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...