So you want to throw a party? Once upon a time in the country town of Knowlton, there lived a man named Frank van Horne who would be mayor. He promised to all a big party if he were elected.
He’d throw the party in a field by the banks of the Delaware River that runs through Warren County’s farmland. There would be river games and horseshoes, a pig roast and 5K race, volleyball, soccer, and crafts, and a band or two.
Rick Clarkson was the town’s director of recreation and he was in charge of getting "a band or two" for the new mayor’s party in 1995. "The mayor’s idea was to celebrate the town and how lucky we are to live here," says Clarkson. Nothing much materialized except volleyball, a few craft vendors and the band or two.
Now the party is Knowlton RiverFest. In its ninth year, the music festival will feature 15 bands and is expected to attract an audience of 12,000 on Friday through Sunday, August 22 through 24. The festival offers homemade food, games, rides, and crafts under the Jersey sun and stars.
It is a weekend-long gift to the people — jamming, dancing, partying with bands from around the world. They play jazz, rock, blues and bluegrass, Celtic, rap and Gospel-and blends of it all. "If they come they would say, `Oh man, I’m glad I came,’" says Clarkson who, with his wife, Eleanor, and friend George Trongone produce the festival every year.
"We wanted to do two things," he says. "We wanted something for everyone and we wanted it to be free."
"Mongrel music," says Angus Richardson of the Los Angeles-based band Brother that takes to the stage Saturday at 8 p.m. Real-life brothers Angus and Hanish, who once played in classical Highland bagpipe competitions in their native Australia, settled in Los Angeles 10 years ago. "When we realized we could make money playing in the street we started getting back to our roots." They discovered that bagpipes attracted an audience and that the low drone of the didgeridoo blended well with the pipes.
The five-piece band plays an original mix of rock, hip hop, and tribal Celtic music on drums, keyboards, didgeridoos, dueling bagpipes, guitar, cello, and vocal harmonies. "Our music is fat, deep and sensual," he says. "We’re like the top lovable dog of mixed parents. We come from different sides of the world. In the end, it becomes homogeneous."
Their leather kilts and boots and the unusual instruments bring a new experience to the crowd, who look forward to being surprised every year. When the band appeared at Knowlton two years ago, people were standing with their mouths open, says Eleanor Clarkson. "The girls start throwing their clothes at them. Some never heard a didgeridoo before. That’s a turn-on. It really is. The women go nuts."
From the 150 CDs submitted to the Clarksons last year by bands everywhere, only 15 acts were chosen. When the Clarksons heard the tunes of the Sons of the San Joaquin, they tracked them down. "We made them an offer, but to get them to come here from California, we couldn’t afford it," says Eleanor. The Clarksons solved the problem by hooking them up, along with two other groups, with the Philadelphia Folk Festival, which takes place during the same long weekend [see page 36].
The music of the Sons personifies "roots music" of the American West — a mix of cowboy and jazz. "The roots of cowboy music is jazz," says Jack Hannah, singer-songwriter of the Sons, who have performed at Carnegie Hall and with symphony orchestras. The jazz, he says, comes from the chord progressions they play on two guitars, a stand up bass, and fiddle.
"It’s not just cowboy music. We’re very classical. We’re vocalists. We can sing an Italian aria or a German lieder, then break out and sing about the beauty of the West and a prairie girl. We’re a different cat."
Hannah says the group’s heart is its integrity and knowledge of the American West. Onstage they share their lives with the audience, hoping to make a human connection. "We’re not matinee idols," he says. "That has no significance in what we do. We have a concert violinist who can fiddle like nobody’s business."
"We’ve won so many awards it’s kind of hard to go into it," says Hannah. They have won Western Music Awards Vocalist of the Year and four songwriter awards, three Wrangler Awards, National Cowboy Hall of Fame and Western Heritage Museum for songwriting. "Nevertheless, we’re impressive," he says. "I’m an objective person and I know how good we are."
Eleanor Clarkson agrees. "When you hear them, you want to just go out there and ride the range," she says. "I was never into cowboy movies but I feel like all is well with the world when I listen to these guys."
Not only are they artists, the Hannahs were both professional baseball players, and are currently teachers and cowboys. "If I didn’t know how old I was, I’d think I was 45," says the 69-year-old pro. "To me, it’s just a bunch of numbers."
The Harlem Gospel Choir is one festival group composed entirely of New Yorkers. Its mission is two-fold: to celebrate artists who had their beginnings in gospel and to bring a better understanding of music as it relates to the black church. Another purpose of the choir is to raise funds for children’s charities.
The world-famous group has 60 members with a 12-member choir that performs at home. Their repertoire is a mix of genres — blues, jazz, standards, gospel — and pays tribute to such artists as Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Kool & the Gang, BB King, and Buddy Guy.
Allen Bailey, public relations manager for New York’s Cotton Club, is master of ceremonies. Bailey founded the choir on January 15, 1986, on Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. "He was a student of Ghandi, so he practiced peace," he says. "No matter what the language is wherever we go, people always get the message. It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it. The theory is to feel the spirit."
Singer-songwriter Peter Karp opens the show at noon on Sunday with an acoustic set, leading into a half-hour non-denominational service. "The service came about because our mayor wanted it. It was a part of our show in 1995 and has been a part of it ever since," says Clarkson. "We have a history of having the service at 12:30 so we have a player who fills in with gospel tunes." They chose Bergen County resident Karp for the honor because of his regular Sunday gig at St. Cecilia’s Church in Englewood.
Karp will play his own brand of blues-flavored spirituals on guitar, dobro and piano. He says that the resonating sound of a steel dobro is religiously spooky and that people get into it. "I’m very spiritual. All my music has a lot of spirituality in it. I absolutely have the feel of being connected to something else," says Karp. "But you can’t find God in church. He’s having a good belly laugh."
