Subdued Summer Stringband Meltdown Jamboree

A tale of two festivals

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Owing to the fact that, almost since their inception and with just one exception that I can recall, the Subdued Stringband Jamboree and Summer Meltdown have taken place the exact same weekend every year, the two homegrown music festivals are inextricably linked in the mind of many music fans. Every year, whether we want to or not, we have to assess the lineups of the two festivals, weigh our entertainment options, and choose the festival that most suits our fancy.

While it is feasible to attend a day or two of one festival and do the same with the other, in reality, much like the Highlander, when it comes to these events and our crammed calendars, “There can be only one.”

So how, then, does one choose between them?

Comparatively speaking, Meltdown and Stringband have more in common than just the same summer weekend every year. Allow me to present some evidence.

• Both of them began as grassroots, volunteer-run efforts that started on the small size and have grown into their present, multi-day, multi-stage form. Stringband and Meltdown were each dreamed up and executed by founders who mostly just wanted to gather their friends together to play the kind of music they loved. And while both have grown exponentially over the years, they remain steadfastly grassroots and proudly volunteer-run and serve their original purpose of gathering friends and making music. Everything else might change (including their taking place concurrently), but I have no doubt both festivals will remain true to their origins.

• Both take place in stunning natural settings. Stringband’s home is the Deming Log Show Grounds in Deming, a place that’s far enough out in the country to feel like you’re really getting away from it all, while still remaining just a short distance away from Bellingham. It’s a lovely, relaxing locale, perfect for pitching a tent and the late-night, campfire pickin’ parties that are as much a part of the Jamboree as watching festival founder Robert Blake biking hither and yon, straw hat planted squarely on his head. Not to be outdone, for the past several years, Meltdown has claimed the Whitehorse Mountain Amphitheater in Darrington as its own. Also known as the site of the Darrington Bluegrass Festival, the Whitehorse offers rugged beauty as far as the eye can see. Camping is also encouraged at Meltdown, and it’s an excellent place to get back to nature.

• Both festivals embrace an eco-friendly ethos. Perhaps this is a no-brainer for events birthed in our corner of the Northwest, but mitigating environmental impacts has long been part of the mission of both Meltdown and Stringband. Indeed, Meltdown has built reducing its footprint into its very identity, aiming to recycle or compost fully 75 percent of the waste it generates. Stringband’s commitment to the planet, while less formally codified, is no less a part of the festival, with food vendors eschewing disposable dishware in favor of real dishes, carpooling encouraged and many people biking their way up the Mt. Baker Highway to the festival grounds. The Jamboree is a low-key, lo-fi affair with a decided emphasis on quality of experience over quantity of environmentally impactful bells and whistles.

• Both Stringband and Meltdown are family friendly. It comes as no surprise that Stringband, a festival that involves singing around campfires and square-dancing around a field would be a place where kids are plentiful and spend the weekend running wild and free (under parental supervision, of course). So to learn it boasts a dedicated kids area is hardly a shocker. But with Meltdown’s lineup traditionally of what one could easily call party bands, you might not think kids would be especially welcome. But you’d be all wrong about that. The festival has a kids area all its own—with a circus theme this year—where face-painting, derby car races, costume-making, bubble-blowing and more are all part of a day’s work for kids lucky enough to make their way to Meltdown (also under parental supervision, of course).

But here is where the proverbial roads diverge in the wood. Because despite their many similarities, Meltdown and Stringband are actually vastly different beasts when it comes down to their raison d’etre: the music.

Summer Meltdown’s lineup is geared toward getting people up and dancing—and we’re not talking about promenading right or allemanding left. And the dynamic duo responsible for booking the festival (the Wild Buffalo’s Craig Jewell and Austin Santiago) are not afraid to dangle a big headliner or two in front of music fans as a means of drawing them to the wilds of Darrington. Toward that end, they’ve procured the impeccable pedigree and musicality of Minus the Bear (a band so good it has caused me to be more torn between the two festivals than I’ve ever been before), Lotus, Xavier Rudd, Ivan Neville’s Dumpstaphunk, MarchFourth Marching Band, Cave Singers, Geographer, Odesza, and many more. Also, since their predecessor, Flowmotion, founded Summer Meltdown, the True Spokes get to take their turn on the mainstage as well. Local powerhouses Acorn Project, Polecat, and the rapidly up-and-coming Learning Team (fresh off an appearance at Capitol Hill Block Party) will make appearances as well.

Subdued Stringband’s musical offerings are none too shabby either. It keeps its booking a little closer to home, preferring to place an emphasis on local bluegrass, old-timey and Americana music (hence the “Stringband” name), and part of the fun of that event is not only seeing familiar faces on the Jamboree’s stages, but also mingling with them in the field and around the campfires. This year’s Stringband performers include Crow Quill Night Owls, Hot Damn Scandal, Lucky Brown, Chivalry Timbers, SmokeWagon, Korby Lenker (yes, you read that right), Rattletrap Ruckus, Stephen Ray Leslie (my personal favorite), the Devilly Brothers, and others. And because it’s his festival and he’ll play if he wants to, Robert Sarazin Blake & The Put-it-all-down-in-a Letters will perform as well. Of course, it wouldn’t be a latter-day Stringband Jamboree without a Band Scramble, in which musicians’ names are put into a hat and drawn to form impromptu bands that must then write and perform songs under an impossible time constraint and to the unbridled delight of the audience.

Whether you prefer campfires or glow sticks, pickin’ parties or late-night DJ dance sets, the second weekend in August has a local festival made for you—as long as you don’t want to attend both of them, that is.

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