The Pocono Blues Festival had been a Pennsylvania tradition for 19 years, bringing the best of blues music to the Pocono Mountains and fans from around the globe. In November 2010, it looked like the tradition might be over. Michael Cloeren, the founder and producer of the festival was called into a meeting with the president of Peak Resorts and was told the company was going in a different direction and that the resorts were no longer going to do any summer or fall events. However, Michael did not want to see the tradition of the festival and what he calls a “family reunion” fade gently away.
By the end of 2010, Michael Cloeren met with the administrators at Blue Mountain. Fortunately, their general manager, Jim Daley, had attended Pocono Blues Festival and was familiar with the clientele, acts, vendors, and perhaps most importantly, the popularity. The name Pocono Blues Festival could no longer be used and from the ashes of the Pocono Blues Festival a new festival was born. Michael says Blue Mountain is “a wonderful facility; very user friendly, closer to more people and fully embraced by the staff.” Blue Mountain is indeed closer to the fans, seated 45 minutes south of the original site, it’s closer to Allentown, Bethlehem, Easton, and Philadelphia which are the core markets for Blues in the Poconos. Plus Blue Mountain is ideal for a festival since it has all the perfect facilities like parking, real restrooms, a natural amphitheater, and camping on site, which the other facility did not. Camping has had an unexpected but very welcome effect on the musical adventures too, “Camping on site is extremely popular and is a direct positive result how the nightly Jams have taken off since year #1 (2011).” You never know who is going to take the stage and it’s easier to stay up late to take it all in if you’re not driving.
In just a few short years, Pennsylvania Blues Festival has taken the torch of nineteen years of blues history in the Poconos and run with it, regaining the status of its legendary predecessor. Much of the success is owed to Michael Cloeren and his sterling reputation and track record. According to Michael, “changing locations takes time to get on people’s radar.” He adds, “I feel this year will be very special.” Michael recently told us the transition from Pocono Blues Festival to Pennsylvania Blues Festival has been “a great experience – I feel that the event is growing in momentum and we continue to educate new customers in a positive way.” That positive way is reflected in the lineup of acts Michael brings to the festival, “I feel I program a lineup different than just about anyone in the USA. My programming work for 23 years speaks for itself.” It does indeed. You may see some familiar faces at Pennsylvania Blues Festival but you’re in for a few surprises too. Michael says he likes to schedule “1/3 blues icons, 1/3 strong festival circuit names and 1/3 acts that most people never have seen before.” Michael has a knack for getting acts out of their comfort zone too and gets some amazing performances on the smaller stages. He tells us, “I know every act that I have ever booked (since 1992 around 400 acts) and through experience I know how and where to slot them. That stuff comes easy to me.”
It may come easy to Michael since he’s been a blues fan and champion of the art form for many years. Michael told us he first met the blues on “March 30,1975 at the age of 18. I went to the Philadelphia Spectrum to see Eric Clapton and the opening act was Muddy Waters. Muddy’s show that night changed my life and I have been a blues addict ever since.” When Michael introduces bands on stage you can hear the love and admiration in his voice. You also get the notion sometimes that he knows he’s about share a secret with you and he can’t wait. Every year you have to get there early because Michael will be sharing some of the Blues best kept secrets all day long. One of my personal favorites was Linsey Alexander’s tent stage performance a few years ago. I had never heard Linsey before and had to go back for his second set later in the day. Linsey outdid just about everyone and it was revelation. You’re going to find the heart of the blues beating under the tent and you’ll get some lasting memories of special performances like the Lonnie, Ronnie and Wayne Baker Brooks performing an acoustic set. The love between father and sons was tangible as was their respect for each other and the good time they had playing together like they would in the living room at home.
