Livin' the blues life
Rockland — “It seems like I just packed this up,” Paul Benjamin said to himself a few weeks ago when he brought the first North Atlantic Blues Festival set-up trailer to Harbor Park. Now in its 21st year, the fest has indeed gotten into a groove. But Benjamin’s founding partner of the annual event wishes it had an even longer history.
“I almost wish we had started 20 years earlier,” said Jamie Isaacson, who lives in Portland these days but comes to Rockland every July to co-produce the fest with Benjamin.
Isaacson has reason to know what the blues scene was 40 years ago, as he was part of it. He’s the keyboard player in the Blues Prophets, arguably the state’s first touring blues band. In addition to filling the somewhat infamous Red Barn bottle club in Monroe on a regular basis, the Blues Prophets played the same circuit, and sometimes the same stages, as the blues greats who performed in Maine and the region in the mid-1960s, artists such as Muddy Waters, Charlie Musselwhite, Junior Wells, James Cotton, Buddy Guy, The Fabulous Thunderbirds and Professor Longhair.
“The Maine audience has had a long history with the blues … we’ve had some great bluegrass and country too,” he said.
Isaacson remembers the famous incident when Musselwhite and Magic Sam showed up in Portland to find their equipment and crew had flown, as they should have, to Portland, Ore.
“They played a concert at the State Theater and then played in Deering Park the next day,” Isaacson said. “I think it was one of Magic Sam's last shows.”
Isaacson said his band served as a first exposure to the blues for a lot of people in Maine — “They found out it’s not crying in your beer, but upbeat, lively music” — and he first began thinking about producing a blues festival in Maine in 1972.
“I was working with Bates College then and thought they were going to fund me,” he said, rattling off first- and second-generation blues greats who were still very active and touring at that time.
It did not come to pass, and the Blues Prophets, who had recorded an album, were beginning to back away from the road as members started families. They never disbanded, however, and recently hit the studio to record “Keep on Jukin’,” a CD that pays tribute to the music the Blues Prophets have been devoted themselves to for more than four decades. The band will be performing with Rockland native, and original member, D.W. Gill on harp up front during Saturday’s Club Crawl — without Isaacson.
“I can’t do it. When the festival’s on, we’re up at 4 in the morning,” he said.
Isaacson said he is particularly proud of the great Southern-based blues artists they have been able to bring to the festival stage including Bobbie Rush and Denise LaSalle; and other greats now departed such as Koko Taylor, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, Little Milton and Cary Bell.
“All are great artists that Paul and I have been able to bring to Rockland. Now we just hope for good weather but even if it’s not, it’s still a great event and a great crowd,” he said.
For complete information on the blues fest, visit northatlanticbluesfestival.com.
Blues fest basics
The North Atlantic Blues Festival gates at Rockland’s Harbor Park will open 9 a.m. Saturday and Sunday, July 12 and 13, rain or shine. For those who did not get their tickets ahead of time, admission bracelets are $35 at the gate each day for adults; $5 for children age 6 to 12; and free for younger kids. No pets, coolers, sun umbrellas, alcoholic beverages or video recording are allowed on the grounds; lawn chairs, blankets, sunscreen and sunglasses are recommended.
The official festival program, produced by Courier Publications LLC, is already around town and will be available on the grounds. Following is a preview of this year's lineup. In between acts, the side stage will host teen siblings Cole and Logan Layman, who perform as In Layman’s Terms.
• 11 a.m. to noon: Young Mississippi-based blues guitarist, vocalist and songwriter Jarekus Singleton melds hip-hop wordplay, rock energy and R&B grooves with contemporary and traditional blues.
• 12:15 to 1:15 p.m.: Powerhouse vocalist Teeny Tucker, daughter of Tommy “Hi-Heel Sneakers” Tucker, is known for delivering the “real-deal, allakazam blues wham.”
• 1:30 to 2:35 p.m.: Boogie-woogie and bluesman Victor Wainwright picked up the Pinetop Perkins Piano Player of the Year Blues Music Award in May and is ready to demonstrate why.
• 2:50 to 3:55 p.m.: C.J Chenier and the Red Hot Louisiana Band are bringing on the zydeco gumbo, spiced with funk, soul, jazz and Motown.
• 4:10 to 5:25 p.m.: The Golden State-Lone Star Revue, fronted by Mark Hummel, Little Charlie Baty and Anson Funderburgh, combines the best of California and Texas blues.
• 5:40 to 7 p.m.: The Mannish Boys had to bow out last year but will close the 2014 fest’s first day with fresh takes of classic, true-to-roots blues.
Saturday night club crawl
Main Street will be closed to traffic and open to the blues beginning 9 p.m. This year's Saturday night club crawl will put Bonnie Edwards & Practical Cats, Juke Rockets, Matt and the Barnburners, The Blame Hounds and Sideways Highways on the street; D.W. Gill and the Blues Prophets at The Chowder House and Erin Harpe & the Delta Swingers at the Speakeasy, both at Trade Winds Motor Inn; Family Banned at The Landings Restaurant;
Brave New Blues (upstairs) and the open blues jam with Poke Chop (downstairs) at Time Out Pub; Eric Green at Myrtle Street Tavern; Pat Pepin at Trackside Station; Downeast Soul Coalition at FOG Bar & Cafe; Blue Steel Duo at Rock Harbor Restaurant & Pub; and Blind Albert Blues Band at Waterworks Restaurant & Pub. Note that most of these clubs also will offer live blues music Friday night, July 11.
• 11 a.m. to noon: Who is that guy on this year’s festival poster? It’s Mr. Sipp, “The Mississippi Blues Child,” opening Day 2 with International Blues Challenge winning style.
• 12:15 to 1:20 p.m.: Blues guitarist Joanna Connor brings it all: modern blues, slide guitar and blues rock, influenced by funk, rock, jazz, world music and as the Delta blues.
• 1:35 to 2:45 p.m.: Melvin Taylor is one of the great multi-genre guitarists, revered in rock, blues and jazz circles around the world.
• 3 to 4:15 p.m.: Let the four-guitar rack be a clue; the great Jimmy Thackery and the Drivers promise an avalanche of rock blues.
• 4:30 to 6 p.m.: Progressive blues guitarist, singer, songwriter and producer Joe Louis Walker is in the Blues Hall Of Fame for good reason and after sharing it, he will share the stage with all of Sunday’s guitar heroes to end the festival.
Sunday, before and after
There are blues club options Sunday, as well. Blues brunch will be served at Time Out (Pat Pepin) and the Trade Winds’ Chowder House (Eric Green) starting 9 a.m. And two 8 p.m. open jams, to which festival performers occasionally pop in, will take place, hosted by Brian McClean at Time Out and The Blame Hounds at The Speakeasy.
A&E editor for Courier Publications, LLC
(207) 594-4401/4407, ext. 115
Dagney has been providing Courier coverage of the local arts scene since 1985 and has helmed the multi-paper A&E section since it debuted in 2003. She has been a local performing artist, community and professional, for more than 30 years and spent a decade writing, producing and announcing on-air for several Midcoast radio stations. When not in the NewsNest, Dagney likes to be in motion.