The 9th Annual Summer Meltdown in Darrington, WA, just wrapped up a few weeks ago and there is no question; it was the best Meltdown ever! Sure, it was only my second one, but the Meltdown veterans will tell you the same. The showcase of music, people, art and scenery was simply amazing. We got a little taste of everything: from folk to funk, roots to reggae and tribal to twang. There was juggling and belly dancing; hoopin’ and shimmyin’; stompin’ and singin’; rockin’ and rollin’ and even a little Running Man. Mother Nature added to the weekend smorgasbord progressing from downpours to damp, then chilly and cloudy, to clear and sunny from Saturday morning on—refreshing and flourishing the positive vibes abound at Meltdown.
The Summer Meltdown is a grassroots music festival that has grown into something truly spectacular. Terra Roots Foundation in conjunction with Seattle rock band Flowmotion organize and operate the Meltdown and their many years of hard work to make the festival what it is today is quite evident. Having top-notch security, magnificent lighting, impeccable sound and the best hospitality crew on the planet, preparing home-cooked meals with local organic ingredients for the bands; the weekend-long festivities were very well organized and carefully thought out, each day flowing in perfect progression. The music schedule nicely matched the hour of the day, audience vibe and age group—crescendoing in all the right places and providing the ideal soundtrack to Meltdown life, morning, noon and night.
The stellar organization efforts of the festival founders have been a long hard fight. Prior to finding its home in Darrington, WA, at the Whitehorse Mountain Amphitheater, the Summer Meltdown bounced around a few different locations due to continued growth and pushback from local community and government. After growing too large for its original location on San Juan Island, Meltdown moved to its short-lived location on Camano Island, where it stayed for only one year. Meltdown ‘03 was originally intended to stay in Camano, but it became a political battle and the Sheriff threatened to shut it down. So organizers retaliated by collecting over 500 signatures, petitioning with the county commissioners office to stay. But at the day of reckoning—three weeks before Meltdown was scheduled to happen—Camano Island County Commissioners put the kibosh on it. Through last-minute provisions the Meltdown was secretly moved to Sedro-Wooley, where it stayed for one more year. But in 2005 after another long battle, this time with Skagit County, police and neighbors, Meltdown was forced out once again and cancelled. The year hiatus gave organizers the chance to do things legally and find Meltdown a permanent home. They approached Darrington Bluegrass Association, which owns Whitehorse Mountain Amphitheater. Rumored to turn down everyone who applies to use the grounds, they granted Flowmotion frontman/founder Josh Clauson use of the Amphitheater for the Meltdown. Organizers had finally won the battle and the Meltdown was reborn in 2006.
“Meltdown is about the little guy fighting for what you believe, and not backing down to the powers of the ‘The Man,’” says organizer Preston Hall. The inspiring story of Meltdown’s beginnings is certainly testament to this fact and to the power of perseverance.
With finding the current locale in Darrington, and the creation of Terra Roots Foundation by several Meltdown organizers, the festival really began to find its identity. Terra Roots is a charitable arts non-profit org dedicated to cultivating social connections and a sustainable future through supporting Northwest arts. With Terra Roots’ mission and the spectacular festival grounds, Meltdown has grown into a sizable family friendly community of musicians, artists and music lovers, annually gathering to share their passions and talents with like-minded music folk. There is a magic about the Meltdown that is somewhat indescribable; you just need to go to fully get it. All weekend long you can hear people wishing one another “Happy Meltdown” and tenured attendees boast their number of years in attendance, sharing stories and memories like badges of honor with their extended Meltdown family. People build connections and make new friends at the Meltdown and many continue those friendships and connections back in the city, suddenly recognizing faces at club shows of people that had probably been attending many of the same shows for years, but until the Meltdown, they never knew them. People connect through music and the Meltdown fosters that human connection better than any other music festival I’ve been to. The excitement and positive energy is alive in everyone, and with the hundreds of volunteers working together to make it all happen, that energy spreads to each and every person in attendance.
The excitement and magic of the Meltdown is also felt by the performing artists. I had a conversation with Vicci Martinez after her set on Friday night about that very fact and she had the best description about the Meltdown vibe. (Vicci is a returning artist, who also performed at the 2006 Meltdown). She explained that, “There are certain gigs that, as a band, you just kind of do … you just gotta do them. But then there are gigs like this, where there is such an exchange of energy. If there was a picture drawn up, you’d see strings of energy connecting the band on stage to the audience members, and the audience members connecting to each other, like a big web. And the energy is just back and forth, back and forth.” She went on to explain that some gigs, she gets off stage and is exhausted, wanting nothing more than to go home eat a burger and go to bed. But after playing a gig like Meltdown, she exits the stage charged from the energy the audience brought to the show, wanting to keep on mingling, no matter how late the hour. That is the spirit of Meltdown—a positive vibe exchange through music.
