Rant N Roll: Blast Furnace Blues Festival

The 2012 Blast Furnace Blues Festival took place over a three-day period—29 of the 72 hours filled with the blues—on September 14, 15 & 16. Contemporary, traditional, oddball, rockin’, gospel-laden and funk-a-fied, the blues is a river and its tributaries run strong and deep. So does this fest’s food, from Cajun cuisine to Southern favorites like pecan pie, smoked barbecue and shrimp po’boys. (I settle for corned beef and a pickle.)

The sun is shining and coming through the picture windows of the MusikFest Café at SteelStacks in Bethlehem, PA—my second home. The first blues of the fest belongs to the James Supra Blues Band and they ain’t lettin’ such a minor detail as a sparse crowd inhibit their wildly rockin’ take on blues and rock ‘n’ roll classics coupled with their own simplistic yet earthy and guttural originals. Hell, it’s still the afternoon. As people start streaming in, Supra sings his ass off like a Blues Brother and blows a mean blues harp. Highlight of the set has to be “Slow Down,” the Larry Williams song that the Beatles made everyone love. Two scotches later, I’m outside the building for an open-air set of Mike Dugan & The Blues Mission, and the intensity ratchets up a notch.

Back upstairs to the Café, Lurrie Bell, the son of harmonica man Carey Bell, is blasting out a set of hardcore blues ‘n’ boogie fit to beat the band. It’s loud and not to be ignored, a riveting set of pureness that hits all the blues clichés but does ‘em up so right that everything clicks spectacularly.

And that’s the thing.

This music of ours, this blues, is a music not particularly hard to play, based on a repetitive progression of chords that’s fairly rudimentary. Yet when played well, though, with style and flair, or with an eccentric individualism, it’s a music felt rather than simply appreciated. It’s a deep-down music that almost bypasses your brain and heads straight for the central nervous system or the groin, depending upon the listener. It insinuates itself into the body with a visceral kick and forces the body, like a demented marionette, to move and grooooooove. Add a dollop of alcohol or whatever consciousness-changing substance that floats your boat, and if you can feel it, you can be totally transported. The blues is that powerful. Those simple chords. That primitive I-IV-V progression (hell, I can even play it myself in C on the piano) is like the lifeblood, the DNA, of all good rock ‘n’ roll. And to see it come magically alive on a stage by real professionals who I admire and have a deep abiding respect for (‘cause I can’t play for shit when it gets right down to it), is a joyous, life-affirming experience.

So as band after band rotates between the open-air grandstand and the upstairs Café, I position myself right up front, making eye contact with the musicians and being, uh, demonstrative, and damn if those cats on the bandstand didn’t smile and play a little harder ‘cause they knew one cat up front got it. The effect of such ripples out into the crowd and soon more folks started gettin’ down with the feeling. My work done, it’s back to the bar, then downstairs to start the process again with another band.

Five hours later, I’m satiated with that after-sex glow of goodness that only good music can approximate. Kudos to the crazy man known as Watermelon Slim, who showed us you don’t even need a band to captivate. In Slim’s case, he played his laptop guitar horizontal-style and blew his brains out on a harp to—of all things—Laura Nyro’s “And When I Die,” where he played on his knees and on his back, throwing one harmonica after another to the ground while reaching for more. They came out to tell him his time was up but he kept on keepin’ on and the crowd was with him every inch of the way, hootin’ and hollerin’. Finally, once done, he took a huge bow and soaked it all up before holding court with a line of post-set well-wishers.

By the time Alexis P. Suter and her rampaging sextet made everybody crazy, I stopped, stared, listened, whooped it up a bit, and took my leave.

This annual event is not to be missed.