July 27--For such an auspicious milestone, Musikfest's 30th anniversary festival doesn't appear to be that different than in previous years.
There is nothing as seismic as in 2011, when half the massive festival moved from downtown Bethlehem to the SteelStacks campus on former Bethlehem Steel property in south Bethlehem. This year, there are no changes at all to the event's location or its size.
There still is a dazzling array of entertainment: 335 artists giving more than 500 performances (all but 14 of which are free) on 14 stages, with a record-high of 13 of them from other countries.
"I think it's as diverse as we've ever been," says ArtsQuest Vice President of Programming Patrick Brogan of the fest, which runs Friday through Aug. 11. "There are genres listed that I've never listed as a genre in my time here at Musikfest."
The observation of the 30th year will be muted. "No parade or anything like that," Brogan says. But look closer, and there are, indeed, changes afoot -- ones that perhaps mark a shift in Musikfest's tune.
For the first time, there will be days -- five in all, half the festival -- on which there will be no polka in Festplatz, the festival's biggest tented stage. That's significant for a German-named-and-themed festival, where an uproar ensued eight years ago when Musikfest decided to have non-polka acts share the venue, which has the only dance floor.
Also for the first time, the festival will not have a stage dedicated to children's music. The stage at Banana Island on the north side is being eliminated to create room for more kids' activities, such as amusement rides.
The main venue, the Sands Steel Stage, has been cut by 1,000 seats to 6,200 -- the first time in 30 years the main stage has shrunk, resulting in the festival having its smallest main stage since 1999.
Musikfest officials say the changes are designed to give people the best experience, and are responding to what fest-goers have shown they want.
"As Musikfest has grown, we have received feedback regularly about what people want to see at the event," Brogan says. "Our patrons are so passionate about the event and we appreciate all their feedback. While we are a large festival, we're still a community festival in every sense of the word."
It's not as if Musikfest has abandoned polka or children.
"There's still a lot of great polka at the festival," Brogan says, including an entire day of it at Festplatz on closing night, Aug 11.
"When you look at the festival as a whole, we've actually expanded the attractions and activities for families," says ArtsQuest Editorial Services Director Mark Demko.
There's a lot more to report. Here are details of this year's festival:
Opening ceremonies are one of the few places in which the festival will acknowledge its 30th anniversary.
At Americaplatz at Levitt Pavilion SteelStacks, folk singer and Moravian College graduate John Gorka, who kicked off the first Musikfest in 1984 singing The Beatles' "Come Together," will reprise the song to open the festival this year. Gorka also performed at the 10th, 20th and 25th anniversaries.
The year's SteelStacks High School Jazz Band Showcase All-Stars Steel, chosen from an ArtsQuest competition this spring, will perform a selection before Gorka sings. After him, Caitlin Hoffert of Saucon Valley High School, a member of the all-stars, will sing the national anthem.
There also will be a tribute to Service Electric cable television President John Walson Jr., who died in August, "for everything he and his company has done for the community for the past several decades," Demko says.
Brogan says he understands there's an emotional attachment to polka at Festplatz. But this year, the festival's largest tented stage will not have any polka music on Aug. 5, 7, 8 or 10 -- or even on Aug. 2, opening day, when polka band leader Jolly Joe Timmer traditionally played the first notes each year at Festplatz. Timmer was not invited to perform.
"That wasn't an intentional slight to him," Brogan says. "Literally, when you look at the polka spots and how it broke down, we didn't have enough. There were a couple of people that have been regulars that just aren't able to be back this year."
Brogan says "the seismic shift" actually took place in 2005, when other music was offered at the stage for the first time and people circulated petitions and carried signs reading "Festplatz is polka platz."
"Since then, we've been adjusting programming" to what draws the best audiences, Brogan says. He says increased attendance at theme days, such as Day at the Beach and Summer of Love, led to more ideas, and Festplatz is the natural home for those dance-themed days.
For example, Monday will be "Big Band/Swing Dance Day," with The Rob Stoneback Big Band, Jump City Jazz Orchestra and Beantown Swing Orchestra. Tuesday will be country day, Wednesday '70s Disco Day and Friday '50s Day.
The stage has the festival's only "genuine, dedicated dance floor in front of it, and we've got to make good use of it all day," Brogan says. The theme days at Festplatz also are those likely to appeal to audiences who also like polka, he says.
Musikfest's largest tent also means it's home to "our largest food spenders, so it's really a decision that's equally driven by how can we attract the largest crowd there," he says.
