North Atlantic Blues Festival Rockland, Maine
July 12-13 2008 :: By Mark Goodman
It actually does get warm in Maine. Contrary to my preconception, it was a beautiful, warm day to kick off the 2008 North Atlantic Blues Festival. The festival is held in Harbor Park, which touches the edge of Penobscot Bay in this bucolic New England fishing town. The festival is the brainchild of Paul Benjamin and partner Jamie Isaacson, and was the fifteenth edition. This duo is hands-on responsible for one of the best- organized festivals of the year. One thing to keep in mind though, the site is a city park so no alcohol is permitted on the grounds. If you need to imbibe, you can visit one of two establishments that border the grounds and never lose site of the stage. The only problem is that the lines can sometimes be long if you go between sets, so plan accordingly. There is no problem with re-entry so you can leave the grounds and take a break from the festivities at any of half a dozen restaurants and watering holes within one block of the park. One thing to consider if you are planning to attend from out of town, there are limited accommodations in this small town, so plan ahead or plan to drive a little ways each day.
By the time I walked onto the grounds ninety minutes before the start time, there were already several thousand hungry fans staking out the prime locations for festival opener Lil’ Dave Thompson . I have to admit, I had not heard Mr. Thompson before and didn’t quite know what to expect. A lot of festival organizers utilize local acts to kick off their events for two reasons. One, to keep expenses down and two, to give their local acts some exposure and the opportunity to share the spotlight with international touring artists.
This was not to be the case with today’s as Lil’ Dave Thompson has been playing guitar and touring since his late teens and made his first record with Fat Possum at 24. In 1996 he garnered two W.C. Handy Award (now known as the Blues Music Awards) nominations for Best New Artist and Best Contemporary Album for Little Dave and Big Love . He later went on to record with Electro-Fi records out of Canada, and his latest release, Deep In The Night, is now available. His style is more contemporary guitar Blues in a trio format. He didn’t waste much time with patter, just got down to the business of making music.
In between acts on the main stage, the promoters had set up a performance area just to the right of the stage where the fans stood in line to meet the artists and get CDs and T-shirts autographed. The artist for this area for the entire festival was Roger “Hurricane “Wilson. He played solo with a mix of acoustic and electric Blues, with some Americana thrown in for good measure. He is a talented guitarist as well as singer and songwriter. It certainly made standing in line much more pleasant and he does a mean Johnny Cash.
Next up was Texas Bluesman Andrew “Jr. Boy” Jones. Jones got his first break when he was introduced to Freddie King in 1965. He played with King for a couple years around the south before moving on. In 1973, he rejoined King and remained with his band till shortly before King’s death and was featured on one of his last live recordings, Larger Than Life . Jones moved to California where he eventually ran into Charlie Musselwhite. He joined Musselwhite and played in his band for eight years before deciding to head out on his own. Jones is a guitarist in the best Texas tradition and is quite talented at those slow, smoking solos that I find an essential element of my favorite type of Blues.
Next up was harmonica man James Whiting, better know as Sugar Blue. As a youth, Sugar Blue was exposed to performers such as Billie Holiday and Big Maybelle. His mother was a singer and dancer at the famed Apollo. He started as a street musician before moving to Europe in the late 1970s. There he met the Rolling Stones and played on several of their recordings such as Some Girls, Tattoo You, and Emotional Rescue. After returning to the States in 1982, he began working with some of the Blues greats of Chicago. He toured with Willie Dixon as part of the Chicago Blues All-Stars . Sugar Blue won a Grammy in 1985 for his work on the Blues Explosion album recorded live at the Montreux Jazz Festival. His style is unique in that it has a jazzier sound similar to early Stevie Wonder Lead Belly was at the festival. The highlight of his set was an extended version of “Messin’ With The Kid.”
Lurrie Bell followed Sugar Blue. Bell has seen a considerable increase in his exposure since the release of his latest record, Let’s Talk About Love,. The son of the late Carey Bell has had reason to sing the Blues over the last couple years. He lost his dad and his long-time companion Susan Greenberg within a few months. A great example of Chicago-style Blues, Bell spent several years with \b Koko Taylor\b0 ‘s band before stepping out on his own. He is fond of extended solos, which are all right with me. He does a lot of Blues standards in his live set such as “Sweet Little Angel ,” which featured a very nice piano solo, to the Muddy Waters’ anthem, “Got My Mojo Working.” Lurrie Bell has shown what the power of music, especially the Blues, can do for a person who is working through hard times.
