RED BANKER HOLDS TILLER FOR CLEARWATER

thewagtraveler-097a_1293715884Think global, act local: Middletown-based band The Wag is among the Shore area acts taking the main stage at the 36th annual Clearwater Festival, scheduled for August 20. (Photo courtesy of  Larry Russo)

By TOM CHESEK

“We’re not just putting on a big party each year,” says Ben Forest. “Although of course it is — a party with a purpose.”

Forest, vice president of the Red Bank-based nonprofit NJ Friends of Clearwater — and a man with an irresistibly evergreen, treehug-friendly name — is referring to one of the Shore’s most successful marriages of music and message: the annual Clearwater Festival, the 36th edition of which returns Saturday, August 20.

Red Bankers know Forest as a long-serving member of the borough’s board of ed; as an active voice (with wife Amy Goldsmith) for West Side residents — and as a Mac computer specialist who keeps the often inscrutable machinery of local businesses, schools and media living to fight another day. For nearly a quarter century, he’s been a volunteer and an officer of the local chapter of Clearwater — the organization established in the 1970s as a vehicle for carrying the mission of Pete Seeger’s original enviro-awareness group to the shores of the Raritan Bay and the local Atlantic coast.

Naturally, Forest’s exalted position as Clearwater’s Committee Liaison for Environmental Policy — an office through which he’s been able to bend the ear of governors, members of Congress and the head of the federal Environmental Protection Agency — hasn’t prevented him from pulling down duty as a flipper of burgers, collector of trash and de facto roadie during past presentations of the Clearwater Fest. With this year’s free event fast approaching, the predicament — unlike some of the region’s waterways — couldn’t be more clear: Clearwater needs volunteers.

ben-forestRed Bank’s Ben Forest has spent more than twenty years as a dedicated volunteer and officer of the local Friends of Clearwater. All he has to show for it is this t-shirt AND a formidable track record of raising awareness for causes that impact life here on the Jersey Shore and around the region.

Billed as the Garden State’s largest and longest running environmentally themed festival, the Clearwater event spent many summers at the Fort Hancock area of Sandy Hook before relocating to Asbury Park over a decade ago — and for eight of those years, the fest has made its home within the tree-lined lakeside strip of Sunset Park

It’s there in the shade of a dog-day August 20 that a sonic smorgasbord of regional musical talent will perform on three stages; food vendors from a panorama of green-friendly eateries will offer their wares, strollers will check out a promenade of environment-theme displays, and attendees can clue in to everything from speeches by prominent public figures to silly songs by children’s entertainer Yosi.

According to Forest, volunteer energy is particularly needed with general set-up and breakdown of the event, as well as with clean-up detail, promotion, peacekeeping and other guest services. Volunteers have traditionally been fed at the event, and have been furnished with souvenir t-shirts.

“Our policy is to put on a free event that’s paid for itself in advance,” says Forest of the happening that eliminated admission charges (and scaled back to a single day) two years ago. “We’ve raised enough money for this year — but we’re not in business to go broke putting on festivals, so next year is gonna be a challenge.”

To that end, donations will be welcomed at the scene, during an event that’s characterized not as a fundraiser, but as “open-air music and arts festival celebrating the spirit of people working and singing together for the environment.”

While in-school presentations and monthly meetings are offered throughout the year, this is the flagship moment for the Clearwater-chartered organization founded as Monmouth County Friends of Clearwater — a grass roots, all-volunteer community concern that, as Forest observes, “is now IT for New Jersey, with the disappearance of the old North Jersey and Raritan River chapters.”

Among those working and singing together at the Monmouth County events have been some fairly famous faces and voices — from iconic music legend Levon Helm to Jersey royalty Glen Burtnik, The Smithereens and a particularly anxious-to-play young upstart by the name of Springsteen. To say nothing of the only man the Boss calls boss, festival founder (and sloop skipper) Seeger.

The people-watch ops have also included a range of prominent figures from the political/ public service spectrum — including President Obama’s EPA chief Lisa Jackson (then in her role as the New Jersey DEP director), the Sierra Club‘s Jeff Tittel, Clean Ocean Action‘s Cindy Zipf and members of the state’s congressional delegation, most faithfully Congressman Frank Pallone, Jr.

Guest speakers will be delivering brief presentations on the dedicated theme of the 2011 festival, Climate Change: Rising Seas Closing In — and for the fourth year, an open-air NJ Environmental Justice Panel of “urban and workplace leaders” will convene at 2pm to discuss “environmental issues disproportionately affecting the young and poor people of NJ.”

Although Governor Chris Christie is not expected to be in attendance, Forest has, despite misgivings about several of the gov’s policies and appointments, characterized him as “more accessible on certain green issues than other people — we’ve been able to meet and talk with him on things, although I would have hoped he’d be friendlier on others.”

“Christie’s been painted as being bad on all environmental issues, and that’s simply not true,” says the professed “pro-business liberal” Forest. “He’s really the first governor to do anything about Barnegat Bay — and he’s kept to his campaign stance regarding offshore natural gas.”

Acknowledging that “people don’t come to these things to sit through a series of speeches,” Forest and Friends of Clearwater president (plus fellow Red Bank resident) Joellen Lundy have kept the spotlight on the tunes — with mainstage perfomers including blues guitar champion Matt O’Ree, young keyboard wizard Matt Wade, bluesy chantoozie Jo Wymer, and Middletown’s own The Wag— a powerpop band that lives for the season of outdoor festivals, fundraisers and concerts in the park.

An Acoustic Stage includes sets from Spook Handy, Mary McCrink, Virago and more — while the Circle of Song Stage features more than a dozen local singers and musicians. In addition, a Children’s Area offers activities and live performance by Yosi and others.

“The music gets people to come here, and hopefully the message catches their attention as well,” says Forest. “This really is the best place to be on a warm August day.”

You can volunteer online for any number of tasks at the 2011 Clearwater Festival here — and a full schedule of featured performers and events can be viewed right here. The festival takes place between 11am and 7pm at Sunset Park in Asbury Park (primary entrance is at Main Street and Sunset Avenue).

A longer version of this story appears on Tom Chesek’s blog, Upper WET Side.