Brogan said an enlightening moment came last year when, at the last moment, Lehigh Valley guitar favorite Lou Franco was booked at Volksplatz on Monday at noon.
"He had a huge crowd in front of him," Brogan says. "Whereas Monday at noon we might usually have had 50 people sitting in a tent eating, he had 400 people up and dancing. It didn't occur to us until we saw that the other options were children's music over at Banana Island or kind of community groups at Plaza Tropical and polka at Festplatz."
Festplatz isn't the only stage for which programming has shifted, Brogan says.
"Volksplatz opens all the weekdays with a high-energy rock band because we wanted to offer something very accessible for adults. Same idea over at Festplatz. It opens with something that's a little bit more rock and roll [rock band Sofa Kings and R&B/dance cover band Lucky 7], and we think that people will really be turned on by it."
While there isn't as much polka as in past years, there's still a lot of it, Brogan says.
Musikfest's final day at Festplatz will be a theme day previewing SteelStack's Oktoberfest, with polka all day by the traditional Walt Groller Orchestra, which has performed every year at the festival, "big band" polka band Bud Hudenski & The Corsairs and the Alex Meixner Band, led by a second-generation player who adds a modern flair to polka music.
That day also will feature discounts on Oktoberfest tickets and the first 30 kegs of Yuengling Oktoberfest beer available anywhere in the nation.
Smaller main stage, with an Oasis
Musikfest's main Steel Stage, a temporary outdoor concert venue in the parking lot at PNC Plaza at ArtsQuest's SteelStacks campus, had up to 7,200 paid seats in its first two years. But Brogan says officials decided to decrease the capacity to 6,200 this year to improve visitor experience and save money.
"We looked at it from the fan perspective," Brogan says. "We said, 'How can we take a great venue, which everybody loves so far, and make it better? How do we make this a better fan experience?' We heard great feedback on the Sands Steel Stage over the last two years and were able to implement a few tweaks."
He said ArtsQuest asked itself whether the 1,000 seats were important, and decided they weren't: The stage has had just two sellouts among its 20 concerts -- Maroon 5 and Steely Dan, both in 2010 -- and averaged crowds of fewer than 4,800.
This year, just one show, the double bill of 1970s rockers Styx and Foreigner on Aug. 7, will probably come close to selling out (a couple hundred seats in the grandstand remain), even at the smaller venue.
"On most shows, you don't need them; it's a couple shows here and there," Brogan says. He says eliminating some seats brought many people closer to stage, and will "enhance the venue to create an even better concert experience ... with better sightlines for guests in several sections."
Brogan says losing 1,000 seats had no effect on the headline acts booked. Besides Styx and Foreigner, the festival features pop singer Carly Rae Jepsen, who plays opening night; pop group OneRepublic; party-pop singer Ke$ha; classic rock band George Thorogood and The Destroyers; Peter Frampton Guitar Circus with B.B. King and Sonny Landreth; country singer Darius Rucker; 1970s disco group K.C. & The Sunshine Band, and hard rockers Skillet and Avenged Sevenfold, which plays closing night.
Brogan says officials looked at other ways to improve Steel Stage, such as staggering its seats for a better view instead of having them in straight lines, but weren't able to implement those changes.
The other change in the main music venue is the addition of The Oasis, a VIP lounge off Steel Stage with high-top tables, the only full-service bar at the venue and air-conditioned restrooms. Access costs $20 plus a concert ticket. Two Oasis tickets lets the concert-goer park in the lot across the street from Steel Stage.
Demko says Steel Terrace, at which people have sit-down dinner and beverages has "become incredibly popular over the years, and so this year we added The Oasis."
A caveat: You can't see the stage from The Oasis, so it will be "more of a pre-show, or between-act" place, Brogan says.
No kids stage, but other activities
Similar to the changes at Festplatz, those at Banana Island came about because of crowd traffic, according to ArtsQuest.
"We've noticed that families have really been gravitating toward the different activities -- the crafts at the creativity tent, the rides and attractions we have -- whereas the crowds have sort of decreased over time at the performer tent," Demko says.
"What we really found is children love anything with a beat, whether it's rock or reggae. So we really want to encourage children and families to experience all the music of the festival, go from stage to stage and hear this wonderful array of sounds."
Brogan says he has three young children, and "they enjoy Volksplatz and world-music rhythms just as much as they enjoy someone singing about lollipops or gumdrops.
"I think the festival is family music. So when the crowds were just down in an area that we were committing a lot of resources to, it was something that we looked at for a couple of years now. ... The volume doesn't meet the resources committed to it."
