Summer Meltdown 8.11 - 8.14.16

Darrington, WA

Words By Mitch Melheim
Photos By Coleman Schwartz

Darrington, Washington’s Summer Meltdown is one of the most beautiful festivals I’ve ever been to. Whitehorse Mountain soars over the intimate amphitheater as a gorgeous river flows behind it. The camping is mostly shaded and close to the stages, local bands still make up a large chunk of the line up, and scheduling conflicts are almost never a problem. That being said, a growing emphasis on larger crowds and more expensive line ups has proven to be a distraction towards the festival’s initial focus on community and sustainability.

Thursday, August 11, 2016:

We pulled up to a very long check-in line that we luckily avoided since we were media. After parking, we walked to the box office to pick up our credentials. Acquiring our passes was easier than expected with minimal lines and helpful staff. The only problem was that I wasn’t given a schedule. No big deal. I was curious where I could get one so I asked the box office worker and was told that they weren’t doing paper schedules this year to save paper. He told me that we were supposed to print off the .PDF file before we came if we wanted a physical copy and that there was originally a plan for a mobile app that never came to fruition. Since it was done for environmental reasons rather than financial, I was more than fine with it and continued my way towards the gate.

I was met at the gate by friendly security who did nothing more than smile and wave as we walked past with our passes. So far, so good and the venue was as beautiful as I remembered it being. Walking down the hill towards the amphitheater, I stopped to take in a full 360 degree view of the mountains and trees I was lucky enough to call home for the weekend.

I arrived a couple hours after the rest of my group due to some car troubles on the way up so my campsite was already set up and waiting for me once I arrived. Their campground map makes more sense than most music festivals and I was able to easily find my group with minimal time spent searching. The map consists of paths that are cleverly named alphabetically, such as “Disco Street” and “Funk Street.”

Bellingham, Washington’s 8-piece soul-funk ensemble, Snug Harbor, kicked off the festival with a fun and exploratory set on the smaller Garden Stage. Following them and opening the Main Stage for the weekend were up and coming Vermont jammers, Twiddle. As is typical when a jam band is crammed into a one hour set, they started out lacking energy, but that soon changed with a fantastic second half of the set that brought upon the best improvisation we saw all festival. Things really took off during “Cabbage Face” with guitarist Mihali Savoulidis leading us down a deep hole of darkness before the set ending segment of “Gatsby the Great” > Bela Fleck’s “Big Country” > “Gatsby the Great” floored the audience, most of whom were seeing Twiddle for the first time.

Another Bellingham band, Polecat, was next on the Garden Stage and they brought heaps of energy as usual with their unique blend of Bluegrass, Celtic, and Reggae. Led by guitarist Jeremy Elliott and drummer Karl Olson, this band is extremely talented and their contagious energy gives them the opportunity to win over those that may be off put by their unusual style.

The night’s headliner, Beats Antique, was next on the Main Stage and while typically a fan of their music, I was unimpressed with their set. This was my first Beats Antique show since their 2014 Oregon Country Fair set with the MarchFourth! horns and after being blown away by their ability to turn their music into such an interesting and completely live show, I thought the opposite after seeing them at Meltdown. There seemed to be minimal live instrumentation and they were just repeating the same tricks they used the last few times I saw them, but without any of the surprise factor.

Brooklyn’s Moon Hooch closed out the night at the Garden Stage and put on the show that I think a lot of people were hoping Beats Antique would provide. It was intense, filled with impressive instrumentation, and impossible not to dance along with. They make dance music in the realm of the dreaded umbrella term “EDM,” but the band is only comprised of two saxophones and a drummer at its core. Those musicians branch out to play synthesizers and an EWI, while also running their horns through Ableton software to process recorded effects.

Most of us took it fairly easy after the music Thursday, spending time with good friends around the dab rig while a loud DJ set took place at a near campsite. The great community of friends that I have at this festival is the reason I continue to come back and I have multiple groups of friends that all repeat the same about their own friends. While there is definitely a diverse group of attendees that don’t always mix well together, it's almost never noticeable because you are surrounded by so many close friends.

