Knowlton River Fest @ Hunter’s Lodge Field

Knowlton River Fest (Cathy Miller)KNOWLTON, NJ—After a one-year hiatus, Riverfest returned with a pleasant vengeance, featuring a staggering array of musicians, artisans and food.

Gates opened Friday at 5 p.m. with a queue already formed. Kicking off Riverfest, under the traditional big white tent, local favorites Streetlights played a set of originals with a discernible Oasis/Coldplay/’80s feel.

Making his premier US appearance, Ian Parker was mesmerizing. Parker is a blues/roots guitarist who journeyed from the UK just for Riverfest. Long-time friend and keyboardist Morg Morgan accompanied Ian onstage. Several other musicians joined the band specifically for this show, belting out Parker’s originals one after another. Luckily, for those who missed their performance on Friday, they played another outstanding set on Saturday.

Thunderous applause exploded as Gandalf Murphy And The Slambovian Circus Of Dreams walked onstage. The name is long but extremely fitting once you’ve experienced their show. Joziah, Tink, Tony, Sharky, and Chen comprise the Circus, touring almost nonstop from coast to coast. They combine personal tales of growing up in South Philadelphia, where the Mummers strut their stuff on New Year’s Day, with psychedelic dreams of talking to Buddha and making the world a better place. Tink integrates instruments rarely seen onstage in rock, such as cello, flute, accordion and pheromone. Sharky is the most talented guitarist I’ve ever seen. I can’t say enough about this band of gypsies. If you’re not yet a member of the church of Slambovia, you will be soon!

Sonny Landreth had a tough act to follow but who better to close the first night of the finest music assembled in one place? Sonny is the constant gentleman and never disappoints his audience. A blues guitarist with Zydeco roots, he hails from Breaux Bridge, LA. Recognized for his unique style of slide-playing and unconventional sound, Landreth performed all his well-known favorites with his top-notch band.

Saturday’s entertainment was off and running at 1 p.m. Record-breaking crowds enjoyed the stellar lineup starting with Wry Toast. High-energy locals comprise this sextet that plays whatever the audience is in the mood to hear. Rock, country, rockabilly and western swing are all in their repertoire. Line dancers quickly filled their dance floor.

Cara are an interesting group: fun-loving Germans playing classic Celtic music. Their accents were charming and their music was timeless. Sweet harmonies blended with guitars, fiddles and light drums made for a beautiful set.

KJ Denhert is self-described as “Urban Folk and Jazz rooted in Funk and R&B.” What a voice and what a performer! Passionate and charismatic, you not only hear her performance, you feel it in your soul.

A baby grand piano was moved into position for Eldar. Amazing is the best word to describe this jazz trio’s performance. Coming to the US from Russia at 11 years old, a decade later Eldar makes his career banging out jazz on a baby grand and a full-sized electric keyboard. His hands are a blur, impossible to follow. Original compositions and familiar jazz pieces brought the audience to their feet for a standing ovation.

Afterwards, country music filled the air with the mother/daughters trio Lucy Angel. Fans enjoyed their feisty, fun- loving set, which was jam-packed with energy; but not my cup of tea.

It was Baka Beyond’s turn in the spotlight. Composed of musicians from six countries in the Celtic fringes of Europe and the west coast of Africa, their acclaimed past performances at Riverfest attracted a huge crowd. Unique world fusion combined with dance brought down the house.

Another Riverfest alumnus, Yerba Buena quickly kicked it up several notches. Mostly Cuban-born, they bring their heritage to the show with sexy dance moves and lyrics, combined with bump and grind rhythms. Midnight struck too quickly as day two came to a close.

While the main stage was rocking, the HRMC Acoustic Tent featured excellent performers in between: Mef & Angela, Jessica Koppinger, Peter Beiderman, Josh English, Kathy Phillips, Ray Winch, and Jody Price.

Grey skies and drizzling rain didn’t keep music lovers from enjoying Sunday’s fabulous lineup. At noon Eilen Jewell graced the stage for a half hour of predominantly country mixed with blues, jazz and folk. Breaking for a non-denominational service, a Riverfest tradition, Eilen and her band played three traditional hymns. She stayed for a second, more upbeat, set, which featured her smooth, jazzy vocals, roots-style arrangements and old-timey ambience. Line dancers and cloggers had a blast kicking up their heels.

Old time bluegrass with a hint of newgrass kept the dancers hopping with Nashville greats The Infamous Stringdusters. Schooled in tradition, with a repertoire of fine originals, these musicians took flight with many surprising loops and unexpected turns.

Long and lean Robbie Fulks literally ran up next. He’s a ball of fire onstage and off. Quirky, intelligent, sometimes warped lyrics kept listeners glued to his every word. From country to honkytonk to rockabilly, Robbie and his gifted band of merry musicmakers revved up the afternoon with their high-octane entertainment. They even parodied the sultry vocals of The Duprees. At one point Robbie leaped offstage to join the dance floor gang after pouring cold water down his pants to get their attention. What a performance!

Normally as Sunday afternoon wanes, the crowd dwindles. Not this year. More spectators filed in. This was a different demographic than Friday and Saturday: middle-aged women, well-dressed and ready to dance and swoon. What gives? The classic Duprees.

The ’60s harmonizers added a classy touch. Sporting double-breasted tan suits and slicked back hair, they wowed everyone. Fans called out their favorite Duprees songs and the group sang them all.

One of the most striking aspects of Riverfest is how the audience enthusiastically embraces unfamiliar musicians, giving a warm reception to every act. Kudos to the organizers for creating an atmosphere conducive to new and exciting music. Taking one year off could have been the death of Riverfest; instead it was a welcome rebirth.

Photo Credit: Cathy Miller