Joan Volpe of Venice, Fla. (in the blue shirt) enjoys a moment with friends at the North Atlantic Blues Festival, which was held in Rockland over the weekend of July 13-15.by L. Jaye Bell
Coastal Journal contributor
ROCKLAND — A mellow crowd converged at the Public Landing in Rockland last weekend to experience the best in blues music and a guaranteed good time. Most know that the festival has a reputation for being a stellar music event packed with excellent performers from all over the genre map. For many, the festival is a reason to meet and celebrate with friends and loved ones. Family reunions, girlfriend getaways, birthdays and wedding anniversaries are celebrated here. But there is another reason folks trek from 33 states and six countries to be here. It’s to share something intangible; the feeling that you are part of a large extended family that reaches beyond any musical genre.
For Rhonda Seymour, it’s a way to feel close loved ones and friends now gone. She attends the festival because her deceased husband introduced her to the blues. The 1999 festival was one of the first things they did together. Over the course of their courtship and marriage they made the trek from Ellington, Conn. They’d rent a house and share it with a group of friends. Seymour’s husband passed away from cancer in 2008, and many of the members of the group have also passed over. She keeps attending the festival as a way to feel close to her husband and friends. When asked about the thing that draws her back year after year, Seymour says, “It’s the caliber of people here. You can’t get this mix of people and good energy just anywhere.”
The festival is both a yearly escape and family visit for Joan Volpe of Venice, Fla. Her sister lives in Rockland, so she leaves the heat of the Sunshine State behind for two weeks in Maine. Besides the cooler temperatures, Volpe looks forward to it because the people she meets at the festival “...are always great, and so is the music. It never fails to be a wonderful time.” When asked what could keep her away from this event, she replied, “Nothing. I’ve been attending since the very first year.”
Kate Chapman is a hair stylist originally from Cushing. A festival regular, she loves the opportunity to randomly bump into friends and visit. (The evidence of this were rapidly seen, as three people came up to hug her while we were talking.) Chapman’s list of friends always seems to grow at the Blues Festival. She loves to dance to blues music, but with grandchildren on both coasts, and a busy client list, she rarely gets to the Time Out for Blues night on Mondays. So she saves up her enjoyment for the festival, cramming as much in as possible. Chapman was dancing with a new friend at the end of the day, John Bowden, of New Gloucester. Although Bowden has attended the festival since 2008, these two just met. Perhaps they will share more than a dance next year.
Stacy Freeman and Chad Coombs of Bucksport are enjoying the festival for the first time together. Freeman attended with a group of friends when a friend bought tickets to the festival as an early birthday gift. This pack of pals travels annually to Aruba and Maine. Freeman so enjoyed the 2011 festival; she brought her boyfriend back with her this year. Both of them affirm that they will definitely be back as they dance and pause for a kiss while John Mayall plays onstage.
Julie Rosencrantz of Portland is a group home manager for developmentally disabled adults. During the Blues Fest, she sheds her care-giving role and becomes one of the “Tutu Girls.”
Why the tutu? “It’s a conversation starter,” she says.
The outfit breaks the ice, and gives people something to talk about right away. Rosencrantz is passionate about her care-giving work, which can be emotionally draining. After she attended the festival for the first time last year, she made a point to return. She views it as “a mini vacation, where I always meet the best people.” As for the music, she says she liked the Sunday lineup because it was more in line with the original, rootsy sound of the blues.
Although it’s not advertised as a “kid friendly” event, because the target demographic of attendees over 40, there are kids who enjoy attending with their parents and grandparents. Steve Henderson of Lincolnville Beach brings his two boys, Wesley and Preston, every year. Wesley is the five-year veteran of the two boys, since he started at the ripe old age of five weeks.
Kathy and Fred Allen live in New Jersey and own a house in Rockport. They have been spending summers here in Maine for years. The Allens brought their granddaughter Olivia Novilino (age 3), who dances about with joy in a hot pink hat. Grandson Michael Kouterick (age 8) puts a polished spin on a dance move. The kids were exuberantly enjoying the Zydeco rhythms of Chubby Carrier; dancing and tossing their blues hats with finesse. Many folks stopped to watch them, and a few even joined in. The Allens love spending time in Maine and look forward to retiring here next year.
The variety of ways to experience the festival also adds to the attraction. Lodging options vary from camping nearby to taking advantage of the local hotel three-night special to renting a condo or a house. For many, the manner of arrival and lodging options adds to the fun. Trish Gardner and Rick Delano of Mt. Vernon are 12-year festival veterans. They enjoy camping out near the ocean for the best of both the festival and the peaceful enjoyment of Maine’s natural beauty.
Diane Spofford works as an insurance assessor in Portland. She loves the blues, but her friends do not. She enjoys knowing that the festival is safe for women to be here alone. For 17 years, she has rented a hotel room within walking distance of the show. She feels safe knowing that she can walk alone downtown at night. In many cities this is not a good idea, but here, it’s fine. That confidence is part of what brings her back every year. The environment allows her to enjoy meeting all kinds of people that the festival brings together. She says she never fails to make new friends here.
Troy and Charlotte Winger of Mount Desert Island are enjoying the festival dockside aboard the Playin Hookie. Winger owns a welding business; Charlotte is a nurse. They bought a power boat last summer and decided to take it to the festival this year. These parents of two kids, ages 17 and 6, have attended every year since 1999, but this is their first year to do so from the water. Judging from the smiles on everyone’s faces after the show, that was the right decision.
Suz Willey of Owl’s Head enjoyed herself immensely this year. Although she has attended every year since the beginning, her focus has always been working as a bartender. This is the first year she simply attended for the enjoyment of it. During the last number, Chubby Carrier invited the ladies onstage for a bit of booty shaking. Willey was one of these ladies. Hours after the show was over, Willey was still glowing and glad she made that decision.
According to the 2011 Economic Impact Study conducted by the Maine Arts Commission, Maine’s festivals have a huge impact on our state’s economy. During the two days of the North Atlantic Blues Festival, 16,000-plus people converge upon Rockland. This influx of people from away generates an estimated $1,235,000 of revenue for the region. Out-of-state visitors spend an average of four times more during festivals for meals and lodging as do locals. According to the study, “Visitors see Maine as something that has no substitute. This unique character is expressed in Maine’s beaches, mountains and architecture, but also in culture, heritage and celebrations.” The study found that a whopping 33 percent of Maine’s tourists are here because of the outdoors, with 15 percent listing a preference for nightlife and entertainment activities.
The North Atlantic Blues Festival weaves together the best of all aspects of a festival: An outdoor venue with a magnificent view; fantastic talent from the best performers from all over the genre map; and a good behind-the-scenes team to pull it all together. These elements weave a special kind of magic that brings people together from all over the world to enjoy a few days on the coast of Maine and provides a memorable experience and the intangible, irreplaceable feeling of shared good times with friends, family and loved ones.