Blue skies break for rockin’ blues fest

Posted July 12, 2009, at 8:14 p.m.

The only thing bluer than the skies above Rockland on Saturday and Sunday was the music filling the streets as thousands from Maine and beyond gathered for the North Atlantic Blues Festival.

Blues artists from around the country performed at the festival, which is in its 16th year. Co-producer Jamie Isaacson said about 7,500 to 8,000 people typically turn out each day and attendance this weekend was strong as spectators listened to a dozen bands play the blues with scenic Rockland harbor as a backdrop.

“It’s really the first week of summer we’ve had here with all of the rain in June,” Isaacson said Saturday afternoon. “I think people are just ready to get out and do something.”

The festival has grown into one of Rockland’s biggest annual events. After the Saturday performances on the main stage, the music spread throughout town as bars and restaurants hosted more than a dozen additional bands. Main Street was closed to traffic during the annual “club crawl.”

Michael and Patricia Dearborn of Hampden said they enjoy the festival so much they convinced friends from Texas to visit this weekend.

“It’s just a great show, a great festival,” said Michael Dearborn, who has been attending the event on and off for more than a decade.

“There just is not a better festival than this one,” added Patricia Dearborn while taking a break from dancing with her husband on Saturday. “When it makes you want to get up out of your chair, it’s great music.”

The first festival began in 1994 as a one-day event that drew about 1,500 people. Today, the hotels and restaurants in this seaside town — far from what would normally be considered “blues country” — are packed with music lovers all weekend long.

Stetson Pierce of Pittston was sporting a T-shirt from the 1999 festival on Sunday but said he has been to so many blues festivals in Rockland that he has lost count. Pierce, who particularly likes the Chicago blues style, said the show seems to get bigger and better every year.

“I like the people. It’s very friendly,” he said. “And I like the blues.”

James Beaulieu, or “J.B.” to most people, is one of the Rockland business owners who particularly enjoys the annual festival. His business, the Time Out Pub, sits adjacent to Harbor Park and is often packed with patrons enjoying the music and a drink from his deck and outdoor bar. While he described the club crawl as “crazy,” he said the crowds are always well-behaved.

“Best weekend of the year,” said Beaulieu.

Featured performers included Bobby Rush, Saffire — The Uppity Blues Women, Zac Harmon, Eden Brent, Joe Louis Walker and Kenny Neal’s Family Reunion. One of the new bands added this year — a trio of teenage brothers called Homemade Jamz Blues Band — received an enthusiastic response from the audience Saturday.

“It’s really exciting to see young people get involved, and the crowd went crazy,” Isaacson said.

On Sunday, festival co-producer Paul Benjamin thanked the crowd for turning out and pledged to continue bringing the blues to midcoast Maine for years to come.

“This festival is not going anywhere,” he said to the crowd’s enthusiastic approval.

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