There’s a summer vibe in Winterport

Posted July 30, 2009, at 6:11 p.m.

Phil Pitula had the idea for a music festival in the back of his mind long before he became town manager of Winterport. He and a group of Winterport business and community leaders wanted to bring back the town’s bluegrass festival, which shut down in the mid-1990s, and make it bigger and better.

“One of the first things I said when I became town manager was that I wanted to have a festival for our town,” said Pitula. “I want to promote Winterport, I wanted to promote local music, and I wanted to do something to help the community.”

That was 2006, when the first-ever Winterport Music Festival kicked off on a sunny day in Abbott Park, with headliners the Kruger Brothers, an internationally known bluegrass group. Now it’s 2009, and the WMF has had four years to grow and attract new fans, who come for the great local food and beer, the friendly atmosphere and, most importantly, a full afternoon of music.

This year’s fest, set for 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 1, features a diverse array of local and national blues, folk, bluegrass, country and rock bands, ranging from San Francisco-based roots rockers the Waybacks to local bluegrass powerhouse Anna Mae Mitchell and Rising Tide. Along with fellow homegrown musical festival, the West Market Festival, the Winterport Music Festival has become one of the best opportunities in eastern Maine to see live and local music.

“One of the things we decided from the start was that we wanted to promote Maine music,” said Pitula. “It’s hard to be a musician in Maine, especially for certain genres. There aren’t a lot of venues to play. There’s not a lot of money to be made. We figured this could be an opportunity for all these great local folks to get exposure.”

A musician himself, Pitula used to play bass in the longtime local R&B band Sista Sadie. He knows and loves music, which is something he has passed on to his two daughters, both of whom performed and sang in Hampden Academy musical ensembles. That love of music, passed down through generations, is the reason the WMF is not just a fun party for the town of Winterport — it’s a fundraiser to help other young musicians.

“We fund a $1,000 scholarship each year from the remaining proceeds from the festival, to support a senior from Winterport at Hampden Academy, who wants to study music or the performing arts in college,” said Pitula. “We know how important it is to support the arts. It’s nice to build a little niche for a scholarship like that.”

Arriving just a few weeks before that other festival — the American Folk Festival — the Winterport Music Festival showcases the kinds of acts that are of the same spirit as AFF musicians, but don’t usually get the chance to play there. Pitula sees the WMF as a kind of auxiliary stage to the AFF, that focuses almost solely on local bands.

“I’ve always been surprised by how many comments we get from people that go to both the Folk Fest and the Winterport Music Festival. The talent we have onstage always surprises them. It’s like, ‘Where did these people come from?’ ” said Pitula. “I think it’s really important to both support local stuff and to expose people to new things. You’ve got to do both.”

Gates open at the Winterport Music Festival, set for Abbott Park in downtown Winterport, at 11 a.m. Admission is $5, free for children under 12. For information, visit www.winterportmaine.gov/musicfestival.html.

The Waybacks

Playing what’s been billed as “acoustic mayhem,” the San Francisco-based Waybacks blend rock, bluegrass, folk and smart songwriting chops into an irresistibly fun sound. Mix together the Grateful Dead, Johnny Cash and the Squirrel Nut Zippers, and you’ve got something like the Waybacks.

James Montgomery

Detroit blues man James Montgomery learned from the best in the business — John Lee Hooker, Junior Wells and Gregg Allman — and now he’s got his own fantastic blues band. The man is a contemporary blues harmonica master, still touring constantly and mentoring younger musicians in the tricks of the trade.

Anna Mae Mitchell and Rising Tide

In just a few years, Anna Mae Mitchell and her crack band of Maine bluegrass heroes, known as Rising Tide, have leaped to the top of the list, as far as fabulous homegrown music goes. With their finger-lickin’ good picking, their knowledge of the music, and their intense bluegrass melodies, Anna Mae Mitchell is poised to take center stage on not just the Maine stage — but the national stage as well.

Kayla Wass Band

Kayla Wass has a set of pipes that can just as easily make you weep as they can inspire you to get up and dance. The Hampden-based vocalist has fronted her own band for a few years now, playing country dances all over the state and wowing the crowd with her vocal prowess. It’s no-nonsense, straight up country, and it’s as satisfying as cold lemonade on a hot summer’s day.

Martin Earley

Martin Earley is a 21-year-old college student, living in the greater Boston area, who plays warm acoustic rock music. All the instruments you hear on the recordings are played by him, and he’s done all of his recording without any outside help. He’s a Maine native, now making his way through the Massachusetts indie scene.

Steve Cohen

While he’s essentially a blues artist, Steve Cohen brings in elements of jazz and rock into his sound. He plays both guitar and harmonica, and he’s done it for decades. He’s based in Wisconsin, but is coming to Maine for the week of the show to add to the blues fire at the WMF.

Gilpin Railroad Incident

It’s hard to classify the Gilpin Railroad Incident — are they rock? Country? Pop? Americana? Regardless, they’re a band of fabulous musicians who’ve played together for years, honing some great songs and a killer live show. They’re putting the finishing touches on their debut album, in between semi-weekly gigs in and around their hometown of Orland.

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