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Popular Hawaii-bred, Santa Barbara-based reggae-rock band Iration headlined a multi-genre roster of more than 25 bands that rocked two stages at The Plaza Theatre in Newhall and drew more than 500 young music fans to the ninth annual “Summer Meltdown Concert for Social Inclusion and Autism Awareness” Saturday afternoon and evening.
“We’ve got pretty close to a packed house in there," said Bret Lieberman, the festival's unofficial executive producer, talking with a reporter in front of the venue about an hour and a half after the show got under way at 1 p.m.
"The kids are enjoying reggae music, we have laser lights set up, bands are coming in from out of state, landing at LAX and Burbank and being driven here right now…so there’s a lot of excitement," he said. "Everyone’s having a good time, and that’s what it’s all about.”
Summer Meltdown is produced by approximately 100 students with and without disabilities including autism enrolled in the nonprofit Yes I Can program at Canyon High School. The program is directed by Lieberman, a special ed teacher, aided and abetted by Canyon English teacher Lisa Lamedman, also a program advisor for both Yes I Can and Canyon's Safe Schools anti-bullying initiative.
Running until just after midnight, the festival also featured performances by Mod Sun, VIBE, Vocab Kompany, Seedless, Zen Robbi, Uprooted, Pacific Dub, Above Ground, Papafish, Pacific Dub, Reeform, Ease Up, Bridge 22, Full Effect, Young Murdoc, Attributes, and Condemn Us as Saviors, plus turntables-and-a-microphone spin-doctors DJ SP3XXX, DJ Society, DJ Trokk, DJ Spinz and DJ Enix.
The headliners and better-known bands performed on the main stage in The Plaza's largest room, while a smaller second stage in a separate room next door presented DJs, electronic music and up-and-coming artists.
The laser light show Nu Salt Lasers added to the visuals at Summer Meltdown. Photo: Paige Jeffers Burghardt/@PhotoPaige.
It was the first Summer Meltdown to be staged at The Plaza; all eight previous festivals took place at Golden Valley High School's outdoor amphitheater, which seats between 1,500 and 2,000.
It was also the first Summer Meltdown to have a theme: a Hawai'ian Luau, paying homage to the world-famous headliner that formed in the Pacific paradise, and is now based just up the California coast. The Plaza was decked out with lots of potted palm trees, making Iration and all the Meltdown bands playing roots rock reggae feel right at home.
The final pieces of the production not yet set just a couple weeks ago — including main stage sound and lighting, a laser light show, tents and chairs for artist dressing rooms, ditto for sponsors and VIPs, safety barricades, and set-dressing tropical foliage — were all miraculously in place by showtime, thanks to last-minute donations and purchases.
A band sets up on the second Plaza stage. Photo: Stephen K. Peeples.
There was a also a variety of eats and treats provided by sponsors as well as booths set up by sponsors and other vendors around The Plaza's lobby. A barbecue outside the venue's back door also turned out hot dogs throughout the afternoon and into the night.
Sponsors included Chronic Tacos, Jersey Mike's, McDonald's, KHTS-AM 1220, SCVTV, Curtis, The Signal, Southwest Airlines, Monster, the Marriott, Andy Gump, La Quinta, Juice It Up, the SCV Youth Project, the St. John Company, Rockerrazzi, Paige Photography, Nu Salt Lasers, SCV Rental, Homebass, Feathers, Warner Bros. Signs & Banners, Take One, NLA and Bridges to Ability.
Temperatures outside were in the upper 80s, but felt warmer inside most of the time, mitigated somewhat by dozens of portable fans plugged in around the venue. Concert-goers could also cool off on the patios in front of and behind the building.
Everyone who saw Iration play the 2010 Summer Meltdown has been bugging the Yes I Can students to bring the group back for an encore. This time, as headliners, Iration was due to close the festival, taking the stage at 10:30 p.m., but bandmembers got there early, around 2:30 p.m., and hung out until their set time.
