow punk” duo from Denver. Both vocalist/guitarist Eryn DeSomer and drummer Keith Hoerig-DeSomer were decorated in some form by white flowers on stage, a beautiful balance to their punk influence that also complimented DeSomer’s intimidatingly beautiful voice. Absolutely a highlight of the entire festival, the pair somehow generated a sound far larger than just the two of them, with Hoerig-DeSomer executing breakneck rockabilly beats with precision and DeSomer leaving the audience hanging on her every word with originals such as “Mountain State” and a particular speedy cover of “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’.”
The Bobby Lees then proceeded to bring the punk to the cows. The group interrupted the serene scene just right, sending a near-visible shock wave with the sound of ripping guitars and crashing cymbals. Vocalist Sam Quartin introduced the crowd to their genre-bent punk rock with vocals that swung between traditional punk and spoken word, even melodic at times. Leaving little to no time between songs such as “Radiator” and “I’m a Man,” they broke down moments of psychedelia and rough, gritty rock with ease, often with guitarist Nick Casa calculatingly shredding while the rest of the group did their thing; this included bassist Kendall Wind and drummer Macky Bowman keeping a solid beat with just the right amount of headbanging. A couple of times during the set, Quartin left the confines of the stage to traverse the amps or literally watch from the crowd—while the audience didn’t quite form a mosh pit, they were obviously magnetically attracted to the group’s raucous energy.
While a buzz hung in the air, Motel Radio got set up on the stage to bring a slightly different sound to the afternoon. They introduced the audience to a few tracks off of a new album that will come out later this year with warm harmonies and smooth indie guitar that spoke to the americana themes of the weekend. Their set ended with “Streetlights,” clearly a fan favorite.
Another highlight of the day was Black Belt Eagle Scout (Katherine Paul and bandmates Allyson Foster and Paul Frunzi). The group’s fresh rock seamlessly transported the crowd from the hills of Nevada to the lush Pacific Northwest, to the point that many seemed to be under a trance. Paul’s voice carried across the park delicately and forcefully all at the same time on “At the Party:” We will always sing / We will always sing. On a few songs, Paul showcased her ability to weave a story with the guitar, leaving lyrics behind and gifting the crowd with gorgeous instrumentals. “This song is for the Western Shoshone people,” Paul said, introducing “Indians Never Die,” a poignant acknowledgement of the land on which the festival takes place. They concluded the set with “Sam, A Dream,” painting a vivid, bittersweet picture accented by Paul’s guitar alongside Frunzi’s drums and Foster’s bassline.
Just a few days after opening for Jack White in L.A., The Paranoyds made their way to the McGill pool and public park, diving in “Face First” with Carnage Bargain’s opening track. The group proved they can command a festival just as well as they do a pint-sized garage, infusing their searing rock and roll into the desert breeze and no doubt turning some heads of the McGill locals up the road. At the venue, people were nearly headbanging with “Heather Doubtfire” and “Maldito,” before the band moved into “Pet Cemetery.” “Did you guys know it was time to get spooky?” asked bassist/vocalist Staz Lindes of the crowd.
After playing a couple of new tracks in line with their themes of critiquing society and self (Am I too depressed to want success?), they invited a group of festivalgoers wielding colorful flags up to dance on the stage, serenading them with the final notes of “Ratboy.” The MC started to urge the band off the stage afterwards, but they let him know they had one more song. “Bear” left the crowd tasting the metal of their instruments, ending with spine-chilling keys and the sound of electricity.
In between sets, a few curious pronghorns made their way down the hills beyond the stage and stuck around for The Cactus Blossoms, getting a taste of their folk-rock crooning along with audience. The temperature dropped a bit and people grabbed their jackets and bug spray in preparation for Shannon Shaw and her band.
A large group that had formed in front of the stage enthusiastically cheered on the group as they emerged from the darkness, all donned in green with perfect wardrobe coordination. Joining Shannon was drummer Joe Haener, Anna Hillburg on keys and trumpet, Noelle Fiore on guitar, Jose Boyer on guitar, and Victor Franco (of Roselit Bone) on glockenspiel among other instruments. Shaw’s signature rasp brought the night quite a few tracks from her 2018 solo album, including “Bring Her the Mirror” and “Cold Pillows.”
She did a little bit of theatrical directing on stage, asking the lighting guy to mix up the colors a bit, and encouraging the audience to get closer. The Paranoyd’s Lindes held a lighter above the crowd before Franco and Fiore traded spots for a cover of “Cry to Me.” The group harmonized throughout the psychedelic retro set, accented by Hillburg’s trumpet. “This is the best song, so if you gotta go, you can leave right after this one,” Shaw told everyone before “Leather, Metal, Steel.” “Just kidding, there’s more music after this.”
Houndmouth had big expectations to meet, as the audience had only grown during Shaw’s set. “Let’s raise some Schell!” someone from the band yelled before launching into “Las Vegas,” the crowd jumping along. Frontman Matt Myers held his guitar over his head and bopped around the stage throughout the set, which included “Honey Slider” and “McKenzie.” The sound of their organ wafted dramatically into the night, and whistles and shouts were offered in response to both their faster tracks and slower burns like “Darlin’.” The band departed and left Myers on stage alone for “For No One.” “There’s no, like, encore. We’re not going to go off and come back out…this is the vibe, we’ll just play for you. Cut down to the brass tacks,” he told the park. Their final song of the night was “Sedona,” which punctuated the evening perfectly and had people singing the lyrics on the way back to their cars.
Before they started their performance, festival founder Rudy Herndon gave a heartfelt speech thanking all of the sponsors, contractors, logisticians, staff, performers, and attendees. “Thank you” was a common phrase used throughout the weekend, with every single one of the performers expressing gratitude to all who had traveled to see them. Though the acts agreed years ago to playing the festival, it was clear that Herndon’s dedication to the event kept the artists committed, even after multiple pandemic delays. For most of them, the trek to McGill was a one-off: artists such as Lucette coming all the way from Edmonton, Shannon Shaw and her band having just one rehearsal in Salt Lake before they played, Jason Hawke Harris’s band rehearsed the weekend before without him, then came together there in McGill.
That was the magic of Schellraiser: everything coming together just right to create an unforgettable experience for all involved. Setting itself apart from other festivals, Schellraiser’s welcoming, friendly ambience taps into that sense of nostalgia that you can’t quite place, but somehow know well. From the local volunteers to the vendors, the security guards to the folks who set up the tents and trucked in the luxury amenities, everyone was in such great spirits to be present, and strangers became fast friends. McGill showed off not only its wonderful hospitality, but its spectacular beauty, offering amazing sunrises and sunsets to compliment all of the art that the weekend had to offer. Schellraiser is not just an experience—it is a breath of new life into an area rich with history, sure to be a tradition that will make its own lasting mark on the basin and range.
The first year of the Schellraiser Music Festival will certainly go down as one of those “you had to be there” moments in time. Fortunately, the event organizers plan to be back in the desert in 2023, fundraising for another great cause. Keep your eyes on the horizon, because you won’t want to miss it