Over the years Michael had several memorable moments of his own including James Peterson starting his set in 1996 from the chairlift, Eddy Clearwater starting his set in 1998 on a white stallion horse in full headdress, Shemekia Copeland entering the stage in 2002 on a Harley Davidson Motorcycle, and booking Lowell Fulson in 1996, which was his last east coast appearance. His other personal highlights include Ruth Brown in 2005, Luther Allison in 1995, and Otis Rush in 1998. Michael says his initial vision was “a blues festival in a mountain setting” and it has blossomed into a remarkable event hosting music legends every year. Michael says attendees should expect “a weekend of World Class Music, a wonderful facility and a staff that welcomes them with open arms.” He continues “I would suggest that people should attend this and other like-minded events with an open mind and they possibly could have a life changing moment like the one that happened to me on March 30th, 1975 at The Philadelphia Spectrum.”
Michael Cloeren is directly and indirectly involved in several like-minded events including The Philadelphia Folk Festival which he says is “The longest continuous music festival in the USA and Canada at 53 years. It offers eight stages of music, fifty thousand music guests from all over the world, and 2500 volunteers.” If Michael is involved, you can be sure the music with be exceptional and the environment will be fan friendly. A few years ago, at the time of the first Pennsylvania Blues Festival, I spoke to Michael Cloeren and he shared his approach to the booking the artists and it gives great insight to his process and what you’re going to see and hear at his events. “I program differently than a lot of festivals out there. I try to get to the core of the subject matter. To me, the core is the artists that live it, breathe it, and die it. With all respect to classic rock artists who have been in it for 30 years and just discovered the blues or put out a blues record, that’s not what I’m looking for. That’s not what I do. Obviously, the headliners are important, and they’re great acts, but it’s not always about the headliners. It’s about the entire bill. After years of experience, the guests know to get there early because some of the best sets are early in the afternoon. They may not have heard the act before but they know from history that I’ll never book a bad band. And that’s what’s great about this music, as you know, you think you’ve heard or seen a lot and then there’s a band that blows you away that you’ve never seen before. What I try to do is mix them between contemporary and traditional blues, New Orleans music, Sacred Steel, gospel, acoustic, and electric; I try to give the audience the full spectrum of blues music.”
Pennsylvania Blues Festival is taking place July 25-27, 2014. There is an amazing array of talent lined up for the event so make plans to visit the Pocono Mountains for some red hot summer blues. For ticket information and festival information please visit the website. We hope to see you there.
Our thanks go to Michael Cloeren for taking the time from his hectic schedule to answer our questions.
Blues Biscuits will be live tweeting from the festival so be sure to follow us on Twitter @BluesBiscuits and look for #PABluesFest and remember, #thatsahotbiscuit !
Here’s the line-up:
Friday, July 25th 2014 – Friday Night Jam
8pm to Midnight in the Adventure Center – doors open at 7pm.
Cover charge at the door is $10 & Jam Buffet is $8 (food optional).
PA Blues Fest Showcase with The BC COMBO featuring Bev Conklin, Slam Allen, Mikey Junior, Joe Mac & Lonnie Shields – sponsored by WDIY 88.1 fm, Lehigh Valley’s Community NPR Station!
Saturday July 26th 2014 – Gates open at 12pm
MAIN TENT STAGE
ADVENTURE CENTER STAGE
Saturday Night Jam in the Adventure Center
9:30pm to 1:30am – doors open at 8:30pm.
Cover charge at the door is $10 & Jam Buffett is $8 (food optional).
PA Blues Fest Showcase with Dave Weld & The Imperial Flames – sponsored by WDIY 88.1 fm, Lehigh Valley’s Community NPR Station!
Sunday July 27th 2014 – Gates open at 11am
MAIN TENT STAGE
1pm to 2pm – The Como Mamas
2:30 to 3:30pm – The Jarekus Singleton Band
4pm to 5:15pm – Chris Cain Band
5:45pm to 7pm – The Heritage Blues Quintet
7:30pm to 9pm – CJ Chenier & The Red Hot Louisiana Band
SUNDAY VIP BRUNCH
ADVENTURE CENTER STAGE
1:30pm to 2:30pm – A Little Bit Of Blues with Warner Williams, Jay Summerour & Eric Selby
3pm to 4pm – Super Chikan (solo)
4:30pm to 5:30pm – A Little Bit Of Blues
6pm to 7pm – Super Chikan (solo)
7:30pm to 9pm – The Jarekus Singleton Band