Blawnox blues joint fulfills owner's dream
In Ron “Moondog” Esser's personal journal of life, he has an idea that has guided him through most of his 56 years: “If we pay attention to what we are supposed to do, rather than be concerned with what we want to do, we end up where we are supposed to be.”
Fortunately for Esser, a Frazer resident and Aspinwall native, what he wanted to do and what he seemed destined to do were the same: Ease life's burdens for others and make them smile while sharing his love for music.
When Esser — volunteer music director for the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank's signature fundraiser, the Pittsburgh Blues Festival, July 24 through 26 at Hartwood Acres, Hampton — tells you, “I feel like the luckiest person in the world,” his sentiment comes from a genuine place.
He has a great family, he says, and a job in which he gets to make people happy. Joan, his wife of 17 years, is “the most patient and understanding woman in the world,” he says.
As owner of Moondog's, the beloved music club in Blawnox, celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, he brings some of the biggest names in blues and other genres to the Pittsburgh market, gives artists who go on to national fame their starts (the Allman Brothers' Derek Trucks, among them), and provides an ongoing, reliable showcase for local rockers, blues and other artists.
“I have been honored to work with Pittsburgh's best as well as the best around the world,” Esser says.
In 2005, the National Blues Foundation in Memphis presented Esser with the prestigious “Keeping the Blues Alive” award.
“There is no other place like Moondog's in America,” says Jimmy Thackery, a national touring blues guitar virtuoso and Pittsburgh native who resides in Central America, where he has been playing since 1992. “I have always just enjoyed the vibe in the place. Ron has his fingers in more than a couple pies and his heart in the right place to make it all work.”
Another Blues Foundation honoree, California native Tommy Castro, who has been visiting Moondog's for two decades, praises Esser for creating “an amazing audience who knows this music, loves this music and they seem to be as excited about our music as they are about the Pittsburgh Penguins, Pirates and Steelers.”
When Keb Mo brings his Delta blues to Pittsburgh, he talks about Esser giving him his break in the market, and Susan Tedeschi,when she is in town, name-checks his club in localizing one of her songs.
Two doors down from Moondog's, Esser cooks a mean pierogi at his Starlite Lounge, captured on an episode of the Food Network's “Diners, Drive-ins & Dives.”
A musician himself, Esser has kept a welcome mat out at the Starlite since the 1990s for members of the Western Pennsylvania Bluegrass Committee's weekly jams.
He honors his late father, Art Esser — a caterer who was former mayor of Aspinwall, Pennsylvania Mayor of the Year, Aspinwall Volunteer Fire Department chief for 30 years and commander of the American Legion — by daily carrying out his advice to “always live your life helping people who are less fortunate than you.”
It is seen in Ron Esser's community service, including his involvement as a volunteer fireman in Blawnox; providing food and services to local fundraisers; loaning his sailing vessel, Momentum, located at the Port of Erie, for educational programs for at-risk youth, those with disabilities and others in Erie, where he stages a summer concert series; and the many hours he commits to the Food Bank and Blues Festival. He also volunteers in presenting a blues festival in Toledo, Ohio, for its food bank.
Esser does not think his dad would be surprised. “He would expect no less,” he assures.
A spiritual man in a business that many would say is anything but, Esser says his friend and former pastor, the Rev. Aaron Kriss, “is very much grounded” in his faith, to which Esser credits his success.
“We have a small but loyal group at Holy Family, Creighton, East Deer. These are the best people I have ever been around,” Esser says.
They certainly would return the compliment.
Last year, on National Philanthropy Day, which has a motto of “Change the World with a Giving Heart,” Esser was named Outstanding Volunteer Fundraiser by the Association of Fundraising Professionals, Western Pennsylvania.
“I can't express enough how grateful we are to Ron for his support and his friendship. He has been absolutely wonderful to work with over the 21 years since he helped start the Pittsburgh Blues Festival,” says Lisa Scales, president & CEO of the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank.
His commitment to the event and the Food Bank, has been no less than “phenomenal,” she says, “and an inspiration to everyone he's reached through his tireless efforts on our behalf.
“Over the past 20 years, and in large part due to Moondog's efforts, the Blues Festival has enabled the Food Bank to feed more than 10 million people, ” Scales says.
“The festival has raised over $2 million (in addition to 100,000 pounds-plus of donated food) over its existence, and Ron has been the backbone of it since the beginning. Over 100,000 fans have attended. We would not have had the success without him,” says Greg Lintner of Mt. Lebanon, longtime Food Bank board member and volunteer. “He's a giver, rather than a taker.”
Alyssa Jurewicz-Johns, festival director and director of community engagement, agrees.
“Ron has played a critical role as a hunger advocate in the greater Pittsburgh community,” she says. “He provides the Food Bank the opportunity to create new friendships and celebrate existing partnerships that make the organization's daily work possible.”
For Esser, a humble man of action, it is all a no-brainer.
“Sitting beside Lisa Scales and listening to her tell stories of how some of our neighbors have to decide between food and medication or heat in the winter, it makes me sick to my stomach. How does this happen in America?” he asks. “Whenever I hear of our kids and seniors and working poor not having food, it breaks my heart.”
When Bruce Springsteen came to Pittsburgh several years ago for a flood-recovery benefit, it seemed most appropriate that Esser was chosen to take the spotlight with him in the role of Santa Claus during the Boss's rendition of “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.”
