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This article by Richard J. Skelly was prepared for the September 15, 2004 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

New Rhythm & Blues + Ecology on the Raritan

At a time when towns that border the Raritan River are putting into place development and redevelopment plans for their waterfronts, New Brunswick’s Raritan River Festival has been resurrected. The gathering, held in Boyd Park in New Brunswick, became something of a regional event in the 1980s, when prominent musicians like Pete Seeger and Tom Chapin performed there.

Now the festival is back with NRBQ, the New Rhythm and Blues Quartet, as the headliners, along with a diverse array of New Brunswick-area folk, jazz, blues, and roots music performers.

In the eyes of New Brunswick resident Sam Missimer, a prime organizer behind this year’s festival, it couldn’t come at a better time. Missimer, a resident of New Brunswick for the last 15 years, works as director of sustainable design for Venezia & Associates, a New Brunswick-based architectural firm. In his role as a primary coordinator for this year’s festival, Missimer, who serves on New Brunswick’s environmental commission, was able to combine his two longstanding passions: music and protecting the environment.

“It’s a very interesting time in central New Jersey, because every town along the Raritan has new plans for its riverfront,” Missimer says. “So it’s a good time for people in this area to reconsider the river. The Raritan River Festival is all about getting people off their couches for a day and introducing them to the many great organizations we’re going to have there. “It’ll probably be the largest collection of environmental organizations that have ever been at the festival.”

Environmental organizations that have been invited to the Raritan River Festival this year include the New Jersey Baykeeper, the Edison Wetlands Association, Clean Ocean Action, the American Littoral Society, and Monmouth County Friends of Clearwater, among others. Former governor James Florio, formerly a resident of Blackwood and now a resident of Metuchen, will speak. Other environmentally active elected officials will be on hand.

Aside from environmentalists’ booths, the family-friendly festival also includes free canoe rentals. In addition there will be several film screenings, part of the New Jersey Film Festival, at dusk.

Missimer was given the green light to resurrect the festival, which started in 1980, from Mike Blackwell of New Brunswick’ Department of Recreation. The festival continued into the late 1980s, and then, when the Raritan River Friends of Clearwater disbanded, there was no band of dedicated environmental volunteers to organize the event, and no city staffers wanted to undertake the massive responsibility of organizing the festival.

Missimer helped coordinate the 100th anniversary celebration for the New Brunswick train station last fall, and was encouraged to resurrect the festival by Blackwell and others in the city’s administration. “Because of what I see going on environmentally, and because I’d like to see New Brunswick have a truly great music festival,” he says, “I took this on.” (Ironically, Boyd Park, which sits between Route 18 and the Raritan River and D & R Canal, will close for two years following the festival to make way for the widening of Route 18 in New Brunswick.)

While the festival is free, “we’re asking that people bring non-perishable food for the food bank of central New Jersey,” says Missner. “Anyone who brings a bag of food will have access to VIP parking in Boyd Park.” Free parking will be offered at nearby parking decks that are just a short walk from Boyd Park.

“We’re hoping that people will come out and spend the day,” says Missner, nothing that there will be food vendors on site, but that picnickers are welcome. “The idea is that anybody can afford to attend the Raritan River Festival,” he says. “These days, people need more access to music, and musicians need more access to audiences.”

Performers include the NRBQ, a 35-year-old group, which will headline Sunday’s show on the electric stage. Original members of the group on hand for the festival include Terry Adams on keyboards and vocals, Joey Spampinato on bass and vocals, Tom Ardolino on drums, and Johnny Spampinato on guitar and vocals. The band is touring in support of its latest album, “Dummy.” The band has been with a variety of record companies through the years, but like so many other road veterans, the band released “Dummy” themselves, on their own Edisun label.

“The appeal of NRBQ is that they play every kind of American music, and this is their 35th anniversary year,” Missimer says. “They’ve recorded a whole album with Sun Records of Memphis and Sun Ra (the avant-garde jazz composer and bandleader) wrote music for them.” The band’s repertoire includes country, jazz, blues, and improvisational free jazz in the tradition of Sun Ra.

The Supreme Court Band, an aggregation of New Brunswick-area musicians led by Piscataway-based harmonica player and songwriter Nancy Swarbrick, performs just before NRBQ on the electric stage. Swarbrick is pulling out all the stops for the festival, Missimer says, and is inviting musicians who haven’t performed in New Brunswick clubs for many years. Invited guests with the Supreme Court band include Patti Smith bassist Tony Shanahan, D.P. of D.P. and the Greys, Barbara Hahn from the Slaves of New Brunswick, Jigs Giglio from Jigs and the Pigs, guitarist Junior Mack, and vocalist Yolanda Briggs.

Other performers include Black Circle Symphony, led by Ras Ujima Parris, Ray Rodriguez y Swing Sabroso, Paul Robeson School Divas and Gents Drill Team, the Noisy Neighbors, The VooDUDES, Woodrow Wilson School Drill Team, and the Spook Handy Show.

This year’s festival brings back the traditional cardboard boat contest, and features a rubber duck race, and a variety of activities for children. “I go to a lot of festivals,” says Missimer, a regular at the annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, the Philadelphia Folk Festival, and the Crawfish Festival in northwestern New Jersey. “I know the things that tend to work and the things that tend not to work. This is a great, free, family day of entertainment, games, and fun. If you aren’t careful, you’ll even learn a thing or two while you’re here,” Missimer promises. “We’ve got a wonderful cross-section of performers.”

— Richard J. Skelly

Raritan River Festival, Sunday, September 19, 11 a.m. to dusk; Boyd Park, Route 18 and Commercial Avenue, New Brunswick; 11 a.m. to dusk. Free. Call 732-249-6242, ext. 303, or visit www.raritanriverfest.com.

For the complete calendar events in central New Jersey, go to www.princetoninfo.com/us1evts.htm


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