Friday, August 12, 2016:

The second day of the festival started out strong with original host band Flowmotion’s Josh Clausen & Friends opening the day at the Garden Stage, followed by band competition winners and Olympia, Washington jam band, DBST, and the funky horn-led Denver band, Analog Son. San Diego’s Progressive Metal/Math Rock band, Chon, played next on the Garden Stage and put together one of the more impressive performances of Summer Meltdown. Their guitarists will leave you even more speechless than the drummer playing time signatures that I can hardly count.

Portland’s Shook Twins opened up the Main Stage for the day and played a fun set that continued their recent upward trajectory of higher energy shows and more amplification. They’re such a versatile band that I’ve decided to no longer try and explain them to people because every time I do, they play a set opposite to the style I explained.

Seattle’s Ayron Jones & the Way followed on the Garden Stage with some of the more entertaining blues I’ve seen all summer. Jones can absolutely shred the guitar and possesses a powerful voice that is enjoyable to listen to. I would keep an eye out for these guys and see them live if you get the chance. It was my first time seeing them and I can’t remember being that excited about a new Blues act since first seeing Gary Clark Jr. a few years back.

The Budos Band played next on the Main Stage and I may never be the same after that performance. I’ve never seen Afrobeat played so aggressively. It was funk with a Staten Island edge and chock full of Heavy Metal influence -- and alcohol. If Phish is “cow funk,” they are “satan funk.”

With their persona however, came consequences as keyboardist, Mike Deller, destroyed a 49-year old organ that was loaned out to them as backline equipment by local band and fellow Meltdown artists, Snug Harbor. After the organ was thrown to the ground, Deller decided to ripped all of the keys out of the instrument one by one. The blatant disrespect was enough to turn me off of a band who had just won me over as a fan minutes prior. The half-assed excuse they posted on Facebook describing it as an “unfortunate side effect of our stage show” was the final straw and I would urge anybody to not support this band or encourage their drunken antics.

Seattle rap duo and underground heroes, Blue Scholars, followed on the Garden Stage and while I enjoy their music, I expected more from their live performance. There seemed to be many fans enjoying the set though so I wouldn’t take my word as the definitive decision on whether they’re worth seeing or not. One thing that is definitive is their reputation as great lyricists which I wholly agree with.

Friday’s Main Stage headliner was Gramatik and he definitely did not disappoint. The Slovenian-born producer has always made music that I enjoy listening to, but it wasn’t until recently that his live shows have really grabbed me and made me a fan. I probably like his older, more laid back music better but his new, higher-energy music translates better live and when mixed with the old style makes for one of the most enjoyable and intelligently plotted DJ sets in the scene.

After Gramatik, it was off to the Late Night Tent for the first time of the weekend. Filled with awesome production and surrounded by amazing art installations and even more incredible lasers from “Slick Rick” of Burning Man fame, the festival continued the momentum they’ve picked up the last couple of years with making the late night area a sight to behold.

Boulder, Colorado’s Sunsquabi opened the late night and this is probably an understatement, but those guys are the real deal. It was my first time seeing them live and while I’ve definitely considered them a band I “liked” based off of what I’ve heard from their studio releases, they might now be a band I love after that performance. I’ve always placed their sound somewhere in between Griz and Broccoli Samurai, leaning more towards Griz’s computer-focused Funk sound. After seeing them live, I would say they’re much closer to Broccoli Samurai or Skydyed because of the fact that they’re up there playing the entire time and include sections of improvisation and creative segues.

Another Colorado-based band, Michal Menert and the Pretty Fantastics, closed out the night and while outdone by their opener they were fun and a band I would probably see again if they came back around. Menert was one of the first producers I liked when I started getting into electronic music so it was exciting for me to be able to hear some of my favorite songs played live with a full band.

The night was taken a little less easy on Friday and while most of which can’t be written about, just know that we all had a great time until the sun came up and that Saturday started before we knew Friday was over.

