Rant ‘N’ Roll: Musikfest 2014

The first 10 days of August are going to be filled with the sound of 347 music artists, 337 of which are free. Welcome to Musikfest, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, an hour away from North Jersey, for my money, the best damn festival in America. Why not? It’s right where I live, I can go home every night and sleep in my own bed, and over and above the 10 headliners which you have to pay for, and the great international cuisine, and the fact that you can carry your alcohol around with you, and the people-watching, almost everything is within walking distance. Savvy Musikfesters map out who they want to see and the sky’s the limit. Every imaginable genre. The booking policy for the annual fest is close to genius.

The 10 headliners for this 31st edition are (in order for the first 10 days of August) ZZ Top, The All-American Rejects, Jason Derulo, Sheryl Crow, Moody Blues, Steely Dan, Avett Brothers, Alan Jackson, Weezer and Keith Urban. The outdoor venue is on the site of the old Bethlehem Steel plant where the rusted remains of its blast furnaces serve as a lit-up art deco sculpture.

But that’s not the story.

It’s those under-the-radar artists playing at smaller stages that’s the true essence of this brilliant fest. Walk around, dip your head into a kiosk here and a tent there and you can marvel at music from Columbia, Canada, Netherlands, Germany, England, China and Brazil. I’ll be digging some Arabic jazz, Southern rock, blues, boogie, rock ‘n’ roll, folk, Cajun, Celtic, bluegrass, funk, soul, pop, gospel, classical and country. And I probably left out a genre or two in my haste to make deadline.

For instance, Sam Hunt may not be a household name, but it’s his songs that Kenny Chesney got famous on. Ditto for Scott Bradlee but his dynamic ensemble takes mainstream pop by artists I have absolutely no interest in—Lady Gaga, Lorde, Carly Rae Jepsen, Madonna—and transforms it into riveting jazz, swing and doo-wop. Rick Vito was in Fleetwood Mac from 1987 to 1991 and now tours under the name of King Paris playing blues, worldbeat and rock ‘n’ roll.

You want esoteric eclectic exotica? I know I do. Try the 30-piece Mucca Pazza Marching Band that ain’t exactly repeating age-old John Philip Sousa marches. They’ll kick your ass. I won’t be missing, for instance, Curley Taylor & Zydeco Trouble or blues guitarist Carolyn Wonderland or Celtic rockers Scythian or Amsterdam-based global bass group Kuenta i Tambu or the classical/hip-hop fusionists Black Violin…all free. That right there is what Musikfest is all about.

Presented by the non-profit ArtsQuest, it’s all made possible in part by its 125 corporate partners, 1,900 volunteers and 2,000 supporting ArtsQuest members. For the complete lineup, check out musikfest.org/lineup or facebook.com/musikfest or twitter.com/musikfest. Other info can be had at musikfest.org or by calling 610-332-3378.

I have had some incredible memories in fests past. I’ll never forget dancing in the rain to Trombone Shorty, going wild front-row center to Al Green, freaking out to Melissa Etheridge while the fireworks bombed away in the background, singing some Otis Redding at the karaoke tent, salsa-dancing, grooving to the old folks polka-dancing and actually watching them having to be wheeled out on gurneys one after another when they went too crazy on the floor. I hope to make some new memories this year.