Twenty years ago, the Bangor waterfront was not much more than a dumping ground — an unkempt swath of land containing little but the remnants of long-gone industries.
Today’s waterfront is a far cry from that bleak industrial landscape. It’s now the site of a riverside park, a 16,000-seat concert venue, an array of food trucks, an increasingly busy marina and the corporate headquarters for one of Maine’s largest employers.
It’s also home to the American Folk Festival, the 14th edition of which kicks off this Friday. It was the festival, which originally began in 2002 as the National Folk Festival, that first made people in the Bangor area believe that the waterfront was not only worth reviving, but could also become a tourist destination.
But as the waterfront has changed, so has the folk festival — a little. Is it keeping pace with the growth around it?
“We’re coming up on 20 years now that this festival has been around. That’s a generation of people that don’t remember a time before it. New people have moved to Bangor and know it as a very different place from what it was before,” said Felicia Knight, a public relations professional and former Bangor resident, who from 2003 to 2008 was communications director for the National Endowment for the Arts. “If there’s a hint of it starting to blend into the landscape here, well, that’s a testament to its success — but it’s also a challenge for the future.”
‘Is Bangor large enough?’
Back when it first started, the folk festival was one of the only gigs in town. Barry Bergey, who for 30 years was the director of the National Endowment for the Arts’ Folk & Traditional Arts program before retiring in 2013, recalled the mild trepidation with which the National Council for the Traditional Arts eventually chose Bangor for the National Folk Festival’s three-year run in 2002, 2003 and 2004.
“There was a sense of, ‘Is Bangor large enough to maintain an event like this?’” said Bergey, who has for decades has attended countless folk festivals across the country. “It was the first time the National was in a town of this size, far from a major urban area. … But it was a great success story. In a way, a town this size is actually the ideal setting for the festival. There’s a lot of volunteerism. There’s real civic pride.”
For many residents of the Bangor area, those early years were eye-opening experiences.
“It was so celebratory. It was magical. The energy back then was fabulous. It was the only time of the year where you’d see your neighbors, people you’d never expect, get up and dance,” said Annaliese Jakimedes, a Bangor resident who has attended or volunteered at the festival every year since 2002. “It made you think it could blossom into something even bigger and better.”
The seeds planted back then have indeed blossomed. The waterfront is now a major tourist attraction, and the nearby downtown district has grown, alongside the opening of Hollywood Casino and the Cross Insurance Center. Amid major artists playing at the Darling’s Waterfront Pavilion, local music series such as the New Nashville North Concert Series and Bangor Celtic Crossroads, and more than 20 new eateries opening in the past five years, Bangorians are not want for options for things to do, hear, see, eat and buy.
Longtime AFF executive director Heather McCarthy knows that the landscape in Bangor has changed. She’s undaunted, however, in her belief that the festival offers something that nothing else in the area can — and that it’s actually gotten better for them.
“We don’t really feel any pressure to compete, because we’re just a totally different beast,” said McCarthy, who has headed the festival for all of its 14 years. “If anything, we benefit from each other, because the waterfront is really now known as a place to go. A rising tide lifts all boats.”
Settling into a rhythm
It’s been more than a few years since the festival has attracted the staggering numbers once cited between 2002 and 2008 — more than 150,000 people over the course of three days, with highs of 165,000 in 2006 and 2007.
After a dismal 2009, when torrential rain on the Saturday of the festival severely dampened attendance, numbers have gradually decreased. The last time official attendance numbers for the AFF were released was 2012, when around 90,000 people attended.
According to Dan Cashman, chair of the festival’s communications committee, the AFF has since 2013 relied instead on general estimates for each year’s attendance, which he said has remained relatively steady at around 90,000 every year since. Donations pulled in by the bucket brigade have also remained steady, hovering around $100,000 each year.
The AFF no longer has a contract to work with the National Council on the Traditional Arts to book artists for the the festival — since 2017, it has booked its own talent. Now that they can book as they please, McCarthy said she’d love to see a “bigger name” artist as a de facto headliner, but that as always, funding can be hard to come by.
