New London — At its core, the I AM Festival — the 14-hour long, free indie music and arts goodtime-alooza held Saturday in downtown — is about discovery.
It's about an open-minded music fan finding out about a band they've never heard before. It's about a band from elsewhere making fresh fans in a new place.
And it's about legions of young people and newcomers discovering what New London can be when it's at its very best, doing what no place around here can do better — rock out.
With headliners such as the anticipated proto-punk Death, the indie-rocking Cymbals Eat Guitars and Connecticut music legend Mark Mulcahy, the festival had its most muscular line-up in recent years.
Although it began to drizzle late in the festival, last year's apocalyptic wind and rain were replaced this time by kind sunshine and pitch-perfect temperatures, and the seventh edition of I AM Festival had its attendees and organizers in high spirits.
"We've had glorious weather and the crowds have been steady," co-organizer Rich Martin said. "I'm quite pleased, indeed."
This is the second year organizers staged I AM Festival in the heart of downtown New London after five years at Waterfront Park, which many felt cut off the show from the rest of the city.
Co-organizer Sean Murray said the former venue felt "detached and sparse."
Alluding to the crowds traversing between the two main stages — on Parade Plaza and at the Hygienic Art Park — Murray said, "This is how it should be."
In addition to the main stages, the 25 bands on the bill also played at the Telegraph record shop, at 33 Golden Street and at New London's indie home base, the Oasis.
"This is much better (than on the water)," said the New London-based DJ Chumzilla — Adam Mathiason when the headphones are off. "It gives you a chance to take a break instead of being at the same site all day."
In addition to the music, I AM featured an array of vendors selling everything from art to jewelry, to paintings, to vintage T-shirts.
Adam Lodynsky and Jaimee Dormer of Coast to Coast Mobile Vintage pulled up in their store, a converted 1976 Serro Scotty trailer filled with '80s and '90s duds.
"We're both from Connecticut, so to come here is great," Lodynsky said.
Artist Danielle Duncan of Hartford, who was selling her psychedelic dreamcatchers and paintings on a closed-off lower State Street, said she had sold a few things and was enjoying listening to some of the punk-edged acts that played in the afternoon.
"I hadn't heard of any of these bands, but I like learning about more local music," she said.
Also this year, I AM had another go at one of New London's hardest locks to pick — how to lure the college students downtown.
This year, Mitchell College's radio station had a booth, as did WCNI, Connecticut College's venerable alternative music institution.
But what seemed to work best was the quirky pop sextet Camp, a band comprised of Conn students and graduates, which enjoys a loyal following on campus.
Camp singer-guitarist Liz DeLise, who graduated last month, said the I AM Festival attracted a following during her years at the school.
"It has the coolest music," she said. "I think more students are going to keep coming into the city."
But Bo Clay, a Conn junior keen on seeing Death perform, said many students on campus didn't know about the festival, perhaps to their detriment.
"I think this is a great thing that helps bring people together," Clay said.
In addition to local bands such as Fatal Film, Slander and Straight to VHS, the festival welcomed other groups from around the state, including the Hartford-based Violent Mae, which played a well-received afternoon set of Velvet Underground-inspired country-ish tunes at the Telegraph.
Singer-guitarist Becky Kessler said her band had never played New London before but were taken with the place.
"This is really awesome," Kessler said. "I wish I lived closer to this city."