A Hidden Gem of Jersey: The Minstrel Acoustic Series Turns 38
One of the great things about the arts in New Jersey is that there’s so much going on that you’ll never stop discovering something new. Take the Folk Project, for example. It’s an acoustic music and dance organization with over 600 music lovers, musicians and dancers. For more than three decades, they have been presenting 100+ events a year featuring both local and nationally known acts. In fact, their weekly music series - The Minstrel Acoustic Concert Series - celebrates its 38th anniversary with a special show on Friday, July 26. The event, which is open to the public, features performances from roughly 40 musicians who are members of the organization. Mike Agranoff, the Program Chair of the Minstrel Acoustic Concert Series, can still recall the very first concert he attended with this group. The organization didn’t even exist then, but a bunch of musicians rented space in the basement of a French restaurant in Chester, NJ to put on a show. In addition to providing a great night of entertainment, that night helped fill a void for the musicians and led to the creation of The Folk Project.
He laughs when he thinks back to that first night. It was the same day he turned 30, “The age when people aren’t to be trusted!” Agranoff said. Something about the comment (made popular in the sixties) seemed appropriate for a conversation about folk music; however, folk music has not only continued over the years but has returned to the forefront thanks to acts like Mumford & Sons. In addition, artists and bands in the Americana genre are really just descendants of the folk movement. Meanwhile, bluegrass influences can be heard in popular modern acts like The Avett Brothers and Old Crow Medicine Show. Chances are, you probably hear more folk music on the radio than you realize!
Today, the Folk Project holds its Minstrel Shows at the Morristown Unitarian Fellowship (21 Normandy Heights Road in Morristown, NJ). It’s a smoke- and alcohol-free environment. Admission is $8 to enter plus the balance of what you think the show was really worth on your way out -- sort of like the way many museums work. All tickets are sold at the door with no advance sales or reservations.
You don’t have to be a member to attend the shows in the Minstrel Series, but Folk Project members also get invited to special member-only shows and events (some held at the homes of Folk Project members). In addition, they receive the organization’s newsletter which provides news and information on events of interest in the area, and discounts to the Folk Project’s Spring and Fall Festival. For musicians, membership includes additional benefits such as an inclusion in the organization’s member resource directory and the opportunity to perform on the Minstrel stage during special events like the Minstrel Birthday Party.
The birthday party will include performances by dozens of musicians that are members of the Folk Project. According to Agranoff, the organization held a drawing on July 4th during a member picnic. Musicians that wanted to be part of the birthday show wrote their name down on an index card that was put in a hat.
“We shuffled up the index cards and dealt out randomly chosen groups of two to three performers -- some of whom have never met each other, some whom perform very different genres, and some with different skill sets,” said Agranoff. “The idea is that each group will prepare one song for the birthday show.”
Attendees can expect to hear a mix of original songs and cover songs during the night. Each group will come on stage, do their song, and then introduce the next group. They’ll do about 9 songs this way and then have an intermission before doing another round.
The Folk Project is a vibrant organization for musicians and music fans alike. Their concerts actually go well beyond what might be considered traditional American folk music. They’ve presented shows in genres such as blues, swing, gospel, jazz, traditional Irish, doo-wop, gypsy, jug band, and rock ‘n roll. Performers are professional and semi-professional, and include those who are based in New Jersey as well as regional, national and even international artists. Many are performers who regularly hit the coffeehouse and festival circuits, and when they play a Folk Project show, they know they’re playing in front of an audience that truly loves music.
While the clubs throughout New Jersey regularly showcase artists from a thriving folk scene, the one thing Agranoff hopes to see happen is an influx of younger artists to the organization. “This is an opportunity for them to apply their craft, to be heard by a listening audience, to interact with other musicians—including those of other genres and other generations—and to exchange musical ideas,” he said. “We’ve had bands form countless times from amongst our membership. It’s a great networking opportunity.”
Members are generally based in the Morris, Somerset and Essex County areas, but there are no restrictions at all. The organization has plenty of people who come to shows from much further away. A Full Membership costs $20 per year; Supporting Memberships cost $25; and Premium Memberships costs $35. Businesses can show their support by taking out a Corporate Membership for $125 per year.
Upcoming shows in the Minstrel Series include: Friday, August 2: Finvarra’s Wren with Rachel Streich, Friday, August 16: Dave Rimelis with Pat Guadagno, Friday, August 23: David Massengill with Lorretta Hagen, Friday, August 30: A Folk Project Special Event - Uke New Jersey (Part 1), Saturday, August 31: A Folk Project Special Event - Uke New Jersey (Part 2).
In addition to the scheduled artist performances, the second Friday of each month is usually an Open Stage night that provides an opportunity for all acoustic musicians to perform a 15-minute set on stage, treating the audience to a diverse collection of musicians in one setting.
For more information on The Folk Project visit http://www.FolkProject.org.