The Pennsylvania Blues Festival Marks its 25th Anniversary in Style!

For the past 25 years, the Pocono Mountains has been the home of a festival that has done nothing but grow and satisfy even the pickiest of blues fans. The PA Blues Festival did not disappoint over one September weekend, as I can attest.

It's strange to think that living in Pennsylvania, you would feel like you were headed back further in time, but that comes from living in a city. A veer off I-81, through Stroudsburg and up to Lake Harmony and you are in resort country. Doesn't seem like the kind of place that should play host to the gritty and down-home sounds of music that remains vital through those who carry its tradition, no matter their age or from where they hail.

Through the trees, the deer, and horse-riding trails and you end out at Split Rock, at the base of a small ski area. Doesn't matter where, though; this was all about the music.

The Pennsylvania Blues Festival Marks its 25th Anniversary in Style!
PA Blues Festival Founder/Producer, Michael Cloeren

Michael Cloeren founded the PA Blues Festival and has produced every one of them over a quarter century. "All killer, no filler," he says, and he means it. The blues, its many colors, genres, sounds, and styles are as diverse as the people who bring it. The professionals, and in that only the top of the form make the cut.

I arrived early Saturday; the opening night passed, and fireworks had already occurred. For those I missed, I apologize: the kickoff event had Beareather Reddy with her take on 20's and 30's tunes, along with Mikey Junior's Blues Revue. The upstairs ballroom was the scene of a late-night jam session involving headliner Ronnie Earl and guests.

"He closed the place," Cloeren told me, and I can believe it. Being from New England, where Earl is based, I've seen him perform numerous times over the past two-plus decades. His 40-year career in music has taken Earl from the days of Big Walter Horton, the Roomful of Blues to the various incarnations of his band, the Broadcasters. A string of albums, with a guitar technique that defies style; blues, jazz and more, with the latest, Maxwell Street not disappointing.

On Saturday, I awaited the Master Class Earl would lead in the ballroom. About twenty guitarists, from experienced to novices brought their axes, many exceptional pieces; Strats, Telecasters and the odd acoustic.

The Pennsylvania Blues Festival Marks its 25th Anniversary in Style!
Ronnie Earl conducts the Master Class

One thing about Earl is his calm, unassuming nature. A small man, dressed in a suit, a muted version of his stage gear casually walked into the waiting area, greeted everyone and asked how they were. He took the fan's questions and comments in stride. The fandom of popular, and younger artists does not exist here; part of that clearly is due to the age of most us, but also respect.

"He's in a good place," Cloeren observed.

Seated onstage, Earl led his students through a discussion of his music, his influences, and yes, that style. A quiet, self-deprecating humor displayed, Earl gently encouraged the unplugged sounds of those seated before him. Not formally trained, Earl described a brief effort from a teacher: "He wanted to (teach me) a circle of fifths. I said, 'I wanna play like Freddie King,' and that was the end of that."

Earl's musical language is his own, and he imparted that through demonstration. "I can teach pretty good in the morning," he joked, "but my playing is another story," which again made everyone laugh.

He also talked about the guitarists that have followed who he admired. Anson Funderburgh for one (check out his work in the Rockets, and with Sam Myers); he also had kind words for Chris Cain, Robert Cray and Jimmie Vaughan.

The deeper lessons were not musical. Earl urged those in attendance to be kind to themselves, and that if their playing did not make immediate inroads, to not take it hard. "Do what you love, but don't do it for the money," he said. "Dress nicely; you represent yourself and the tradition. Don't push yourself on people."

Predictably, the event turned into a jam session. A fellow named Seth Holzman was there, and received a warm hello from Earl. Holzman played in Earl's first band, Bright Lights, Big City. Out came his harp, and the jam was one of those spontaneous moments.

Then another: a young man appeared, and Earl singled him out. He'd shown up at the Friday jam and tore up one of Earl's tunes, "Robert Nighthawk Stomp." "I've been thinking about you all day," Earl said and invited him up. With a borrowed guitar, this fellow (his name is Dean Shot) played in, to a huge hand. Small world, as Shot played a number of years with Hubert Sumlin.

I'd hoped for an interview, but due to time, I got no more than a quick couple of questions. We spoke briefly of Maxwell Street: "I'm thrilled, I hope people like it," Earl said. "I think it's kind of a soft album...trying to make it more soulful."

Anyone who has ever watched Earl play up close may have noticed how he plays. Earl plays a phrase, pauses, nods; he plays another phrase, shakes his head, and plays on. It struck me as a form of mindfulness training. I asked, "Do you know you're doing that?"

"No, not at all."

Earl was as kind to me as he was to everyone else. That is still one amazing moment for me. Enough said.

