‘Tis the season – of urban street fairs, that is! While the months from May through September are chock full of fantastic outdoor extravaganzas, the Hoboken Arts & Music Festivals that bookend the summer season are among the area’s most impressive. For the past 17 years, Geri Fallo, head of the City of Hoboken’s Division of Cultural Affairs, has worked as a tireless advocate for the local arts and music scene, and the Arts & Music Festivals are culminations of year-round planning and praying as well as an energy which can be truly magical.
Behind the Festival
“It started in September of 1994, and was the idea of former Mayor David Roberts, who was then Councilman Roberts,” explains Fallo. “I had recently been hired to run the cultural affairs office for the city, and he asked me to create an arts festival on Washington Street. He wanted Hoboken to feel more like New Hope or Lambertville. We saw it as a way to help showcase local artists and musicians as well as the merchants on Washington Street.”
Both the spring and fall festivals feature a recognizable national headliner. Says Fallo, “The festival helps highlight local talent while the big names bring in the crowds, which benefits everybody – bands, businesses, and artists!”
Headliners that have graced the stage at the Hoboken Arts & Music Festival have included everyone from 60’s pop icons like Mickey Dolenz of the Monkees, Flo & Eddie of the Turtles, The Box Tops (featuring the late Alex Chilton), to more contemporary acts like Fountains of Wayne and The Smithereens or edgier acts like Joan Jett and The New York Dolls. Ian Hunter (former lead singer of the seventies English band Mott the Hoople) rocked the Spring 2011 event.
But it’s not just headliners that have a chance to shine. Over the years, local performers like The Bongos, Skanatra, The Fave, Demolition String Band, the Amazing Incredibles, and Gene d’ Plumber as well as kid favorites like the Fuzzy Lemons and Polka Dot have all gotten in on the act.
Lining the streets in between three stages along Washington Street are countless kiosks, set up by a myriad of artists, crafters, businesses and organizations from far and near. And of course, there’s the food – pulled pork, crab cake or garlic steak sandwiches, take your pick. Follow it up with some hot Italian sausage with peppers and onions, corn on the cob, veggie samosas, crepes, or just a good, old-fashioned hot dog and lemonade!
Here Comes the Sun
For many, the spring event is a sure sign that the rains of April have passed and that better weather is upon us. The day has often been blessed with what Fallo describes as a unique form of Festival Magic. Even so, Fallo keeps a weather eye to the sky. “Certainly the thing I worry about the most is the weather,” she admits.
Peter Noone (“Herman” of 60’s rockers Herman’s Hermits) arrived one soggy day, Fallo notes, but took it all in stride. Noting that it rains like this every day in England, Noone, like everyone in the audience, simply opened his own umbrella and went on to perform.
Another dreary day, Fallo greeted singer Richie Havens with what she knew might seem a clichéd request – to start off with “Here Comes the Sun.” Havens readily complied, Fallo says, and sure enough, as soon as Havens started singling, the sun indeed came out. Festival Magic in action again!
Originally the festival had a rain date, but the May 2004 event contributed to a change in that policy. Forecasts called for pouring rain, so the decision was made to switch to the rain date. Only headliner Donovan was already on a plane, so the concert was moved to Stevens Institute’s De Baun Auditorium. Then, ironically, that Sunday turned out to be the most amazingly beautiful day. “I felt so bad,” says Fallo, “but we had a great show at De Baun!”
Nowadays, the event goes on rain or shine!
Headliners & Legends
Booking those headliners has invoked a bit of Festival Magic as well.
Patti Smith’s first show might never have occurred were it not for a heart-felt letter written by Fallo, who explains that Smith later told her that it was that letter that made Smith decide to do the Hoboken event. And Smith was so pleased that she has since returned two more times!
Just over a month before the fall 2009 event, Fallo was still without a headliner. Earlier negotiations to get legendary rocker Leon Russell had fallen through, but then suddenly his agent called; Russell would be in the area and needed another gig, so it all worked out!
“Sometimes the right musician is in the right place at the right time,” says Fallo.
The Local Angle
James Mastro, owner of Guitar Bar and now Guitar Bar, Jr., has played at many of the festivals with bands such as The Health and Happiness Show, The Bongos, and Amy Speace and the Tear Jerks.
