UNION — Nearly 1,000 people gathered in a former cow pasture on Elmer and Holly Savage’s farm on a recent Thursday night for a concert by Graham Nash, a two-time inductee into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

With Nash’s tour bus nearly eclipsing one side of the Savages’ bright red barn, people set up beach chairs and blankets on the sloping field, sipped wine or beer and talked about the improbability of the event. The sight of 1,000 people waiting to see Nash, who has had a slew of hit songs dating back 50 years, was not surprising. It was the location, on a family-owned farm and winery in Union, population 2,200. The farming town, about two hours from the Maine population centers in Portland and Bangor where most major touring concert acts play, is best known for its annual fair and its blueberries.

Suzette Carter, of Farmingdale, stands to applaud a song by Graham Nash as he performs at Savage Oakes Vineyard in Union last month. Staff photo by Derek Davis

“It’s in Union. I can’t believe they’re having concerts like this in Union,” said Brenda Gushee, 62, from nearby Rockland, who was sitting with two friends near the stage and put extra emphasis on the word Union each time she said it. “We could drive to Portland, but then we’d have to pay to park. This is so easy.”

The concerts at Savage Oakes Vineyard and Winery, while a nice surprise for local residents and people vacationing nearby in midcoast towns or the China Lakes region, are a calculated business risk being taken by the Savages. They are looking for ways to expand the market for their wines and beef, establish their property as locale for weddings and private events, and generate additional revenue from their land.

The shows are also part of two trends in the music industry that have emerged over the past decade or so. More outdoor concert venues are popping up every year as musicians continue to rely more on touring income than music sales revenue. And wineries, especially in California, have begun offering major concerts in picturesque natural settings.

Besides the Nash show, which was held on July 20, Savage Oakes is hosting at least three more concerts this year, including country-flavored singer-songwriter Lyle Lovett with his Large Band on Aug. 13, up-and-coming blues act The Marcus King Band on Sept. 1, and folk-rock singer James McMurtry on Sept. 2.

Though there are no comprehensive lists of wineries hosting shows, an examination of advertised summer concerts in Maine suggests that Savage Oakes is very likely the only Maine winery offering several concerts by major music acts this year.

NO MAGIC FORMULA

The concerts are a risk because the Savages are paying to hire the big-name acts, just as venues in Portland and Bangor do, and hoping to sell enough tickets. While it seems surprising to audience members that a winery in Union would be hosting Graham Nash and Lyle Lovett, music industry professionals say it’s not totally unexpected. It’s a matter of looking for acts that are coming or willing to come to your general area in a given summer, that generally play venues the size of yours (1,200 to 1,800 capacity in the case of Savage Oakes) and whose price you feel you can meet and still make money. Unlike most concert promoters, the Savages aren’t paying a rental fee or high overhead for the concert venue. It’s land they’ve had in their family for more than 30 years.

Sarah Rhinelander and Vin Lord, both of Windsor, lie back and watch the clouds before the Graham Nash show at Savage Oakes Vineyard in Union last month. Staff photo by Derek Davis

The property in Union is about 15 miles from Camden. The fact that Union is not near other major outdoor concert venues probably helps draw crowds to Savage Oakes. Several people at the Nash concert said they would normally have to drive a couple of hours, to either Bangor or Portland, to see a musician as well-known as Nash doing an open-air show.

Savage Oakes doesn’t need to make a lot of money on the concerts, said Elmer Savage, 53, a former postal service worker who began making wine from Maine grapes on the family farm more than a decade ago. But based on the fact that nearly 1,000 people paid $56 each to see Nash, and that as many as 1,800 might pay the $70 ticket price for a weekend show by Lovett, Savage is convinced his concerts will make enough money to keep them viable.

“On these shows, with such big names, we’ll do all right,” said Savage. “We started these shows basically as marketing for the winery, but they’ve sort of taken on a life of their own.”

