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PHOTO BY MARY KEATING BRUTON Marcia Ball, 6 p.m. Sept. 16, Musikfest Café, Blast Furnace Blues Festival, Bethlehem PHOTO BY MARY KEATING BRUTON Marcia Ball, 6 p.m. Sept. 16, Musikfest Café, Blast Furnace Blues Festival, Bethlehem

Ball to again have a Blast in Bethlehem

Wednesday, September 12, 2012 by DEB BOYLAN Special to The Press in Focus

The blues return to SteelStacks on Bethlehem's southside for the second annual Blast Furnace Blues Festival. The three-day blues showcase will consist of more than 25 acclaimed local and national acts performing on three stages.

Headlining the opening day of the festival, which runs Sept. 14 - 16, is legendary harmonica player James Cotton.

Cotton, a Mississippi native is the recipient of a 1996 Grammy award and a member of the Blues Hall of Fame. He performed with the iconic Muddy Waters for more than 12 years. Cotton's career has spanned more than 68 years. The veteran bluesman is continually sought-after for touring. Cotton is credited with creating the crossover funk, rock-oriented style known as Chicago blues.

Performing closing night, 6 p.m. Sept. 16, Musikfest Café, is Grammy nominee Marcia Ball.

Ball, a Texas native raised in Louisiana, brings her mastery of piano, vocals and songwriting to Bethlehem. This hard-working and steadily-touring performer is not a newcomer to the region, having previously performed at Levitt Pavilion and Musikfest. She is excited to return to the Lehigh Valley.

"We played at Levitt in the past and it is amazing," Ball says.

"Between all the festivals and now SteelStacks, your region is bringing a lot of culture of all kinds to the community," she adds.

In speaking with Ball, her appreciation for the Lehigh Valley's arts and entertainment scene is apparent.

"It's so important that people have music. People live on music. Rarely are they not within earshot of music, yet we take so much of it for granted. I appreciate when a community makes an effort to bring music to the people."

Ball will bring her style of New Orleans and Gulf Coast blues to this year's Blast Furnace Blues Festival. In addition to deep grooves and roadhouse style boogie, Ball is equally adept at crafting rich ballads.

Her 2011 CD release, "Roadside Attractions," highlights her songwriting ability with tales of wild parties mixed with stories of love and family. Ball had a hand in writing each track on the CD, something she has never done in her 40-plus-year career. The songs are autobiographical and come from her insight and observations from her many years on the road.

"I don't think people realize how pretty it is in the hills around Bethlehem and in Eastern Pennsylvania," she says. "We've played quite a bit in Bucks County over the years and west of Philadelphia. It's just so beautiful."

Ball has an extremely busy tour schedule. "I have to be careful not to overbook myself," she says.

In addition to touring, Ball is involved with charitable activities in her hometown of Austin, Tex. She works closely with the Health Alliance for Austin Musicians (HAAM). The mission of HAAM is to provide medical care for low income and retired musicians.

"We work in league with the hospitals here [in Austin]. They [the musicians] can go have wellness checks," Ball says.

"They can get everything from a blood pressure check to an appendectomy and it's free for a member of HAAM," she says. "There's only a couple programs like this in the country.

"I recently came on the board [of HAAM] and we are planning some events," says Ball.

"I am also involved with a similar group and our aim is to help secure housing for older musicians. These are people who in any other career would have had pensions.

"Musicians can't retire and don't have pensions. We have one client as of now. She's an iconic soul singer named Lavelle White," says Ball. "We are helping her in hopes that somebody will help us when the time comes."