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WNTI Stage Summer Festival returns to Knowlton

By: Tris McCall/The Star-Ledger
08/16/2013, 09:20 AM

Melanie Thiel of WNTI knows the problems that independent bands face.

"Take a group like the Grand Slambovians," says Thiel, referring to the freewheeling, psychedelic act popular in western New Jersey and the Hudson Valley of New York. "When people hear them live or listen to one of their CDs, they fall in love. But are you ever going to hear them on a commercial radio station? Probably never."

From left, performers at the WNTI Stage Summer Music Festival in Knowlton Township will include Willie Nile, Saturday at 8:30 p.m.; J.D. McPherson, Sunday at 5 p.m.; the Grand Slambovians, Saturday at 6:30 p.m.; and the Quimby Mountain Band, Sunday at 3:30 p.m. The three-day event will include 22 musical sets as well as a screening of the 1973 George Lucas-directed movie, "American Graffiti."

The Slambovians will be one of the featured attractions at the second WNTI Stage Summer Music Festival, a three-day event held on the banks of the Delaware River in bucolic Knowlton Township.

The not-for-profit radio station has attracted several nationally recognized artists to play on its two stages, including New York City rocker and incisive lyricist Willie Nile and J.D. McPherson, an acclaimed rockabilly and vintage R&B revivalist from Oklahoma. But most of the entertainment will be provided by Jersey artists — especially western New Jersey artists — who haven’t always been properly recognized outside the Garden State.

"This is a festival with national acts," says Thiel, the station’s development director and host of its "Mornings With Melanie" daily program, "but it’s also about regional musicians who deserve the exposure. That’s what noncommercial radio is all about. There’s so much talent out there, especially in New Jersey."

WNTI Stage offers a representative sampling of that talent. Of the 22 acts that will perform this weekend, more than half have Garden State roots. On Sunday, the Pfeiffer Twins, a singing and strumming pop-rock duo that grew up in nearby Blairstown, will be on the smaller Cafe Stage, and Hackettstown’s expansive Quimby Mountain Band will take to the Main Stage. Pat DiNizio, Scotch Plains resident and frontman of the Smithereens, will present an acoustic set on the Cafe Stage on Friday night. The Porchistas, a rambunctious, witty folk-rock outfit from Montclair, owes its Saturday Main Stage slot to the zealousness of a fan.

"During the last half hour of our spring membership drive," says Thiel, "we put it out on the air that if anybody was willing to donate $919 (the station is at 91.9 FM), that person could pick an act for the festival. A Porchistas fan made the donation, and that’s how we’ve gotten to know the band."

That sort of close relationship with listeners is characteristic of WNTI, a radio outfit that sometimes feels like a more relaxed version of New York’s WFUV. The station favors the same kind of adult alternative and acoustic music — but just as the West Jersey scene is a little wilder and more unruly than Manhattan, WNTI is more unpredictable than its counterpart on the far side of the Hudson. For the past 55 years, WNTI has been broadcasting from Centenary College in Hackettstown and has consistently flown the flag for the area’s many unusual and underappreciated artists.

"There’s great music in western New Jersey," says Thiel, "and I’d like to think WNTI has had something to do with that. It’s extremely important to us that the festival represent the community and the radio station — if we don’t do that, we lose our integrity."

Thiel expects 3,000 attendees at this year’s version of WNTI Stage. That’s 500 more than there were last year, when rainy weather held down attendance on Friday night. The forecast for this weekend is good, and the festival has moved its Main and Cafe stages slightly farther apart to accommodate the expected crowd.

There also will be a showing of the classic movie "American Graffiti" at 9 p.m. Friday. Besides that, though, not much about WNTI Stage should feel different than it did in 2012. WNTI deejays will broadcast their shows live from the site, as they did last summer. There will once again be free parking, concessions from vendors from around West Jersey, gorgeous views of the Delaware River and the Jersey Highlands and, at $10 per day, a very affordable ticket price.

"We did a ‘what did you like best’ survey after the festival last year," says Thiel. "We didn’t get one negative comment on the music, the location or the parking. The two things fans wanted improved were the beer selection and the number of food choices. Those were easy fixes."

Last year "was the first year we did a three-day event," says Thiel, who was also involved in Knowlton Riverfest, the annual weekend party that was the direct predecessor of WNTI Stage. "That was a good testing ground for us. It was successful enough that we decided to have a five-year plan. We’re definitely going to be back."

WNTI Stage Summer Music Festival

Tonight: Cabinet, Pat DiNizio, “American Graffiti” screening at 9 p.m.
Tomorrow: Willie Nile, the Grand Slambovians, The Livesays, The Porchistas, Acken Road, Wig Party, Jack Tannehill, Denny Tilton, Chuck Schaeffer and Full Moon Howlin’, Dave Tucker, Chasing June, Mick Mitsch’s Lagan Love
Sunday: JD McPhearson, Quimby Mountain Band, Brother Buddha, Karl Latham and Big Fun(k), The Pfeiffer Twins, Mike Esposito, Ezra Tarlowe, Blue Ribbon Cloggers
Where: Route 46 at Knowlton Rd., Knowlton
When: Tonight, 6 p.m. – 11 p.m.; tomorrow, noon – 11 p.m., Sunday, noon – 8 p.m.
How much: $10 for a single-day ticket; visit wntistage.org.

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