Bangor Summer

Along the Penobscot River in Maine's third-largest city, the summertime scenery is urban streets and music stars.

Everything seems bigger and brighter on this summer night. On the drive into Bangor, we pass the ever-smiling, 31-foot-tall Paul Bunyan statue, and now we’re standing in a row of folding chairs set so close to the massive, open-air stage of Darling ’s Waterfront Pavilion that I feel like I could jump up onto it. Gold record-maker Kenny Chesney is right there, singing into the microphone in a flood of colored lights, and he and his band have gotten the crowd to their feet. Concertgoers in t-shirts and cowboy boots are waving their hands, lifting big plastic cups of beer, and singing along with Chesney’s country-rock guitar sound and sexy “Come Over” lyrics. 

Yes, sexy. Yes, loud. Yes, in central Maine.

Music City

I first saw Bangor in August sunshine a decade ago, on a quieter day, after arriving on a flight to Bangor International Airport. The mega-sized stage wasn’t yet in place on the riverfront, and that week, everyone was talking about the American Folk Festival, which is still held every August downtown. Through a local resident’s recommendation, we ended up in front of monks and pastries at the Friars’ Bakehouse to order sandwiches on just-baked, thick-cut bread. (Men of the Franciscan order from Bucksport also now brew craft beers, including a Whoopie Pie Porter.)

By the time of our Paul Bunyan arrival, it’s easy to see—actually to hear—more music in Bangor. Songs by Tom Petty and the Rolling Stones are on FM 100.3 on the car radio; deejays are in the studio around the clock at the Bangor classic rock station owned by novelist Stephen King. WKIT-FM is one of the few privately owned stations left in the United States, and it’s actually called “Stephen King’s Rock-N-Roll Station.” (On West Broadway, King ’s house is the one with bats and spiders designed into the iron driveway gates.)

The same day as the Chesney show, the Cool Sounds concert series has an outdoor stage set up for free performances by local bands on West Market Square, which is lined with cafe patios and pubs. The crowd is gathered along Main and Broad streets near Paddy Murphy’s, with pints of Guinness and Scotch eggs. The beer, burger, and oyster restaurant Blaze is adding a bit of oven woodsmoke to the scene. We meet a couple of friends and grab beers on the patio behind Nocturnem Draft Haus before following the flow of the crowd walking to the Chesney show.

Opened in 2010 on the grounds of the 58-acre public Waterfront Park, Darling’s Waterfront Pavilion is a summer game-changer for downtown Bangor. The amphitheater is 72 feet tall and almost 150 feet wide. That means it attracts big names and big shows—up to 16,000 people for general admission events. “Venues of this size are often in remote areas in industrial neighborhoods,” says Waterfront Concerts promoter Alex Gray. “What makes the Darling ’s Waterfront Pavilion so unique is that it’s right in downtown, in the center of the city’s entertainment corridor.”

Gray’s office, a dozen miles away in Old Town, is decked out in concert posters and autographed rock guitars. He says the rock and country stars who come to Bangor are often “blown away with the reception they get from Maine fans. The same level of fandom that Mainers exude toward our college and sports teams is translated to a show. That one- to-one connection cannot be manufactured, and it’s special.”

The sports fan analogy makes sense— especially when we see the tailgaters who aren’t actually inside the gates, but at their cars or on Bangor’s grassy hillsides in earshot of the music. Some have picnics, chairs, and everything else a spectator might want at a football game—but tonight it’s a country music concert.

On Track

Maybe I’m inspired by the retro, bright “Greetings from Bangor, Maine” mural that’s painted along the ground floor of a building on Union Street. Instead of passing through Bangor from the airport to the coast this time, or staying just long enough for a music show, I want to check out some other in-town places.

