Bangor Rock City

Why the Queen City never should have become the live music capital of northern New England. And why it did anyway.

By Brian Kevin Photographed by Alan Nyiri
[O]n a maple-shaded residential street in Old Town, in a cluttered loft above a two-car garage, six 30-something pals in hoodies and jeans are running a business that last year pumped more than $16 million into the economy of greater Bangor. And they are running it feverishly.

“Tell her it’s a very Maine-centric event!” exclaims Waterfront Concerts’ promoter Alex Gray, glancing sidelong at a ringing iPhone while advising his marketing director, Elissa Young, how to woo Maine-bred songwriter Lady Lamb the Beekeeper for a summer festival. “Tell her it’s on the pier, and tell her it’s going to have a great stage.”

He says this over the heads of box office manager Randy Dufour and graphic designer Pat Shaw, who are simultaneously hashing out a plan to release some discounted student tickets for the following weekend’s The Band Perry concert at Bangor’s Cross Insurance Center. They are raising their voices to be heard over production manager Robbie Snow and food and beverage director Chris Rudolph, who are streaming a video of that morning’s Academy of Country Music Awards nominations, which they’d learned that morning included a Venue of the Year nod for Darling’s Waterfront Pavilion, the company’s four-year-old outdoor concert venue on the Bangor riverfront. Everyone in the room clutches a cell phone, at least two of which are chiming with text messages at any given moment. A Chihuahua/Jack Russell mix named Lucy trots around in a red-and-white sweater, yipping contentedly. The whole staff seems to speak all at once, switching among three or four ongoing and unrelated conversations like a juggling troupe tossing clubs around.

“The thing about seating for Arcade Fire is . . . ”
“. . . that we’ll need to move the UMaine meeting to 2:30 . . .”
“. . . because for Celtic Woman, you want to target that blue-haired crowd . . .”
“. . . but if you say the word ‘festival,’ then people’s heads blow up.”

Everybody’s leaning forward on mismatched folding chairs and floor samples for the pavilion that are scattered around as carelessly as the boxes they came in. Everyone except for Gray, that is, who stands with one foot planted on his desk and a hand on his knee, like Washington crossing the Delaware. In the midst of the chaos — and all while scanning his email on two enormous monitors — he offers a short apology.

“If you catch us after the concert season,” he says, “we’re picking off one task at a time, like snipers. But this time of year, man, it’s machine-gun warfare.”

Gray and his young staff are in the midst of solidifying their 2014 summer concert schedule, the fifth year of an ambitious series that has brought top-tier talent like Bob Dylan, Toby Keith, Phish, Ke$ha, and Sting to a 16,000-person seasonal venue in Bangor’s Waterfront Park. Along the way, Waterfront Concerts has helped to amp up the city’s destination cred, boost the local economy, and maybe — just maybe — shift the whole state’s cultural momentum away from Portland and the south.

Nobody told Alex Gray, but there are at least three good reasons why Waterfront Concerts should never have worked.

1. “I was perceived to be some out-of-my-skull nightclub owner.” —Alex Gray
[A]s little as eight years ago, Gray made for an unlikely impresario. As the great-grandson of George Gray, founder of Old Town Canoes, he grew up in an influential and entrepreneurial family, surrounded by uncles, aunts, and grandparents who all lived along that same maple-shaded street in Old Town. But the Grays sold the business just before he was born, and in 1999, after studying engineering at the University of Maine, a 23-year-old Alex went a different career route, opening a nightclub called Ushuaia next to the university campus in Orono.

The club was a hit, particularly with the student-athlete crowd, and as the university’s enrollment swelled during the early 2000s, Ushuaia became Orono’s answer to Studio 54. But the town’s non-student populace was less enamored with the place. Some residents objected to the noise from bass-heavy dance music and exuberant college kids. The town council objected to Ushuaia’s bikini pageants and the drunken fights that sometimes broke out in the parking lot. Among many Oronoites, Gray was already persona non grata in the spring of 2005, when a visiting Boston man stabbed two patrons outside the club, then suffered a fatal asthma attack while handcuffed in police custody. Ushuaia closed the following year, when the town declined to renew its liquor license.

