Welcome To A Blast From The Past.
These articles are archives published at BluesWax as the Blues Beat,
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Originally Published August04, 2004
The 2004 North Atlantic Blues Festival
Harbor Park, Rockland, Maine
By Shawn Henderson
There are a few things that Blues fans need to know when they visit Maine. The first thing is that you can’t smoke in the bars. This is hard knowledge for some, especially considering that smoky juke joints and the Blues go so well together. The second thing you need to know is that we believe in getting our lobsters right out of the ocean and eating them while they still have a punch left in their claws. You won’t find too many of those over-sized fish tanks in the corner stuffed to the rim with tired and listless crustaceans. The last thing you need to know is that Maine is the home of one of the finest Blues festivals in the nation, the North Atlantic Blues Festival (NABF). The first two facts you can throw out and forget if you want, the last fact however is something that should enter into your brain cavity and settle there because believe me, if you are a Blues fan living within a few hundred miles of Rockland, Maine, you are going to want to plan your future summers around the North Atlantic Blues Festival.
I’ve been living in Maine for most of my adult life and have known about NABF for at least seven of the 11 years that it’s been in existence, but this year was the first opportunity that I have had to attend. I don’t plan on missing another one if I can help it and I’d advise you not to miss out either.
The original idea and manifestation of the NABF came in 1994 when Paul Benjamin and Jamie Isaacson decided to hold a “Blues Bash” in the parking lot of a local hotel in Rockland. They kicked the thing off in fine style with a killer lineup that included Susan Tedeschi, J. Geils, Carey Bell, and others, as well as headliner James Cotton. It was the start of a yearly phenomenon that would continue to the present and an idea that would garner both Benjamin and Isaacson with not only praise and gratitude from Blues fans and performers alike, but it also earned them the 2002 “Keeping The Blues Alive” award from The Blues Foundation. They have deservedly joined the ranks of top promoters in the world and their perseverance and dedication to the Blues has paid off again this year with a great festival.
One of the reasons that NABF is so unique is that it is on the water. In fact the back of the stage abuts the seawall and when the sea is more raucous than this weekend, the saltwater splashes up to the stage. The festival is held in a city park on the marina, which is the site of this fishing town’s memorial to last fisherman. Directly behind the stage are folks parked in their boats digging the sound, with kayakers paddle right up to the stage and the lobster and fishing boats are coming in at the piers next to the festival grounds. There really isn’t another festival like it.
I attended this year’s fest in more of a working capacity than as an observer. I worked the weekend in the Blues Revue/BluesWax tent, talking to fellow Blues fans about the music, helping them with their subscription requests, as well as serving the musicians by helping to sell their CDs. I missed some of the experiences of watching the performances from the front of the stage, but helping the musicians as well as the flood of people that visited us was a thrill in its own right and our tent was set up directly to the right of the stage and during lulls in activity I had the best seat in the house.
The two-day event launched at 11 a.m. on Saturday and featured performances by the Blind Albert Blues Band, Sherman Robertson, Cephas & Wiggins, EG Kight, Mark Hummel’s Blues Harmonica Blowout with Paul Delay and Billy Branch, and headliner Bobby “Blue” Bland. The weather was cool and the skies threatened to shower all day, but aside from a few light moments of rain, the day remained overcast but dry and the spirits of those in attendance were high. The Blind Albert Blues Band did a commendable job at kicking off the weekend and really set the tone for the other acts to follow. Frontman Vincent Gabriel is leading local artist who works with the festival and plays in the Club Crawl (more about that later). Texas guitarist Sherman Robertson came on next and kicked it up a notch with a scorching set of guitar-driven songs. Robertson’s band was hot, but saxophonist, “Sax” Gordon Beadle, was absolutely on fire. He added a level of intensity to the set that helped bring out the best in the rest of the band, as well as the audience. After Sherman’s set, we were treated to the acoustic Blues of Cephas & Wiggans. Our publisher has called them a “national treasure” on more than one occasion and now I understand why. Of course they played through their trademark Piedmont and Tidewater Blues styles, but they also reached into their huge bag of songs to pull out some other traditional treats like “Frankie and Johnny” and “Stagger Lee.” John Cephas blew some nice harp on the classic “Key To The Highway.” Cephas introduced the next song by saying, “Whatever happens in life you can have the Blues, it can be happy and it can be sad.” They followed his comment with and an out of season Christmas song that put a collective smile on a crowd that had just found a new favorite act.
