STORY WRITTEN BY FERN BRODKIN
For Digital First Media
SteelStacks, the multi-venue arts and entertainment complex on the former Bethlehem Steel site, once again presents the Blast Furnace Blues Festival. The festival will be held March 11 through March 13 on two of the site’s indoor stages.
The festival features entertainment by 19 of some of the best local, regional and national touring blues artists. There are a wide variety of performers encompassing different styles of the blues, from solo acoustic blues musicians to full electric bands.
The following are three of the entertainers that will be performing at the festival. Scroll below for a full schedule of events.
Craig Thatcher Band – Friday Night Headliner
Craig Thatcher, from nearby Coopersburg, is one of the most popular acts at SteelStacks and in the Bethlehem area. He has performed at Musikfest®, Bethlehem’s yearly music festival, for 27 years. He was the first artist to perform at the Musikfest Café. His band will also perform later this year at SteelStacks’ RiverJazz Festival.
Thatcher performs a variety of music from acoustic country blues, to originals, to tribute concerts. I spoke to him from his home and he discussed what people can expect from him and his band at the festival.
“We’ll do some of our original music and we’ll do some blues covers,” said Thatcher. “I’m also gonna fit in some acoustic (songs).
“For the last 8 years I’ve been a Martin ambassador. I go worldwide for Martin Guitar and I do a lot of finger-style blues… I gravitate toward folk blues and country blues, like what Jorma [Kaukonen] does. He’s been a major influence on me on the country blues style of fingerpicking and we’re gonna incorporate some of that music into our show as well.”
Toby Walker – Saturday afternoon (March 12)
Toby Walker is an award-winning finger-style guitarist. He combines elements of blues, ragtime, country, bluegrass, rock and old time jazz into his own unique style. He just released “Mileage” (2016), named for his extensive touring in the U.S. and Europe.
Walker has released several instructional DVDs, both on his own and with Happy Traum for Homespun Instruction. He conducts workshops throughout the country and also taught at the Carnegie Hall’s American Roots program for honors level middle school students.
I spoke to Walker from his home in Denville, N.J., where he discussed the new album.
“It’s a compilation of a lot of different styles,” said Walker. “I do a Fats Waller swing tune [“Lulu’s Back in Town”]. I’ve been doing a lot more old-timey and bluegrass-type stuff. There’s also blues and a little bit of the ragtime feel. There are some humorous songs and some fairly serious songs.
“On the cover of the CD there’s a picture of my guitar case (with stickers) from all the various places (in) Europe and the United States where I performed.”
As for what people can expect to hear at Blast Furnace, Walker said “It’s a blues festival so I’ll definitely be doing a blues-heavy set. I’m going to be doing things from the new album but because it’s more of a blues audience I’ll be also adding a lot of things that I’ve done in the past that are more blues-based.”
Charlie Musselwhite – Sunday night headliner (March 13)
Charlie Musselwhite is a bona fide blues legend. He has been playing blues harp nearly all his life.
The 72-years-young harp player released his first album 50 years ago and he’s still on a roll.
I spoke to Musselwhite from his California home about his music and how he has been able to maintain such a successful career over such a long period of time.
“It’s been quite a trip,” he laughed. “I never really had a plan to become a musician. I just liked music and I taught myself and learned from others – some of the blues musicians I met hanging around Memphis. I didn’t know I was preparing myself for a career or I would’ve paid a lot more attention.”
He added: “I feel like I’m 27 and when I’m given the opportunity I act like I’m 17.”
Musselwhite sincerely appreciates all the accolades that he’s received, including a Grammy Award for his album “Get Up” that he recorded with Ben Harper. He has 9 other Grammy nominations, was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame and is a Mississippi Blues Trail Marker Honoree.
“(The accolades) are real nice but I’m still learning. I’m enjoying it. There (are) a lot of people who are really great musicians out there; I’m just one of them.”
Musselwhite’s latest album “I Ain’t Lyin’” (Henrietta Records, 2015) was recorded live in Sonoma, CA.
“It was recorded live at a festival with my band. I have a different bass player now (who is) even better,” he laughed. “It’s a really good example of what I sound like today. I wrote a lot of the tunes that are on there. We were having a lot of fun and I think it came across in the recording.”
Musselwhite said he’s looking forward to performing at SteelStacks.
“We will play a lot of material from the new album and I might even make up something on the spot, who knows? And it’s dancing music so people who like to dance can bring their dancing shoes. And if you’re really talented you can dance and listen at the same time.”
He added: “There will be CDs for sale and I’ll be available to sign whatever you want me to sign. Or just come say hello.”
SteelStacks is operated by ArtsQuest, the nonprofit organization that also sponsors Bethlehem Musikfest. The venue is family friendly and kids are allowed at the performances.
A number of different ticket packages are available including individual day tickets and 3-day passes.