Musikfest Preview: Meet Some ‘Fest Rookies

In addition to old favorites who perform at Musikfest every year, the festival boasts a healthy offering of first-time performers each year. Whether they are local, or they come to us from afar, ‘Festgoers have a guaranteed opportunity to discover something new for ten days in August in downtown Bethlehem.

We reached out to a few ‘Fest rookies to get their thoughts on their upcoming debut at the nation’s largest free outdoor music festival. They are…

008Neil Grover, local singer-songwriter, performing Wednesday, August 9 at 7 p.m. at Martin Guitar Lyrikplatz, and Thursday, August 10 at 8 p.m. at Yuengling Lagerplatz (amid the Festplatz site).

007Kara Hartzell, singer-songwriter and bassist for Alex Mery & The Townsmen, performing at Fegley’s Bethlehem Brew Works on Friday, August 4 at 9 p.m. (unofficial Musikfest performance); Wednesday, August 9 at 9 p.m. at Martin Guitar Lyrikplatz (w/ Alex Mery & The Townsmen); and Thursday, August 10 at 2:30 p.m. at the Provident Bank Main Street Stage.


Jim Rea of Springfield, MO-based bluegrass quintet, The HillBenders, performing Monday, August 7 at 7:30 p.m. at Americaplatz, and Tuesday, August 8 at 7 p.m. at Volksplatz.


029Zach Russack, Hackettstown, NJ-based singer-songwriter, performing a full-band set Thursday, August 10 at 3:30 p.m. on the Provident Bank Main Street Stage, and a solo set at Red Stag Pub Liederplatz on Sunday, August 13 at 2 p.m.

First, a question for our resident out-of-towner, Mr. Rea. What made Musikfest appealing for you guys?
We started as a festival band. We love festivals and outdoor music, and collaborations between the folks who want to put on events like that. We also love the relationships that you build with the fans who come to these kinds of places, and the talent buyers who put these festivals together.

Now, a general question for the locals. Have you ever attended Musikfest before?
Yes, I have. I attended Musikfest in ’13 and ’14.

Grover: Even though I was born and raised in Allentown, I never attended Musikfest in my life. It really is surprising. Growing up in the family that I did, we were so educationally focused, I didn’t really get out much to attend such events. Even when I did have the chances, I was so introverted that I barely ever hung out at festivals or shows with friends. I stayed behind closed doors and created my own pieces of music on the piano, hoping and dreaming that one day I’d have the courage to play them for people.

Hartzell: I have attended Musikfest for years. I enjoy the variety of music, both local and national, as well as the artisans, food, and of course having my mug filled with Blueberry Belch at Fegley’s Bethlehem Brew Works. As a child, I would watch the fireworks every year at my grandmother’s house, since she lives within walking distance from the festival on Fairview Street.  Musikfest was smaller then, only having activities on what is now considered the “North Side.”

What is your favorite thing about Musikfest, year after year?
I really enjoy the atmosphere of everyone walking around, trying to find their new favorite artist. Musikfest is the reason I found some bands that I really enjoy listening to.

Hartzell: I used to love watching Cast in Bronze, the carillon player.  It was a tradition that I would always catch one of his shows while eating Aw Shucks for dinner during at least one festival evening.  I was disappointed when Frank was not invited back a few years ago, and I’m not sure that I have replaced it with a new “favorite” just yet.

What are you looking forward to this year?

Hartzell: To be honest, I am most looking forward to the opportunity to perform. I have been a musician in the Lehigh Valley for years, and applied to perform at the festival for at least a decade with different bands and projects. I am both humbled and excited for the opportunity to perform at Musikfest, and have been counting down the hours until it’s showtime!

Rea: This is our first time at this one, so we’re excited to see what the layout’s like. I was looking at the schedule, and I was blown away. It’s intriguing to go and meet the folks that make that thing go ‘round.

Grover: I’m looking forward to supporting the other artists that are there to perform. I’m fortunate to know other artists and bands that will be playing at the festival, and it’s an amazing thing to be there for one another as we try to grow as musicians. In addition, I hope to discover new artists and bands that maybe I haven’t heard of yet, fully aware that I will most likely become a big fan!

What does the opportunity to perform at Musikfest mean to you?
Grover: This opportunity means everything to me. I’m very grateful to the festival for giving me a chance to perform. I feel as though Musikfest can be a great platform to connect with so many listeners, and other artists and bands. I feel as though I have been invited to be a part of a family of entertainers, which is a really great feeling, because I know that I can learn a lot from these artists by watching how they perform and work creatively.