On a Saturday morning after the Chesney concert, not far from the Paul Bunyan statue and the gleaming auditorium behind it (Cross Insurance Center, which hosts its own music shows, Cirque du Soleil performances, and the like), I see horses. On a half-mile oval track, the horses are pulling single-person carts and trotting along in steady rhythms. No crowd is gathered, so this must be for exercise and practice runs. The dirt track and grandstand at Bass Park have been home to harness racing since the 1880s, and the summer race schedule is coordinated by the Hollywood Casino Hotel and Raceway.

Across from the thumping of horses’ hooves are two cottages with brightly striped awnings and flower boxes heavy with blooms. Looking from Buck Street, to the left is Ingrid’s German Gift Shop, to the right is the Sunnyside Florists and Greenhouses, and snuggled in between, a Saturday food and flower market is underway. People are walking between the shops and down the lineup of local bakers and farmers and food vendors selling vegetables and fruit, bread, pastries, eggs, dairy, and meats. Inside, we find everything from baguettes to kimchi.

Named the European Market, this year- round, indoor/outdoor weekly market was begun in 1996 by Rick Gilbert and Ingrid Perkins, who own the two neighboring businesses. Perkins has lived in Maine since the 1960s, and her small shop is a treasure box of imported European chocolates and coffees, table linens, toys, jewelry, and, at Christmastime, thousands of ornaments and decorations. When we meet, she says she’s getting ready for another return trip to her native Germany.

Art + Wine

Next stop is the University of Maine Museum of Art, which focuses on modern and contemporary art, and holds an impressive permanent collection of more than 3,800 pieces—including pieces by Pablo Picasso, Diego Rivera, and Andrew Wyeth. When I visit, there are just three or four other people in the galleries, and I have the time and space to take a close look at works like a 1970s Polaroid picture taken of Farrah Fawcett taken by Andy Warhol. I’m drawn to several pieces here, including the very Maine-centric art of Dan Dowd, who lives in Phippsburg and uses found materials like scraps of sleeping bags and old tires in his dimensional works. All of the exhibits are inspiring and thought-provoking. Kathryn Jovanelli, who’s an assistant coordinator, says, “this museum really is a gem, and it’s helped to spur downtown vitality.” The UMMA doesn’t charge an admission fee to visitors, but instead courts an annual sponsor to underwrite the cost; currently, that’s Deighan Wealth Advisors of Bangor.

The idea that there’s a growing downtown energy in Bangor comes up again a little later when we’re inside Bangor Wine and Cheese Co., admiring the towering stack of cases of rosé, and the bottles arranged for summer shoppers. The bands that come to town for Waterfront Concerts sometimes have quirky green room requests, says Eric Mihan, who owns the shop with his wife, Christine Bragg Mihan. (Her family has lived in Bangor for six generations.) They tell me that one of the bands, maybe Train, requested the delivery of an exquisite red wine along with some really cheap beer. “It’s important to take the time to appreciate what you’re drinking, eating,” says Eric Mihan, who leads wine classes and tastings at the shop, including Wine Appreciation 101 and Tour de France, about the wine regions of France. He also understands about life on the stage and on the road. An opera singer from New Jersey, he and Christine met when they were working on a show in New York—she working in production backstage. In Bangor, they’ve owned the shop since 2009, yet not many people in the city knew about his operatic talents until this spring. That’s when he got the chance to put his bass-baritone voice to use singing (in Italian) the role of Colline in the Bangor Symphony Orchestra’s production of La Bohème.

It’s another case of music flowing everywhere in Bangor.

I remember well the night back in the summer of 2013 when I first made it to one of the Waterfront Concerts in Bangor. We were excited to have bought good tickets to a Sting show. The woman next to me must have called out, “I love you, Sting” a couple of dozen times in the first few minutes. Later, sometime after sunset, a very cool moment came in
the middle of a song—I believe it was “Heavy Cloud No Rain”—when a train engine with a string of cars suddenly appeared and chugged along the river between the stage and the water. Everyone seemed surprised, and the former Police frontman and rock star stopped playing his bass for a moment to watch. The train’s headlamp beamed ahead, and the engineer slowed the locomotive and blew the horn as it passed. Sting smiled and then played on—right there on a Bangor summer night.