By Michael Lello
For the 23rd straight year, an impressive mix of blues artists from all over — and blues fans – will descend on the Poconos for a weekend of music. The Pennsylvania Blues Festival returns to Blue Mountain Ski Area & Resort this weekend, marking the fourth year of the festival, which took over where the former Pocono Blues Festival at Jack Frost/Big Boulder left off.
The festival boasts a blend of longtime standouts ad up-and-comers.
“I look for diversity,” said festival director Michael Cloeren. “For instance, when I book it, it’s like putting a puzzle together. We have our Chicago act, now you need an act from Mississippi, you need a female vocalist, now we need an act from the West Coast. Blues comes in many forms, and we try to give the fans something for everybody. They educate themselves and figure out what they like. Everyone has their own tastes. It’s almost like ice cream.”
Performing at this year’s festival, which runs Saturday and Sunday and covers two stages, will be Tad Robinson, Shawn Holt & The Teardrops, Barbara Carr, Ronnie Earl & The Broadcasters, The James Cotton Blues Band, Rip Lee Pryor, The Ursula Ricks Band, The Como Mamas, The Jarekus Singleton Band, Chris Cain Band, The Heritage Blues Quintet, CJ Chenier & The Red Hot Louisiana Band, A Little Bit of Blues with Warner Williams, Jay Summerour and Eric Selby and Super Chikan.
Cloeren spoke glowingly about the lineup, noting that there’s “a really good buzz this year on Ronnie Earl and the Broadcasters,” who has been “kind of obscure for the past 10 years.” Earl is a former member of the highly regarded group Roomful Of Blues. Cotton played with Muddy Waters and is “one of the top five blues harmonica players that ever lived,” Cloeren said.
Singleton (pictured) is one of the aforementioned up-and-comers. Cloeren noted that the 30-year-old Mississippi native, signed to blues label Alligator Records, has been atop the roots music radio charts for seven weeks.
“He’s a singer and songwriter and guitarist with a great stage presence,” said Cloeren. “I think he’s really gonna impress people.”
Chenier is the son of Clifton Chenier, “who basically invented zydeco music,” Cloeren said,
Cloeren estimates that he’s booked 450 acts over the years. He travels frequently, emceeing blues events and checking out new acts. He said he’s seen about 95 percent of the acts before he’s booked them.
While Cloeren is dedicated to finding the premiere blues acts and educating audiences about the history of the genre, the festival itself is not just for blues diehards.
“You don’t have to be a blues fan to come to come to this event,” he said. “I try to mix it up. New Orleans music with traditional, and so on. Hopefully the blues world is just like the New Orleans Jazz Festival; it’s called a jazz festival, but it has all types of music. Like the Philly Folk Fest, they have the branding name.”
While Pennsylvania Blues brings with it the history Cloeren built over the years at Pocono Blues Festival and other events, there has been an adjustment period since the new event debuted in 2011.
“Whenever you change locations, it’s not like you’re starting over, but you definitely have to take one step back before you go two steps forward,” he said. “Now we’re working with a new staff, who are wonderful.
“At the bottom of the mountain there’s a natural amphitheater, like most ski resorts. There’s camping within 100 or 200 yards and chairlift rides. Blue Mountain has really come a long way in the last five years of being a four-season resort.”
The festival also features VIP Access, which includes exclusive amenities, and a VIP brunch.
The Poconos and Northeastern Pa. are not exactly Memphis or Chicago when it comes to the blues world, but Cloeren has worked to spread the word and turn people on to a truly American art form. It has not always been easy.
“The toughest challenge we have in doing this now is forging into the second generation. A lot of your ambassador fans that used to support good events like this are no longer alive or are sick. So you have to reeducate almost a new generation of people. We lost invaluable artists, but equally as important, we lost a lot of good fans,” he said.
“We just have to keep it going and supporting events like Briggs Farm Blues Festival and this one, and I’m all for that. So it’s a challenge. We have a responsibility as fans or people in the industry to keep it going.”