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Annual festival keeps the Blues alive

Biscuit Miller & The Mix perform for an enthusiastic crowd during this past weekend’s White Mountain Boogie & Blues Festival. (Wes Lavin — Courtesy Photo) (click for larger version)
August 25, 2010
THORNTON — The defining moment of this year's White Mountain Boogie & Blues Festival came midway through co-headliner John Lee Hooker, Jr.'s performance.

Pausing in the midst of a blistering set that had everyone from toddlers to retirees tapping their feet, bobbing their heads, or, in some cases, searching out and open patch of grass and cutting loose with a dance partner, Hooker (the son of legendary Blues pioneer John Lee Hooker) captured the spirit of the event — the coming together of young and old, past and present — by paying tribute to those who came before him.

"I don't take it for granted that we are here," he said, acknowledging that he and his band are able to bring their music to venues like the Sugar Shack Campground because of artists like B.B. King, Freddie King, Bonnie Raitt, Elvin Bishop (another one of this year's headliners), and Lonnie Brooks, who paved the way.

"And of course, I can't leave out my daddy," he added to an eruption of cheers and applause from the audience.

"I pay homage to every one of them, and I thank God they brought you here," he continued before transporting the crowd back to a smoky Detroit barroom in 1949 with an energetic rendition of one of his father's early hits, "Dimples."

Watching Hooker's performance from the side of the stage with his daughter, Reannen, at his feet was Brad Benton, who — along with his brother, Mike — has been the driving force behind the annual festival for the past 14 years.

While fielding calls from staff at the front gate, helping to transport equipment to and from the stage, and checking in with Hooker before his Saturday afternoon performance to make sure that he and the band were able to find suitable accommodations for the night, Benton peeked out at the growing crowd (comprised of people from every conceivable walk of life, from young children to bikini-clad 20-somethings to middle aged music lovers) and remarked on how continually amazed he has been to see what began in 1990 with a tent in a field, a few friends, and some good music blossom into a weekend-long celebration reminiscent of Woodstock.

Benton said his family, which has owned the farm on which the Sugar Shack Campground rests for generations, has always had an abiding passion for music.

He and Mike, he said, felt that the farm was "too obvious a place" not to be converted in a venue for live music, and set out 20 years ago to organize what they originally called the "First Annual Rock 'n Blues Shindig."

"It's grown a little bit since then," he added with a laugh, explaining that the festival, which at first drew in only 50 to 100 people, now attracts anywhere between 1,500 and 2,000 attendees a day.

Benton believes it is the natural setting and "vibe" surrounding the campground that keeps audiences coming back year after year.

"It's so low-key," he added. "[The audiences] are just good people. They eat it up here."

The popularity of the festival has also grown through "grass roots" promotion and positive word-of-mouth, he said, recalling that during the festival's early years, he and Mike promoted it by handing out flyers to vehicles entering the main gate the Meadowbrook/U.S. Cellular Pavilion in Gilford.

U.S. Cellular and Mad River Tents have also been a "great big help" over the years through their sponsorship, he added.

For Hooker, the event was all about the thrill of bringing the Blues to both longtime fans and an entirely new generation of listeners.

Dressed to the nines in a shirt and tie, printed silk vest, alligator skin boots and feather-bedecked fedora, and greeting friends and well wishers backstage with a hug and a dazzling smile, Hooker described the experience of performing to such a diverse audience as "awesome."

"It's energizing … it's encouraging," he said, voicing his gratitude for the fact that many of the fans his father made throughout the world have embraced and encouraged him.

"We're so grateful to be able to make people smile, laugh, and dance with something that God gave us a gift to do," he added.

With Benton anticipating a record crowd by the conclusion of this year's White Mountain Boogie & Blues Festival, it would seem to be a safe bet that the music Hooker's father helped to popularize will remain alive and kicking well into the future.

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