“That club was the worst thing that ever happened to me and the best thing that ever happened to me,” says Gray, now 38. “Nobody buys a bar so that people can beat each other up on the front lawn, but it was the best education I could have had.”

The club was a hit, Orono’s answer to Studio 54, but the town’s non-student populace was less enamored with the place.

Gray spent a year licking his wounds, turning his back on greater Bangor, and hanging with a girlfriend in Miami. He considered bailing on the entertainment industry altogether and contemplated a Dunkin’ Donuts in the old club space, just to meet his hefty obligations to the bank. But running Ushuaia had given Gray his first taste of booking and promoting live acts — everything from local DJs to nationally touring bands like the Dropkick Murphys — and he’d gotten hooked on the high-octane thrill of managing so many moving parts. In 2008, he took a job doing production logistics for an outfit called Northeast Concerts, working together with Live Nation (née Clear Channel, the country’s largest events promoter) to stage festival events like the Oxxfest metal bash in Oxford. When Live Nation’s vice president of booking, Bob Duteau, told Alex that he hoped to bring bigger acts to Maine, the two hatched a plan to erect a temporary waterfront pavilion in Bangor.

But when Gray approached city officials with the idea in April 2010, the black eye of his failed club hadn’t completely healed. “Ushuaia had been a constant battle,” says Cross Center manager Mike Dyer, then manager of Bangor’s Bass Park Complex. According to Dyer, some in city government were wary of working with the party-boy punk whose antics had caused so much trouble over in Orono. It didn’t help that Gray, even today, has a bit of a baby face, spiky dark hair, and a youthful intensity that all add up to feel, well, a bit fratty. “They thought I was this crazy Ushuaia kid for Boston liberals,” Gray jokes. “I said, ‘I’ll come in. I’ll do everything. I’ll pay all the bills. All I want you to do is rent me a stretch of grass.’ Then, after a year or two, when people started to see the rubber hit the road, the city was, like, ‘How can we help you?’”  

2. “There was really no how-to model for this anywhere.” —Tracy Willette, Director of Bangor Parks and Recreation
[N]ever mind Gray’s bad-boy rep — and never mind his offer to front his own cash for the pavilion — plenty of towns without Bangor’s adventuresome streak would still have rejected the Waterfront Concerts proposal out of hand. Big shows require big space that not every city cares to tie up all summer, and concerns about noise, litter, and crowd control have sunk humbler proposals than Gray’s. What’s more, Bangor was only just gauging the impact of the then-new $132 million Hollywood Casino, and city officials were knee-deep in talks that would lead to the construction of the Cross Center. As Bangor’s economic development director Tanya Emery explains, having already committed to a few ambitious projects often makes towns skittish about taking on new ones.

“Some communities make the mistake of getting tunnel vision, where they only see one industry or one opportunity,” she says. But Bangor, by contrast, has been slowly revitalizing its waterfront since the 1980s, taking an adaptive approach that purposely avoids rigid development policies. “There’s a willingness on the part of the city staff and the council to say, ‘Okay, we thought it might be this, but this looks like a better opportunity.’ So when someone like an Alex Gray says, ‘I have an idea,’ it’s not an immediate ‘Oh gosh, that’s not in the plan.’ That’s not how we operate in Bangor.”

“Essentially, the attitude was ‘Let’s try it,’” agrees Willette. Homegrown events like the KAHBANG Music, Art, and Film Festival and the American Folk Festival had been successful in the past, and Live Nation’s Duteau accompanied Gray to the meetings, confirming that his company would partner with Waterfront to negotiate and buy talent while Gray handled the venue, marketing, and production. So the city granted Waterfront Concerts a one-year lease for around 50 acres of Waterfront Park, and over the next few months, Gray spent “seven figures” prepping the site with a scaffolding stage, fencing, speakers, portable toilets, and more. By mid-summer, Bangor was welcoming Celtic Woman and Lynyrd Skynyrd for its first couple of Waterfront Concerts.

