If you are anything like me it’s not every day that you get to see two absolute masters of their craft at the height of their game, displaying unparalleled prowess, in front of a steel mill in Bethlehem, PA. But that was my good fortune on Sunday night at Musikfest. Al Di Meola, undoubtedly one of the top five guitarists on the planet today, with Grammy winning Cuban-born pianist, Gonzalo Rubalcaba. Interestingly enough, this wasn’t the concert we were supposed to be seeing. We were there to see a 7-piece world music ensemble, but, as Di Meola light-heartedly explained at the beginning of the performance, 5 members of the band were apparently detained in immigrations coming from Europe. So they did what any great musician would do. They improvised. It was clear from the first notes that Di Meola and Rubalcaba weren’t going to let a few missing band members slow them down, or prevent any one of us from experiencing a night of top-notch musicianship. Al is not only a master of his instrument, but truly of his craft, being one of the best jazz composers out there, on par with even Chick Corea, who I’m sure he picked up a thing or two from in their time together with Return To Forever. They relied mainly on stripped down versions of some of the amazing material from the new release, Pursuit of Radical Rhapsody. The only down side came when the Miranda Cosgrove concert (Disney’s iCarly) started about a football field away at the Sands Steel stage. It came in the midst of a beautiful, subtle piano solo section. You could have heard a pin drop in between Rubalcaba’s intricate, swirling runs, and Latin-infused,left-hand grooves when, all of a sudden, iCarly starts and nearly rattles the walls with 3-note synth bass lines, and the adoring screams of 5,000 tweens in the distance. Gonzalo never missed a beat though and afterwards Di Meola as well played a remarkable solo piece through the thumping teen pop. Once they got rolling it wasn’t hard to block out what was going on outside, and it wasn’t long before the whole room was once again entranced by these powerful performers. That being said, the proximity of those two stages would probably be the only negative thing I came away with from the evening at Musikfest.
After the Al Di Meola show, we hopped on the shuttle to the NorthSide of the festival. We were going to check out one of my favorite live acts, Cabinet. This was my first (of hopefully many) Musikfests and I was really blown away by, first of all, how many people they were accommodating. By my estimates, which don’t really mean anything,it seemed like about 80,000 people. Secondly, by how much food there was. Funnel cake, beer, fried chicken, funnel cake, beer, fried chicken… you get the idea. Very much a state fair type of setup.Thirdly, the entire town of Bethlehem really does become a music festival and it is a very cool thing. There are stages up and down the main streets with plenty of vendors, not just food and beer, but some really great local crafts and such. Fortunately, and unfortunately,Cabinet was playing at the Liederplatz stage. Fortunately because Liederplatz was on the opposite side of the festival and we got to really take in the sights and sounds of Musikfest 2011. There was plenty of good music everywhere, and I especially enjoyed checking out the funky dance band, Here Come The Mummies for a few minutes as we moseyed on by. I say unfortunately because Liederplatz was on the opposite side of the festival and it was far. But alas, we arrive in time to catch most of Cabinet’s first set, and it was well worth the walk.
Cabinet is a group of five incredibly talented bluegrass musicians, but the real fun begins when they stretch out into jazz, dance, and fusion jams, using only their traditional instrumentation consisting of guitar, banjo, mandolin, fiddle, bass and drums. They can belt out aBill Monroe tune with the best of them, but it’s their ever-expanding original repertoire that has folks all over the East talking about this Wilkes Barre based sextet. And this is truly original music. There is definitely a hint of Phishy compositional aesthetics, and the same penchant for exploring improvisational, groove-driven jams. In the midst of these high-energy excursions you can almost forget that there is not a single electric instrument on stage. And when they chime back in with tight, bluegrass tinged harmonies, you’re right back on a porch in Wilkes Barre with the boys.
All in all, a great day in Bethlehem. If you have a chance to checkout Al Di Meola, Cabinet or Bethlehem’s truly wonderful Musikfest, I highly recommend doing so. This is a really great festival and chances are, on any given day there is probably at least one or two acts that you would love to see.
Photos By: Steven Philips
Article By: Ralph Miller