Music from the Couch at Empire Dine and Dance

Open Mic Series – part 1

(future installments on Dogfish and Bull Feeney’s)

By Timothy Gillis

PORTLAND –

John Nels has been running the Sunday night open mic at the Empire on Congress Street for the last two years, so in terms of local music acts, that makes him the new kid on the block.

Compared with Dogfish Bar and Grille on Free Street (seven years) and Bull Feeney’s on Fore Street (ten years), Nels has run “The Couch,” as it is affectionately known, for two of the three years it’s been jamming. But it’s quickly gaining ground.

Dominic Lavoie (from Dominic and the Lucid) came to Portland from Madawaska ten years ago, and started the open mic series at Empire in 2009. Nels took over after the first year, and has been handling the sound ever since. The upstart music series has quickly become popular, and Nels attributes its quick success to its present-tense approach. Empire doesn’t record unless you bring your own equipment.

“We haven’t gotten that much interest in recording, and we would need releases,” Nels said. “In some ways, it interferes with spontaneity. We try to live in the moment.”

Often the result is a hidden gem of a jam between far-flung musical friends.

“Sometimes it’s planned, but a lot of times musicians get together after awhile, sometimes you hear a song you haven’t heard in ten years,” he said.

The Sunday night open mic is called “The Couch” because they used to haul up the couch from the venue’s “green room,” but that became a task too far. Although an open mic neophyte, Nels is still willing to experiment.

“We’re trying out new things,” he said. “We used to have featured artists, but sort of fizzled that out, mostly because it used to be a paying function (i.e. a guarantee for features).”

A lot of local stars get their start at open mics. Nels cited several area artists who began by covering known hits so they could fund their original work.

“Eric Bettencourt from Velourosaurus, Jason Spooner, Zach Jones from As Fast As – he’s riding high on a great album (“Things were better”) that’s got so much soul. It’s the sound of Motown. Every one of those songs could be on the radio. John Nolan was producer and engineer, and he did a great job putting that together,” said Nels. “Zach plays guitar, mainly vocals, comes by after a practice, he’ll randomly play an ELO song.”

While the crowd at The Couch doesn’t discourage covers, a lot of the performers there have come by to try out originals. And the musicians often mix company.

“A lot of people are in other people’s projects, but no one is grandiose,” Nels said, adding that the ultimate goal for most musicians is to make some money. “There is a lack of practice places, that’s my main concern now. So there’s a lot of stepping up to learn skills you would otherwise trust to other people.”

Nels plays guitar and sings. “I played euphonium, a low brass instrument that looks like a small tuba but sounds like a French horn. I played that for twelve years in numerous large ensembles. Nowadays, I do more work for rock music,” said Nels, who is in two groups, including one called “The Desires” that recently covered The Monkeys at the Big Easy.

He is also in a band called “Forget Forget” – a large band with seven pieces – strings, (a cellist and a violin player), a violinist also plays keys and sings, three guitars and a banjo.

“It’s a big sound,” he said.

If he had his druthers, Nels would turn to a pro for recording his own music. But it often comes down to a matter of money.

“Jon Wyman, he’s Maine’s number one producer, possibly the best in New England,” Nels said. “If I had the money to go to him, I absolutely would.”

In the meantime, musicians have to travel the route of self-production and self-promotion.

Dan Knudsen is a distinct example of this type of open mic regular. He boasts forty-one original songs on nine CDs, and on his website, he describes himself as “Songwriter. Performer. Recording Artist. Visual Artist. Local Legend.” Lofty self-praise but it’s hard to dispute.

Fans expect to hear “Rainfalls outside my window” each Sunday night when Knudsen plays.

“I’ve been coming to Empire for three years,” said Knudsen (the K is not silent). “I’ve also played Rira a few times, and now more regular. I’ve got five studio albums, two compilations (greatest hits), “Live at Strange Maine” and a tribute album.

When asked whom the tribute album is for, he didn’t hesitate: “For me. A bunch of other local Maine bands that cover my songs. There’s another one due for release this fall, a bunch more musicians playing a bunch more of my songs.”

Regular open mic fan Nick Marquis confirmed Knudsen’s local legendary status as Dan was finishing up his set.

“I’ve watched him for three years. He comes in to the open mic, sets up his merch(andise), and plays three songs,” Marquis said. This night, Knudsen added “I won’t hurt you” and “Go north little child” to “Rainfalls.”

