The American Folk Festival on the Bangor Waterfront is scheduled for August 22 – 24, 2014, but planning begins long before that. Everything from finalizing vendors and the layout of the festival to making sure there are enough chairs and porta-potties takes place year round. One of the most enjoyable aspects of the planning process is listening to a number of potential artists who might perform for Festival-goers in late Summer. This process takes place at a fairly involved listening session early in the year.
The listening-session for this year took place in January. About 20 people varying in age range from high school to … older than high school, and from several different walks of life, gathered on a Friday night to hear more than four hours worth of music samples. Music from as close as Maine and as far away as half-way around the world was played for the group. Sampled genres familiar to Festival-goers included blues, Quebecois, bluegrass, Cajun, and Irish. Samples from genres that are not as frequent at the American Folk Festival were also heard, such as Cuban, Middle-Eastern, and Brazilian.
One of the more exciting aspects of this listening session was hearing artists who had visited the American Folk Festival in the past. The American Folk Festival has enough history behind it (12 years, to be exact) that artists can come back to Maine who first performed here a decade ago. A few repeat performers have returned over the years – The Holmes Brothers, Le Vent du Nord, Dale Watson & His Lonestars, and Viento de Agua, to name a few. The City of Bangor, the Bangor Waterfront, and the American Folk Festival itself leave a lasting impression with many artists who perform here, creating a desire to return.
Music heard at the listening session is usually broken down by genre. The group gathered at the table will listen to a number of music samples from a variety of groups within the same genre. The group then tries to make a decision about who would be a good fit for the American Folk Festival. A lot of factors come into play such as travel logistics, cost, and variety. For example, while blues, bluegrass, and R&B are completely different genres, there are styles within each genre that can sound similar to each other. The goal every year is quality and variety.
At this listening session, no final decisions are made, only recommendations. After this session, there are negotiations, juggling acts (figuratively, not literally), and closer examination of styles and logistics before a final list of artists are determined. Quite often, artists are secured in waves so the Festival staff can keep a close eye on the variety of acts and make sure there is a good representation of the music that makes up the three-day festival.
Once the initial listening session wrapped up, the twenty people gathered around the table left with their toes still tapping to music that remained in their minds, and optimism that warmer weather – and the American Folk Festival on the Bangor Waterfront – were not all that far away.