Union County Music Fest @ Oak Ridge Park

CLARK, NJ—Music festival suggestion: Make it free, and they will come.

Suburban New Jersey isn’t known for outdoor festivals, you won’t find Burning Anything here, but for Clark, host the Union County Music Fest at Oak Ridge Park, it seemed every music fan in New Jersey showed up to squeeze one more summer weekend out of September.

The line-up, price and weather combined to make for an enormous turnout. Sunday the rain kept attendance down, but again, the bands were strong enough to attract a respectable crowd.

And you couldn’t ask for better line-ups, both days offered acts with something for everyone. Saturday offered: Train, OK Go, the Bravery, Jesse Malin, Soul Asylum, Mike Peters of The Alarm, Willie Nile. While Sunday featured Spoon, Robert Randolph and the Family Band, The Zombies, Suzanne Vega, Nils Lofgren’s Acoustic Duo, Nicole Atkins and the Sea. There was a third and fourth stages with too many acts to list, and a full-blown carnival, food booths, and those lovely portable toilets. Think Lollapalooza with a Gravitron.

Kudos to the UCMF planners who really had logistics of the event nailed down. Two main stages kept set times to a maximum and waiting to a minimum.

It was a nice surprise seeing Whirling Dervish and Everlounge frontman Don Dazzo as the emcee for the UCMF.

One of Saturday’s highlights was one of the first acts, Willie Nile who plays with the energy that leaves heads shaking. Closing his set with “House of a Thousand Guitars” before inviting the next act, Mike Peters of The Alarm, onstage.

Mike brought Willie up onstage for his set, along with a slew of guests including Slim Jim Phantom of The Stray Cats, who covered “Rock this Town” as well as a few of The Alarm’s greatest.

Jesse Malin is becoming a favorite performer. His no bullshit attitude is real, and infectious. The Bravery showed they are much more than just the band that did “An Honest Mistake” in 2005.

OK Go [The Treadmill video band] put on what was arguably the most unique set, sans exercise equipment. Confetti cannons at sunset, and a song on bells, yes those hand bells you only see around Christmas Carol time. Superb.

Train had expectations high, the quadruple-platinum “Hey, Soul Sister,” will do that. They owned the stage from the first note. Singer Pat Monahan seemed to be channeling to energy of Freddie Mercury, walking the length of the stage again and again gesturing outwards towards the ocean of people now assembled, and still growing.

Another day of this? Why not.

Nicole Atkins and her fans braved the elements for a set of familiar material and a bunch of new songs from her upcoming album. If the new music is any indication, the new album could rival the already classic “Neptune City.”

Steady rain for E-Streeter Nils Lofgren, who responded with a stunning set of acoustic guitar, piano, and tap dancing. Yes, Nils had taps on, and was soon up on an amplified board to dance and play and leave the crowd thinking ‘Is there anything this guy can’t do?’

Sunday’s rain didn’t matter for fans of The Zombies, who were showing up well before stage time. You could feel the buzz. Retaining founding singer Colin Blunstone and Rod Argent on keys, they nailed studio-like versions of “She’s Not There,” “God Gave Rock and Roll to You” and “Time of the Season” that had everyone from age 15 to 65 singing along.

Robert Randolph and Family Band were a machine on stage with Robert himself pumping out riff after riff on the pedal steel. A New Jersey native, he mugged for the cameras and crowd with each song. This was a solid wall of sound, no minimalist approach here.

Fans were packing in again for Spoon and were treated to a great set. Sparse lighting accompanied the simple song structures, in contrast with the bombast of Randolph, but a wonderful sound and vibe from this band.

That’s what makes the beauty of these festivals, seeing and liking bands you didn’t expect, and being pleasantly surprised [or blown away] by bands you might not have known existed before. To the Union County Music Fest planners and performers, this was a blast. Keep it going.