I have spent the better part of the last 21 summers in the town of
Brooklin, Maine. It’s the quintessential small town—complete with a
General Store where people order their “usual” sandwich and sit at the
counter to gossip about the latest meeting of the Clam Committee—that
most people only experience through television shows and movies. Maine is full
of towns like this one, towns that seem oddly stuck in time, where
everyone knows not only your name, but your business as well, and can remember the business of
your deceased relatives for several generations. People still listen to
classic-rock stations on the radio, and venture into the world of
modern music mostly through country. When I showed up in town last
week, my cousin asked me what kind of music I was into these days (in
past summers, I’d always impressed him by being able to carry on
lengthy conversations about AC/DC and Led Zeppelin). I told him I’d been
listening to a lot of indie rock recently.
“Indie?” he asked me. “What’s that?” He’s in his early 20s, but I couldn’t successfully explain the idea to him. Despite the fact that residents of each area wear a lot of plaid (but those in Maine did it before anyone in New York deemed it cool, and probably still aren’t aware that that ever even happened), there is much more than one letter and a few hundred miles separating Brooklin, Maine and Brooklyn, N.Y.
And this was precisely why I was more than a little curious to see how the inaugural KahBang Festival in Bangor, Maine, which boasted headlining acts Ida Maria, Ra Ra Riot and Matt & Kim, would turn out. Bangor is about an hour away from Brooklin, and is, for all intents and purposes, “the big city.” That’s where we venture for a mall, an airport and a movie theater with more than two screens. Despite these amenities, Bangor isn’t the premier vacation spot in Maine, and I wasn’t sure how many “people from away” (what people from Maine call out-of-towners) would make the trek for the fest, especially in its first year. Couple that with the locals’ apparent lack of understanding about indie culture and I was a bit nervous there would be but a few dozen people in attendance.
By late Saturday afternoon, it was clear that my worries were unfounded. The riverfront field was dotted with a few hundred people lounging in front of the two stages as the opening bands performed.
And then Ida Maria came on the main stage in a gold lamé dress. She had a mask of black makeup painted around her eyes that made it difficult to determine if her eyes were open, where she was looking or if she had irises. If it wasn’t for the expression “I LOVE SEX!” scrawled down her arm—I’m still not sure if this was to be taken literally or as homage to a band called Sex! that had performed earlier in the day—she would have looked like a little girl playing dress-up. A very, very intoxicated little girl. “I’m drunk,” she proclaimed as most audience members wandered away from their towels to gather around the stage. It was impossible to tell if she was slurring or if her Norwegian accent really is just that thick.
Turns out it was probably a combination of the two. She spoke in slow, careful sentences whenever she addressed the crowd—“You are so gentle and nice,” she told us shyly—and bumbled her way across the stage, a Corona bottle swinging from her fingertips whenever she wasn’t wailing on her guitar. I would estimate that Ida Maria is the wildest thing Bangor, or perhaps the whole state of Maine, had seen in quite a while. She admitted she was always drunk and not only did she sing “I Like You So Much Better When You’re Naked,” but she replaced a line in it about cigarettes with one about heroin. The beer bottle she kept gripped in her hand got shaken up as she danced across the stage, and foam began to rise rapidly. I was sure it was going to keep going until the bubbles spilled over the mouth of the bottle onto her fingers and the stage. But they didn’t. Like Maria herself, their wild energy somehow stayed under control, but there was always that fear that the next movement might be the one to send everything into disarray.
The crowd ate it up. They followed her like lemmings back to the merch booth, where Maria (now with a PBR in hand) was doling out hugs and signatures. Call it small-town indie victory number one.
Ra Ra Riot clinched victory number two nearly effortlessly. Local band The Killing Moon was playing on the side stage, thrashing through one song after another (including an especially angry cover of Alanis Morissette’s “You Oughta Know”), but there was nearly as large of a crowd in front of the main stage, simply watching Ra Ra Riot set up. As The Killing Moon finished playing, those grouped by their stage ran toward the main stage. Although the group plays music that begs for dancing, they also give the type of performance that almost makes you feel guilty for witnessing. There’s a nearly-tangible connection among all the members, and whenever the guitarists bowed their heads together or any of the members locked eyes across the stage, there was a feeling of somehow intruding upon an intimate moment.
People from Maine possess some serious pride in their home state. Keeping this in mind, the moment I had looked forward to all day was when Matt & Kim would sing “Daylight,” their most well-known song, and I’d hear, “And in the daylight, we can hitchhike to Maine.”
“We live in New York now, but I was raised in Vermont and Kim is from Rhode Island,” Matt said between songs, “so we’re New England to the bone. To the bone!” The crowd erupted. Hey, if you can’t be from Maine, New England will do.
Only a few songs later, Matt mentioned he had actually lived in Maine once. It had only been for a year, and he’d been young. In fact, all he remembered from the entire year was his dad reading him a Shel Silverstein poem while he’d looked at boats, and he’d laughed so hard that he threw up on his brother. It didn’t matter; we adopted him right then and there. “Things are looking up!” Matt exclaimed at the end of this and every story he told. Small-town victory number three.
As expected, they closed their energetic first set in Maine with “Daylight” before jumping off the stage to hug whoever in the crowd they could get their hands on.
KahBang's organizers have already promised a second festival next year, which is clearly the biggest small-town indie victory of all. Many of the people leaving the field Saturday night would be sidling up to their general-store counters the next morning, but it was nice to think that maybe those daily conversations could wait just a bit, and before discussing town gossip, they would share a few stories about this event they attended and their introduction to some new music. Talk of the Clam Committee would commence, of course—it’s simply the Maine way of life, “the way life should be,” if you believe the sign on the interstate welcoming you to the state—but if even a small fraction of festival-goers are doing that, then Matt’s right. Things really are looking up.