I was the first and loudest to scoff at the enterprise of adult summer camps—no doubt a commercial ploy, meant to lure Millennials into living up to our least savory stereotypes with the promise of recapturing the buried id of youth. But then I hoofed it up two hours north of the city into the Catskill mountains, with a hiking backpack, several bags of Utz Party Mix and my best friend, to spend Labor Day weekend “living like a free roaming animal in an actual abandoned zoo” and experience Meltasia, the most nutty, unbridled, non-commodified fun I’ve had in years.
Our adventure began when we were dropped off on Friday at noon in the empty parking lot of the Catskill Game Farm in Castkill, NY. Stranded like overturned turtles with our camping backpacks, we anxiously mulled over our decision to come and whether or not we should open the Cheetos; an hour or so later our tattooed guardian angel pulled up in a Volvo, and offered the services of her car in exchange for companionship– a deal happily struck. We were finally let into the grounds at three, and pitched tent (friendship still intact!) in one of several caged off areas flanking the dirt road leading to the main stage. A cardboard sign designated us as “Dolphins,” a distinction we proceeded to take way too seriously for the rest of the weekend (though we kept our beer consumption in tact so as not to follow through on our semi-serious pact to get matching dolphin tattoos).
While we waited for the first night of music to start, we explored the grounds of the Game Farm, an establishment that spanned 900 acres in its heyday and, in its 73 years of operation from 1933 to 2006, housed 2,000 animals of over 150 species. Though the fest didn’t draw quite as diverse of a crowd, it was still a non-stop spectacle both onstage and off, as people paraded around the grounds in states of both dress and undress, a tremendous, decade-spanning sartorial assemblage from the feathered hair and bellbottoms of the seventies to the black leather jackets and cat eye glasses of the fifties.
Thick kicked off the music in the late afternoon to a sparse crowd, but the lack of an audience didn’t stop them from shrieking and shredding, delivering half sung/half shouted lyrics over catchy, propulsive melodies descended from the pop angst aesthetic of Blink-182. Nude Party kept the energy but changed the vibe, starting their set with an old school country twang. The six piece North Carolina band filled the stage and then some, and cast a playful air, the drummer banging on a big drum with yellow plastic maracas.
After their set, illustrious party host Andy Animal pulled up on his hog and mounted the stage for the first time to greet his faded, jovial herd. “I heard we ran out of toilet paper… You can always buy a Meltasia t-shirt,” he growled.
NYC outfit, the Mystery Lights, emerged as the evening’s bonafide rock stars. The sweetest, most soft-spoken guys you’ll ever meet off stage, once the stage lights come up they transform–possessed by a feral, mesmerizing star quality that feels rare, and makes it instantly clear why these guys have been touted by Rolling Stone. Lead singer Mike Brandon commands the crowd with his fuzzed-out, powerhouse pipes, backed by a sound that melds psychedelia with grunge punk in a decidedly vintage vibe that scored the guys a contract with Daptone.
Bloodshot Bill added an extra helping of surreality to the event, taking the stage with his roots meet rockabilly meets old-time rock ‘n roll, which he blasts with the hip shaking panache of Presley himself, greasy pompadour and all.
By the time Shannon and the Clams took the stage, the campground was dark, lit primarily by tiki torches, and festgoers had emerged from their tents to gather en masse in front of the one stage, which was flanked by an inflatable vulture and a papier-mâché rendition of the fest’s mascot- a rat dressed in the wizard garb of Mickey Mouse in Fantasia. Shannon and the Clams may seem like a novelty act, but to write them off as such would dismiss a carefully curated sonic and visual experience, one that weaves together a nearly inconceivable mix of grunge, punk, doo-wop, fuzz and surf rock. If John Waters’ and Buddy Holly ever had the chance to drop acid on the beach in California and shoot a music video, it might approach the vibe of lead singer/bassist Shannon Shaw, singer/guitar player Cody Blanchard and drummer Ian Amberson.
We caught Surfbort late afternoon on Saturday in the blinding glare of the setting sun. Lead singer Dani Miller waxes and whines with the angst that only the offspring of brainwashed white suburbia can muster, but she pulls it off with a genuine, counter cultural ferocity. Her gamine appearance itself is transgressive: she performs braless (white t-shirt caked with dirt and sweat) and pantsless (high cut bikini bottom), adorned with barrettes, chokers and other curious knick-knacks of ’90s nostalgia as she tosses and jerks her lanky limbs around with fuck you nonchalance. “New world, new orders!” “Love and be alone,” she shrieks, jumping down in front of the stage to throw her body around in a kind of one woman mosh pit.
