Rockland is still better known for lobster than the blues.

But over the 16 years that the North Atlantic Blues Festival has been operating, the seaport city has become known as a major destination for blues players and fans.

And for them, eating lobster is merely a bonus.

“Oh, it’s one of my favorite places to play,” said singer Shemekia Copeland from her home in Chicago. “It’s such a beautiful place, and the fans who come out are great. And Paul Benjamin does such a great job putting it together.”

Copeland is one of the headliners of this year’s North Atlantic Blues Festival, along with Keb’ Mo’ and James Cotton. The festival will take place Saturday and Sunday at Harbor Park at the Public Landing, off Main Street.

Eleven artists are scheduled to take the stage over two days, with performances beginning at 11 a.m. each day and lasting into the evening. Copeland is scheduled to play about an hour and 15 minutes beginning at 3 p.m. Sunday, while Keb’ Mo’ will close the festival with a 90-minute set at 4:30 p.m. Sunday. Cotton is scheduled to close Saturday’s show with a 90-minute set around 5:35 p.m.

The festival attracts about 8,000 people per day, Benjamin said. A local blues promoter and record producer, Benjamin started the event in 1990 as the Trade Winds Blues Bash in a motel parking lot. He later teamed with other people in the music business in Maine — Randy Labbe and Jamie Isaacson — to officially launch the North Atlantic Blues Festival in 1994.

Benjamin says getting major blues acts to play the festival is not hard.

“We say, ‘It’s Maine, it’s on the ocean, it’s great blues, and we serve lobster.’ That sells itself,” he said.

It’s enough to sell Copeland, plus the fact that she gets to see old friends like Keb’ Mo’ and Cotton.

“The blues world is a small world, so these are all people I’ve played with before, had fun with,” said Copeland, the recipient of three Blues Music Awards.

Copeland, 31, grew up in the blues world as the daughter of Texas blues guitar legend Johnny Copeland.

Copeland’s father recognized her talent early on, encouraged her to sing, and got her on stage at Harlem’s Cotton Club when she was 8. But she was shy, and didn’t want to sing on stage.

That persisted for a few years, until she was 15 and her father’s health was failing due to heart problems. He died in 1997, at the age of 60.

The following year, Copeland released her debut album, “Turn the Heat Up!” on Alligator Records, to rave reviews.

She says her father influenced her greatly, in spirit and in practical ways.

“My father was a great songwriter and a great singer, and wasn’t all about guitar playing,” Copeland said. “Now guitar players just stand there, but my father was an entertainer. His style influenced me a lot, his phrasing especially.”

Copeland said the “insecurity” of her youth stayed with her for a while, but each year as she’s gotten older, she’s felt less nervous and more comfortable on stage. It’s to the point where performing on is her favorite part of what she does.

“I’ve gotten more confident in who I am, more accepting of who I am,” she said. “The music business is rough, dealing with record companies and promoters, but when I get on stage, I forget all about that and just have a real good time.”

Keb’ Mo’, 58, has been a major blues force for the past couple of decades. Born Kevin Moore in Los Angeles to parents from the deep South, his music has been called a “link” to the Delta blues of legends such as Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson. He’s won three Grammy awards in the contemporary blues album category. Like Copeland, he’s played Maine before.

Cotton, 75, is a blues legend who shows no signs of slowing down. He grew up working in Mississippi cotton fields with his family, and began performing with his harmonica as a boy.

At age 9, he was introduced by an uncle to bluesman Sonny Boy Williamson II, who arranged for the young Cotton to open shows for him.

Cotton was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2006.

 

Staff Writer Ray Routhier can be contacted at 791-6454 or at:

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