Words by: Dennis Cook | Images by: Sara Sokolowski
Summer Meltdown 9 :: 08.13.09 – 08.16.09 :: Whitehorse Mountain Amphitheatre :: Darrington, WA
In the days following the ninth installment of Summer Meltdown Festival I have twice dreamed myself back to Whitehorse Mountain Amphitheater. This is a first for me in all my years of fest attendance but something about this experience, even for a first time attendee like myself, spoke powerfully to my subconscious, transporting me back to the snow covered peaks and lush forests ringing the Main Stage or once again happily jostled like a roiling water molecule inside the late night tent (or "Boogie Dome" in veteran's vernacular). In most fundamental ways, this is a perfect festival, striking to the heart of the gypsy soul that makes one set up a temporary home away from home, finding kinship, kindness and carefree jubilation amongst folks who were once strangers but by fest's end have joined one's extended family.
|Summer Meltdown 2009|
And while the lineup isn't household names, from hosts/curators Flowmotion on through, the level of musicianship and raw talent held its own against anything out there, and perhaps resonated more because so many acts proved such a happy surprise. The anticipation of the known has its own value but there's no replacing the ontological smack of coming face-to-face with an amazing unknown quantity that rocks your world – something that happened repeatedly every day of the Meltdown. Like kindred spirit Las Tortugas – Dance of the Dead, Summer Meltdown is a celebration of great players and perseverance, a stupendous harnessing of wondrous music unleashed with the wholehearted goal of delighting one and all.
Arriving to cliché drizzle in Seattle, I made my way by train and automobile to the countryside two hours outside the big city, passing numerous signs selling hay, small towns whose compact main streets announced we were going to the country in an almost '60s way. There's the vibe of Max Yasgur's farm as one approaches the site, a place where folks can get together for fun and music and maybe live up to Joni's call to be stardust and golden for a few days. However, unlike Woodstock, this undiscovered jewel of a venue was dustup free and featured seamless production with killer sound that bounced between the large Main Stage and the smaller Garden Stage situated next to the Beer Garden, where most alcohol was consumed, a factor in the very kid friendly environment. Waiting in line for coffee or a cocktail one made fast friendships that only strengthened as the hours piled up, and by Sunday one found themselves kissing the neck of the barista that'd just made their latte and slapping hands or throwing the horns to people everywhere they strolled. Seriously, a total absence of conflict and a pervasive vibe of community prevailed in a way that spotlighted our better angels in ways that offset all the darkness of the recent health care town halls and wholesale invitation to dumbness and ignorance rising in America.
Thursday's early arrival mini-lineup was bookended by On The One and Panda Conspiracy, who both offered top-notch playing, groove-laden material and an inviting audience pull that showed them to be real festival dynamite, early catalysts for the skipping, uplifted feel that hovered over this weekend. But, the main attraction on Thursday was Flowmotion's first bite at the apple before their Saturday night, first-ever two set headlining performance. While clearly beloved by the 3,000-plus crowd, the band is much less known outside the Pacific Northwest and Seattle in particular. That's a goddamn shame because these guys are possessed of such undisguised beauty, muscular musicality and "holy crap, they're good" chops, all in service of material that anxiously reaches out and seizes you with sureness. They are a rock band in the open-minded mold of the 1970s, able to synthesize distinctly funky, jazzy elements into a tough whole. Listening side stage much of the set, watching them closely as they plied their trade with broad, mischievous grins, I was reminded of my childhood days listening to AM radio, where Al Green sat comfortably next to Steely Dan, Charlie Rich, Hall & Oates, Springsteen and Bob Marley – all inflections of broadminded groove, thoughtfully textured and possessed of a craftsmanship and intelligence almost entirely absent from today's mainstream.
|Josh Clauson - Flowmotion|
Summer Meltdown 2009
Their music seems designed for the long haul, both in its construction and lightly philosophical character. It's easy to imagine singing "Please Don't Forget" or many others in the shower, a tuneful splash that wakes us up to the moment at hand instead of leaving us lost in our mistakes and miscues. While I'd enjoyed the few times I'd seen them before, this exhibition on a huge stage in front of their core audience was stunning, a revelation of a band simply MUCH greater than one realizes in hour-long opening slots for out-of-towners. That they've literally built this stage, this opportunity, for themselves speaks to their dedication and vision. While they remind me in spots of two of my personal faves - The Black Crowes and Marillion - this band hums on their own frequency, easy to like but layered in such a rewarding way.