The Summer Meltdown is about more than just the music however, it’s also about creating community and how we connect as humans and create positive outcomes through those connections, whether that outcome is art, music, friendship, learning, etc. We all have something to give; Meltdown encourages tapping into that and giving whatever talent or gift you have to share with others.
The Whitehorse Mountain Amphitheater is nestled on a wooded plot of land with a neighboring river, just a short walk through the woods behind the grounds. Down at the river there are hundreds of rock stacks (pictured) that are rumored to have been made by the same person each year, but nobody really knows who creates them. Lots of folks also add to them throughout the weekend, leaving their own mark to add to the mix.
Back on the grounds there are three stages and the late night tent with a vendor and green village right smack in the middle, with the camping areas circling this hub, so it feels like you’re walking to “downtown Meltdown” whenever you leave your camp. The layout provides a family camping area on one end, while the late night tent is on the complete opposite end so it makes it nice for folks with little ones to get the quite time they need at night. It’s really a great set-up and with the snowcapped Whitehorse Mountain as a backdrop; the view can’t be beat.
In addition to “downtown Meltdown” there is a kid’s area located just to the side of the Main Stage. There they have activities going on for the kids all weekend long such as, juggling, hula-hooping, face painting, dress-up, puppet making, etc. Aside from the kids’ area, the Meltdown offers music workshops, kids’ theater and talent show, a kids’ parade and more. The organizers have really made this event family friendly and Meltdown kids have just as much fun as the adults! It’s so great to have a community of all ages there.
Another fine touch is the ground art provided by Emerald Installations, which is an art collective that creates sacred sculptures made from organic materials in celebration of life, love, freedom and joy.
The collective of bands that made up the weekend’s musical montage were truly some of the west coast’s best independent artists. The unequivocal display of talent by every musician was intoxicating, bringing the audience to a unified place, transcending the on-stage synergy that draws people to live music and heightening it to a euphoric exchange of energy between the crowd and the artists. The result was a mutual exhilaration. That said, what follows is by no means a comprehensive list of reviews of every band that performed, but rather a collection of the highlights of my experience and my personal favorites.
The weekend kicked off with a Thursday evening pre-show with sets by San Diego’s funk/soul outfit On The One, festival hosts Flowmotion and Seattle’s Panda Conspiracy.
On The One delivered a high energy set that got everyone’s funky juices flowing in preparation for the long weekend ahead. Jesse Molloy’s jazz laden saxophone skills and Pete Lombardo’s funkalicous guitar solos reminded me at times of Hendrix in texture but with his own funky fresh style of reverbs and distortion. Theirs was the perfect opener for the early festival goers, awakening our senses and getting us amped up for the stellar lineup at this year’s Summer Meltdown.
Flowmotion’s “fan appreciation” set was the main attraction for Thursday’s pre-show and their teaser to Saturday’s big show was just what the crowd was looking for. Twilight gave way to the full dark of night by the time they took the stage and the Meltdown buzz was in the air. They delivered seamless melodies in classic Flowmotion fashion, with the excitement of the Meltdown beaming from their faces, showing ear-to-ear grins. And just as they started to take things up a notch, so did Mother Nature—the skies above opened to a steady downpour. As the rain droplets grew in size and intensity, I decided to depart since I had not yet staked my claim on a piece of prime tent real estate for the weekend, nor was I at all waterproofed, wearing a t-shirt and flip-flops. As such, I missed the rest of Flowmotion’s set, but I took comfort in knowing I’d have another chance to see them on Saturday night. However, even though I wasn’t in front of the stage, I could hear them perfect as I traipsed through the wooded grounds. And between each song you could hear hoots, screams and claps coming from the trees where other’s had retreated to their dry shelters at camp to listen to the rest of the show. It was rather mystical.
It was a slow start on day two, still quite soggy from the rain the night before and not quite ready to shake it in wet boots; I was glad that things weren’t really getting going until later in the afternoon.
