ROCKLAND, Maine — There’s the Delta blues. There’s Chicago blues. And, for the last 20 years, there’s been the Rockland blues — thanks to the North Atlantic Blues Festival, an annual event that many say has helped to revitalize the midcoast region.
“It means the world to our city,” Frank Isganitis, Rockland city councilor and innkeeper at the Lime Rock Inn, said Saturday. “It’s an important part of our emerging new economy that is helping us find our new identity for the city of Rockland.”
Each year, the blues festival brings about 8,000 people each day to hear a lineup of blues stars and others play on the Rockland waterfront. To put it into context, the year-round population of Rockland is about 8,000 people.
When the music is done at 7 p.m. Saturday, lots of those people flood the streets of the city for an annual pub crawl event that packs local establishments.
“It’s pretty crazy. The streets have pretty much closed down and it’s just a swarm of people,” said Staci Coomer, executive director of the Penobscot Bay Regional Chamber of Commerce. “It’s a sea of people, which I think makes for excitement for the area.”
Festival co-producer Paul Benjamin said he has heard the blues festival weekend is the busiest of the year on the midcoast. A few years ago the event received an economic enhancement award from the Chamber of Commerce.
“It shows that we spread out quite a bit, and the economic impact does, too,” he said.
The Maine Lobster Festival, which begins its 66th year on July 31, draws more than 60,000 people to the event over its five days.
“Collectively, they’re a big draw for the region,” Coomer said, adding that the summer festival season brings in lots of repeat visitors to Rockland and the surrounding area.
But Isganitis said that the blues festival is different. Most years, the same group of people has stayed at his inn for the North Atlantic Blues Festival and they all have become friends — so much so that the different groups of guests have even vacationed with each other in different places.
“In the last five years, it’s kind of been like a big reunion,” he said. “When everyone checks out, we’re going to be sold out with a waiting list for next year.”
Rockland has developed a robust appetite for the blues during other times of the year, too. Isganitis books blues performances throughout the year at the Time Out Pub on South Main Street that bring diehard blues fans from near and far.
Michael Murphy of Bangor drives down for the North Atlantic Blues Festival and the Monday Night Blues shows at the Time Out nearly without fail.
“I learned a long time ago that music is best experienced in a live setting,” he said. “Having a place to see the cream of the crop of the blues world on an annual basis, and weekly at Monday Night Blues, without having to travel to Chicago, Memphis or even Boston is wonderful.”
He and Benjamin said they were looking forward eagerly to this weekend’s lineup, which included performers who had never played at the festival before, including blues legend Mavis Staples.
“It’s a roster of really fresh people,” Benjamin said. “It’ll be exciting.”
Something special he was looking forward to Sunday afternoon was the surprise presentation of a guitar and music lessons to a handicapped local boy. The gift was part of Raising the Blues, a charitable foundation that the North Atlantic Blues Festival helps support. The charity helps bring blues music to children undergoing medical treatment or who have physical, emotional or educational challenges.
“They do a great job,” Benjamin said.
After the festival is finished on Sunday, he’ll be getting ready for his next venture — the Gloucester Blues Festival in Gloucester, Mass., scheduled for Aug. 10. It’s the second year of the event, which Benjamin is co-producing.
“Last year it went great. We lost money, but you lose money every first year of festivals,” he said. “New England is a pretty big hotbed for the blues. The blues is the blues. It’s the root of all music — and New England does have a pretty big scene.”
That doesn’t surprise Isganitis, who said that the blues fans who come to town are “hard-core enthusiasts” who fill up hotel rooms from Bath to Belfast.
“They’re almost cultish in their love of the blues,” he said.