Savage Oakes began doing free concerts by big-name acts about four years ago, to attract people who might buy wine and beef, or who might want to book the site for their own events, such as weddings or large parties. The first was a free show by nationally known folk-rocker Shawn Mullins in 2013, followed by one free show each summer for the next three years by McMurtry.

In 2016, the winery held its first ticketed show, the folk-rock duo Indigo Girls. That show cost $50 and sold out, bringing in about 1,200 people. For some shows, the area for chairs and blankets is expanded to hold about 1,800 people, which will be the case when Lovett plays, Savage said.

Jim Kaler of Wakefield, N.H., and Denise Perry of Laconia, N.H., snap a selfie before watching Graham Nash perform on July 20. Staff photo by Derek Davis

None of the acts booked so far had any special connection to Maine or any reason to play Union other than their managers thought it made sense. In an interview before he played there, Nash, 75, said he had no idea why he was playing there other than it was on his schedule. When he stepped onto the stage around sunset on July 20, he looked out at the rolling hills, rock walls and rows of grape vines in the distance and said to the crowd, “What a wonderful place. Why I have not been here before?”

To book shows at the vineyard, Savage works with Diana Ammon, a New Hampshire-based concert promoter who books shows all over New England. She sits down with Savage to figure out what he can afford for shows in an upcoming season and what kind of acts he wants to book. Given that people are on vacation in the area, including lots of Baby Boomers and retirees, the wish-list of acts leans toward established mainstream performers who would be well known to a wide audience. Then Ammon checks with the performers’ management to see if they are on tour and if it makes sense for the act to come to midcoast Maine. Then she makes an offer and waits for a counter.

In the cases of both Nash and Lovett, routing was in Savage Oakes’ favor. Nash spent most of July performing in the Northeast. In the days before he played Savage Oakes, he had shows in Plymouth, New Hampshire, and Truro and Edgartown, Massachusetts. The day after the Union show he played in Lowell, Massachusetts. Lovett’s schedule for the week before his Union show includes stops in Port Chester, New York, and Lowell.

As for being able to meet the cost of big acts, Savage won’t say what he pays the performers, just that Nash cost less than Lovett.

A good way to gauge if a major act makes sense for a venue is to look at the average ticket price and average gross revenue per show of that artist on his or her current tour, said Gary Bongiovanni, editor of the concert industry tracking service Pollstar. By that measure, Lovett and Nash make sense for Savage Oakes.

By July, Bongiovanni said Lovett had been averaging 1,700 tickets sold per show on his current tour, and his gross revenue was averaging $100,000. If Savage Oakes sells 1,700 tickets at $70 each for his upcoming show – they have an 1,800 capacity and have sold as many as 1,200 tickets – the total amount of ticket sales will be $119,000. At the same time in July, Nash had been averaging about 637 tickets sold during his last 60 or so shows, and his average gross revenue was about $36,000. Since 950 people bought tickets to see Nash in Union at about $56 a head, the total gross in ticket sales was at least $53,200.

TRENDY WITHOUT KNOWING IT

One of the reasons Savage Oakes could find major acts touring this summer is that the summer outdoor concert industry is steadily growing. A couple of decades ago, before the rise of the internet and downloadable music, major artists made substantial portions of the their income from album sales. But in the past few years, more and more musicians are touring year-round and making much of their money that way.

You can see the growth in Maine, where a decade ago there was no regular outdoor concert venue bringing in major acts during the summer on a regular basis for ticketed shows. Now, there are at least three: Darling’s Waterfront Pavilion in Bangor and the Maine State Pier and Thompson’s Point in Portland. Together, they bring 60 or more national acts to the state each summer. L.L. Bean in Freeport also brings in national acts for a summer concert series, which is free.

People flock to the wine tent during intermission of the Graham Nash concert. Staff photo by Derek Davis

Savage said he did not know of other wineries hosting concerts. But Bongiovanni said the trend has “exploded” over the past five years or so, mostly in California where some wineries have built 2,000- to 3,000-seat amphitheaters. The Vina Robles winery in Paso Robles, California, opened a 3,000-seat amphitheater about four years ago. More than 10 shows are scheduled for the rest of this summer, including the rock bands Slayer and The Shins, ’70s rockers Michael McDonald, Boz Skaggs and Chicago, and Broadway star Idina Menzel.

