The ‘French Connection’ brings St. John Valley musicians together for Portland showcase

Lavoie. Blanchette. Gervais. Gagne. These are last names that are often synonymous with Maine’s French Acadian population, whether they’re in the Lewiston-Auburn area, or they’re up the St. John Valley in far northern Aroostook County.

They’re also last names of some of the Aroostook County natives set to play a show at Empire in Portland this Thursday, Nov. 7. The “French Connection” showcase, the second in an intermittent series in Portland, features all County-bred musicians in a night of Franco-American, Aroostook solidarity.

Dominic Lavoie, a member of ShaShaSha.

This edition offers the music of ShaShaSha — featuring Madawaska and Fort Kent natives Dominic Lavoie, Kyle Gervais and Chuck Gagne, among others — Caribou native John Nels Blanchette, Line of Force, featuring Wallagrass native Frank Hopkins, and Gabrielle Raymond, originally from Soldier Pond. Their music ranges in style from the psychedelic indie rock of ShaShaSha, to the soulful, jammy rock of Line of Force, to the unique songwriting perspectives of Blanchette and Raymond.

All six of them now live in Portland, but all dream of home, the place that taught them to be self-reliant, hard working musicians. Lavoie grew up on a steady diet of the Beatles, hearing music played at parties with extended family and lots of friends, and hours of learning guitar. He credits those formative years with making him the person he is today.

“I was afforded lots of free time as a kid learning an instrument, with little distractions,” said Lavoie, who until 2012 was in a band called Dominic and the Lucid. “Maybe growing up away from ‘easy entertainment’ is great for fostering creative exploration.”

Hopkins believes the attitude of the people of the County makes them uniquely suited to a musician’s life.

“The work ethic is a big thing,” said Hopkins. “Being in the music industry these days does not involve riding around with an overblown budget following every whim. It means 90 hours each week… Anyone in the state can tell you that folks from the Valley have a reputation for working harder than anyone else, and doing it with gratitude and a smile.”

Though there’s a lack of venues up north for budding musicians to play (other than churches and living rooms) there is a network of supportive amateur musicians and school-level teachers. There’s also the natural inspiration that comes with the territory.

Frank Hopkins (second from left) with his band the Line of Force.

“Anyone who has spent time in the Valley can also tell you that yes, the water is clearer, the skies and stars are crisper, and time is much slower,” said Hopkins, who has played with Line of Force since 2005. “Whenever I return home, I’m always struck by how much more at home I feel in my body, how much more comfortable my heartbeat is against the pace of life, and how much less the business, scheduling, caffeine, computer, and cellphone intrude.”

Not that life was just school, stargazing and music. Far from it.

“Of course, if you were a young buck in the Valley in my youth, and your parents didn’t want you sitting around doing nothing, you either worked in the woods, or you worked in the potato fields,” said Hopkins. “At the time, banging around on some musical stuff seemed way easier and much more fun.”

Blanchette didn’t grow up in the Valley — he’s spent most of his youth in Caribou — and he met the musicians he plays with now later in life, during college. But now that they’re all in Portland, their shared experiences informs the music they make today. In the spring of 2012, when a fire devastated downtown Fort Kent, the “French Connection” series was started in order to raise money to help those displaced by it.

“We have a camaraderie. We refer to ourselves as ‘lifers’ because that’s just what we do. We play music and we work hard at it.” said Blanchette, who also plays in the Portland indie rock band Forget, Forget. “We all have different backgrounds, but some of us are fifth cousins. We all speak some French. There’s an identity that comes with being from the north. I think we all share that.”

The French Connection, vol. 2, is set for 9:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 7. Admission is $6 and it’s 21 plus. Many other County musicians will play in future editions of the showcase.

Emily Burnham

About Emily Burnham

Emily Burnham is a Maine native, a University of Maine graduate, a proud Bangorian and an arts and lifestyle writer for the Bangor Daily News, where she's worked since 2004. She reports on everything from local bands to local food, from media and the Internet to theater and dance. In her quest for stories, she's seen countless concerts and plays, been lobster fishing, interviewed celebrities, taken belly dancing classes, hung out with water buffalo and played in a ukulele orchestra, to name just a few. She's interested in everything -- especially if it happens in Maine. She welcomes any and all feedback or suggestions for stories.