Saturday, August 13, 2016:

Eventually, we decided to acknowledge the fact that it was now a different day and headed down to the river once the sun came out. The river is one of the highlights of the festival. You can either access it through the side of the late night area or walk the trail that goes alongside the river. There’s always a party at the river, but what’s great is that you can just walk further down the river or trail until you find a secluded spot for your group. The weekend’s perfect weather translated into great water for swimming and we managed to spend the entire day down there before heading back to camp before ALO started.

ALO opened the Main Stage for the day and proved why they are one of the more underrated bands in the jam scene. They tend to get overlooked because of their unwillingness to commit to being a “jam band” and their tendency to create very poppy and catchy music. When it comes down to it though, Dan Lebowitz is one of my favorite guitarists to watch and keyboardist Zach Gill is extremely talented with a great voice to match. Some of their music may sound like Jack Johnson wrote a kid’s album, but when they jam, there’s not a ton of bands that can keep up with them.

Yet another Bellingham band played the Garden Stage next, this time Acorn Project. Acorn is a jam band that is somewhat hard to define. They incorporate elements of progressive rock, funk, and electronica in their music so the immediate comparison is Umphrey’s McGee, but it's not Metal or spastic enough to be Umphrey’s. They definitely have a similar sound and I’ve had a good time every time I’ve seen this band that’s becoming harder and harder to catch live as their tour schedule has been dwindling for quite some time.

Toronto’s Keys N Krates played the Main Stage afterwards and I was surprised to be honest. I usually have a strong distaste for Trap music, but they managed to play it in the most easily digested way. Full of live instrumentation and nearly impossible to not dance along with, their instrumental brand of Hip-hop was highly energetic and not overly repetitive.

Seattle’s Beat Connection was next and they were another pleasant surprise for me. I went into the show thinking it was just Electronic music, but they proved to be so hard to describe that I actually went to their Facebook page to see how they described themselves only to find their genre listed as just “Music.” Seems about right. There was a DJ, but there were also live vocals, a guitarist, a drummer, a bassist, and a keyboardist. I’m still trying to figure out what exactly I would call them, but the best comparison I came up with in my head during the show was Disclosure. It was the closest I could think of, but it’s still pretty far off from how they sounded at other times during the show.

The Main Stage headliner for Saturday was Griz and I was kind of anxious to see him again after not having seen him for a few years. I was once really into Griz, but my musical tastes shifted away from how whompy he had gotten, more so my fault than his. It was really refreshing to see this show as he now tours full time with fellow Michigander, Muzzy Bear, on guitar and put together one of the more entertaining sets I’ve seen from an Electronic producer in a long time. There were some great segues and a lot of change ups from the studio to live versions of his songs, my favorite of which was him playing the “Too Young For Tragedy” outro without the beginning of the song and turning it into almost five minutes of drum & bass bliss.

After Griz was the funkiest decision of the weekend, Monophonics at the Garden Stage or Manic Focus at the Late Night Tent. I chose Monophonics because I wanted to see a live band, but later found out that Manic Focus played with a live band as well. It was a great Monophonics show as usual. Their shows don’t change up much from one to the other, but when you haven’t seen them in awhile they will blow you away more often than not.

Gramatik’s full band sex funk side project, Exmag, followed in the Late Night Tent and was rather enjoyable. I made my way up to the front for a bit to see exactly what was going on and saw everybody singing along to their samples and then the keyboardist and guitarist switch instruments with joints in their mouth, so they couldn’t have looked any cooler during the few minutes I spent up close.

I hadn’t slept in a couple days at this point so after some time in the dab tent followed by eating all of our snacks, the majority of us parted ways and got some sleep that night. There were others that kept it going for a third night and I commend them for it.

Sunday, August 14, 2016:

I woke up well rested and hungry, ready for some Sound Tribe and Bluegrass. I went straight to the food stands when I woke up and ate at Steal Your Plate. I had some of the best macaroni & cheese I’ve ever had called the Mac Attack that was loaded with pulled pork. It was amazing while it lasted, but the cook’s warning of it making me sleepy was spot on and as advertised.