Hartzell: Performing at Musikfest has always been a “fun idea that I have that will probably never come to fruition.” So instead, I have spent years attending the event, supporting friends and fellow musicians during their own performances, and never really took any steps to turn that idea into reality. Sure, I filled out the application for whatever band I was in at the time through SonicBids and paid the application fees, but I don’t know how committed I really was to the process. Sending in the information and crossing my fingers, as it turns out, is not the most effective way to accomplish anything.

After spending the past year making withstanding connections; networking with performers, media, and venues; and actively performing throughout the Lehigh Valley with Alex Mery & The Townsmen – and now, with my solo project – I believe that these opportunities to perform at Musikfest represent not only dedication to my work, but also drive me to continue on the path I am on, maintaining music as an integral part of my life. As a music teacher, I spend hours upon hours dedicating myself to helping others develop their passion for music, and now, I believe it’s alright to also dedicate a little bit of that time to myself.

Russack: It’s hard to say. Surely, it is a great privilege to be a part of the lineup of Musikfest twice, but I’m not really sure what to make of it. I am very satisfied, I suppose.

How did you react when you found out you had been selected to play?
This was a fan recommendation. I love it when something like that comes full circle. At one of our shows, somebody came up to me and said, “You guys need to check out Musikfest.” When fans say stuff like that to me, I instantly send that to my agent. Any time we get a chance to do a festival nowadays, it’s a great thing.

Grover: I was incredibly excited! I told my family and friends immediately, all the people who mean the most to me. It’s an amazing and fortuitous thing to be playing at Musikfest. It’s a wonderful chance to succeed, and even a wonderful chance to fail. Either way, it will be a learning experience, and I couldn’t be happier to be a part of the festival this year!

Russack: To play on the second Sunday as a part of the Godfrey Daniels showcase brought a big smile to my face. It was through audition, and to be honest, I didn’t know where my music would stand in the eyes and ears of the judges. It feels tremendous to know that these Lehigh Valley artists enjoy my craft and what I bring to the table musically. That being said, I sure hope everyone that passes by at Musikfest feels the same way. *laughs*

Hartzell: When we found out as Alex Mery & The Townsmen that we would have the opportunity to perform at Musikfest, having only been a trio of this particular makeup for a year – our anniversary is 7/31, to be exact! – we were floored. Once the initial shock marinated for a bit, it was definitely a time of excitement. We were thrilled to share the news with our friends and family.

As a new solo artist, I thought it would be impossible to land a spot on Musikfest, since I have only begun guitar lessons and performing in the Lehigh Valley for about a month and a half now. However, I had the fortune of performing at the summer launch party for Fig Bethlehem hosted at PBS39, and I must have impressed the right people, since I landed not one, but two additional performances occurring during Musikfest from that one gig.

I am excited for these opportunities, but also extremely nervous. Performing is such a public experience, and once you put your music – which is essentially your heart and soul; what makes you, you – out there for the world to see, it’s sink or swim.

In short: I am very humbled by the acceptance and support of the music community in the Lehigh Valley, and I am thankful for this opportunity as a developing artist.

What are your hopes and expectations for your performance(s)?
Hartzell: During my solo set on Main Street, I plan to pull together my best music – covers and originals alike – to present to passersby in hopes that they might choose to stay awhile and enjoy the performance. Having written several new songs within the last few weeks in preparation for my upcoming EP, I am eager to “test out” my material on live audiences and use their responsive feedback to determine areas of improvement, as well as areas in which I am successful. Being a performer is always a learning experience, and I am opportunistic about accepting the challenges which each performance presents.

Russack: For both sets, I hope to play them to the best of my ability and beyond. The goal is to strengthen myself in all facets of music, and every set I play has the objective to reach to a higher level than the day before. It would also be nice to gain some new fans from these sets. That’s the goal, right?

Grover: I want to wow my listeners. Maybe it will work. Maybe it won’t. But, I’m always going to be trying to do that. I’d like to be able to give my best performance as an artist at Musikfest, and I want to have an amazing time doing it. I’m going to do my best to try and move people in what I hope is a unique way. I hope that the listeners are able to feel that my songs are meaningful—full of nuance and substance. I’d also really like to make sure that I am able to entertain the audience and hopefully make them feel more than glad that they came to see my set!

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