The alternative/ Americana musical marriage known as The Mastersons inaugurates a new summer slate of free Songwriters in the Park concerts, Friday night at Riverside Gardens.  

The dog-day nights of July and August are that time of year when the waterfront walkways and terraces of Riverside Gardens take center stage in local life — with this Thursday seeing the return of the long-running Jazz in the Park concerts, and the weeks to come offering a packed schedule of free family-friendly movies, free evening Zumba sessions, even a free Comedy in the Park event on August 1.

All welcome diversions for a midsummer’s night, to be sure. But tonight, Friday the 13th, marks the long-awaited return of a series that you’ll find nowhere else but Red Bank — Songwriters in the Park, a slate of top-shelf artist showcases presented for a seventh season by Brookdale Community College listener-supported radio station 90.5 The Night.

While there have always been such things as songwriters busking for beer money in city parks, this songwriters series is an altogether different animal than most beach-towel-and-lawnchair community events —  a format that pairs a genuinely buzzworthy, national-profile act with likeminded local/regional artists. Previous outings have spotlighted such well-known performers as Dramarama, Steve Forbert, Jeffrey Gaines, John Wesley Harding, Bongos frontman Richard Barone and the Smithereens’ Pat DiNizio.

In other words, this is a free concert series that music snobs can really sink their teeth into. And when all the stars in the Sirius sky align — superior sound, great sight lines from anywhere in the park, a gentle breeze off the river and those complimentary Navesink sunsets — it’s as listener-friendly an experience as any you’ll encounter up and down the Jersey Shore. Even the sounds of a busy downtown Friday night (including the occasional ambulance) add to the unique character of the concerts, making for a welcome alternative to the chirp of suburban crickets.

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thespringstandardsThe Songwriters in the Park series brings the Spring Standards, above, and former Bongos member Richard Barone, below, to Red Bank. (Click to enlarge)

richardbaroneIt’s been the backdrop for more wedding party photos than any local scenery this side of the “hobbit” pergola at Deep Cut Gardens, the setting for school commencements, and the preferred parking place for the borough’s distinctive holiday ice boat. A place for kids to congregate on weekend nights, and a place for candlelit vigils and makeshift memorials in the days following 9/11.

Ever since Riverside Gardens took shape on the former site of the long-gone apartment house of the same name, a generation of Red Bankers has wondered how they ever got along without the West Front Street park along the Navesink. No more so than in the weeks after the end of the school year, when the waterfront walkways host a beach-blanket brigade of neighbors in search of some music and movies, under the setting sun and stars. It all comes to you courtesy of the hardworking folks at the borough’s Department of Parks and Recreation, working in concert with sponsors and co-organizers public and private.

It’s that warm and breeze-kissed time of year when the municipal government — the people who normally incur your wrath over not filling in potholes fast enough — gets to fill your evenings with music and all-around good vibes.

Beginning this week, Riverside Gardens will see the return of three proven and popular attractions — Movies in the Park, Jazz in the Park and Songwriters in the Park — all presented free of charge (with complimentary river sunsets) throughout July and much of August. It’s a slate of entertainments that was preceded by an appetizer in the form of June’s LunchMusic series — and the menu continues, right after the break.

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