Gentlemen of the Road—Portland, Maine Stopover
Saturday, August 4, 2012
Eastern Promenade, Portland, Maine
*I wrote the majority of this post a few weeks ago on a boat anchored in the Barred Islands near Deer Isle, Maine. I found it much easier to write without distractions. The moon was big and bright in the sky and Labor Day weekend on the boat that marked the end of my summer vacation was relaxing and beautiful. I made good progress on Bill Clinton’s autobiography that weekend, too, which I essentially haven’t picked up since then. I also haven’t touched my blog in the three weeks since school started back up this year. We lost a position in my department due to budget cuts and I have double the students I had last year. Every day feels a bit like a marathon. I’ve been seeing great shows still, though, and will get to writing about them eventually. Thanks for bearing with me!*
I want to say two things before I go too far. One, I am SO impressed and grateful that Lauren Wayne, general manager of the State Theatre, was able to convince Mumford & Sons to come to Portland, Maine. She rules. This festival was obviously good for Portland and for Maine.
The second thing that I should say is that I really don’t like music festivals. I think it’s important that I reveal that early on in this post. Unlike everyone else (or so it seems), when I found out that Mumford & Sons was coming to the US this summer for just four dates to headline all-day festivals—including one in Portland, Maine—I was disappointed. I have a short list of bands I desperately want to see and M&S is on it, but I do not like music festivals. I want to see bands up close or I feel like I might as well just listen to their CD at home or in my car during my morning commute. Festivals mean multiple stages and hours and hours of waiting until you get the see the band you really came for. They are exhausting if you come early, or disappointing if you come late and can’t see the band from where you end up. I acknowledge that many people love festivals for lots of reasons that I totally support and I support those people—I’m just not one of them.
I almost passed on buying tickets to the M&S show for all of those reasons, but my friend Clare wanted to go and at the last minute I decided that I would be stupid to miss M&S just because I’d prefer not to have to wait out a whole day to get a decent spot to take in their show. I got us two early bird tickets for $59 each and was not at all surprised that they sold out so quickly.
Clare lives in Gardiner, too, so I picked her up at 10:30 Saturday morning in hopes of getting to Portland’s East End around 11:15 to try to get a parking spot. We had absolutely no trouble finding parking, and were at the gates at 11:30 for the noon gate opening. I talked to my concert buddy Monica the night before about how frustrating it was that there was no concrete information about who would play what stage at what time since many of us want to plan when to arrive and where to find a spot. That information was never available, it seems, including the day of the show and after the festival began. Festival staff manned the many entrance gates, checked IDs to give out beer tent bracelets, gave us stick-on moustaches to keep us in theme, but no one seemed to know the schedule for the day.
Clare and I saw how close together the two stages were and decided to grab a spot on the ground perched up high where we could see both stages okay, but neither up close. There were flags with band names on either of the stages that gave the impression that basically acts would be playing back and forth between the two stages, but that was just a guess (and it turned out to not be quite true). I can’t remember a time when I was so far away from a stage, but since I had a guest and didn’t know for sure who was playing where, I didn’t want to gamble grabbing an up front spot at the wrong stage and missing half the acts so as not to lose my spot up close. As someone who values proximity over all else, it was a tough choice for me.
Simone Felice of The Felice Brothers was up first. Some of the guys from M&S took the stage to warmly thank us for coming out and to introduce him. He sang a sweet song for his daughter Pearl who is two that he wrote for her on the day she was born. I liked “Don’t Wake the Scarecrow.” He told us how he grew up in the Catskill Mountains near Woodstock, New York and played a song for the late Levon Helm. He had a female singer accompany him, but her voice did not mesh well with his and she really overpowered his sound. It might have been fine if they’d adjusted the levels of the microphones, but I’m not sure.
