“You know,” explained Ryan Scott, a bearded 26-year-old dressed in all black. “It’s rare that you can go anywhere and see something this awesome, and it‘s not something you expect to see in a small city.”
For the past eleven years, the city of Keene has hosted the relatively behemoth – and not to mention free – Keene Music Festival in the thick of the downtown area.
With a goal of generating community through music, Festival organizers throughout the years have booked musicians and bands of wildly scattered genres.
This past Saturday, September 3, was no exception.
With over 90 acts on fourteen stages across downtown, attempting to catch every performance would have been a tiring and frustrating endeavor.
“It’s like a smaller scale version of South by Southwest [Arts Festival],” Scott observed, stomping his cigarette out on the ground.
Scott traveled from Fitchburg, Mass., to see his friends’ band, The Bynars, perform at Nicola’s stage at the back end of the Courtyard Marriot.
Upon first glance, the grounds of Nicola’s appeared poorly placed, if not shamefully modest.
A white easy-up tent on top of a thick bed of woodchips is hardly the daydream of concert aesthetic.
But when The Bynars laid down their infectiously spacey, synth-driven jams under the blistering September sun, the barren moonscape of woodchips made sense.
Physicality and atmosphere played a heavy role in most of the performances on Saturday, and each respective group filled the physical space of their allotted stages.
The buildings that surround Nicola’s stage filled out the sonic space of the Bynars’ performance.
Natural reverb kicked back off the buildings and added syncopation to Mike Champ’s steady drumming while synthesizers diffused into the air at the hand of band member Ben Mettey.
The Bynars played “Asking Your Mom For Money,” a single off their new self-titled album, as well as the track “Ba Ba Ba,” as their final song.
Local Keene musician Laina Barakat (GirlandPiano) performed on the Lindy’s Diner patio. Restaurant patrons ate steak and eggs while young girls in dresses pranced around, smiling ear to ear near Barakat’s keyboards. This kind of at-home, personal relationship between songwriter and audience perfectly suited the ambience of Lindy’s on Saturday.
Barakat, co-founder of The Starving Artist in Keene and originally a solo artist, sang mellow and soulful songs backed by guitar, drums and bass.
Under the gazebo at Central Square in the early afternoon, the trio Johnny B and the Hornets played soothing bossa nova inspired jazz.
Their songs spanned from a jazz lounge vibe reminiscent of a non-electric Stereolab, to driving blues tunes with articulated guitar solos from John Clark’s six string.
It was serene music for a family environment, and the trio seemed to slow down time as the whirlwind of traffic circling around Central Square faded into obscurity and out of mind.
Even the blaring sirens of fire trucks that passed by didn’t seem to distract anyone from the hypnotic performance.
On the other side of Main Street at Heberton Hall, and a far cry from the calm jazz over on Central Square, dubstep DJ Justin Killeen performed a live, all-vinyl mix.
The physical intensity of the Fitzwilliam native’s stage presence set him aside from most other dubstep performers.
Playing under the moniker Mr. Frost, Killeen mixed LP’s and melted the walls of Heberton with his tripped out dub atmosphere – a refreshing change-up from the all-too-often laptop abused scene of dubstep where DJ’s simply press play on pre-recorded mixes. “I’d say most of my influences come from old-school hip hop, especially DJ Premier and Guru,” Killeen explained.
He has been spinning dubstep mixes for over ten years, and performs monthly at the Fitzwilliam Inn just 15 miles up the road from Keene.
Despite what is normally a folk-oriented Keene music community, Killeen explained there is a lot of interest and a local fan base.
The sheer physicality of Killeen digging through crates and flipping records through his hands added to the excitement of the spine-tingling and bass heavy beats he cut together.
In a tip-of-the-cap homage to dub reggae legends The Clash, Killeen threw on “Guns of Brixton” for his last song.
In perfect testament to the Keene Music Festival’s broad range of musical performers, metal band Zombie Fighter took the stage of Heberton Hall immediately after Killeen around 8 p.m.
Zombie Fighter’s brash and aggressive style of play was counterbalanced by the lead guitarist’s banana suit to comedic effect.
Along with bands and acts mostly from New England, the Festival hosted Keene State affiliated bands like The 123’s, The Mild Revolution, and Narrow Escape.
At the MoCo stage behind Railroad Square, Narrow Escape bassist and lead vocalist Owen Davis joked with the crowd in-between songs.
“Most of the songs I write are depressing songs about girls,” Davis laughed. “Now this next song is a depressing song about a girl.”
Tim Stone’s always-eclectic and thought out drumming marked Narrow Escape as another one of the small stage, tucked away gems at the Keene Music Festival.
The highlight of the Festival was the final performance.
Keene natives Adeem and DJ Shalem attracted the largest crowd on Saturday with their 9 p.m. slot at Railroad Square.
Known for his rapid fire free-styling skills – he took home the gold in the 1998 Scribble Jam freestyle battle, up against famed MC’s such as Midwest heavyweights Slug and EyeDea – Adeem drew the crowd close and promised not to swear in his performance, a feat he succeeded in.
After a brief sound check, the hip hop duo were underway and faces old and young were nodding their heads to Shalem’s beats.
The duo started off small in 1996, rapping at house parties on Roxbury Street and any open mic event they could find.
And while Keene, in all its backwoods glory, may not be a likely manifestation point for hip hop music, Adeem said it’s a double-sided coin.
“There’s both advantages and disadvantages. There’s an obvious disadvantage because you’re in the middle of nowhere, but an advantage because you’re completely your own,” he said.
Over the years, Adeem and Shalem have been ever changing with the way they process and use their experiences and influences.
“We’ve gone through many changes,” Adeem said. “I used to want to be Chuck D and then got into free-styling and so on.”
While pulling from different areas of influence, De La Soul takes the cake as Adeem’s primary writing influence, but he said the list goes on and on.
The performance was undoubtedly highlighted by Adeem’s crisp free-styling capabilities.
“What I like most about Adeem is that he’s really quick with his rapping, but he still remains clear enough so you can hear what he’s saying,” Keene resident Matt French said.
But what made the night worthwhile was the endless local love they received from fans after the show, Shalem explained.
After performing across the country to vastly different atmospheres and communities, it was strange for them to return home.
On arrival back to Keene, “In my mind, I’m still 16-years-old standing on Railroad Square doing nothing but waiting for cars to pass by,” Adeem said.
“And when I came back, I felt young again.”
Aaron Mitta can be contacted at Noraamitt@gmail.com