If I could have cloned myself in order to hear more of the excellent music at the 2012 Belfast Free Range Musical, I’d have done so. As it was, the festival, held Saturday, April 28 in eight venues across Belfast, offered up a rich variety of genres from bands and artists from all over the country. It was a blustery but brilliantly sunny day, and as festival-goers scurried from spot to spot, there nevertheless was an invitingly laid-back vibe.
As in years past, the festival starts with some looser, more relaxed sounds. I was able to catch 11-piece ensemble The Living Daylight at the First Church, who play a lovely blend of reggae and folk, with a touch of calypso, mariachi music and gypsy jazz sprinkled in. They’re based out of Brooksville, where the members also create artisan bread and treats at their own Tinder Heath Bakery. It was good way to ease into the day, and the wide variety of age groups present at that early hour – noon, to be exact – happily swayed to the beat. One of the nice things about Free Range is that when they say it’s all ages, they really mean it’s all ages; tiny children and retirees alike, sitting next to Portland hipsters and Belfast locals. Sure, sometimes a gaggle of inquisitive, talkative four-year-olds at a hushed, meditative folk performance is a bit distracting, but I’d like to think those kids are going to grow up to be extremely well-rounded individuals, if they’re being exposed to an event like Free Range at such a young age.
After a bit of lunch at the Belfast Co-op, my friends and I returned to the First Church to hear Portland-via-Waldo County bluegrass duo Coloradas, comprised of Roy Davis,
Bernie Nye and guest bassist Amanda Kowalski. Davis has one of those plaintive voices just meant to sing bluegrass, and the pair’s songwriting is thoughtful and intimate. We booked it to the Colonial Theatre afterwards to see Arborea (at left), the experimental folk duo from Lewiston who’s garnered a great deal of acclaim in the music press. And with good reason; Buck and Shanti Curran make utterly gorgeous music. Shanti’s crystalline soprano floats above Buck’s articulate guitar playing, which is some of the finest I’ve heard in recent years. That’s not an overstatement; he weaves in elements of Arabic and Indian music, while staying rooted in a traditional folk sound, bringing to mind wizards like Richard Thompson or the less bombastic side of Jimmy Page. Together, the two of them are mesmerizing.
We managed to catch a few songs by AWAAS, the Portland trio that rose out of the ashes of noise-rockers Ocean and Conifer. They have a hard-edged sound reminiscent of bands like Big Black or Black Flag, i.e. post-punk, but with a more metal sensibility. We then took the Free Range Fest shuttle up to the beautiful Waterfall Arts on High Street, where we settled in to see Lonesome Shack, a country blues duo all the way from Seattle. Yes, people are going to compare them to the White Stripes, but that’s a gross underestimation; their music is more rooted in the sounds of John Lee Hooker and Junior Kimbrough. Two guys, one dance party. Awesome. We got back into downtown just in time to go back to the First Church to see MV & EE, a Vermont collective centered around Matt Valentine and Erika Elder; think psychedelic folk, with deep, atmospheric sounds swimming in reverb, and adorned with soaring guitar.
We then ran back up the street to see the What Cheer? Brigade, who I had the pleasure of seeing in 2008 during the Black Fly Ball, the unbelievably fun party the Beehive Collective throws during the Blueberry Festival in Machias. They’re a 19 piece punk rock brass band, and if you are able to resist the siren call of their sound (hip hop, Balkan music, Dixieland, Latin, everything in between) then you have no soul. What other band can compel hundreds of people into the street to dance with reckless abandon, in their shirt sleeves, in 45 degree weather? Not very many others, I’d wager. The Legion Hall was full to capacity (and about 85 humid, sweaty degrees) so there was a bit of a wait to get in, but by the end of the show, it didn’t matter.
I caught a bit of Coke Weed, the buzzworthy Bar Harbor band, who played at Myn’s on Market, a tiny new venue just a block from the Legion Hall. They totally killed it – rock with a country edge, with a shiny veneer of swagger and sex. You just feel cooler listening to them. We then went down to Three Tides, to ensure that we could get into the Hillytown.com After Party, which filled to capacity last year. Some Marshall Wharf beers, some warmth by the fireplace, and the company of lots of interesting people. Orono-via-Portland trio Great Western Plain played first; they really hit that sweet spot that is garage rock and sneering punk attitude. A Severe Joy was next, and I think I’ve effused plenty on this blog how much I love Jose Ayerve’s solo project. Sparkling lights, costumes and electronic, new-wavey beats. What’s not to love? He performed with Bangor belly dance troupe Paradigm, who sported shimmering bat wings and hula hoops. The night ended with Vistas, the shockingly talented DJ duo out of Camden, who somehow manage to inspire dancing while staying smart and interesting. It was a truly memorable day and night. Belfast has something incredibly special going on with Free Range.