"We’re stoked to be here to rock it for the kids,” said Micah Pueschel, the five-member band's lead singer and guitarist, talking with a reporter out front shortly after arriving from Santa Barbara.
The reporter with Iration's Micah Pueschel. Photo: Lisa Lamedman.
Asked how important the Yes I Can social inclusion and autism awareness cause was in the band's decision to play the festival in the first place in 2010, and then return for an encore, as headliner, Pueschel's response was immediate.
“It’s 100 percent of the decision," he said. "We’re doing this as our way of giving back to the community, to the kids and the generation that’s coming up. That’s the audience for our music, the younger kids in high school and college. And the idea is, we don’t want anyone to feel that they can’t enjoy a concert, because it’s for everybody, not just for a certain group of people. We try to make universal music that can reach out to any person in the world, no matter their race, color, creed, ability or whatever. That’s what music is all about, and that’s why we’re doing this concert."
Since its Summer Meltdown debut two years ago, playing material from the "Time Bomb" album, Pueschel said, Iration has become "a better band, I think. Not perfect, by any means, but better."
This year, Iration (pictured at left onstage; photo by Paige Jeffers Burghardt/@PhotoPaige) previewed a trio of new songs not yet released.
"We have a brand-new record coming out in August, so we’re gonna play some of that and hopefully they'll like it," Pueschel said. "The song titles are ‘Back Around,’ ‘One-Way Track’ and ‘Porcupine,’ and the album’s titled ‘Automatic.'"
Asked if he thought the sound of "Automatic," Iration's third full-length album, shows a progression, Pueschel said, "Definitely. There’s a lot more of a rock influence on this record. We worked with Lincoln Parish from the band Cage the Elephants and we recorded half the album in Rami Jaffee’s studio. He's a member of The Wallflowers and also the Foo Fighters. We also had Lincoln produce and play guitar on the record, so there’s the introduction of a lot more traditional rock sound.
"We like to play rock 'n' roll music, and 50 percent of the equation of our band is rock 'n' roll, along with the island thing." he said. "So we wanted to do rock songs that were proper, with a proper rock sound — guitar sound, drum sound. We brought (Lincoln) in to do it and it came out great.”
Melting Down The Plaza
Lieberman said the Yes I Can students in charge of staging tried to time the performances in both rooms so that music was always playing in one room or the other. A band would rock on one stage while the crew was making set changes in the other. So fans flowed back and forth and could catch some, if not all, of almost every act.
Fans would go to see their favorite band perform, but also keep moving to see some of the other artists. "It's a rotating crowd," he said. "We have all kinds of music from rock to reggae to hip-hop, and the fans are hanging out and mingling and kind of supporting one another. Everybody’s coming together and enjoying it, all in the Yes I Can spirit of unity through music."
Keeping everything running smoothly on the main stage was Jessica Anne Dean, 24, a 2005 Canyon High graduate and alum of the Yes I Can program. She went on to study Cinema and TV Arts at CSUN and is now shopping for a grad school and an entry-level job in the TV or film biz. This was her fourth year as part of the Summer Meltdown production crew, but her maiden voyage as stage manager.
"Normally I deal with the bands and my co-stage manager does the sound and all that, but this year it was all me," Dean said.
"I thought it went pretty good considering how small the venue was (capacity 500 at a time). Most of the bands were all friends so everyone was really nice and supportive. Mod Sun got there and was giving everyone hugs and excited to be there. Everyone in the bands that I talked to said they loved it and want to play next year, that the (Yes I Can) kids were amazing, and how great the cause is."
Jessica Anne Dean displays her autographed Iration set list and drumstick. Photo by Lisa Lamedman.
Stage management requires organizational, technical and people skills; Dean has many of the earmarks of a pro already.
"I'm not sure which band was the coolest to work with," she said, responding to a question. "Everyone was chill beside that fact that I'm a girl and they thought they could push me around, which didn't happen. At the end, all that matters is if the students have fun, which they did. They were all tired, but had fun, too. So with that said, I'd say it was a success."