“I picked up the guitar when I was twelve,” Knudsen says. “I started taking lessons, started songwriting when I was fourteen. At twenty-five, I moved from my hometown of Wheaton, Illinois. Moved to Portland in 1998 and started recording.”

He says his latest favorite place to play is Rira’s. “They seem to love me there. They go crazy when I play.”

He doesn’t just play favorites, however, but completes the open mic circuit. He goes to Dogfish and then Slainte on Wednesday’s. “I do double duty,” he says, and signs a cocktail napkin for a fan.

A new duo is in tonight, calling themselves Coldwater Cure. Abraham Lorrain, of South Portland, and Meagan Toussaint, of Madawaska, first met at the Deer Run Tavern in Yarmouth.

“A couple of other musicians put us together,” Lorrain said. They started collaborating on songwriting. When asked which comes first – the lyric or the melody, they hedged and said, “the melody comes first, but you already know what the words are.”

When pressed to pick one, they said, “it’s like a fish trying to describe the water. “

They each play guitar, and Lorrain adds a Dylanesque harmonica on a neckbrace holder. They also play at Run of the Mill in Saco, and were looking to start a band.

Someone somewhere in between Knudsen’s experience and Coldwater Cure’s novelty sits Pat Maguire, from Lincolnville, waiting his turn at the mic. He’s nervous as this is his first time at Empire, a venue that – despite its own newness – strikes Maguire as the real deal. He’s been to Colorado and back to Maine, and this stage is a place for real musicians, he says. He was a singer first, and then self-taught guitar. He was planning to play a cover of City and Color’s song “The girl,” and maybe “Feel the tide” by Mumford and Sons.

Nels likes the variety the Empire offers, from seasoned vets to nervous newcomers. And with several other venues offering free, live music weekly, it’s hard to lack for lyrical options.

“With all the different venues, from Commercial Street to Congress Street, within a mile radius, you can find something that caters to your musical taste – jazz, folk, hard rock, metal – they all happen at different venues, and that’s what makes Portland unique,” he said. “There’s no way someone can say ‘I can’t find a band to see.’”

Jimi Hendrix Tribute Jam at the Big Easy

By Timothy Gillis

 

PORTLAND – This Friday, August 17, Tom Faunce and friends will pay tribute to the guitar master, Jimi Hendrix, by covering an ample sampling of his best songs. Faunce has assembled a local all-star line-up of multi-faceted musicians to fete the fiery, left-handed strummer who set the 1960’s scene on fire, quite literally at times.

Faunce, who plays guitar with Band Beyond Description – a Grateful Dead cover band, said he had considered tackling Hendrix in the Tuesday night Cover to Cover series, but noted that the legendary guitarist had a number of albums, each with one or two smash hits and then a lot of obscure jams. Selecting one of his albums to cover, beginning to end, wouldn’t be nearly as fun or fruitful as doing a greatest hits show. He approached Ken Bell, the owner of the Big Easy, and asked him about doing a Hendrix tribute show that covered all the great hits and broke out of the Cover-to-Cover construction for an evening.

“He’d been wanting to do a Hendrix tribute for a long time,” Faunce said, so he got the green light.

The tribute band consists of Faunce on lead guitar, Harley Smith on drums, Tim Sullivan on bass guitar, Frank Hopkins on keyboards, Roger Sampson on guitar, Kenya Hall and Chas Lester offer vocals, Jason Ouellette plays keyboard and sings, and Mat Zaro also sings.

These musicians won’t be taking the stage all at once, however. The evening has been arranged into two sets of tribute tunes with a variety of musical combinations.

The first set features Faunce, Sullivan, Sampson, and Smith, playing the more popular stuff ‘60’s rockers know from the radio: songs like “Purple Haze, “Hey Joe,” and “The Wind Cries Mary.”

“We’ll play ‘Stone Free,’ Castles Made of Sand,’ ‘Freedom,’ ‘Fire’ – who knows, maybe ‘Spanish Castle Magic,” said Faunce. “For the second set, we will bring up a different artist for each song.”

Once or twice a year, he and his bandmates will do a Blues Brothers tribute, when Band Beyond Description gets together with Sly Chai’s horn section. But this is the first Hendrix homage.