“There’s a willingness on the part of the city staff and the council to say, ‘Okay, we thought it might be this, but this looks like a better opportunity.’ So when someone like an Alex Gray says, ‘I have an idea,’ it’s not an immediate ‘Oh gosh, that’s not in the plan.’ That’s not how we operate in Bangor.” — Tanya Emery

When the city welcomed Gray back in 2011, the acts only got bigger: Toby Keith, BB King, Reba McEntire. The next year saw Jason Aldean, Journey, and Def Leppard. Last year Bangor welcomed Darius Rucker, Lil Wayne, and Kenny Chesney, among others. In 2012, the city approved a five-year lease (there are already talks of extending it to 10), and in 2013, Waterfront unveiled a semi-permanent, multi-million-dollar stage that’s almost twice as big as the temporary one, with rigging to accommodate a quarter-million pounds of lighting, video screens, and special effects miscellany (the city contributed $700,000 to its construction).

Of course, it hasn’t all been smooth sailing. The state Department of Environmental Protection has criticized Bangor for not seeking necessary approvals for some of the concert site’s new structures (city officials and DEP are still working out a solution). Last summer, Gray and the city had to install new groundwork when epic rainfall overwhelmed the site’s drainage capacity, unleashing a foul odor of rotting sod that visiting performer Garrison Keillor wryly described as the “grassy smell of summer.” A small number of noise complaints have dogged the concert series from the get-go. Last year, the Bangor police recorded a total of 134 disturbance calls on concert nights — reports that tend to swell a bit during metal and hip-hop shows, though Gray says the music isn’t significantly louder. In fact, he notes, his loudest concert to date was Reba McEntire in 2011 (“taking the paint off of houses”), a show that prompted the fewest complaints of the summer. This year, the city has contracted with a sound consultant to take readings during several concerts and recommend mitigation strategies ranging from fencing to realigning speaker arrays to strategic vegetation.

“The bottom line is it’s an outdoor concert venue,” says Willette, “and the issues we’re facing here aren’t uncommon. We’re learning event by event. There are citizens whose concerns we need to address with respect to noise, but generally it has been well received.” Ticket sales bear this out. Gray doesn’t divulge attendance numbers for individual shows, but last year, more than 50,000 people walked through the pavilion’s gates. The population of Bangor, by comparison, is around 33,000. So where are all these concertgoers coming from?

3. “I know people from Brunswick who have never been to Bangor. Like never.” 
—Waterfront Concerts Production Manager Robbie Snow
[I]n the concert biz, Bangor is what promoters call a tertiary market — not a large population center, not on the way to anywhere. “We are the cul-de-sac of America,” declares Snow, not without some stubborn hometown pride.

Committing to a large-scale music venue two hours north of the state’s primary population center required a leap of faith. But it was a calculated risk, says Duteau, in part because of Bangor’s scenic park site and its venturesome city government, but also because of Gray, who Duteau calls “smart, aggressive, persistent, and a little dorky . . . ahead of his time on the computer and social media.” If someone could find a way to entice crowds to Bangor, Live Nation was betting on Gray.

It’s a gamble that seems to have paid off. In 2010, just 12 percent of Waterfront Concerts attendees came from more than two hours away from Bangor. By 2012, that number was up to 40 percent, with more than 17 percent driving upwards of four hours (last year’s numbers are still being crunched). Many were Canadian, and at least some were drawn by Twitter ticket giveaways, Internet radio ads, and promos on the Waterfront Concerts smartphone app that transcend the limitations of terrestrial TV and radio.

