Out & About: Brunswick bluegrass festival marks summer’s end

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Labor Day weekend traditionally marks the unofficial finis for summertime in Maine, and that’s certainly the case in the arts and entertainment department.

But summer’s exit is marked by one of the season’s biggest events: This weekend in Brunswick the Thomas Point Beach Bluegrass Special features some of the biggest names and top artists in the genre.

There are a few very noteworthy events coming up later this month. On Sept. 9 two bright, rising Americana stars will team up together for a double bill in Portland: Eilen Jewell will join Miss Tess and the Talkbacks at Port City Music Hall.

Slaid Cleaves, a Texas-based singer-songwriter who grew up in Maine, makes his annual return to home turf this month. One of his concerts will be at Portland’s One Longfellow Square on Sept. 25.

Thomas Point Beach Bluegrass Special

The six New England states host dozens of bluegrass festivals every summer, but the biggest and best, in the opinion of many, happens every Labor Day weekend in Brunswick, where the Thomas Point Beach Bluegrass Special offers four days of performances by the genre’s most-honored and long-established artists, plus many up-and-coming talents.

I’ve been a regular attendee for close to 20 years, and I’ll be there this weekend for sure.

This year’s list of headliners is topped by the Del McCoury Band. Hailing from Nashville, McCoury and his family ensemble have amassed 31 awards from the International Bluegrass Music Association (the most of any artist) plus the 2006 Grammy Award for Bluegrass.

It’s worth noting that the 76-year-old front man is making fewer festival appearances these days; without him the band goes as the Travelin’ McCourys. But he still hits the big ones, and Thomas Point Beach is one of the biggest in the nation.

Other much-honored bluegrass legends include Marty Stuart and his Fabulous Superlatives (Tennessee), Gibson Brothers (New York), Earls of Leicester (Tennessee), Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver (Tennessee), Larry Stephenson Band (Tennessee), Karl Shiflett and the Big Country Show (Texas), Leroy Troy and the Tennessee Mafia (Tennessee) and Special Consensus (Illinois).

Half a dozen other bands include New England regional artists plus the brightest and best newcomers to the national bluegrass scene.

I’m particularly interested in Boston-based Della Mae, which is one of the few all-female bluegrass bands I’ve ever seen, and the only one to reach national prominence.

Thomas Point Beach hosted the first major gathering of national bluegrass talent in the northeast in 1979. For nearly four decades families have flocked to Brunswick to revel in the pick-and-twang sounds so characteristic of the southern Appalachian mountains. In 2008 the festival was honored with the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Event of the Year award.

The main performance stage is scheduled from 10 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., Friday through Sunday. After the main stage shuts down, off-stage performances begin at the big campfire and continue into the wee hours. Plus dozens of informal performances and jams among festival musicians and attendees – known to aficionados as “field picking” – continue at campsites throughout the night.

Thomas Point Beach is at 29 Meadow Road in the Cook’s Corner area of Brunswick. Bring lawn chairs, sunscreen and bug spray. Food is available from multiple vendors. Multi-day tickets include camping.

For the full schedule, call 877-872-4321 or visit thomaspointbeach.com.

Eilen Jewell and Miss Tess

Over the past few years I’ve admired two women who are rising to prominence on the national Americana scene.

Eilen Jewell, who styles herself as Queen of the Minor Key, is based in greater Boston and plays in Maine fairly often. Miss Tess and the Talkbacks, a rockabilly band that’s based in Brooklyn, New York, have also made several appearances in the Pine Tree State. This summer they’ve joined forces for a national tour, and it’s motoring into Portland on Sept. 9.

Jewell is a keen student of Americana (she’s even gone so far as to record a complete CD of Loretta Lynn songs) and has mastered a number of different performing styles. Plus she’s a superb writer, who captures nuances of characters and situations with uncanny skill, weaving them into poetic and melodic stories that truly grab audiences.

Earlier this summer, Jewell released her sixth album, “Sundown Over Ghost Town,” eliciting this comment from Entertainment Weekly reviewer Eric Penner: “Packed with vivid lyrics, steel guitars, and hot licks, Jewell’s Americana-driven brand of country music sounds is tailor-made for sweltering, stagnant summer nights.”

Miss Tess and the Talkbacks (formerly known as Bon Ton Parade) blend melodic and rhythmic improvisation and interplay with elements of honky-tonk, western swing, and golden-era pop standards. They’ve been real crowd-pleasers the two times I’ve attended their concerts.

Catch Eilen Jewell and her quartet with Miss Tess and the Talkbacks at 8 p.m. Sept. 9 at Port City Music Hall, 504 Congress St. in Portland. Call 956-6000.

Slaid Cleaves

Another personal favorite artist I try to see as often as possible is singer-songwriter Slaid Cleaves, who grew up in Berwick and first made his mark in the music business in Portland in the late 1980s as leader of the Moxie Men.

Cleaves moved to Austin, the epicenter of roots and Americana, in the early 1990s, and travels around the world as a troubadour most of the year. Every summer he and wife Karen return to Maine to reconnect with old friends and create new ones.

I plan to be in the audience on Sept. 25 when Cleaves gives a concert at One Longfellow Square in Portland. I expect that he’ll perform a few songs from the latest CD, “Still Fighting the War.” Its title cut is a sensitive and sympathetic musical depiction of an Iraq war veteran who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Cleaves is a master storyteller, whose subject matter ranges from petty and funny to life’s big-ticket tragedies. He’s also got a superb gift for melody, rhythm and harmony – the fundamentals of songwriting – that always underpins each of his musical creations.

Austin Chronicle music writer Jim Caligiuri reviewed “Still Fighting the War” when it came out a year ago. He commented, “Slaid Cleaves just keeps getting better; more refined and confident. There are few contemporaries that compare. He’s become a master craftsman.”

Catch Slaid Cleaves at 8 p.m. Sept. 25 at One Longfellow Square, corner of Congress and State in Portland. Call 761-1757.

Della Mae, an all-female bluegrass band from greater Boston, will be among dozens of top national artists featured this weekend at the Thomas Point Beach Bluegrass Special in Brunswick.