“I used to have an Allman brothers band for couple years,” Faunce said. “But I called it good. I like to do what I’m doing now, where I play with BBD and then throw together seem sort of showcase.”

Hailing from Gardiner, Maine, Faunce is keenly aware of the poetics of his hometown, famous for its affiliation with Edwin Arlington Robinson, who penned “Miniver Cheevy,” a sobering tale about the town drunk, and “Richard Cory,” about a man envied by all until “one calm summer night,/ (he) Went home and put a bullet through his head.”

Faunce lived on Plummer Street in Gardiner, in the home of the real personality on whom Robinson’s based his suicide poem, according to a classmate’s research paper.

“Richard Cory was a fake name,” Faunce said. “The real guy’s name was Plummer – or at least that’s what I heard. It was a big house, some weird things happened. TV’s  coming on by themselves, lights turning on by themselves. When I was in 6th grade, we had to memorize that poem.”

Faunce said the deadly connection didn’t disturb his early years. But perhaps the poetic link made its way into Faunce’s rhythmic structure, prompting early on his love for meter and tone.

“I was about ten years old was when I started playing guitar,” he said, but quickly added that he failed band in high school. It wasn’t cool to play in the concert or marching band then, he said.

“I joined the band so I could play guitar in the jazz band. Then I realized I didn’t like the school band, so I didn’t go to classes and failed,” he said. “I was an athlete, played football, ice hockey, and ran track. I even played football for a year at Husson and realized I was just trying to relive my high school days.”

Faunce enrolled in the music program at the University of Maine in Augusta and graduated in 2008. He currently lives in Farmingdale but spends four or five days a week in Portland, couch surfing and practicing what he loves most.

He is also an independent video editor, and is now taking classes at Southern Maine Community College in the film production program, so work and class bring him to Portland quite often.

He just made a film called “Driven Under,” about a vet from the war in Iraq who returns home. Faunce wrote the script with David J. Spenlinhauer and Jeremy Vandroff, and they are submitting it to Portland Film Festival.

“When making a film, I relate it most to making an album in a studio. There are long hours to create a little product,” he said. “You spend twelve hours on a film set to get one scene, like you spend several hours in the record studio to get one song.”

What was hard about this film was there was no designated head writer, he said. “So we all had to learn how to go though this process collaborating without one person necessarily having the final word.”

Faunce wrote the original music for the film – three or four songs, some with lyrics, some instrumental.

There’s a song called ‘Freedom’ with the lyrics “you don’t know freedom until it’s gone,” reminiscent of the song “Big Yellow Taxi,” wherein one finally knows the worth of something only in its absence.

Faunce knew right away the worth of Band Beyond Description, this cosmic Dead cover band. He got into BBD by simply being one of their fans. He met Chris Dow, the drummer, at one of their shows at the old Ale House, talked to him on set break, and told him how much he loved the Dead. “I gave him my card, and he called me the next week.”

This was 2009, they had an opening, and Faunce has been with them since then.

While Faunce loves to cover his favorite bands, he also creates original music.

“My original music is more stuff that I just do – I like to experiment in the recording studio,” he said.

After the Hendrix show, Faunce said he’d like to do a Pink Floyd tribute, and he knows he’ll continue to have the support of the Big Easy.

“Ken’s by far the best club owner I’ve dealt with,” Faunce said. “He likes to take care of the musicians and the people who work there.”

Father & Son Team Up in “Zombedy”

Comic horror film unites family

 

By Timothy Gillis

 

SABATTUS – It was a scary scene recently on Mountain Road in Sabattus when Bill McLean and his clan engaged in combat with more than 100 zombies. No real blood was spilled, of course. He was filming scenes for his upcoming film “How to Kill a Zombie,” a comic horror work he calls a “zombedy.” For the film, McLean teams up with his son, Ben, 18, who came up with the idea, story, characters, and wrote the script, his first.

“It’s a father and son story,” Bill said. “The father doesn’t know how to raise a son; he knows how to raise a soldier. So there’s some strife there. Then they are in the middle of a zombie outbreak.”

While it’s Ben’s first foray into scriptwriting, the skill is all in the family, and Bill has been at it for nearly twenty years. Freight Train Films, his company, has won several local film awards.

“The last film we shot was “Scooter McGruder,” a family comedy about a forty-year-old guy who wakes up one day and decides to grow up,” McLean said. “And everything goes against him.” The film won “Best Feature” at the L/A Film Festival in 2011. (That’s the  Lewiston/Auburn version, not Los Angeles.)

