MONROE — People in swimsuits, flowy linen pants and psychedelic spandex trudged along a dusty path Thursday, past farmland, then through the woods, to a riverbank filled with people.
After setting up tents in 90 degree heat, many folks wanted to get in the cool water on the first day of this year’s Summer Meltdown music festival.
“The new location has been a bit difficult, everything is so spread out,” said Laurin Cramer, who drove from Whidbey Island with her son Hayden, 6.
This is her fifth time attending the festival. She likes how family-friendly it is. She first brought her son when he was 2. Cramer also likes the music: an eclectic mix of jam bands, EDM and bluegrass.
“It feels very free,” said Cramer. “It takes you away from everyday responsibilities.”
After 14 years in Darrington, the move to a 150-acre property just outside of Monroe has been an adjustment for the four-day festival’s organizers, as well as for longtime attendees like Cramer.
“It feels a bit like a new event I need to get used to,” she said.
The festival had been canceled for the past two years due to the pandemic, said Genevieve Hayton, who produces Summer Meltdown with her husband Josh Clauson.
“We’re learning a lot about this property in particular,” Clauson said. “The challenges as we do this event this year are things that you can’t know until you actually go through some of the processes.”
He said the event was going really well, considering the space has never hosted a festival like this.
But there have been some growing pains. Some visitors had complaints about the new camping area and getting there. Attendees drove into the meadow and were greeted by yellow school buses shuttling people to campsites throughout the grounds. People put gear into wire enclosures that were towed behind the buses.
Heather Kastler, of Kirkland, was attending for the seventh time. She said trying to use the shuttle system to transport the amount of stuff needed for a four-night trip required long waits.
“It was really bad,” Kastler said. “That took hours.”
Half the buses that organizers ordered months in advance didn’t show up, Clauson explained. It took eight hours and long phone calls with the charter bus company to get more buses to the festival. Some people chose to just walk their gear to the camping areas.
“I think I saw two couples break up today,” Kastler said.
Chris Zolotko said he sees a lot of potential for the new location.
“It seems like they have a big vision for this place,” Zolotko said.
Some in the Summer Meltdown Facebook group weren’t so forgiving. One commenter said it was her first time at the festival, and that her group would be leaving the event early.
“We all paid a lot of money to be here and the amenities just are not there to the extent this many people need to make it a pleasant experience,” she said.
Other posters in the group encouraged people to stay positive and make the best of the new venue. One commenter called the venue as a whole “amazing,” but said there were “communication gaps and unanswered questions” about the camping in the forest.
As the sun set, guitarist Cory Wong and his eight-piece band got ready to perform on the main stage Thursday, in front of a crowd of people drinking and hula hooping. Two guys near the stage wore colorful button-up shirts with funky designs — members of Cytrus, an eight-piece “psychedelic powerfunk” band from Seattle performing Friday.
They attended Summer Meltdown for years before getting on the bill.
“To finally have a music project that’s in the caliber of Meltdown, it’s always holding a special place in our hearts,” said guitarist Jared Squires. Cytrus played at the festival for the first time in 2019 after winning that year’s Meltdown Showdown, an annual battle of the bands where local acts compete to get a spot on the lineup.
This year’s winner was Bellingham group The Rhetorician & The Duper Humans. The group is led by rapper Jordan Moss, who goes by The Rhetorician. Moss said the festival will be his biggest performance yet. He considers it a “monumental first step.” He described the group’s music as “nostalgic ’90s hip-hop” with an “element of experimentalism.”
For their set on Sunday, Moss and his band will be joined by Mr. Tim, a human-sized cat character that is based off of Moss’ own cat and has been featured in a music video series. A friend of the band will wear a massive furry head and full body costume, braving the heat in the outfit to help the band achieve the “immersive experience” that Moss said is his goal for every show. Each member of the group has their own superhero alter ego, too. So he and his band will wear custom outfits.
Moss hasn’t been to Summer Meltdown before, but he has heard good things from bandmates who have. He said it seems like the perfect place to try out new things on stage.
“I hear the crowd is rare,” Moss said. “Everyone takes care of each other.”
TezaTalks, a Seattle artist playing Saturday, described her music as “hardcore pop.” As a Black queer person, she said she has often felt outcast or misunderstood. Her songs combine personal stories and political messages. She’s releasing a single soon called “Not My Body.”
“It’s definitely encouraging and inspiring — not only women, but all people nonbinary, queer — to embrace their power and understand that their body is their temple, it belongs to them,” she said. “And nobody in this (expletive) world can tell them what to do with it.”
The festival is in its 20th year. It started as a small event with local bands in Clauson’s backyard, eventually growing into a full-blown festival with around 4,000 attendees and artists from all over the country.
Clauson and Hayton curate the lineup, which still features a high percentage of Washington artists.
”We love showcasing local acts and helping people learn about them,” Hayton said. “And then vice versa, we get a lot of good (local) recommendations from our fan base, too.”
Despite some issues at the new location, Kastler was glad to be back at Summer Meltdown after three years. It’s the only time she gets to see some of the friends she has made over her years at the festival, people she calls “forever friends.”
“I missed it so much,” she said. “Everyone did.”
Natalie Kahn: 425-339-3430; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @nataliefkahn.
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