Walking down the cobblestone courtyard and then standing underneath the vaulted bridge on historic Holland Street in Jersey City Heights on Aug. 10, I was transported to a magical celebration of music, spoken word, dance and community. The third and final free Vault Allure Experience Festival of the summer, titled “Woodstock Reimagined,” was in full swing, packed with young and old people, off their phones and in the moment. As the sun set, Downright Iridescent — the event’s headliner and house band — played alternative versions of songs from the 1969 Woodstock Festival, commemorating its 50th anniversary.
Co-producers Kern Weissman (of the Riverview Neighborhood Association), musician Walter Parks and Parks’ wife Margo have repurposed the area as a venue off Palisade Avenue and north of Riverview-Fisk Park, with the support of primary sponsor Nokia Bell Labs. If the producers and volunteers of Vault Allure and RNA achieve their mission, Holland Street will remain a public space to connect Jersey City’s diverse community.
“Our goal was to turn an underutilized area into an art festival with unexpected music of different genres and interweaving dance, film, poetry, and technology exhibits,” said Walter Parks in a recent interview. “A enticing aspect (of Holland Street) is the cobblestone street. When musicians come here, they say, ‘This feels like Europe.’ Everyone says the same thing: You are leaving the Tristate Area for just a moment.
“It was unused and had been closed by the county. And because I spent so many years touring in Europe, that street reminded me of streets in Germany, Italy and Spain. I thought this would be a perfect place for a concert underneath the bridge.”
He said he and his wife “came to a crossroads about five years ago. This neighborhood could be more to our liking. Should we leave or hunker down and make it more to our liking? We chose the latter and I think that we made the right choice, and it’s a choice we inspire in other people, whether you live in North Carolina or Jersey City. Make your town what you want it to be because the fact is that the people on the ground need to do that just as much as the people who are well financed.
“We gave concerts in our house. We lived in an old building where they made statues for the Catholic Church on Congress Street in the Heights. And that was going great for about four years … and we had a fantastic turnout. We needed another space, so we partnered up with the Riverview Neighborhood Association, using Holland Street.”
Their partnership started in 2016 and the event was named Vault Allure in 2017 with one concert. In 2018, the organizers hosted three concerts.
On Aug. 10, Downright Iridescent showcased an exceptionally talented collection of artists, led by musical director Walter Parks (Richie Havens, Swamp Cabbage, The Nudes), James Mastro (The Bongos, Mott the Hoople, Ian Hunter’s Rant Band) and Dane Johnson on guitars; Vivian Sessoms (Pink, Joe Cocker) on vocals; Orion Turre on drums; Larry Heinemann (Blue Man Group, Karyn Kuhl Band) on bass; Bryan Beninghove (co-founder and executive director of Riverview Jazz) on keyboards and soprano sax, and Doug Beavers on trombone.
Sitting in a circle and facing each other, the musicians played blistering versions of Woodstock classics, including Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love,” The Who’s “See Me, Feel Me,” Sly & the Family Stone’s “Everyday People,” Mountain’s “Mississippi Queen,” Joan Baez’s “We Shall Overcome,” Jimi Hendrix’s “Foxy Lady” (with Sessoms as lead vocalist), Janis Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart,” Joe Cocker’s “With a Little Help From My Friends,” Canned Heat’s “On the Road Again” and Santana’s “Soul Sacrifice.”
Parks’ connection to Haven, who served as the opening act at the Woodstock Festival, runs deep. Havens told him that Jersey City was “a cool place to live with Victorian houses,” Parks said. “I bought a house around the corner from him and I still live there.” Sadly, Havens died in 2013.
Walter and Margo Parks curated the reinterpreted Woodstock songs by using the song formats as a template, “but structures were stretched and jammed on,” said Mastro, another proud Jersey City resident and owner of the Guitar Bar Drum Den in town. “Tempos were slowed down or picked up. A hip-hop groove was sprinkled in here and there. It was like putting silly putty on a song and then seeing how it could be stretched out over a few decades to be made to look and sound like something else.”
The band’s renditions were evocative and often hypnotic. The crowd responded strongly to “We Shall Overcome” (see video below), a sentiment many of us embrace right now. When the band played an instrumental version of this song with spoken word, many audience members were visibly moved.
Downright Iridescent is “a live soundtrack ensemble in ambient rock style,” said Parks. “The group’s members always situate themselves in the round because the sheet music, which guides each musician, delineates sections of songs only, not inflexible courses of action.”
He explained that musicians rely on his cues to orchestrate transitions on the fly to different sections of a piece. This requires great concentration and not all musicians are up to the task, he said.
He thinks the “encircling public” loves this spontaneous process. “The feeling of being amidst the power of a live band is now shared by the audience — a feeling traditionally only experienced by musicians,” he said.
During some of the songs, performers appeared in the middle of the musicians’ circle, including John Trigonis, who shared spoken word; Shannon Grant and Laurel Mangini, dancers from the Jersey City Ballet who performed en pointe; and Kat Alexander, who shared her high energy juggling and dance.
The stellar Andrea Brachfeld Quartet entertained the crowd as well. The group features Brachfeld (a jazz and Latin flutist and Jersey City resident), pianist Amina Figarova, bassist Lincoln Goines and drummer Robby Ameen.
Parks believes that “we have forgotten, over the years, the inspirational and sensual aspects of traditional forms – classical music, ballet and opera. Vault Allure has discovered that such forms get attention — when they otherwise wouldn’t — when manifested with modern forms like electronic music. Because of the fundraising and administrative efforts of RNA and Kern Weissman, these forms are being made available to the public at no charge.”
Mastro who starts touring again with Mott the Hoople in October, said that “what Walter, Margo, Kern and the rest of the Riverview Neighborhood Association have built with Vault Allure is a giant telescope that is turned back on itself. It’s not looking at other worlds, but helping people focus on one much closer — the community we inhabit. I look at them more as scientists experimenting with mixing different ingredients under that cobblestone archway to see what will explode, what will turn to gold, what new color can be created, what new song can be sung.
“It’s ambitious, creative, and inspiring to be a part of — because even the spectators become part of the performance. Why they do it, I don’t know. Maybe for them it’s like breathing — if they didn’t do it, they feel we would all perish. And they’re right.”
When the sun set, surreal light projections bounced off the walls, lighting up the artists, the stone walls behind them and the vault ceiling under the bridge in psychedelic streams of color. It was spectacular; I experienced them with the same awe that I feel when staring up at fireworks. Combined, the psychedelic music and light projections had a mesmerizing and calming effect.
Janet Juen-Gourley, Joe Waks and Andrew Kihs were the masters of projection, casting a spell on the crowd. In addition to spinning Woodstock Era discs during the beginning of the festival, DJ Preskool also controlled the projected images on the underside of the Vault.
Founded in 1983, the RNA, an all-volunteer non-profit, was organized “primarily to fight against unwanted and irresponsible development threatening the Palisades Cliffs on which the Heights sits,” according to Weissman. A former RNA board member, he now serves as chair of the organization’s event committee and the development and planning committee.
In the 1980s, the RNA advocated for responsible development by “fighting property condemnation en masse” and by fighting “unwanted hi-rise development,” Weissman said. The RNA “put in place the Palisades Protection Overlay District that protects the slope and bottom of the Palisade Cliffs from being developed in Jersey City.”
Committed to building community, the non-profit supports organizing and sponsoring art events. “In 2013, the RNA and other community groups worked to have Jersey City formally recognize the Eastern part of the Heights as the Riverview Arts Districts due to the astounding variety of artists, musicians, performers and craftsmen/women living and owning property in the Heights,” Weissman said. “A core tenet of all RNA events is the belief that the events should be free and accessible to all … free, high quality art events build community pride and connect neighbors in a powerful way.
“Our long-term goal for Holland Street is a full historic restoration of the street, including resetting Belgian blocks, repairs to the wall, historically appropriate lighting, landscaping, murals and access from the Ogden Avenue stairs.
“Vault Allure Festival solidly hit on … the core tenets of our organization’s mission. Going forward, the RNA hopes to facilitate underground dance parties, theater, food fests and other events on Holland Street.”
He added that Vault Allure events could not be realized “without our team of new and repeat volunteers that help us with all the logistics.”
Parks hopes to host additional Vault Allures in other cities. “It is a good service and useful template for other neighborhoods. We are considering doing one in St. Louis and one in Savannah, Ga. I love both of those cities and am strongly connected to them and both have racial and cultural challenges and we’d like to do our part to influence them in a positive way.”
I said to him that he and Margo are visionaries and he replied, “a visionary has no legs without a person like Kern Weissman who can manifest it. Visionaries need manifestors. Kern has the patience and connections to get the wheels turning administratively.”
Reflecting further on Vault Allure, he said: “I love the element of surprise. It’s not driven by any one artist. I want people to be in suspense and have faith that something cool and enjoyable is going to happen. When we go to the beach, there’s no sign that says, ‘You are going to see a sunset and at 6 p.m. you’re going to see a seagull fly’ or that you’re going to see a sea turtle. ‘The wind is going to feel great on your face.’ ‘It’s going to be great even if it’s raining.’
“The event is way beyond my expectations. I just want people to feel inspired to do more with their lives, I want them to feel great in the moment and say, ‘Life is worth living and this is a fantastic neighborhood.’
“And when the Vault is done, I want people to feel like going home and working on a reading or ballet or photography or solve a new math formula, just make the world better. ‘I want to make my mind a better place.’ ”
For more on Vault Allure, visit VaultAllure.com.
The Parks plans to organize a winter Vault Allure fundraiser in a hall in Jersey City. For more information about the upcoming event, to donate or volunteer, contact Margo Parks at firstname.lastname@example.org or Weismann at email@example.com.
Parks has several upcoming dates for his “The Unlawful Assembly” project, including one at Jersey City’s Fox & Crow on Aug. 28. He describes this project as “spirituals reimagined and songs they inspired,” performed by him with Sessoms, Steven Williams and Chris Parks. For information, visit walterparks.com.
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