No matter where I go or how far I travel, my favorite time of the year is Musikfest in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, every summer. This year from August 7 to 16, Alice In Chains, Snoop Dogg, Darius Rucker, 3 Doors Down/Collective Soul, ZZ Top, Reba, Jerry Seinfeld, O.A.R., Culture Club, The Flaming Lips and, in a pre-fest event on August 6, Duran Duran. And that’s only the main stage (the acts you have to pay for). The heart and soul of Musikfest are the free acts and, to that end, there will be more bands, more performances (over 500) and more stages (16) than ever in the 32-year history of the largest free festival in the country. There’s over 60 vendors with food from around the world (I’m partial to the bratwurst) and yes, just like in New Orleans, you can carry your booze around with you. Map your route. Pick your genres (don’t forget to stop at the polka tent, it’s a hoot). Free parking exists in neighboring municipalities with inexpensive shuttle service…or drive right there where the locals get entrepreneurial and let you practically park on their lawns for a fee. There’s also a large parking building right in the hub of the bub (but get there early). From opening ceremonies to closing night fireworks, the sounds, smells and people-watching are at an all-time high. Main Street is roped off to traffic. There have been years I’ve done all 10 days.
Patrick Brogan has been booking the main stage for nine years. He’s also the savvy musicologist who books the Musikfest Café (my home away from home). He hipped me to what four free shows not to miss. 1) Cha Wa is from New Orleans. They bill themselves as an “American Indian Funk Explosion.” 2) Little Ed & Blues Imperials, from Chicago, are one of the most exciting blues bands in the country. 3) Cracker, yes, the Cali ‘90s band, is still going strong. 4) Chilean superstar Manuel Garcia plays to 20,000 at a clip in his native country. He just might be the highlight of the year. To that I will add the genre-specific shows because where else around here are you going to be able to dig salsa, samba, folk, jazz, rock ‘n’ roll, pop, funk, soul, world, gospel, novelty, comedy, bluegrass, country, classical, Tex-Mex, blues, rockabilly and alternative while walking around with your beer, ogling the girls and chewing on a corn dog all at the same time?
Kassie Hilgert is the President and CEO of ArtsQuest, the company behind not only this festival but year-round programming, much of which is free for the community. She’s a cool cookie, alright, less corporate and more ingrained culturally while still having to deal with local, regional, state-wide and even national concerns. “I knew that going in,” she tells me on the gorgeous campus of what used to be the rotting remains of Bethlehem Steel, a 15-year eyesore that brought in no revenue whatsoever. Hell, they could have built a strip mall on this blocks-long site. Instead, between the concert stages, the Musikfest Café, the movie theater, the bars, the comedy club and the fact that it’s in walking distance to the Sands Casino, I need to be reminded why I should ever travel to New York City again.
“You have to be OK with making the magic,” she says, “and knowing nobody is going to see the time and effort that goes into it. I was in corporate America for 10 years and health care for another 10. Politics exist everywhere. What is so unique here is the fact that this campus was built at all. It’s a story yet to be told, the craziest thing I’ve ever seen! The fact that we took an 1,800-acre brown field sitting in the middle of a city that had lost 20% of its tax base overnight when Bethlehem Steel closed, and with the help of the town, the commonwealth, the country, built it up into what you see today, is just crazy. `Oh, I get what you’re trying to do,’ both Democrats and Republicans told us. ‘Yeah, we’ll agree to work together and line up behind that.’ Are you kidding me? They can’t agree on the color of the sky! But we garnered both parties to work together and make this happen. They not only agreed on this but took the long view as well. That, to me, is a story that needs to be celebrated and trumpeted all over this country. We’re talking over 200 year-round jobs, 300+ seasonal staff and local musicians (who all get paid) on 65% of the free stages. The $50 million economic impact that Musikfest has on this region should be part of a broader discussion.”