“Ron is a rare breed, one of the dearest people we work with,” says his friend and fellow blues fan Mike Lange, the Pittsburgh Penguins' Hall of Fame announcer, who volunteers his time to help promote the blues festival. “He was willing to step up and kind of put his neck on the line and persevere for this great cause.”
Lange, a patron of Moondog's, where he is drawn to the music and those who share an appreciation for it, acknowledges that the club's 25th anniversary is a significant landmark.
“Owning a club is not an easy chore anymore. Ron is one of the most respected club owners in the country among musicians. They really have a deep respect and love for him for giving them a chance to play,” Lange says. “People see the passion he has to let people enjoy themselves with live music. Ron has had some hard times, but we are grateful this is his life.”
Moondog's is at 378 Freeport Road, Blawnox; 412-828-2040; moondogs.us
Rex Rutkoski is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4664 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Ron Esser and Moondog's
Norman Nardini: (The Pittsburgh rock and blues artist was the first to be booked at the club 25 years ago.) “I've enjoyed every gig I've done there. It's very important that the great, real music people have a place to play in our city, and Moondog's has been that place for 25 years. It's not easy to stay in the music business for 25 years, and Moondog has done everything he could to survive while not changing his original agenda of offering the best in real music to the real music fans of our town. Ron is a unique person. He's not in this business for the money. He's in it for the music, and that's beautiful.”
Mark Wenner: (Lead singer of the Washington, D.C.-based, nationally touring Nighthawks, who logged 25 years of performances at Moondog's) “Ron has a sense of American roots music, not just the blues, that allows him to do brilliant bookings. Ron and the rest of his folks at the club create an intimate and comfortable atmosphere that makes for a powerful performance from us every time. Touring bands are lucky to find such a warm venue on the road.”
Billy Price: (The Pittsburgh bluesman has performed at Moondog's for upward of 15 years.) “It's a great intimate setting for hearing and seeing roots music artists or any artists. Ronnie brings in a consistent roster of great artists and has for years. He is dedicated to the music and the musicians who play for him and is highly supportive. He is a friend.”
Selwyn Birchwood: (The rising young Florida guitarist and lap steel player will perform July 26 at Pittsburgh Blues Festival and has performed at Moondog's.) “The club is a genuine listening room, and the crowd is extremely appreciative — and rowdy! — which makes it that much more fun to perform! Ron is committed to providing quality live music, which is getting harder and harder to come by. You have to support these kinds of places in your hometown, or they tend to fade away, unfortunately!”
Joe Sinnott: (Friend and Erie Mayor) “Ron does a lot of work here in Erie (staging a summer concert series). He is he a great guy and very humble about the (community and charity) work he does behind the scenes. If people only knew. He is very humble about that. He has helped shape the music we've had at our events over the years. He brings a lot of musical and industry background.”
Jonnye Weber: (The president of the Blues Society of Western Pennsylvania from Aliquippa) “Going to Moondog's is like going home. It is a friendly environment with a family feel. Once you have been there, you always have a home to return to.”
Carolyn Corry: (Blues fan from Dormont, who has attended shows at the club since 1994) “Moondog's is a warm, friendly venue where the fans love the music. In other places, the fans clap. At Moondog's, they howl, scream, stomp, etc. The bands love it. With the right band and the right crowd, the place is full of pure joy!”
Gary Leger: (Plum blues fan, who has patronized the club for 20 years) “It's always great to go there to see your blues heroes and other artists, big name or up-and-coming, and all of my Pittsburgh favorites. At large venues, you can't meet the performers up close and personal.”
Jim Stewart: (Emsworth resident who helps sail Esser's vessel, the Momentum, in educational programs out of Erie) “The truly great thing about Ron is he doesn't have a ‘gimmick.' He doesn't have a game for doing something. He does it because it's the right thing to do, Many folks don't get that. They always ask, ‘Why are you doing this, what do you get out of it?' His answer confounds them. He's just a good cat.”
21st annual Pittsburgh Blues Festival
4 : 45 p.m.: Stevee Wellons Band
6 p.m.: Pittsburgh Blues Revival (B.B. King Tribute)
7: 15 p.m.: Dana Fuchs
9 p.m.: The Duke Robillard Band withspecial guests Billy Price and Norman Nardini
1: 50 p.m.: Jason Born
3 p.m.: Jarekus Singleton
4: 30 p.m.: Charlie Wheeler Trio
5: 45 p.m.: New Breed Brass Band
7: 30 p.m.: Bill Toms and Hard Rain
8: 45 p.m.: Buddy Guy
1: 30 p.m.: John and Rick
2 p.m.: The Nied's Hotel Band
3: 15 p.m.: Selwyn Birchwood
5 p.m.: Dwayne Dopsie and the Zydeco Hell-raisers
6: 45 p.m.: Marcia Ball
8: 45 p.m.: Bobby Rush
Admission: July 24: Free with bag of nonperishable groceries; July 25: $45, $38 in advance; July 26: $25, $20 in advance. Free all days for age 12 and younger. Two-day weekend pass: $65, $53 in advance. Discount for military and students.
Food-cooler fee: $20. Outside alcoholic beverages not permitted.
Where: Hartwood Acres, Hampton