Blues Festival rocks Rockland
Rockland — An estimated 8,000 visitors gathered in Harbor Park Saturday, July 14, to watch blues musicians from around the world take the stage against a backdrop of Penobscot Bay.
A team of 70, mostly volunteers, worked to organize the event for the crowd, which soaked up the music along with the blistering summer heat as part of the 19th annual North Atlantic Blues Festival. The event also included 21 food vendors and 19 vendors selling clothes, sunglasses, jewelry and other items in tents around the park. Up and down Main Street, performers both professional and amateur got into the spirit, some playing for the tips dropped in open guitar cases.
Promoter Paul Benjamin said the event has grown over the years. It started in the Trade Winds parking lot, drawing just 1,500 that first year. For the past seven or eight years, it has been consistently drawing 8,000 per day.
Benjamin noted that it is truly an international cast of guitarists, harmonica experts, singers and percussionists playing the park stage with some coming from Europe this year. Other bands from the south and western United States bring a blues feeling to Maine.
Florida guitarist Albert Castiglia said he enjoys coming to Maine because it is beautiful and the people are crazy in a good way. He said everyone is here to have a good time and enjoy themselves and really appreciate good blues music.
The crowd ranged in age from teens and twenty-somethings to dancing, colorfully dressed Baby Boomers. Benjamin said people really do come for the music, adding that no alcohol is allowed or served on the grounds.
He said people often don't realize how much variety there is in blues music until they come.
"If I can get fans here one year, I've got them," he said. "They're hooked."
Many come year after year and now make a week of it, staying in Rockland. Area businesses say it is the busiest weekend of the year.
For artists like Castiglia and the fans, it's all about the love of the music. He said that he has always been playing guitar, not because he had some natural talent, but just because it was what he loved to do. That love shows through in the sound, he said. It also gave him the strength to ignore anyone who ever tried to discourage him.
When he got his break playing with some other musicians in 1997, he gave up his day job as a social worker and said he would never go back to it.
Back stage, harp wizard Rick Estrin of San Francisco was busy laying out a number of different harmonicas in preparation for his set. He said he needed a number of them because they were in different keys and scales, but some were also redundant in case one went out of tune.
He has been playing the blues for 45 years.
"What's the trick?" he said, talking about the harmonica. "Keep it in your mouth." He grinned. "Mess around with it. It's all about the feel."
Asked the best part of performing, he quipped, "I've got no skills and no education, so the best thing about performing is it gives me a job!"
"The great thing," he said, "is you get to express your feelings. Hopefully people identify with you. And you're making them feel good."
As the first day wound to a close, the fans were set loose on the streets of Rockland for the Club Crawl. Blues Festival bracelets get fans into any club for free to listen to the music. Other bands play on the streets for free, offering anyone walking the downtown entertainment.
Benjamin reported before the second day's opening set that there had been one arrest the night before, "because the other of the two local idiots who always get arrested was still in jail from last weekend." The weather was much more comfortable Sunday, July 15, thanks in part to a sea breeze. The crowd was mellow, but still got to their dancing feet, especially for the festival-ending sets by British blues pioneer John Mayall — at 78, this year's most venerable performer — and the festival capper, 2012 Grammy Award winner Chubby Carrier and his Bayou Swamp Band, living up to their reputation as the world's premier zydeco party band.