In 2012, McLean acted in and did some “stunt photography” in “You Can’t Kill Stephen King,” which also was entered into the L/A festival and won “Best Feature Film.”

At the Phoenix Short Film Festival, he won “Best in Show” and “Best Production” for “She-feast,” a black comedy about cannibal women who eat men.

“Basically, it’s a slasher sexploitation film,” said McLean, who is listed on the IMDB website, albeit incorrectly.

“There’s another Bill McLean. When I started acting, they put my first three films on his credits, so it was kind of a pain,” he says. “But we got it sorted out. Search for Bill Steven McLean to find me.”

After the zombie film, McLean says he is in the works to do a feature length film for Freight train films and John Seymore of Seymore films and The Maine Studios

McLean has been acting professionally for eighteen years.

“I grew up in Poland, went to school there, graduated 8th grade, and went Walton Middle School for 9th grade and then to Edward Little, where I graduated in 1986,” he said.

He started acting in 1991in a film called “Shadow Glories” about a female kick boxer.

“It was released in forty-five theaters in New England, the largest independent film of its day, “ he said. “I had a speaking part, played a referee. I had three minutes of screen time, but for your first film that’s not bad. After that, I got phone calls from everyone. I was in six films without ever going to an audition.”

After the early success, McLean said he “started chasing it, going to auditions.”

In 2007, he began making his own films, and has looked to his family for more than moral support. He peoples his cast and crew with them.

Not only is he the producer for “How to Kill a Zombie” and his son the writer, they play the father-son roles in the film. And his wife, Tiffany McLean, is the director.

“The cast has thirteen characters,” Bill said.  “Kind of perfect for a zombie movie.”

They are training over a hundred people how to be a zombie for our film, in Sabattus under the month’s first full moon.

Mclean and his wife, who will have been married for twenty-five years this November, have five children, Abbie, 20, Ben, 18, Chelsea, 16, Meagan, 14, and Mikey, 12.

Ben said his script has a “variety of genre – slapstick comedy, horror comedy,” whereas earlier films from Freight Train were “black horror” with no comedy at all, “a psychological scary horror flick with a story.”

Either way, they film has to have a plot, he maintains. “Everything we do has to have a story or we won’t do it,” Ben said.

In the film, Bill is playing the father, Mack Stone, and Ben is playing the son, Jesse.

Bill said not all of his family members are thrilled with the family business.

“The kids like to do some film but not others.  Meagan and her friends are going to be zombie extras; Mikey wanted nothing to do with it,” he said.

The McLeans live in Monmouth, and the kids go to Monmouth academy. Ben played football for the team that went undefeated in regular season last year. Meagan and Mikey are homeschooled until they want to go to high school, Bill said.

I asked the son if there were ever any difficulties working so closely with his parents, any familial discord.

“Not at all. It’s never tense on the set. They have always been extremely professional. I’ve been on some movie sets where people did have falling outs, but never ours,” Ben said.

When asked where he got the idea for the script, Ben said “that was easy. Have you ever watched Batman? You know: ‘You become what you fear.’ That gave me the idea. I wouldn’t want to be a zombie, so this is one way to face those fears.”

The filming of “How to Kill a Zombie” is going on right now, and the film is due to be released next year.

 

Punk poet plays solo acoustic at Empire

crooked_digialbooklet

Story by Timothy Gillis

PORTLAND – Kristin Hersh, who at 14 years old fronted Throwing Muses, a punk rock band from the 1980’s, will play an acoustic set at the Empire on Friday, August 17. Now a mother of four sons, Hersh has travelled a long, strange road – from youthful fame to teen pregnancy and Intelligent, creative energy thwarted by bi-polar disorder. Most daunting of all was to have her passion for music turn into an obsession.

The early fame of Throwing Muses was crippling for the ultra-shy intellectual.
“I’m very, very shy. There’s no show person in me. It’s just the songs,” she said. “You can’t be a musician without playing. I don’t need to tell the stories, but I need to play the song.”

Hersh is self-described as a “reluctant” front person for the Throwing Muses, but it’s not as if she could have avoided the limelight. They were ahead of their time, creating something called “art-punk,” some sort of aesthetically pleasing microphone in a blender, say Nirvana meets Patsy Cline.

