Labor Day weekend has arrived, and with it the finale of Maine’s short summer season of performing arts. And as always, there’s no doubt where I’ll be heading. The annual Thomas Point Beach Bluegrass Festival, an anchor-bookend event, is the top ticket, drawing thousands from southern Maine and all over the U.S. and Canada to the seaside venue in Brunswick.
The inaugural Nazera Burundian Music Festival will be staged in Portland this weekend. Organizers say that this represents the first-ever festival of Burundian music outside Africa.
Singer-songwriter Matthew Szlachetka, on Rolling Stone’s watch list for country musicians, will be visiting Vinegar Hill Music Theatre in Arundel on Friday; he’s on tour promoting “Heart of My Hometown,” his sophomore solo album.
It’s been an anchor of my calendar for close to 20 years. That’s what the annual Labor Day weekend bash known as the Thomas Point Beach Bluegrass Festival in Brunswick means to me.
Many others share my view. A walk around the spacious seaside grounds reveals an astonishing number of out-of-state license plates from all over the U.S. and Canada. Many of these people proudly tell you that they’ve been coming to this event for even longer – sometimes 30 years.
Begun in 1979, this festival is Maine’s biggest bluegrass event by far, and also near the top nationally and internationally.
One of the reasons is simple: Festival organizers book the top names without exception. Look at the top band for 2018. The Gibson Brothers Band hails from a dairy farm in upstate New York. Brothers Eric and Leigh began playing out together in the late 1980s and reached the apex of the genre in the 1990s. And they’ve stayed on top so far into the 21st century.
Among their honors, the brothers have copped 11 awards from the International Bluegrass Music Association in categories that range from Emerging Artist of the Year, Songwriter of the Year, Entertainer of the Year and Gospel Recording of the Year.
At the friendly rival organization, the Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music in America, the Gibsons have won six awards, spread over a similar range of categories and styles.
Other highly lauded acts include Leroy Troy and the Tennessee Mafia Jug Band. Troy holds an award for his claw-hammer style banjo picking while his Mafia friends recently took home the Blue Blaze Award at the 46th annual Smithville Fiddlers Jamboree.
Other nationally known acts for 2018 include Balsam Range, Hot Rize, Sierra Hull, David Davis and the Warrior River Boys. Plus Sister Sadie, the Po’ Ramblin’ Boys, Lonesome River Band, Earls of Leicester, Mile Twelve and the Feinberg Brothers.
The major national acts are of course the biggest draws at the festival, but up-and-coming artists also get their chances. Every festival has a competition, and the winner earns a featured time slot on the following year’s festival. Several of these winners have gone on to national prominence. Previous top dogs of the competition who will return for victory laps in 2018 are Twisted Pine and The Bluegrass Unit.
This year’s festival is slated for four days, Aug. 30-Sept. 2. Most events are scheduled for the waterfront Main Stage, which runs from mid-morning to about 11 p.m. most days. After the Main Stage closes for the evening, dozens of impromptu performances take place around campfires all night.
Food trucks offer a variety of great eats, and there are a variety of souvenir vendors.
This is an alfresco event. Bring lawn chairs, sunscreen and bug spray. For more information, visit ThomasPointBeachBluegrass.com.
Burundi is a landlocked Vermont-sized country in central equatorial Africa that’s made news in recent years for ongoing civil war and genocide. This weekend a number of Burundians living in Maine want to show the public another, more positive side of their native land. They’re producing the inaugural Nazera Burundian Music Festival, which features one major public showcase concert on Saturday in Portland.
“Many people associate Burundi only with conflict and tragedy,” acknowledges principal organizer Thierry Ndabahagamye, a Raymond resident. “We hope the Nezera Festival will show that we are a warm and caring people with a very rich cultural heritage.”
The concert will feature nearly 20 Burundian artists currently living in Africa, Europe, Canada and throughout the U.S., from Maine to Texas. Some are considered icons of Burundian music, such as singer Marie-Goretti Habonimana, of the group Amabano, and Antoine Marie Rugerinyange, known as Africanova.
Rising star Steven Sogo represents the new generation of Burundian artists. They will be joined by other prominent musicians, singers and dancers on stage Saturday night.
The festival is a way of saying thank you to the people of Portland and Maine, according to Ndabahagamye.
“We have been here in this community for a long time,” he explains. “When we came, we left a lot behind us. The music is like therapy for us. With this festival, we are able to share the beauty of our culture with the city that has warmly welcomed us and other immigrants from all corners of the world.”
Ndabahagamye adds, “This will be the first-ever Burundian music festival outside of Africa, and we hope it will become an annual event.”
The public concert of the Nazera Burundian Music Festival is scheduled for 8 p.m. Sept. 1 at The Gold Room, 512 Warren Ave. in Portland. Call Ndabahagamye at 409-5015.
This guy’s going places. That was the conclusion of Rolling Stone country music critic Robert Crawford, who wrote about Matthew Szlachetka last year.
And according to the odometer on his car, the Nashville-based artist has already gone a lot of places, logging about 200 performances per year all over the U.S.
On Saturday Szlachetka’s peregrinations bring him to one of our state’s premier entertainment venues, Vinegar Hill Music Theatre. And those travels are profoundly reflected in his latest CD, “Heart of My Hometown.”
Crawford’s article appeared in Rolling Stone’s 2017 annual listing of “10 New Country Artists You Need to Know.” The reviewer characterized Szlachetka’s act as “a continental spin on 1970s California folk-rock, fronted by a songwriter whose guitar chops match his storytelling skills.”
And Crawford alluded to Szlachetka’s nomadic lifestyle when he described “Hear of My Hometown” as “a collection of road-dog roots-rockers and Americana ballads inspired by the people (and places) he’s left behind in the rear-view mirror.”
Catch Matthew Szlachetka at Vinegar Hill Music Theatre, 53 Old Post Road (just off Route 1 in Arundel) at 8 p.m. Sept. 1. Call 985-5552.
Leroy Troy and the Tennessee Mafia Jug Band are among the artists featured at this weekend’s Thomas Point Beach Bluegrass Festival.