Musikfest has seen its share of great performances and many forgettable ones. Reporter Geoff Gehman has been there for most of them, and here's his take of the best and worst of the longtime Bethlehem festival.
1. The gypsy devil in Carlos Montoya (1986). Performing with the Lehigh Valley Chamber Orchestra, the 82-year-old flamenco guitarist conjures Moorish tambourines, the clicking heels of dancers and guttural singers with gutted hearts.
2. Arlo Guthrie's restaurant (1986). The folk-rock troubadour throws a stone-soul picnic at Kunstplatz, the old headliner site, with songs rebellious ("Customs Man"), poignant ("City of New Orleans") and classic (his father Woody's "This Land Is Your Land"). It's one of the festival's last main-stage concerts with a pleasant hippie vibe, one of the last times one could spread a blanket without fear of getting trampled.
3. The pied piper in David Amram (1987-1988). The festival's resident artist, an irrepressible cultural ambassador, conducts his version of a Native American rabbit dance, scats "Take the "A' Train" with two flutes in his mouth and imagines his old Beat buddy Jack Kerouac playing congas in that great gig in the sky.
4. Anne Hills solos for an audience of one (1989). After a concert at Liederplatz, the silky singer plays me her new song "Silken Dreams," a lovely ode to the last two workers at the last silk mill in Allentown and the warp of life.
5. Limpopo is anything but limp (1996). Named for the Russian word for buttocks, the band kicks Volksplatz's butt with trombone-driven rags and Cossack kicks, a chesty ode to the belle of Moldavanka and the hepped-up polka theme for the Kit Kat commercial "Give me a break, give me a break," the group's first big break.
6. Diamond Rio's sweet treat (1996). Four spectators, acting on what one calls "spontaneous combustion," decide the chart-topping country band needs an ice cream. Vendor Dwight Taylor hands a Haagen-Daz to Officer Hank, who tosses the bar to Dana Williams, Diamond Rio's bassist. During a break, Williams gives the half-consumed ice cream to a front-row fan.
7. "This is Tom Jones!" (1997). Twenty-six years after the end of his TV variety show, the Welsh wonder still wrings soul from country, gospel and James Bond themes. No wonder women pelt him with lingerie.
8. The Dixie Chicks rule Americaplatz (1998). Martie Seidel, Emily Erwin and Natalie Maines perform honky-tonk heartbreakers and fiddle barnburners for a packed-to-the-gills crowd the same week one of their recordings tops the country singles chart. Thousands of folks still rave about the time they saw the feisty ladies play for free, five years before they bashed George W. Bush's war policy and posed as nude political billboards for Entertainment Weekly.
9. The Chicago post-show miracle (2001): A mixed review of the jazz-rock band brings a barrage of e-mails from readers who swear I'm a nattering nabob of negativism. The one exception is Mark Rabenold, a Chicago-loving clarinet player who becomes the first stranger in my 21 years of critiquing for a daily newspaper to agree with every valentine and arrow.
10. An ordinary, extraordinary scene on Main Street (2002): Muralplatz features a painting of foreign stepdancers in the countryside of Lower Saucon Township. Runa Pacha, my vote for hardest-working band, plays an Incan "Amazing Grace." Buffo the World's Strongest Clown -- ripper of telephone books, juggler of chainsaws -- works the crowd in a toy fire truck.
11. Brian F. Scott's Muralplatz tribute (2003): The Bethlehem native paints a mural of his maternal grandparents, Bob and Veronica (Ronnie) Kametz, sitting with an old-time radio on a porch backed by the local Bethlehem Steel plant, where Bob worked as electrician and foreman. The homage to his grandparents hangs near Festplatz, where Bob and Ronnie basically camped out every year, enjoying 10 straight days of European dance music.
12. Ghost dancing and shadow catching (2005): A traveling train exhibit of Native American works, part of the festival's American Indian theme, addresses issues while twisting traditions. Gerald Clarke criticizes consumerism in "Ten Piece Offering," a ceramic totem of a warrior holding a Kentucky Fried Chicken bucket.
13. R.I.P. RiverPlace (2007): ArtsQuest, the festival's parent, announces a plan to build an outdoor headliner venue on the old Bethlehem Steel site. It will be larger and smarter than RiverPlace, the main-stage site plagued by all kinds of bugs: a shoehorned lawn, poor seats, noise pollution and flying insects.
1. Sour "American Pie" (1984). Don McLean, the festival's first headliner, refuses to talk to the audience at Kunstplatz, the former main-stage venue, for half an hour, upset that some listeners seem more interested in their hot dogs and dogs. "I thought I'd do a whole bunch of songs in a row," he says with a slight sneer, "to get your attention."
2. The Ray Charles Bottleneck (1987). A record-breaking audience estimated at 22,000 turns Kunstplatz into a sardine sea. Moving, seeing the stage clearly, breathing -- virtually everything is a chore. Gridlock produces shouting, shoving and the feeling that Musikfest will never be bucolic again.
3. Lehigh Valley performers protest low wages and poor time slots (1990). John Gorka, newly signed to a national record company, skips the festival after five years, largely because he's offered the same fee for the third straight time. A street performer sticks to one corner of Main Street, refusing to stroll over an afternoon for what he usually earns over an hour.
4. Little Richard demolishes the house (1997). The self-proclaimed rock 'n' roll architect sabotages a fairly long, lively show with dull jokes and endless grandstanding. At one point he invites 30 people to join him for "Good Old Rock 'n' Roll," reducing the stage to a dancing rummage sale.
5. Readers attack Morning Call reviewers (1997). Six letter writers complain about my harsh review of Little Richard, insisting I did him wrong. Two letter writers miss the humor in Paul Carpenter's column about Tom Jones violating public-decency ordinances by hypnotizing women to throw lingerie at him. No one addresses Paul's very sensible suggestion to let police officers wear shorts in stiflingly hot weather.
6. I went to a festival and a police blotter broke out (2000). Two spectators are arrested for allegedly selling drugs at a Lynyrd Skynyrd gig. Teens on Main Street rock cars, punch out teeth and bite an officer's arm. This mayhem happens a short walk from Plaza Tropical, introduced to give youngsters an alternative to troublemaking.
7. Attack of the monster TVs (2000). Three 10- by 13-footers and a 14-by-19 footer provide messages, show snippets and Times Square glare.
8.Drunken motorcyclist hits two state police horses (2001). Another reason to limit the sale of beer.
9. Intoxicated fool punches police horse in rear (2002). Another reason for an ASPCA patrol.
10. Asinine visitor elbows state police horse in face (2004). No wonder the animals leave the festival for three years.
11. The ludicrous "Ludacris" debate (2007). Local NAACP members vow to boycott a concert by rapper Chris "Ludacris" Bridges because he's a profane anti-Christian. Then he moots the point by honoring his PG-13 contract with the festival. He substitutes "damn" for the f-word and never drops the n-bomb, perplexing thousands who know every curse by heart.
12. R.I.P. concert hall (2007). ArtsQuest, Musikfest's parent, shelves a plan to build a 3,500-seat concert hall to avoid competing with a 3,700-seat theater destined for the nearby Las Vegas Sands casino-hotel. Sheathed by a glass wall facing Bethlehem Steel's old blast furnaces, the hall would have been a spectacular centerpiece for SteelStax, ArtsQuest's town-square project.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times