“We were playing our language, trying to overcome the maelstrom we were in,” Hersh said from her car, travelling to Boston for a show with her husband and promoter Billy O’Connell. “We were a little out of control, so we sounded out of control. We were Interested in every measure. Playing in Boston with all the garage bands, we had a similar, sonic sound.”

Hersh said there are not too many other bands playing their own language, neither then nor now. “I’m not sure what else to call it but art.”
Asked to compare “art-punk” to anything artistically-musical being created today, Hersh said “Radiohead. But my favorite band now is the Moore Brothers out of California.”

Music is too powerful, she said. “The good stuff is too intense, and the bad stuff is too lousy.” And raising four children – all boys – while working in three or four bands has precluded any time for kicking back casually to listen to new music.

Her sons are named Bodhi, Ryder, Wyatt, and Doony. Bodhi was named after a particularly resonant dream.

“There was a bear in the Bodhi tree,” Hersh said about the tree under which Buddha awoke. “I woke up and asked my husband what a Bodhi tree was, and he said we have to get a pregnancy test.”

The other sons are older. Ryder is 21, Wyatt is 15, and Doony, a chef in New York, is the oldest at 26. “He’s the child in Rat Girl,” she said.

Domestic life shelved her literary acumen for a while, and when she re-emerged on the art scene, this time in print not paint, it seemed a strange land. The work “Rat Girl” is based on her diary from the days when she was that fourteen-year-old punk frontgirl for Throwing Muses, and it foresaw the current craze for creative non-fiction, albeit unintentionally.

“I was doing all these literary events – I thought I was in a non-fiction ghetto. People seemed to look down on it,” she said. “What I’m writing is ‘Science non-fiction.'”

Hoping the story could help someone in a similar situation, Hersh felt compelled to write it even though twenty five years had passed between now and the events of “Rat Girl.”

It’s about bi-polar disorder, passion that becomes an obsession, and teen pregnancy.

“A memoir is your idiosyncratic take on a universal theme,” she said.

Despite the recent foray into writing, Hersh says she is foremost a musician. “The music slides out. It’s the only genre in which I am fluent.”

She spoke about her latest solo album, “Crooked,” which was released as a book with lyrics, essays, and photos, true to Hersh’s distinctively different style and sense of the artistic.

The audio commentary of the album features an interview with O’Connell about each track.

Hersh plays guitar, but dabbles in other instruments. For the song “Coals,” she said. “I do not play drums like a girl.”

Regarding the piano, she said “I don’t like piano. It’s too big. I just poke at it.”
Hersh says “Coals” reminds her of Portland, (Oregon) and creates images from the year they lived there. It rained so much, but Hersh said the town was “misty interesting.”

“It’s about Oregon, but I much prefer Portland, Maine,” she said. Last here in 1991, she said she was looking forward to the visit.

When apprised of the open mic scene in Portland, where most any night a week, one can find great local music, sincere and free, Marsh said “in Ireland it’s an ongoing tradition. They’re so musically literate. You know if you’re in a pub, you can get up and play. It’s an education we simply don’t have here in the states.”

O’Connell tells her on the “Crooked” audio commentary that “thinking is the kiss of death” for her. When asked what such a comment could mean to an obvious intellect, Hersh said “I don’t trust brains. I’ve got one, and I use it, but don’t believe intellectuals need to make intellectual music. I’m not bigger than the song. I let the songs talk and don’t let my head get in the way.”

She expounded: “Thinking in something we do in linear time. I will know the truth of a song the first time I hear it and play it, but it shifts and moves, and it can come back and the story will play again with a different meaning. A song isn’t stuck in linear time no more than a personality is.”

The end of the “Crooked” album closes with two songs which suggest the emotional range of this musician. “Flooding” is an incredibly sad song, one that causes its creator to be dispirited just talking about it. It’s followed up by “Rubidoux,” an infectiously frolicking song which was written in the back of “fifty-foot Bob,” the car owned by the drummer of 50 Foot Wave.

“We were traveling, getting gas, and we were next to a car with license plates that said Leisl and the pump which said diesel. They became these German characters as we raced away from the scary frog,” some statue they feared from The Phoenix hotel. One one the song’s lines – “I laugh from the back” – catches the whimsical manner of the day.

