Rant ‘N’ Roll: Blues Fest Hits Bethlehem, PA Feb. 7, 8 & 9

Oh baby! Here we go again. Last year’s Blast Furnace Blues Festival in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, on the site of the old Bethlehem Steel, with those original blast furnaces providing a gorgeous stage backdrop all lit up like an art deco sculpture, an hour west of North Jersey, had some moments I will long remember. This year’s lineup looks even better. 28 hours of music from 20 bands on two stages all power-packed into one blistering February weekend (Friday the seventh to Sunday the ninth) provides ample opportunity to marathon some blues…and more.

The “more” comes in the form of Maria Muldaur & The Midnight Scramble, The Blind Boys Of Alabama, New Orleans Cajun stalwarts BeauSoleil and Southern Hospitality (who should blow the roof off the joint with their Allman-esque barbecue of Southern rock).

Blues-wise, we’re talkin’ the 2013 Blues Music Awards Entertainer Of The Year Curtis Salgado, The Duke Robillard Band, a “Blues Brunch” with Wolfman Washington & The Roadmasters, diva Candye Kane, James Supra Band, Dugan Thomas Band, Sarah Ayers Band, Damon Fowler, Deanna Bogart, Maria Woodford Band, Felix Y Los Gatos, Naomi Shelton, JW Jones, Craig Thatcher and Jesse Dee.

Plus, there will be “performance workshops” for musicians about piano, vocal, harmonica and guitar technique, as well as “Intro To Blues Dancing.”

The Blind Boys Of Alabama started in 1937 singing gospel and first recorded in 1947. National success didn’t come, though, until 1988 when they starred on Broadway in Gospel At Colonus, which ran for 15 weeks. In the ‘90s, they consistently wowed ‘em big time at all the major folk and blues festivals, even appearing on TV’s Beverly Hills 90210. Peter Gabriel used ‘em on his 2002 Up album. Their 2011Take The High Road, produced by Jamey Johnson, featured Vince Gill and Willie Nelson. Their current album, I’ll Find A Way, is produced by Bon Iver.

Maria Muldaur went top of the pops in 1974 with “Midnight At The Oasis.” From her folkie Greenwich Village roots to her current status as one of the last of the red hot blues mamas, she’s cut a striking figure through blues, country, rock ‘n’ roll, swing, pop, soul, gospel and, as of the ‘90s, Cajun. A native New Yorker, she moved to North Carolina to study bluegrass fiddle with Doc Watson. Born Maria D’Amato, she met her husband, Geoff Muldaur, in the Jim Kweskin Jug Band. The two left the band, moved to Woodstock, and formed a successful duo before Geoff left the duo and the marriage to form Better Days with Paul Butterfield. Her 1983 Sweet And Slow with Dr. John sizzles with sex appeal and she wound up touring with him throughout the ‘80s. She’s appeared on the stage in musicals such as Pump Boys And Dinettes and The Pirates Of Penzance. Her spectacular string of under-the-radar but successful albums have garnered her numerous awards but more importantly showed a consistency of artistry that rivals most of her peers including Louisiana Love Call (1992), Meet Me At Midnite (1994) and Jazzabelle (1995). Her tribute to Charles Brown (1922-1999), Meet Me Where They Play The Blues (1999), was intended as a duet album but for the ill health of Brown who wound up singing on only one track, “Gee Baby Ain’t I Good To You.” A tribute to Peggy Lee, Woman Alone With The Blues (2003), Heart Of Mine: Love Songs Of Bob Dylan (2006) and three albums of songs chronicling female blues artists from the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s have made Maria Muldaur that which she originally intended only to emulate: the real thing.

For more information, go to artsquest.org.