Cultural phenomena are a fascinating thing. They’re not real, per se - they’re based on perception, participation and assigned meaning, and their story arc is often so mired in vision and hope which then experiences a critical tipping point into memory and nostalgia, so subject to rapid change, that you have to wonder - at what time in history was this thing exactly what it was supposed to be? The time when the reality matched with the vision and the thing hadn’t gotten too big for its britches yet? In other words, when does something jump the shark? How long do we have with something beloved before it turns sour?
We all know what jump the shark means. It means that something that used to be cool and awesome (like Arthur Fonzarelli before he put on water skis) becomes weighted down by its own desperation to cling to cultural relevance (like Arthur Fonzarelli after putting on water skis while still wearing his leather jacket wtf) and, in trying to respond to it, becomes uncool. This almost always happens when enough people who are “in the know” have seen how great and fun and awesome something is that their sheer participation numbers trigger some sort of panic light in a Mountainview office somewhere and a tech douche who drives a Tesla and listens to Kanye West in earnest and uses words like “combinator” and “bandwidth” is like LET’S TURN THIS INTO A CASH COW, dumps money into the thing and then all of a sudden Mark Zuckerberg is doing some sort of a panel with Miley Cyrus and millionaires are bringing espresso machines and concierges to the desert and you have to wait six hours on line in the convention center just to get Joshua Jackson to sign your Pacey t shirt. This is South by Southwest. This is Twitter. This is Dave Matthews Band. This is This is Burning Man. This is Ugg boots. This is SDCC. This is so many cultural phenoms that started small, blew up, and became gross.
(side note: has the phrase "jump the shark" jumped the shark yet? asking for a friend)
But let’s flip that script. What about when something is so new, so immature that it is ALL heart and no money? My cynic’s heart sees the birth of a star and can’t help but envision its eventual high-falutin’ jump over the proverbial shark, but OF COURSE, because I’m a privileged Asshole American, it’s also annoyed by the constraints of smallness and no budget. There has to be a happy medium.
The All Roads Festival in Belfast, ME last weekend was pretty damn great for Portland bands. The day’s schedule featured Portland-based bands almost exclusively, and put up strong - if homogeneous - headliners: Rustic Overtones, Spencer Albee and Armies are all RO family acts, and then also Spose (tangent: I saw Spose and I liked his set. That’s for whomever that was a few weeks back who was giving me shit about not having gone to see Spose). All Roads also booked some of the younger, fresher bands in Portland like Push/Shove and Leveret, and pretty much everyone in between who is actively working in Southern Maine that isn’t too heavy (there was no heavy metal or punk, the heaviest we got was Five of the Eyes, who are certainly more Mars Volta than Black Sabbath), isn’t too glitchy/synthy (When Particles Collide was probably the most electronic-forward of the bunch), isn’t too “urban” (I think Spose was our only artist performing any kind of rap or hip-hop inspired stuff) and isn’t too threatening, esoteric or outsidery. White people… WHITE PEOPLE FOR DAYSSSS!
I kid, I kid - I don’t take too much issue with the homogeneity of the thing at this point in its evolution, but I’ll never walk away from an opportunity to remind our arts community to be more inclusive. It's just hard to find any ill intentions in All Roads, you can tell this thing is a labor of love and that the people behind it care and are working their asses off.
I loved it. Highlights for me were Jeff Beam, Hannah Daman & The Martelle Sisters with Joel Thetford, Spose, SeepeopleS, Vaughn and Goldenoak. And the town itself. Belfast is adorable and ever-so-sleepy. It felt like a science fiction film in which there’s some quiet, idyllic town but under the surface there are, I don’t know, aliens who eat brains living inside all the human bodies that populate the town. It's a very They Live situation. Watch out for that shopkeeper! But seriously who wouldn’t want to hang all day in a sleepy little hamlet on the water like Belfast. In my memories, it’s all hazy and pink and warm and everything has soft lines and then it all ended around a campfire at a cottage on the river, singing Ben Kweller songs with pals.
Launchpad is responsible for this thing, and I think what they’re doing is fucking great - everyone got paid on time, the rooms were full of spectators, bands got to sell their merch and keep 100% of their sales, they had great advertising and marketing, I mean it is super artist-first, and gave non-Portlandiers a chance to sample some of the great music coming out of the city. Love that. I had some minor complaints about it, of course, because that’s what I do - the venues were too far apart and the sets were too short (only 30 minutes!! It felt like the Vine feed of festivals) for me to get to everything I wanted to see, and one of the venues was off-schedule enough at one point to make it impossible for me to see what I wanted to see there. I saw Spencer Albee rolling around on a bike at one point, and I was like, that’s how you have to do it, I think. So, next time I’ll bring my bike and make it easier on myself. There also wasn’t anywhere outside of the venues to meet up or hang out, like a beer garden or something, so it felt very decentralized, and I could have used some signage as to how to get from venue to venue. Plus, if you didn’t get the VIP ticket or have an artist pass, the party at the breweries was off limits to you, so while the band that I traveled with (SeepeopleS) was at the party, I was back at our cottage, drinking wine and making a fire with the dogs because I missed the boat on that. Though that was pretty much fine, as I prefer the company of dogs to the company of humans in most situations anyway due to my crushing social anxiety and debilitating self-loathing and also dogs are the greatest.
So back to that happy medium - there don’t appear to be any actual music venues in town, so spacing venues more closely together probably won’t work. But how about a longer set for each band or less overlap of artists? That’s hard to achieve with so many acts, I get it. Or what about a centralized outdoor main stage with an attached beer garden, and one less indoor venue to deal with? In a couple of years, as this thing grows, it’s going to be a perfect little festival. A few kinks to work out and this is like, a thing that people will talk about as the stuff of legend. “Remember when All Roads was the shit... ?”
Here’s what I will say about this festival, though, and hear this loudly Maine, because this state is becoming a big gentrified deal in a lot of unsavory ways: All Roads is in 2016 what South by Southwest was in 1987, and it WILL get bigger, and it WILL get more diverse, and it WILL get an infusion of big money at some point, and, ultimately, it WILL become overrun with people you will hate because they’ve taken over a thing that was, once upon a time, all yours. Cherish these times, you guys, because even though things like the venues being so far apart and being shut out of a silly little brewery party are minor annoyances, when Jeff Bezos is standing at a dais with Robert Moore and BJ Otten giving a tech talk about the future of Maine's app-controlled biodomes and you had to pay $150 just to walk through the door, you’re going to be super annoyed and sound a lot like Flea talking about the 90’s. Enjoy that.
Also, go to All Roads next year.