White Mystery from Chicago, the brother sister duo of Miss Alex White and Francis Scott Key White, were a noticeable presence at the fest, both of them rocking full heads of ginger hair—Alex’s in an afro, Francis’ in locks half way to his waist. They surprised and delighted with thrashing, reverb drench rock, rooted in Alex’s piercing, Le Tigre-esque yawps, that could slide from blues to punk in a breath.
As darkness fell on the second night, Neil Hamburger made everyone uncomfortable– no really, it’s his thing– ripping into Gene Simmons as a prelude to the most unique set of the fest, Daddy Long Legs in a small cage filled with plastic (very realistic) snakes of varying sizes. He played a mean harmonica, and from his raspy blues meet rockabilly vibe to his spiffy black suit and neck tie, he channeled The Blues Brothers, an image perfectly minted when people began to throw beer cans and climb on the cage.
“Put your steppers and clappers together you dark lords of the underworld,” Andy, called “the Animal” for short, said by way of introduction to cult heavy metal band, Pentragram. Lead singer Bobby Liebling has an ominous, androgynous, Bowie meets Weird Al meets Liberace stage presence that’s wholly engrossing and likely to leave you mouth agape at the sheer weird, wild glam rock meets doom metal spectacle of the whole thing.
We headed for pizza as Vockah Redu took the stage, the pizza stand tucked far away from the throngs, behind a thicket of trees and past the merch/alcohol setup. This may have been the fest’s most sensible decision, shielding the trio of old, local Italian men who skeptically doled out slices to an increasingly inebriated crowd. As Redu’s electro chant of “Pop rock neo fuck” gave way to eerie, Fifth Element style operatic singing, and the heavy bass line swelled across the camp, the guy next to me politely took his cheese slice from across the clear countertop, and proceeded to pull a fistful of shrooms out of his pocket and dump them on his pie. Meltasia was filled with such whimsical incidents, second place going to the man I watched rescue ants that were trying to escape from a log recently tossed into the nightly bonfire. “Hey, it’s the Meltdown” a massive, leather-clad biker said, summing up what everyone was thinking for most of the weekend, as he bear-hugged a skinny guy in white overalls and a wizard hat.
The hurricane that threatened the weekend never materialized, but when we woke up on Sunday morning, my camping pals decided they had melted enough for one weekend. I might have protested that we stay the course– I was especially keen to see the brilliant lunatics, Fat White Family, and was even acclimating to my thin sheen of grime– but the potential of rain and our dicey plans to get home got the best of me, so we hopped our free ride and made our way back to the city.
Though accounts differ, most people seemed to agree that this was Meltasia’s first year– or, at least, the first year it was open to the public. It would be easy to bash the festival’s shortcomings, as some type-A New Yorkers near our campsite chose to do—loudly– but all in all those gaffes could pretty much be summed up as a damn-near-comical communication blackout, in which most things that would be vital to know for a festival several miles away from civilization were left unclear or unspoken (Timing? Transportation? Water? Food?).
But at the same time, all of the Fest’s small sustainable brilliances also went completely unannounced; I struck up a conversation with a BBQ vendor who was cooking curried sweet potatoes in a skillet over a fire, and he beamed as he told me that the festival had paid their way up from North Carolina and given them a truck full of meat and veggies to cook with. It was adownright charming how little the Fest and its organizers seemed to care about marketing itself, which added to the completely non-corporate feel of the weekend, like you just happened upon a very trippy bacchanalia in the woods.
The lack of choice was freeing– pizza or BBQ or a drive to the town’s diner (if you had a set of wheels), PBR or Pork Slap, corn hole or badminton– and lots of damn talented musicians. I think, comparably, my festival experience was tame. Sure, I drank plenty of beer, and smoked things that are only 4/50s legal (sorry, mom!), but mostly I enjoyed the tamer, truly childlike reminders of camp. We formed cliques (Dolphins 4 eva!), braided each other’s hair, roasted marshmallows and said goodnight and wished each other good morning without makeup, eyes bleary with sleep.
I didn’t drop acid, get a tattoo (yes, there was a tattoo artist on hand), wake up in a stranger’s campsite or naked in the medical tent. But I can see why people do; I can see why it’s lovingly nicknamed the Meltdown. Everyone becomes friends, quickly, no one gives a fuck, and the sheer act of having as much fun as you can becomes its own act of rebellion against that big, old square world that lies just beyond the trees.