Opener "How I Know" was the ideal slow boil, a twinkling, contemplative tune that makes one look up at the stars and sigh a little. Later, "Mind Cell" proved a steady blossoming classic, so lovely and intrinsically strong that it cemented in one fell swoop my move from being an enthusiast to being a full-blown fan, especially as guest John Fricke's trumpet entered late in the game shifting things into loose Latinismo. "A Thousand Little Things" showed guitarist/singer RL Heyer to be kin to vintage Dickey Betts in his delivery, while "Future's Following The Sun," written by percussionist/keyboardist Bob Rees was a luscious simmer full of twists and inflection I can see Phish diehards getting down to in a big way. Ending the night with the largely untapped cover resource of Elton John's "Take Me To The Pilot," Flowmotion closed out their opening salvo on a fab gospel-rock note.
How I Know, Step On This Old Heart, Canopy, Mind Cell (John Fricke on trumpet), I Tried (Muleskinner on vocals, John Fricke on trumpet), See You Through, A Thousand Little Things, What's Been, Better Luck, Please Don't Forget, Future's Falling on the Sun,
Take Me to the Pilot (Elton John Cover)
Continue reading for Friday's coverage...
Seeing Whitehorse Mountain Amphitheatre in the full light of day is simply breathtaking. Nestled amongst lush greenery and situated next to a tall mountain that feels like it's right across the street, the concrete steps and open lawn provided an embracing bowl with vending and camping mostly located on the higher ground surrounding it. The sky's steel blue palette released occasional drizzle but by nightfall and for the remainder of the weekend the weather could only be described as bucolic – warm enough for bare skin during the day but chilly enough to bundle up a little at night. Far enough from proper civilization to feel some remove but well appointed enough to lack very little one could want, this spot, apparently the site of a large regional bluegrass gathering, is a less dramatic little cousin to The Gorge and Red Rocks. Not even the free-range children blowing plastic horns that sounded like Big Foot farts could spoil the start of this first full day, where I felt so good I bought coffee for the next three people in line behind me just because. Random acts of kindness of this sort abounded at the Meltdown, many stirred by the spirit of the place and the event's organizers, Flowmotion and the Terra Roots Foundation.
|Summer Meltdown 2009|
Ben Bruce :: 1:00-2:00 p.m. :: Garden Stage
"Sometimes you have to jump and pray for wings," sang singer/songwriter Ben Bruce during his quite cool solo set where his tender, nicely composed songs recalled John Denver and particularly Assembly of Dust's Reid Genauer, who Bruce strongly resembled in both voice and all-out-there-on-the-stage delivery. Telling stories about faces in the fire with blinding insight and singing simple songs full of tender vibrations, Bruce showed himself a tunesmith to keep an eye on and even ballsily tackled Otis Redding's "I've Been Loving You Too Long." Like ALL of the scheduling at Meltdown 9, this proved the ideal music for the hour and audience.
TapWater :: 2:20-3:25 p.m. :: Garden Stage
Following a surprisingly engaging belly dancing exhibition that reminded most of the guys (and not a few ladies) of why kings lose their minds and fortunes over these hippy, curvy temptresses (bonus points for doing one routine to Kool & The Gang's "Jungle Boogie," too), Portland's TapWater proffered a mixture of styles that strained the word 'eclectic' to the breaking point. Obviously talented dudes, they cobble together marimba, steel drums, traditional rock band gear and the rest of the kitchen sink into tunes with some of Steely Dan's compartmentalized nature, where banjo and handclaps meet '70s Dead breeziness, tribal breakdowns and folksy mores in a mixture they call "World Twang." To be honest, I found it a bit of a head-scratcher; not bad so much as confusing, with no one pocket sticking around long enough to really situate me in their thang.
|TapWater :: Summer Meltdown 2009|
Vaughn Kreestoe :: 3:45-4:55 p.m. :: Garden Stage
This Bellingham, Washington trio first comes across like a classic organ-drums-guitar soul jazz combo but the plethora of nifty touches and sweet complications quickly affirmed them as a cut above the pack. As one wild-legged onlooker barked, "Crush grooves, man. They are killing it." They ranged from an instrumental answer to vintage Philly soul to more fiery spaces, but often dipping into the blues underpinning their funk. Executed with precision and full of well placed pauses and general centrifugal force, you might call it an extraordinarily fine soundtrack to a good porno.
