Blues411: We are in full swing for summer festival time here in the Northeast and most of the land above the Mason Dixon line. It’s hard to choose which ones to go to and which ones to pass on. What makes the Pennsylvania Blues Festival such a compelling festival?
Michael Cloeren: We take a 3 fold approach– first it’s the programming. I try to program very differently than most promoters in the US and beyond. I bring in 1/3rd of the artists that are very popular on the festival circuit. So this year it’s people like Robert Randolph, Ivan Neville, Ruthie Foster, Bobby Rush. Then I bring one third of the artists that rarely come east of the Mississippi – like Sista Monica and the Canadian showcase coming in from Electro-fi records, and 1/3 artists that people might have heard before but definitely never seen before.
So with that formula you get some recognizable names, some non-recognizable names and some names that even the blues experts might have heard but haven’t ever seen live before.
Blues411: Yeah, that was one of the nice things last year – you had Earl Thomas over from the west coast. And Wallace Coleman who was just incredible. I had just heard his name before, but that was just back room talk. I had no idea who he was and he was just fantastic. Plus you had Dawn Tyler Watson and Paul Desauliers from Canada as an acoustic duo. They’re what makes it interesting to me.
To me as a fan, that’s what I want to see. I don’t want to see the same bands at every festival. When I’m deciding which festivals to attend, if I know I’m going to see a band in MD or FL, I want to see someone else when I got to another festival. Which is what your festival offers.
MC: Obviously I do a lot of research. I travel a lot, so 95% of these performers I’ve seen before. I don’t like to call one or two agents to get the whole line up done. I do my due diligence. The other thing I do is try to book people who are into this music for a long period of time. It’s not about the 10 year old flavor of the day-with all due respect to the flavors of the day. There’s other festivals for them. I feel that people who play my event, it’s not just a gig for them. They really, really want to be there. You saw it last year. The artist’s hang out, they didn’t just hit it and quit it. They become fans and watch other artists.
Blues411: If I may ask, when you bring in these bands from ‘far-away’ places, do you bring the band, or is it just the headline name and with local musicians?
MC: That’s a good question, with each region/style of music whether it be Zydeco, Mississippi Hill Stomp, Chicago – there is a certain feel or soul to it. To me I want to bring all the parts of a band to our show. They are integral to the formulation of their music and they bring an understanding and certain innate sense about it that, to me, is vital and necessary for the enjoyment of it. So I do bring the whole band, otherwise, in my view, they are playing covers, albeit very good ones but there is a certain restriction that exists there that the native band members do not have.
Blues411: Many festivals are going to just one booking agent, it seems like it’s becoming more prevalent. I can just book, say, that particular labels headliner act and they’ll give you other bands to fill out the roster. That way it’s all done and there you go. It’s great for them and it works for their artists. But as a fan, …
MC: Yeah, where’s the creativity there?
Blues411: Yes, their artists all cover different areas/types of music but often it’s not really a true spread of styles and abilities. I can really tell, Michael, that you care and it shows.
Blues411: The site you’re doing the festival at is…
MC: The ski area is Blue Mountain Pennsylvania, the town is Palmerton.
Blues411: Yes, Palmerton, it’s a nice area. Now this is a fairly new site for the festival, correct?
MC: It’s the 3rd year we’ve been at this site.
Blues411: How’s it going at this new site? Is it being well received?
MC: You have to understand that we were at our old site for 19 years. The Poconos Blues Festival was a pretty historic event. It attracted thousands of people every year with the same sort of bands that I’m bringing in now. The PA Blues Festival is going remarkable well, especially considering we had to start with a new mailing list, a new site, and a new festival name.
Blues411: For most folks, if they need to move their festival to a new site you can just forget about it. It just shows your perseverance and dedication to getting the music out there.
MC: Well I’m very happy and blessed that fans from all over follow my dream and support the event…Let me digress. We talked about 3 things that make this festival work. One is programming and the second is the site. It’s a really great site as you know. It’s not at a fair groups, so there are no port-o-potties. We’ve got a real structure, with real facilities and air conditioning. There’s a lodge for the jams where you can have a mixed drink or wine.Then the third part is the staff. They’re used to handling hundreds of thousands of people in the winter so now my job is to educate them on music fan compared to skiers. All those components are pretty special between the site, the staff and of course the programming.
