The Red Bank Jazz & Blues Festival might be forgiven for having one monster case of the blues. In recent years, it’s been battered financially and encountered its fair share of literally stormy weather.
Yet the people who pull it together soldier on, this year presenting what corporate types might call a “rightsized” 21st annual edition of a free event that manages to draw music, food and crafts lovers by the tens of thousands, when the weather cooperates.
And almost as if reaching for a good-luck charm, the festival kicks off tonight amid forecasts of iffy weather with local favorite Billy Hector. The firey blues guitarist reprises a headlining role of a few years back that drew the biggest opening-night crowd in the event’s history.
Following weather-related setbacks last year that left the sponsor Jersey Shore Jazz & Blues Foundation with a sizable fiscal hole, organizers have taken a knife to the program.
“We looked at the whole thing and said, where can we cut back?” says event co-chairman Dennis Eschbach. Answer: stages, which eat up a tremendous cost with equipment leasing and stagehand wages. For the festival’s first 15 or so years, there was just one stage, but by last year, that number had risen to three.
That meant reducing the number of acts, which is down to about 25 this year, from about 37 last year.
The bigger shows were “great for the people, but the costs were just tremendous,” says Eschbach. “It was like, we’ve got to do this.”
The alternative was to bring in more food and crafts vendors and sponsors, but that’s a non-starter in a setting as tight as Marine Park, says Eschbach. “We’re kind of limited as to what we can fit into the park,” he says. “If it was a large open field in Colts Neck or at Brookdale, it could be a different story.”
This being an outdoor event, the festival is subject to the vagaries of weather. Back in the day when it was known as Riverfest, the event enjoyed several consecutive years of great weather. But three or four years back it rained so hard that a one full day was washed out, and last year, the event barely squeezed its entire schedule in between alternating drizzles and deluges.
Eschbach says the festival managers take what comes.
“It used to be that, 15 days out, I’d be looking at the weather forecasts,” he says. “Now it’s like, what are you gonna do? I’m not even going to worry about it. It is what it is.”
Talk about finances and Mother Nature aside, Eschbach says he remains positive about the festival’s prospects. Why? “Because the town likes it,” he says. “It’s free, there’s no liquor, and it’s a family event” complete with educational sessions and performances by students from the JSB&F Youth Project.
Moreover, the demand is clearly there, as proven when the sun shines and the crowds swarm, bringing as many as 50,000 people per day to Marine Park. Some fans come for the headliners, who this year include blues guitarist and vocalist
Big Bill Morganfield, son of the late McKinley Morganfield, better known as Muddy Waters, and jazz keyboardist Joey DeFrancesco.
Others though, a drawn by more familiar local names. Immediately preceding Hector to the stage tonight is Red Bank resident Chuck Lambert and his band, playing an hour set scheduled to start at 7:10p.
And then there are those who show up without a clue as to who the musicians are, and simply want to revel in blues, jazz and a gorgeous, pre-mosquito summer night on the banks of the Navesink River.
As of 11a today, though, the National Weather Service was offering no guarantees of clear skies. Here’s the forecast:
Today: A chance of showers and thunderstorms after 1pm. Some of the storms could produce heavy rain. Partly cloudy, with a high near 84. Southwest wind between 6 and 14 mph. Chance of precipitation is 40%.
Tonight: A chance of showers and thunderstorms before midnight, then a slight chance of showers. Some of the storms could produce heavy rain. Partly cloudy, with a low around 66. West wind between 6 and 14 mph. Chance of precipitation is 40%. New rainfall amounts between a tenth and quarter of an inch, except higher amounts possible in thunderstorms.
Saturday: A slight chance of showers, then a chance of showers and thunderstorms after noon. Partly cloudy, with a high near 84. Southwest wind between 6 and 13 mph. Chance of precipitation is 40%. New rainfall amounts of less than a tenth of an inch, except higher amounts possible in thunderstorms.
Saturday Night: A chance of showers and thunderstorms. Partly cloudy, with a low around 66. Southwest wind between 7 and 13 mph. Chance of precipitation is 40%. New rainfall amounts between a tenth and quarter of an inch, except higher amounts possible in thunderstorms.
Sunday: A chance of showers and thunderstorms. Mostly cloudy, with a high near 78. South wind between 7 and 13 mph. Chance of precipitation is 40%. New rainfall amounts between a tenth and quarter of an inch, except higher amounts possible in thunderstorms.