The Gibson Brothers at the 2023 Thomas Point Beach Festival – photo © Dale Cahill
The 44th Thomas Point Beach Bluegrass Festival was held under blue skies this year. Thomas Point’s typically enthusiastic crowd of veterans and newcomers filled the seats and the campground. Spearheaded by Michael Mulligan, his wife Jen, and longtime friends Shari and Jenna, the pervading theme this year was family, in the campground, and on stage.
This annual festival is known not just for offering high caliber emerging and veteran bluegrass artists, but as a place where families and longtime friends reunite, many of whom have returned to the festival for over thirty years. Shari Elder says that this year one of those family reunions included 44 family members, young and old.
She also saw multi-generational Thomas Point connections for the performers. Jalee Robert’s parents both played at the festival, her dad Danny with the Grascals and her mom Andrea with Petti Coat Junction. Sammy Mougin, bassist for Wyatt Ellis and Friends, follows in his parents’ footsteps as well. His father Stephen played Thomas Point with Sam Bush, and his mom Jana also played at Thomas Point with her band Fragment in 2001. But that isn’t all. In the final moments of the festival Rhonda Vincent happily announced that her daughter, Sally Sandker, will be singing and playing guitar next year at Thomas Point with the US Navy Band Country Current. It was truly a family affair!
Thursday began with the 2022 band contest winners, On the Trail, whose tight sound and excellent vocals reminded us why we voted for them last year. This year’s band contest followed, and included J.M. Clifford, Hosmer Mountain Boys, Ida Mae Specker, Seselia, Rachel Sumner & Traveling Light, and Uncle Jake & the 18 Wheel Gang. Massachusetts’s based band Rachel Sumner & Traveling Light won the competition. It is no wonder that Sumner was selected as an official 2023 IBMA Showcase Artist! After announcing the competition band winner, Beg, Steal or Borrow, the Show Case winners from 2018, took the stage followed by Della Mae. East Nash Grass finished off the day with a late-night dance party.
Friday morning started with the return of Beg, Steal or Borrow, a set by the band Full Cord, On the Trail, and Rachel Sumner & Traveling Light. At three o’clock, the Gibson Brothers took the stage followed by East Nash Grass. The evening sets included Full Cord, Rock Hearts, The Gibson Brothers, and finally the Dan Tyminski Band. The combination of emerging artists and die-hard bluegrass veterans struck the balance between traditional and contemporary bluegrass music that Thomas Point promoters mindfully design.
On Saturday campers and day trippers were greeted by a perfect late summer Maine beach day. Standing on the shore you could see paddle boarders, kayakers, swimmers, and sunbathers taking advantage of a final blast of summer sunshine. The music began at 9:00 a.m. with the sweet sound of morning waltzes with the Dale and Darcy Band. Seven different bands then played throughout the day, including Katahdin Valley Boys, Rock Hearts, Nefesh Mountain, Southern Rail, and Sister Sadie. After dinner, Sister Sadie, Balsam Range and Infamous Stringdusters played to a full crowd, many of whom couldn’t remain seated, and instead joined the crowd of dancers to the deep right and left of the stage. At 10:00, The Katahdin Balley Boys lead a late-night jam at Thomas Point’s iconic caboose.
Sunday’s long-standing tradition of hosting a gospel music sing along with Mike and Mary Robinson at the beachfront tent included a surprise guest this year, the Becky Buller Band. Between the gospel singing and a set of waltzes, everyone was ready to jump into another full day of high caliber bluegrass. The newcomers for the day were Wyatt Ellis and Friends, Becky Buller Band, Seldom Scene, and Rhonda Vincent & the Rage, and a late-night set with Break’n Strings.
Aside from the stellar line up, a long list of activities was organized for children: little roots music classes, waterfront fun on the beach, tie dying, a program for Thomas Point young pickers, and much more. Every day folks could attend master and instructional workshops for each bluegrass instrument as well as guided jams and morning yoga classes.
For Dale and me, it is the combination of excellent stage shows, a wide range of camp ground picking that goes well into the night, a camp ground that provides showers, shade and sunshine, lobster rolls and deep fried scallops from Ye Olde English Fish and Chips, and long time friends that keep us returning each year. This is also the only festival we attend with a tide chart in the program! We will be there in 2024 and Shari, Michael and Jen recommend that folks buy their tickets in advance as the trend points to growing attendance.