Okay, so maybe it won’t quite rank with the tear-jerking finish of Pride of the Yankees.
But when Matt Angus hobbles on stage Saturday night at the Black Potatoe Music Festival in Clinton, it will be plenty dramatic, just the same. The singer-songwriter, who may go down as music’s Iron Man, was so determined not to miss his 17th consecutive Black Potatoe gig that he will perform despite undergoing a double hip replacement only a few weeks ago.
“My goal is to get people up and dancing, with my new titanium hips,” Matt, 44, said this week, on the eve of the Festival that he launched as a CD release party in 1997. The festival runs from July 11-14, 2013, at the quaint Red Mill Museum Village, a former limestone quarry.
Thursday night is devoted largely to the folk scene, featuring Ellis Paul, Kathy Phillips and Chris Smither. Friday night’s headliners are Jimmy Vivino–Conan O’Brien’s bandleader–and the Barn Burners, in a tribute to The Band.
Indie groups rule on Saturday, capped by the Matt Angus Thing. Sunday’s lineup leans toward the blues, ending with a wild group called Wicked Knee (drummer Billy Martinand three brass players). “Wicked Hip would have been better,” quipped Matt.
Clearly, this is a guy undaunted by challenges. The Black Potatoe Music Festival has been a series of them; they are chronicled in a new documentary, Demand Your Independents.Like everything else connected with the festival, the film is home grown: Producer Justin Holt got his start as a Black Potatoe intern. (The local theme infuses the sponsor list, too. Dr. Phillip Glassner of Hunterdon Orthopedics, who installed Matt’s new hips, “is an honorary band member,” Matt said.)
Black Potatoe evolved from Matt’s music shop/studio/indie label in his native Clinton.
(The Black Potatoe name was inspired by a college roommate from Idaho tuber country. The “e” was a poke at former Vice President Dan Quayle, who famously told students that’s how you spell the plant name.)
Staging an independent music festival is a fast way to go broke. But connections from Matt’s student days at the University of Southern California led to a friendship with the late Levon Helm, drummer and singer of The Band.
“I watched The Last Waltz so often in college that the rental shop gave it to me,” said Matt, referring to Martin Scorsese’s classic film of The Band’s farewell concert. “The Band was real. The guys played their instruments. There were no light shows. It was so natural. It was all about the music.”
Levon Helm performed at four of the early Black Potatoe fests. Band-mates Rick Danko and Garth Hudson followed; so did Dickey Betts of The Allman Brothers Band, Andy Summers of the Police and Jorma Kaukonen of Jefferson Airplane/Hot Tuna.
But for Matt, the highlight always will be Levon Helm singing The Weight, under a full moon at the first festival, before throat cancer silenced his distinctive, earthy voice.
Although saddened by Levon’s death last year, Matt said he was grateful for the singer’s victory lap. The cancer went into remission long enough for him to regain his voice and release three critically acclaimed albums.
“As sad as his passing was, it was great to see where he was when he died,” said Matt. He credits Levon with saving the festival in its early days. “He kept us going.”
Levon will be there in spirit this year, thanks to Jimmy Vivino and the Barn Burners on Friday, Matt said.
That spirit suffuses the entire festival, which Levon once described as “a real gumbo of American music.” Matt and his team strive to keep stirring that pot, mixing familiar names with fresh talent that might not get sampled otherwise.
“Our goal is to celebrate roots music and indie artists,” Matt said. “Too often you’re forced to listen to music that one guy in Philly is picking, or two publicists in New York are picking. Nine times out of 10 you’re listening to stuff you’re force-fed… To me, music is not a guy who wins a karaoke contest on NBC.”
Matt, whose songs have appeared on This Week In Baseball and The Vampire Diaries, knows what it’s like to scramble for exposure. He is proud that Black Potatoe patrons heard Grace Potter years before Rolling Stone “discovered” her.
This year’s eclectic mix includes piano duets from Nalani and Sarina; Graham Alexander, who played Paul McCartney in Broadway’s Rain, and the return of Staten Island jug band Wahoo Skiffle Crazies.
“If you like new music, and you want to find it without going to clubs where it’s pay-to-play, you will find three or four new bands that you will fall in love with,” Matt promises.
You might even witness the birth of a new titanium dance craze.