‘I love this state,” says Matt Angus, a former pharmaceutical executive who runs the annual Black Potatoe Music Festival, held every year in mid-July at the historic Red Mill Museum in Clinton at the mouth of the Raritan River. “New Jersey is a very proud music state.” This year’s festival, which the New York Times has called “the Sundance of music festivals in the area,” takes place on Thursday through Sunday, July 12 to 15.
In addition to the festival Angus oversees several ongoing projects in support of independent musicians. He and his partners, including his older sister, recently bought the Stanhope House, a fabled, historic mansion-nightclub in Stanhope that has long been a home for blues and roots-rock musicians. He runs his own record label, Black Potatoe Records, which has issued recordings by a number of promising up and coming singer-songwriters, including Kathy Phillips; his own band, Matt Angus’ Thing; and keyboardist and singer-songwriter Kim Williams. In the fall of last year, he and his partners also purchased Upstage magazine, a free monthly that covers the arts in central and northern New Jersey.
“We bought Upstage magazine because I was tired of seeing the New Jersey weekly music paper have [rock group] Kiss on the cover three and four weeks in a row,” says Angus, 38, in a telephone interview from his home office in Clinton. He is also tired of what he calls “those ‘pay to play’ festivals” and has structured the Black Potatoe Fest accordingly.
The festival at its inception started out as a record release party for Angus’ band, the Matt Angus Thing, during which he was joined on stage by drummer Levon Helm and keyboardist Garth Hudson of the Band. Since then, Angus has sought to get greater recognition for other emerging, independent, unsigned artists. Last July the festival hosted a brilliant set by singer-songwriter Grace Potter and the Nocturnals. Helm had a great time at that first Black Potatoe Festival, so much so, that he’s returned to perform again four or five other times.
“Levon said, ‘Matty, this is great! Screw the record business! They don’t know what the hell they’re doing, anyway, just do it yourself, this is much better, this is what you need to do, this is great!’”
The festival itself takes place on a beautiful piece of land alongside the Red Mill Museum at the mouth of the Raritan River in Clinton, and the backdrop for the Quarry stage is a cliff perhaps 120 feet tall, with plenty of room for an audience to spread out. This year, musicians are coming from as far away as Toronto, Canada, and Australia.
In its 11 years, the annual Black Potatoe Festival has presented a wide variety of innovative, exciting, emerging artists and a few old veterans including Helm and singer and songwriter David Johansen, a.k.a. Buster Poindexter. This year Black Potatoe will present blues singer-songwriter and guitarist Debbie Davies as well as roots-rock singer Chip Taylor, long a part of the Austin scene. Guitarist Jim Weider, who took over for Robbie Robertson after he left the Band, will also perform with his group.
Emerging and regionally known artists performing this year include Hammond B-3 organist John Ginty [who worked with Randolph and the Family Band and dozens of other touring acts] Amy Speace; Ellis Paul; Red Molly; Gregg Cagno; Christine Havrilla; Peter Karp; who has just been signed to Blind Pig Records; and George Kilby Jr. A complete festival lineup is available at www.blackpotatoe.com.
Angus, a 1991 graduate of the University of Southern California-Los Angeles, who majored in communications and history and got a certificate in USC’s recording arts program, started in the music and concert production business in college. Even in high school, he says, it was always his job to book the bands he was in. “Sometimes, we’d just create our own gigs.” In his junior and senior years at USC he worked at Ticketmaster and A&M Records in the A&R department, the department charged with signing and developing new musicians and working with those already signed to the label.
Though he was offered a job at A&M’s recording studio when he graduated from USC he declined and came back east. One of the things that “disgusted” him about the L.A. nightclub scene was the concept of “pay to play,” where bands that were hoping to get signed would pay to perform shows at clubs.
“In 1988 or ‘89 I was watching guys in the clubs putting on their makeup and being more concerned with their makeup and how they looked rather than how they sounded,” says Angus, adding that if you look around today, things haven’t changed much. “The music industry’s hottest item right now is whoever is the best karaoke singer in the country, and the reasons that all started are the reasons we keep doing what we’re doing. They [the record companies] don’t make records anymore, they make porno records. It’s all for shock value, it’s what do you look like,” he says, rather than what you sound like, or if you have any meaningful songs to offer.
“The death of the rock ’n’ roll scene in Los Angeles happened when they made laws so people couldn’t loiter on the Strip anymore and that meant the only reason you were going to the strip was because somebody sold you a ticket ahead of time for a band that wasn’t very good,” he says, noting when he got back to New Jersey in 1992, the scene was starting to get hipper, with Lower Manhattan’s Wetlands Club developing and helping to break new bands like Robert Randolph and the Family Band, now a successful international touring act signed with Warner Bros. Records.
Black Potatoe Records and the Black Potatoe Festival, so named for former vice president Dan Quayle’s famous, widely reported gaff, started in 1988 when Angus was still attending college in Los Angeles. “I started the label because I needed to get gigs in Los Angeles and clubs wouldn’t book you unless you had a record deal. So just from being a young kid who didn’t know any better, I created a record label,” he says, “and then once we incorporated as a company back here in New Jersey in 1996, once we became legitimate, we threw the ‘e’ on at the end, thinking if he [Quayle] could become a vice-president, then surely we could become a record label.”
In New Jersey Angus found steady employment at Hoechst-Roussel Pharmaceuticals’ headquarters in Bedminster, first in the mailroom and later as manager of media productions. When he was 27, he was downsized with a severance package that he calls “a big joke in my family.” Angus’s father worked for Asbury Graphite in Asbury and his mother “was a single mother working before it was hip to be a single mother working, and she actually ran my grandfather’s small furniture company,” which he had started out of his garage.
Sickened by seeing “45-year-old men (at Hoechst-Roussel) crying, guys who did great jobs and did everything they were supposed to do by the rules of corporate America, and got fired for no other reason than company politics” Angus thought to himself, “if I’m not going to have any security in corporate America, I might as well start a record company; if you’re not going to have security, you might as well do what you want to do.”
The Stanhope House, Angus’ other venture with his older sister as general manager and a partner, Richard Urmston, is now safely back in the hands of capable people who really know their folk, blues, jazz and roots-rock music. Acts slated to perform at the comfortable, 250 capacity club this summer and fall include blues harmonica player James Cotton, West coast blues singer Janiva Magness, Austin roots-rock musician Alejandro Escovedo, bluegrass king Ralph Stanley, and blues musicians Corey Harris and John Lee Hooker Jr.
“Once they rip down the Stone Pony in Asbury Park and move it to the boardwalk,” Angus says, “it will be the only music room with any history in the state. I don’t want to come across as too pompous or holier-than-thou but somebody has got to care about the fact that there were no clubs for touring acts like these to play at.
“I can’t tell you the number of people who’ve been supporting us for doing what we’re doing with Stanhope House.We’ve got a killer room. We’re going to build it so that people will know it’s a listening room in New Jersey,” he says.
Nearly all of the acts at this year’s Black Potatoe Festival are unsigned, he says, adding that he found many of them online at www.sonicbids.com. “Somewhere around our fifth or sixth year, we had major record labels offering us money if we’d put their acts on the bill. We just couldn’t do it.”
Black Potatoe Festival, Thursday through Sunday, July 12 to 15, Red Mill Museum, 56 Main Street, Clinton. Full schedule available at www.blackpotatoe.com. Three day passes are $55. For the schedule at Stanhope House visit www.stanhopehouse.com.