Even before the official opening of this year’s American Folk Festival, the crowd began to form at the Heritage Stage late Friday afternoon in anticipation of hearing Johnny Hiland, a Down East boy who is now a country musician in Nashville.
The opening act drew a large crowd to the Bangor Waterfront, including Bob and Sandy Soucy of Wolfeboro, N.H., who are here for the second year in a row. Not only is it a vacation for the couple, but the festival also offers a chance to celebrate their 44th wedding anniversary.
“It was so great last year,” Bob Soucy, 66, said. “It was three days of heaven.”
The Soucys said they arrived at Heritage Stage shortly before 5 p.m. to snag their front-row seats and eat their dinner — chicken tikka from Taste of India, just one of the many food vendors set up at the site.
“We like the different ethnic food and the Maine food, too,” Sandy Soucy, also 66, said.
Her husband enjoys the variety of music, and Bob Soucy said this year offers a special connection to his French Canadian heritage.
The couple admitted that they are concerned about fuel prices and the economy, but said the trip is well worth the cost of the gas and local hotel where they’re staying.
Beyond the Soucys, the crowd waiting to see Hiland and his band perform stretched past the sidewalk and spilled into the street.
“It’s a real honor to be here. It’s a long ride from Nashville, but it’s good to be back home,” Hiland said.
It didn’t take long before the crowd was tapping its toes to the Woodland native’s country talent, many with no idea the man they were watching has been legally blind since birth.
About an hour after Hiland began his set, the traditional folk festival parade really kicked things off and the crowd made its way across the venue to the Railroad Stage.
Charlie and Annie Hodgdon, both 23, of Brewer were among those trailing behind the parade. Before heading out of town to celebrate their one-year anniversary, they said they decided to come across the river and experience the event.
“It’s our first summer living [in Brewer], and we wanted to see what it was all about,” Annie Hodgdon said. “We’re going to eat some good food and enjoy the beautiful night, finally.”
The good weather is expected to continue through the weekend, and there’s still a lot of music, food and fun to enjoy along the Penobscot River. Medical personnel urge festival-goers to stay hydrated in the expected heat.
This is the fourth year the American Folk Festival has been held in Bangor. The National Folk Festival, which travels around the country, was held the three previous years in Bangor.
Although there are new acts at the festival each year, it’s the layout that’s got people asking questions this year. The dance tent was moved to a new location, and there were two beer tents compared with the one of previous festivals. Craft vendors also made the move from a tent in the center of the waterfront area to a spot closer to the river.
The most frequently asked question Friday night, according to information booth volunteer Roger Brasslette, 32, of Brewer was, “Where’s the dance tent?”
The craft vendors were in favor of the booth and tent reorganization with several of them stating that they’re seeing more traffic from people headed to some of the food merchants.
“Saturday will be a good day with this many people,” said Paula Farrar of Done Roving Farm & Carding Mil in Charlotte.
Farrar and her husband, Stephen, have attended the festival before and said Friday night’s was a better-than-average crowd.
“There’s definitely more traffic,” she said.
Even though there were more people, there were no major police issues reported at the festival early Friday evening. The most significant appeared to be a close call when someone setting up for the festival accidentally backed over one of the staff’s golf carts with his truck, railroad police Officer Tim Falvey said. No one was injured, but there was damage to the golf cart, he said.
“It was a close one,” Falvey said.
The festival continues Saturday and Sunday starting at noon.
BDN reporter Judy Harrison contributed to this report.