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North Atlantic Blues Festival to rock Rockland

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Blues sensation Christone "Kingfish" Ingram, a teenage guitarist who's already toured Europe. Blues sensation Christone "Kingfish" Ingram, a teenage guitarist who's already toured Europe. (Photo by Ronald Modra)

Beloved music festival marks its 24th year on July 15 & 16

ROCKLAND – No matter which style of blues happens to be your bag, you can be confident that your blues-jones will be sated during the 24th annual North Atlantic Blues Festival, set for July 15 and 16 at Harbor Park in Rockland.

Some of the most celebrated names in blues have appeared at this festival. The 2017 edition promises an especially diverse lineup of internationally renowned blues artists.

Among the artists due to appear this weekend: Shemekia Copeland, Walter Trout, Kelley Hunt, Kenny Neal, Christone Kingfish Ingram, Dwayne Dopsie & the Zydeco Hellraisers, Anthony Gomes, Sari Schorr, Biscuit Miller & The Mix, L.C. Williams & the Driver, and “Harmonicon” – a blues harp summit featuring Sugar Blue, Billy Branch and Jason Ricci.

The complete schedule, including set times, is available at www.NorthAtlanticBluesFestival.com.

The man behind the North Atlantic Blues Festival is Paul Benjamin. While Benjamin spends most of his year dealing with contracts and logistics relating to the North Atlantic Blues Festival and other festivals – including three in Florida, one in Massachusetts and one in Saint John, U.S. Virgin Islands – he is first and foremost a blues fan.

“This one is my baby,” Benjamin says, referring to the North Atlantic Blues Festival. “This one is near and dear to my heart.”

The first edition of the North Atlantic Blues Festival was held in Rockland’s Harbor Park in 1994 but originated across the street in the parking lot of the Trade Winds Inn. From 1990 to 1993. the Trade Winds Blues Bash lured blues lovers from the region with a mix of national and local artists.

According to Benjamin, this year’s edition of The North Atlantic Blues Festival will see between 15-16,000 blues lovers from more than 30 states, several Canadian provinces, and countries as far-flung as England and Norway converging on Rockland for a weekend of nothing but the blues.

As for the act considered the headliner for the festival, Paul Benjamin says that is in the eyes and ears of the beholder.

“It depends on what kind of blues you’re looking for,” Benjamin told me. “Shemekia Copeland will close on Saturday (beginning at 5:00 p.m.) and Walter Trout will close on Sunday (beginning at 4:45 p.m.).”

Benjamin says that Christone “Kingfish” Ingram, scheduled to open on Saturday at 11:15 a.m. following a set by the kids of Midcoast Music Academy’s blues camp, is destined to make many new fans at the North Atlantic Blues Festival.

“He’s an 18-year-old blues guitarist from Mississippi and he could steal the show for the day,” according to Benjamin. “I like to bring in new up-and comers for people who haven’t seen them.”

Benjamin first booked Shemekia Copeland, daughter of the late Texas blues great Johnny Clyde Copeland, more than 20 years ago, when she was just 17.

“Shemeika is really the reigning queen of the blues after Koko Taylor passed away,” Benjamin says. “She keeps her dad’s legacy going by doing one of his songs at every show and dedicating it to him.”

“Harmonicon” – scheduled for Sunday at 1:45 p.m. - features three blues harp greats, including Sugar Blue, perhaps best known for playing harmonica on several Rolling Stones tracks, including “Miss You,” “Some Girls” and “Send It To Me.” Billy Branch is a former member of the Chicago Blues All-Stars, led by the legendary Willie Dixon. And Jason Ricci, a Maine native, was named “Best Harmonica Player” at the 2010 Blues Music Awards. He has recorded with Johnny Winter, Ana Popovic and Joe Louis Walker among others.

“For Harmonica fans, ‘Harmonicon’ will be your headliner,” Benjamin says. “Fans of piano-based blues will consider Kelley Hunt their headliner.”

A member of the Kansas Music Hall of Fame, Hunt has released six albums and has performed on “A Prairie Home Companion” six times. 

“They’re all national touring acts who bring their own thing to the festival,” Benjamin says.

When asked about personal favorite moments from previous editions of the North Atlantic Blues Festival, Benjamin says that there have been “moments that were unforgettable for me.” 

Two years ago, blues legends James Cotton and Eddie Shaw appeared at the festival.

“These are both Blues Hall of Fame members and it was James Cotton’s 80th birthday,” Benjamin remembers. “We had a cake for him backstage and all of the acts got together and sang ‘Happy Birthday’ to him. That was a special moment.”

Cotton’s career began in the early 1950s when he played blues harmonica in Howlin’ Wolf’s band. He died in March of this year.

“Probably the one that’s nearest to my heart was when we had Little Milton with us in 2005 for his last performance,” Benjamin says.

The blues guitarist and singer passed away after suffering a stroke only a few weeks after performing for a rapturous audience in Rockland.

“This was his final public performance,” Benjamin continues. “We happened to be shooting the festival on video and we put out a DVD in Milton’s memory. I presented the CD of the performance to his wife. We had 1,000 of them made and gave them to her so she could sell them on Milton’s website.”

Regardless of which style of blues happens to be your favorite, Benjamin says the North Atlantic Blues Festival offers something for every fan.

“You might come to see one act in particular but it’s my hope that you might see and hear people that you didn’t know about before.”

Even if you can’t make it to see the proceedings in person, all of the music from the North Atlantic Blues Festival will be broadcast live on KISS FM (94.5 FM/97.5 FM/102.5), the official radio station of the festival. For more information on the North Atlantic Blues Festival, call the NABF hotline at 691-2248.  

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