Celtic and blues music have more in common than you’d initially think. Both are considered music of oppressed people, both have rich, century-spanning traditions surrounding them, both have influenced countless contemporary musicians, and both are wildly popular worldwide.
The Maine Celtic Celebration has grown steadily over the years, attracting several thousand festival-goers last year to enjoy music, dancing, workshops and an assortment of fun, family-friendly outdoor events. Matt Smith, a Holden native and one of the volunteer organizers of the celebration, has been involved from the beginning — as a musician at first, in the Maine Irish pub band the Napper Tandies. His band will perform at the festival this year as well, at 3:30 p.m. Sunday, but Smith and fellow Napper Tandy Chris Brinn have taken on the task of organizing the music aspect of the event.
“We’ve really tried to make every event this year bigger and better planned,” said Smith. “Chris and I are really involved in the Celtic music scene in Maine, so we’ve got a really good, diverse lineup of folks, and new this year is an informal Saturday jam session at the Boathouse after the main performances are over. It’ll be intimate and a great way to see people up close.”
Some of the performers this year include guitarist John Doyle and accordion player John Williams, both founding members of internationally renowned Irish group Solas.
“There’s no one better doing what they do today,” said Smith. “It’s an amazing opportunity to get to see some of the best Irish musicians in the world for free.”
Other performers include Irish flautist Hanz Araki, Portland flute and harp duo Naia, Irish rock band Prydein, Portland Celtic trio the Press Gang, Canadian entertainer Frank Taylor the Flying Scotsman, fiddle guitar duo Stanley and Grimm, and fiddler Jennifer Armstrong.
Returning events include the Celtic Dog Breed Show and Flyball demonstrations, the Wellington Boot Toss, and the annual U.S. National Cheese Rolling Competition, in which participants roll a wheel of cheese down a track, set for 1 p.m. Sunday. Also returning are an enlarged, improved version of the annual Highland Games, at 8:30 a.m. Sunday. Competition favorites include the Scottish hammer toss, the caber toss, the open stone put and the heavy weight throw. There is no admission fee, but festival-goers are encouraged to donate.
Meanwhile, Rockland hosts the North Atlantic Blues Festival — one of the most popular events in Maine every year. Last year, the festival attracted more than 8,000 attendees, who come out for sun, fun and sweet, sweet blues. It’s become a tradition in Maine for both locals and tourists, who relax on the festival grounds during the day and let loose during the evening “club crawl,” which features local bands in bars and restaurants and on the street.
“It started out as a hobby,” said Paul Benjamin, who, with Jamie Isaacson, started the festival in 1994. “But with its growth, expanding from a one-day festival to a two-day festival and adding the Saturday night club crawl, we now work on the festival year-round.”
Advance ticket sales for the two-day festival ended earlier this week, but passes are available at the gates, with one-day passes set at $35 and two-day passes set at $70. Some of the blues luminaries taking the stage will include guitarist and longtime Eric Clapton associate Robert Cray; the Brooks Family Reunion featuring Lonnie, Ronnie and Wayne Brooks; singer and guitarist Magic Slim and the Teardrops; acoustic blues songwriter Eric Bibb; the road warriors L’il Ed and the Blues Imperials; and soulful Chicago bluesman Eddy “The Chief” Clearwater. Music starts at 11 a.m. and goes until 7 p.m. Saturday and 6 p.m. Sunday.
Benjamin says the festival is a boon to downtown merchants, who see increased foot traffic all day and especially just before and during the club crawl, which starts at 9 p.m. Saturday. But for Benjamin and most of the festival-goers, it’s really just about having a good time.
“[I look for] the same thing I look for every year,” said Benjamin. “The look on the smiling faces of the fans and the artists enjoying performing and being appreciated by our great audience.”