Hersh is old school, but also into social media. Minutes before our interview, I note that she has just tweeted: “My husband: You have to stop thinking invisibility is an option… Same goes for time travel.”

When I ask here about it, she quips “Twitter is like passing notes in grade school.” She prefers Twitter to facebook, she says. “Twitter is more zen. You have nothing more in common (with followers) than a couple of lines, helps you make sure you’re not segregating psychologically. They can be form across the world, look different, be different.”

The one-time punk rocker seems to have travelled too far to still be called just that, but she does keep dying her hair.

“I keep trying to dye it dark so it doesn’t look like me. but it keeps washing out. It’s dirty blonde, you might say dishwater blonde. A makeup person called it honey.”

It might be hard for a kid to rebel against a punk parent, but Hersh said her sons gave it a go. “I had some pink hair among my sons, some blue.”

Her sons were all homeschooled, and were always into her music scene, so rebellion proved unnecessary.

One of the strongest songs from Crooked is called “Fortune.” It’s rife with double entendre. She lingers on the line “thick with wonder bread” after the word “wonder,” creating first the impression of mystical magic, then dunks it into soggy bread.

She said the double meaning didn’t occur to her when she wrote it, or even when hesitating in the performance.

“We’re not in control of beauty, but is beauty is surprising and necessary – or it wouldn’t move us,” she said.

Some alternative questions for an alternative artist, answered unflinchingly:

Q: What’s your least favorite color?

A: Amusement park green. Apparently that’s the color my eyes are, a good color to puke by.

Q: What’s your favorite board game?

A: What was it called? Dream Date or Dud Date? The one where you open a door, you don’t know who your date is…

Q: Who is your favorite author?

A: Natalie Angier, the science writer for the New York Times, wrote “Beauty of the Beastly.”

Q: Who is you least favorite musician or musical genre?

A: I hate everything. People either are awesome or suck.

Pastor takes ministry to the Next Level

By Timothy Gillis

PORTLAND –

Pastor Allen Robbins preaches to the beat of a different drummer. The South Berwick native is a percussionist and uses an acoustic rock band to deliver his weekly message from Next Level Church, on Forest Avenue.

In terms of trying to connect with today’s youth, who are not so much agnostic as simply worshipful of technological gods, Robbins said his church tries to meet the kids where they already are.

“We try to use the things that they’re using, like technology,” he said. “Our messages are online, we’re using Twitter and facebook a lot. We try to structure what we do to fit a family’s schedule, with school, soccer… We try to focus our message on the things that people are dealing with.”

Robbins said their Sunday service is similar to those that are professed from other pulpits, the same message that Jesus taught.

“But it’s a different approach. We have a bistro area with greeters and coffee, a place to check your younger kids. We do a lot with multimedia. We have two side screens with a ten-minute countdown (before mass) with slides of upcoming events,” he said. “The band starts with music like Coldplay.” Robbins plays a little bit of piano and guitar, in addition to drums.

“I’m trying to phase myself out. I would rather have new members get ‘plugged in.’ I tell them ‘I want to be able to use your gifts.'”

His musical inclinations extend to his children, especially the eldest, whom he named Cadence. “I’ve been been a drummer since age nine, so I just had to do it,” he said.

He and his wife Maegan met at his father’s church, and have two other children, Alivia and Brooklyn.

“I liked (the name) Olivia, but wanted to make it more alive. And we loved the name Brook, and my wife’s sister’s middle name is Lyn.”

Robbins, who went to Noble and then was homeschooled, said his church is similar to his father’s, the Family Christian Center in Berwick. Allen Robbins, II, has been a pastor there for seventeen years. The Next Level’s pastor, Allen III, says he is simply continuing father’s business. The family influence got him interested. “That, and honestly just a passion for people,” he said.

Next Level Church launched in 2010 and had been portable up until April. Members had been meeting at the Clark’s Pond movie theater – the adults in one theater, three other theaters for kids – until they moved into their Forest Avenue locale, formerly Fournier’s karate studio.

“We gutted it out, had it rebuilt completely,” said Robbins, whose own family is moving to Portland this month, to be closer to his ministry. The concept of Next Level is that it is one church with multiple locations.

“We’re hoping to have twenty churches in New England by 2020,” Robbins said, of the non-denominational Christian variety.

The church is willing to try a big stunt to attract attention. Last Easter, at Payson Park, they let loose more than 10,000 plastic eggs from three helicopter drops over Payson Park. Kids would go out with their age groups and collect them. The church has 130 families in Portland after only two years in October.

