The big-time world of rock ‘n’ roll comes to small-town Maine this week.

The Nateva Music & Camping Festival, a 50-band jam, will commence unofficially Thursday afternoon at the 100-acre Oxford Fairgrounds in western Maine, and roll through sundown on the Fourth of July. The focus of the proceedings are weekend concerts — all day and night Friday, Saturday and Sunday — featuring mostly jam and indie-rock bands.

The top draw is the band Furthur, scheduled for two long sets on the evening of July 4, with surviving Grateful Dead members Phil Lesh and Bob Weir performing a deep catalog of Dead songs. As many as 15,000 people will attend each day, with attendance expected to peak during Furthur’s festival-closing four-hour marathon.

Weekend passes and single-day tickets are available, although on-site camping is sold out. Remote camping at Oxford Plains Speedway, about three miles away, is available. The remote camping includes a free shuttle to the concert site.

The festival is expected to create traffic problems along Route 26 north and south of the festival site throughout the weekend, although Oxford Police Chief Jonathan Tibbetts said his officers are accustomed to dealing with big crowds. The speedway occasionally draws crowds of between 10,000 and 15,000 people, Tibbetts noted, adding that his combined force of local, county and state police has been preparing for the festival for months and is working closely with the concert promoter’s private security staff.

Despite persistent permitting issues, Nateva is shaping up as one of the largest summer jams in the Northeast, and the largest concert in Maine since Phish drew close to 70,000 fans to Limestone in 2003.

Nateva is a big deal nationally, said Justin Ward, editor of livemusicblog.com. “On the festival circuit, bands like Furthur, moe., STS9, She & Him, Grizzly Bear and the Flaming Lips are all a pretty big deal. For an inaugural fest to book a lineup like this could be called a big deal, yes,” he wrote in an e-mail. “I’d say the buzz is that this has a potential to be a big festival and/or largely successful for years to come assuming they properly plan the logistics.”

Rob Derhak of the band moe. won’t have to travel far. Derhak, moe.’s bass player and singer, lives in the suburbs north of Portland. He credits Oxford for having the smarts to land a festival like this.

“I’m psyched,” said Derhak, whose band spends much of the summer hopping from one festival to the next, and headlines at Nateva on Friday night. “I get up to Mt. Abram all the time in the winter to go skiing. I drive through Oxford every single time, so when I heard it was happening, I was pretty pumped. It’s really cool, and it’s good for Maine. I think the town will realize that it’s a good event. After all is said and done, Oxford will be pretty psyched, too.”

A LITTLE BIT NASCAR

The rock festival scene these days is part NASCAR, part Renaissance fair, Derhak said. The fans are rabid like NASCAR fans, and they travel well — piling into campers, RVs and any other reliable rig and staking out turf for a weekend of music and kinship. Especially at festivals featuring jam bands, the fans are spirited and eccentric like the Renaissance folks. It’s an unlikely combination of passion and personality that plays out over the course of days, all centered around a shared musical experience and common-ground lifestyle, he said.

Jake Cinninger, guitarist for Umphrey’s McGee, said the best festivals tend to be those far from population centers, because they encourage people to create community.

“I think some of the best festivals are the tucked-away ones,” Cinninger said. “We did a festival at Yosemite over Halloween one year. There was a certain reclusiveness to a huge rock show in the middle of nowhere. There is something about nature and technology fusing. The farther you get away from the city, the cooler the festival.”

If all goes well, the Nateva festival — named for the children, Nate and Eva, of Massachusetts-based promoter Frank Chandler — will become an annual event. Its very existence is the product of opportunity, Chandler said.

For two years over the Fourth of July weekend, festival bands and fans trekked to tiny Rothbury, Mich., for the Rothbury Festival. It was staged successfully in 2008 and 2009, but was scrubbed this year. Seizing the opening, Chandler assembled an investment team and began pulling the festival circuit north to Maine.

“Instead of people from the Northeast going out to Michigan to hear music over the Fourth, now they can stay here,” Chandler said.

Rothbury’s cancellation not only meant that bands and fans had a weekend free to travel to Maine, it also enabled Chandler to hire a festival team with experience. One by one, he hired Rothbury veterans to handle each segment of festival logistics — ticketing, camping, production, etc. Instead of working in Michigan, this year they’re working Maine, he said.

Relative to Bonnaroo, which draws 80,000 fans to 500 acres in Manchester, Tenn., Nateva is small. Chandler is using about 100 acres of land associated with the Oxford Fairgrounds, as well as another 75 or so attached to or within a few miles of the fairgrounds. He is using the remote land for camping and parking, and is providing shuttle buses to and from the concert site.

While the festival officially begins Friday afternoon, there’s a pre-festival kickoff on Thursday night. The Portland-based band Gypsy Tailwind has the honor of being the first band to play at Nateva, with a set scheduled at 7 p.m. Thursday on a secondary stage.

The big action begins on Friday. Music starts late morning and runs through midnight on twin main stages, which will be set up side-by-side. The goal is to alternate sets on each stage, to minimize downtime between acts. Each day will have about 12 hours of music with minimal breaks on the two stages.

In addition to the two main stages, Nateva also will run two others stages — the Port City Music Hall stage and the Barn Stage, both under cover and away from the main concert site. The Port City Music Hall stage will feature bands before and after the mainstage acts. The Barn stage will have late-night bands only.

Chandler, the promoter, is not trying to create Bonnaroo North. He wants something different, smaller and unique, where fans of jam bands can mingle with folks who prefer their music with a harder edge.

“Our goal is to be a well-rounded festival. We started promoting this as a jam-band festival, but then we added a bunch of indie-rock bands. We want people who are drawn to the festival because they like the music, and hopefully we also can introduce them to bands they’ve never heard of before.”

 

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at: bkeyes@pressherald.com