“We are the cul-de-sac of America.” — Robbie Snow

Concertgoers, however, are just part of the equation, since Maine’s cul-de-sac nature also makes attracting bands a challenge. To compensate for the state’s quirky geography, the Waterfront team woos artists by playing up their venue’s versatility, the region’s laid-back vibe, and the personal attention their small staff can provide. A big part of the job, Gray says, is just making sure the artists have a good time.

Of course, there’s such a thing as too good a time — in 2012, Bangor police arrested Ted Nugent’s drummer after a drunken joy ride on a stolen golf cart. But many artists seem to have taken a shine to Bangor. Kenny Chesney gushed to music reporters last summer that his show there had been the “most freewheeling” of his tour, that he’d have played all night long if not for a city curfew. Another vote of confidence came from the jam band Phish, which picked Bangor to launch its 2013 summer tour, crashing in Bar Harbor and rehearsing for a few days at the Cross Center. Landing the hippie-happy road warriors (and their legion of devoted fans) had long been a dream of Gray’s, who shed a few tears backstage during the concert’s opening notes.

A few shows, meanwhile, have been tearjerkers for less sentimental reasons. Even the best promoters sometimes pick a “dog,” admits Gray — a money-losing show where the tickets just won’t sell. Gray won’t say on the record which band has been his biggest dog, but as a reminder to learn from the experience, he brought a concert tee home after the show and pinned a note to it: “This t-shirt cost you $200,000.”

For the city, though, the Waterfront Concerts series has been no dog. According to economic development direct Emery, every hotel in Bangor fills up on concert nights, and the convention and visitors bureau has had to send concertgoers as far as Bar Harbor and Newport in search of vacancies. In an economic impact study released last year, University of Maine economist Todd Gabe determined that concertgoers in the series’ first three years spent nearly $19 million on things like lodging, food, gas, beer, and the percentage of the ticket prices that stays in Bangor. Taking into account the multiplying effect of extra dollars spent at local businesses, Gabe estimates a total economic impact of over $30 million from 2010 to 2012. Not surprisingly, these numbers have lately been touted by civic boosters in Westbrook and South Portland, suddenly agitating for their own outdoor venues (Gray’s been courted by these and other proponents of new venues around Maine, and while Waterfront does book and manage some shows outside of Darling’s Pavilion, the company currently has no plans to take on another city’s new outdoor concert venture).

What’s more, Bangorians have saved almost $17 million in travel costs by having concerts in their backyard, estimates Gabe, who himself snatched up two tickets to June’s Dave Matthews Band concert before it sold out. Other benefits are tougher to put a dollar amount on.

“This puts ‘Bangor’ into the mouths of people nationwide who would have never spoken the word before,” says Emery, whose staff travels to trade shows around the country, encouraging businesses to come to town. “I couldn’t buy enough advertising to market the city to these other major metropolitan areas — throughout the Northeast especially — the way that Alex does bringing in these shows. I don’t have the budget to touch it.”

As a bonus, the Waterfront Concerts may even expand some Mainers’ musical horizons. This summer’s schedule, for example, turns around reliable audience faves like Brad Paisley and Willie Nelson, but it also includes Canadian indie-rock darlings Arcade Fire, who tend to have less name recognition outside of hipster hotspots like, say, Portland. Someday, Gray says, he’d like to book some progressive house-music DJs like Deadmau5 or Swedish House Mafia — what he calls “this generation’s rock and roll.” These acts earn top dollar playing sweaty Vegas nightclubs, no doubt, but a Mainer might be forgiven for wondering: Is Bangor, well, cool enough to pull this off?

Back at the frenetic Waterfront office, reclining in one of the sample folding chairs, food and beverage director Rudolph sums up what might actually be Gray and company’s secret ulterior motive.

“The thing with Bangor,” he says, “is that the rest of the world needs to tell Bangor it’s cool before it realizes it. You can’t sell Bangor to Bangor. You’ve got to sell Bangor to everybody else, so that eventually it all trickles back down. Then, Bangor will wake up and say, ‘Oh, okay. I get it.’”