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Summers in the City wouldn't be the same without SummerStage

Published on
May 12


Imagine attending a free concert almost every day of the Summer. Wouldn’t it be an adventure? You would be exposed to new music and new people. You would have stories to tell. It would be like traveling but in your own backyard. This is the stuff youthful dreams are made of. It’s fertile material for a blog challenge to record your journey or experiment with concert reviews. If you’re staying in New York City this summer, it’s possible, through SummerStage - the largest free performing arts festival in New York City.


You don’t really have to accept this lofty challenge, but by goodness, take advantage! I certainly will. Just by going through the the lineup, I’ve discovered some new artists to feed my life on the daily. You can pick and choose what you like. SummerStage features everyone from ticketed benefit concerts by famous artists to world music stars to hip hop legends to up and coming indie bands to hard rock juggernauts. And not everything is music, there are family events, circus shows, movie screenings, spoken word performances, dance parties, master classes, and much more. Your biggest challenge might be choosing which event to attend that day. And maybe the line to get into a popular show. Performances are first come, first serve.


SummerStage has a reputation for featuring artists right before they hit the mainstream. It may even contribute to their entrance into the mainstream because New York City audiences are tastemakers and trendsetters with a very strong buzz game. That’s a lot of power and knowledge in the hands of whoever books the talent. I imagined that with a festival this large there would be a team of music researchers who specialized in each genre. In my head, they were people who wore cool shades and had perfected the nod and there would be some kind of glass control room involved in which they monitored the globe for cool music. I kind of wanted to visit their futuristic headquarters.


I was pleased and awed to find the selection process is much more organic and done primarily by one person, at least as far as music is concerned. This mastermind is the highly experienced, very in-tune Artistic Director of SummerStage, Erika Elliot. Before joining SummerStage, she worked in the recording industry in various positions and was involved in one form or another in the careers of artists like the Wu Tang Clan, Eminem, Lauryn Hill, Outkast, Christina Aguilera, the Foo Fighters, John Legend, and Kanye West. (My jaw dropped too.) 


ErikaErika illuminated her process for me during an interview which she says primarily relies on trusting her ear and having great relationships with people involved in different communities in the music world. She stressed the strong impact of the wisdom that comes with her long years of experience that, 20+ years in, allows her to “hone in on who boasts the representative talents in a genre.” On top of that, she keeps herself very active and goes out to scout 3-5 nights a week in NYC - a city that luckily attracts most acts with a developing profile. Erika mentioned there was technology out there that relied on metrics to predict who is trending but her philosophy is that “people rely on taste.” As a curator, she sees what she does as an art and believes in the authenticity of “the human touch.” When I asked her if her involvement with SummerStage was a strategic move, she laughed and acknowledged that while in hindsight her position is special, at the time her choice mainly concerned switching from the recording world to live music. She says seeing her work come to fruition in a tangible manner in real time feels more fulfilling because she can see people enjoy her efforts.


SummerStage is part of a history in New York City that champions the value of access to the arts for everyone. I can’t help but see a cord connecting it to Joe Papp’s initiative for Free Shakespeare in the Park and the aims of Central Park. In some ways, SummerStage may even embody that ideal better. For its 30th Anniversary, SummerStage has strategically extended its season from May to October to reach more people, it now holds as many performances in Central Park as it does in parks in other boroughs, and it aims to have programming that reflects the diversity of New York City. As Erika Elliot put it, this is a festival even for people who don’t see themselves as the music festival type. There is something in the lineup for everyone. Isn’t that just beautiful? It is certainly unique in the festival landscape.


Here are some of my dreamy highlights in June alone:


-For contagious Funk and Soul -
Lettuce / The Soul Rebels


-For my definition of awesome -
Jungle / Ibeyi


-For thought-provoking spoken word artists - 
The Nuyorican Poets Cafe featuring Jive Poetic, Jamaal St. John and Pamela Sneed


-For sophisticated circus acts - 

Hybrid Movement Company / The Incredible Incredible / IMPACT Repertory Theatre


​-And finally, for a dance-inducing retrospective of the cool music featured in SummerStage for the past 30 years -

30th Anniversary DJ Celebration: Quantic / Gilles Peterson / Afrika Bambaataa ​(okay, this one is in August)


I know you must be really excited by now, here's the SummerStage calendar, have fun!