Following on the heels of Mr. Bell was the Gospel-flavored Blues of Ruthie Foster. Foster has really come alive in the past year with her 2007 Blue Corn release The Phenomenal Ruthie Foster. The record was produced byPapa Mali She has gained international attention due in part to her friendship with Eric Bibb. He took her on one of his Europe an tours and even got her equal billing.
Ruthie plays acoustic guitar while dancing barefoot about the stage looking somewhat like a female Bob Marley . And there were some Reggae rhythms mixed in with her Gospel and Folk Blues. For Foster’s show the crowd grew noticeably to about six thousand people by my guesstimate. Her band also featured an organ, which added that church choir background for her soulful tunes. With the bright afternoon sun shining directly in her face she noted, “I’m playing in God’s spotlight today.”
Walter Trout would be the closer for this fantastic first day of Blues by the bay. At the 2007 event, Trout was forced to shorten his set when the heavens opened and drove him from the stage. This year he couldn’t have asked for better conditions.
Trout brings a bit more edge to the Blues than the preceding performers. While he still can get down and dirty if he wants, I think his comfort zone tends to lay more in the Blues-Rock world. His version of Hendrix’s “Red House” is second to none. He opened with the tune “I Believe My Time Is Gone” from his recent release, The Outsider. It took the crowd on the makeshift dance floor a few numbers to shift gears from Foster’s easy dance rhythms to Trout’s more frantic pace. They finally got it sorted out and the floor was writhing with bodies once again. One of his slower songs is a cut off the new record titled “Matter Of The Heart, a power ballad in the Journey vain.
So ends the first day of the 2008 North Atlantic Blues Festival. Unlike most festivals, the fans leave their chairs unattended overnight to reserve their prime real estate for the next day. These Maine fans have some good ideas when it comes to a festival.
Ah, but wait, the party’s not over. The city actually closes down Route 1 (the main street) for several blocks for the “Pub Crawl.” Several venues, including the premier Blues club in town, the Time Out Pub, featured music by local acts. There was also the possibility of a jam session, such as when Sugar Blue delighted the patrons of the Time Out with a 45-minute jam.
Day Two begins with a thirty-nine mile drive from my hotel in Belfast down to Rockland. That’s what happens if you don’t book your rooms early! It’s a pleasant drive so the time goes by rather quickly. One note of warning when driving in Maine: the pedestrian crosswalk is holy ground. The Mainers are accustomed to drivers stopping, so pay attention!
Melva “Chick” Rodgersgot things hopping right out of the chute. In the vain of Koko Taylor and other ladies of the Chicago Blues, she is 105 pounds of raw energy. After a few numbers to get really warmed up she started working the crowd like a tent revivalist. She had them on their feet and screaming with her version of “Long Time Coming.” She dialed it up a notch by jumping right into “Got My Mojo Working” and “Sweet Home Chicago.” The crowd of at least three thousand Sunday morning faithful never left their feet for the remainder of her performance. That was going to be a tough act to follow as evident by the number of people in her autograph-signing line.
Another Chicago native followed Ms. Rodgers, the other son of Lonnie Brooks, Wayne Baker Brooks. Brooks’ style of Hip -Hop and Funk-laced Blues differ considerably from the other members of his legendary family. Playing in his father’s band when he was still a teenager gave him a solid foundation in the Blues. He has taken that experience and has begun to forge his own unique style.
Next up, one of the hottest acts in the Blues today, Contemporary Female Blues Artist in 2006 and 2007 and a 2008 B.B. King Entertainer of the Year nominee Janiva Magness. Magness appeared slightly hobbled before the show, sporting a cane and sprained ankle. However, when the curtain rose (so to speak, as it was an outdoor stage), there was no indication of limited mobility. Magness has a great connection with the audience and likes to vilify MCA for turning her down because she was too old at a whopping twenty-four. Well, here she is burning up the Blues circuit and where’s MCA? Well I guess they were too old to hang. She then noted, “Blues is the only music genre where, if we persist, we increase in value.” Magness doesn’t try to hide her age, she actually flaunts it. Maybe, because she looks so damn good at it.