TapWater, out of Portland Oregon, was the first set I took in for Friday’s marathon of music. Labeling themselves as world twang, their unique mix of instrumentation and melding of genres is definitely a differentiator setting them in a class almost wholly their own. Blending bluegrass, roots, merengue, reggae, marimba, and funk, TapWater offers an exceptional hybrid sound. Often mixing multiple genres in the same song, the instrumental mix includes guitar, banjo, piano, organ, accordion, steel drums, stand-up bass, and a host of percussion. The genre mix seems unusual and a little far-fetched, but somehow it totally works. Generally I’m not a fan of twang, but TapWater breaks all the rules and the result is nothing less than brilliant. Their performance kept our bodies moving and our minds intrigued over what they would do next.
Aphrodesia was next up on my “must see” list and I was definitely impressed by the performance that unfolded. This Afro-beat/funk band from San Francisco features two female vocalists, ample percussion, guitars and, of course, horns! Expecting more of a traditional Afro-beat sound like Femi Kuti or the likes, I was surprised to ingest more of a funk band with an Afro-beat twist, injected with an electro-pop flare. Nonetheless, I was enchanted by lead vocalist Maya Dorn’s powerful voice, colorful attire and overall performance. The entire set kept me shimmying to and fro and musically delighted.
Vicci Martinez was the next performance I caught that day and having no previous exposure to her music, and therefore no expectations for her set; I was completely blown away. While Vicci is a relatively young singer-songwriter at only age 24, she is highly accomplished in her own right. With five CD’s and a full-length live DVD under her belt, her experience and stage presence suggests that she might be something of an “old soul.” She’s only about 5’3” but she has such a powerful voice, it’s hard to comprehend how such a small woman can make such a big sound. Alternating from both acoustic and electric guitar, Vicci showcased her solid skills complimented by her sultry and inviting vocals. Her sound is heavy on the blues and rock with a side of sassy funk. She certainly left the audience hungry for more.
Lighting up the Garden Stage later in the night, BLVD brought the whomp to the Meltdown. Being the only band on the bill playing live electronic cuts, these guys really upped the ante with their housey breakbeats and the lyrical hip-hop flow of MC Souleye—quite a contrast to the mostly bluegrass and rock lineup of the evening leading up to their set. The beer garden area quickly transformed into a sweaty dance floor with the crowd bumping and bouncing in unison to BLVD’s solid bass lines, dreamy synth layers and staunchly arranged samples. BLVD’s drummer and DJ/sampler whiz-kid, Dylan McIntosh, attested to the fact that we welcomed these Meltdown first-timers with as much energy and spunk as their hometown followers in San Francisco (and most of us had never heard them before). Yeah Meltdown!
The last show on the bill for Friday night was Bellingham’s Acorn Project, whom I’ve wanted to catch live for quite some time—and what a show it was! They played the late night tent until 4 a.m. My jubilation could have had a little to do with the number of cocktails I had consumed in total by that late hour; or maybe it was the trippy lights and glow sticks; or maybe it was the number of people all crammed in that tent just as entranced as I was. At any rate, the entire tent was pulsating with every melodic sequence the band laid down for us and Acorn Project ate it up. They blend funk, soul and rock. The instrument mix is comprised of sax, keys, percussion, and of course, those funky guitars. The music was so consuming that when they finally stopped playing and I looked at my watch, I had no idea how long I had been shaking it in that tent. It had been nearly three hours and their set was no less energetic beginning, middle or end.
20 Riverside opened up the day’s festivities on Saturday morning, and after having been up until the wee hours of morning following all the excitement of Friday, I didn’t expect to roll out of my tent in time to catch these guys’ set. But the beats were just too enticing and tugged me right out of my mummy bag. Feeling semi-delirious from a mere five hours of rest, I perked right up by the sound coming from the Garden Stage and hurried myself down to catch the back half of the set. This six piece group out of Everett, WA, is fairly new on the scene but is no doubt, one talented group of musicians. They mix hip-hop, ska, funk and jazz. The musicianship displayed was quite impressive for a rookie band; many of them played multiple instruments during the set. The guy on keys also played trumpet, the bass player also played trombone and the front man, Aron Glidden, played guitar then switched to the drum kit towards the end of the set. They’re a talented and high energy bunch of guys and it’s great to see them start to break into the Seattle local music scene. The tunes delivered were hip swaying and funky—the perfect opener for Saturday, the biggest and funkiest day!
