Before singing “That’s What Makes Us Great,” his April anti-Trump collaboration with Bruce Springsteen, at the Rockland-Bergen Music Festival, June 24, Joe Grushecky said he was “thrilled” at the response to it. He added that his son Johnny “said I was trending— whatever the fuck that means.”
The comment seemed to sum up the spirit of the event, in a way. Most of the artists at the three-day festival — which included daytime music at German Masonic Park in Tappan, N.Y., June 24-25 and nighttime shows at small area venues June 23-25— have spent years or, in some cases, decades, far removed from any danger of trending (or whatever the equivalent to that was, in the ’80s and ’90s). Similar in spirit to the Black Potatoe Music Festival— an annual event that is scheduled for July 13-16 at the Red Mill Museum in Clinton, this year— Rockland-Bergen showcases and celebrate independent artists who are in it for the long haul, and spend most of their lives trekking from one small venue to another, and making recordings that only a small group of dedicated fans are going to hear.
Those artists were responsible, though, for a consistently satisfying and sometimes uplifting day of music at Rockland-Bergen (I attended on June 24, only). The near-perfect weather helped. So did a smartly planned schedule that had full bands on the main stage and solo performers and small combos on the smaller one, with enough time between sets that you could get from one stage to the other and not miss anything, but not so much time that there ever was a long stretch without anything to listen to.
Jake Clemons headlined on the main stage. Best known, of course, as his uncle Clarence’s replacement as the saxophonist in the E Street Band, Jake established himself as a skilled and thoughtful singer-songwriter — with influences range from Dylanesque rock to smooth jazz — on his Fear & Love album, released in January. At Rockland-Bergen, he demonstrated his social conscience with a cover of Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)” and a passionate speech about domestic violence before his own “Janine.” And he capped his set with a warm, celebratory version of The Beatles’ “With a Little Help From My Friend,” with guest backing vocals from two of the day’s earlier performers, Joe D’Urso and Jeffrey Gaines. (see video below)
D’Urso, who grew up just minutes from the festival site, is the event’s organizer, as well as one of its performers. He played acoustically early in the day, and with his band Stone Caravan, directly before Clemons on the main stage. The show took place on his birthday, and with the festival running smoothly, it was no surprise that he was in high spirits throughout a set that included Willie Nile’s anthemic “One Guitar,” the classic Elvis Presley hit “Little Sister,” and his own rollicking songs “Just Once” and “Come Down Tonight (Asbury Park).”
Another treat on the main stage was a set by the John Cafferty & the Beaver Brown Brown, who had a burst of fame more than 30 years ago via the soundtrack album for the movie “Eddie and the Cruisers,” and are still a potent live act. At other points in the day on the main stage, Christine Ohlman belted out her songs in a variety of vintage rock and R&B styles, and Finn and the Sharks added some expertly executed rockabilly (and a couple of Chuck Berry covers) to the mix.
Gaines, Grushecky, Steve Forbert and Jesse Terry all presented intimate sets on the small stage, as did Hollis Brown, a roots-rock band that shrunk itself from its usual quintet format to a trio for the occasion.
As the band performed its song “Ride on the Train,” an actual train chugged along on tracks that are near the festival site. “We lost a lot of money on production, having that train roll by, so we hope you enjoyed it,” joked frontman Mike Montali.
A little later in the day, when Grushecky performed his “East Carson Street,” which has a line about “the sound of the railroad cars,” another train came by. Amazing! (Though, I have to admit, trains did make surprise appearances a couple of other times during the day, on songs that had nothing to do with them.)
Here are some videos from the event. (You can see Grushecky’s reaction to the train, and hear audience members laughing, at the 3:24 mark of that video.)