All Roads Lead to Belfast
The 2017 All Roads Music Festival
For the third year in a row, festival organizers Meg Shorette and Joshua Gass picked a perfect day to present their All Roads Music Festival. It was sunny and 65 degrees, the perfect spring day, and apple blossoms abounded all over Belfast.
Unlike many festivals, All Roads refuses to be limited to a single musical genre. From the thirty-plus musical groups and half-dozen solo performers, festival goers are treated to a vast array of musical styles and tastes, including Folk, Americana, Country, Rock, Hard Rock, Soul, R&B, Hip-Hop, and synthesized Ambient sounds. Within that mix, there is something for everyone. allroadsmusicfest.org
Belfast has a concise and historically beautiful downtown, and all day long music lovers of all ages and proclivities stroll from one show to another, trying to fit in as much as they can. The huge variety of offerings is an asset, tempered by the impossibility of seeing everything. The good news is, if you are a Rock or Alt-Music fan, there are a number of shows to choose from all day long. The same goes for folk and acoustic music fans. There is an even mix of acts that have returned from last year and new offerings, so there is some hope that I might catch Bar Harbor-based Goldenoak (www.goldenoak.bandcamp.com) next year, as I was listening to the Blake Rosso Band across town during the same time slot.
The choices were sometimes painful to make, like picking a dinner from a menu full of your favorite foods, but in the end, everything I heard was pleasing, potent, or both. The day began with the Maine Singer-Songwriter’s Circle in the Colonial Theater’s beautiful small stage. Standing out in the crowd of talented artists on stage was Anna Pillsbury of Augusta. She described herself as a Giant, and charmed us with her sweet and funny “Kiss Me On a Chair,” about dating a much shorter man. When the catchy chorus came around for the third time, I found myself singing along involuntarily. annapillsbury.com
One could say that Aroostook County native Travis Cyr (link to Travis Cyr online) is the heart of Northern Maine’s music scene, and his honest, introspective songs reveal a deeply thoughtful interior within his rugged frame. “Some of What I Have” is the first track on his new album “Stay Glad,” and the song reminds us that within honest self-reflection lies true courage and redemption. His percussive and capable guitar work is truly unique, peppered with pop, pull-offs, and drumbeats on the belly of his Martin, providing a layered rhythm section behind his poetry.
I walk up to the First Church to hear the gospel according to the Blake Rosso Band. The MDI based Americana group played an all-original set, and several stalwart fans came down from the island to see them. In the opening number, “On the Farm,” I watch as percussionist Beau Lisy adjusts a carpenter’s flat bar on his table of toys, turning it a quarter turn, hitting it again, and turning once more, looking for just the right “ding!” Keep in mind he does this while continuing to keep time with both feet and his other hand. Sig Escholtz stands tall with his double bass, swaying, dancing, and smiling at his bandmates and listeners, as entertaining to watch as to listen to. Jim Coffman plays leads equally adroitly on fiddle and mandolin, while the potent vocal combo of Brittany Parker and Blake Rosso sooth and thrill with note-bending harmonies. The First Church begins to smolder as they sing, “The house don’t burn if you keep the fuel away from the flame,” and this audience seems content to dance while the house burns down. blakerossoband
I head back to the Colonial Theater to watch Legacy Artist Dave Mallett, and find the last seat up in the high corner of the balcony. Dave is a folk superstar, and for fifty years, his songs have been the more wholesome part of our cultural consciousness. His warm, dry storyteller’s voice soothes our world-weary nerves, reminding us, “the world is a work still in progress, oh what a beautiful place.” He sings of an imperfect world, watched over by angels, caring parents, and the forces of nature, and perfection is achieved through our efforts to persevere and improve it. He invites questions from the audience, and someone calls out, “You’ve written hundreds of songs. Do you…channel them?”
“Yes,” he says without hesitation, “but the best thing is when you’re in the zone, and a line walks into the room fully formed and sits down at the table with you.” At the end of his set, we are left with a warm feeling that the world is as it should be; there will be enough to go around, that our faults will be forgiven, and we will be loved.