“We’re fairly young, but we have seen growth,” he said. “We started with twelve people.” In addition to the egg drop, they have youth events that they plan out during the year. For example, they participate in the “Word of Life Super Bowl,” which starts at the Cumberland County Civic Center. Youth groups from all the local churches in the area convene for a hockey game.

“Then the kids head to different activities in the area like extreme bowling, roller skating, or indoor soccer,” Robbins said.

The latest youth-centered promotion is a backpack giveaway for students heading back to school. During the month, the church is asking people to donate paper, pens, rulers, etc., and the church aims to give away as many as 300 stuffed backpacks, free to area students.

“We’ve just started pushing this on social media a couple days ago, and we already have twenty kids registered so far,” he said.

Parents are asked to visit the website nlc.tv/freebackpacks, and register their student(s) for the giveaway.

On September 2, they will ready to go and available for pickup at the church.
On September 9, Next Level hosts a kids’ carnival, with bouncey houses, a dunk tank, an obstacle course, popcorn and snocones, from 10:30 am to 1 pm, directly after church.

“The whole parking lot will be transformed into a kids’ playplace,” Robbins said. This element of youthfulness is not surprising, especially given Robbins’ own tender age, notable even moreso when contrasted with a stereotypical pastor, venerable and wizened gray. The average age of the staff of Next Level’s three churches in New England is twenty-eight. Lead pastor Josh Gagnon, who lives in Dover, New Hampshire and rotates among the three churches is thirty-two, so “he brought the average up a bit,” jokes Robbins.

The two other Next Level churches are in Danvers, Massachusetts, where services are held in AMC Loew’s Theater in Liberty Tree Mall, and in Newington, New Hampshire. Church members there congregate at Fox Run Regal Cinemas, site of their first church launched four years ago.

Next Level Church are full sponsors at the Sea Dogs home game on Saturday, September 1, where Pastor Gagnon will throw out the first pitch, they will enjoy PA announcements about their group, and they will be giving away a free 42′ plasma TV.

Some may say such an approach is merely a gimmick to fill the pews, even an unsavory mixture of material goods to convey a spiritual message, but Pastor Robbins says they are just trying to share Good News, regardless of the medium.

The Hive Thrums with Poetry, Prose

Writing teachers read their own works

By Timothy Gillis

PORTLAND – Faculty at an intense, weeklong camp for high school writers took to the microphone Wednesday night, to showcase their own creative works and disprove the old adage about those who teach.

Nationally-known authors and some of our own local literatti have been sharing their skills with high school kids this week, as part of the author camp called The Hive, now in its fourth summer at the Telling Room.

Ron Currie, jr., a Waterville native who has broken into the national scene, said there is a perfect word for the environment of a special place that holds dear memories: “thrum.”

CC Davies Robinson, director of the Hive, told this anecdote as she kicked off the reading at One Longfellow Square. Then she called upon a couple of student readers to set the tone for the evening.

Sophie Warren and Ethan Pailes read a “Choreopoem,” a poetic duet wherein the two take turns at the mic, and though the task was hurled at them by surprise, they performed with aplomb.

Robinson returned to the stage to introduce the faculty readers. She said the first reader had, like Currie, invented new words. In a recent published piece, she created the verb “chiapetting,” and described a locale as being like “a medieval village without the bubonic plague.”

Sara Anne Donnelly, journalist and former James Michener Fellow, is in her first year at the Hive, and as a newcomer was lined up to be the first faculty reader. Published in Streetlight Magazine, Mainebiz, and the Portland Phoenix, she also has had audio stories featured on MPBN. She is the Hive’s managing editor.

“I’m a hometown girl raised in Portland,” she said. “And I’m going to read a story called “Skeets” involving another hometown girl, my grandmother.”

She had asked Robinson if she could swear in her reading. She had taken the colorful words out for camp, and then put them back in for the evening performance.

Donnelly’s story describes a few rough characters, spied on in the streets below from her grandmother’s darkened windows.

The Grandmother goes from watching this roughneck character named Skeets to holding him in her arms while he seemed poised for death.

Donnelly tells her funny, sad poignant story with beautiful, parallel phrases, and prose built on poetic cadences. Her voice, well-trained from her work for MPBN, went from caustic curses to wavering emotion when she read through her autobiographical story, crafted in the new language of creative fiction.

