Blast Furnace Blues

Long-idled blast furnaces
Long-idled blast furnaces, the backdrop to Blast Furnace Blues festival in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania

Ah, my first post.  The “About” page notes that the blog will focus on the interests that I’ve loved all of my adult life: Music, movies, food and beverage, art, traveling, theater. That list isn’t exclusive. There is room to expand. For my first post, though, I’ll stick to the list and review a recent musical day in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

I’ve been to quite a few places over the years, and there are many more I’d like to visit. On the other hand, there are places I’ve given little thought to, and have no plans to visit. I’ll scratch one of those no-plans places off my list now, though, because not long ago I was in Bethlehem, PA with my wife. Turns out that this small city is a mere 40 miles from where I live. Who knew?

It was a web-surfing spree a few weeks ago that brought Bethlehem from darkness into light. During that spree, Cape Cod lover that I am, I looked over the website of the Cape’s Payomet Performing Arts Center. On it I saw that a musician named Carolyn Wonderland was on the schedule. What a name! No way I’d not check out her website. And there I noticed that Wonderland, a blues/rock troubadour from Texas, would be at Blast Furnace Blues, a three day music festival in Bethlehem. The lineup on the Blast Furnace website looked excellent for the final festival day, March 29. It included Wonderland and Shemekia Copeland, one of the greatest blues singers alive. March 29 arrived, off we went, and we are very glad that we did.

Bethlehem’s main claim to fame was, and likely still is, the Bethlehem Steel Corporation. That company, now defunct, had nationwide facilities. The heart of its operation was in Bethlehem itself, where steel production ended 20 years ago. Parts of the former Bethlehem site are well on their way to looking like Roman ruins. But much of the grounds have been reclaimed. By Sands Casino Resort, for one. And by ArtsQuest Center, a large and spiffy year-round home to concerts, films and such, and to special events like Blast Furnace Blues. Blast Furnace’s organizers gave the festival the correct name. Rusting monolithic blast furnaces that once produced thousands of tons of iron daily are the backdrop to the musicians in the center’s third floor music room. The furnaces are fully visible through huge glass windows.

No acoustic country blues on the Blast Furnace menu. Loud and driving electric blues and rock instead, exactly what the crowd came out to hear. Music roared in two rooms, on separate floors, but my wife and I stuck to the third floor. The schedule there was hard to beat. We took in a lot of music, four acts spread out over six hours. The crowd grew as the afternoon and evening deepened. When Shemekia Copeland hit the stage around 6:30, 400 or more blues-crazed and partying folks filled the room. Now, all four bands were hot, but Shemekia and her mates were the best, as I figured they would be. The only performer on the bill whom I had seen before, I knew her to be fabulous, and once again she was. What a voice.  Pretty incomparable, really. And the four guys backing her up were ferocious, Stones-y as can be at times, deeper than deep in the blues at others. Got to name these gentlemen: Arthur Neilson and Ken Scandlyn on guitars; Kevin Jenkins on bass; the amazing Robin Gould on drums. If you’ve never seen Shemekia and company, do yourself a favor.

Lots of good things to say about the other acts. I’m sometimes not a big fan of white boys singing the blues, but Chris O’Leary, of his namesake band, was authentic. A strong, clean vocal delivery, no cringe-worthy Muddy Waters-like imitations, except his occasional blues growl. I’ll forgive him for that. What’s the blues without some growling, right? O’Leary’s rich mouth harp storytelling, and Pete Kanaris’s searing guitar lines, led the band’s instrumental charge through raw Chicago-style blues, talking blues, and New Orleans syncopations. O’Leary is a veteran of the late Levon Helm’s Barn Burners. Somehow he was new to me. Praise to Blast Furnace Blues for bringing him in.

The Freddie King Reunion Band in action
The Freddie King Reunion Band in action

Freddie King, a blues giant on electric guitar and vocally, passed away in 1976. Benny Turner, King’s younger brother, played electric bass guitar with King for many years. All these decades later, Turner decided to celebrate his brother by bringing together other King band alumni, and one red-hot guitarist, Texas Slim, who loves King’s music but never played with him. The Freddie King Reunion Band thus was born a couple of months ago, and Blast Furnace was only its third or fourth appearance. Like Turner said from the bandstand, musically it was as though the guys hadn’t been apart at all in the 39 years since King’s passing. With Benny on bass and most of the lead vocals, these fellas played with power, smoking a repertoire of the down and dirty as if in a bygone and sweaty Chicago blues club.

And what about Carolyn Wonderland, who led me to Bethlehem in the first place? She owns good pipes (like those of a more rugged Bonnie Raitt), writes good songs, and is right at home playing blues, country-tinged rock, and gospel tunes. And she slings a tough guitar. Even in 2015, it’s not common seeing a lady tear into the strings. At Blast Furnace, she and her band gripped the music hard and didn’t let go. The girl’s got it.