MAPLEWOOD, NJ — Maplewoodstock, Maplewood’s annual free music festival, will return to Memorial Park for its 13th year July 9 and 10, once again bringing together renowned cult-favorite performers and undiscovered local talent for the community to enjoy.
This year’s event will be headlined by NRBQ and Railroad Earth, two bands that have developed fiercely loyal followings through the years, both for their refusal to be musically categorized and their exciting, never-know-what-to-expect live shows. Additionally, Maplewoodstock 2016 will feature an eclectic mix of performers ranging from rock bands to a Cajun group to a cappella singers. The festival is even hosting a big band act for the first time.
Maplewoodstock committee member Jim Robertson guaranteed that all event attendees will have an enjoyable experience, regardless of their musical tastes, because the festival gives residents the chance to bond while having fun, something he said is always welcome in close-knit Maplewood. In fact, he said that is exactly what Maplewoodstock is all about.
“It’s about the opportunity for people to come together and relax and listen to music and see their neighbors and friends and have a great time,” Robertson told the News-Record in a June 30 phone interview. “It’s really about the community. And we do it year after year to keep that spirit up.”
Festival-goers do not even need to attend the concerts to enjoy themselves. Once again Maplewoodstock will feature dozens of food and art vendors, many of whom are local. That is a positive, Robertson said, because patrons can discover restaurants or artists that they can continue to patronize long after the event is over. Residents and outsiders alike may also discover new places in the village to frequent afterward.
Because Maplewood is such a family-friendly community, Robertson said the committee is looking to cater to all ages. Therefore Maplewoodstock 2016 will include the return of the KidZone, where children can take part in such attractions as bouncy slides and face-painting.
Of course, music is the festival highlight, which is why the committee takes particular care in curating its schedule. After selecting the local acts through an application process, Robertson said it then figures out which nationally-known talent can be invited to perform. Cost and availability are always factors, he said, but the committee makes sure to pick only the best bands it knows the arts-loving Maplewood residents will like.
So Robertson said the committee was “very excited” to score NRBQ and Railroad Earth.
“They’re going to be able to put on a great show at the end of a long day for our huge audience,” Robertson said. “They’re high energy. They’re fun. They’re entertaining. They fit in with an outdoor festival. And they’re both great acts that have been around for a while, honing their craft.”
NRBQ, which stands for New Rhythm and Blues Quartet, has certainly been in the music business for a long while. Since forming in 1966, the band has released 21 studio albums, served as the unofficial house band for “The Simpsons” and even once hired professional wrestler “Captain” Lou Albano as its manager. But what NRBQ is best known for is its live performances, which all operate without a set list.
Guitarist Scott Ligon said this method of performing is challenging since the whole band has to be ready to play any of the group’s hundreds of songs at all times. But Ligon said he actually prefers the spontaneity because it allows for a more authentic concert, with pianist and NRBQ founder Terry Adams calling songs on the fly based on the show’s atmosphere. Plus, Ligon said it never gets boring.
“If I had to play the same set every night, I would go crazy,” Ligon told the News-Record in a July 2 phone interview. “It keeps us involved. It keeps us in the moment. And that’s the way we like to play. It’s fun to go onstage and not even know what the first song is going to be.”
Getting to play any song as part of NRBQ is a “dream come true” for Ligon, who said the group was his favorite band long before he was ever a member. The guitarist said it is an honor to be a close friend of Adams, who he said has taught him just as much about life as about music. And while he does feel some pressure to live up to the NRBQ legacy, he said being able to perform some of his favorite songs of all time is simply amazing.
Ligon encouraged residents to check out those songs for themselves when the band performs at Maplewoodstock on July 10, explaining that NRBQ’s music cannot be described.
“You just have to see us play, and then you’ll understand what it’s about,” Ligon said, adding that the music has cultivated a devoted fan base. “Once they get a taste of this particular brand of joyful music, they have to have it as often as possible. There are many, many people who have seen well over 100 NRBQ shows. I saw the band I think 25 times before I was fortunate enough to find myself in it.”
Railroad Earth also has developed a dedicated following thanks in large part to its live shows. The bluegrass-inspired acoustic band has a reputation for improvising in the middle of its songs, which drummer Carey Harmon described as both challenging and interesting. Harmon said it is challenging because the group always has to make sure it does not veer too far away from the original arrangement. But it is interesting because no show is ever the same, he said, either for the audience or the musicians themselves.
“There’s a certain part of yourself you can only explore when you’re out on a limb, and it changes the way you approach things,” Harmon told the News-Record in a July 3 phone interview. “You can’t go on autopilot with this band. You have to always be ready for changes. And that’s exciting.”
Harmon is also excited about performing in New Jersey, his home state. Though Railroad Earth is actually based here, he said it has not had many opportunities to perform locally. Thus, the drummer said he is looking forward to seeing how playing for his fellow New Jerseyans feels when the band plays at Maplewoodstock on July 9.
Additionally, Harmon said he is eager to share the music of Railroad Earth with people who may never have heard the group before. The band has maintained nearly its entire original lineup for more than a decade, and he said the relationships between members have only become stronger during that time. As a result, he said Railroad Earth as a unit is constantly evolving.
“The shows are getting better, which is great,” Harmon said. “I think we’re still scratching the surface of what this is together and digging a little bit deeper into what’s there. So it’s a different band than what it was a few years ago, and it keeps happening. And it’s very rewarding.”
Robertson believes residents will find Maplewoodstock 2016 rewarding, as in previous years. The committee member said he gets excellent feedback from attendees who regularly support the event. And he thinks this year’s occasion will satisfy festival veterans and newcomers alike.
“The bands will be great, the food will be delicious, the kids will have fun, there’ll be interesting art to buy, they will see their friends and neighbors and they will have a great time,” Robertson said.
For more information on Maplewoodstock, including the schedule and a new policy against leaving tents and canopies in the park overnight, visit http://maplewoodstock.com/.
Photos Courtesy of Perry Serpa and Tib Miller