For the past three decades, the biggest event on the arts and entertainment calendar for Labor Day weekend has been the Thomas Point Beach Bluegrass Festival in Brunswick. Sadly, it didn’t happen in 2016, due to the death of its beloved founder and director. But the festival is back for 2017 under the direction of her son, his wife and a longtime assistant. This trio will continue the successful formula of bringing in the top names in the genre, and in 2017 that means the Gibson Brothers and the Del McCoury Band.
Looking ahead and farther up the coast, a new and utterly unique event looms on the horizon. The life and work of Edna St. Vincent Millay, Maine’s famous poet, playwright and feminist, will soon be celebrated in her hometown of Rockland. The inaugural Millay Arts & Poetry Festival will be held in various locations around town Sept. 7-9.
Since 1979 the Thomas Point Beach Bluegrass Festival has been a fixture of Maine’s late summer lifestyle, drawing thousands of pick-and-twang aficionados from around the U.S. and Canada. I’ve been a regular attendee since the 1990s, and it’s always been at the top of my to-do list for Labor Day weekend.
The four-day alfresco festival was started and run by Pati Crooker at the beautiful seaside campground she owned on the New Meadows River, about a mile or from Cooks Corner in Brunswick. Under Crooker’s direction, the festival attracted the top names in bluegrass, beginning with Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys and later embracing all of the genre’s other top acts. The International Bluegrass Music Association named the festival its Event of the Year for 2008.
Crooker died 14 months ago, and the festival was canceled in 2016. Now it’s back, under the direction of son Michael Mulligan, his wife Jennifer and Crooker’s longtime No. 2, Shari Elder.
They’re carrying on Crooker’s vision, inviting the top names of bluegrass, both nationally and regionally. For 2017 the top-billed act is the Gibson Brothers, two siblings who grew up on a New York dairy farm and now play internationally. Eric and Leigh Gibson have copped a total of 11 awards from the IBMA, beginning with Emerging Artist of the Year in 1998 and most recently with four trophies in 2013: Song of the Year, Songwriter of the Year, Vocal Group of the Year and Entertainer of the Year.
The Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music in America has showered the Gibson Brothers with a similar array of honors, most recently with two in 2015: Gospel Recording of the Year and Vocal Group of the Year.
The brothers, who also play guitar and banjo, are assisted by three others, a mandolinist, bassist and fiddler. (Portland mandolin wiz Joe K. Walsh played with the band for years.)
Under the rubric of vintage bluegrass, the top act will be the Del McCoury Band, which copped IBMA’s Entertainer of the Year in 1999 and won a Grammy in 2006. The Earls of Leicester aim to recreate the sounds of bluegrass pioneers Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. More top national acts include Dailey and Vincent, Blue Highway, Tennessee Mafia Jug Band and the Grascals.
Top Maine and New England acts are Erica Brown and Bluegrass Connection, Bogus Family, Katahdin Valley Boys and New England Bluegrass.
The festival begins Thursday evening with a showcase and contest, then kicks into high gear with the main stage running most of Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Food trucks (mostly non-epicurean) and souvenir vendors abound. Bring lawn chairs and sunscreen. Camping is included with multi-day tickets. After the main stage shuts down for the evening, informal performances and jams continue all night at designated campsites.
Thomas Point Beach is located at 29 Meadow Road in Brunswick. Call 725-6009 or visit ThomasPointBeachBluegrass.com.
We know how beautifully the DaPonte String Quartet can play classical music. But can they act?
That’s not a trick question. The four DaPonte musicians are taking key dramatic roles in our state’s newest and most intriguing arts and entertainment event, a three-day celebration of the life and work of Edna St. Vincent Millay, Maine’s famous poet, playwright and feminist-activist.
The plan is for a three-day series of 35 events and performances, slated Sept. 7-9, featuring more than 80 performers, authors, presenters, poets, actors, musicians and visual artists. Events and performances will take place in various venues around Rockland, the town where the poet was born in 1892, sponsored by the Millay House, a nonprofit organization.
This is a first, and organizers hope to make it an annual event.
Millay was an iconic figure of the first half of the 20th century. Born in Rockland and raised in Camden, she became nationally renowned in 1912 when her first major poem, “Renascence,” was published. Famously it begins with a literal description of Penobscot Bay and its many islands and surrounding mountains before progressing to metaphysical speculation.
Millay’s books of poetry and plays were bestsellers, and she won the Pulitzer Prize in 1923. She was one of the most prominent and notorious residents of New York’s Greenwich Village and a leading figure in its rich cultural life. Notable for her era, Millay was openly bisexual and active in various political and feminist causes.
Millay was also a lifestyle pioneer in a less happy vein: She was among the first of a long string of modern artists, entertainers and celebrities to die from alcoholism and drug addiction.
That unfortunate aspect of her life will be evident in “Vincent,” a new play written by Alva Hascall of Rockland. His piece is a dramatic vision of what the last hour of Millay’s life might have been. What were her thoughts, her reminiscences, her dreams? Whom did she see? Whom did she hear? What was her journey? Her destination?
The four DaPonte musicians – violinists Dino Liva and Lydia Forbes, violist Kirsten Monke and cellist Myles Jordan — appear as both actors and musicians in “Vincent.” The play is the top-billed act of the festival, scheduled for Friday evening at the Strand Theatre.
Other featured performers and speakers include Nancy Milford, author of “Savage Beauty,” the definitive biography of Millay, and Richard Blanco, the Bethel poet who performed at the 2013 presidential inauguration. Events include poetry readings, roundtables and workshops. The relationship between poetry and music is the focus of several of these.
For more information of the inaugural Millay Arts & Poetry Festival, visit MillayHouseRockland.org.
The Gibson Brothers and their backup trio head a lineup of dozens of artists at the 2017 edition of the Thomas Point Beach Bluegrass Festival, slated Aug. 31-Sept. 3 in Brunswick.