Aphrodesia :: 5:00-6:10 p.m. :: Main Stage
San Fran new millennial Afrobeat pros Aphrodesia inaugurated the Main Stage Friday like a newfangled version of the show bands that once blew up The Apollo and regional theatres like it nationwide. Big, bold and juicy in a way hard to refuse, Aphrodesia left many of us licking our chops like we'd just eaten something really yummy. Increasingly they sound less and less like Fela or any of the other original inspirations behind their sound as they divine what's unique to them. In the same way Talking Heads turned the Motherland on its ear, Aphrodesia harnessed beat and bubbling pulse, subtle politics and finger-knotting bass work and then funneled the lot through the African-American filter of Earth, Wind & Fire, Lonnie Liston Smith and others who talked back to Africa. With a colorful frontline gifted with undeniable voices and an indestructible backline – a swampy slap beneath bright horns and chomping guitars - Aphrodesia cemented the full-on festival feeling rising towards sundown.
|Left Hand Smoke :: Meltdown '09|
Left Hand Smoke :: 6:15-7:30 p.m. :: Garden Stage
Around for close to a decade, this first live taste for me found a very strong boogie band playing feel-good-even-if-the-words-are-sad songs that had the Beer Garden hopping and full of raised glasses. Fronted by brothers Ben (piano, vocals) and Will Mish (guitar), Left Hand Smoke had a strong organ-powered thrust and eagerness to please that was plain ol' good times, especially when bolstered by wandering harmonica wunderkind Lee Oskar of War fame, perhaps the only man I've ever seen rock a leather jacket with his own name engraved on the back and not look silly.
Vicci Martinez Band :: 7:35-9:05 p.m. :: Main Stage
If anyone in festival planning or at a decent record label is paying attention, Grace Potter has serious competition in the Northwest. The comparison to Potter, in vocal timbre and power as well as sidle-up-and-smooch-ya nifty songs, is nigh unavoidable but without being overly mean I'll simply say her band has the Nocturnals skunked, especially in the drumming department. At one point, the exuberant Martinez cooed, "Oh, I love being here! When we pulled into the lot my senses were overwhelmed. I almost wanted to puke 'cause I didn't know what to do with it." There's a general smoothness to the way things interlock in this band and Martinez pens songs with the off-handed grace of early Joni Mitchell, though a good deal less naval gazing. A tiny bundle of barely controlled energy, Martinez kicks it out with the "where the hell did that come from?" phrasing of early Ann Wilson (Heart) in service of music with an Everywoman's appeal worthy of Lucinda Williams, right down to the glossy blues feel of some numbers; the sort of gal who places coffee on the bed stand but announces, "First, I'm having you for breakfast." The band matches her stroke for stroke with an all-in intensity that fully delivered the festival flair begun by Aphrodesia with a resounding bang.