“The great thing about it is that Geri gets great headliners but is also a huge supporter of local musicians who get to play in front of thousands and get the chance to share the bill with someone who may have been their idol!”
And Mastro got just that chance in 2004 when he and his band played backup for Donovan at the legendary show which was moved to De Baun. “The thing that was exciting about [the Donovan show] was not only that I got to play with one of my idols, but just the whole way it went down. It was just a whirlwind of a day,” — the band met him that morning, rehearsed with him that morning, and then it was straight to De Baun for the show.
As a local business owner, he notes that the day of the festival itself isn’t great from a sales perspective, but from an exposure perspective, out of towners who visited that day do come back. “It helps us get the word out to people who might not normally come to Hoboken.”
From Skanatra to Sinatra
Whether playing as a member of the Gefkens or fronting Skanatra, Fran Azzarto – now a music teacher in the Hoboken public school system –has been a festival regular since its early days.
Azzarto notes that initially the festival was a more grass-roots affair but grew quickly. Still, he says, “Even now with the headliners, there’s still always a lot of local acts and local flavor keeping it true to its roots.”
Looking back over the years, Azzarto still points to Patti Smith’s first show, at which he played with both the Gefkens and Skanatra, as a real highlight. “It was a busy day, but it was a lot of fun. It was a beautiful day and we had this giant stage – that was a really good one!” And in 2003, Skanatra played support to Nancy Sinatra.
“It’s a big deal to play it – club owners and booking agents in the NYC area pay attention to it,” he says, noting that after playing the festival he got a call to play Irving Plaza in Manhattan.
But for the flavors of the day, what’s his choice? Says Azzarto, “The mozzarepa – it’s the only place I’ve ever seen it! And the band always had to have the fried oreos!”
Artist Anna Yglesias-Liberatore uses lots of vibrant colors and paints on one-of-a-kind found objects – everything from small pieces like a light switch to a dreidel or a picture frame to massive creations like a painted 1988 Saab that’s been featured at the festival many times.
A native of neighboring Weehawken, Yglesias-Liberatore says, “Art is about what you feel and how you interpret life, and the use of color expresses a form of happiness, an outlook on life as being not so bad!”
She’s been a part of the festival from the start and participated in earlier street art projects in Hoboken. “I love it because I’m originally from Hudson County, and I run into so many people and artists that I know.” She’s participated in other festivals, she says, but they just don’t have the same energy.
A resident of Hoboken for more than 6 years, painter Jason Gluskin has participated for three years and seven festivals. He not only exhibited at this year’s spring festival but also worked with Fallo in the creation of the event’s poster based on his painting “New York Nights.”
Gluskin, who by day works in the music industry, brings his passion for music into his work in pieces like “Po Man’s Blues” and “Mixmaster”. Says Gluskin, “There’s always been a lot of music in my life – and art as well. It just all comes together in my work.”
“I definitely believe in channeling positive energy, which can be derived from all of it: music, art, and life experience.”
He adds, “The Festival is a wonderful event, and the city does a great job in terms of drawing in a lot of people that are truly engaged with the local culture.”
For artist Ricardo Roig, participating in his first festival last fall proved to be a monumental turning point in this life.
The Hudson County resident had been waiting tables at the Elysian Café while he completed his teaching certification; however, the overwhelmingly positive response led him to turn in his apron and focus exclusively on being a working artist. At the event last fall, he sold out of nearly every piece – over 100 drawings, paintings and paper stencil prints and even sold one piece while it was still a work in progress!
“It pretty much made my career,” he says. Since then he has participated in numerous shows and even the Artists’ Studio Tour, all with great success.
And his favorite festival food? “Oh, the zeppolis, are you kidding me?” He laughs and adds, “You come for the art and stay for the zeppolis or come for the zeppolis and stay for the art – either way, you’re going to see some really cool art!”
More to come
With the Spring Festival having just taken place, the festival season is underway. Check in with hmag.com for the latest updates on events like the OLG Funfest (June), St. Ann’s Feast (July), hMAG’s 2nd Annual Music Fest (August), and the Hoboken Italian Festival (September). The Fall Arts and Music fest will close out the season on Sunday, September 25. For more information, visit hobokennj.org.
To find out more about the artists and performers in this article, go to hmag.com/sections/h-Life.
(Editor’s note: Stephen Bailey and the hMAG team contributed to this article.)