Mike Greenblatt’s Rant ‘n’ Roll

The 2019 Blast Furnace Blues Festival is FREE This Year!

Bethlehem, Pennsylvania—It’s always one of my favorite events of the year. This time it’s free. And all outdoors. The 2019 Blast Furnace Blues Festival on the ArtsQuest campus of SteelStacks will feature 10 bands over three days—and what a lineup!

It all starts Friday, June 28, at 6:00 p.m. at the Air Products Town Square Stage, right outside the building that houses the third-floor MusikFest Café, second-floor Fowler Blast Furnace Room & Loft, the Sands Deck, the first-floor movie theater, bar, eatery, merch shop, and the Creativity Commons. That’s where Brody Buster will kickstart this blues weekend party with his rockin’ brand of blues directly from Kansas. Dude blows a bad-ass blues harp as part of his one-man band presentation. His 90-minute set will end just as Curley Taylor & Zydeco Trouble will start at the Levitt Pavilion at the foot of those five iconic steel furnaces that once made the iron for the San Francisco Bay Bridge and the war effort in the nineteen-forties. Now, the hulking remains of those blast furnaces are all lit up like an art deco sculpture. It’s an impressive tableau that visiting artists always seem to mention when they play on this 10-acre campus.

The 7:30 p.m. set of real Louisiana zydeco music will no doubt have patrons dancing silly with glee until 9:00 p.m., when—back at the smaller Town Square—the local BC Combo will close Day #1 with a two-hour set just like they’ve been doing here in the Lehigh Valley for the last 27 years.

Day #2 starts at 4:00 p.m., as Kevin Burt will imbue the Town Square with the kind of soulful bluesy vocals—direct from Iowa—as he fronts his killer band that features the son of the legendary Johnny Otis, Jon Otis, on percussion, D’Mar Martin on drums, and the man-in-demand Jerry Jemmott on bass. Jemmott’s bass not only graces Aretha’s “Think” and BB King’s biggest hit, “The Thrill Is Gone,” and but that’s also him on the super-cool “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” by Gil Scott Heron.

Ursula Ricks keeps the momentum going at 6:00 p.m. on the same stage. The Baltimore ballbuster has been knocking ‘em dead for 32 years. She left Maryland for Texas early on and that’s where she staked her claim-to-fame. She’s a rabble-rousing funkateer of the highest order, heavy on the soul and emotion.

If you’ve never seen the great Tommy Castro perform, get ready to experience shock and awe at 7:30 p.m. at Levitt. His 15 albums, numerous blues awards (including the prestigious “Entertainer of The Year”) and globe-tripping concerts would tire any 64-year-old but the Californian keeps on ticking. When he sings Otis Redding, Muddy Waters, BB King, Ray Charles, or James Brown, he brings it big-time. His originals sparkle with Memphis flair, and he is not to be missed.

Brandon Santini starts at 9:00 p.m. and his love of traditional blues puts him in the same category as his harmonica influences James Cotton and Charlie Musselwhite. He’s sure to stir up some Memphis soul stew.

The final day of the fest starts at 4:00 p.m. on the Square, as Detroit’s Laura Rain and the Caesars belt out some funky old soul before Chicago’s Studebaker John & The Hawks kick up the dust at 6:00 p.m. in a style reminiscent of Hound Dog Taylor & The Houserockers and JB Hutto & The Hawks.

The fest ends with a 7:30 p.m. set from The War and Treaty. Michael Trotter was a U.S. soldier stationed in one of Saddam Hussein’s broke-down Iraqi palaces where there was a piano. He’d play it for his fellow soldiers and his Captain liked it so much, he advised Trotter to take his music seriously and make a career out of it. Shortly thereafter, that Captain was killed in combat. That’s when Trotter took his advice to heart and started to compose. He wrote a tribute to his fallen comrade that top brass got wind of, thus he was pulled off the front lines and sent to entertain troops around the world where his heartfelt blues and soul songs paid tribute to other fallen American soldiers. Upon returning to civilian life, he met vocalist Tanya who he entered into a musical and marital relationship with an original gospel-soul and some well-chosen covers.  Years later, they never fail to bring goosebumps and a few tears to their audiences….

…. Mention must be made of a recent spectacular night at The MusikFest Café when American guitarist/composer Al Di Meola blew the house away with his stunning synthesis of jazz, classical, worldbeat, Flamenco, and fusion. With a pianist from Cuba, a percussionist from Spain, and an accordionist from Italy (who all brought their own indigenous folkloric strains to the mix), the former seventies jazz-rock pioneer from the band Return to Forever was an amiable host telling the stories behind each piece of music. Rhythmically astute, when he wasn’t finger-picking and strumming, he was pounding out more percussion as each member of the band fell into lockstep with him to provide a kinetic vista of serious chops.