What started out as a lark ended up being a resounding success. The question was, would people come to Belfast for one day in the spring and pay $18 to see a lot of bands they might never have heard before? The answer — a big yes — meant that the Belfast Free Range Music Festival would return in 2011, bigger and better, with an even more diverse lineup of bands and artists from all over the country.
This year’s event, set for 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday, April 30, offers 32 indie rock, folk, alternative rock, reggae, bluegrass, electronic, jazz and Celtic bands, hailing from Belfast to San Francisco and Nashville. There are eight Belfast-wide venues this year, including Waterfall Arts, the Belfast Maskers Waterfront Theater, the First Congregational Church, Aarhus Gallery, the American Legion Hall, the Colonial Theatre, the Belfast Free Library and Three Tides.
“Honestly, last year, we thought we’d get a good turnout, but definitely nothing like what we did get,” said Bub Fournier, one of a team of nine organizers. “I think last year we were almost overwhelmed by the turnout. We had to come up with solutions on the fly. I think we did well, all things considered, but when passes completely sold out, we just kind of said, ‘Whoa.’”
Bub and Meg Fournier, who until this winter owned the now-defunct Belfast music venue and boutique Roots & Tendrils, were two of the driving forces behind getting the festival up and running last year. They return this year, along with folks such as local musicians Dan Beckman, Kristen Burkholder and Nathan Raleigh, Aarhus Gallery co-owner Annadeene Fowler, Belfast Councilor Mike Hurley, and Janane Tripp and Al Crichton of Waterfall Arts.
This year, there’s an increase in venues from six to eight, an increase in bands from 27 to 32, and an increase of passes sold from 700 to 900. There’s also new stuff: A free shuttle will take festival-goers from venues such as Aarhus Gallery and the Maskers Theatre, which are just up the street from each other on Main Street, to farther-away venues such as Waterfall Arts, which is near the High Street off ramp to Route 1.
There also are improved sound systems for all venues, meaning festival-goers can get the best possible listening experience, and fun new venue markers so those unfamiliar with Belfast will know what is actually a venue and what isn’t.
“We learned so much last year, like you would [when] doing anything for the first time,” said Meg Fournier. “We talked about expanding it to two days, but we figured, let’s get really good at having it be one day first. Let’s treat bands right and make it the best we can.”
It’s the music, of course, that brought droves of people up from the Portland area and down from Bangor to check out Belfast. This year, festival-goers can listen to everyone from Michael Hurley, a legend in underground folk who has been recording and performing for nearly 50 years, to Grass Widow, a San Francisco post-punk trio who recently released an album on Kill Rock Stars records. There are a number of Portland bands, such as the breezy, jangly indie rock of Brenda, garage rock believers the Rattlesnakes, and the delicious, noisy pop of Maria Stella.
There’s also plenty of talent from Waldo and Knox counties, from groups such as the alternative rockers the 220s, psychedelic folk from Ancestral Diet and bluegrass from the Gawler Family Band. Not to mention other Mainers such as orchestral folk rocker Audrey Ryan, a Bar Harbor native now living in Boston, and In Houses in Trees, the new side project from Bangor-area indie rockers Patrick Cunningham and Anthony Bitetti. And that’s only scratching the surface; a full list of bands can be found online at freerangemusicfestival.com.
“It was really important to us to have an entirely new lineup,” said organizer Dan Beckman, a member of Belfast band Village of Spaces. “There’s a lot to draw on, between what’s here in the community and all the other connections we all make.”
Part of the reason the festival has been able to attract talent from all over the country is Belfast’s growing reputation as a cool, arts-embracing town. Some musicians, such as alternative country singer-songwriter Johnny Corndawg, have just come off high-profile tours. Corndawg has been playing with acclaimed folk-punk band Deer Tick. He’s from Nashville, but he’s coming to Belfast this weekend.
“People have made exceptions on their tours to come to the festival. They know it’s coming, and they set up tours around it,” said Beckman. “The town creates the draw. It’s a huge community effort, and it would never happen if everyone wasn’t behind it.”
Whether you’re a casual music follower or a die-hard, it’s clear that Belfast is the place to be this Saturday.
“It’s like the kickoff to spring,” said Beckman. “It’s a big celebration.”
Passes for the Belfast Free Range Music Festival are available online at freerangemusicfestival.com, or in Belfast at the Green Store and Yo Mamma’s Home; they are $18 for adults, $9 for children under 12. Day-of passes are $20 and are available at the Festival Info Center, 103 Main St. in Belfast. They’ll be sold on a first-come, first-served basis. A 21-plus after-party for the festival, sponsored by Portland music blog Hillytown.com, starts at 10 p.m. at Three Tides in Belfast, featuring electronic groups Vistas and Mango Floss.