Up at the Legion Hall, Kenya Hall glows at the helm of her R&B/Soul quintet, thoroughly enjoying her return to form. After her first number, she calls out to us, and sets the ground rules, “We are in this music together, let’s do this together. If you wanna dance, come right on down front with me and shake it.” She sings of love and loss, but with joy, and we get the feeling that whatever challenge love might bring, Kenya Hall will be fine. kenyahall
Coming into the Hall is Travis Cyr, and he tells me about his Aroosticoustic Festival, and his admiration for the other performers. I ask him if he’s playing again today, and he says, “Not here; I have a gig in Waterville tonight.” Dude’s putting in the miles…
I head back to the First Church to see Tall Horse, a hard/alt rock trio. They are so loud that at first I feel confused, disoriented. Nick Poulin plays his strat with his bare hands, and winces, crooning and moaning into the mic, as Devin Ivy pounds the drums like Neil Peart in an extended YYZ solo, and Dominic Grosso shakes my liver with a deep, almost formless bass rumble. They are playing across one another, over one another, without locking in. The trio seems to be playing three different songs at once, occasionally hitting the downbeat together. Poulin’s lyrics, are inaudible, lost in the sonic onslaught, and I wonder whether they usually sound like this, or if the high ceiling of the Church has distorted their sound.
The bass is gut-grinding, and so full of fuzz and reverb as to be inarticulate as a rhythm instrument. The drums seem to play only fill, occasionally hinting at the downbeat, and Poulin eats huge gobs of raw honey from a jar on the floor between songs.
Tall Horse plays on, and through the next few songs, begin to pull together. Maybe it’s the soundman, slowly gaining control of their mix, maybe the band is just gelling, or both. They do not acknowledge the audience or one another. Perhaps it’s the loose indifference to each other that provides this talented, dark trio the space to offer as much as each player can within the framework of the song. In the last ballad, they really work together, and the magic is happening. I hear their feedback shimmer into harmony, and Tall Horse is playing as one. The song ends in dreamy disarray, before a sudden STOP! tallhorse
Checking my watch, I hurry down to the Colonial Theater to catch my favorite act from last year, Hannah Daman and the Martelle Sisters. I’m glad I double-timed it down there, as the house was packed to the roof, and I was the last person allowed inside due to fire code limits. The three women are dressed in black tops and grey jeans, the only hint at band uniform I’ve seen today. Hannah opens a song with her guitar bathed in underwater effects. Megan Martelle’s mandolin also shimmers with FX, and Francesca’s violin is dripping with reverb, but the trio is undiminished as a folk fusion act. Hannah stands tall on stage, playing her Guild D-40 competently, but it is her songs and pure, earnest voice that really carry the group. When Megan sings a high harmony, her sister Francesca goes low, giving a wonderful contralto counterpoint. It’s wonderful harmony, both above and below Hannah’s honest and earthy lyrics. They blend so tightly, the packed house feels privy to a special, possibly sacred sisterhood, and I do not miss the bass and drums a bit. The trio is complete, until Hannah breaks her G string.
“Does anyone out there have a guitar I can use?” Somehow, in this festival full of musicians and aficionados, the answer is no, so she bravely tunes the now-5-string guitar back to true, and presses on. The Martelle Sisters add so much up above the Guild’s warm low end that we hardly notice the missing string, but after one number, Hannah says, “It’s like driving an automatic when you’re used to a standard; your foot goes for the clutch, but it’s not there.”
A virtuosic instrumentalist could never brook playing with a missing string, but the unequivocal success of the trio depends instead upon the ample heart and evocative soul of Hannah’s songs. Delivered with good arrangements, and stunning vocals, the missing string cannot discourage or distract from the riveting performance. hannahdamanandthemartellesisters
At the library, I catch a few songs from Thorn and Shout, an optimistically named folk duo that is neither sharp nor loud. They are costumed (rather than clad) in Ozarky, countrified garb, including floppy felt hats, V-necked linen shirts, brown jeans, and muddy boots. Unparticular about tuning, they switch from guitar to fiddle to banjo, appearing like a pair of time travelers about to go back to the 1930’s and trying their best to fit in. Sofia sings a laconic lullaby to the life they are dressed to live, and her voice has the potential of a young Iris DeMent. She whacks the mic stand with her guitar, and says, “We’re used to singing around a campfire.” He sips from an antique canteen, and for a moment, I wonder if they are instead from the past, arriving somehow in a confusing future where they are an anachronism. thornandshout.bandcamp.com
I head across town to Waterfall Arts, and I notice that organizer Joshua Gass is at the wheel of the courtesy van. “Geez, Josh, you’re all over the place today, greeting artists, selling tickets, even driving the van!”