Blues411: The staff was great last year. We got in Friday and it ran great. Then on Saturday the great storm came. And the staff was able to accommodate everyone and get things done. As well as what you and management did to make sure that the fans had a dry place to go and that the artists were comfortable and that there was some active time, not just dead time between the rain with everyone sitting around wondering when the brown acid was going to wear off (laughing). Instead there was music, some live interviews. All that just really shows what you and the festival are about.
If I can expound on the ‘infrastructure’ portion of what we are saying here for a moment. When we were all at Bluestock, if they did not have the built in facilities (infrastructure), the ski building with lockers, real toilets, food service etc., that festival would have been a pure disaster. But they did have these things and it turned out just fine – Ok there was a hurricane,, but it went on and crisis planning and management by Steve Simon, you and others made it a safe haven in what turned out to be one of those ’100 year storms’ So it really does matter – what if this was out in a field ugh, forget it.
Blues411: One thing that I’ve found, and I’ve heard a lot about when it was the Pocono blues festival – now the PA Blues Festival – you’ve always had a little something up your sleeve for the fans. Something that’s a little different. Last year you had a VIP section where people can come and talk with the artists. What are you doing this year?
MC: The one thing that I’ve never done before, and I’m asking yours and Tony Colters’ help on this, we’re doing this ‘meet and greet’ in the big performance tent on Saturday afternoon. So that’s going to be really cool. Picture having 8 artists sitting up on the stage. We have an hour, so we’ll be able to have a 5 – 7 minute interviews with each of the artists. We can discuss latest releases, musical influences, etc. Then there will be a meet and greet area for the fans (not just the VIPs) and also autograph sessions. That’s new this year.
Blues411: That sounds cool. It builds on what we did last year for the VIPs, but now it’s accessible to everyone.
MC: We’re holding this at the tent stage it’s programmed so that there’s nothing else occurring at the same time. So everyone can come over and listen.
Blues411: Speaking of surprises…who’s going to be the surprise band this year? Do you have anybody who you think will absolutely slay everyone? Anyone you can’t wait to watch from back stage and see the audience just turn into jello? Sort of like what Earl Thomas did last year.
MC: I think Alexis P. Suter – her gospel show on Sunday at high noon – is going to be with a 40+ person choir.
Blues411: Oooh! OK. That might just knock it out of the park for me!
MC: She’s never done that before live. I’m honored that she’s taking the time and practicing and going to present it to us on Sunday at noon.
Blues411: That should be great. Last year you had something similar, a little more of a tent revival – Sunday morning – but this sounds like you’re going whole hog. Alexis is just so dynamic when with her band so this will be earth shaking.
MC: Since 2002, I’ve had gospel the first set on Sunday. Campbell Brothers, Aubrey James, Calvin Cook, The Pittsburgh Gospel Lights, Holmes Brothers, and having Alexis do this will just be really special.
Blues411: You’ve been doing festival promotion for what 20 years?
MC: Since 1992.
Blues411: Do you have your hand in other things that people might be interested in?
MC: I’m the director of the Philadelphia Folk Festival, the longest continuous music festival in the United States – 52 years.
Blues411: Wholy-Molly! When is that?
MC: The third weekend in August. It’s huge – 6 stages and 50,000 people, 2,500 volunteers.
Blues411: Now you said that every band that you book you’ve seen. Does that mean you go to other festivals?
MC: I sure do. I’m a fan first. I was just at Mont Tremblant for their blues festival. There’s a nice festival by where I live last weekend called Briggs Farm. I’m planning on attending the River Front Blues Festival in Wilmington Delaware in early August. As you can see, I’m a fan.
Blues411: I think you have to be a fan in order for your festival or your show to succeed. You can’t just be in it for the money. But when you go to other festivals, do you look to see how everyone does things a little differently? Do you think that this guy does it this way and I wonder how I can incorporate that into my festival?
