Bluegrass band is rooted and thrives in Highland Park

You might have noticed them this summer at the Highland Park Farmers’ Market or the Reformed Church Bazaar or for the past two years at the Highland Park Public Library. The Borough’s newest phenomenon is two-year-old Bluegrass Band, Kind Strangers.  The five member band, who all make their home in the borough, will perform their third Annual Concert at the Highland Park Public Library on Thursday, Feb. 26 at 7 p.m.

Explaining the appeal of Bluegrass music among residents of a suburban New Jersey community like Highland Park, Dan O’Donnell, a founding member of the band, said that Bluegrass crosses the lines of age, culture, race and religion….People from all backgrounds are familiar with songs, because our Bluegrass blends the traditional with rock, pop, and country.

“You might hear a song from Guns and Roses or a country standard like Folsom Prison Blues made famous by Johnny Cash,” he said.

The band’s audiences are made up of several generations, reflecting the fact that band members also span a wide age range. Keith O’Donnel, Dan O’Donnel’s son, is the youngest member and a sophomore at High Park High School.

“One reason I wanted to form a band is a little personal,” Dan O’Donnell joked. “I wanted my son to practice his fiddle more!” The senior O’Donnell plays the guitar in the band, but earns his living as an investor.

Jonathan Austin, the bass player is a student at Middlesex County College. Phil Wilson, the banjo player is an engineer by day. Laura Arp, director of “Who’s My Neighbor” and the “Cave” after school program at the Reformed Church, is the vocalist and also plays the guitar. Maria Austin, the mother of Jonathan is learning to play the mandolin and she also sings. She occasionally joins the band on stage.

Since November of 2012, when Kind Strangers took to the Stage at the Reformed Church, they have been playing all over the borough, at the Farmer’s Market, Main Street events,  Highland Park’s tree lightening, the HP Senior/Youth Center, and the standing room only concerts at the library. They have since ventured out to New Brunswick’s Farmers’ Markets, Elija’s Promise and to Tumulty’s Pub. Recently they took their act on the road and performed at Albert Music Hall in Watertown, the State House in Trenton, and Little Silver’s Bluegrass and Old Time Museum.

After their February 26 performance at the Highland Park Public Library they will be playing on Friday, March 13, 7 p.m. at the Reformed Church during their Night of Irish Music program.

Laura Arp joined them this past year after Patty Fox, an original member moved out of the area. Sheila Shukla also performed with the original members in 2012.

“We’re adaptable, we added a banjo when we lost the mandolin player,” Phil Wilson said. “We work with people’s strengths, incorporating them into the band.”

“We want to be the last band standing,” Dan O’Donnell added. “I’m amazed that so many people in the borough enjoy this kind of music.”


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