I made it back to camp after eating and realized that it seemed dirty and after filling up all of our garbage bags that we had with stuff, asked for more garbage bags to find out that we had not been given bags during the festival at any point. I don’t know if living in Oregon has given me different expectations when going to festivals, but I was really turned off by that and thought that it seemed irresponsible to bring so many people together without providing them with trash bags. It made me wonder if not giving out paper schedules was really for sustainability reasons like I had believed. It didn’t seem worth thinking into any further so I found different types of bags to use as trash and ignored my curiosity about the situation.

Two Portland bands started the day on the Garden Stage, Psychedelic Funk band, Dirty Revival, and fast rising Bluegrass band, Crow & the Canyon. Crow & the Canyon recently added Polecat guitarist, Jeremy Elliott, and have since become one of my favorite bands in the region. Between their talented mandolinist Ben Larsen’s lyrics, Leigh Jones’s beautiful voice, and Elliott’s unreal flatpicking ability, this band is a force to be reckoned with and has a chance to get as big as fellow Portlanders Fruition.

The final Bellingham band of the weekend, Rabbit Wilde, continued their massive momentum of success with another crowd-pleasing, foot-stomping show to open the Main Stage for the day. Missoula, Montana’s Lil’ Smokies played the Garden Stage next and brought with it a hell of a show as they always do. They remind me a lot of the Infamous Stringdusters with the way they move around the stage and jam together, as well as the Paul Simon influenced Bluegrass sound. These guys are no longer a secret in the West, but they may be elsewhere so I recommend checking this band out for anybody that hasn’t yet.

Southern sister world-folk act, Rising Appalachia, were next on the Main Stage and played one of the more entertaining shows that I’ve seen from them, but it still didn’t do much for me. I enjoy their music at home when in a mellow mood, but I’ve yet to see them live when it was what I wanted to see at that time. Trevor Hall followed at the Garden Stage and it was the exact same story with him. I like his music, but it’s not there for me live. This was definitely the best show I’d seen from him though and would never knock his music.

The headliner of the weekend, STS9, was next on the Main Stage and played even better than the year before which left me with my jaw dropped, stunned as it was my first show with Alana Rocklin on bass. They opened up the show on fire with some older tracks “Inspire Strikes Back” and then an outstanding “GLOgli” > “Instantly” filled with an abundance of bass and Alan Watts samples. “Equinox,” “Monkey Music,” and surprisingly “When the Dust Settles,” were more highlights of what was one of the better Sound Tribe shows I’ve seen during the 2.0 era and the best set of the weekend.

The festival’s original host band, Flowmotion, closed out the festival afterwards on the Garden Stage and had guest guitarist, Andy Coe of Seattle, with them. Normally a decent band, they turned great with Coe. Unfortunately, my curiosity about the festival’s sustainability practices was brought up again after their set when the festival MC told us to make sure and take all of our garbage home with us because, “it costs a lot for us (them) to pick up.” A tall order from a festival that failed to provide us with garbage bags and claimed to go without paperless schedules for environmental reasons rather than financial.

After Flowmotion, we went down to the Renegade Stage that had been set up throughout the weekend and watched some pickin’. It was a rather mellow night and after some more unexpected bonus sleep, we woke up to pack out which is where I came across my one final complaint about an otherwise great festival. While packing everything up, we had staff come to our campsites early in the morning to inform us that they’re recycling was full and that we had to either take our recycling home with us or use the landfill. This decided it for me. Those decisions were made for money and no other reason. To oversell to the point where you no longer have a place to properly dispose of everybody’s waste falls short of West Coast sustainability standards and I assume everywhere else as well.

It was an amazing festival aside from my questioning of their priorities. They still throw a great event that is easy for festival goers to enjoy and do it in one of the most beautiful sites in the country. They still keep it small enough that you don’t have to worry about scheduling conflicts or not being able to camp with everybody you came with. But they’re growing rapidly, and with success comes change. I just hope it’s for the best.

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