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Get your mojo workin’ at the North Atlantic Blues Festival

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Ruthie Foster. Ruthie Foster. (photo courtesy of the artist)

ROCKLAND - Blues lovers from around the world are fixing to pitch a wang dang doodle at this year’s 26th edition of the North Atlantic Blues Festival, set for Saturday and Sunday, July 13 and 14 at Harbor Park in Rockland.

“There’s something at this festival for every blues fan,” says Paul Benjamin, founder of the North Atlantic Blues Festival and a member of the Blues Foundation in Memphis, Tennessee.

“If you like female vocalists, Texas blues, Mississippi blues, Chicago blues, piano-based blues – you’ll find a lot to like at this year’s festival,” he said. “We try to represent as many different styles of blues as possible with our festival lineup.”

Benjamin says this year’s edition of the North Atlantic Blues Festival will feature seven acts making their first festival appearance with four others that last appeared years ago.

“There’s so much great talent out there, we try to keep the lineup fresh each time,” Benjamin explained of his methodology used to determine the festival’s artist lineup each year.

“We have a five-year rule that if you play the festival, it will be at least that long before you can play it again,” he added.

Part of the fun of booking acts that have never played the festival before is seeing and hearing the audience respond so enthusiastically to new talent, Benjamin says.

“I travel a lot for the Blues Foundation, and doing six other festivals around the country, so I get to see a wide variety of talent,” he said. “It’s fun to bring them to Maine where I know 99 per cent of the audience is seeing them for the first time. I love seeing the crowds blown away by the talent they discover at this festival.”

In addition to founding the North Atlantic Blues Festival, Benjamin produces blues festivals annually in Florida, Gloucester, Massachusetts, St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands, and he MC’s and stage-manages a blues festival in Denmark.

The North Atlantic Blues Festival has a reputation among blues lovers and musicians alike as being one of the genre’s premiere festivals. Benjamin’s dedication to treating and presenting the music and the musicians with utmost respect and reverence has put coastal Maine on the map as an essential blues destination.

Benjamin says he’s a blues fan first and festival manager second.

“It is a business but these are also my friends. I’ve been to their homes and they’ve been to mine. There are no egos with these musicians. They’re happy to be here.”

In 2018, Benjamin wrote a book chronicling the festival’s rich history titled “Heart of Blues: 25 Years of the North Atlantic Blues Festival.”

In addition to the book, NABF attendees will also be able to acquire a new documentary film about the festival, said Benjamin.

“We’ve been filming and recording the festival for years and we have a triple DVD documentary film coming out. It’s three hours and 45 minutes long and documents the whole history, including past performances and interviews. It will be available for the first time at this year’s festival.”

I asked Benjamin to share some thoughts on each of this year’s scheduled performers at the North Atlantic Blues Festival.

Joe Moss (Saturday at 11:15 am): “Joe is a tremendous Chicago blues guitarist and he’ll be making his first appearance at the festival.” Moss was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2013.

Annika Chambers (Saturday at 12:30 pm): “Annika Chambers just won a Blues Music Award in Memphis for Solo Female Artist of the Year, which is basically a blues Grammy Award. This will be her first festival appearance.

Carolyn Wonderland (Saturday at 1:45 pm): “I’ve been trying to bring her to the festival for years but could never work out the dates. She doesn’t make it to New England very often because she’s a west coast girl but I’m really excited about her. I think she’s going to blow people away.”

Rick Estrin & The Nightcats (Saturday at 3:15 pm): “They’ve won numerous Blues Music Awards in the past. He’s an incredible harmonica player with a phenomenal band that has been together for years.”

Sugaray Rayford (Saturday at 4:45 pm): Sugaray won the male solo blues artist of the year at the Blues Music Awards. He was here way back as lead singer for the Mannish Boys. When they broke up, he put together his own dynamic 7-piece band with horns and they’re just incredible.”

Benjamin invited Nashville blues soloist Angela Easley to perform between acts during both days of the festival.

“She’s coming in a day early to work with the kids at the Midcoast Music Academy blues camp, which takes place this week and next week,” Benjamin said. “We let the kids open the festival both days, beginning at 10:30 am. It gives the kids a chance to see what it’s like to perform on the big stage.”

Keeshea Pratt (Sunday at 11:15 am): “She won the International Blues Challenge a year ago. Out of 160 bands from around the world, she won the band competition. She is going to set the tone. She’ll do some gospel and also some dirty, nasty blues. She does it all and she has a great horn section. I tell people not to be late on Sunday or they could miss the most talked about act of all.”

Al Copley & Friends (Sunday at 12:30 pm): “Al was the co-founding member of Roomful of Blues with guitarist Duke Robillard. He’ll be bringing some members of that band and he’ll have some surprises. Duke could be there with him but we don’t know for sure so I can’t promise that.”

Sean Chambers (Sunday at 1:45 pm): “Sean is a great rock blues artist from Florida. He’s been to Maine a number of times, but this will his first NABF appearance.”

The Proven Ones (Sunday at 3:15 pm): “They’re almost a blues super-group, similar to the Mannish Boys. You got Kid Ramos and Jimi Bott from the west coast and some east coast players like Anthony Geraci and Brian Templeton. These guys all have their own bands and it’s pretty special when they perform together.”

Ruthie Foster (Sunday at 4:45 pm): “We have the immortal Ruthie Foster closing out the show. She’s been here a couple of times and she also won a Blues Music Award this year. It’s a well-rounded lineup with a little bit of everything, depending on which style of blues is your favorite.”

After the final act on Saturday and Sunday, Benjamin encourages the audience to stay for a one or two song all-star jam featuring an assortment of artists appearing at the festival.

“At that jam, you get to see combinations of musicians playing together that you will never see anywhere else,” he said. “We want the artists to have as much fun as the audience and they always do.”

According to Benjamin, the most rewarding aspect of producing this festival each year is seeing blues fans coming out to forget their worries for a weekend.

“It’s also very special to see artists and fans bonding together. Everybody can forget their problems and instead of having the blues, they can enjoy the blues. When I look out and see standing ovations for the artists, and people are screaming and cheering for more, that’s my reward.”

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