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Moondog's owner the force behind Pittsburgh Blues Festival

| Wednesday, July 23, 2014, 9:00 p.m.
Wesley Bright

Ron “Moondog” Esser has seen every incarnation of the Pittsburgh Blues Festival.

The owner of Moondog's, a cozy music club in Blawnox, Esser has been involved with the festival since its inception in 1995. He's booked mythic blues figures, such as Eric Burdon, Johnny “Clyde” Copeland and Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown. He's included emerging artists, including Kenny Wayne Shepherd. And he's even brought in a rock act or two, like Los Lobos.

From the Riverplex in Homestead to the IC Light Amphitheatre at Station Square to the former Pittsburgh Brewing Company in Lawrenceville to its present home at Hartwood Acres, the Pittsburgh Blues Festival has raised more than $2 million for the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank.

This year's Pittsburgh Blues Festival, which takes place July 25 to 27, marks the 20th time blues will be king in Pittsburgh for a weekend. Esser talks about his favorite shows and memorable moments of the last two decades.

Favorite show: The Tedeschi-Trucks Band, 2011

“Over the years, I've watched them grow up. I've watched (Derek Trucks) going from a little boy who was basically not on the radar, and watched Susan, who was not on the radar, become big stars. It's just a great story, but the music is also great. They're getting what they deserve.”

Biggest surprise: Bernard Allison, 2012

“He had such large shoes to fill after his father (Luther Allison) passed away. I'd seen his father, had him at my club, and just thought, ‘Bernard is not going to be like his dad.' But, my lord, he didn't let them (the audience) go until he was ready to let them go.”

Best single performance: Johnny Clyde Copeland, 1997

“He was a true bluesman and played from his heart. He was a salt-of-the-earth person, a musician's musician.”

Most memorable moment: Kim Simmonds meets Johnny Winter, 2012

“I remember Johnny Winter being on his bus and Kim Simmonds (of Savoy Brown) came over. Just like a 14-year-old, he said, ‘Hey Moondog, do you think you can get me on the bus to meet Johnny Winter?' And Johnny said, ‘He wants to meet me? Of course, I want to meet him.' It was really neat to see the respect that goes along with the blues and the performers. That isn't necessarily translated into other forms of music. I was just blown away watching one of my heroes (Simmonds) asking to meet another blues star.”

Best overall year: 2011.

“I would say, from a blues standpoint, when we did it with Savoy Brown and Johnny Winter. That was a great lineup of blues people. The mutual respect they all had for each other was amazing.”

Biggest disappointment: Eric Burdon and the Animals get rained out, 2010

“When we had Eric Burdon and the Animals, 20 minutes into the set he was killing it, firing on all cylinders. Then we got a thunderstorm and had to end it. ... It was the only time in 20 years we had to quit early. There was no getting out of it, no waiting for an hour. It was one of those storms that's devastating and dangerous. Eric gave us a great 20 minutes and to this day I hear from people, ‘When are you going to get Eric Burdon back?' We're working on it.”

Strangest performance: H-Bomb Ferguson, 1995

“You have to go all the way back to the first one and H-Bomb Ferguson, who has since gone to meet his maker. God didn't give him the best looks to begin with, and he wore these pink-and-purple wigs to make fun of himself and act crazy. He was really out there.”

Best performance by a local band: Glenn Pavone and the Cyclones, 2009

“The Pittsburgh (Blues) All-Stars are always good, but the one that really touched my heart and the guy who was definitely regarded as the best guitarist by everyone was Glenn Pavone. Glenn Pavone and the Cyclones put on one of the best performances even though he was sick at the time. But he really wanted to do it.”

If you could have one band or musician play every year, who would it be?

“Eric Clapton. I know he would bring the most people. But, realistically, I would have to say The Nighthawks. As a unit, they're the best blues band in the country. There are no real stars in the band. They are always changing material, writing new song and changing their sets. They represent blue-collar blues and, while Pittsburgh is rapidly becoming more white-collar, the roots of music here are in blue-collar music.”

Rege Behe is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.

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