When the first-ever Belfast Free Range Music Festival was announced in February, it confirmed the sneaking suspicion that anyone who follows the scene in Maine has had for the past few years: Belfast is one of the best places in the state to see live music.
Twenty-seven bands and artists will take to the stages of six venues from 10:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday, April 24. They range from Belfast-based bands such as garage rockers Class Machine, experimental folk group Uke of Spaces and alt-country band Rural Electric, to nationally-known acts including Jazz Mandolin Project (a side group of Phish drummer Jon Fishman), Tiger Saw (featuring members of acclaimed indie-rock groups Dirty Projectors and Deer Tick), and composer and jazz pianist Mary Ann Driscoll.
The question remains, though: When and how did Belfast get so cool? Fifteen years ago, it was best known for chickens and shoes, with a run-down waterfront and a sleepy downtown. Now, it’s a buzzing hub for art — full of galleries, restaurants, festivals, shops and other curios, as well as increasing numbers of young people and, yes, music. For those who grew up in the area (this writer included), it’s a slightly dizzying transformation.
“Everyone enjoys and supports one another. There’s very little barrier between styles, whether it’s genres or even mediums,” said co-organizer Kristen Burkholder, who will perform with her jazz group, Luna Madidas, at the festival. “Everyone goes to see each other’s band. Everyone creates their own music. There’s a lot of very intelligent energy around.”
Belfast has long been a place where two contingents co-existed, relatively peacefully. There are the longtime residents, whose families have lived in the area for generations, and there are the back-to-the-landers who began moving to Waldo County in the 1970s to run farms and quietly lead creative lives in the woods. Now those two contingents each have their own grown children, and furthermore, a new generation of farmers and artists has moved to the area.
The result? A totally unique blend of backgrounds and outlooks and a great place to make a living doing whatever you want.
“It’s all pretty DIY [do it yourself] and local. What’s here has been built by the people that live here. If it weren’t for Belfast and the kind of atmosphere here, I wouldn’t be a business owner,” said festival co-organizer Meg Fournier, who, with her husband, Bub, opened downtown Belfast shop and music and arts venue Roots & Tendrils last June. “People have really sunk their heels in. There’s a lot of people who went to Unity College who are now in their 20s and 30s, who have stayed here because of the land. And there’s a lot who grew up here who decided to stay.”
Festival venues like the Aarhus Gallery and Waterfall Arts have been hosting bands and artists for several years now, with Aarhus offering jazz, bluegrass and singer songwriters many weekends year-round, and Waterfall Arts playing host to an array of indie-rock and folk groups. With Roots & Tendrils coming on to the scene last summer, it became clear there was a major following for live, original music in town, among both locals and those who drive to Belfast for shows.
“Mike Hurley came to us last fall and said, ‘What do you guys think about a music festival in town, at multiple venues?’” said Burkholder, referring to the city councilor and former Belfast mayor. “Meg and I both basically said, ‘Yes and yes.’ Roots & Tendrils had such a great first summer last summer, and there are so many local bands in the area, it seemed like a natural thing.”
Planning started in earnest in January, with Bangor Savings Bank signing on as a presenting sponsor, and a number of local businesses contributing funds. Aarhus, Waterfall, Roots & Tendrils, the Colonial Theatre and the American Legion Hall all will showcase music, as well as a special performance at the Belfast Free Library from the Belfast-based Mary Ann Driscoll. The unofficial headliner, the Jazz Mandolin Project, joined the lineup after Jon Fishman, a Maine resident, spoke with Burkholder and Fournier and agreed to play the festival.
Think of the Belfast Free Range Music Festival as a kind of mini-South by Southwest, the huge, five-day, multivenue festival held in Austin, Texas, each March. Except, in this case, eight of the bands on the schedule hail from Belfast, 11 are from other parts of Maine, and the rest are from all over the country.
“We looked at a lot of multivenue music festivals, like South by Southwest and the Halifax Pop Festival in Nova Scotia,” said Fournier. “They all started small and got bigger with each year. Now they’re huge. I don’t know if we could do that here, but we could try.”
Full-day passes for the Belfast Free Range Music Festival are $20; $12 gets you into all but Jazz Mandolin Project. Kids under 12 are $9. Passes are available at Roots & Tendrils, the Green Store and Wild Rufus Records. For information, visit www.freerangemusicfestival.com.
Belfast Free Range Music Festival Schedule
American Legion Hall (43 High St.)
11:30 a.m. Travis Lloyd Band (roots-rock)
2 p.m. Shawn Mercer and the Boondock Blues Band (blues-folk)
4 p.m. Col. Bruce & the Quark Alliance (blues-jazz-poetry)
7:30 p.m. Jazz Mandolin Project (jazz-bluegrass)
9:30 p.m. David Dodson (singer-songwriter)
Colonial Theatre (163 High St.)
10:30 a.m. The Fofers (children’s music)
12:45 p.m. Luna Madidas (jazz)
2:45 p.m. Free Seedlings (bluegrass)
4:45 p.m. David Wax Museum (Mexican country folk)
6:30 p.m. Lady Lamb the Beekeeper (banjo-folk-garage)
8:45 p.m. Brown Bird (indie-folk)
Roots and Tendrils (2 Cross St.)
12:30 p.m. Wes Hartley and the Traveling Trees (alt-country)
2:30 p.m. Uke of Spaces (experimental folk)
4:30 p.m. Rural Electric (alt-country)
6:15 p.m. The Class Machine (fuzzy garage-rock)
8:15 p.m. Tiger Saw (indie-rock)
10:15 p.m. Gully (indie-rock)
Waterfall Arts (256 High St.)
Noon Mahdi Army Orkestars (klezmer)
1:45 p.m. Calvin and the Free Will Agents (indie-folk)
3:45 p.m. Good Kids Sprouting Horns (Casio keyboard indie-pop)
5:45 p.m. Unbunny (indie-rock)
7:30 p.m. Caethua (ambient folk)
9:45 p.m. Lazarus (indie-rock)
Aarhus Gallery (50 Main St.)
11:30 a.m. Cinder Conk (Balkan gypsy-folk)
1:30 p.m. South China (indie-folk)
3:30 p.m. Travis Cyr & the Strings of Calamity (roots-rock)
Belfast Free Library (106 High St.)
3 p.m. Mary Ann Driscoll (jazz piano workshop)