Sunday, August 29, 2010

Pocono Blues Festival: Can't Wait Until Next Year...

I remember during the 1970’s I had a couple of albums by B.B. King and John Lee Hooker. In the 90’s I stumbled upon albums by Lucky Peterson and Robert Cray. And of course, as I mentioned before in this blog, I was fascinated with Jimi Hendrix, as much a blues musician as anyone with songs such as “Red House” and his version of Elmore James “Bleeding Heart.”
But I knew next to nothing about Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf or Buddy Guy. I had never heard of Luther Allison. And the only Robert Johnson I knew about was a guy I went to school with.
I didn’t seriously fall into blues until about 10 years ago. Two things turned me onto them. One was the radio and shows such as those hosted by Jim Mertz and Dan “Da Dutchman” Diefenderfer in Allentown, Pennsylvania, where I was living at the time and by Rick “da Gator” Bolling in Washington, D.C., my hometown, which I frequently visited then and where I live now.
The other was the Pocono Blues Festival, a three-day series of blues concerts held each at the end of July or the beginning of August at Jack Frost ski resort in the Pocono Mountains, Pennsylvania’s recreational Mecca.
Just finishing up its 19th year, the festival (check out the interview BBP did with founder Michael Cloeren) gives blues lovers an opportunity to hear nationally-known blues acts in an idyllic, almost storybook setting—a serene wooded enclave at the base of a hill, near a lake. Performers play on two stages at the bottom of ski slopes that serve as natural conduits of the sound. A large tent near the resort entrance provides a third stage.
To me, it has become a ritual, must-attend event. A month after each festival, I am thinking about next year’s. By May I am checking online for the line-up and by June I am ordering the tickets.
I can’t remember when I started attending; all I recall is that my first one ended with a “shootout” between guitar powerhouses Lonnie Brooks, Long John Hunter and Phillip Walker. I carry MTV-video type memories of performers I have seen since: Buddy Guy, “Zydeco Sweetheart” Rosie Ledet, Little Ed and the Blues Imperials (I saw them twice, I think), Mississippi-born guitarist Dave Riley, Louisiana-born bluesman Kenny Neal, taxicab-driver-turned-blues-musician Mem Shannon, guitar veteran Andrew “Jr. Boy” Jones, New Orleans groundbreaker and rising star Trombone Shorty, the list goes on.
This year’s festival featured a performance I considered myself lucky to see given the age of the players: 97-year Pinetop Perkins on piano, 78-year-old Hubert Sumlin on guitar, 74-year-old Willie “Big Eyes” Smith on Harmonica and vocals, Bob Stroger on bass and 61-year-old Bob Margolin—the youngster of the group—on guitar. Sumlin played despite having to receive constant oxygen.
Typically the guests are so charged up on the music that many flock to nearby after-parties for more. In my opinion, the best of them is held at the Boulder View Tavern, a restaurant and bar located along the outskirts of the resort. I once saw Eddie Shaw give a show there that had everyone dancing. His bassist, Lafayette “Shorty” Gilbert, handed me his bass and let me play a couple of songs.
The parties, which require a $5 admission, are great also because musicians drifting in from the festival frequently sit in with the host for some memorable jams. Last year I saw singer Shemekia Copeland and guitarist Bernard Allison take the stage together.
You have to buy all food and drinks—even water—from vendors on site, and after a full day under the hot summer sun you can end up spending a lot of money. Even more if you have the same penchant for t-shirts and CDs as I do.
Still, a $34 ticket price for a full day of first class musicianship is not bad, especially when you consider that you'd pay many times more than that for a three-hour rock concert.
What speaks loudest for the Pocono festival are the musicians, many of whom seem to consider a gig there as a breakthrough moment in their careers.
Theodis Ealey’s (pictured above, the white-haired guy on his knees with his guitar in one hand and his hat in the other) pride at playing the 2010 festival was evident when he talked about how his hit song, “Stand up in it,” had brought him there.
“You’re on the map as far as all the other festivals go because other festivals look at festivals and this is a big festival, it’s gone on for quite a while,” said Bill Sims, Jr., who also played the 2010 festival. “So other festivals can say ‘oh he played there, so let’s get him here.’ And Mississippi Valley Festival is another one, and King Biscuit Festival, Chicago Blues Festival, San Francisco Blues Festival is another one, but yeah this is..well you look at the acts here. I’ve seen Kim Wilson and the Thunderbirds here today. I’m listening to Mavis Staples here. Come on.”
Well, here begins the countdown to next year’s festival.

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