From high lonesome acoustic folk to wall-shaking metallic rock, with jazz, blues, classical and an improvisational duo that plays and paints, there’s a choice for every taste at the all-day Keene Music Festival. The big challenge is finding a way to take everything in at the event, held on Saturday, Sept. 1, in and around Keene’s downtown.
When it began in 2001, about a dozen performers worked on a flatbed truck parked behind a downtown business. Now it takes at least that many stages to accommodate more than 85 artists. Performers can appear in all sorts of locations. For example, an alley adjacent to the Miller Brothers store on Main Street will welcome bluesman Sunny Lowdown, Philadelphia-based singer songwriter Jessica Smucker and acoustic folk duo Last October, among others.
Larger stages host more raucous offerings. A big heavy-metal contingency will play at City Tire, including Dethavesk, a Charlestown trio of teenagers, and Dublin experimental rockers Hug the Dog. A stage behind the Courtyard Marriott in Railroad Square includes fun Boston alt rockers The Bynars and the Van Burens, a band well-known to area fans through many appearances at Penuche’s in Concord. Another local favorite, Ghost Dinner Band, will play the day’s final set there.
Balancing the many genres requires careful calibration, says festival director Kevin Dremel.
“We close certain stages during the day, because others are getting louder,” he says. “It’s kind of like a big dance — that’s what makes it so much fun.”
In 2010 and 2011, Manchester and Concord bands led by Ron Noyes and Brooks Young performed at the festival. Both are affiliated with Bedford-based Round Cat Records. The label’s newest signing, rockers Charlotte Locke, will make the trip this year.
“RCR has been able to gain a lot of exposure out of doing the Keene Music Festival,” wrote label head Steven Farro in a recent text exchange. “All the members of Charlotte Locke have either graduated or are still attending Keene State College. I enjoy going and listening to the diverse genres.”
There’s a larger than usual hard rock contingency this year, but those seeking respite from loud music might enjoy an extended evening performance by the Keene Chamber Orchestra at the Good Fortune Restaurant. Additionally, some top-notch acoustic Americana bands are scheduled to perform. Among them is Darlingside, a lively band from Northampton, Mass., and Graylight Campfire, a Connecticut band inspired by Son Volt, Neil Young and the Allman Brothers.
Rap and electronica are represented in Adeem & Shalem, dubstep DJ Mr. Frost and Ebb First, Then Flow.
The performers all work for free, but other aspects make it worthwhile for them, and keep many coming back. A well-appointed “green room” is set up for the acts, stocked with food and beverages provided by local businesses.
“We can’t pay you, but we can give you a good meal and treat you with the kind of respect musicians deserve,” Dremel says.
The strategy works. “If everyone who was an alumni and had expressed interest were booked, we would have had an all-alumni show this year,” Dremel says. Returning acts include traditional Irish group O’hanleigh, folk duo Nice and Naughty and melodic rockers Shadwell.
As in past years, the festival begins with a Friday night show at McCue’s Billiards and Sports Lounge. This year a pair of groups well-known to Manchester fans will perform — rockers Scalawag and The Christa Renee Band, specializing in roots reggae.
“That’s two bands who both asked to return from last year,” notes Dremel.
One of the more interesting offerings is Pocket Vinyl, a duo that performs improvisational music while painting a picture, which is then sold to the crowd at the end of each song. Dremel says their appearance last year is illustrative of the festival’s overall vibe.
“I was walking somewhere and somebody from a restaurant flagged me down and handed me three pizzas and told me to give them to the bands,” he said. “So I’m walking down and I see Pocket Vinyl, and I gave them a pizza. I said, ‘Here, have something to eat.’ The whole idea for me is doing good works.”
Dremel can’t pick a favorite moment in his five years working with the festival. The former musician is simply too busy to partake in the fun.
“The thing about my role is I’m kind of like Moses, I never get to see the Promised Land,” he says. “I’m running around taking care of stuff. What’s interesting to me is watching the event come together.”