In 2008, Timothy Lo and Chas Bruns sat in the beer garden at the American Folk Festival on the Bangor Waterfront. They watched the crowds, the dancing and community members throwing money into the buckets. After the successful West Market Festival in June 2009, the Bruns-organized event in which local bands and artists filled downtown Bangor with music and activities for a whole day, the idea for KahBang was born.
Chris Michaud, who signed on as communications director for KahBang two years ago, recalled the questions that were tossed around in the days when KahBang was just a vague concept rather than reality.
“[We] kind of said, ‘Why aren’t we doing this? Why aren’t we doing our own big thing, like this, for Bangor?’” said Michaud, of events like the folk festival and West Market Festival. “We saw [those events] work for all those years, and every year we all just kind of said to ourselves, ‘I could do that.’”
Four summers on, a team of motivated, all-volunteer 20- and 30-somethings have fulfilled that dream, with the third annual KahBang Festival unofficially set to kick off Friday night with film screenings at the Bangor Opera House and officially on Saturday with a free outdoor concert in West Market Square from 2 to 10 p.m.
Over the course of the next week, downtown Bangor will come alive with movies, visual arts, dance parties, social events and bands performing in nearly every available space in town. It’ll culminate with the two-day music festival on the Bangor Waterfront on Aug. 12 and 13, featuring national headliners such as My Morning Jacket, Lupe Fiasco, Atmosphere, Chromeo and Grace Potter & the Nocturnals, along with more than 40 other bands from all over the state and the country.
Last year’s festival attracted more than 10,000 people over the course of the week. This year, KahBang ticket sales are outpacing that number by a significant margin. Lo and company can’t exactly put a finger on why their big experiment in building a creative community in Bangor is working out so well — but they have some good theories.
“We’re all from Bangor. We all remember growing up and there being nothing to do, and everyone just wanted to leave,” said Joshua Gass, creative director for KahBang. “I think, after a while, people got tired of letting Bangor just kind of slide off into obscurity. And I think a lot of things worked out at the right time, very quickly. And I think some creative, passionate people got involved in the city. I think a lot of things just worked.”
For the third-largest city in a state with one of the oldest populations in the country, an event such as KahBang sends a message to young people both in and out of state that central Maine has things to offer them. It’s an event that runs counter to the dreaded brain drain that forces young people out of state. It pulses with youthful vitality, growing its fan base through savvy use of social media and cultivating a brand attitude that’s laid-back, irreverent and switched on to pop culture. Ask a teenager, college student or 20-something what KahBang is and they’ll tell you how awesome it is that cool bands are playing in town, among many other benefits.
“I think it’s pretty amazing that these big bands come up this far north to play for us. And that local bands get a chance to play and get that spotlight,” said Kayla Webb, a 20-year-old junior at the University of Maine and a Hampden native who this year joined KahBang’s street team. “I think because of that there’s just more stuff for young adults to do in Bangor. It kind of inspires people. I think you see a lot more of a younger population getting into things in the community, like music and movies and arts and stuff. It makes Bangor cooler. KahBang definitely has something to do with that.”
Visit downtown Bangor on a Saturday night and you’ll hear any number of area bands, most of which are playing original music — not just covers. While Bangor’s music scene doesn’t have the sheer numbers that Portland’s does, it’s there and it’s growing all the time.
“I feel like KahBang has opened doors for local musicians, and has given them a place to share their stuff with people,” said Emily Pappas, a local music journalist and the drummer for bands Queen City and Temperature of the Sun. “You see a lot more original music in downtown Bangor now. That wasn’t there three years ago. I think just having music around and people having the opportunity to see bands, whether they’re national or local or whatever, makes people want to play out. It creates an atmosphere.”
Though music is clearly the main focus of KahBang, film and visual arts also play a part over the course of the festival’s nine days. New this year is the involvement of KahBang Arts, the new nonprofit arm of KahBang, which seeks to support local artists and musicians through event planning and sponsorship. KahBang Arts, led by Bangor resident Megan Shorette, has taken over the empty building located at One Merchants Plaza, and for the week of KahBang has filled it with works from more than 20 artists from all over the state. The Kaleidoscope Gallery, as it has been dubbed, will be open to the public all week.
This year’s film festival is slightly retooled from last year, retaining its focus on independent feature films and documentaries but adding three entertaining new categories: the “So Bad It’s Good” category featuring screenings of such cheesy cult classics as “Starship Troopers” and “Roadhouse,” the “LMFAO” category featuring indie comedies and the “Murray vs. Murray” category with films starring Bill Murray.
“I think [the film festival] reflects what KahBang is all about,” said Josh Whinery, director of the film festival. “We have some fantastic independent and international features, right up against ‘Starship Troopers’ and ‘Rushmore.’ It’s challenging and edgy, but it’s also really funny and entertaining. We don’t take ourselves so seriously that we can’t enjoy a Patrick Swayze movie.”
If there’s one thing the KahBang organizers do take seriously, though, it’s ensuring that the festival is here to stay. This year’s operating budget has exceeded $400,000, up more than 300 percent from last year’s budget of $100,000. After seeing KahBang’s true potential, when last year’s festival attracted thousands of people with an average age of around 23, sponsors were quick to sign on.
An increased budget means an increase in everything. Six major headlining bands as opposed to three. A new stage and more events. Increased marketing in and out of state. And a chance for those thousands of out-of-town and out-of-state festival attendees to stay for the whole weekend of the music festival without breaking the bank. For the nights of Aug 11, 12 and 13, the town of Hermon will allow camping in a large field near the Sports Arena on Outer Hammond Street after Bangor balked at allowing waterfront camping. The campsite will offer its own minifestival of sorts, with late-night sets from bands, rappers and DJs, the popular Silent Disco and minigolf and bowling at the Sports Arena. Shuttles will ferry campers to and from the Bangor Waterfront to the campsite.
“The addition of camping means that KahBang can now be a true destination for people. It takes it to the next level,” said Elisabeth Young, music director for KahBang, a southern Maine native who formerly worked for band management groups in New York City.
Young sees KahBang, Waterfront Concerts and the new Bangor Arena as part of what will help the city grow and flourish.
“All those things help to facilitate more businesses, more growth, more visibility. I think Bangor will grow right alongside KahBang,” said Young. “We want Bangor to be a place where it’s not just during KahBang week that that impact is felt. We want it to have a year-round impact.”
Despite more money and more event planning, the KahBang staff remains all-volunteer. All of the members put in countless hours over the course of year and not one of them is monetarily compensated for their time.
“I think some people think we’re crazy. We all have jobs and we do this on top of it. But I don’t know, it’s addictive. I have to do it,” said Chris Michaud. “Every year we take a look at the budget, and instead of saying ‘OK, let’s try to work out a salary’ or something, we just say ‘Nah, let’s just spend that money on more cool stuff.’ We just reinvest it in the festival. Maybe someday we’ll get to a point where we could [get paid to] do that. But right now, I don’t care. I want to do it.”
The KahBang staff operates more like a large group of siblings rather than a business or corporation. There are squabbles. There are all-night brainstorming sessions. There are meetings in coffee shops, over beers, on front porches and in the downtown Bangor office KahBang has operated for the past year. Cellphones go off constantly. There are as many jokes and silly asides as there are serious discussions. KahBang isn’t just an extracurricular activity; it’s a way of life.
“All my life, I’ve known that I wanted to do something for Bangor. We all have. I think we all share the idea that this is a lot more important than just getting paid to put on a show,” said Joshua Gass. “We all want to give back to our community. We all want to see it thrive. We all want to be able to look back in five, 10 years, and see where it all started. That’s worth a lot more than any money.”