The Pennsylvania Blues Festival Marks its 25th Anniversary in Style!
Zac Harmon

Next I hit the grounds, and would do so for the next several hours. First to the main stage located at the bottom of the ski area, where I caught the last part of Slam Allen's set of blues and R&B. The crowd was not a cast of thousands; partway up the hill, fans staked out their ground, while others crowded the steel barrier.

Mississippi native Zac Harmon followed, who fired out a commanding set of his own, including what he proudly called music of "social conscience," he tore up the crowd with "Stand Your Ground."

The afternoon and evening, along with the music, merged into one long audio and visual jam session. The stages were connected by a shaded grove, which led through a gauntlet of food sellers, clothing, cigar and merchandise hawkers. From there I emerged into open space, and the big tent. There's no system of rank; being placed in the tent was not relegation.

I made my way through the grove, and ran into my former XM Radio colleague Bill Wax. One of the legendary deejays, Wax continues to host "Roots and Fruits" Saturdays on WPFW Radio in Washington, DC. "The blues will always be alive," he says, "the blues doesn't need our help. Musicians making a decent living, that's another issue, and it'd be nice to see that happen."

Wax also talked about the importance of the festivals such as these. 'The festivals (are) bringing all the various artists in one place," he says, "(they) are able to bring enough people in that they pay decently, and it's worthwhile for the musicians and the public."

The Pennsylvania Blues Festival Marks its 25th Anniversary in Style!
Harrison Kennedy

Interest in the blues is something that, like other forms, goes in and goes out in a sometimes-vicious circle. Are the younger music fans, turned off by pop music, seeing what can be found and heard in its roots? "There are younger bands that are using blues to step off and make their music," Wax says, "people like the California Honeydrops, and the Monophonics. I was at a Monophonics show a couple of weeks ago; everybody was under the age of 35. So that was very cool to see, people digging the music and having a great time.

'Most of the things I go to," he continues, "the festivals and clubs, it's still a pretty gray audience, the key is people getting to hear it. And if you can't hear it, you can't appreciate it. Most of radio has walked away from it, so that's the struggle for blues and any kind of roots music. How do you get people to hear it?"

The international flavor of the blues is one Cloeren has worked over the past quarter-century to make happen, and from out of Toronto comes a hard-driving band, Blackburn. There also was Harrison Kennedy, a Juno Award winner who some might remember from the Chairmen of the Board. He sat in for a series of R&B classics. An anecdote about Stevie Wonder, and they went into "Superstition," along with "Give Me Just A Little More Time."

Back to the main stage, and I was returned to New England. The Boston Blues All-Stars are artists that, along with Ronnie Earl are a big part of the heartbeat of that city's scene. With a new album, Fifty Shades of Blue. Anthony Geraci led a band filled with the likes of his Blue Tones partner Sugar Ray Norcia, guitarist "Monster" Mike Welch, Michelle "Evil Gal" Wilson and another legend, Toni Lynn Washington.

The Pennsylvania Blues Festival Marks its 25th Anniversary in Style!
Anthony Geraci & "Monster" Mike Welch

In the band tent, I found myself talking with Geraci about Fifty Shades, which became an outlet for his songwriting. "I wasn't getting my songs out enough for my liking," he admitted, "so I wrote a bunch of songs, and called up my friends."

Geraci says he too is seeing a younger element in the blues audience. "I don't know if I see it en masse, but there are there are younger people that come to our shows," he says. "I don't know if it's a trend, but in the Boston area and on the road (clubs will) have a blues show from 8 o'clock to 9:30, you do one long set. Then they'll have a young rock band, (from 10:30 pm until 2 am), which I think is cool. A lot of the younger people come out earlier and see the blues acts and then obviously stay for their friends in the other bands."

One problem, Geraci touched on more than once in our talk, however, was the thing he feels is killing the blues scene: the open jams. "There are just so many," he says, "no matter what city you live in. I can name off ten blues jams that I know about in Boston."

The Pennsylvania Blues Festival Marks its 25th Anniversary in Style!
Michelle "Evil Gal" Wilson

While he respects the players, Geraci says, "that's like giving music away. It's the only art form almost that people almost expect it most of the time given away for free. It's hard to get four or five guys together when you're lucky if they're gonna give you a 200-dollar guarantee."

A huge smile and an easy manner, Kenny Neal spoke of the fun he was having at festivals these days. "I used to do 250 dates a year, easy," he says. "I used to always tease B.B. (King); I say, 'How many dates you did man?' He said, 'You go first.' I say I did 260 days. He say, 'Oh, I did 285 Kenny; I got you beat again.' After 30 years of that, I mostly go to the festivals, the theaters and play. The clubs, I have more fun just walking in and they say, 'Oh, Kenny Neal in the house,' and I get up and play a song in the band for inspiration with the younger generation."

