Escapism, celebration goal of music festival

By Ryan Robbins
Special to the NEWS

Deep Banana Blackout lead singer Jennifer Durkin said it best near the end of Bumstock's last set Saturday night: "I think what we need here is a little escapism."

Escapism is what Bumstock, the annual music festival at the University of Maine, is all about. Since its beginning 26 years ago as an informal gathering of musicians that drew about only 600 concert-goers, the event has become an annual rite of spring for UMaine students that now draws more than 5,000. It's a time for students to put away their textbooks, forget about upcoming finals and express freedom from a long winter and year of classes.

Organized entirely by students, the festival's history represents the constant traditional struggle between students who want to have unrestrained fun and administrators who want some semblance of order and control. The first few Bumstocks featured free beer. Today, beer is not allowed. Being outdoors is such an integral part of the event that organizers rejected an offer by administrators to allow beer if last Friday night's performances were held in Alfond Arena. Organizers had asked for a beer tent.

In 1976, when then UMaine President Howard Neville imposed a 10 p.m. curfew, a former Bumstock organizer told The Maine Campus student newspaper the curfew was "another incidence of Howard Neville's rule by fiat" and that the concert would end at 10 p.m. "because the pigs will pull the plugs."

Those strong words demonstrate Bumstock's allure as the only time of the year when students gather to rid themselves of frustration and anxiety and express defiance for the administrative status quo through music and dance. The Maine Campus criticized a proposal by the administration this year to impose a 9:30 p.m. curfew on last Friday's performances, arguing in an April 2 editorial that such a curfew would "set hundreds of pumped-up twentysomethings loose on campus" hours before dawn. "Perhaps our benevolent administrators are preparing us for the inevitable army of retirees who will be invading north campus for Bumstock 2000."

Saturday night, upcoming Boston-based heavy metal group Godsmack led about 5,000 students in a chant of "f-- you" with middle fingers held high in the air. The group's hard-driving beat and lyrics to "Whatever" struck a chord with a nameless generation facing high expectations: "I'm doing the best that I can. I'm doing the best I ever did."

No one form of music defines Bumstock, though. It is not a rock festival. Be it rock, reggae, folk, punk, funk jazz, or rhythm and blues, there is music for everyone. Local bands that might not otherwise get such large exposure can live out a dream while more serious, upcoming bands such as Godsmack seek to recruit a following.

During the day, a laid-back approach reigns as couples throw down blankets to sit and watch from, groups toss Frisbees or juggle Hackeysacks with their feet. Dogs roam the field on leashes and parents stroll their babies. Hippies, jocks, nerds, they all gather to socialize and hear the music, which can range from surreal to deafening, good to awful, lyrics often unintelligible.

No other event brings so many students together, and only music could be the device to make it happen, with a sharp, lonely wail of an electric guitar cutting through a cold, dark night to represent a bounty of emotions.

Of course, despite increased security and a policy prohibiting containers and backpacks on the concert field, alcohol, marijuana and other drugs will get through the gates. On a windy day the music will carry across the Stillwater River, disturbing residents on the Bennoch Road in Orono as it did Friday night, and parties dependent on alcohol will be the rage throughout the campus long after the music has ended. But for a weekend of socializing and celebrating another spring and another school year ended, these are nothing more than minor inconveniences.

After all, everybody needs a little escapism once in awhile.

A version of this commentary appeared in the April 28, 1999, edition of the Bangor Daily News.

1999 Ryan R. Robbins.