That doesn't mean there are no performers exclusively for kids. Plaza Tropical -- where the stage has been repositioned up against Lehigh Street, facing Festplatz -- will open with a kids band every day, such as Steve Pullara and His Cool Beans Band on Aug. 3 and Rolie Polie Guacamole on Aug. 4.
Eliminating the kids' stage frees up room for more kids' activities. There will be four new rides and attractions, in addition to the five previously at Banana Island.
From noon-5 p.m. Monday through Thursday, you can get $15 pass for all-day access to the tilt-a-whirl, a jungle-gym-style ride with bridges and a slide, a giant slide, merry-go-round, rock-climbing wall, bungee jump and bounce house swings ride and the water balloon shooting activity.
Banana Island will have a community mural at which children and families can use crayons, pencil and paint on an oversized Musikfest poster to create a mural that will be on display the festival's last two days.
Also, in the afternoon, buskers and street performers will perform on the Banana Island site for the first time.
There are a few other small changes in programming. Americaplatz at Levitt Pavilion SteelStacks will offer three shows a night instead of two a night.
That's because Musikfest will start SteelStacks performances earlier this year. The Air Products Town Square stage in front of the ArtsQuest Center will get underway at 4 p.m. instead of 4:30, and Americaplatz shows will begin at 5 p.m. instead of 6.
The Town Square stage will have performers at the beginning and end of the night but not in the middle, so as to avoid conflict with Americaplatz and having patrons have to shift attention back and forth.
Dance programs also have been added on the weekends.
There are more street performers than ever, six in all, with two on the north side and one on the south side each day. They include comedians, a contortionist, stuntman, jugglers, a fire-breather, break-dancers, Indiana Jones-style whip-cracking stuntmen.
Back for a second year is the "WDIY Conversations Series," during which hosts of the Lehigh Valley Public Radio station interview regional musicians about their songwriting at 7 p.m. daily at Lyrikplatz. Among those featured are country rocker Scott Marshall and violinist Nyke Van Wyk.
Not returning is the free Project M stage, which the city of Bethlehem held last year at City Hall Plaza, at Church and New streets, to try to divert teens from hanging out on Main Street at night. It offered skateboarding demonstrations, dance competitions and a dance party, but wasn't well attended.
Late night offerings
Late-night offerings at SteelStacks proved popular last year, and have been beefed up quite a bit this year. Musikfest Cafe will have performances until 1 a.m. on Thursday, and both Fridays and Saturdays, with party bands such as Philadelphia Funk Authority and The Fabulous Greaseband.
Comedy shows -- there are four -- have moved from Musikfest Cafe into the Red Cinema on the first floor of the ArtsQuest Center. Brogan says he expects all four shows will sell out. Performances on Town Square will continue until 1 a.m., as well, Brogan says.
"So where in the past your only late-night experience at SteelStacks was the Town Square till midnight or 1 a.m., now you can really make a night," he says.
Food and drink
Tickets always have been the currency for food and drink at Musikfest, but for the first time they will be sold in increments of $1 instead of 50 cents. They will be perforated to make them easy to tear into 50-cent payments.
There will be about 60 food vendors, the same number as in recent years, and nearly the same offerings.
The only new vendors are Maison Crepes at Volksplatz, So Fun Yogurt selling frozen yogurt with toppings at Banana Island and Cow and Curd, the first food truck ever at the festival, selling fried cheese curds at Americaplatz at Levitt Pavilion.
Brogan says fried cheese curds at other festivals have produced block-long lines all day.
Musikfest also is offering cider for the first time. Woodchuck, Strongbow and Magners will be available at Festplatz.
The Big Chill frozen cheesecake and Michael's Steaks will not be back.
Added at Americaplatz will be an Aw Shucks stand. The spice-and-cheese corn-on-the-cob vendor sold 32,000 cobs at Musikfest last year. And inside Steel Stage will be Festival Island Noodles, which was a hit at Handwerkplatz last year.
Beverages will be largely the same. There will be lots of beer, of course, and also wine and hard liquor in mixed drinks with 1.5 ounces of liquor.
Arts, crafts and movie promotions
There will be about 45 artisans, crafters and collectibles stands -- up slightly from last year -- at Handwerkplatz in the Colonial Industrial Quarter under the Hill-to-Hill Bridge, some from as far away as South Carolina.
"What people love about that is it gives you a different experience at the festival," Demko says. "You can shop for beautiful jewelry, handmade soaps and wonderful works of art, set in the charming historic district."