MC: I really wonder how focused club owners and festival promoters are any more. When you see the blues festival guide, pretty scary stuff when you see some of these acts. They call it a Blues Festival, but that’s a stretch man.
Blues411: Yeah, even by my liberal definition. Down here in South Carolina, we have Direct TV and they’ve got their music channels. And I said so let me go see what the Blues station is playing. So I heard early Big Head Todd, I heard Leon Russell and he did a straight blues number which was great. I need to find out what it was and let people know about it. But I agree, some of these Blues festivals are more rock blues with rock being the dominating thing. Which is fine, but I worry that people might not get whatever real blues is. That there is a wide scope of music out there. Otherwise, after a while it can all sound the same.
MC: I think that’s still important, because we have to continue to educate. I’ve been doing this for 20 years – that’s a whole generation. As you know, a lot of our musicians are no longer with us. We have to educate a new generation of people on our music. So if you have a blues fest and the Allman Brothers or the Grateful Deal are headlining, people that don’t know what you and I know will think “oh, this must be a blues band’.
MC: The other major issue I have is how many festivals are spend 50% – 70% of their budget on their headliners and there is no money left for the undercards. That’s very disheartening. You get a big headliner that they pay $30, $40 or even $50,000 for, but then they’ll tell a lot of other artists that you and I love, oh, I’m sorry we only have $1,000 for this slot. Artists that you and I love should be getting $4,000 for that slot.
Blues411: Yeah, one or two giant bands. Then the rest are bar bands.
MC: Good festivals, really good events, you want to get there early. Because those early bands might be the talk of the whole weekend.
Blues411: You don’t just want to pick and choose, oh I just want to go there and see the Allman Brothers. Hell, they’re very good, but they’re not the Allman Brothers I grew up with.
MC: Our first act on the main stage on Saturday is John Primer. They’re an amazing band. Sullivan Smith – Koko Taylor’s bass player for 13 years – is going to be on the stage with Primer. Besides Lurrie (Bell), who’s a better traditional blues artist out there right now?
Blues411: It’s nice, cause it seems that John Primer is having a little bit of a resurgence right now in popularity. He did that new release with Bob Corritore which certainly helps. It’s good to see that he’s getting out there.
I saw John on the Blues Cruise and that’s great because it gets him out in front of a wider audience. But man, opening act??!! John’s a good choice for the main stage. You don’t want to miss it – you don’t want to be still back at your hotel having some of those sausages and biscuits with gravy. You want to be at the show.
MC: Get there early. That’s what I’ve always prided myself on – having good openers. I can’t remember all the ones from the last 20 years. But we did have Michael Burks one year before he passed. When I’m programming, it’s like managing a baseball team. Someone has got to bat first, someone has to bat clean up and someone has to bat 9th. To me, they’re all headliners. That’s why it’s not about the 10 or 15 year old guitar hot-shot. It’s not about them. If they’re good, guess what, they’ll be at my festival down the road. But if I bring in that hot shot guitarist, that’s a slot that I could have had Honey Boy Edwards or Robert Lockwood. I gotta sleep at night. Every act on that bill I believe in.
And good or bad, I’m not about commercialism. It’s not about selling a few more tickets by bringing a in a commercial rock act. No.
Blues411: That’s a tough road to ho, but ultimately successful, and worth it – as we can see with the success of your festivals and dedication by the fans. We were just talking about how everyone has to bat in the order. I mean you’ve got Johnny Rawls, Bobby Rush, Robert Randolph. Bobby Rush is clean up and John Primer is lead off. It’s an amazing line up for people with an educated pallete of the blues. If I can go to my chef training… It’s not only in good taste but it tastes good too.
Blues411: Anything else you want to share? Things people might not know that you offer…
MC: We have on-site camping, with spots still available. You have a view of the main stage from the camp site. The Suburban Camping Company is out of NJ, they’ll set up a tent for you and break it down.
Blues411: Dammmmm, even I could camp like that!
