A sound engineer works a show at a free town concert in Woodbridge, N.J. (Courtesy Bill Brandenburg)

Familiar names play free shows in Woodbridge, N.J.

The township of Woodbridge, N.J., has been hosting small free concerts for about 20 years, first in a Methodist church and later in parks and at local schools. They originally consisted of oldies acts and later included tribute or local bands, but 12 years ago they came to include better known artists such as Graham Parker, David Bromberg, Janis Ian, Willie Nile and the Smithereens.

Now, with the live entertainment sector largely shut down by the coronavirus pandemic, the shows are taking place outside Woodbridge High School in a field that allows for physical distancing, and they have taken on new significance for audiences starved for such fare.

As the popularity of the concerts grew, a host of area companies clamored to attach their names to the gigs, which were expanded to additional nights each week during the summer months, said Bill Brandenburg, the artistic director of the Woodbridge Wednesdays series, who along with colleague Al Schaefer has been booking shows for the township since 2009.

The shows, which draw about 200 people, eventually were expanded to five nights a week in the town of 100,000, which is across a tidal strait from the southern end of Staten Island.

In March, once the pandemic emerged, Mayor John McCormac told Brandenburg that the shows would go on and a plan was developed to do them all — they’re scheduled to have more than 50 this year — at Woodbridge High School with physical distancing measures in place. Brandenburg said he had already booked most of the summer schedule and was surprised when the mayor told him that one way or another, they were going to make the concerts happen. 

“We played around with some different designs and decided to draw 9-foot-square boxes 6 feet apart,” Brandenburg said.

Richard Thompson performs July 25 in Woodbridge. (Rob Wasilewski)

At the high school, the front of the stage is 30 feet from the first row of boxes. Each box can fit about five people and groups that arrive together can share a box. Masks are optional once folks are in place, but anyone leaving to use the restrooms or get something to eat or drink — food trucks and a beer garden have at times set up at the venue — is asked to use a face covering.

Many attendees have said they came to check out the scene and how safety measures were being incorporated, not sure if they would stay, but were reassured once they saw the setup, Brandenburg said.

“It helps to have a really large field,” he said. “Anybody who wants to be 50 feet away from the next person can just go to the back of the field, which is about 150 years long.”

The numbers of attendees have held steady, and sponsors such as Comfort Inn provide lodging and restaurants serve meals to artists and crews, according to Brandenburg. It costs $1,000 to $1,200, between paying artists and a sound company, to put on local bands, while shows by name acts like Amy Helm, daughter of the late Levon Helm of The Band fame, cost between $3,000 and $5,000.

There are some exceptions for which a slightly higher budget can be scraped together, as was the case for a recent Richard Thompson concert or shows by longtime Jethro Tull guitarist Martin Barre, who has played in Woodbridge twice, Brandenburg said.

Landing Thompson was a bit of a fluke, he said.

Since 2020 is the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which established women’s right to vote, Brandenburg had booked all female acts for the series’ Eclectic Wednesdays bill. Word got out and he got an email from Zara Phillips, who in May released the Thompson-produced album “Meditation and KitKats,” asking if he had any openings. Phillips ended up playing on July 15, with Thompson performing on guitar. Both Thompson and Phillips live about 30 miles north Montclair, N.J.

Brandenburg learned during the Phillips show that a July 22 appearance by Helm had been canceled, leaving him with a date to fill. “I thought, he’s sitting right over there. Let me go over and ask him,” Brandenburg said.

To his surprise, Thompson said yes. Torrential rains washed out the July 22 show, but Thompson played the following Saturday. 

Brandenburg, whose first booking was a paid show at the church in 2009 with Aztec Two Step doing the Simon and Garfunkel songbook with narration by late disc jockey Pete Fornatale, said he had a full budget for this year’s shows but as is the case with much of the live entertainment industry, he’s uncertain about what will happen going forward.

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated.