John Sebastian was blessed with perfect weather when he played the Woodstock festival in Bethel, N.Y., in 1969; he played early, and the rain hadn’t started yet. His timing was worse at the Rockland-Bergen Music Festival in Tappan, N.Y., yesterday. While the rain was only light early in the day, by the time he took the stage for his headlining set, around 6:30, it had been coming down heavily for more than three hours, and only a few dozen intrepid souls with umbrellas huddled together near the front of the stage, with a few dozen more scattered further away in tents or in other covered areas.
Typically for this festival, though, which continues today (see schedule below), he gave a solid performance anyway, playing his guitar and harmonica masterfully and telling light, good-natured stories between songs. The festival’s lineup is packed with artists who are veteran road warriors, the type of musicians who can shrug off a downpour and just get down to the business at hand.
Sebastian touched on his hits with the great ’60s rock band The Lovin’ Spoonful via songs like “Do You Believe in Magic” and “Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind,” dipped into the Mississippi John Hurt songbook for “I’m Satisfied” and “Lovin’ Spoonful” itself, and even played his ’70s hit “Welcome Back” (the theme for the sitcom, “Welcome Back, Kotter”), explaining that he was perfectly suited to write it because he was a Sweathog, too. (Watch a video of him performing the Lovin’ Spoonful’s “You Didn’t Have to Be So Nice” at the festival, below.)
Performing immediately before him, Willie Nile responded to the weather conditions by keeping his set unrelentingly loud, fast and punk-y on songs such as “Life on Bleecker Street,” “The Innocent Ones,” “House of 1,000 Guitars” and “One Guitar,” and adding a crowd-pleasing cover of Lou Reed’s “Sweet Jane” to his originals.
Other acts throughout the days ranged from brawny rock bands (including festival organizer Joe D’Urso and his group Stone Caravan, the Gary Douglas Band and the Bob Polding Band) to gentler acoustic acts (including Steve Forbert, Jeffrey Gaines and Aztec Two-Step). James Maddock charmed with his earthy folk-rock, and also had the line of the day: “This is a beautiful day where I come from, in the South of England.”
The emotional high point of the day came during a set by singer-guitarist Joe Grushecky and saxophonist Ed Manion, when Manion called for a moment of silence for the victims of the recent shooting in Charleston, and then played a beautiful solo sax version of “Amazing Grace,” followed by a sax-and-guitar take on “A Change is Gonna Come” with Grushecky.
Guy Davis added some authoritative blues to the mix, as well as a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Lay Lady Lay.” Spook Handy, opening the day on the festival’s Seeger Stage, ended his set with an extended version of his Seeger-like call to action, “Vote.”
While most of the performers offered sets similar to the ones they have been presenting for years, singer-songwriters Ari Hest and Chrissi Poland teamed as Bluebirds of Paradise for some winsome, low-key pop inspired by the sounds of Brazil. It’s an intriguing new direction for them, and was a nice change of pace for this festival. They have just released their first EP, In a Night; visit bluebirdsofparadise.bandcamp.com for information.
It was nice to see a lot of unexpected cameos throughout the day. Among them: Manion played on “The Letter” and “My Streets” with Polding, Grushecky joined Davis for Muddy Waters’ “My Eyes Keep Me in Trouble,” Davis guested with Rick Ilowite on “I Second That Emotion,” and Davis, D’Urso and Gaines helped Nile out on his last song, “One Guitar.” Many of the musicians helped present D’Urso with a cake in celebration of his recent birthday (the festival started last year as a way for D’Urso to celebrate his 50th birthday). The sense of community, among the musicians themselves, was palpable, and that’s not something you can say for all festivals.
For more information on the Rockland-Bergen Music Festival, visit rocklandmusicfestival.com. Here is today’s schedule:
12:30 p.m.: The THE BAND Band
1:50 p.m.: Finn & The Sharks
3:10 p.m.: Joe D’Urso & Stone Caravan
4:30 p.m.: Garland Jeffreys
5:50 p.m.: David Johansen
11 a.m.: Spook Handy
11:45 a.m.: Christine Santelli/KJ Denhert
1:10 p.m.: Jen Chapin
2:30 p.m.: Tom Chapin
3:50 p.m.: John Eddie
5:10 p.m.: Willie Nile (solo piano)
6:40 p.m.: Shawn Colvin
Stefan’s Turning Point Stage
11:45 a.m.: Lisa and Lori Brigantino
12:30 p.m.: George Romano
1:05 p.m.: Kevin Cronin
1:40 p.m.: Annie Minogue
2:15 p.m.: Daisy & Andy Krikun
2:50 p.m.: The Levins
3:25 p.m.: Quinn Richard
4 p.m.: Alice Leon
4:35 p.m.: Sarah & Chuck Chesler
5:20 p.m.: Midnight Toast
6:10 p.m.: Emma Cullen