The Pittsburgh Blues Festival interview with Ron "Moondog" Esser by Maureen Elizabeth

Posted on 6/19/2010 by Maureen Elizabeth

“Mealtime at the City Shelter” by Bruer Tidman

Authenticity. That’s why we like our blues. The blues are genuine and from the heart. My interview with Ron “Moondog” Esser (owner and operator of Moondog‘s and the Starlite Lounge in Pittsburgh, PA) revealed to me an authenticity that I had not expected. Moondog has a rep. He is established as a earnest supporter and promoter of the blues in western PA. His club attracts national acts from the New Rider’s of the Purple Sage and Savoy Brown to Devon Allman. The painted walls inside his club boast photos and autographs of blues legends that have journeyed to his nightclub in anticipation of a welcoming audience. His rep includes an award for “Blues Club of the Year” and even more recently his restaurant, the “Starlite Lounge,” was featured on the Food Network. But most importantly - to him- is his association with the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank and their annual “Pittsburgh Blues Festival.” This festival, begun in 1994, has one goal - to raise money and collect non-perishables to help provide food to those who are hungry. And they work hard to meet this goal. Every year they provide roughly 21 million pounds of food to families. 21 million pounds. I spoke with Moondog a few days before the festival line up was announced (and promised not to “leak” any information prior to the official announcement…).

How did your association with the Pittsburgh Food Bank come about?

About 16 years ago my friend Phil Harris called me and asked me if I wanted to be on the committee to help the food bank with a blues festival and I said if it helps feed hungry people I’d be glad to be a part if it. We raised $7,000 the first year when the festival was held at the Riverplex and every year it got better. We have changed venues 4 times and we are now at Hartwood Acres - we’ll never leave Hartwood, it’s a great venue. Eventually we decided to make Friday a “Free Friday” by asking donations of a bag of canned goods. We have collected tons, tons of food - something like 19 tons last year. We do “Free Friday” to help promote the festival - if you come on Friday with a donation and see what good shows are offered, maybe you’ll come back for Saturday and Sunday.

Do you have a goal?

I just want to do better than the year before - that’s the goal.

Do you find people becoming more generous because of our economic situation?

I think that even though people don’t have money now, they kind of realize how hard it is for many families and they are even more generous. Pittsburgh is a good town. Pittsburgh is a blue collar town and our people are very giving. And they know that if you can’t eat you can’t live - period. There are horror stories we hear about families being unable to feed their kids.

How do you choose the bands for the festival?

I stay up for hours and do web searches plus utilize my relationships with the agents. Then I see if we have enough money to make it work. This year was pretty easy. Two years ago everyone went to Europe to tour because of the economy - that was tough. We try to be as different as we can. This year we have Eric Burdon and the Animals - we have tried to get him for a few years. Our headliners this year are the strongest we’ve had yet.

Last year we interviewed Tinsley Ellis and he had nothing but words of respect for you for how hard you work to keep the blues alive and for your dedication. Where did your interest in the blues begin?

I always liked music since I was a little kid. Blues players, in my opinion, are the best players there are. Blues players are so much more authentic, more from the heart. I always liked the blues guys - they’re all cool, they’re funny and have the best stories. It’s a life style and they play it because they love it. Many play it because their parents did, it’s a way of life. It comes from a different place.

Tell me about working with the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank…

The people at the food bank are so dedicated to what they do it’s amazing, I love them all. There is a reason why they work there - they work there because they really care. They are all very talented and could work other places and make more money but they are all on a mission and care about what they do. It comes from their heart.

Obviously you come from that same space…

My dad was a public servant. He was the mayor, fire chief, and he told me you have to help other people who are less fortunate. A lot of people ask me about certain things in my life - we won the Blues Club of the Year award and we were featured on the Food Network - but by far what is my biggest accomplishment in my life - besides my wife and son, my family- would be the food bank. The first two years we raised over $10,000. Last year we raised $200,000. Everybody in the area gets behind it, our great sponsors, and every year more people, more businesses become involved. We have Mike Lang who, every year, is there for us. WDVE is great, the media is great, they do everything they can to help promote this event. And I would love to see more sports figures and community officials involved.

Is there anything else that folks should know about the Pittsburgh Blues Festival ?

For what it costs to get in, and the amount of entertainment you get, the price is ridiculously low - every penny goes to the food bank - we don’t get paid. We have a budget, we pay the bands, we pay the sound company. If I bring a can a food in and say “here” - that can of food goes to people who need food. And it’s fun! Come and have fun! It’s really important to the community. For what it cost and what it does to help people it is hands down the best thing you could do.


We are all just one step, one heartbeat, one plant closing from struggling to put food on the table. The Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank has been in operation since 1980. It is a non-profit 501(c) (3) organization that provides numerous services to those in need in the greater Pittsburgh area. By bringing one grocery bag of non-perishable food on Friday night July 23 you can enjoy the music of Chubby Carrier and the Bayou Swamp Band, The Iguanas, and Miss Freddy and Blue Faze. For a $40 two day pass (July 24 & 25) you can see Eric Burden and the Animals, Sue Foley and Peter Karp, Nick Curran and the Lowlifes and the Pittsburgh Blues All-Stars (July 24). On Sunday you will see Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Larry McCray Band, Tinsley Elis and many more - all the while knowing that the cost of your ticket will benefit your neighbors in Pittsburgh.

For more information on the Pittsburgh Blues Festival go to: Or call the Blues Hotline @ (412) 460-BLUE

For more information about the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank and the many programs they sponsor (or if you need help) go to:

For information about Moondog’s and the Starlite Lounge go to:

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