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Putting Maine on the blues map: Nationally renowned festival turns 25

Carter F. McCall | BDN
Carter F. McCall | BDN
Fans guard themselves from the heat with an umbrella during the North Atlantic Blues Festival in Rockland in this July 13, 2013 file photo.
By Lauren Abbate, BDN Staff

Midcoast Maine might not be the first thought that comes to mind when you think of the blues. Memphis or New Orleans might be more like it.

But since the 1990s, the North Atlantic Blues Festival has been drawing thousands to Rockland for a weekend of blues music on the harbor.

“Blues is a lot more popular in the Northeast than people think,” North Atlantic Blues Festival co-founder Paul Benjamin said. “And national acts love coming to Maine.”

The festival celebrates its 25th year this weekend in Rockland’s Harbor Park, with two days featuring a wide-range of blues acts, from Grammy winner Bobby Rush to festival newcomer Vanessa Collier.

Last year, 15,000 people flocked to the North Atlantic Blues Festival according to Benjamin. That’s a turnout that the festival has been averaging for the better part of the last decade, he said.

Given that the festival started as a small blues concert in the parking lot of a Rockland motor inn, Benjamin said he had no idea the success it would turn out to be.

“When I started this in the [Trade Winds] parking lot, I had no idea.” Benjamin said. “Even when we came to [Harbor Park], no way did we think we’d still be doing this 25 years later.”

The festival got its roots as the Trade Winds Blues Bash, which Benjamin organized from 1990 to 1993 after booking blues bands at various spots in the city since 1978.

Around that time, the local chamber of commerce approached Benjamin with the idea of expanding the festival and moving it to Harbor Park, a city-owned property on Rockland’s waterfront.

In 1994, Benjamin and festival co-founder Jamie Isaacson, brought five blues acts to Rockland for the first official North Atlantic Blues Festival, attracting about 1,500 people.

As the crowd sizes doubled and then tripled in the following years, the festival grew to include a second day, and now boasts about 11 acts each year.

But that’s just during the daylight hours.

On Saturday night, a section of Route 1, which doubles as Rockland’s Main Street, shuts down for the festivals “Club Crawl.” About 10 downtown bars and restaurants host blues musicians associated with the festival. On Main Street, about five blues groups from Maine set up shop for folks looking to turn their evening stroll into a dance.

“We’ve been very welcomed over the years. It took a lot of hard work to convince everyone it was going to work,” Benjamin said. “It’s been a fun ride watching it grow.”

While Rockland might not seem like an obvious place for a blues festival, Benjamin said the expansive nature of blues music helps attract a wide crowd.

“Blues is so widespread,” he said. “A lot of people don’t realize they’ve been listening to blues their whole life.”

The North Atlantic Blues Festival features straight blues bands, Chicago blues bands, Cajun blues bands, soul bands, among other subgenres of blues music. Benjamin said the wide range of music helps not only to attract more festival goers, but to also broaden the scope of their music knowledge.

For the musicians who come to play the festival from the West Coast, Chicago, Mississippi, New Orleans and as far away as Europe, playing a venue in Maine is a chance to broaden their fan base.

“The artists absolutely love coming here and playing [the festival],” Benjamin said. “Maine is on the blues map.”

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