EG Kight was up next as she is touring in support of her Handy Award-nominated album, Southern Comfort. This Country singer-turned-Bluesman enchanted the audience with her own songs and covers of her mentor Etta James’ “At Last” and the Blues classic “Crossroads.”I had been told that EG had picked up a new guitarist who had knocked out the members of our editorial team who had first heard him at this year’s Handy Awards in Memphis. His name is Lee Anderson, and he was every bit as good as the rumors. EG joined him for some duets proving that she was no slouch on the six-string herself. She also presented a couple of songs from her upcoming release, Takin’ It Easy. They were as good as should be expected of this fine songwriter and album promises to be another winner for the “Georgia Songbird.”
Things eased up at the tent right before Mark Hummel’s Blues Harmonica Blowout, which was great because it allowed me to actually watch most of the set. Mark Hummel, Paul Delay, and Billy Branch are without a doubt the best group of harpists I’ve had the pleasure to see together on one stage. Each of the trio performed flawless sets on their own, but when they joined each other on stage for the harp jam, the crowd went nuts. This was the highlight of the day for me. I was awestruck at the virtuosity that each of these guys brought to the instrument and the way at which they worked off of each other to bring the passion of the moment to a peak. This harmonica tour do force rolled through several styles, did some call and response, and took turns ripping up a lick before finally closing it up. “Blowout” is right!
After the set, while signing CDs for their fans, the intensity had not died down as more than one die-hard fan came up to Mark Hummel to pledge his or her un-dieing love for him and his music. Mark turned to me at one point and said, “I guess I’ve got a few hard-core fans up here in Maine!” He made a few more during this festival.
The last set of the evening was by the incomparable Bobby “Blue” Bland. I had never seen him perform before and was delighted by his performance. He approached the stage rather slowly and slightly bent over which gave the impression, at least to me, of a somewhat tired, old man. My impressions changed as soon as he started to sing. His voice has obviously aged, but it hasn’t lost the power to move an audience. Unlike the frenetic energy of the previous set, Bland’s performance was intense but smooth. From the moment he opened his mouth I knew he was in complete control of his voice, his band, and the audience. His hybrid style of Blues, Soul, and R&B and the silky way he delivered his love songs gave him a flirtatious command of the audience. He performed the part of the “player” as he sang directly to different women in the audience and I imagined him in his younger days, causing younger girls to flush as he sang “directly” to them, be it on the radio, on a record, or in concert. It was a perfect ending to a fabulous day.
After the first day’s performances the town of Rockland closes down the streets for what they call a “Club Crawl.” The crawl had actually begun on Friday with nine bands playing in venues around Main Street in Rockland. Needless to say our team had to check out some of the acts despite a long day of traveling from all over the country. We caught Blue Steel Express in the basement of our hotel. Their laid-back guitar and fine vocals were a great way to start the weekend, even if the drink prices drove us in search of other spots. We found locals Pat Pepin and Brave New Blues before stopping into a local bookstore where Blind Albert was playing in the window. But that was on Friday night, after a full day at the festival, on Saturday night the little town pulls out all the stops and it’s basically an old time block party with various Blues bands performing in front of, and in, different clubs and restaurants in town. There were over a dozen bands playing within a few blocks. One of the bands playing on the street was the band we had seen the night before Blue Steel Express. A large throng gathered around them blocking a section of the main street, which was closed anyway. We also searched in vain for the jam where Mark Hummel and Billy Branch sat in with another local band, The Blues Prophets. Word was that they rocked a packed house of some pool hall. Music filled street and the clubs and the little town of Rockland closed up late, or early, depending on your perspective.
The Club Crawl continued for a third on Sunday with a couple of Blues Brunches in the morning with performers and a couple of jams hosted by local bands at night after the festival is over. The whole Club Crawl thing is cool and is a great part of the NABF that offers local musicians a chance to participate and for out-of-towners like us as chance to hear the local talent.
Sunday’s weather couldn’t have been better. It was a perfect day in Maine. The sun was bright and warm and the cool breeze coming off the ocean was a delight. Sunday’s lineup consisted of performances by the Steve Bailey Band, Ana Popovic, Kenny “Blues Boss” Wayne, Michael Burks, Bettye Lavette, and Taj Mahal & The Hula Blues Band. The Steve Bailey Band started off Sunday with a short but good set. They won that spot by winning the Maine Blues Society’s “Road To Memphis” competition as part of the International Blues Challenge. I was unfamiliar with Steve’s music and I enjoyed him, but it seemed to me that his performance was a bit tentative. I’m not sure if it was nerves about playing in front of such a large crowd or the last remains of the club crawl, but he seemed to hold back a bit and I couldn’t help but feel like he probably had more in him than he gave. Perhaps this we due to the fact that this assembly of the band hadn’t played together due to the bassman’s recent move to Atlanta.
