Travis Cyr is proud to call Aroostook County his home. The tranquility, the people and the natural beauty all are major reasons why he makes his home in Van Buren, near the Canadian border. It’s where his family is from. It’s where he wants his 5-year-old daughter Emelia to grow up.
But Cyr, who has traveled New England for more than a decade performing his signature brand of fiercely heartfelt folk rock, would be lying if he said he didn’t long for a music scene, like what happens in Portland, the Midcoast and Bangor. The County, lovely as it is, isn’t exactly a hotbed for it.
“As an artist living here, you’re always torn between living where you want to live and doing what you want to do. But you make it work,” said Cyr, 36, an affable, bearded fellow who performs as Travis Cyr and the Strings of Calamity in venues across the state.
So once a year, Cyr brings the music north. An array of Maine rock, folk and bluegrass bands will arrive in Thomas Park in the tiny town of New Sweden on Saturday, July 9, for the fifth annual Arootsakoostik Music Festival. In one day, festival-goers can see an excellent cross section of some of the best of Maine music. In fact, it might be the best such event in the state, this year bringing together 22 different bands — everyone from amped-up Belfast garage rock duo the Class Machine to Portland bluegrass outfit the Tricky Britches.
“We are starved for quality entertainment in the County,” said Cyr. “If you don’t cover AC/DC in a bar, there’s really no venues for live music. With this, it gives people from the rest of the state an excuse to come to The County. And it gives people here a chance to see something new and different.”
The idea for Arootsakoostik was hatched in 2005, after Cyr performed at the Common Ground Fair in Unity with North Haven progressive-bluegrass trio the Toughcats and now-defunct Waldo County folk group Tree By Leaf.
“We all got to talking afterwards about trying to bring some of those bands up north, and how there was no real infrastructure in any way for that to happen,” said Cyr. “The bands I know from Maine are some of my favorite bands in the world. This is the music that I love, and it’s from Maine. Nobody north of Bangor ever gets to see it. I wanted to change that.”
The first festival, originally called Gardenstock, was held in the summer of 2006 in Thomas Park, and featured a small selection of Maine bands and a small handful of attendees. The following year, it was rechristened Arootsakoostik, and boasted a much larger lineup and bigger audience. Since then, it’s slowly grown in size on all fronts, reaching an all-time high of more than 500 people in 2010, and more than 20 bands.
It’s a laid-back affair, beginning at 11 a.m. and running until sundown, with the main stage set up on the elegant old bandstand in Thomas Park. Concertgoers hang out with blankets and picnics and children, taking in the early summer splendor of The County. There’s a secondary stage further out in the field, and several bands will perform stripped down sets in the woods just outside the main area.
“People have asked every year if they can just set up in the woods and play,” said Cyr. “It’s kind of a neat, magical thing. It’s totally intimate.”
The day opens with dual performances from Cyr and the Strings of Calamity and from Putnam Smith, the multi-instrumentalist folk songwriter, both of whom perform together around the state. It continues with performances from groups like the intimate indie rock trio the Milkman’s Union, the jangly, singalong post-punk of Theodore Treehouse, and the sensitive indie punk of Orono’s own Good Kids Sprouting Horns. Returning festival favorites include the Toughcats, who will close out the night with a sundown set, and the tuneful pop-rock of the Lucid, comprised of several Madawaska natives, including band founder Dominic Lavoie.
The $15 admission benefits Friends of Thomas Park and the Caribou Children’s Museum; in the past, proceeds have assisted local food pantries and other charities. Cyr also runs sound, feeds fully catered meals to more than 50 hungry musicians, and keeps the festival running on time. He doesn’t really make any money off the festival. He does it for fun, and for the love of his community and the music.
“The point is to raise some money for some good causes, to hear some really great music all day,” said Cyr. “After the festival gets done, around 9, we have a massive 40 person jam session with all the musicians. It’s amazing. You won’t see that anywhere else but here.”
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