Bethlehem, Penn.— It’s time again to get down with the annual Blast Furnace Blues Festival coming to the MusikFest Café at Steel Stacks March 23, 24 and 25. With multiple stages timed so you can groove to one act at the Café itself before heading downstairs or outside, one can rock out for hour after hour with no break. It all takes place right in front of those big architectural monoliths left over from the glory days of Bethlehem Steel, the iconic blast furnaces, now with a walkway to the top and lit up at night like an art deco sculpture. Man, this is the place to be on the last weekend of the baseball off-season.
This is festing at its finest: clean spacious bathrooms, multiple bars, good food, great sound, pretty bar maids in the gorgeous Café interior. For this reporter, it’s a stone(d) delight, for numerous reasons — not the least of which is that I get to sleep in my own bed after all that festing. And I promise not to pass out this time in the midst of the action like I did a few years back. If you want to read about my debauchery, I wrote about it in this space on Feb. 26, 2014 in a Rant’n’Roll column headlined, “Party ‘Til You Pass Out…Twice.” I got a clean bill of health from my doctor this year to rock out with my drink out as long as I don’t spill my alcohol. As Ray Charles once said, “Ain’t no harm to have a little taste/But don’t lose your cool and start messing up the man’s place/Ain’t no harm to take a little nip/But don’t you fall down and bust your lip!”
This year’s lineup is the best in the fest’s seven-year run. Bobby Rush is a certifiable blues-soul-funk legend who will make you dance, laugh and sing along. What a showman! From “Porcupine Meat” to “Chicken Heads,” Rush came out of Arkansas to hit it big in Louisiana and now, at 84, he’s just as spry and ornery as ever. The Fabulous Thunderbirds are still led by the legendary Kim Wilson and their brand of Texas blues combined with a solid rock ’n’ roll aesthetic will leave you gasping and grabbing the bar to stay erect. Wolfman Washington & The Roadmasters is led by the redoubtable Walter Washington, 74, straight outa New Orleans. The Craig Thatcher Band will have special guest guitarist G.E. Smith on hand for the occasion. Step Rideau & The Zydeco Outlaws will make you shake your booty to their crazy Cajun ways. Toronzo Cannon is in his prime at 49, and just may be the sleeper pick of them all. Here’s a cat who busted outa Chicago to go national with his great album on Alligator Records, The Chicago Way, in 2016. They say he has yet to quit his day job as a bus driver for the Chicago Transit Authority and only plays on weekends. I’m going to have to ask him about that. His songs are razor-sharp, filled with his blistering guitar playing where he violently attacks his ax, singing about jealousy, backstabbing, murder and infidelity. The interplay between him and keyboardist Ronnie Hicks is compelling. I can’t wait to see this dude! Sugar Ray Rayford, 49, a Texan who made it big in the blues on the West Coast, shakes his mammoth girth like jello fronting a hot band of seasoned players. Trudy Lynn, another Texan, may be 70 but she’s still a red hot mama in the tradition of Koko Taylor and Etta James. Brad Absher lives on Tulsa time in Oklahoma but his band, Swamp Royale, kicks like a starving mule. He calls it “Gulf Coast Soul” as he’s been gigging around the Southern part of the U.S. on into Mexico with a variety of blues, gospel, folk, jazz and Americana. The man can sing and sting with the best of them. Then there’s The Mighty Orq who will bring his scintillating slide guitar with him from Houston.
Space limitations prevent me from waxing enthusiastically about The Slam Allen Band, John Egan, Ezra Charles, The Steve Krase Band and The James Supra Band with Sarah Ayers but suffice it to say each and every act on these three wonderful days and nights will titillate your soul.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the lollapalooza of a show that The Record Company put on at this MusikFest Café recently. This Los Angeles Band fulfills the promise of a generation earlier who came to these shores from England steeped in the blues but with a rock hard interior. I cannot remember the last time I was standing and dancing for 90 thrilling minutes, bouncing off like-minded patrons as if we were pogoing at a ‘70s punk show. With a jam-band mentality and a soulful blues aesthetic, The Record Company blew the crowd away and left us wanting more. Bring ‘em back!
For more information, go to steelstacks.org/festivals/blast-furnace-blues.