Neal agrees the younger ones are again turning onto the blues. "And it's so good," Neal says, "because you know, back in the 70's we thought the blues was out of here. My Dad, Raful Neal, down in Baton Rouge, he hung up all his harmonicas and guitars. Disco had took over. Thank God back in the early 80's, you know we got folks interested like Stevie Ray Vaughan, Eric Clapton and all them boys got together. Always admired Buddy Guy, which was my dad's guitar player back in 1956. He returned the favor 19 years later, he had me come up to Chicago. I played bass with Buddy and Junior Wells from '76 to '81."

The Pennsylvania Blues Festival Marks its 25th Anniversary in Style!
Mike Wheeler

With that, Neal took the stage, and played several tracks from his new CD, Bloodline. Neal's set caught the crowd, closer than anyone else so far during the day, but this is not to put anyone else down. That connection was there all day...something made me feel it more, still not sure what. Don't need to speculate.

Back to the tent, where I caught in the darkness, Guy Davis. Joined by Professor Louie & the Crowmatix, Davis played selections from his latest, Kokomo Kidd, and charmed the crowd with stories and a cover of "Lay Lady Lay."

Again to the main stage, and the headliner. Ronnie Baker Brooks, substituting for Buckwheat Zydeco took the stage with a horn-heavy blast of Chicago blues. Second generation himself, Brooks followed his father Lonnie Brooks in method, engagement from the stage, and a solid performance. He also brought along another of the few that remain, Eddy "The Chief" Clearwater.

A 22-hour day for me (including my "real job"), and I night-crawled back to my hotel, ready to do it all again.

One of the things about the blues world is the open nature of folks. Harrison Kennedy wished me a good morning as he had breakfast at the coffee shop in our hotel, and I watched Gaye Adegbalola pass through, and others. Just another stop on the road, and you're reminded how approachable these friends of yours are. No entourage, tour managers, security guards, just themselves.

Adegbalola did the Sunday Brunch with her band the Rutz, while back at the main stage, the Campbell Brothers tore it up with a gospel-influenced set. The tent stage was Kennedy's for a solo performance, and he mixed his own songs with familiar standards, on guitar and a 1936, short-necked banjo. Kennedy also told stories, including one about Marvin Gaye. "Marvin was a good drummer," Kennedy recalled, and added once Berry Gordy heard Gaye sing, that ended his career behind the kit.

The Pennsylvania Blues Festival Marks its 25th Anniversary in Style!
Andy T

For bands one has heard of, but never seen, I was made a fan of more than one this weekend. The Andy T Nick Nixon Band did so for me...Nick was out, so Phil Pemberton and Doug Woolverton from the Roomful of Blues filled in.

Back to the tent for saxophonist Vanessa Collier, whose set got one of the most enthused ovations of the day. The old blues technique of walking through the crowd was one Collier didn't miss, on the title track of her Keep it Saxy album. She blew through the crowd, outside and around with a solo that lasted several minutes.

A true story is that of Toronzo Cannon, who by day is a CTA bus driver, and a bluesman by night. The Chicago Way is his latest album on the Alligator label, and it is uptown Chi-town blues. The lefthander took the crowd through several tracks, and electrified the crowd with a Jimi Hendrix tribute on his "transition day," as Cannon called it. The ten-minute, feedback-drenched attack kept the energy level high.

The Pennsylvania Blues Festival Marks its 25th Anniversary in Style!
Toronzo Cannon

Chicago kept the stage theirs, as the Delmark Blues Revue stepped up. Anchored by the Mike Wheeler Band, Peaches Staten and another legend, guitarist Jimmy Burns joined the quartet as the afternoon waned.

Night fell with the threat of rain, and the anticipation grew for Earl's set. I don't have any way to describe a performance by Earl in words. There are those performers, who with any band around them get the message across. Blues and jazz fold into one another, and the quiet intensity of Earl's playing, no note missed (or wasted).

Earl has commented on how musicians such as Maxwell, Bruce Katz, and so many others have found their way to him. The current lineup has acquitted itself through several recordings so far: Lorne Entress and Jim Mouradian on bass and drums respectively, and Dave Limina on piano and organ. The latter's work highlighted in the simple figures of "Moanin'," from Father's Day, which kicked off the set.

And we were off. Vocalist Diane Blue took her turn onstage for a rousing "Before You Accuse Me," and two songs from Maxwell Street, "Double Trouble" and "(I've Got to Use) My Imagination."

One thing Earl makes a point of doing is sharing the stage. Cannon returned to play part of the set, as did Holzman, Shot, and a mysterious young lady from the local scene, who joined Blue in trading off on "...Imagination."

The diehards remained as the rain poured harder, but no damper on the night, or on a weekend of great music. I'm not lying: there was not one even slightly off performance at the Pennsylvania Blues Festival, a standard Michael Cloeren and his people have adhered. The best just get better; this is an event to mark mid-September for, and come to.

(All photos by the author)

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