Turn Up The Feaver
Saturday was the third Summer Meltdown appearance for The Feaver, the fast-rising quartet of SCV high school guys who've been together just a few years. They were weaned on guitar-driven classic rock of the '60s and '70s, and wrote their first songs and record an EP in that vein. After much gigging last year, they took time off this spring to focus on writing more new material, getting ready to record a second EP, a lot of woodshedding, and schoolwork. Their set Saturday displayed remarkable growth just since the end of last year.
Braeden Lemasters, Dylan Minnette and Zack Mendenhall (and drummer Cole Preston, not pictured) rock the main stage at Summer Meltdown. Photo: Stephen K. Peeples.
"As we've gotten older we've started to listen to more and more bands and get into more different styles of music," Minnette said, "and with time we've just grown up a bit, discovered more things that we'd like to do and experiment with, and as time went on, we figured out our true style, like an alternative rock sound that we just kind of discovered that we liked as we listened to more music."
"We kinda got out of the classic rock influence and go into a more modern-day rock influence," Lemasters said. "We will always love all the other stuff, but we decided to write more, I'd say, Strokes-esque, Arctic Monkey-esue, Libertines — I love them now — but (it's) just growing up naturally, writing songs, progressing."
When asked how the band liked playing indoors at The Plaza compared to outdoors for their previous Meltdown sets, singer/rhythm guitarist Dylan Minnette said, "I liked it."
"Yeah, it was really cool," said singer/lead guitarist Braeden Lemasters. "It was a lot more intimate. It was like, 'Yo, we're here to play, hope you guys like us,' and they're right up front. And I liked the Hawaii vibe."
The Feaver's Summer Meltdown set list. Photo: Stephen K. Peeples.
"There's good and bad things about Golden Valley, good and bad things about here," Minnette said. "I feel like, here, yeah, it's more intimate, whereas Golden Valley everybody's kinda spread out. It's fun playing outside, but at the same time, it feels more like a show here (at The Plaza). The lights work more, because we played in the daytime before. And there's no sunburn in there."
Lemasters and Minnette are also actors, co-starring in the recent series "Men of a Certain Age" and "Awake," respectively. This winter Lemasters completed shooting "A Christmas Story 2" in Canada, playing Ralphie, the lead kid character."Look for that around Thanksgiving," he said.
A Little Historical Context
Summer Meltdown is the culminating event for Yes I Can students who each year raise funds, line up sponsors and food vendors, book talent, hire sound and lighting crews and more as part of their course studies, starting in the fall semester.
DJ SP3XXX and crew work out in the second room. Photo: Kevin Lieberman.
Along the way, the students build their social skills and get practical real-life experience. The students' outreach and the festival itself help raise awareness of autism; many of the special-ed kids in the program have Asperger's syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism.
For its first eight years, the festival was produced by Yes I Can students at Golden Valley High School, under the guidance of advisor and district special ed instructor Bret Lieberman (also a local concert promoter outside of school), and staged in Golden Valley's outdoor amphitheater.
Lieberman and the program transferred to Canyon High for the fall 2011 semester and originally hoped to continue staging the festival at Golden Valley. However, Hart District officials subsequently decided it was "not a school- or District-sponsored event" and could no longer be held at a district facility (read about the district's decision  and the reaction  of students, parents and organizers).
So, this year, for the first time, the students' preparation also included lining up a new venue. Finally, a month before the scheduled date, they finalized a deal with the owners of The Plaza to four-wall the venue for the day and night.
'Pulled it off With Class'
"To put this event together in less than four weeks after getting the final okay and contract signed to host the event at The Plaza, the students were forced to rise to the occasion," Lieberman said. "And they pulled it off with class, using the communication, collaboration and problem solving skills they were taught throughout the year in the YES I CAN class.
"I could not be more proud of the students' resolve, (dealing) with all the ignorance surrounding our end-of-the-year project/concert event. We have had nine successful years of bringing together people with and without disabilities in the Santa Clarita Valley community through music and education. We do not plan on stopping at any point. Pretty soon the students will get the kudos they deserve. The power of music has been one of the driving forces for any social justice or change in our society."