|Vicci Martinez Band :: Summer Meltdown 2009|
Poor Man's Whiskey :: 9:10-10:25 p.m. :: Garden Stage
Fittingly, the bar never saw such a sustained, boisterous line as during PMW's warm-up slot for Friday's headliner, Jackie Greene. These NorCal hooligans tie one to a friendly whipping post and beat the silly in ya right to the surface. It's then that their growing sensitive side can really get into your pores, that is when they aren't inspiring a howling pack of dancers with an Irish drinking song introduced with a Spanish toast and capped with the whole crowd throwing Devil horns in salute. While their recent Dark Side of the Moonshine album, which revisions Pink Floyd along with offering an album's worth of originals, is drawing some attention, deservedly too (hell, I wrote the liner notes for it!), it's seeing them in the flesh, awash in their manly musk, that one discovers how strangely subtle and baldly talented they are. Newer pieces like "Easy Come Easy Go" and "Three Years Gone" show some of Brent Mydland's knack for universal melancholy and the words for easing such sustained ache ("Just like an old song playing on the radio/ You know it's hard times come/ hard times go"). During crowd pleaser "P.M.S. (Pretty Much Screwed)" they showed their Dan Hicks & His Hot Licks/Cheap Suit Serenaders side with pocket trumpet, tick-tock drums and Charlie Christian guitar swing, with the muskiest of them all, Josh Brough, yelping, "Ragtime!" before a jumpin' piano solo. A "Wagon Wheel" closer performed in the audience tied a swell ribbon on things.
Jackie Greene :: 10:30 p.m. -12:10 a.m. :: Main Stage
Carrying himself like the super cool, street walking cheetah he is, Greene turned in a real headliner's set. Great musician, enormously charismatic, more suave than most of us will be on our best day, Greene is a rock star, pure and simple, operating in a fairly traditional mode. No doubt, the echoes of Petty, Creedence and other chart-toppers is strong, but it was largely his covers that garnered the greatest response, especially a blazing, jammed-out "New Speedway Boogie" full of Phil's fingerprints and a stomping, on-the-money take on The Velvet Underground's "Waiting For My Man." However, his tune "Ball & Chain," which closed the main set, is already a hit on God's jukebox and hints that Greene, like fellow Bay Area guys ALO, will likely one day pen a song that the whole planet sings, the ideal punctuation on a great headlining set that unified the festival in a palpable way.
|Jackie Greene :: Meltdown '09|
BLVD :: 12:15-1:30 a.m. :: Garden Stage
Fast becoming late set royalty, S.F.'s BLVD turned in one of the day's finest performances and certainly one of the most high energy sets of the entire fest. Built around the octopus armed machinations of Curtis Sloane (electronic guitar, samples), Dylan McIntosh (drums, samples) and Tripp Bains (bass, keys), the instrumental aspects moves with the insistent hump of an after-hours disco, mid-period Parliament, '90s electro punch and other mischievous pre-dawn flavors. Early in their set I found myself discussing how their sustained grooves mirrored the wave-after-wave feel of female orgasm rather than the build-and-explode dynamics of rock's more male energy. Oh, they hit them peaks 'n' valleys for sure but one felt gripped by a tide far bigger than any one number. And they've fully integrated MC Souleye now, a gyrating, rippling force of nature with a flow that recalls young MC Serch and Organized Konfusion. As weary as many of us were you'd never have known it as we bent our frames into funky origami shapes in response to their manipulations. Cool!
Continue reading for Saturday's coverage...
Big High :: 12:55-1:45 p.m. :: Garden Stage
A touch too punchy to make the morning offerings, I stumbled in and got WOKE THE FUCK UP by Big High, a local hard rock ensemble and friends to Flowmotion that struck a first impression akin to my first mind-blowing Drunk Horse gig. Like Oakland's steel-plated punk-boogie juggernaut, Big High aren't screwing around and it wasn't a whole tune before I was shaking like a madman close to the stage. Killer tunes, a crazy tight band and a lead singer (Mesa on "vocal flyfishing") possessed of a fathomless bottom and high reachin' top end plus a leaping, fiercely engaging stage presence, and well Big High sorta rocked my widdle world. It's serious heavy muscle that puts a lil' anger and sex in your bloodstream, culminating in a frighteningly good cover of The Who's "Baba O'Riley" delivered in Dr. John style feather masks for no good reason except to be delightfully weird. If you're feeling Clutch, Parlor Mob or just dig quality hard rock you're missing out if you don't get to know Big High. At the end of their set I bellowed, quite uncontrollably, "We're awake now, motherfuckers!" Meant it, too.
|LoCura :: Summer Meltdown 2009|
LoCura :: 1:55-2:55 p.m. :: Main Stage
Oakland's LoCura presented an intoxicating stew of flamenco, Cuban son, Portuguese fados, the acoustic guitar/hand percussion end of Brazilica like Maria Bethania and Caetano Veloso and more. It wasn't the music of any one country but a mélange that spoke of connective tissue and fleshiness in general, music warm to the touch and delivered by an incredibly powerful, appealing frontwoman, Kata Miletich, a singer of vast magnetism and sensuality, strong in all her moves. Flipping between English and Spanish, often within the same song, LoCura proved an effective bridger of gaps, announcing, "We need some fire, some spirit," and then unleashing rumbas that delivered on both.