LoCura took the stage late in the afternoon and lead vocalist Kata Miletich’s voice was instantly mesmerizing. She sings from deep inside and delivers lyrics with such passion that the energy and emotion in her words reach right down into your heart, tickling a range of emotions and melodically drawing them out like an Indian snake charmer. LoCura’s flamenco and reggae infused Latin style mixes English and Spanish lyrics with Cajon percussion and hand clapping. Their music moves your body and soul with every song—not to mention your hips and feet!
Kicking the back half of Saturday evening off just right, Five Alarm Funk dropped a funk bomb on the Garden Stage. Holy crap, these guys were on FIRE! Living up to their name, the show was a high energy funk free-for-all. This 12-piece collective from Vancouver, B.C., really jump started our night. Their front-line, triple percussion firing squad was an impressive sight. They’ve got congas, timbales and a drum kit front and center, backed by one more percussionist on shekere, five horn players, two guitars and a bass; their set was explosive. Blending hard-hitting funk with Afro-beat, their sound also has hints of Latin and reggae. The saucy guitar grooves and brass heavy melodies infected the crowd with a funky five alarm fever. And the guys in the band, cramped as they were on stage, were bumpin’ and shakin’ every bit as much as the crowd. Break out the fire hoses people, these guys don’t mess around!
And just when we thought we couldn’t get any higher after a full blown Five Alarm Funk attack, Flowmotion took it to the next level, performing an outstanding double set. Frontmen/guitarists Josh Clauson and RL Heyer harnessed the excitement and energy in the air and channeled it back and forth from the moment they stepped on stage, each providing the yin to the other’s yang. They owned the stage in front of more than 3,000 fans, flowing in signature style from funky favorites to bluesy ballads, jazzy rock rhythms, a little twang and a few covers. Their break out jams transported your mind to another place, keeping your body moving in effortless unison. Flowmotion’s sets were sprinkled with appearances by guest musicians Lenny Price on saxophone, Joe Doria on organ, and slide guitar/banjo aficionado, Tony Furtado, whose band had performed their own set earlier in the night. The stage was alive with the collaborative energy that Flowmotion perpetuates—the very energy that the Meltdown is all about. This festival brings together an extended family of musicians, all sharing their talent and love for music both with the audience and their counterparts on stage. Flowmotion completely enlivened that spirit, shining even brighter when sharing their stage with guests. The harmonious exchange of positive energy bubbled over into the audience, completely filling us up with the message in the music.
During Flowmotion’s set break, Josh introduced us to Bronkar Lee, a beat boxer out of the Bay area whose talent was simply mind-blowing. This man is the vocal prince of percussion. Not only did he deliver some of the cleanest and funkiest beats I’ve ever heard a human mouth make, but he also incorporates juggling, hand drumming and live looping with a recording pedal into his one-man Circus of Sound. He is able to make up to five beat layers with his mouth and adds the juggling in unison with each beat. The duel sensory stimulation that is created by adding visuals to his already intoxicating beat boxing skills completely maximizes the audience experience. Bronkar is sure to give all the beat boxers out there a run for their money with his outstanding one-man show.
Seattle’s Staxx Brothers took the Garden Stage after Flowmotion’s show stopping set. These guys and gals really kept the high energy going with their edgy lyrics and soul based grooves. The Staxx Brothers blend R&B, hip-hop, rock and soul in their booty shakin’ music. With two female backing vocalists, blind rapper DC Staxx and frontman DP Staxx on vocals and harmonica, their Saturday night show was a blast. We were as entertained between songs with the wit and audience banter of DP and DC Staxx as we were with the groups’ “hard ass soul” music. At one point they paid homage to the Running Man, getting the audience to bring back the 80’s dance for a minute. It surely dated those of us who partook, but filled us with hilarious nostalgia at the same time.
On Sunday, I ended up having to tend to an unavoidable task for work which ate up the better part of my afternoon and I was unable to see any music until evening. However, I could hear it from inside the Meltdown office, where I sat bebopping in front of my laptop, fighting a slow internet connection and cursing my damn day job. Once I was finally finished, I took the time to peruse the vendor area and buy myself some jewelry before the booths were broken down for the weekend. After all of this, I was finally able to catch some music, but by that time there were only the last few shows of the evening left and I couldn’t wait to see March Fourth Marching Band.
