Two Sundays ago, echoes of Ruthie Foster’s smooth blues vocals invited me onto the Levitt Pavilion SteelStacks lawn during on an otherwise quiet evening. Following my 90-minute drive to Bethlehem, Pa., from my hometown of Freehold in New Jersey, my anticipation grew as towering blast furnaces—rusted remnants of Bethlehem Steel, known as “the ruins”—came into view, welcoming me to the historic manufacturing hub-turned-arts campus. As I arrived at Levitt Pavilion SteelStacks, I noticed a lush green lawn filled with the energy of a music-loving audience who showed up for the performance despite dark gray clouds and scattered showers earlier in the day. From couples snuggled into folding chairs to families lined up at food and beverage stations, to volunteers galore, the excitement for Foster’s free, live show was palpable.
Greeted by the cheerful faces of Levitt SteelStacks volunteers who were set up under a tent next to the stage, I walked up the pathway and chose a spot towards the back of the lawn. Much of the space was already occupied by a myriad of devoted locals and blues fans of all ages and backgrounds. The mood of the crowd hit me as soon as I joined them on the green. I was surrounded by concertgoers tapping their feet to the beat, waving their hands in the air, and dancing up towards the stage, particularly during Foster’s dance-friendly groove, “Let Me Know.”
Three-time GRAMMY-winning singer-songwriter and Texas native Ruthie Foster was a delight to experience in concert. No stranger to Levitt stages (as this was her 12th Levitt performance), Foster captivated the entire audience with her bluesy guitar licks, soaring vocals and heartfelt performance. Every interaction with the crowd felt genuine and personal. Between showstoppers like “Phenomenal Woman” and “Real Love,” Foster shared stories of past performances and life on the road that resonated with us all. One of the most memorable was when Foster shared how she ate an overwhelming amount of homemade sweet potato pie with her bandmates while on tour in the South and hearing subsequent “Amens” and “Yes Ma’ams” from the crowd, who hung on to Foster’s every word.
Beyond the music, Foster is a natural storyteller. In a recent Americana Highways interview, Foster shared, “I feel with music, we can be in the same room and share the same stories…I believe by doing that it helps me connect with my audience and helps them connect with me.” In addition to her warm, sincere persona and knack for storytelling, Foster is a tremendous connector. Standing amidst an audience of complete strangers, she transformed the Levitt lawn into an intimate performance that made all of us in the audience feel like we had known each other for years.
Levitt Pavilion SteelStacks is housed on the ArtsQuest campus, a nonprofit arts center for performances of all sizes. Towards the end of the show, I had the pleasure of touring the ArtsQuest Center with Performing Arts Specialist Shayna Super. Together we explored the building opposite the stage, lined with beautiful floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the Levitt lawn. Super shared how Levitt SteelStacks and the ArtsQuest campus as a whole have grown into an established and welcoming arts hub for people of all ages. What’s especially powerful about Levitt SteelStacks programming is that the series consistently draws a crowd of loyal concertgoers – a group Super described as weekly regulars and familiar faces who never fail to attend a concert, rain or shine.
I followed Super to the balcony on the top floor of the ArtsQuest building, where I took in the view of audience members enjoying the final songs of Foster’s set. Even from the distance, I could still see the cheerful movement of the crowd and hear Foster’s strong voice projecting into the night sky. I was also taken aback by the magnificent backdrop of the furnaces, which lit up with multicolored lights as the sun set. Once the site of a toxic brownfield, the scene before me served as a celebration of the community’s effort to bring new meaning and purpose to a historic site, creating a vibrant center for education, entertainment and growth in the process.
As I returned to my original spot on the lawn, I soaked in the final moments of the evening as Foster expressed that the performance was nearing its end, asking the crowd if it was okay to perform another song. The affirmations in response to her personable request filled my heart. It’s not every day that I have the opportunity to experience a GRAMMY-winning soulstress give an intimate performance to such an appreciative community. A man behind me joked with his friend: “Another song? How about another two hours?” I couldn’t have agreed more.
You can watch Ruthie Foster and her band perform the hit “When it Don’t Come Easy” at Levitt SteelStacks here and check out the rest of the 2021 Levitt SteelStacks lineup here, which continues through September 19th!