North Twin :: 3:00-4:00 p.m. :: Garden Stage
Following LoCura, Seattle-based North Twin declared, "I feel like we're now expected to rock the world." While they didn't perhaps achieve that global stretch, they developed a steady growing heft that vacillated between acoustic contemplation and glassy electric washes, an organic swing that compares favorably with good Marshall Tucker Band or Bob Seger, something that also surfaced in the lead singer's slight drawl. Their lyrics speak to life on the ground - "My heart was once as empty as this little town" or "Close your eyes and hope it goes away" – like a less roughshod Drive-By Truckers. At one point, they noticed a couple dancing enthusiastically to their set and commented, "All it takes to get off with music is a couple like that." That and a rock solid band like North Twin.
|North Twin :: Meltdown '09|
Kristen Ward :: 4:00-5:15 p.m. :: Main Stage
Ward and her dead solid band picked up the twang elements in North Twin and ran with them beautifully. Moving with the shuffling naturalness of Patty Griffin with a touch more hay between her teeth, Ward and her juke joint lookin' group delivered a no fuss, no muss afternoon set full of lived-in wisdom and inviting material.
Big Light :: 5:20-6:30 p.m. :: Garden Stage
Such swift evolution with these Bay Area boys. Ever since abandoning keys and adding lead guitarist Jeremy "Swordfish" Korpas, Big Light has been on a giddy rise, refining their ridiculously catchy sound and adding simmering layers that have moved them miles away from their jam scene roots, evidenced by opener "Caution," which emerged from an atmospheric jam into a staccato snare-rim beat and incisive, sonar-touched guitars that sounded like Blur on a great day. More and more, this is pop-rock that refuses any straightjacket that descriptor might imply, as capable of moving into hinterlands as it is at delivering a chorus you won't soon shake. They were the first band to play in full sunlight and more than a few folks commented on how appropriate it was given their name. And freakin' Korpas... What's so damn cool about Swordfish is his immediacy, the way a blast of reverb, delay or just plain ballsy riffage arrives just when the music wants for some small, wonderful tweak. It's all too reckless and heel-lifting wild to be premeditated and all the better for its sharp surprise. As usual, a powerful feeling of well being infused my bones by the time they said goodnight.
Tony Furtado :: 6:35-8:00 p.m. :: Main Stage
In terms of pure sit-back-and-let-it-wash over you musicality Furtado may be the standout from Saturday. Music poured from his many skillfully plucked string instruments like water in a desert, and the spare trio setting kept everything clean, crisp and uncluttered. Is what he does folk, rock, blues? Who cares! The songs were uniformly solid, his voice strong and the arrangements full of air and light. Sitting side stage, I watched the sun drop below the horizon as they stirred a peaceful feeling in the attentive crowd, making me thankful for dedicated craftsmen like Furtado.
|Five Alarm Funk :: Summer Meltdown 2009|
Five Alarm Funk :: 8:05-9:10 p.m. :: Garden Stage
Easily the best straight funk monolith I've witnessed in years, Vancouver, BC's Five Alarm Funk rushed in with massive energy that they never let drop for a millisecond, taking their role as warm-up for festival organizers Flowmotion seriously and turning on the audience with sweaty intent. Ten or more deep on the small stage, they wheeled and leapt with an enthusiasm for their genre that demolished all the half-ass, vaguely canned efforts that purport to be 'funk.' As much a workout as a performance, Five Alarm's set made folks howl and jitterbug with an intensity that left one damp and satisfied on a cellular level.