Her opening story set a high water mark for others to reach, and displayed once again the literary talent that hails from Portland.

Next, Justin Tussings, whose work has appeared in the New Yorker, read from “The Best People in the World,” his novel published by HarperCollins. His quiet style provided counterpoint to both Donnelly’s polished voice and inflection before him, and the other-world poetry that came next.

Aaron McCollough has published three books of poetry: “Little Ease,” “Double Venus,” and “Welkin.” He is co-editor and founder of the online poetry magazine GutCult. He received his PhD in English Language and Literature from the University of Michigan.

He said his poems were influenced by James Shea, who read later. His four-line poems were delivered consecutively, creating the feeling of an epic haiku.

Taryn Bowe, who read next, works at the University of Southern Maine. Bowe’s fiction has appeared in several literary journals, including the Boston Review, The Greensboro Review, The Beloit Fiction Journal, and Redivider. Her short stories have received a 2010 Robert Watson Literary Prize and a Pushcart Prize nomination. She read an excerpt from “Proper Breathing” a short story about a kid doing stomach exercises with a dictionary to strengthen it for his singing career. Meanwhile, his father, recently returned from the hospital with one less lung, transforms the story title into its double meaning.

Matthew Vollmer read next. He has been published in Tin House, Virginia Quarterly, and Paris Review – publications that Bowe highlighted as being the holy grail for all writers when introducing him.

Vollmer said he was going to read “long-winded epitaphs about myself.”
His first one, titled “#12,” sounded like a Bob Dylan outtake, winding down several side streets before he got to – not even the point – but the end of the sentence. Vollmer uses so many dependent clauses, one almost loses track of the main phrase. The spinning journey is enjoyed in the parentheses, though.

James Shea read some poems from a work called “The Lost Novel.” Shea is the author of “Star in the Eye,” selected by Nick Flynn as the winner of the 2008 Fence Modern Poets Series. His poems have appeared in various journals, including American Letters and Commentary, Boston Review, Mrs. Maybe, and Verse. He currently teaches at Columbia College Chicago and DePaul University.

Amy Amoroso and Andrew Foster also read from their works. Lewis Robinson, who co-founded The Hive four years ago with his wife, CC, read from a forthcoming memoir about an experience with the Moonies cult in California.

“It was the first time I had heard it,” CC said. In addition to the Hive, Lewis has also taught at Stonecoast Writers’ Conference where Bowe was a student. Robinson’s first collection of short stories, “Officer Friendly and Other Stories” won the PEN Oakland/Josephine Miles Literary Award. His first novel, “Water Dogs,” was published in 2009. He is a recipient of the Whiting Writers Award and a National Endowment of the Arts grant.
Curry and fellow Maine celebrity author Jaed Coffin couldn’t be at the reading, but at the Hive this week, they led a “Swarm,” which takes the students out into the streets of Portland to allow place to inspire and influence content.

“Ron led a swarm with Jaed about the theme of place and the difference between being in a store in a strip mall vs being in a specific place that holds a lot of memory and association,” CC Robinson said.

That’s when they both used the word ‘thrum’ to describe a place that held resonant meaning, she said.

Currie wrote “God is Dead” and “Everything Matters.” Coffin write “A Chant to Soothe Wild Elephants” and is due to release “Roughhouse Fridays,” about his bar boxing days in Alaska sometime soon.

The afternoon Swarms bookend the morning “Buzz” with which the Hive instructors start each day. It’s a quick writing exercise to get kids warmed up.

A big difference in this year’s Hive is the advent of a new source for instruction. “This year, we have watched student leadership develop,” CC Robinson said. “Emma MacMullan has been a hive student every year. To see her on the stage last night, holding her own with published authors, was amazing.”

MacMullan was a sophomore at Greely High School when she attended the inaugural Hive in 2009. She has returned each summer. This year, she went to Wheaton College in Massachusetts. She was invited back by the Hive to join them as their managing director.

Alex Balzano went to Casco Bay High School, and was also in the Hive’s first class of 2009. This year, he went to Southern Maine Community College. He returned to the Hive again this summer as an intern.

“It’s exciting that we’ve been around long enough that the students are able to have more of a leadership role this year,” Robinson said. Learn more about the program at portlandhive.org.