IT’S WHAT’S UP, DOWN BY THE RIVERSIDE

Img_5055A cocktail sunset frames a 2007 concert in the park…

By TOM CHESEK

Of all the things that make Red Bank Right Now different from Red Bank Back Then, few of them are as in-your-face as Riverside Gardens.

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Twenty years ago, the Front Street parcel across the way from English Plaza was the site of the massive Riverside Gardens Apartments, a once-stately spread that rather spectacularly burned down in 1988. The property spent the better part of a decade as a crabgrass-choked vacant lot — fit for little more than the odd frisbee-catch with the dog — before work commenced on the terraced waterfront walkways that have come to define what we know as Riverside Gardens Park.

Now, of course, we don’t know how we ever got along without it. To the wedding parties who line up along its railings, it’s the finest photo-op this side of the “hobbit” pergola at Deep Cut Gardens. To the schools and organizations who present their classes and ceremonies against the backdrop of a Navesink sunset, it’s one big beautiful community room. To the kids who throng there on weekend nights, it’s a self-contained environment without the occupancy notice and the six-dollar beverage. And to the thousands of neighbors who gravitated there for candlelit vigils and makeshift memorials in the daze following 9/11, it was a genuine town square and emotional locus for a hard-hit suburb in search of its heart.

For the past few years, summertime at Riverside Gardens has meant a menu of diversions that’s fairly packed with music, movies and munchables, with the fireworks of Kaboomsday sounding a cacophonous keynote to a season that lasts well into the Sirius moonlight of late August.

Beginning Tuesday, the borough’s Parks & Rec department — working in cahoots with private sponsors and entities like Brookdale Community College — offers up a slate of outdoor evening entertainments that balance the relaxed vibe of the waterfront setting with the charged pace of the surrounding downtown. All admissions, in the words of Frank Zappa, are absolutely FREE, with the park’s on-premises concession stand slated to be open for all scheduled events.

Img_5007…while a dancer frames his partner in front of the stage.

MOVIE NIGHTS (Tuesdays at 8:45p from 7/8) — The films are of recent vintage, the seating is beach-blanket bingo and the fare is largely family-friendly, in a PG kind of way. The offerings include cute CGI animations (Shrek the Third on July 8; Surf’s Up on July 22), films that mix live action with CGI animation (The Water Horse on July 29; Transformers on August 5; Spider Man 3 on August 12), and films that mix live actors with the possibly computer-generated Will Ferrell (Blades of Glory, July 15). There are rain dates set aside for the evenings of August 19 and 26, and all in all it’s a good opportunity to catch up with something you may have missed on the multiplex screen — as well as an extended-family gathering alternative to the epic loneliness of the home-theater viewer.

COMCAST JAZZ IN THE PARK CONCERT SERIES (Thursdays at 7p from 7/10) — The grandaddy of all Riverside Gardens events returns once more with a slate of seven concerts between July 10 and August 21 (with a rain-date fail-safe on August 28). The Big Easy-bred sounds of the 16-piece Soul Project (with the Red Bank Middle School band as the opening act, July 10) are followed by the big-on-big Tom Timko and the Horn Dogs on July 17. Things are scaled down to a more intimate-combo format with a double feature of saxman/author Don Carter and intriguing jazz flutist Keith Marks (July 24), as well as one pairing acclaimed guitarist B.D. Lenz with erudite drummer Karl Latham and his funk/bop quartet (July 31). Those ever-popular zydeco cats The VooDudes return for a Mardi Gras Nite on August 7, with slick saxophonist Bradford Hayes billed alongside Poncho D on August 14, and the Shore’s homegrown “Bib Band” The Jazz Lobsters wrapping up the tail end on August 21.

90.5 THE NIGHT PRESENTS SONGWRITERS IN THE PARK (Fridays at 7p from 7/11) — Sponsored by Brookdale’s listener-supported radio station in partnership with Comcast, this returning series brings some fairly high-profile talent to the banks of the Navesink for a relatively laid-back, acoustic-oriented slate of double bills. On July 11, singer, songwriter and up-and-coming actor Val Emmich showcases material from his forthcoming release Little Daggers on a program that further features Jersey City band The Milwaukees. July 18 spotlights some nationally known visitors from the South, Tennesseean Griffin House and the Sons of William from Louisiana. Astrid Williamson appears with The Mill Stone on July 25, while former Catherine Wheel frontman Rob Dickinson shares the bill with alterna-popsters Agency on August 1. The young sensation Tom Hamilton brings his Brooklyn-based American Babies to Red Bank on August 8, with Jersey’s own Keith Monacchio on hand as well. Austin’s Nelo go east-by-northeast on August 15, with Outside the Box bringing the Shore-bred cred. The series wraps on August 22 with a pair of Monmouth County’s musical ambassadors, Pat Guadagno and Bobby Strange (there’s also a rain date spillover of August 29 set aside).

RB EXPRESS (Wednesdays in August at 7p) — Although ‘New Jersey’s Premier 40s, 50s, and 60s Singing Group’ refers to its stylistic span and not their ages (just FYI, they also do some material from the 70s), the members of this Shore-based unit display the affinity for these past pop formats that could only come from guys who lived it/ loved it. For the third consecutive year, the precision quintet takes it down by the Riverside for a four-week summertime serenade.

The only thing you won’t be seeing this year? The formerly annual Shakespeare in the Park production, which has retreated back to the great lawn at Brookdale’s Lincroft campus after a few seasons in which the Bard’s pentameter was disturbed by acts of god (Tempest-style typhoons) and man (some guy riding a bike through the middle of the set). Look for director John Bukovec’s sun-and-stars staging of Romeo and Juliet right here.

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