Bret Lieberman and Lisa Lamedman. Photo: Paige Jeffers Burghhardt/@PhotoPaige.
After the show, we heard from several Canyon Yes I Can students who shared Lieberman's passion for the program, which has made a positive difference in their lives.
“Summer Meltdown was the best day of my life,” said Dakota Thompson, 17.
“I got to hang out with all of my friends," said 15-year-old Nolan Sheridan. "I got to see graduated Yes I Can students come back and help us, too. I want to thank McDonald’s, Chronic Tacos and Jersey Mike’s for making sure we had food in our VIP area. Next year I'm going to cook my special Mojo burgers!"
The day had special meaning for Jason Lucia, 19: "The Summer Meltdown was most definitely the most exciting experience I have ever had," he said. "I worked so hard on promoting the Meltdown and got a few friends to come. It left me with the feeling of being able to accomplish something worthwhile. I had a blast and will return every year to help out and support Yes I Can and the Meltdown any way possible.
"This class has saved my I life," Lucia said. "I came from a bad background and this class made me like myself enough to try my hardest (to) overcome obstacles. The Meltdown was most definitely a huge obstacle to overcome but we did it as a team, and more importantly as a FAMILY. I love this class to the fullest and live for helping people. I will stand by Yes I Can as long as I live."
“I loved the experience," said 17-year-old Arianna Schlect. "Being able to be part of something so big really makes you feel so good inside. This event was filled with so many people that care, and have so much love in their hearts. I will remember this forever. I am truly blessed.”
Bottom Line: There Will Be a 10th Annual Summer Meltdown
The final proceeds and expenses are still being sorted out this week by the Yes I Can's Booster Club, which manages the 501C(3) nonprofit's finances. Though many artists and vendors reduced their fees or donated their goods and services altogether, it's not likely this year's festival will break even, due to extra venue and production expenses, and more difficulty in fundraising throughout the preceding school year.
All Yes I Can students who worked on Summer Meltdown in one capacity or another received event t-shirts and all-access passes. Photo: Paige Jeffers Burghardt/@PhotoPaige.
"So we're still looking for monetary donations to help pay for production costs," Lieberman said, adding that as in past years, any surplus would roll over into the fund for the next Summer Meltdown.
Speaking of which, the next festival is already on Lieberman's radar.
"I think this is the most important time in Summer Meltdown’s history," he said. "We’ve been pushing forward for nine years straight, and it's been a beautiful and amazing event. So I think after knocking it off this year, next year, for the 10th annual, we have to go big. We gotta super-size this thing. So I’m thinking Central Park, 100 percent."
For more information about Yes I Can, Summer Meltdown, and/or to donate, contact Lieberman at email@example.com  or 661-252-6110, ext. 479. Also, check out the Summer Meltdown 2012 preview video  and visit www.summermeltdown2012.com , www.sponsorthemeltdown.com  and www.facebook.com/yicmeltdown .
For previous Summer Meltdown stories on HometownStation.com, click here .
Stephen K. Peeples is a news and features writer/reporter and photographer for AM 1220 KHTS Radio News (www.hometownstation.com ) and SCVNews.com , and an entertainment blogger with Peeples Place at KHTS (www.peeplesplace.com ). He is also host, writer and co-producer of the weekly “House Blend" music and interview show (www.scvhouseblend.com ) on SCVTV, community television for the Santa Clarita Valley (www.scvtv.com ). A former music and entertainment writer for The Signal (2004-2011), Peeples is a Grammy-nominated record producer (“Monterey International Pop Festival,” MIPF/Rhino, 1992), an award-winning radio producer (“The Lost Lennon Tapes,” Westwood One, 1988-1990) and an award-winning online editor (The Signal website, 2007-2011). He was drummer with West L.A. rock-blues-punk band Peaking Duck (1973-2009) and SCV jazz group RainTree (www.raintreejazz.com , 2010-2011). For more information, email  firstname.lastname@example.org  or visit www.stephenkpeeples.com .