Reggae on the River is Up the Creek as High Times Cancels

Humboldt County’s long-running festival could be down the drain, as its corporate parent blows yet another of its high-profile sponsored events.

This year would have been the 35th anniversary of Reggae on the River, the decades-old live reggae bash in the redwoods that set the standard for outdoor annual California music festivals. Long before there was ever a Coachella, an Outside Lands, or a Lightning in a Bottle, Reggae on the River was the great-granddaddy of all the festivals, and since 1984 has drawn throngs of music lovers up north to the Emerald Triangle for three delirious days of live music, ganja, and Rastafarian vibrations. 

But Reggae on the River just hit rock bottom. After deep-pocketed investors from High Times Productions bought the rights to operate the festival last year, High Times just abruptly canceled this year’s event — with artists already booked, permits obtained, and ticket sales underway. The move felt like a slap in the face to fans and the Mateel Community Center for whom the event is a benefit, and leaves Reggae on the River facing an uncertain future.

You may think of High Times as just a magazine, but it’s become much more than that since its $70 million acquisition in 2017 by a group of investors that included Bob Marley’s son Damian. The company is now a larger conglomerate called High Times Holding Company that has publicly traded stock, a High Times Media arm aggressively buying up other publications, and a High Times Productions company that throws the nationwide High Times Cannabis Cup events.

Which makes it odd that High Times Productions has now botched three California events in less than ten months. High Times canceled a Sacramento Cannabis Cup in October 2018 because they didn’t have their permits before advertising the event. A 4/20 SoCal Cannabis Cup this year in San Bernardino had its pot sales permits rejected at the last minute, which decimated attendance and forced ticket dealers to issue refunds.

And now High Times has canceled this year’s Reggae on the River, in just the second year of its six-year sponsorship deal with the festival.

High Times says in a statement to SF Evergreen that “we would like to help the Mateel Center bring Reggae on the River back in 2020 and hope to work closely with the local community to keep this great event going.”

That may be tough, though, as the fate of Reggae on the River could end up in court. The Eureka Times-Standard reported immediately after the cancellation that the Mateel Community Center felt High Times had breached their contract.   

A spokesperson for the community center tells SF Evergreen that “The Mateel Board of Directors is currently reviewing their options pertaining to the production contract.”

To their great credit, the Mateel Community Center just confirmed they’ll throw a replacement event called Mateel Forever: Reggae Legacy that weekend, with this year’s Reggae on the River headliner still intact. “We will have Toots and the Maytals at the Mateel on Saturday, August 4th,” the spokesperson tells us. (That show will be at a different site than the traditional outdoor venue.)

That spokesperson adds that High Times was not able to stem the festival’s long-running monetary losses. “They were concerned that there was not enough local support and ticket sales, and they lost money last year,” she tells us. “Based on the lack of local support and negative feedback they had received this year, they decided to cancel.”

At its peak in the 1990s, Reggae on the River was a top-notch festival that drew more than 15,000 to the grasslands of the Humboldt-Mendocino county border, and routinely booked superstar reggae acts like Sly & Robbie, Femi Kuti, Jimmy Cliff, and Bunny Wailer.

“There was this festival up in the Redwoods where they had great bands at an outdoor place on a beautiful river and it was cheap and really cool,” says Steve Heilig, one-time music writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, The Beat, and Huffington Post, who covered the festival’s early years and eventually went on to manage its backstage hospitality area.

“You’d have a single day where you’d have Jimmy Cliff, Burning Spear, and Israel Vibration,” he tells SF Evergreen. “Any of these would be headliners at any festival, but they’d just be lined up one after the other.”

Reggae on the River started in 1984, as a benefit for the Mateel Community Center after their previous Garberville, Calif., home burned down in 1983. Originally just a one-day festival, the party found a perfect home at a remote Humboldt property called French’s Camp that boasted redwood forests, ample outdoor parking, and a riverbend with a giant swimming hole.

“They called it ‘Hippie Pee Creek’ that weekend,” Heilig jokes. “The locals said ‘Don’t go swimming downstream from the festival, just go up a little bit and it’s beautiful.’ ”

The festival extended to two days in 1991, and then to three days as it grew larger. International reggae stars would regularly swim in the river and mingle with fans, and Reggae on the River had a certain secret weapon to attract major talent. 

“Artists were very excited to come there and get the local Humboldt-grown cannabis,” says Heilig. “Some of them took their pay that way too.”

But the festival’s growth proved difficult to manage, as larger crowds led to frequent fistfights and a persistent groping problem for women in attendance. “The drugs changed, there was more crank,” he tells us. “I won’t say it turned into Altamont or anything, but it was different.

“The locals that I knew that were part of founding it and producing it for the first 20 years didn’t even go anymore.”

Management infighting plagued the event, and by the mid-2000s, Reggae on the River was losing money every year. The 2007 event was canceled, and ensuing years’ parties switched locations several times as debt mounted and the Mateel Community Center openly considered nixing the event altogether.

Enter High Times, which signed a six-year sponsorship of Reggae on the River in 2018 that “assumed all responsibility for the upcoming festival’s talent lineup, marketing, and monetization efforts.” The cash infusion looked like the festival’s savior, and Arrested Development, Israel Vibration, and the Original Wailers were all booked for last year’s big Reggae on the River comeback.

The comeback did not go as planned, as High Times lost a reported $1.6 million on last year’s event. In response, they jacked up the 2019 prices for vending booths, planned a “Cannabis Village” in hopes of making up their losses with pot sales, and got permits anticipating a capacity crowd as large as 9,000.

Ticket sales remained dismal and High Times called off the 2019 event, leaving the future of the 35-year-old festival in doubt. But the Humboldt County community is determined to keep Reggae on the River afloat.       

“The Mateel Community Center is the owner of the Reggae on the River trademark and is committed to the Reggae on the River brand,” its spokesperson says. “It’s a brand that was created in Humboldt and it plays an important role globally in reggae music and is widely renowned on the annual festival calendar in the reggae community. The Mateel Community Center plans on carrying on the legacy.”

Reggae on the River has survived one-year cancellations before, so this may not mean curtains for the venerable festival. It could survive under a different name, or maybe High Times will somehow still restore it to its former glory. But for now, it looks like Reggae on the River could be swept away by the currents of a corporate partnership gone bad.