One of the best things about the annual Black Potatoe Music Festival is its setting: the grounds of the Red Mill Museum in Clinton, with a picturesque limestone quarry rising behind the main stage, and an equally picturesque stretch of the Raritan River behind the second stage. But it’s still the music that provides most of the magic. And if any proof of that were needed, attendees got it Thursday night — night 2 of the five-day event.
Because of a thunderstorm, several performers — including that day’s headliner, Susan Werner — had to play inside the museum itself, away from the glory of nature. And Werner’s set was still my favorite of the three days I attended (Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday).
She’s got a range that’s virtually unmatched on the singer-songwriter circuit — it’s hard to think of another performer who’s so effective in whatever mode she chooses (funny, touching, angry). The set also had some marvelous surprises, like a brassy song from a musical she’s writing (an adaptation of the movie “Bull Durham”), and a dead-on Louis Armstrong imitation (on “Pennies From Heaven,” sung in response to the weather). And the end of her performance turned into a warm jam session, featuring Chrissi Poland (who performed immediately before her, and returned to the festival on Saturday for a set with her Bluebirds of Paradise project), Clinton native Gregg Cagno (who presented a set of his own on Sunday), festival organizer Matt “Angus” Williams (who performed with his Matt Angus Thing on Saturday) and some guy from the audience who volunteered to sing.
Other highlights for me included Flemington-based twin sisters duo Nalani and Sarina on Wednesday (cliché-free pop songs performed with explosive energy) and Cagno’s set on Sunday (wry, subtly catchy songs, warmly sung). Sunday also featured a reunion of artists involved in the Camp Hoboken collective of the ’90s, and one of those artists, violinist Carol Sharar, became’s the day’s Most Valuable Player by assisting others artists, almost non-stop. (She even sat in during the entire set by the day’s headliner, Ellis Paul, who made up a song about her in tribute).
The festival, which will turn 20 next year, is easy to navigate. The two stages are close to each other, and almost as soon the music stops on one stage, it starts on the other one.
It’s also got a low-key, almost familial vibe that’s rare for the state’s music festivals. Most of the performers — both the New Jerseyans and the out-of-staters — had played at the festival before, and make it a point to return as often as possible. (Cagno even wrote the festival into his autobiographical song, “Clinton Times.”) Even the staff is committed: friends who help Williams run the festival return from out of state, every year.
“See you next year,” Paul said after playing the last note of the festival, Sunday night. And there wasn’t much doubt that he meant it. He easily could have skipped the festival, having been booked at an Oklahoma music festival over the weekend, and having slept there Saturday night. By by late Sunday afternoon, he was in Clinton.