Out & About: Country, classical and jazz music festivals
Summer music festivals are as much a part of the Maine scene as clambakes and schooners, and three of them lead this week's A&E calendar.
Let's start the weekend with country music. Stonehedge, an indoor/outdoor events venue in West Gray, hosts its annual Country Fest Friday through Sunday. Maine artists are featured, including Dirigo Highway, a foursome that's poised to make an impact on the national scene.
The 37th annual Sebago-Long Lake Music Festival starts July 14 at historic Deertrees Theatre in Harrison. Concert-goers include many patrons of the Portland Symphony Orchestra. Laurie Kennedy, longtime PSO first violist, is the festival's artistic director, and several PSO instrumentalists are among the 25 musicians who will perform over the course of the next five weeks.
Meantime back in the Port City, the 2009 Summer Jazz Festival continues at One Longfellow Square. Mostly local artists are featured. Next Tuesday's act is the Portland Jazz Orchestra, an 18-piece ensemble.
Russ and Sue Jeffords believe in the old-fashioned rural Maine lifestyle and traditional values. To advance that purpose, they're gradually converting their 19th-century house and barn in West Gray into a homey B&B and function facility called Stonehedge. For starters, they've built a unique post-and-beam concert stage as an annex to the barn, and for the past half-dozen years they've been staging a variety of old-fashioned musical events on the former farm property. These include a country festival, bluegrass jam and a gospel gathering.
This weekend marks the first of these events for the summer season. The Stonehedge 2009 Country Fest is a three-day alfresco affair that will draw a dozen-plus bands and hundreds of listeners. The schedule starts Friday and runs all day Saturday and Sunday.
The Jeffords' musical lineup is loaded with Maine and New England acts. Friday evening's headliner is the Help Wanted Band, a Massachusetts-based foursome who make frequent forays into southern Maine. Top billing on Saturday goes to Emerald Sky, a quintet from Augusta that covers top Nashville artists such as Keith Urban, Lonestar, Brooks & Dunn and Toby Keith. Expect a few Emerald Sky originals interpolated into the Stonehedge show.
Dirigo Highway, which hails from the Waterville area, wraps up the festival on Sunday evening. This foursome is definitely Maine, but they're also definitely poised to break onto the national mainstream: Dirigo Highway recently copped the North American Country Music Association's award for Most Promising Traditional Country Band.
They're currently working on their second CD, titled "You're the One." As I write this, I'm playing an MP3 of title song, penned by guitarist Cliff Gelina; it boasts a pleasing melody, driving rhythm and lots of pop hooks. The accompanying video was shot a couple of years ago at Stonehedge. I'm definitely hoping to catch Dirigo Highway live on Sunday.
Stonehedge's other scheduled acts include Ridge Ryders, Country Felix Band, Steel Rail Express, Branded: No Rules, Lone Star Band, Coyote Drifters, Bad Penny and Shelby Lynn. The latter won last year's Stonehedge Battle of the Bands competition.
Stonehedge is on Route 4/202 in West Gray (near the Windham line). Bring lawn chairs, sunscreen, bug spray and clothing suitable for chilly and damp Maine nights. The Jeffords will set up a tent in the event of rain. Call 428-3659 or visit stonehedge-me.com.
Sebago-Long Lake Music Festival
Rusticating and concertizing in one of Maine's most sylvan settings is the ongoing theme of the Sebago-Long Lake Music Festival, which performs five consecutive Tuesdays each summer as the programming anchor of historic Deertrees Theatre and Cultural Center in Harrison. The festival, which opens July 14, has been one of western Maine's favorite seasonal happenings for nearly four decades and consistently draws concert-goers from the Portland area.
One reason is simple: A number of the Portland Symphony Orchestra's longtime members play with the festival, headed by first violist Laurie Kennedy, who serves as the festival's artistic director.
Twenty-five professional musicians are slated for 2009. Each summer Kennedy's programming focuses on tried-and-true classical chamber works with an occasional modern composition added for variety. With more than two dozen musicians to draw from, she has exceptional leeway to program a very broad spectrum of music with interesting instrumentations. Each of her five programs revolves around a central theme.
The Deertrees building itself is one of the festival's prime attractions, and many first-time visitors vividly remember the charming woodsy surroundings. Deertrees simply oozes bucolic ambiance. The setting certainly exemplifies laid-back summers: The 350-seat theater, built in 1936 by a vacationing New York opera impresario, is a classic example of the rustic Adirondack style.
Between the 1930s and 1950s, Deertrees primarily hosted summer stock theater with visiting Broadway stars. Following those golden years, the property suffered decades of physical decline and revolving-door ownership-management. Shortly before it was scheduled for demolition, a local arts enthusiast led a spirited campaign to restore Deertrees – an effort that continues to the present.
Deertrees Theatre and Cultural Center is located on Deertrees Road, about a mile northeast of Harrison Village. Concerts begin at 7:30 p.m.; pre-concert picnicking on the grounds is encouraged. Call 583-6747 or visit sebagomusicfestival.org on the Internet.
Summer Jazz Festival
Of all musical genres, jazz seems to get the least attention in Maine. One presenter that seems happy to swim against the tide is One Longfellow Square in downtown Portland. The cozy little concert hall hosts a regular program of jazz most Tuesdays throughout the year.
During July and August they call it the Summer Jazz Festival. Most of the acts are locals – and most of them are regulars at One Longfellow – with a heavy representation of professors and players connected to the University of Southern Maine School of Music.
Size-wise, the biggest of this summer's offerings is the Portland Jazz Orchestra, an 18-piece ensemble that performs in the Big Band tradition, led by USM prof Chris Oberholtzer. The PJO is scheduled July 14 and Aug. 11.
On July 21 it's the Steve Grover Quintet playing a program of Beatles music plus some originals. This Portland fivesome comprises Trent Austin on trumpet, Dave Wells on tenor sax, Tony Gaboury on guitar, Dominic Sbrega on bass and Steve Grover on drums.
The schedule for the remainder of the summer: Then and Now is slated July 28, the Lenny Breau Project takes the stage Aug. 18, and Grupo Mofongo performs the festival finale Aug. 25.
All the above concerts start at 8 p.m. One Longfellow Square is located at the corner of Congress and State streets. Call 761-1757 or visit onelongfellowsquare.com on the Internet.