As it turns out, M4MB was unable to make it due to a series of fiascos, including a broke down van, a cut hand and a trip to the ER. In their absence, some artists that had already performed during the weekend stepped up and agreed to wing it, filling in for M4MB. The first of the impromptu sets was an encore performance from Bronkar Lee. This time a little more improv heavy, giving the audience a beat boxing 101 session. He walked us through the basics step-by-step in a “call and response” fashion. Wow, beat boxing is not easy as we soon all learned, but all the kids were certainly getting a kick out of it. Part way through the performance, Lenny Price joined him doing a little freestyle jamming on sax along with Bronkar’s beat boxing. The musicianship displayed by both Lenny and Bronkar was top notch, both feeding off the other and making body moving tunes on the fly. At one point, Lenny played both tenor and alto sax simultaneously, creating two harmonized melodies with Bronkar providing the beats and base lines with his magnificent mouth. It was as if each were trying to one-up the other on how many sounds they could make with their mouths. There is no question; both men are masters of their art. It was a great fill in, loading the audience with enough intrigue that we had all but forgotten about the March Fourth Marching Band cancellation.
After Bronkar and Lenny’s freestyle session LAB, who had played an impressive late night set in the tent on Saturday, took the stage and graced us with another fabulous performance. It was great to see them on the more grandiose Main Stage. The trio consists of Steve Adams, Davis Brogan and Dan Lebowitz of ALO. Having exhausted much of their material the night before, this jam heavy rock band further displayed their talent playing crowd pleasing covers and setting the tone for the evening finale of the Everyone Orchestra which took the Main Stage later.
The Yogoman Burning Band immediately followed-up LAB, getting us really moving for the last night of musical glee. Yogoman BB out of Bellingham, WA, mixes reggae and ska adorned with trombone, trumpet and sax. Their sound has a jazzy island feel; it’s a hand clapping, screaming, swinging and swaying good time. All dressed in red, the group has enormous personality on stage. I have to say my favorite part of their show was the littlest entertainer. Lead vocalist and drummer Jordan Rain’s little girl was on stage for most of their set, shaking her maraca and twirling her hula-hoop. She couldn’t be more than seven and it was the most endearing sight to see her up there sharing the stage with her dad and shining like a little star. Only at the Meltdown could this be accepted, albeit encouraged.
After Yogoman’s non-stop body moving set, the Everyone Orchestra took the main stage for the festival finale. This was the show topper of show toppers; the performance would have blown the roof off, had we not been in an outdoor amphitheater. Under the keen maestro instruction of Matt Butler, Jans Ingber (vocals/percussion), String Cheese Incident’s Michael Kang, along with a score of musicians from various bands that performed throughout the weekend, played an outstanding improvisational set. With around fifteen musicians on stage the mountain of sound and energy was quite an electrifying force. I watched the performance from back and side stage getting the whole picture. Butler guides the musicians by wildly scribbling minimal instruction on a dry erase board, from interchange to interchange. With messages like “Disco C” and “Funk G” it was amazing to see the artists flow so seamlessly with merely a genre and a key guiding them from one moment to the next. Reading the crowd and the on-stage synergy, Butler moved the people and the mood to perfection, at times instructing the crowd with his whiteboard and at the very end instructing “backstage dancers” bringing the party to its pinnacle. It was one of the best displays of talent I have ever seen. And the perfect end to the Summer Meltdown.
One of the reasons I love the Meltdown so much is because of its size; it’s not too big and it’s not too small. I think this is one of the reasons why there is never any negativity, no fights, no crazed festie heads on too many drugs, etc. Everyone in general that attends Meltdown is very responsible and respectful, which enables it to stay family friendly. Sometimes when things get too big, they also get out of hand. So I’ve been pondering the question, how big is too big?
While the intent of the Meltdown organizers is for it to grow bigger and better each year, I cannot help but think that there must be a cap at some point. So what is that cap? 8,000? 10,000? With Meltdown sitting at upwards of 3,500 it certainly has a lot of room to grow, but part of me thinks that at some point it needs to level off or it will lose some of its magic. Who knows … maybe I’m underestimating the number of great positive people out there.
I did get the opportunity to ask Erin Bruce, Meltdown Organizer/Flowmotion Manager, where she saw the Meltdown going, and she shared that she and Josh have dreams to someday expand into the neighboring horse stables and have another stage area. I must admit, that does sound pretty cool, maybe bigger IS better. At any rate, I am definitely stoked to see things progress for the big 10th year anniversary next year and will continue to spread the word. So, see you at next year’s Meltdown!
Photos provided courtesy of Sara Sokolowski, Stephie Allard, Kelly Smith and Yours Truly.