Flowmotion :: 9:15 p.m. - 12:00 a.m. :: Main Stage
Despite putting this shindig together, Flowmotion had never given themselves two sets at their main Saturday performance before. Given the rich rainbow of flavors they presented one hopes they never have this oversight again. Beginning with a light Latin feel, Rees on seriously ripping triangle behind the twin guitars of Heyer and co-frontman/guitarist/founder Josh Clauson, one of those everything-in-the-right place musicians that reeks talent, charm and enormous stage presence, Flowmotion set out on one of those double headers that feels like a real journey, where one travels while standing still, a story unfolding in real time that involves every listener in a bold way. The first set leaned heavily on propulsive grooves including a blasting, hard rock reinterpretation of The Meters' "Give What You Can" and an as-good-or-better-than cover of Wilco's "Walken" that bloomed into gnarly, unexplored territory. New cut "Without Warning" had the metallic bop of Living Colour's "Love Rears Its Ugly Head," while set closing "Don's Funk" > "Pleasure Opp" featured Earl Klugh's saxophonist Lenny Price (who showed up a lot in cameos all weekend) and Seattle's keyboard whiz Joe Doria on Hammond organ. That they made room for more delicate, country-leaning fare with Tony Furtado (who unfurled some of the Bach in his soul during a brief, sighing intro) only shows their broad range. As good as Thursday had been, they seemed determined to spill some blood on stage, let something of themselves seep into the wood and us, and by the end of the first round many of us, myself included, felt nicely tenderized.
|Flowmotion :: Summer Meltdown 2009|
Second set opened with "Ghost Pepper," another number I think Phishheads would delight at, especially with a saucy percussion break from Rees and trap drummer Scott Goodwin and more intertwined Allmans-worthy guitar play and organ stings. Clauson and Heyer share something akin to the six-string chemistry one finds in The Mother Hips, a language of their own making where each shines VERY brightly on their own but really burn hottest when finishing each other's sentences. Ballads, reverb-laced, laser sharp funkathons and soaring rockers – the second set had it all, including a glorious take on Supertramp's "Take The Long Way Home" that they nailed right down to the angelic end section harmonies. In the end this was about as good as ANY headline set I've ever seen anywhere, tying together place and moment and people. Flowmotion is an undiscovered country that one needs to explore in depth.
Flowmotion Saturday setlist
Set I: Soukous, Give What You Can (The Meters cover), Without Warning, Home, Walken (Wilco cover), I'm Gone*, Candy, Don's Funk > Pleasure Opp***
Set II: Ghost Pepper > Drums > Ghost Pepper, 100 Miles, Is That Right?, Miles, My Imagination, Smile, Mercy, Long Way Home** (Supertramp cover), No Worries
E: Free#, Holy Ghost
* w/ Tony Furtado on banjo and vocals
*** w/ Joe Doria on Hammond, Lenny Price on sax and Jesse Kansanback on bass vocals
# w/ Lenny Price on sax
** w/ Lenny Price on Sax & Joe Doria on Hammond
Staxx Brothers :: 12:35-1:35 a.m. :: Garden Stage
Snatching up the enormous goodwill in the air after Flowmotion's blowout, Washington's Staxx Brothers proved the closest thing to vintage Funkadelic I've ever witnessed, right down to the janky thrift store costumes and impolite wilding. A huge mob on stage, they've imbibed whatever elixir Bootsy, George and Bernie swallowed back in the day, getting up there and proudly playing rump rattlin' cartoons and then backing it up with whomping good musicianship and tunes you gotta be dead to resist. Full of keen-edged female vocals, a rapper full of shirtless craziness and a fleshy frontman with a swell voice and the moxie to ask things like, "Where's my pimps at? Where's my gangsta bitches at?" while not offending people. All originals except for a roaring cover of "Red Hot Mama" that truly honored their ancestors, Staxx Brothers were stupendous good times that had backfields in motion as far as the eye could see. Festival planners: Book these guys! You will not be sorry.
|Doria & Lebowitz - LAB :: Meltdown '09|
LAB/Late Night Jam :: 1:00 a.m. – whenever :: Festival Tent
With three-fourths of ALO on hand - Dan Lebowitz (guitar, vocals), Steve Adams (bass, vocals) and Dave Brogan (drums, vocals) – the last part of Saturday was pure playing satisfaction, beginning with an hour from LAB (i.e. Lebo/Adams/Brogan) full of high end swerve and pop acumen that pulled from the ALO catalog, their solo material and a bang-up cover The Police's "Man In A Suitcase." Sans keyboardist/lead singer Zach Gill, the trio had more space to play with and their individual musical identities surfaced more readily than in ALO. Three, at least in this instance, proved a magic number indeed, and their music, as usual, really made folks happy. It's a powerful thing to witness, especially given their clockwork ability to do so.
