What do you get when you cross some of the world’s great blues artists and a summer weekend in Maine? Why, the North Atlantic Blues Festival, of course.
By Ray Routhier firstname.lastname@example.org
Robert Cray likes blues festivals.
As a guitarist and singer known mainly for the blues, he’ll readily admit that he doesn’t often play before really big crowds.
But at blues festivals — which have popped up all over the country in the last couple of decades — he does.
“Last weekend, we did a festival in Portland, Ore., and got to play before about 30,000 people. It’s not often we get to play for 30,000 people,” said Cray during a phone interview last week. “So we like festivals.”
This weekend, Cray and his band will play for a big crowd again at the North Atlantic Blues Festival in Rockland. Now in its 18th year, the festival typically draws about 15,000 people over a two-day span.
During the past two decades, the festival has gained a reputation among musicians as a good gig to get. Cray heard about the festival from his drummer, Tony Braunagel, and he’s eager to learn about it firsthand.
“We don’t get to Maine very often, and it’s such a nice place to play,” said Cray, 57.
Cray is one of several modern blues performers who’ve achieved a fair amount of crossover success, getting airplay on rock and pop radio. His songs “Smoking Gun” and “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” both made the Billboard singles charts in the late 1980s, and two of his albums during that period made the top 40 on Billboard’s album chart.
And while some hardcore blues fans might knock commercial success, Cray does not.
“That crossover success got us big tours, and radio airplay and a video on MTV, which helped us get a big following,” said Cray. “All that is helping us to this day.”
Part of that crossover success might be due to the fact that while growing up, Cray loved blues, rock, jazz and lots of other kinds of music.
So while he’s glad that his success is helping keep the American blues tradition alive, he’s not trying too hard to be a caretaker of a musical heritage.
“I play the music because I enjoy it. No other reason,” he said. “We’re glad to be doing what we’re doing, and there are a lot of others doing it to, and that helps keep the music alive. We play the music we know, it’s all the music we love meshed together.”
Cray caught “the blues bug” after seeing the legendary blues guitarist Albert Collins at a couple of music festivals in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Cray’s high school class, in Tacoma, Wash., then hired Collins to play its graduation.
“The reason we got him is that we (Cray and some friends) had seen him play at a couple of festivals, and I just watched him lay waste to anyone who had been on stage prior to him,” said Cray.
When he’s relaxing, Cray listens to a wide range of music, from classic jazz to contemporary world music, and to contemporary blues players such as Jonny Lang and Derek Trucks. But he says he doesn’t spend much time listening to “modern” rock or pop on the radio.
Cray will close the North Atlantic Blues Festival at 4:30 p.m. Sunday.
There will be 11 national acts in all, including Eddy “The Chief” Clearwater, the Brooks Family (Lonnie, Ronnie and Wayne), Magic Slim and Eric Bibb.
The festival — run by Rockland-area music promoters Paul Benjamin and Jamie Isaacson — began as a fairly small affair 18 years ago.
The first one drew about 1,500 people for the weekend and lost money, said Isaacson.
But the event proved “compelling” enough for the promoters to try again the next year.
As the festival crowds grew, the event started to attract big names, including Bo Diddley, Junior Wells, Keb’ Mo’, Shemekia Copeland and Cray.
Eventually, a “club crawl” was added, with local blues musicians performing at or outside of a dozen or more area clubs before and during the festival.
In 2002, the North Atlantic Blues Festival won a Keeping the Blues Alive Award from the Blues Foundation, based in Memphis.
“The whole blues community has become very aware of this festival,” said Isaacson. “And it doesn’t hurt that Maine is a great place to visit in the summer, and we can feed them lobster.”
Staff Writer Ray Routhier can be contacted at 791 to 6454 or at: