WESTBROOK — On Sunday evening, with the sunset at their backs, thousands of music fans witnessed what could be a new dawn for live music in Greater Portland.

It was the first-ever concert at the Maine Savings Pavilion – a temporary outdoor arena by an abandoned quarry that developers have sky-high hopes for. It remains to be seen if this summer’s concerts will lead to the proposed grandeur of Rock Row, with shops, living spaces and a man-made lake surrounding a permanent concert venue. But if we can take the quality of the music Sunday as an omen, things are looking up.

For now, the pavilion is not visually striking – paved common areas, gravel under the seats, chain-link everywhere. The plastic folding chairs had no empathy for my back; same for the gravel, which was not meant to be stood on for four hours. Concessions were limited to a few food trucks and traditional stands that did offer $14 “Impossiburgers.” (I opted for some disappointing chicken parm fries from a truck instead, 100 percent because there was no line.) The best perk is the parking – there’s lots of it, and it’s free. Getting in was surprisingly easy, 15 minutes before showtime. (It was tougher getting out, but some bottlenecking is to be expected when you stay till the final note.)

The 8,200-seat venue was about 35 percent full when the first opening act, Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner, took the stage. From section 202, I had a clear sightline, but could have used a big monitor or two to get a closer look.

Thundercat is a bass virtuoso who fuses free jazz, thrash and yacht rock into a sound that’s both fun-loving and jaw-dropping. With a keyboardist and drummer in tow who could match him note for note, his set was a volcanic eruption of notes, rhythms and falsetto crooning. Boasting bright-red Raggedy Andy dreads and the satisfied grin of a genius in his element, Thundercat made his bass sound like everything from a lead guitar to an invading spaceship.

Before we could catch our breath, Earl Sweatshirt was on stage. The most contemplative and challenging emcee to come out of the Odd Future collective, Earl dipped into each of his three LPs during his set, his esoteric bars and frayed, decelerated loops floating into the growing dark.


“We keep the gas inside the spliff roll / The wind get the ashes in the end bro,” he rapped on “December 24,” the words ringing out clear as day – a credit to the Pavilion’s sound system and the artist’s skill. The crowd seemed split on Earl, with folks going crazy up front and checking their phones toward the back. His set didn’t exactly have a Memorial Day weekend vibe, so I get it. But I was mesmerized enough to forget I was standing on gravel.

Then, with the crowd filling in and getting hyped, came headliner Anderson .Paak. The exuberant California singer/songwriter/drummer is making his claim as this generation’s Stevie Wonder, flashing his pearly whites as he fuses classic soul with slow-jam R&B, fiery hip-hop and richly orchestrated funk.

His set was a tidal wave of good vibes and brimming talents, with a yellow-clad seven-piece band making every melody sound like it blew in off the Pacific. Paak’s intricate, multimedia stage show doubled as a showcase of what the pavilion can pull off. Huge video screens backgrounded the musicians, convincingly transporting them from serene beaches to the rings of Saturn.

An elevated drum riser allowed Paak to run from center stage to behind his kit with ease. Flames billowed. Fireworks crackled. And none of it was as impressive as the artist himself, whose soothing rasp of a tenor suited everything from the Motown swing of “Make It Better” to the simmering banger “Bubblin’.”

After the encore, these musicians had played 25 songs. Yet they didn’t want to leave. Paak said goodbye five different times, introduced his band again, and walked back out for a final bow. If Rock Row can keep attracting tireless, all-world performers like this, then I’m here for it. Gravel and all.

Joe Sweeney is a music critic and advertising writer who lives in South Portland.

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