Haim took the same stage after Simone Felice (there went my theory about alternating stages) and are three sisters from California. My friends Bartlett and Monica had joined us by then and Bartlett joked that “those girls just passed AP English.” They were obviously young—late teens to early twenties—but one of them had a very strong, mature voice for her age. One of the sisters pushed the envelope a bit—joking about vodka and inviting people to skinny dip with them later—I found her stage banter a bit distracting. One of their songs that was unlike the others reminded me of Gloria Estefan and Miami Sound Machine. Overall, the girls wanted to rock and can, even if I didn’t really connect with their music. They wrapped their set with a strongly percussive song and one of the sisters grabbed a drumstick and banged on the drum with a lot of enthusiasm. Like I’ll say a lot (or maybe I’ll just say it here and be done with it)—none (few?) of these acts had the stage presence to really engage a crowd of 15,000+ people but all might be really great in a smaller venue. It’s hard to tell and I probably won’t go out of my way to see m/any of them again given this first impression.
Reggie Watts, our quirky, inappropriate, and hilarious emcee for the day took the stage and entertained us between sets with jokes about cocaine usage and binge drinking—real family friendly material. Okay, not family friendly, but funny in places.
Nashville’s The Apache Relay was up next (the first on the main stage) and I was really excited to see them since I’d been held up in traffic and missed their set at The Newport Folk Festival the weekend before. Of all of the acts that wasn’t M&S, I’m willing to say they were my favorite—and with Dawes, they rounded out my top three acts of the day. I really liked them immediately—they were gracious and warm and the lead singer had a powerful, pleading voice. The keys and strings rounded out their sound and I would see them again (in a smaller venue) for sure.
There was a really long break while UK’s The Macabees set up on the main stage. I decided to go grab some water at the water station, but the line was insanely long. One of my biggest complaints about the day (and I know I’m not alone) is that we were not allowed re-entry and there were not nearly enough food or drink vendors to keep the lines down. Lines for each booth ran up to over an HOUR AND A HALF long. That is ridiculous. If you are going to have over 15,000 people at a festival and won’t let them leave, it’s a no-brainer to go overboard on the food carts and water stations and portable bathrooms. Lines were painfully, painfully long. People were frustrated. There are expletives in my notes of the day that I’ve edited out for the reading public.
The Macabees didn’t do much for me. I wrote two things down about them: 1. They are British. 2. They are My Morning Jacket-esque. That’s a compliment, I suppose. M&S had introduced the day by saying that the musicians we were seeing that day were some of their very favorite bands. I had already started to wonder by this point if I believed them or not and if perhaps this might have been a collection of bands put together by music label folks to spread the word about acts signed to them. That’s a conspiracy theory that’s not important enough to look into, but I’ll say that if my favorite bands played at a music festival I organized, everyone would be much more impressed with my musical taste. Sorry, M&S—I still love you a lot.
Then the darkest hour of the festival came—St. Vincent’s set. I have had the misfortune of seeing St. Vincent before, opening a few years back for Andrew Bird. I don’t think there’s a middle ground on her—people either love her or hate her. I don’t judge those people who love her, but I truly don’t get her music and find it abrasive and unlistenable. If you love her, I am happy for you and hope you won’t send me angry emails. I wrote that she is Bjork-like with a bit of “new Madonna” sprinkled in. Her music is electronic and quirky. She did “Marrow” that contains a repetitive “H.E.L.P. me” which was a little scary and I wondered how many people sitting there watching agreed with me that we all would like someone to help us by getting her off the stage. I chuckled as I looked around and saw people sitting around us visibly cringing. I pointed it out to a woman sitting near us—I told her “you look how I feel” and she laughed. We were all in this together, commiserating, just waiting for the set to end. Bartlett chimed in—“it only takes one to spoil the festival.” I have no doubt that Oklahoma native, Berklee trained St. Vincent takes herself and her craft very seriously. I think she thinks she’s keeping punk alive. She did a cover for her last song and told us a cute story about the sad end of punk and the funny dish scrubber she’d gotten from a friend called “Sid Dishes.” She certainly has musical talent and I respect that but the style of her music almost couldn’t be less compatible with what I like to listen to. I had a conversation with my concert friend Bob about St. Vincent, and he was shocked at my response to seeing his beloved St. Vincent. He works in a funeral home, so the threats got real. I think I was supposed to pick out my urn and everything. If I ever disappear suddenly…
L.A.’s Dawes was popular at Newport Folk Festival and my concert buddy Bob is a big fan. They didn’t do as much for me live as I’d expected they would (and I didn’t dare tell Bob that), but I was far away which is so not my thing. I really like their 2009 North Hills album, though, and will definitely see them someday from up close in a smaller venue. They opened with “If I Wanted Someone”—a song I really like, and did “Fire Away.” I’d call their sound Americana—compatible with Wilco and My Morning Jacket. They played one of my favorites “When My Time Comes” and dedicated it to “the newbies.” We happily sang along with them on the chorus—belting it out, really—and even did the chorus without their help a couple of times through. That’s when I started to realize how many more people had showed up for the festival. We were starting to be quite a crowd. By then my friends Marian and Alex had joined us and Chris (check out his photos from the day at BostonThroughMyEyes.com) had checked in with us a few times to chat and take a break from taking photos. Dawes did a nice rendition of “Peace In The Valley” and ended with “Time Spent In Los Angeles.” Wylie Gelber from Dawes did a cute write up of the event for The Travel Channel.