He looks back, totally deadpan, and says, “I’m a triplet.” He’s got me, and I cock my head, trying to determine if he’s in earnest. I tell him I’m going to see When Particles Collide, and he says, “Meg and I are in touch with musicians from all over the place, and everyone seems to know Sasha and Chris. They all speak very highly of them too.” No doubt. Sasha Alcott and Chris Viner have just made the courageous leap to full-time touring musicians, and their show emphasizes their readiness for the Big Time. Sasha gyrates and grinds, her guitar playing a full-body experience, eliciting howls and roars from her flying V guitar, while Chris lays down a steady rock beat for her. It may be unusual to see a hard rock duo, but they seem to lack nothing in their sonic assault and sex-appeal-saturated stage presence. They will soon embark on a 14 month US tour. See details at whenparticlescollide.com.
Spose is a rap/hip hop artist from Wells, ME, who has, ‘sposedly, sold nearly a million copies of his single, “I’m Awesome.” Usually, I prefer music that has melody and harmonic movement. As a songwriter, I like a good story, even if it has a moral. The medium and the message, working together.
I go into the Legion Hall, and smell the sweet musk of cannabis in the air. There is a 4-piece band on stage, the guitar player wearing a real raccoon hat, and Spose is holding court. In a rough monotone, he shouts, “You can fuck more women, you can spend more cash, you can drink more liquor and smoke more grass…but you can’t feel as good as me.” At the moment, he’s right about that, so I move quickly back to the library.
Dan Capaldi is a one-man show called Sea Level. sealevel.bandcamp.com His stage includes three racks of electric pedals and boxes, all strung together with black spaghetti cables. Two guitars stand waiting, and Dan is kneeling on the floor, playing with his equipment. The soundman brings up the mains, and we hear what sounds like two radio stations at once; a newscaster sounding fuzzy behind Fripp and Eno’s “Music For Airports.”
Capaldi keeps turning knobs, and the tension and volume mount. Finally, he stands, a dashingly handsome pixie of a man, and flicks his left pinkie at a metal box. An electro-drumbeat begins. He takes up his Gretsch hollowbody and begins to sing in a startling soprano, way above even Yes’s Jon Anderson. Every eye in the room pops open, as Capaldi delivers a fantastic, Jeff Buckley-esque performance of a Caribbean Lounge song. He is a Dark Diva, his sky-high falsetto as true as a bird in the dawn.
Though he is adept, Sea Level does not seem to play the guitar, so much as poke and tug at it, as many layers of electronically produced harmonies sing along below his siren song. Then, abruptly, Capaldi is kneeling on the floor again, somehow playing ghostly reproductions of his performance and layering that with sound bites. He focuses his attention on his work, and never once acknowledges the audience, except to say, “I usually don’t have people watching when I do this.”
I want him to stand back up, play the guitar, and break my heart again with that incredible voice, but Capaldi is busy, prone as a crab on the ocean floor, tweaking knobs and producing an amorphous ambient soundtrack. Unless you are sitting in the front rows, Capaldi has disappeared below Sea Level, leaving the stage visually empty.
All Roads 2017 is a brilliant grab-bag of musical offerings, and festival attendees seem like children scurrying underneath a freshly broken piñata, grabbing everything they can with both hands. Somehow, every show began on time, an incredible organizational feat. Like the sweet contents of the piñata, the day’s prizes will soon be gone, but we are left with joyful memories.
For me, the acts that really stand out in the crowd of offerings are the ones singing in their own voices, from the heart. The tried-on countrified twang or urban toughness some Maine musicians reach for might appeal to some, but I am enriched by poetry and authenticity. No matter where your musical taste may take you, we all owe organizers Meg Shorette and Joshua Gass kudos for their efforts to satisfy so many of us, and provide a really worthwhile showcase for the musicians. Check out their other endeavors at wearelaunchpad.org.