written by Brent Harper
photo by Ponce De Leon Photo
One weekend every summer for the past 11 years, under the peaks of the Cascades, the quiet town of Darrington, WA comes alive with music, revelry, and camaraderie. Summer Meltdown provides a comfy, cozy, naturally aesthetically pleasing venue for music lovers of all ages. At this self-proclaimed “Biggest Little Festival in the Northwest,” take some time to lounge in the Stillaguamish River one day and dance with your friends until daybreak the next. Just take note, if you’re the type of fest goer that likes to push to their way to the front of the stage or mosh to some mind-rattling dubstep, this probably isn’t your type of fest.
Music genre: ElectroFunk, Electro hip-hop, Bluegrass, Rock, Instrumental Electronic, Chillhop, Blues
Camping: Tent, car, and RV camping. The two main stages are separated from the camping area by a security checkpoint, but the late night stage is not.
Capacity: Small, around 4,500 people
Crowd Type: Hipster, Hippy, Family, Eco-Conscious
Water Stations: Yes. And a river!
For the first-timers:
It takes about an hour and a half to drive from Seattle to Darrington. Taking a shuttle from Seattle or Everett will cost you $20 each way. If you drive yourself, be sure to buy a parking pass in advance for $13 (they’re $20 at the gate), or spend a little extra for RV camping. Take I-5 North to exit 208, WA-520 East. Follow WA-520E for a little over 30 miles and you can’t miss the venue on your left just before Darrington.
In 2016, the music and festivities started on Thursday. I arrived Friday around 5:00pm and it was very difficult to find a good spot to camp. Expect to walk anywhere from 1/4 to 3/4 of a mile to your campsite; a wheel borough or wagon is recommended, but not necessary. If you’re down to rage till the wee hours, stay in Whitehorse Meadow; it’s the loud camp next to the late-night stage with a dope laser setup.
PRO TIP: If you want to get some sleep, you’ll need to camp in the most South-Easterly site. East of the food vendors is a road used primarily as an entrance for vendors and artists—a security checkpoint separates the venue from the parking lot along this road. Just beyond this checkpoint is a staircase that leads to a very chill and serene campsite. There were plenty of spots to choose from, it was quiet, and if you search long enough you can find blackberries on the trail! You won’t find this spot on Meltdown’s map, but use Staff Camping as your reference point; it’s just east.
Summer Meltdown lets you to bring in enough alcohol to get an entire party of elephants wasted, but their was certainly an aura of mindfulness when it came to consumption. No one was belligerently drunk, and kids and families could enjoy the festival just as much as anyone who chose to indulge in a drink or two. You’re allowed to bring in 24 cans of beer, 1.5L of hard alcohol, and a bag of wine per person to your campsite, just not to the Main and Garden stages. All alcohol must be in plastic bottles or aluminum cans.
Finally, keep in mind that it rains frequently in the West Cascades. Come prepared, but consider leaving rain gear in the car to avoid cluttering your campsite.
Meltdown’s vendors cater to a variety of dietary restrictions, so don’t feel obligated to pack heaps of food. Plus, most of it is served in a recyclable or compostable containers, fitting the eco-friendly vibe and cutting down on food waste.
Production was simple, with three stages in total. The Main Stage and the Garden Stage were situated right next to each other in a spacious, grassy amphitheatre. Performance schedules were staggered so that as soon as one set finished, it was only a matter of minutes before the next began.
The Garden Stage is separated by a barricade from the Main Stage, and features the only area of the festival where alcohol is available for purchase. Remember, Meltdown is BYOB-friendly, so take advantage of the money saving opportunity. Patrons under 21 can still get a good view of the Garden Stage from the side.
The Late Night Tent is located in Whitehorse Meadow, characterized by an intimate atmosphere and up-tempo music. A few performances here overlapped those at other stages, so you might have to make some tough decisions towards the end of the night. The Late Night Tent was particularly top-notch in terms of sound quality, and though there weren’t huge LED displays, lasers dancing among the conifer trees that encircled Whitehorse Meadow was a particularly beautiful sight.
Summer Meltdown organized a lineup that demanded respect. I’ll walk you through my experience chronologically.
The first performance that I was hyped and able to see was Gramatik. I’ve followed his music for a few years now had seen a few performances previously so I knew I was in for a party. The crowd was less dense on Friday, so people were able be really expressive with their dancing. It was really enjoyable to witness.