Besides being an incredible singer, songwriter, and performer, she is backed by a crackerjack band and guitarist Zach Zunis is a perfect fit for her style and showmanship. Magness has the ability to make you laugh, but can turn the other way and just as easily make you cry. She is a master in her ability to convey raw emotion, hurt, and loss. It’s almost impossible to see her perform “You Were Never Mine” and not get a lump in your throat. Magness has signed with Alligator Records and her latest release, What Love Will Do, has her exploring her soulful side and contains my personal favorite, “I Won’t Be Around.” Magness speaks from the heart and from experience when she sings of loss and love, pain and joy. Despite a tragic childhood she is an incredible success story and further testament to the healing powers of music. Magness is also the national spokesperson for The Casey Family Programs and a staunch supporter of foster care.
After that exhilarating set was Rod Piazza and the Mighty Flyers. Rod’s wife, Honey, is a great pianist and showman and she really livens up the set. She is a perennial nominee for Best Instrumentalist-Piano at the Blues Music Awards.
(I want to take a break from the music for a second and tell you about the food accommodations Paul Benjamin had arranged for his artists. As I noted earlier, the stage backs right up to Penobscot Bay. He had two lobster boats tie up in a slip just behind the stage and when the performers were finished with their show, they could go down to the boat and were served fresh lobster, clams, mussels, and stone crab right out of the pot. No wonder artists like this festival so much. However, if you are going to be performing at next year’s festival, you might want to bring your own bib, especially if you’re wearing a navy blue suit. Right, Zach? And apparently Janiva Magness doesn’t like to eat anything with heads or body parts.)
We finally wound down to the last act. Elvin Bishop would bring down the curtain on this year’s festival. Sporting new coveralls and a shiny, new, red Gibson 335, he kicked right in with “Stealin’ Watermelons.” By the third song, “I’m Gone, ” he was back to his old standby, the faded and modified Gibson he has been playing for many, many years. Bishop was backed by second guitarist “Mighty” Mike Shermer. While Bishop handled all the slide work, Shermer did most of the other lead duties.
Bishop still works that Oklahoma hayseed bit for all it’s worth, but has lived in Chicago and San Francisco most of his adult life. He began his rise in the Blues world as an original member of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. He then reached national acclaim when he rode the rise of Southern Rock with the Elvin Bishop Band, featuring Mickey Thomas on vocals. He had several top 40 hits, including “Fooled Around And Fell In Love” and “Travelin’ Shoes.”
Bishop noted, “It’s nice to finally see a beautiful day. Seems everywhere we played this summer there was some kind of natural disaster. In California, the whole state is on fire. Last week in the Midwest everything was under water!” He immediately jumped into “What The Hell Is Going On.” He did a great version of “Travelin’ Shoes,” which featured duel lead guitar solos with “Mighty” Mike.
To mix things up a bit, Bishop went down into the audience and chose a young lady to accompany him back onstage. He had her help with his strumming, just to show how easy it was. He then rocked it up a little with some fine solo picking to complement his searing slide. He then sat down and did a tender instrumental version of “Fooled Around And Fell In Love.”
By the time he was ready to wind it up, they were dancing in the isles. He was not allowed to leave without coming back for a couple more. Even when the show was over, he had hundreds in line to buy CDs and get them signed. It was well over an hour after his show before he got up from the signing table.
As the sun finally began to set on the 15th North Atlantic Blues Festival another unusual local phenomenon occurred. Everyone picks up trash on their way out! By the time the park is cleared of fans, the grounds were spotless. Now that’s a habit that should be a part of every Blues festival! Just think how many more venues would be thrilled to have one. Next year’s dates for the North Atlantic Blues Fest are set for July 11 and 12. We’ll see you there!
Mark Goodman is a contributing editor at BluesWax. Copyright Visionation, Ltd 2004. All Rights Reserved with limited rights offered to artist and their agents for publicity purposes only with proper citation to BluesWax.
A BluesWax Reprint – Originally ran in BluesWax issue #414 on 09/11/2008