After the service Peter Karp and his RoadShow band will premier tunes from their upcoming CD, "The Turning Point," recorded with Rolling Stone Mick Taylor. The RoadShow band consists of Danny Pagdon on bass, Hernandez on drums, and Jim Ehinger on keyboards.
Karp says Northwestern New Jersey is fertile music ground. "It’s one of those pockets across the country where people are really into music."
So what’s he going to do at Riverfest? "I guess just generally rock it up, blues them out, sing them songs. I want everybody to know who I am and I want to know who they are. I’ll just have a great day and give them a little taste of what’s coming on the new CD, make some new friends and have another good day. Put enough of them together and have a good life."
The Red Elvises is the memorable name of a four-member Siberian surf rock band featured on Friday night at 8 p.m. Band member Igor Yuzov describes their sound as a mix of Dick Dale and the Stray Cats. He chose the name after dreaming of Elvis dressed in red and he says it fits the band perfectly.
The band features guitar, keyboard, drums, accordion, and one instrument Elvis never plays, the traditional Russian bass balalika. Mostly the band plays happy rock-and-roll, a cross-cultural blend of American and Russian roots music. "We mixed it all together and that’s what came out," says Yuzov.
"Red for us" — three members are from the former Soviet Union "and Elvis for rock-and-roll," he says. "We go to Bangkok and they make special costumes to our order. They have the wildest colors that you can imagine."
Yuzov says the band sometimes likes to shock festival-goers, but how they do so is a surprise. However the last time they played Knowlton (most bands are brand new every year, to keep it fresh), they had a fight with the guitarist on stage and threw him off. "That was shocking to us, not to the audience," he says.
Two Grammy Award-winning bands take the field on Sunday. One is the Alison Brown Quartet, billed as jazzgrass and scheduled for 5 p.m. Another blend? "It’s a mix between bluegrass, bebop, and hot club swing," says Brown who plays five-string banjo. "I started writing bluegrass music 20 years ago and found it had more of a jazz leaning to it. That happened organically," she says. Brown is a multi-award-winner whose prizes include "Banjo Player of the Year."
The brands of bands are numerous — "throat-singers," whose melodies have been known to call dragonflies into the big tent to fly seemingly mesmerized around the stage, an Afro-Celtic band, a duo from Brazil who plays guitar with a bow, and a 12-year-old blues player and his band.
"In year one, we never would have gotten away with this. Now, our audience is so sophisticated, they know what they’re getting. We’ve had such wonderful groups and we were ready for them and they were ready for us," says Eleanor Clarkson.
And there are the festival "regulars" — the Black Widow Blues Band, a popular straight-out dance band. "They’re a staple and they get the tent jumping," says Clarkson. "It looks like it’s going across the field."
Knowlton Riverfest features musicians of extensive experiences and mixes blends and harmonies of every mix and style. Still free? Yes. And Frank van Horne? Still mayor after all these years.
Trongone was Knowlton’s treasurer and is now festival treasurer and co-director, a full-time, year-round job. He pays the taxes, does the budget, answers E-mails, minds the books, grounds, and food and craft vendors, and does the set-up. He and Clarkson check out the bands.
The Clarksons and Trongone readily admit they knew nothing about running a festival. "The first year I was worried. We had just enough money to get by. Now we know we’re going to make enough to pay the bands for the following year and everybody has a good time." From 1,000 revelers the first year to 12,000 today, their philosophy remains — "free and eclectic."
There is one rule: No coolers, for this is a community affair and the local volunteers earn needed funds by selling their homemade goodies.
The festival has a Craft Row with 40 vendors, two tents — one with tables and chairs, a stage, 22 port o’ potties, electricians, and state police, phone lines and walkie-talkies, road signs with DOT, 500 yards of fencing "to keep the crowd contained," five food vendors, the Bud beer truck, the girls’ field hockey team dunk booth. For kids there is rock climbing and rides. And if anyone wants to take a swim in the river, it’s just a walk through the woods.
"People come down by canoe and walk through the woods up to the festival," says Trongone. "Lots of people walk down to the river and take a swim. It’s a great festival. What makes it so good is the bands like to play here."
Take it from Angus of Brother: "We tend to attract anybody and everybody from the most straight-laced to the youngest punk rocker. That’s what music is all about — the coming together of the community and a time to relax and have fun together."
And from Hannah of the Sons of the San Joaquin: "We’ll enrich the day and gain a houseful of fans who never heard of us before. They’ll be absolutely stunned. As Westerners, we’re enamored of what we see in the East. We see our beginnings."
Knowlton RiverFest, Hunter’s Lodge Field, Route 46, Delaware, New Jersey, 908-496-4816, ext. 17. Field is two miles east of I-80, exit 4. (Www.knowlton-fest.com) Free admission; parking is $7.
Friday, August 22: 6 p.m. Milo Z; 8 p.m. The Red Elvises; 10 p.m. Railroad Earth.
Saturday, August 23: 1 p.m. Mef Gannon & the Mercury Blues; 2 p.m. Grover Kemble with Bobby Marks; 3 p.m. The Eric Steckel Band; 4 p.m. Duofel; 5 p.m. Sons of the San Joaquin; 6 p.m. Baka Beyond; 8 p.m. Brother; 10 p.m. Black Widow Blues Band.
Sunday, August 24: Noon: Peter Karp; 12:30 p.m. Non-denominational Service; 1 p.m. Peter Karp and the Roadshow; 2 p.m. The Harlem Gospel Choir; 3:30 p.m. The Nashville Bluegrass Band; 5 p.m. The Alison Brown Quartet.