I hadn’t heard of the next act either and I sure as hell didn’t sense any kind of holding back from this powerhouse. Ana Popovic, an axe-wielding, petite blond from Amsterdam, via Yugoslavia, took the stage and completely took control of the festival. She jumped in with a song called “Don’t Bear Down on Me (I’m Here to Steal the Show),” which is exactly what she did. She reached out and grabbed the audience by the collective soul and didn’t let go for an hour. If each act sets the bar for the next act to reach, Popovic seemingly set the thing out of sight. She wailed through her set with tough and brilliant guitar work as well as gritty vocals and closed up with a great tribute to Jimi Hendrix. After about the third song, fans started lining up at our tent to purchase her CDs. The line stayed steady through her set and through the following set by Kenny “Blues Boss” Wayne. Even after she set her guitar aside, Ana captivated her fans by remaining at our tent for nearly two hours signing CDs and talking to her fans. It seemed that everyone wanted their picture taken with this Blues bombshell. This is just another example of what makes Blues festivals such a success with the fans!
Even though the Blues Revue/BluesWax tent picked up during Ana’s set, I still got a chance to check out part of Kenny Wayne’s dazzling set. Popovic set the bar high and surprisingly Wayne seemed to reach its heights as well. Dressed head to toe in bright orange and cream; Wayne exuded a charm and charisma of days gone by. His flash wasn’t only his attire; this Vancouver-based pianist laid down some brilliant Blues and Boogie Woogie piano riffs and kept the audience bouncing right to the end of his set.
I thought the energy of the day would have to mellow a bit soon, but Michael Burks took the stage at around 2:15 pm and again raised the bar. Like Ana, he attacked the guitar and immediately had the audience enthralled. The energy in the whole park was increased immensely as I listened to Michael burn through originals and covers of Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan. He had been driving since five o’clock in the morning and only pulled in fifteen minutes before his set, but you could never tell as Burks just didn’t want to give up the guitar, but he performed over his time slot by nearly a half hour. The long set was appreciated by the crowd because everyone was on their feet during Burks’ last song and the applause lingered for awhile after he was finally off the stage.
The next act was somewhat of a surprise for me. Bettye Lavette is a powerhouse performer on her own right, but unlike the day’s previous female musician, Lavette’s power lies in her ability to convey the emotional edge of every song she sings. I’ve never seen someone get so immersed in the songs that they were singing. She completely mesmerized the audience with her vocals and with the way that she made us “feel” everything she was telling us in her songs. When she sang about the pain of being used as a women, at suffering through a broken relationship, or just the loss of a love, you could see the torment not only in her eyes, but in her body language as well. When she sang about taking back her power and standing tall and proud, she somehow passed that pride onto everyone that listened. And when she sang about love, we all felt a bit lighter. Is the rare performer who can create an intimate moment for thousands of people at once, but that is the power of this incredible performer. After years of struggling with little recognition, this lady is at the top of her game as she recounted to the audience the experience of receiving her Handy award this year.
The night ended with another legend. Taj Mahal has a similar power over an audience. It doesn’t necessarily lay in his lyrics, delivery or, to be honest, even his considerable musical ability. I think it comes from someplace else entirely and I’m not sure I can put my finger on it. Taj has a way of making everyone feel good just by being Taj. We feel better in his presence because his songs are so fun and his spirit is so giving. The music was phenomenal. His Hula Blues band was in top form, which brought out the best in him. His set started with a great rendition of “Coconut Man” and flowed through many more great tunes, including my personal favorite “Fishin’ Blues.” The highlight of the set was a gift he gave to a young couple in the audience. He invited a young man on stage with his girlfriend. As Taj stepped aside, the young man got down on one knee and proposed in front of Taj Mahal and close to 8,000 other spectators. The obvious overwhelmed fiancé, with tears in her eyes, and without hesitation, accepted his proposal. Upon seeing that she agreed to the proposal, the band broke into the great song “Lovin’ in My Baby’s Eyes.” I really couldn’t think of a better way to end the weekend. Taj and Co. then took the crowd to a new place as they all sang, “The Blues is all right!” The crowd was so enthusiastic that Taj added a couple of extra choruses.
The festival closed up with everyone smiling and fully sated from a wonderful weekend. Then something I hadn’t seen before happened: much of the Maine crowd showed that they were truly part of the festival by gathering up the trash and putting the chairs away. What a great festival and a great weekend. I can’t wait until next year. Taj is right, “The Blues is all right!”
By Shawn Henderson
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