Keys N Krates threw down some awesome trappy-hip-hoppy beats. Their outro was a really well-mixed version of “Nothing but Space” that I hadn’t heard before.
After Keys, Beat Connection was tuned and ready to play on the adjacent stage. These guys were the hometown heroes of this fest. They’re from is Seattle, and they have a sort of fresh, electro-indie-pop, washed out lyrics, easy listening type of sound. I was thoroughly happy to have been introduced to their music, and by the end of their set, lead singer, Tom, had me questioning my sexuality… damn that hair was on point. Check out their music!
Griz was the last headliner on the Main Stage on Saturday. He has been a staple in my playlists for several years now. Do NOT get a rug near my feet while I’m listening to his beats because I will cut it. There were stuffed Grizzly Bears crowdsurfing, and the biggest audience of the festival was dancing their asses off. He serenaded the crowd with his sexy sax for an hour and a half. As the crowd started to disperse, Griz came back on the speakers and played an encore for a much less dense crowd (more on this in the story corner).
To end Saturday we jammed out in the Late Night Tent. First up was Manic Focus, followed by Exmag who closed out the night. I hadn’t seen either of them live but they put on really fun shows.
Rabbit Wilde was the the last set that I saw before responsibility beckoned me home They were the most enjoyable acoustic band; I’d label their genre as new-age folk/bluegrass. They had a powerful sound and some really good lyrics. They’re fairly local to the PNW as well, but were about to embark on a national tour.
There were several honorable mentions that should be reported here but I was unable to see due to personal responsibilities. Besides the aforementioned artists, Beats Antique, Sunsquabi, Michal Menert all played. STS9 was the headliner on Sunday, but played too late for me to hear.
Things to Do
- Take a swim in the river. There are multiple points of entry, so you can explore a different spot each day.
- Book a rafting trip. Meltdown’s shuttles will pick you up and drop you off at the front gate.
- Take part in yoga, hula hooping, hand drumming, and permaculture jedi training workshops (to name a few).
- Darrington sits right on the border of Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National forest which is filled with hikes ranging from novice treks to full of mountaineering adventures.
- Check out the sensory tent, with a neon sandbox reminiscent of a Zen garden and a 3D printer working on pieces of a model dinosaur.
- Look up. You’ll see bats flying over the campground (don’t worry, they won’t bother you) and maybe even spot a shooting star. The Perseids meteor shower made a special appearance this year.
VIP or nah
I saw an option for an upgraded ticket before the festival, but this is no longer on their website, and I didn’t see much in the way of VIP benefits while at the fest.
My alarm was set for 5:00 a.m. but I was well awake before it went off. That may seem like an early time to wake up on a fest day, but Chiara and I had a solid 12 hours of driving before we’d be setting up our tent at Whitehorse Mountain. We both work for a (legal) cannabis farm in Washington State. Our mission for that day was to delivery our company’s largest order to the Seattle area, and make it to the fest
After the grass was delivered, we ventured our way to the venue. Chiara and I decided it was a smart idea to carry pretty much EVERYTHING we had in the van to the campsite. All that booze adds a significant amount of weight. So, after about our 3rd rest stop in a quarter mile, we decided we probably should have taken more than 1 trip, or at least had brought a wagon.
During this 3rd pit-stop to catch our breaths, we decided it be best for me to continue on to without Chiara and scout at a campsite. I approached a fedora toting gentleman and asked him if he had any advise as to where we should pitch our tent. “Right here!” he exclaimed, and he introduced himself to be Tucker, The Festival Guy. I pointed in the direction of our gear and, without even asking if I needed help, Tucker and his friend Dustin bolted toward our gear, gave Chiara a hug, and lugged our stuff the rest of the way to the campsite.
After chatting a bit, we realized that we had quite a bit more in common than the love of music. It was discovered that Tucker knew my very good friend and founder of The Festival Squad, Steph Rosa.
I was wearing a company hat and Dustin took notice. “Walden?” he inquired. “I think we just bought your weed.” He shuffled through his duffel bag and pulled out a bag of ganja that I grew and Chiara packaged! Serendipity had struck twice!
There’s one more thing for which I must give Tucker props. He behind the stage when Griz was performing, and right before Griz played his encore, Griz called Tucker on stage and handed him the mic. Tucker urged everyone to pick up a piece of trash on the way out. That was it, a simple request for tidiness. And it worked!
Check out Tucker’s Facebook Page. A simple search for ‘The Festival Guy’ will take you right to his page. Or just look for a fedora with a really nice guy under it at your next festival, it may be him!