Pittsburgh Blues and Roots Festival returns with renewed passion
After a successful debut last year, the Pittsburgh Blues and Roots Festival returns with renewed passion July 21-22 to the Syria Shrine grounds in Harmar.
National touring artists, including headliner Walter Trout, hailed as “the beating heart of the modern blues rock scene,” John Nemeth. Bernard Allison and Tas Cru, will join a field of regional performers.
“I think for the first year we accomplished what we needed to do. And it gave us direction and what our goals are for this year When you start something new like this, you have to move forward taking baby steps,” says producer Ron “Moondog” Esser of Frazer Township, promoter and owner of the iconic Moondog’s blues club in Blawnox.
Significant progress has been made for this year, and the response and support from the community “has been huge,” he adds.
Autism awareness is the goal
Proceeds again will benefit the Autism Society of Pittsburgh and Band Together Pittsburgh, a community-based nonprofit that uses the power of music to enrich the lives of individuals on the autism spectrum and their families. Band Together works in partnership with the music therapy program at Seton Hill University, Greensburg, and has a relationship with Highlands Hospital, Connellsville, and its autism program.
Forging a new history
Esser and West Deer musician John Vento of the Nied’s Hotel Band are among founders of Band Together, the force behind the rebirth of what had been the Esser- produced Pittsburgh Blues Festival at Hartwood Acres, which ended its 21-year run in 2015. The sponsoring Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank decided to go in a new direction with its annual musical fundraising. Esser said he heard from people who missed the tradition of the blues fest. So, after a year’s break, the event returned at a new location, with a new emphasis and “Roots” added to its name.
Esser said he long wanted to include American roots, also known as Americana, music with a blues festival “so we are open to all kinds of music.” The wide variety of blues and roots expressions will also be represented at this year’s festival.
“It’s a fantastic line-up, especially with the grand slam of Walter Trout on Sunday night. You’ve got to give Moondog all the credit for selecting him and because of his relationships with some of the bigger players,” says Vento. (The festival lineup and artist information can be found at pghbluesrootsfest.com )
“This year you will see a much greater presence and a more concise messaging campaign and more performers on the autism spectrum,” says Vento. Returning this year is the Spectrum band, a highlight of last year. “I think the love, camaraderie and support of all of the fans and the volunteers and the musicians is what this festival really is all about,” says Vento who will perform with the Nied’s Hotel Band.
Hempfield musician Jim Donovan, formerly of Rusted Root and now leading The Sun King Warriors, will conduct an autism friendly drum circle on July 22. “That was a big hit last year and it’s free for all attendees,” says Esser. Donovan is a tenured music professor at St. Francis University. Musician Tas Cru will lead a harmonica workshop that also is free and autism friendly, July 21.
New this year is the “Tribute to the Legendary Women of the Blues,” with some of the region’s own ladies of the blues. “It’s important for me to keep this timeless music alive and kicking,” says Nicole Belli-Lysiak of Lower Burrell. “Hoping to reach the younger generations so they have an idea of how very important these ladies were and are even to this day. Expect a diverse mix of beautiful blues music from Ruth Brown to Dinah Washington and everything in between.” Former Natrona Heights resident (Miss) Freddye Stover, now of Ross, says her fellow artists are looking forward to performing the tribute.
“I have done shows with these powerful women of music at one time or another. Each time we are together we become a force to be reckoned with!” says Stover. She will honor her biggest influence, Koko Taylor. “She was fierce and gentle, humbled, yet honored as a blues woman. I pay homage to her,” she says. This festival is important to Stover. “As a mother of a son on the autism spectrum, I find that being part of any event for the benefit of raising awareness and money helps others who have someone on the spectrum realize there is help,” she says.
Positive impact of music
Esser says he has seen how much music affects people on the spectrum in a positive way. “I have learned the folks on the spectrum are among the most loving, interesting people I’ve ever met in my life. And believe me in my line of work, I’ve met a few,” he adds.
He continues to see the Syria Shrine, just off the turnpike and Route 28, Allegheny Valley Expressway, as “a perfect place” for the festival, with its covered picnic pavilion seating 800 and ample free parking. He wants to assure fans that the venue is “extremely family friendly.” “We encourage everyone to come and enjoy themselves,” says Esser.
“There will be places for people to get away if they need to take a break from some of the stimulation. This is truly a festival where we can all be who we are and be very comfortable with it.”
Trout is one of the most respected guitarists in the blues genre, which he has represented for five decades. A former member of the legendary John Mayall’s Blues Breakers, Trout suffered a near fatal liver disease in 2014, but returned to active music-making and touring. His new album, “We’re All in This Together,” includes an all-star lineup of musical guests.
Q. What continues to drive and motivate you Walter?
Trout: “The possibility of reaching someone through music and improving their lives by giving them moments of experience that make them feel connected to themselves and each other is one motivation.”
Q. Where are you in this interesting journey of a career?
Trout: “I am in a place I always dreamed of. I just played on the big stage at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and shared the stage there with Ringo Starr and Jeff Beck, and found myself thinking that I am no longer just the opener. I have made it into a place of being respected by my peers. That feels unbelievably good” Q. Is the healing nature of the blues perhaps needed now as much as it ever has been?
Trout: “I have always felt that in tough times, music — and the arts in general — serve an important role. Through music — and blues music in particular — I feel it is possible to communicate a greater truth than division, a more heartfelt truth than news, and a more sincere truth than politics… there is great need for that now, maybe more than ever.”
Q. What do you hope people take from your music?
Trout: “That it makes them feel better, that they let go of worries for a bit, find hope, and find moments of beauty.” Q, What will people coming to the show experience?
“My band plays on inspiration and on feel. So they will experience spontaneity, improvisation, connection on and off the stage. They will get a show that attempts to reach out over the stage and create a common experience. I speak with my voice, and also with my guitar. Often my guitar can say things that I cannot.”
Q. What do you enjoy about the live experience?
Trout: “I am free on stage. It happens that I get so involved in the music that I lose sense of having a body and just become one with the music. That is magic to me.”
Q. Is it particularly satisfying for you not only to entertain people but call attention to and help a worthy cause such as this festival’s emphasis on autism awareness?
Trout: If my music can help create awareness for causes that help people, I find it incredibly important. Every night I talk about how my life was saved by organ donation, and that is of course a cause that therefore is dear to my heart. We can truly give life in death. Autism is a growing problem in our world, and is an important cause to create awareness for as well of course. I believe we can come together across party lines and support such causes, and maybe therefore they have even more importance right now.”
Q. Has Pittsburgh been a receptive place to play through the years?
Trout: “I think of it as a place where I have met so many heart and soul people, who come out to support my music and find the magic in that. And so I have fond memories of this area.”
Q. Of what are you proudest so far in your career?
Trout: To be able to still kick ass after all I went through in my life. To be able to come off stage knowing that I have given everything I had each time. That makes me feel good.”
Q. When it gets down to it, what does music mean to you?
“It is through music that I find my purpose, and it is through music that I find the best in humanity. It is through music that I find rest and restoration, that I relate to others, that I express myself most clearly. It is how I relate to the world.”
Rex Rutkoski is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.