Pennsylvania Blues Festival 2013
Blue Mountain Ski Resort
July 26-28, 2013
For the past 22 years, veteran festival producer Michael Cloeren has thrown a weekend party in the Pocono mountains, playing host to fifteen of his favorite blues musician friends and their bands and inviting a few thousand avid fans of the genre to pull up a camp chair and join the fun. Or, at least, that's how it feels to attend one of the most comfortable festivals on the east coast.
Held each year at the base of Blue Mountain Ski Resort, the festival features a large outdoor stage and a smaller, more intimate tent stage, with food and crafts lining the path between the two venues. Add the mountain backdrop, a ski lodge with clean bathrooms and a large air-conditioned bar areas for those who want to escape the heat and rain that so often plague summer festivals and you have the makings of an easy-to-attend festival. A camping area, VIP opportunities and late-night indoor jam sessions round out the amenities that also host some of the best blues acts anywhere.
Cloeren became hooked on the blues as a teen and his passion has not waned, as he became friend and supporter of multiple musicians showcased at his festival each year. The Pennsylvania Blues Festival is exceptional in its variety of styles and, over its two decades, has featured its share of traditional old blues as well as gospel and the trance blues of Otis Taylor to the powerful sacred steel music of the Slide Brothers. Whatever the style, Cloeren insist that the music at the festival is "rooted" in the blues.
This year's festival was warm with a kind breeze as John Primer opened Saturday with his guitar and harmonica-infused numbers steeped in traditional blues. Youthful and energetic, Primer enthralled the audience with his soulful singing and blues guitar, belying his 68 years. At the end of his festival stage set, Cloeren awarded Primer with a Lifetime Achievement Award for his sixty years in the business, including a stint as guitarist in Muddy Waters' band. His second set at the tent stage gave the audience chance to see his blues licks up close, as he pulled and twisted strings to make the instrument talk to everyone's soul. He left no one in doubt that he is a master of his craft.
In Cloeren's annual tip of the hat to New Orleans music, the Bonerama trombone trio took the stage with its horn-infused, New Orleans-inspired music. The Crescent City was well-represented by the trio of horns masterfully played by Mark Mullins, Craig Kleinman, and Greg Hicks. The trio was supported by Bert Cotton's excellent guitar work and energetic rhythms from drummer Simon Lott and bassist Nori Naraoka. In the more intimate evening tent stage performance, the band continued a New Orleans tradition of teaching the young when it invited fifteen year-old Pennsylvania trombonist Bobby Pollack to the stage to join the group for three songs. Pollack kept up with the trio as he was initiated into the New Orleans music tradition, with his proud father looking on.
The larger-than-life gospel soul voice of Sister Monica Parker was next, her church-inspired band including saxophonist Von Ambrose and organist Danny Beconcini. It was a call to church as the crowd could be heard responding with a chorus of "That's Right!" and "Sing It, Girl!," as she spoke and sang in preacher style and joyfully played with the audience.
She told the story of one of her tunes that was inspired by an encounter she had with B.B. King. She had just sung with his band, but had not met him. She asked if she could get a photo with him and was told that he does not like to take pictures, but that they would have him autograph one of his publicity photos and make sure she got a copy. Not being satisfied with that, she walked past his security and asked the blues guitar legend if she could take a photo and he responded, "Sure, baby! Just hug me like you love me." She went home and wrote a new tune, "Hug Me Like You Love Me," in honor of the encounter.
With the party now fully started, The Slide Brothers delivered an awe-inspiring performance featuring three slide guitars in the tradition of Sacred Steel. All hailing from the House of God Church in New Jersey, Calvin Cooke, Aubrey Ghent and brothers Darick and Chuck Campbell electrified the crowd with their mastery of this instrument, introduced to the musicians at their church in the 1930s.