One new attraction will be Make Your Own Glass Art at Handwerkplatz, where a mobile glass-blowing unit has been at the festival the past couple years. Fest-goers can work with an artisans to blow a flower, pumpkin or owl in about 20 minutes. The cost is $60.
Also new will be a booth on Aug. 7 promoting the DVD release of the post-apocalyptic science-fiction film "Oblivion," starring Tom Cruise and Morgan Freeman. It will be among just three promotion locations in the United States; the other two are in California.
It's the first time a movie has ever been promoted at Musikfest, Demko says.
The festival's 30th anniversary will be noted in some smaller ways.
Patricia Holetz, who led festgoers in the chicken dance for 25 years as The Chicken Lady, dressed in yellow stockings, red slippers and a 7-pound chicken suit before retiring in 2006, will be back in costume to make several appearances to be announced on Aug. 3. She did the same for Musikfest's 25th anniversary.
A Musikfest Auction featuring performer-autographed items, memorabilia, gift certificates and the grand finale auction of the Musikfest piano signed by 52 artists who performed at the festival 1998-2002 will be Aug. 11 in Musikfest Cafe. Doors open at 1 p.m. for a preview; the auction will start at 2 p.m.
Bids on the piano started at an April celebration of the second anniversary of ArtsQuest Center at SteelStacks and the 30th anniversary of Musikfest. The Young Chang grand player piano includes keys signed by Tony Bennett, Ray Charles, Rosemary Clooney, Huey Lewis, Gladys Knight, Kansas, Wayne Newton, and more.
Tickets to the auction are $10 per person or $20 per couple.
A Color Me Rad 5K, in which runners will be bombed with food-coloring-dyed corn starch, will start at 8 a.m. Aug. 3 at ArtsQuest Center. More than 6,500 have registered. Entry is $55; register at http://www.colormerad.com.
The closing fireworks is a tradition that will continue at 9:45 p.m. Aug. 11. The best spots to view: the former Americaplatz site at City Hall Plaza and from SteelStacks.
A twist this year: The closing night headline music act, hard rock band Avenged Sevenfold will play right through the fireworks display. It's likely the first act to do that since Melissa Etheridge's first performance at the festival 10 years ago.
"It's going to be a pretty cool experience, because they're going to go off above them," Brogan says. "And they have a big pyro show, as well. So they said they're going to be providing their own fireworks for the Sands Steel Stage patrons.
"We always leave it to the artists' decision, and they said, 'We want to play right through them. Sounds cool.'"
The presidential transition
If this year's changes at Musikfest signal some different directions, next year's likely will be more significant.
This will be the final year in which Musikfest founder and ArtsQuest President Jeffrey Parks will be alone in the driver's seat.
As announced a year and a half ago, Parks plans to retire in January 2015, and a search now is underway that is designed to have a successor in place by January 2014. That will give the successor a year to work under Parks.
Unlike the 30th year of Musikfest, next year's festival will more overtly acknowledge a milestone, officials say.
-- When: Friday through Aug. 11
-- Where: Downtown Bethlehem and South Side at SteelStacks, First Street and Founders Way
-- Hours: 4:30 p.m.-1 a.m. Friday, noon-1 a.m. Aug. 3-11, noon-12:30 1 a.m. Aug. 10-11, noon-11 p.m. Aug. 12
-- Concert tickets: All concerts free except headliners at Sands Steel Stage and $5 comedy shows in Frank Banko Alehouse Cinemas. Call 610-332-FEST or go to http://www.musikfest.org. Also available at the box office at ArtsQuest Center, Sands Steel Stage and Festplatz merchandise tent.
-- Food tickets: Tickets in denominations of $1 -- with perforations are that can be torn into 50-cent halves -- required for food and drink.
-- Parking: Free parking on streets downtown and surrounding SteelStacks; no parking at SteelStacks. South Bethlehem Parking Authority lots, $10 per day. North Side parking decks and Broad Street lot, 75 cents/hour up to $6 per day maximum Old York Road parking area, $10 per day. Two off-site Musikfest lots -- Martin Tower, Eighth Ave., for shuttle to North Side; the RMS Lot, 240 Emery St. to the South Side. The South Side lot replaces the one at 412 and Commerce Center Blvd., which is being developed. Tickets are $4 per person; $2 ages 6-12; free, 12 and under, includes North South transfers. North South transfers, $3 daily. LANTA Loop, $2 single ride, $4 all-day pass.
-- Info: 610-332-FEST, http://www.musikfest.org
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