MC: It’s a big tent with 4 cots in it and all sorts of amenities. The company is 2 years old and I saw them at the Mountain Jam festival at Hunter. I thought it would be really cool to showcase them at our event.
MC: Again, people don’t have to be a fan of the blues to like the festival. They have to be open-minded and they’ll experience some really good music. People have a misconception of our music – that it’s cry in your beer music by inarticulate people. That can’t be further from the truth.
Blues411: Not by a long shot. I always ask people who say it’s sad music if “Rock me baby, rock me all night long” is sad? But maybe the thought is to them?
I just got an email from a friend – he lives somewhere in Texas and there is a Blues festival down there. He told me the headliners, which relates to what we just talked about. I’m not going to mention names, but where’s the blues there? But I said he should still go. If it’s $55 bucks or $20 bucks, go. And go early – you might find something you really like. Go for the whole day – cause you might not like the headliner. He could just be a one trick pony and that’s just the way it is. We all have different taste. If the music doesn’t speak to you, that’s fine. You’re not right or wrong. There is no right or wrong in music. But I think the ultimate thing is that we support LIVE MUSIC when we can.
Blues411: You’re always looking for new things. You’re not a follower. You’re a leader. You’re out there on the edge looking and making it better and changing the way things are done. Because we need that. Otherwise, everything becomes the same. Then it falls over and dies.
MC: It’s been a remarkable run. I’ve been on the Blues Foundation board for 6 years and I’ve been on the KBA (Keeping the Blues Alive) committee since 1997 or 1998. I’m a lifer! I take the music real seriously. It just upsets me when you see events where people don’t take them (the Blues) real seriously.
Blues411: So it all begins less than a week from today…
MC: Friday night, from 8 – 11 is going to be a show case. Then 11 to midnight is going to be a jam with some of the national acts.
Blues411: Who’s going to be in the showcase?
MC: The fans are going to like it. There are 5 different band leaders and they’re each going to play 4 or 5 different songs. They’re going to be really rehearsed. They’re going to have a horn section. Then Saturday is going to be off the hook. That jam starts right after Robert Randolph is done. Eddie Shaw and all the Canadian people are coming in early. I’m hoping to get Chuck and Derek Campbell in there. That jam is going to be off the hook.
Blues411: I guess that means I have to rest up. Don’t work me too hard at the festival!
MC: We shall see. On a different topic, I’m sad that Bill Wax is gone from SiriusXM’s B.B. King’s Bluesville. The stuff that Bill Wax did with B.B. is historic.
Blues411: And unfortunately they’re not going to play that again because Bill’s voice is on it. That was the real deal. That’s the oral history of the blues. This is what we look for.
MC: While on a different scale, that’s why I’m excited about this ‘meet and greet’. While it’s shorter, it’s an off-shoot of Bill’s talks with B.B. People want to know about the musicians.
Blues411: I think the more you get into the blues, the more you want to know the history. Both Bill Wax and I are big baseball fans. And being a baseball fan, it’s all about history. The history and the back stories keep you interested and involved. So it keeps you coming back. And it makes you dig for info and connections. God, I don’t know how much I learned from Bill about the Blues, just from listening to him on the radio, which was available to anyone with a subscription, not a private party type of thing.
I think what you’re offering with the ‘meet and greet’, it’s a look into the heart and soul of the music. We don’t need fluff, we need substance.
MC: You’re exactly right. It puts people in a different light to have Bobby Rush do his review on the main stage which is good, but then Bobby in the tent solo – people don’t see that side of Bobby. It’s really special.
Blues411: Bobby Rush is a great story teller.
MC: In 1951, Freddie King was in his band and Bobby Rush was the band leader because he owned the van.
Blues411: See, this is what I mean about the stories!
Blues411: Thanks Michael. I can’t wait to see you Friday night!
MC: Thanks for everything Chefjimi. Keep focused and continue to do what you believe in.
Check out the web site, and come to this festival, it is original and unique. I will see ya there, stop by and say hi, let’s keep these blues thriving!
Love, Peace & Chicken Grease
Where Blues Thrives
Photos: Leslie K. Joseph, Blues411