The perennial challenge of fundraising hasn’t gotten any easier over the years, but neither has it become more challenging. McCarthy said the festival has a very reliable base of boosters that include individual donors, Maine businesses and national corporate sponsors, which, when combined with the bucket brigade, pulls in nearly $1 million each year.
Nevertheless, dollars for programming, marketing and other new initiatives are precious. There’s always the option to introduce a mandatory fee or ticketed element for part or all of the festival — but McCarthy says while it is regularly discussed by the festival’s board of directors, it hasn’t been seriously considered.
“We talk about making it a ticketed event every year,” McCarthy said. “But for us, the most important thing is that the Folk Fest is available to everyone, regardless of their means. We hope you can donate, but if you are on a fixed income, we of course want you to come anyway.”
‘Art has to evolve’
Other festivals across the country have evolved over the years. Johnstown, Pennsylvania, which hosted the National Folk Festival from 1990 to 1992, launched their own event, the Johnstown FolkFest, which ran from 1993 through 2008. In 2008, the city renamed the event the Flood City Music Festival, started charging admission, and expanded its lineup to feature bigger name artists, such as Grace Potter and Blues Traveler — while still featuring traditional folk festival-style artists.
“Look at the Newport Folk Festival,” Knight said, referring to the popular Rhode Island summertime music festival, which in 2008 began booking full-on rock bands. “It used to be pretty strictly folk, and now look at it. Anything creative needs to evolve. Art has to evolve. No one should fear evolution. Always doing something the same way is not always the right move.”
Others folk festivals haven’t fared as well. The Great Lakes Folk Festival in East Lansing, Michigan, which developed from that city’s hosting of the National Folk Festival from 1999-2001, was canceled this year, and its future remains uncertain.
Still others have, like the AFF, largely hewed to the format created by the National Folk Festival. The Lowell Folk Festival in Massachusetts, the Richmond Folk Festival in Virginia, and the Montana Folk Festival in Butte, Montana, all feature many of the same artists on their 2018 lineups, such as Colombian ensemble Tribu Baharu, rockabilly artist Linda Gail Lewis, and Annika Chambers, a blues singer who will also perform in Bangor this year.
One thing that’s likely set to change in the next two years will be the location of at least one of the festival stages. The city is currently planning sometime in late 2019 to begin long-delayed construction on a $22 million wastewater storage tank, to be installed in the area behind the Tim Horton’s on Main Street.
Bangor wastewater treatment officials said that construction of the facility will likely not require moving the Dance Pavilion from its current location, but that it definitely will require it to move for 2020. It’s not the first time a stage has moved — in 2008, the Dance Pavilion moved from where the Penobscot County Courthouse is now to its current location behind the Darling’s Waterfront Pavilion, and in 2013, the Railroad Stage moved to accommodate the pavilion again.
“It’s a big jigsaw puzzle,” McCarthy said. “We have a lot of options, and we have to weigh all the concerns as far as crowd flow, making sure two stages don’t drown each other out, and so on.”
Regardless of how the festival looks, what the weather is, who’s playing, how much money is donated or any of the other variables, this weekend, the tents, booths and stages are set. At 6 p.m. Friday, New Orleans jazz band Tuba Skinny will lead a parade down Front Street toward the Railroad Stage. The smell of kettle corn will waft through the air. St. George’s Greek Orthodox Church will cook up gyros and souvlaki. Musicians from all across the world will play all weekend, whether it’s for dancers, quiet listeners, or revelers in beer tents.
Whatever the future holds, this weekend, it’s American Folk Festival weekend in Bangor.
“There are other things that happen all year, sure, but there’s probably not going to be anything else in Bangor quite like the festival,” Knight said. “That in itself is pretty special.”
The American Folk Festival runs from Friday, Aug. 24 through Sunday, Aug. 26 on the Bangor Waterfront. Suggested daily donation for a family is $20. For a full schedule of artists performing, visit americanfolkfestival.com.