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Stay Tuned: Joe D’Urso Is Rockland & Rolling

The Heart of Rock and Roll Was Still Beating Last Weekend at the Rockland Bergen Music Festival

Joe D’Urso is a force of nature: ever ebullient, glad-handing, back-slapping, welcoming, greeting everyone effusively and remembering kids and wives and unmentionable exploits from high school years ago. The director of the Rockland Bergen Music Festival has the temperament of a rock and roll politician, maybe a candidate for the King of Rockland. He’d no doubt be a benevolent dictator, but for now he is the king and the beating heart of the Rockland Bergen Music Festival in Tappan NY, a two-day burst of rock and pop and country and folk that, undeniably, has a lot of heart.

Joe D'Urso / Credit:

Joe D’Urso / Credit:

D’Urso’s been a fixture on the Rockland music scene for years with his band Stone Caravan. He’s a wealth of information on Rockland rock history, citing, with a high school pal of his, lists of legendary, long-shuttered clubs that catered to the rock and roots crowd back in the ’70s and ’80s. The festival is part of his attempt to revive and publicize a scene he grew up in and treasured.
“Rockland County doesn’t really support music,” said D’Urso. “The government, I mean. When you think of all the artists that live in the area, all that they contribute to Rockland’s cultural and economic vitality… it’s a shame there’s not more acknowledgement of that, more opportunities for artists, more support for these sorts of events. But it was always like that. You had to make your own way,’ he said, looking around at the people gathered at two stages on a gorgeous, sun-dappled day. “Maybe it’s better that way.”
What D’Urso has created on his shoestring budget is incredible. Two full days of bands on two stages, headlined by the likes of Jorma Kaukonen, Willie Nile and Southside Johnny. All put down solid, workmanlike sets, but the stars were found on an undercard populated by talented local and regional acts Joe found through his vast network of friends, bandmates and co-conspirators.
image1 (1)I attended for parts of both days, and each day I found a pleasant, welcoming crowd and a band or artist to write home (or here) about. Saturday was Jesse Terry, a singer-songwriter in the classic mold of Gordon Lightfoot or James Taylor. He plays six- and twelve-string guitar and sings songs of longing and loss in a high, pure, striking tenor that’s clear and direct yet carries with it a hint of heartbreak. With his lean frame, goofy, self-deprecating manner and the tangled locks falling over his face as he sings, he’s the kind of guy that could inspire love at first song. He’s got several albums out, has played Bonnaroo, and will be touring England this summer. He’s got the goods.
Sunday brought another band and another promise. The End of America is a Philly-based trio that, to all appearances, plays a brand of folk music; however, their harmonies and presence call to mind some of the swagger of back-in-the-day Philly soul. They played with a bassist and drummer at this event but their usual line-up is two guitars and a banjo. Oh, and their voices. I believe two of the three are brothers (there’s no bio on their website!), but in any case, in their harmonies they sound like brothers, bobbing and weaving around and through each other in original songs (and covers) that bespeak long hours singing and playing and wrestling and fighting together.
The feel of the festival is intimate. “We could use another 500 people a day,” Joe smiled ruefully. He’s working on raising the profile next year with appearances by Jackson Browne or Bonnie Raitt. But for now, there were enough people to feel like something was happening, and not not so many as to feel crowded. My only qualm was that the festival could have used a few more — or different — food booths. But don’t be discouraged from coming next year by my quibble; I saw new artists that played great sets and definitely are worth a listen, or two.
Now, were these artists part of a nascent movement (JoeFolk?), part of the proverbial ‘next big thing’?  The scene felt healthy, with great young bands with great songs, great live presence,  and a real rapport with audiences. So maybe. Maybe someday Joe D’Urso will add another feather to his capacious cap, which includes musician, singer, impresario, and all around musical good guy: ‘Trendsetter.’
And to think, it all started at a little ol’ festival in Rockland County. Imagine that. It could happen.

Dan Cohen is a songwriter, music producer, and freelance writer. His reviews and reporting have appeared in SF Weekly, High Country News, the legendary North Conway Mountain Ear, and elsewhere. He performs for kids as Danna Banana. He lives in Nyack.

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