The Sun Hasn’t Set on Clearwater Fest

Think global, act local: Middletown-based band The Wag is among the Shore area acts taking the main stage at the 36th annual Clearwater Festival, going on August 20 in Asbury Park.

There are people out there who have made it their uncompensated calling to make this coastal place we live in — your home, in other words — a place that’s clean and comfortable and something to be proud of. A place that seeks a harmonious balance between the wild ways of its thrillingly raw state, and the wonderful ways in which it enhances our lives. Bitch as we might sometimes, many of us would simply never think of living anywhere else — and for that you can hug a tree; maybe even a whole Forest.

“We’re not just putting on a big party each year,” explains Ben Forest. “Although of course it is — a party with a purpose.”

Forest, long-serving volunteer and vice president of the Red Bank-based nonprofit NJ Friends of Clearwater — and a man with an irresistibly “ever-green” name — is referring to the August tradition known as the Clearwater Festival, the 36th annual edition of which returns to Sunset Park in Asbury Park on Saturday, August 20.

A former journalist (with the old Atlanticville newspaper in Long Branch), community activist, member of the Red Bank Board of Education — and a Mac computer specialist who keeps the often inscrutable machinery of local businesses, schools and media living to fight another day — Forest has volunteered for nearly a quarter century as an officer with the local chapter of Clearwater, the organization established in the 1970s as a vehicle for carrying the mission of Pete Seeger’s original enviro-awareness group to the shores of the Raritan Bay and the local Atlantic coast (the Upper Wet Side of NJ, in other words).

Naturally, Forest’s exalted position as Clearwater’s Committee Liaison for Environmental Policy — an office through which he’s been able to bend the ear of governors, members of Congress and the head of the federal Environmental Protection Agency — hasn’t prevented him from pulling down duty as a flipper of burgers, collector of trash and de facto roadie during past presentations of the Clearwater Fest. With this year’s free event fast approaching, the predicament — unlike some of the region’s waterways — couldn’t be more clear: Clearwater needs volunteers.

Ben Forest has spent nearly 25 years as a dedicated volunteer and officer of the local Friends of Clearwater. All he has to show for it is this t-shirt AND a formidable track record of raising awareness for causes that impact life here on the Jersey Shore and around the region.

Billed as the Garden State’s largest and longest running environmentally themed festival, the Clearwater event spent many summers at the Fort Hancock area of Sandy Hook before relocating to Asbury Park over a decade ago — and for eight of those years, the fest has made its home within the tree-lined lakeside strip of Sunset Park.

It’s there in the shade of a dog-day August 20 that a sonic smorgasbord of regional musical talent will perform on three stages; food vendors from a panorama of green-friendly eateries will offer their wares, strollers will check out a promenade of environment-theme displays, and attendees can clue in to everything from speeches by prominent public figures to silly songs by children’s entertainer Yosi.

According to Forest, volunteer energy is particularly needed with general set-up and breakdown of the event, as well as with clean-up detail, promotion, peacekeeping and other guest services. Volunteers have traditionally been fed at the event, and have been furnished with souvenir t-shirts.

“Our policy is to put on a free event that’s paid for itself in advance,” says Forest of the happening that eliminated admission charges (and scaled back to a single day) two years ago. “We’ve raised enough money for this year — but we’re not in business to go broke putting on festivals, so next year is gonna be a challenge.”

To that end, donations will be welcomed at the scene, during an event that’s characterized not as a fundraiser, but as “open-air music and arts festival celebrating the spirit of people working and singing together for the environment.”

While in-school presentations and monthly meetings are offered throughout the year, this is the flagship moment for the Clearwater-chartered organization founded as Monmouth County Friends of Clearwater — a grass roots, all-volunteer community concern that, as Forest observes, “is now IT for New Jersey, with the disappearance of the old North Jersey and Raritan River chapters.”

As a traditional signifier of late summer on the Jersey Shore, the Clearwater Festival isn’t like any other fair you can think of. There are no rickety rides hooked up to chugging gas generators; no SUV given away as a raffle prize. No tractor pulls, no muscle car show, no animals in cages. What you’ll find is one of the most eclectic and well-selected music menus of the summer festival season, along with a pretty thought-provoking display of eco-themed exhibits and discussions, as well as food, possible celebrity sightings and activities for the kids. You might even learn something.

Since folkie legend Seeger is equal parts entertainer and educator, the music has always been fused with the message on the genetic level, and the Hudson River voyages of the good sloop Clearwater were singalong sojourns that caught the ear of the citizenry even as they jump-started awareness of the problems facing the regional waterways. When singer and sailor Bob Killian (of “I Like the Jersey Shore” fame) founded the MCFC organization, the tunes were an integral part of the mix — and when the first festival took place out on the Hook, the earnestly educational displays were wed from the start to a homegrown soundtrack.

Among those working and singing together at the Monmouth County events have been some fairly famous faces and voices — from iconic music legend Levon Helm to Jersey royalty Glen Burtnik, The Smithereens and a particularly anxious-to-play young upstart by the name of Springsteen. To say nothing of the only man the Boss calls boss, festival founder (and sloop skipper) Seeger.

The people-watch ops have also included a range of prominent figures from the political/ public service spectrum — including President Obama’s EPA chief Lisa Jackson  (then in her role as the New Jersey DEP director), the Sierra Club‘s Jeff Tittel, Clean Ocean Action‘s Cindy Zipf and members of the state’s congressional delegation, most faithfully Congressman Frank Pallone, Jr.

Guest speakers will be delivering brief presentations on the dedicated theme of the 2011 festival, Climate Change: Rising Seas Closing In — and for the fourth year, an open-air NJ Environmental Justice Panel of “urban and workplace leaders” will convene at 2pm to discuss “environmental issues disproportionately affecting the young and poor people of NJ.”

Although Governor Chris Christie is not expected to be in attendance, Forest has, despite misgivings about several of the gov’s policies and appointments, characterized him as “more accessible on certain green issues than other people — we’ve been able to meet and talk with him on things, although I would have hoped he’d be friendlier on others.”

“Christie’s been painted as being bad on all environmental issues, and that’s simply not true,” says the professed “pro-business liberal” Forest. “He’s really the first governor to do anything about Barnegat Bay — and he’s kept to his campaign stance regarding offshore natural gas.”

“With proper planning you can create jobs and save the environment,” maintains Forest. “The offshore gas plan is not a good one as I see it…it’s more about exporting American gas to the highest bidders, and our prices will go up here.”

Freely admitting that “people don’t come to these things to sit through a series of speeches,” Forest and Friends of Clearwater president Joellen Lundy have kept the spotlight on the tunes — with mainstage perfomers including blues guitar champion Matt O’Ree, young keyboard wizard Matt Wade, bluesy chantoozie Jo Wymer, and The Wag— a powerpop band that lives for the season of outdoor festivals, fundraisers and concerts in the park.

An Acoustic Stage includes sets from Spook Handy, Mary McCrink, Virago and more — while the Circle of Song Stage features more than a dozen local singers and musicians. In addition, a Children’s Area offers activities and live performance by Yosi and others.

“The music gets people to come here, and hopefully the message catches their attention as well,” says Forest. “This really is the best place to be on a warm August day.”

You can volunteer online for any number of tasks at the 2011 Clearwater Festival here — and a full schedule of featured performers and events can be viewed right here. The festival takes place between 11am and 7pm at Sunset Park in Asbury Park (primary entrance is at Main Street and Sunset Avenue).