Immediately following LAB, Big Light jumped up for a three-song mini-set that featured perhaps the psych-iest, best version of "Heavy" yet and then all of Big High took over, aided by many of the talented players lurking in the shadows, for a triple shot of Led Zeppelin covers that blew wigs WAY off domes. Mesa showed himself one of the few dudes capable of walking in Robert Plant's footsteps and the renditions hit all the right marks on "The Ocean," "No Quarter" and "Whole Lotta Love," with Joe Doria sparkling like Christmas on his keyboard accents on the latter two. After the Zep it was a soulful jam session that was still trucking along mightily by the time my exhausted ass slinked off around 4 a.m. All described too briefly, this late night convocation is the heart of festival greatness and the huge cadre of musicians from earlier in the day just hanging out to take it in adds credibility to that claim.
Continue reading for Sunday's coverage...
The peace lovin' sounds of Freedom greeted me as I made my way in for the final stretch. Hippie-centric but backed by pretty rich music, Freedom and his band did the most credible version of Richie Havens' Woodstock anthem "Freedom" I've ever heard. However, it was the kids of Little Seahorse Academy on the Main Stage that knocked my socks off and made me settle all the way into Sunday. A bit like the Blue Bear School in S.F. or the various Paul Green Schools of Rock, Little Seahorse presented young folks with serious chops and more stage savvy than many of their older counterparts this weekend. "Smoke On The Water" got the throng head-nodding and throughout their bassist did teenage gals proud. Somewhere Joan Jett was smiling.
|Freedom :: Meltdown '09|
M. Bison :: 2:40-3:40 p.m. :: Main Stage
This Seattle band played jangle pop of the first order, right up there with The Posies, Velvet Crush and a gaggle of other bands that should be hitmakers but due to the Universe's innate cruelty are not. Invigorating, frequently pretty and always snappy tunes rolled with piano and tambourine bounce. Songs like "Samurai Showdown" showed a bit of a They Might Be Giants influence, but the key lay in their cover of The Kinks' "Picture Book," a ridiculously tuneful number with a crazy dark lyric. Juxtapositions like that abound in M. Bison, who provided a swell mid-afternoon session for a flagging but still in the game crowd.
RL Heyer Trio :: 3:45-4:45 p.m. :: Garden Stage
Joined by his Flowmotion bandmates Scott Goodwin (drums, vocals) and always lock-tight bassist Eric Bryson, RL Heyer gave us the best damn roadhouse trio you could ever want. Showing off his falsetto and more traditional blues licks, Heyer and the limber rhythm team knocked out numbers full of electric jazz inflection and 12-bar grit, making occasional forays into the pop realm like an ace cover of The Kinks' "Sunny Afternoon." More than once one felt transported to North Mississippi and it was cool to see these varied aspects of three players who'd already done heroic work in Flowmotion at the fest. Heyer has no problems having the spotlight firmly on him, and continually showed off what a crazy talented guy he is throughout this exhibition.
Spoonshine :: 4:50-5:50 p.m. :: Main Stage
With a thick, steady low end like Railroad Earth and a leader on mandolin/acoustic guitar that strongly recalls The Bad Livers, Spoonshine rumbled with all the growl and scrapple you'd ever want from a string band with rock leanings. With fierce picking that recalls Tim O'Brien in his youth and a voice that just might unleash hellfire one day, Jacob Navarro made one feel, by turns, that the grave loomed near or one had just gotten the best kiss they could remember in recent history. Throw in some jumpin' swing guitar licks and a general trundling charm and Spoonshine ably justified their Main Stage slot. If there's any one complaint it's that they could vary their tempos a bit more but that's a quibble when the music's this enjoyable.
