ROCKLAND — Memphis, New Orleans, Chicago, San Francisco, Kansas City – all cities that have spawned blues styles and launched mega careers. And then there’s Rockland, Maine. The picturesque Down East town with a population of about 8,000 has emerged in the blues world as home to one of the premier blues festivals in the country.

This year’s 17th annual North Atlantic Blues Festival, scheduled for Saturday and Sunday, July 10-11, in Harbor Park, offers a performance schedule that reads like a Who’s Who list of blues superstars.

Blues Hall of Fame inductee James Cotton played in the first NABF in 1994 and is back this year with his explosive harp and stage show. This is the same James Cotton who played harmonica for Muddy Waters for 12 years before claiming his own stage as a solo act in 1966.

The lineup also includes Johnny Rawls, Keb’ Mo,’ Shemekia Copeland and Shakura S’Aida. Blues fans worldwide need no introduction or explanation of how exciting, emotional, and individually talented these artists are.

But center stage of NABF are Jamie Isaacson and Paul Benjamin who have combed the country promoting the festival, scouting talent and making connections. They were recognized in 2002 by the Blues Foundation in Memphis with the Keeping Blues Alive Promoters Award.

“Paul and Jamie are certainly at the center of the blues world,” said Shakura S’Aida from her Toronto home. “I first heard about this festival in 2008 in Memphis and have been looking forward to playing since then.”

S’Aida, who recently released blues album “Brown Sugar” with most of the songs written by herself and guitarist Donna Grantis, stays busy touring throughout Europe and Canada. She added that she’s also looking forward to lobster.

“Blues is really universal,” said S’Aida. “Blues are supposed to be about your experiences, your interpretation. I hope that people wouldn’t expect anything from me except honesty.”

S’Aida noted that the NABF’s appeal is its reputation for having a large audience of blues aficionados. “People really do want to be there,” said S’Aida. “And they really appreciate music.”

Festival co-producer Isaacson said he expects about 16,000 people during the weekend event. The first year drew about 1,500 people for a one-day show and was pulled together quickly and spread by word of mouth.

Now the festival rivals the best in country. The San Francisco Blues Festival had been the longest running and one of the largest. After 36 years, the Bay Area festival has discontinued because of lack of funds, according to its website.

Isaacson got into the blues at a young age when his older brother was listening to Howlin’ Wolf records. He calls it “feel good music.”

“It’s an emotional kind of music that may talk about your problems,” said Isaacson, who still plays in the long-standing Maine band Blues Prophets. “But really, it’s good time music. It’s simple, but also sophisticated. I think our audience is very sophisticated about knowing what’s good blues.”

And there is a huge gamut of what constitutes blues. This year’s festival includes artists who have been around for decades and a second generation of pedigree blues festival performers such as Shemekia Copeland, whose father Johnny Copeland played the circuit until his death in 1997. Shemekia Copeland has graced the NABF stage four times previously. Festival-goers will hear Delta blues and Chicago blues. Electric, steel and acoustic guitars. Harmonica and drums. Deep-gut vocals and silky smooth vocals.

S’Aida said she came to the blues by choice rather than by birth and chooses to stay away from labels. When asked about her clear, polished voice, she attributed it to clean living.

“I don’t smoke. I’m not a heavy drinker,” said S’Aida. “I guess there’s not a lot to strip the polish off. But I’ve had my share of not what I’d call tragedies, but rather challenges. And I would call my music a celebration of all of that.”

If there’s anything blues fans know, it is that everyone has a story and everyone has a different way of telling it.

Folks who have made the trek down Route 1 in past years to hear greats such as Koko Taylor, Clarence Gatemouth Brown, Bo Diddley, Charlie Musselwhite, Taj Mahal, Tinsley Ellis and Johnny Winter can relate to those stories set to a universal but personal kind of music.

Performance lineup:

Saturday: Preston Shannon, Biscuit Miller, John Nemeth, Bryan Lee, Johnny Rawls, James Cotton

Sunday: Shakura S’Aida, Moreland &Arbuckle, Michael Burks, Shemekia Copeland, Keb’ Mo’

Shows start each day at 11 a.m. Gates open at 9 a.m. The event is rain or shine.

Ticket information:

Advance tickets are available through July 5 on line at www.northatlanticbluesfestival.com and at selected retail outlets in Rockland, Camden, Belfast, Portland, Fairfield, Bangor, August and Brunswick. See website for more information.

One-day advanced tickets: $25. Cost is $30 at the gate.

Weekend-advanced tickets: $50. Cost is $60 at the gate.

Saturday and weekend wristbands are also good for Saturday night Club Crawl performances.

The ticket booth is at the Trade Winds parking lot.

NOTE: Do bring lawn chairs and blankets. Do NOT bring pets, coolers, video recorders or sun umbrellas.


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