The annual Light of Festival WinterFest happened only online in 2021, because of the pandemic, and then this year’s return to normalcy was pushed from January to March because of the Omicron spike. But at least that meant that the main concert wouldn’t have to take place in the middle of brutal January weather, right?
Uh, wrong. March 12, the day for that main concert at the Count Basie Center for the Arts in Red Bank, was about as January-like as it could get.
Nevertheless, the theater was full, or close to it, for the satisfying and frequently boisterous marathon show, which featured 13 sets of music in a little under five hours. (There were no breaks, since artists performed acoustically, in front of a curtain, while the bands were setting up behind it).
It’s tough to stand out from the pack in a show like this, but some of the most memorable moments included Williams Honor joining Joe Grushecky & the Houserockers for The Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter,” with WH’s Reagan Richards howling out the show-stealing duet originally sung by Merry Clayton; Remember Jones reproducing the over-the-top melodrama of “All Revved Up With No Place to Go” from the late Meat Loaf’s Bat Out of Hell album, and then adding a little extra of his own; and Guy Davis, in one of those acoustic mini-sets, late in the evening, not just holding crowd members’ attention but getting them to sing along.
Many of the artists talked about how great it was to be back, playing this show, for the first time in two years, and Willie Nile and Jesse Malin dedicated songs to the people of Ukraine (“The Innocent Ones” and “Before You Go,” respectively).
The main Light of Day show usually takes place at the Paramount Theatre in Asbury Park. It couldn’t this year, because that theater is closed until further notice because of safety concerns. So it was moved, for the first time, to the Basie, though most of the fest’s other events remained in Asbury Park. The location was notable for sentimental reasons: The festival began, 24 years ago, with a private party and fundraiser that took place near the Basie, at the Downtown Cafe. But it also helped the show by offering a better acoustic environment. The Dylanesque lyrics of a performer such as Anthony D’Amato — who did one of mini-sets — would have had less of impact in the Paramount, which is of similar size but not as well structured for sound.
Light of Day has developed some traditions of its own, over nearly a quarter of a century: It’s hard to imagine one of main concerts without anthems such as Willie Nile’s rousing “One Guitar” (performed as his encore) or Joe D’Urso’s uplifting “Hold On” — D’Urso performed early on with his band Stone Caravan but then returned, late, to sing that song with an acoustic guitar and backing vocals by Davis (who also played harmonica), James Maddock and Rob Dye.
Band sets were also performed by Maddock (whose setlist included his own grim but ultimately hopeful “Fucked Up World”) and The Weeklings (who covered The Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and “Baby, You’re a Rich Man” in addition to performing several of their own power-pop gems). Grammy-nominated Linda Chorney, a former New Jerseyan now living in Arizona, made a rare home state appearance in one of the acoustic sets; other acoustic performers include Miss Emily (a late substitute for the ill Steve Forbert) and Joe Bonanno.
Grushecky, in his headlining set, started out a trio of his own Stones-y songs (“What Did You Do in the War,” “Pumping Iron” and “There’ll Never Be Enough Time”). Then came “Gimme Shelter” (with Danny Clinch on harmonica, in addition to Williams Honor) and another song with Williams Honor and Clinch, the bar-rock standard “Down the Road Apiece.” This may sound like a short set, but it was actually pretty long, as Grushecky and the Houserockers turned most of the songs into extended jams. The show’s grand finale, during which many of the evening’s performers returned the stage, was, of course, the Bruce Springsteen-written “Light of Day,” after which everyone sang “Happy Birthday” to Light of Day founder Bob Benjamin (at whose Red Bank birthday party Light of Day began, 24 years ago).
Benjamin suffers from Parkinson’s Disease, and has been the main force behind building this festival into both a major New Jersey music event and a fundraising juggernaut. Over the years, Light of Day has raised more than $6 million for the fight against Parkinson’s and related disorders; it has not been announced yet how much has been added to that total by this year’s festival.
Here is a video of Remember Jones performing “All Revved Up With No Place to Go.” (He will perform the Bat Out of Hell album in its entirety, with Max Weinberg and other guests, at the Axelrod Performing Arts Center in Deal, April 29-30 and May 1.)
We need your help!
CONTRIBUTE TO NJARTS.NET
Since launching in September 2014, NJArts.net, a 501(c)(3) organization, has become one of the most important media outlets for the Garden State arts scene. And it has always offered its content without a subscription fee, or a paywall. Its continued existence depends on support from members of that scene, and the state’s arts lovers. Please consider making a contribution of any amount to NJArts.net via PayPal, or by sending a check made out to NJArts.net to 11 Skytop Terrace, Montclair, NJ 07043.