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Out & About: Bluegrass in Brunswick, Cirque du Soleil in Portland

Lifestyle

Out & About: Bluegrass in Brunswick, Cirque du Soleil in Portland

Leaves are turning red, ferns are turning brown and children are heading back to school. Those are sure signs that the summer season is over and Labor Day weekend is upon us.

An equally sure sign of the season is the annual Thomas Point Beach Bluegrass Special in Brunswick. Running Aug. 28-31, it’s the biggest bluegrass festival in New England, and boasts a splendid nationwide reputation among performers and audiences.

Shortly after Labor Day weekend the Cirque du Soleil arrives in downtown Portland. This multinational Canadian-based troupe, which combines extreme athleticism with live music and dance, has half a dozen different shows performing all over the world. “Varekai” is currently touring North America and will play Portland Sept. 3-7.

Thomas Point Beach Bluegrass Special

Bluegrass is the style and homecoming is the over-arching sentiment at a big annual event that’s coming up this weekend in Brunswick. Since the 1970s, a major bluegrass festival has been held at Thomas Point Beach every Labor Day weekend.

I’ve been a faithful attendee for almost 20 years, and I plan to be in the audience for this edition.

Pati Crooker, who owns the seaside campground, has been the producer and impresario since the beginning. Her passion for excellence and welcoming personality have always been hallmarks of the festival. In recent years she’s been ably assisted by son Michael Mulligan.

As always the festival has booked an array of bluegrass stars who are national and international figures who have a special chemistry with fans. Many are returning for their umpteenth visits. After all, Crooker found a successful formula years ago and she’s loath to mess with it.

Over the years I’ve spoken with many of the performing artists, and they all agree that Thomas Point Beach is one of their favorite stops on the national touring circuit.

Let’s start with Friday’s headliner. Rhonda Vincent and the Rage have copped many honors, including a coveted Entertainer of the Year award from the International Bluegrass Music Association and seven consecutive IBMA Female Vocalist of the Year awards.

I’ve heard Vincent many times, and interviewed her twice. She’s the proverbial “real thing,” a devoted mother who also likes to chat and pose for photos with her fans. In addition to her vocal powers, Vincent is also a mandolin virtuoso, master of a tricky instrument that’s seldom identified with female performers.

Other returning artists with stellar national reputations include the Del McCoury Band, Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys, Tennessee Mafia Jug Band with Leroy Troy, Danny Paisley and Southern Grass, Dailey and Vincent, Steel Wheels and Balsam Range.

The latter band is a quintet with the standard array: mandolin, banjo, guitar, fiddle and bass. Balsam Range is particularly relevant to Mainers. Hailing from the western mountains of North Carolina, Balsam Range recently scored big with a song that recounts the ups and downs of life in a town dominated by a paper mill. Anyone connected with Maine towns such as Westbrook, Rumford, Jay, Skowhegan and Millinocket will recognize the bittersweet down-home themes of “Papertown.”

Its chorus concludes with the lines: “It’s not just another paper town; it’s the place that I call home.”

It’s the title song of the CD that won IBMA’s Album of the Year for 2013. That honor comes on the heels of “Trains I Missed,” which garnered the 2012 Song of the Year from IBMA.

As with all alfresco festivals, bring folding chairs and sunscreen. There are several great food vendors a few steps from the concert area. Swimming at the beach, only a few hundred feet from the stage, is another attraction.

Thomas Point Beach Bluegrass Special (a mile or so from Cook’s Corner in Brunswick,) runs from Thursday afternoon through Sunday evening, Aug. 28-31. Call 725-6009 or visit thomaspointbeach.com.

‘Varekai’

According to an ancient Greek myth, Icarus was a headstrong young man who fashioned wings of feathers and wax and flew high above earth and oceans. In an act of hubris, this intrepid hero soared too close to the sun, the heat melted the wax, and Icarus plunged into the Aegean Sea and drowned.

Too tragic? Let’s try another version of the end. The young man wafts down into a mysterious land with two prominent features: a lush jungle and an active volcano. He’s at the edge of time, in a place of pure and undiluted possibility, and he’s about to discover the mysteries of the world and the mind.

That alternative ending to the Icarus myth is the starting point of “Varekai,” a production of Cirque du Soleil that’s been touring the world since 2002 and has played to audiences numbering more than 2 million.

Cirque du Soleil represents an explosive fusion of music, dance and acrobatics. Founded in Montreal in 1980 by a group of street performers, Cirque du Soleil has succeeded to the extent that it is a multi-million-dollar one-company entertainment industry. It has a worldwide total employee count of about 5,000.

On any given day Cirque du Soleil has multiple shows going, some in permanent locations such as Las Vegas, while others tour the world as bus-and-truck troupes, performing in arenas and other large indoor spaces.

The “Varekai” company that’s en route to Portland has a company of about 50 artists hailing from 18 different countries. This traveling ensemble includes a seven-piece band, two singers and dozens of acrobats who perform stunning, spinning maneuvers high above the stage. Plus the troupe includes a few clowns and other characters who defy easy categorization.

Translating from French, Cirque du Soleil means Circus of the Sun. Traditional circus acrobatics are at the core of its being, but unlike a traditional circus, all of the stage action is contained within a coherent dramatic theme that underlies the action from start to finish.

The script for “Varekai” was written by Dominic Champagne and the score was penned by Violaine Corradi, drawing musical influences from Hawaii to Armenia.

Stunning costumes are another Cirque du Soleil shtick. “Varekai” uses 600 costumes, shoes, wigs, hats and other accessories. They are crafted in a factory in Montreal, and maintained and cleaned by a traveling staff.

I’m a relative newcomer to Cirque du Soleil, but two years ago I saw its last show to tour through Portland. “Saltimbanco” was a thoroughly entertaining experience, and I’ve already reserved my tickets to “Varekai.”

Catch Cirque du Soleil’s “Varekai” at the Cross Insurance Arena (formerly the Cumberland County Civic Center) Sept. 3-7 with 7:30 p.m. performances Wednesday through Saturday, plus 4 p.m. Saturday and 1:30 p.m. and 5 p.m. Sunday. Call 775-3458.