Guster On the Ocean 2019
Words: Sean Moore/ Photos: Kenneth Coles
“Guster: On the Ocean” was a musical experience first conceived in 2017, in which the Boston-based, but Portland-loving band Guster brings their music to their adoring fans in a variety of unique experiences. Guster has sustained a rewarding career as a band for over two decades, thanks in large part to their relationship with their fans. They’ve put out eight albums and toured relentlessly since 1995’s Parachute album. This summer’s “On the Ocean” festivities promised the 20th anniversary celebration of their breakthrough album Lost and Gone Forever with a performance of it in its entirety, which was perhaps a large draw for many of the thousands of fans that attended.
For the inaugural “On the Ocean” concert at Thompson’s Point in 2017, Guster performed nearly half their set with the Maine Youth Rock Orchestra, which I attended and thought the addition of string arrangements brought Guster’s songs to another level. Opening bands for the inaugural weekend included local “music legends” Spencer Albee and The Ghost of Paul Revere, too. The day of the show, the band announced to their fans via social media the location of a free show in the gazebo on the eastern promenade during the early afternoon. Sunday’s concluding activity involved kayaking with the band to Little Diamond Island where they performed another brief show for an exclusive group of fans. Then, 2018’s “On the Ocean” weekend saw the band perform two almost completely different sets over the span of two nights, along with three unique opening acts. The band also performed a short set of songs at the Portland Sea Dogs’ stadium, Hadlock Field, where they threw out the game’s first pitch.
With all of these unique experiences packed into a weekend in early August the past two years, the excitement and anticipation for year three’s festival-like event with Guster had been building for months. 2019 saw the band receive the key to the city of Portland on Friday afternoon and a performance on the historic “patio” of WCYY. Friday night, the band performed an intimate show at the First Parish Church in downtown Portland.
Saturday’s concert event began at 3 p.m. with a very diverse lineup of opening acts, having expanded to four acts this year. Tall Heights started the day off with a 30 minute set of their electro-folk songs. The duo consisting of Tim Harrington (guitarist) and Paul Wright (cellist) amplified their songs with the addition of a drummer and bassist for this set. They sounded great and the small crowd that had gathered on the grounds in front of the stage appreciated the Boston-based band.
At 4 o’clock, with more fans making their way through the gates and onto the grounds of Thompson’s Point, Weakened Friends astonished the crowd with their unapologetically loud, indie rock that reminds me of ‘90s rock that I grew up on. Frontwoman Sonia Sturino’s singing punctuates many of the biting lyrics, often about herself or relationships. As a three-piece band- guitar, bass, and drums- they prove that it’s okay to be loud, much like another three-piece band (re: Nirvana) did in the early ‘90s. “95” is one of those songs that rips from start to finish and really showcases their talent as a trio. It sounded perfect live with the afternoon sun shining. Sturino is always rather self-deprecating when speaking about her band on stage. A crowd could not help but gather towards the stage, perhaps out of curiosity and because they were enjoying what they were hearing. “Hello, we are Weakened Friends, Portland’s most overrated band,” Sturino told the crowd between songs. I beg to differ, and their brief set Saturday afternoon proved they belonged on that big stage. They played songs from last year’s incredible album Common Blah, which was produced by bassist Annie Hoffman. Many of their songs barely breach the three-minute mark, so they were able to pack in plenty of songs in their 30 minute set to peak the interest of the audience and perhaps gain some new fans. It was great hearing “Hate Mail” and “Early” and “Ache” from the band’s debut album. It’s easy to see why the band is considered one of the city’s best, even despite what Sturino may say about that. They are proud to be loud, even though Sonia jokingly apologized, “sorry for the noise,” before blasting into another blistering tune that had the crowd bouncing on their feet.
Switching things up, because if this year’s “On the Ocean” proved anything it’s that diversity is the key to success and keeping things fresh, the soulful Kat Wright and Co. took the stage around 5 o’clock. Their brand of rhythm and blues, mixed with soul was a welcomed addition to the afternoon, as the eight-piece band brought the songs to an audience that perhaps had never heard them before. The appreciating crowd, at this point in the day, had grown in size and was dancing along to Kat Wright’s soothing vocals almost immediately as the band opened their set with “All About You,” and carried on through songs like “By Your Side.” As a band, they haven’t put out new material since their debut album By My Side was released in 2016, but they have been building their fan-base by touring relentlessly and playing many of the jam-band festivals over the past few years. Relying on their live sets and word of mouth, perhaps, Wright and Co. are one of those bands you have to experience live and then you’ll be telling your friends about them.
Rubblebucket had the honor of truly getting the crowd ready for Guster, as their time-slot came right before the headliners. This is a band that knows how to party, as their eclectic sound lends itself to become a dance party. The majority of the crowd gathered on the grass/field for the band’s set of art-pop dance tunes. Between the synth, keyboards, saxophone, trumpet, etc. Rubblebucket had the crowd dancing for 45 minutes. Towards the end of their set, a couple of giant balloon-made octopi made their way into the crowd, as did lead singer Annakalmia. It was clear, when their set ended that everyone knew the party was just beginning and everyone was ready to carry this energy over into Guster’s set.
When Guster took the stage, just after 7:30 p.m., they opened with “Careful” from Keep It Together and everyone in the crowd was singing and dancing along to the music. For their first set, which lasted just about an hour, the band played four songs from their newest album, Look Alive, which is very electronic, including “Don’t Go” and the title track. Perhaps they knew what the diverse crowd, spanning all ages from children to older folks, wanted to hear. The crowd cheered wildly for their favorites like “The Airport Song” and “Satellite.” I watched so many people dancing with each other and just having an all-around good time. The crowd could not have asked for more from Guster, as their entire set (encore, included) offered something from their entire catalogue. After a cover of the Talking Heads’ “(Nothing but) Flowers),” the band took a short break and then returned to the stage and, to everyone’s delight, played their album Lost and Gone Forever (which came out 20 years ago) from start to finish. Of course, the crowd sang along to the widely successful tunes “Barrel of a Gun” and “Fa Fa,” but I listened as everyone seemed to know all the words to all of this album’s songs. Frontman Ryan Miller provided some comic relief at one point when he referenced a Sebastian Bach show he’d attended earlier in the year where Bach told the crowd he was singing all the songs “in the original keys.” He proceeded to improvise a song in a baritone voice about singing in the original key of their titular album, and then told the crowd, he was also singing these 20-year-old songs in their original keys. Everyone applauded wildly. Clearly, this album means a lot to Guster fans. The closing track “Rainy Day” was a highlight for many fans. In lieu of an encore, the band chose not to leave the stage, but instead just continued to play more fan favorites including, “Demons” and “Rocketship” from 1997’s Goldfly.
The band played for almost two and a half hours, during which everyone danced and the vibe was “party” from very early in the evening until the end of Guster’s set. “On the Ocean” has clearly become a must-attend festival of sorts for thousands of Guster fans each year. With the conclusion of this year’s concert event, it leaves fans wondering what next year will bring.