Dozens of wineries have concerts scheduled this year. While most are in California, others are scattered around the country. Walkers Bluff Winery in Carterville, Illinois, will host rock shows by Theory of a Deadman and Ozzy Osbourne this summer. Several wineries in the Finger Lakes Region of New York list free concert series.

Whether or not other wineries in Maine or New England have held concerts by nationally known acts is hard to say, since there are no comprehensive listings.

“I don’t know exactly how many are doing it, but it’s really exploded lately. I think it’s a win for the wineries, because people come out to see a show, enjoy themselves and try the wine,” said Bongiovanni. “I don’t think they do it to make money the way concert promoters do. They’re bringing people in.”

THE VINEYARD CONCERT EXPERIENCE

Savage Oakes is set on a rolling hillside that slopes gently down to Route 17, a main route into town. There are few houses on the road leading to the vineyard, mostly rolling fields, trees and rock walls. Holly and Elmer Savage live in an old farmhouse on the property. Elmer is the winemaker, while Holly handles the marketing of the wines, beef and events. The winery produces about 1,000 cases of wine a year, with about 12 bottles per case. From Portland, the winery is about a two-hour drive.

At the Nash show, gates opened at 5:30 p.m. for a 7:30 performance. Free parking was available on sloping fields across the road from the concert venue. By 6 p.m., blankets and chairs were spread all over the field facing the covered stage. The stage was at least 5 feet high, higher in places, and Nash could be seen and heard clearly from the farthest part of the field.

There was a gourmet ice cream truck and a wood-fired pizza vendor. Savage Oakes sold food at its own food tent, including burgers, sausage sandwiches, pulled pork, grilled shrimp, sesame noodles and sandwiches. Also on sale were beer and Savage Oakes wines, by the glass or in frozen wine “slushies.”

The crowd included self-described “old hippies” and diehard Nash fans, especially fans of the music he made with Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young in the late ’60s and early ’70s. But there were also families with young children, some on vacation from out of state and some who lived nearby and wanted to check out this relatively new concert venue they had heard so much about.

Jessica and Justin Mazur of Rockport were there with their two young children, spread out on a blanket near the food tents. The two go to concerts by national acts fairly regularly, often in Bangor. Both are Nash fans, but they also wanted to check out the scene at Savage Oakes.

“It’s such a great setting for a show. Just look around,” said Jessica Mazur, 42. “We’d love to come again. We’re thinking about Lyle Lovett.”

Before the Nash concert and during, people strolled among the grapevines in the vineyard, which are about a five-minute walk from the concert area. During the show, you could hear Nash’s clear voice and acoustic guitar all over the farm.

One couple strolling the vineyards before the show, with wine in hand, were Sheila and Kevin McManus of Brunswick. Kevin had bought the tickets as a present for Sheila’s birthday. The couple had driven cross-country together in 1981 with only three eight-track tapes to keep them company, and one was by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.

While walking the vineyard and farm, the couple had picked and munched few wild blueberries.

“I think this place is phenomenal,” said Sheila McManus, 57. “All this space to walk around. It’s very casual.”

Mike Gladchun, 39, of Hamilton, Massachusetts, was spending the week on vacation with his family in Tenants Harbor when his wife read about Savage Oakes and the Nash concert online. The family, including three young daughters, decided it would be fun to see a concert outdoors at a vineyard. But they didn’t know exactly what to expect at a concert on a farm in Union, Maine.

“It is a bit surprising, this location, but it’s a pleasant surprise,” said Gladchun. “It’s beautiful, and it’s so nice to be able to spread out on the grass, with the kids.”

Ray Routhier can be contacted at 210-1183 or at:

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Twitter: @RayRouthier