Here’s a portion of the interview we did with Michael Cloeren, founder and producer of the Pocono and Vermont Blues Festivals. Held July 23-25, the 19th Annual Pocono festival featured Mavis Staples, Johnny Rawls, Chick Willis, The Fabulous Thunderbirds and a Saturday night concert with Chicago blues legends Pinetop Perkins, Hubert Sumlin, Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, Bob Stroger and Bob Margolin. Scheduled for August 27-29, the Second Annual Vermont Blues Festival will offer performances by Trombone Shorty, Kenny Neal, Big James Montgomery, Andrew “Jr. Boy” Jones, Joe Louis Walker, Johnny Winter and Ruthie Foster, among others. Information about the Vermont festival is available at www.vermontbluesfest.com.
We started by asking Cloeren about the focus and philosophy of the Pocono festival:
Cloeren: The Pocono Blues fest for 19 years, we really haven’t changed our focus. It’s bringing in to the Poconos, the best in national and international artists that need and deserve the recognition. Like this year, the booking philosophy is one third legendary artists like Mavis Staples, The Fabulous Thunderbirds or Pinetop Perkins, one third artists that rarely come this far, like Chick Willis and one-third artists even the experts might have heard about but never seen before. So that formula and …being real to the art form is the reason why people travel thirty states and ten countries to come here.
BBP: Now you’ve started another one in Vermont. What made you decide to do that and how’s that working out?
Cloeren: The company I work for owns eleven ski areas in the United States and one of the ski areas is in Mount Stone in Southern Vermont and the president of the company called me up to see if I’d be interested in bringing the blues up there. And it’s a perfect setting—two and a half hours from Boston, four hours from New York City—they’re starved for hip music up there. And using a similar formula maybe a couple of acts to play Vermont might not play here but 90% of it is a similar vibe.
BBP: How did this blues festival get started?
Cloeren: It was basically… I was lucky being….I’m 53 years old, so about 19 years ago I was 33. Growing up in Philly, I had the opportunity to see Albert King and John Lee Hooker and Johnny Copeland when I was young and I remember in 1975 and I was going to the Philadelphia Spectrum to see Eric Clapton and this guy named Muddy Waters showed up and that hit me like a hammer over a head. That was March 15, 1975, and I’ve been a blues nut ever since. Cause I figured if Eric Clapton likes the guy, he must be cool.
BBP: Was it hard getting it of the ground financially, I mean getting people interested?
Cloeren: Well, the key back then was—back then there were about 40 events in our country, from a one-day fest to a four-day Chicago Blues Festival. Now there’s like 350 of them. So the key is back then—there’s a lot of blues societies that I network with—so that kind of was my start. I remember the first year we did about 1300 people each day, then each year it’s been kind of like a slow growth and now we do over the three days about 10,000 people. But they come as you know from far and wide, 30 states, ten countries, and the key is not to commercialize the music it’s not about commercialism and as much as I love BB King, and I do, and I love Al Green but I can’t afford them. The good thing is you pay everybody, you spread the love here. And you pay everybody fairly and the other philosophy I have is, they have to have a current CD—18 months, in the last 18 months. So not only do they make some money, but they also sell their CDs. That’s real important.
BBP: I see. So you’re saying –if BB King went two years without having a CD, would you book him?
Cloeren: Hell yeah, I’d book him (laughs). Hell yeah, I’d book him. But unfortunately what B.B. King gets—and he deserves every penny—is my budget for the whole weekend.
BBP: Now I know years ago you had Buddy Guy here. Was he hard to get?
Cloeren: At the time it wasn’t hard to get. And. Buddy did a good job but he didn’t bring in any more people than any of these other artists do.
BBP: Why do you think that was?
Cloeren: I think because people know Pocono is—you might not know who the act is but you know we’re not going to book a bad band. Show up, and you’ll be impressed. Like today. Who knew these artists before today, and it’s awesome.
BBP: Yeah, Roy Roberts, I never knew..
Cloeren: Soulful cat.
BBP: How do you find these people that not too many people have heard about?
Cloeren: I travel all over the world. And I dig them out.
BBP: So you go to blues festivals…
Cloeren: Yeah, blues festivals. I go to Europe, I go to Canada, and all over, blues festivals down south.
BBP: Do people actually tell you, “Go check this guy out.”
Cloeren: I’m so connected, I’m just so connected through the internet, friends that I’ve known for 20-some years, so it’s been a labor of love.
BBP: Has anyone not worked out. Have you ever hired somebody you hadn’t heard before and they just bombed?
Cloeren: Nineteen years, 380 national and international acts, I could probably count on like one hand the sets that were lackluster. But that’s just me.
BBP: Everyone comes here and pretty much shines.
Cloeren: Yeah, they bring their A-Game. They have to, or it will stick out like a sore thumb negatively.