Dropkick Murphys were a late addition to the lineup and came to play a quick set before their show later that night at the State Theatre. I’d seen them live one St. Patrick’s Day years ago in Boston with my Bowdoin friend Lisa and her sisters, Sara and Maria. It was crazy. They are loud and rough and people got excited for them and ran to the stage that they started playing on and bounced for the whole set. They did “Sunshine Highway,” played a new song for us from their album that they’d just wrapped the day before, and were backed by the Parkington Sisters on “Irish Rover.” Even if the Murphys are a bit of a departure from my general musical taste, they know how to put on a lively show, which I appreciate. We needed a boost after the very mellow day of music, actually, and they did a great job. Basically the whole crowd got on their feet for their finale “I’m Shipping Up to Boston,” so we were ready to be up and dancing with Mumford & Sons.
I wrote everything up until this point three weeks ago. I was inspired to finish this post because I stayed up late to watch Mumford & Sons last night on Saturday Night Live—I probably would have been done with this post by now if I hadn’t, actually. Their musical performances—“I Will Wait” and “Below My Feet” were awesome. They also starred in a ridiculous skit where they played “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” in the background.
Mumford & Sons can absolutely entertain a big crowd. I wish I could have been up close (duh), but I still had fun from far away, and that is a HUGE compliment. M&S played “Little Lion Man” early in the show and got everyone up on their feet and celebrating. They played a bunch of songs from their upcoming album, Babel, which is due out on Tuesday. You can preview Babel here. I loved “I Will Wait,” which was new to me but is now getting a lot of radio play now. Here’s a live version of “I Will Wait” recorded at Red Rocks so you can get a feel for the experience we had that night. Here are some photos from the night and Rolling Stone’s write up, too. Their harmonies on “White Blank Page” gave me chills. I love the powerful line in that song—“you desired my attention but denied my affections.” “Timshel,” with the refrain, “you are not alone in this,” was haunting and beautiful. The musicianship and power of “Roll Away Your Stone” was awesome.
“Lover of the Light” was new and it was very pretty. It featured a lovely fiddle part and a talented horn section. “Thistle & Weeds” was stunning thanks to Marcus Mumford’s intensity. I liked “Awake My Soul” a lot more live than I do on the album. They wrapped up their set with another new song, “Below My Feet” and closed with the wild, chaotic, and powerful, “Dust Bowl Dance.”
We didn’t want them to go just yet, and M&S obliged with an encore. They were so complimentary of Portland and Maine and were obviously so grateful for the whole experience. I was really pleased with how kind they were to us. A few lucky local residents were REALLY pleased, actually! They played “Winter Winds” and people got excited when they started playing the opening notes of “The Cave,” which sounded GREAT. After another round of thanking us profusely for being a great first stopover on their brief American tour, they invited all of the musicians from the day out on stage to cover “The Weight” by The Band. It was quite a sight to behold, and we all sang along. The night ended with a round of fireworks before we were all off on our merry way. I really, really hope to see Mumford & Sons again from up close someday! When I saw them on SNL last night, my first thought was, “Oh! That’s what they look like!” I loved their set, though, and they deserve finding their way onto your iPod if you’re one of the few left who hasn’t discovered them yet.