Rant ‘N’ Roll: The True Essence Of Musikfest

PHOTO: The author (right) with friends at Musikfest 2014

BETHLEHEM, PA—It’s a time to discover new music. It’s a time to be with friends, experiment with international cuisine, walk walk walk from show to show, have a party, dance, sing and scuffle with security (but only if you go to any of the 10 big shows where bumrushing the stage at set’s end is a no-no). The only “big” show I attended was the sublime Steely Dan who gave the people what they wanted. My cousin Rich drove up from DC to be my +1. Donald Fagen and company didn’t disappoint. Fagen’s a curmudgeon whose slightly rumpled appearance masks the soul of a white Ray Charles while peppering his hucksterism with vague beatnik glory…with one of the best bands in the land behind him. And yeah, I danced. When security manhandled me, I manhandled her right back, swooping the volunteer into my arms and slow-dancing while the band covered Joe Tex. It worked. A magic moment for sure. Lazily sauntering over to another stage, we met some friends and rocked out under the stars to Stone Flower, a Santana tribute band. (I must say, I have given in to the joys of a good tribute band, after pooh-poohing such acts my whole life.) As we happily walked back to the car, the strains of Sam Cooke’s “Bring It On Home To Me” drew me like a magnet to the band Zaire from Phillipsburg, NJ, with perfect three-part harmony.

Ultimately, it’s not the big acts but the hidden treasures which are the true essence of this 10-day festival which kick-started August into a kind of unreality that permeated my very existence for the duration. In the interest of full disclosure, true, I went but five of the 10 days yet with my huge mug filled with warm red wine, I traversed the perimeter with a smile on my face and a yen for sound.

And oh boy I got it.

Day #1 was a disappointment only because ZZ Top bassist Dusty Hill had kidney stones and the band had to cancel. Ouch!

By the time I got my act together, it was Day #4. I sat under a hot sweltering sun grooving to The James Supra Blues Band, a local harmonica player who really belted his blues (including a cover of “Walkin’ The Dog” by Rufus Thomas and even a time-out for a surprise “Memphis Underground” by Herbie Mann complete with a high-flyin’ flute solo). When vocalist Sarah Ayers came out for three songs, the sun, the heat, the wine, the sound and the band’s propensity to hard-charge the blues like a steamroller coalesced into perfection. A great way to start my 2014 festing! I stayed for the whole set (a rarity) before venturing inside to see Hambone Relay, a great Philly soul-jazz-funk organ trio who blew me away. I finished my night sitting outside on a big rock listening to Sheryl Crow.

The next afternoon, I happily sweated while being mystified, hypnotized and willingly befuddled by the Arabic jazz of Nashaz from Brooklyn. They were so good, especially the guy playing an oud, I stayed for two sets! A first! Then it was time for Joyous, a soul/gospel cover band that did some Al Green fit to drool over.

I took two days before going back to totally freak out to the music of The Kinks, maybe my favorite band of all time, as performed by The Blue Meanies from Staten Island, NY. Why they’re named that is still unknown but their lead guitarist is Damian Fanelli of Guitar World magazine. I was wondering how deep they’d go into the Kinks Katalog and they surpassed my highest expectations by doing almost every single one of my favorite under-the-radar Kinks Klassics like “She’s Got Everything,” “Victoria,” “Sunny Afternoon,” “A Well Respected Man,” “Village Green Preservation Society” and oh so many more, and, yeah, I stayed for both sets dancing like a fool and singing at the top of my lungs (caught on camera by a roving TV guy being silly but who cares). The British Invasion Tribute band from Edison, NJ was cheesy and I walked out while they led a sing-along to “I’m Henry The Eighth I Am” by Herman’s Hermits.

After Minas, a delicious samba band from Philly that had me swooning in delight, my absolute personal highlight of the fest was Black Masala from Washington DC. With an adorable female front, and the kind of horn section one would expect from a New Orleans outfit, this Euro Gypsy brass band had me dancing and prancing around the venue. I even waved my arms in the air like I just didn’t care.

It ended for me with Nashville singer/songwriter Kevin Gordon who should be a huge star but I must say no more due to space restrictions. Believe me, I can go on. Consider him a poor man’s John Hiatt.

Musikfest 2014, the nation’s largest non-gated festival, drew 1.1 million people from 43 states and seven countries. And it didn’t rain! There were 41 arrests but you gotta figure there’s gonna be idiots at any major event. I’m already looking forward to Musikfest 2015 for 10 days starting August 7.