|Izabella :: Summer Meltdown 2009|
Izabella :: 5:55-7:05 p.m. :: Garden Stage
Better every single time I see them, Northern California's Izabella hit like GLeeMONEX from the Kids In The Hall flick Brain Candy, where moments after they began it was 72-degrees in your head and sunny. They have things SO dialed in now, operating in a vein that proudly carries on what the guys who formed Chicago, Blood, Sweat & Tears and the Sons of Champlin began, where monster talent is harnessed to broadly appealing songs full of clever bits and interesting twists. Lead singer Brian Rogers sings with the seductive force of early Peter Cetera combined with the razor cut of Living Colour's Corey Glover, and guitarist Sean Lehe is a mountain of unpredictable-but-always-great six-string talent, going different places than what you'd expect and making you glad you came along (and his lead vocal on a tune about a man "spending money like he's famous" was real nifty, too). Bands like Izabella used to define the boundaries of popular radio and the airwaves would only be better if they did so again. Killer set, and it's not a bad thing to be so predictably excellent.
Everyone Orchestra :: 9:40-11:30 p.m. :: Main Stage
A last minute cancellation by March Fourth Marching Band meant the LAB boys got a second set, this time on the Main Stage where they soared high and murdered covers of the Dead's "Scarlet Begonias" and Joe Walsh's "Life's Been Good," where "rock star" Lebo leapt over his petals and damn near set his guitar on fire during the finale. This ushered in the multi-limbed, hellaciously cool Everyone Orchestra, who began with 14 or so musicians on stage built around the core of conductor/mayhem director Matt Butler and coconspirators SCI's Michael Kang (mandolin), keyboardist Asher Fulero (Surrounded By Ninjas) and sometimes Motet singer Jans Ingber, whose potent, golden pipes were a standout even amongst the ridiculous amount of talent on stage.
|Everyone Orchestra :: Summer Meltdown 2009|
Everyone Orchestra provided perhaps the finest, most fitting festival closer I've ever seen/experienced. Butler has an uncanny read on the unfolding moment, able to pick up on subtleties of environment, general musical tenor, etc. in a way that makes him a busy conductor laying train track just feet before the engine rolls past, adding turns and overpasses as needed, but making sure the whole enterprise doesn't careen off the rails. That's no easy task when steering so many people through valleys of Afrobeat, foothills of liquid jazz, rock pockets packed with stadium fervor, etc. Using his hands and body more than his trademark dry erase board, Butler captured the spontaneity, musical prowess and exciting invention that'd preceded this finale and balled it up in a way that allowed him to throw strike after strike across the plate. Taking us from "Total Beauty" to "Sci-Fi Float" to simply "Yes!" Butler seemed gifted with Vulcan mind powers, knowing just when to drop the music down to one or two players or launch the giant beast in full onslaught, never forgetting the audience, who he also increasingly directs with equal sureness, leading us in chants like, "Oh, hey, Meltdown holiday" or the chorus of Bob Marley's "Stir It Up," one of the few recognizable tunes in the mix. The explosive, mountain sized ending had many lurkers in the wings dancing on stage and more musicians than one could count all pouring on steam. It was like some patchouli scented Broadway musical and every last one of them deserved the boisterous standing ovation they got.
However, it's a smaller moment that marks the end of Summer Meltdown for me and one that speaks to the heart of this magical festival. Right after EO's happy cataclysm a kind soul gave Izabella's Sean Lehe a plate of warm, freshly fried chicken. Homemade food is way better than flowers to working musicians, and that's what every single artist that played this weekend is. Lehe shared in this lovely, nourishing gesture, offering me a drumstick that made my eyes roll back in pleasure as the chicken and delicious breading coated my mouth. Greasy faced and smiling so hard our cheeks hurt, we stood mostly silent and thanked our lucky stars for having been part of such deliriously fun, hospitable times. Summer Meltdown is now on my calendar in thick, black Sharpee ink, an annual event that music lovers of all stripes and especially those drawn to festivarian ways will likely love as much as I did.
Continue reading for more pics of Summer Meltdown 2009...
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