Digging the rhythm: Free summer concert series returns to Cuyahoga Valley National Park

The folks at the Conservancy for Cuyahoga Valley National Park are getting into the summer groove—preparing to the launch of fourth annual Rhythm on the River free outdoor concert series in Cuyahoga Valley National Park’s (CVNP) Howe Meadow, 4040 Riverview Road, in Peninsula.

This year’s Rhythm on the River features three Sunday concerts—beginning on June 9, followed by July 14, and Aug. 11. Each concert is from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m., with gates opening at 2 p.m. In addition to live music, there will be food trucks, vendors, and field games for people of all ages.

“I’m really excited, because the summer is a really fun time for me in general,” says Donté Gibbs, the Conservancy’s vice president of community partnerships. “I have a really big family with a lot of our birthdays in the summer, so I'm really just excited to be able to share this with my family. I’m excited about being able to help curate a family-friendly, fun event that everyone can take part in and learn about our National Park.”

Carlos JonesCarlos JonesThe summer kicks off on Sunday, June 9, reggae-style, with the unique high-energy brand of local favorite, the Carlos Jones and the P.L.U.S. Band.

“Carlos Jones is always popular,” says Gibbs. “We've been lucky to be able to have them participate for all four years.” The Shaw High School Marching Band will also perform on June 9, which Gibbs is particularly excited about because he was valedictorian at Shaw High School in 2006.

“It's kind of nostalgia in a sense—thinking about high school and the basketball games or the football games—and being a part of that time when Shaw Band went to the Olympics in Beijing,” he recalls. “To really have that full circle moment, to see them again… is going to be exciting.”

On Sunday, July 14, world-renowned musician Mike Phillips will take the stage with his electrifying saxophone sounds. He is the only musician in the world to have toured with Michael Jackson, Prince, and Stevie Wonder. Local jazz and R&B legend Hubb's Groove will also be featured.

On Sunday, Aug. 11, the blend of instrumental jazz, funk, rock, reggae, and pop from local favorite FORECAST will pair nicely with Erin Nicole’s Centric Soul.

Gibbs says this year the organizers purposely designed a concert model to pair national and well-known acts with smaller, local up-and-coming acts.

“Being able to have community groups like Shaw High School Marching Band come in really allows this space to have a really dynamic show,” he explains. “Each performer has a great following, and this allows them to bring their following to the park and re-introduce themselves or introduce themselves for the first time. I think that's the exciting piece of our lineup this year.”

Although the concerts are free, reservations are encouraged.

The Rhythm on the River concerts have entertained more than 22,000 guests since the series began in 2021, which was also when Gibbs began with the Conservancy for CVNP.  It was not an easy feat to launch the series, he says.

Rhythm on the RiverRhythm on the River“This was something I was able to be a part of when I first joined the Conservancy—smack dab in the middle of a pandemic,” he recalls. “I started in January 2021, and we got the green light to do an outdoor summer concert series in March. From March to June, we sort of planned Rhythm on the River. Now it’s year four.”

Given the challenging start to the series, Gibbs says they now start planning in November for the summer concerts, to allot time for booking, paperwork, and regulations that must be followed because the CVNP is a federal entity.

“This year will be the first year where we sort of got into our rhythm,” Gibbs admits. “We got organized ahead of time, versus the mad dash that we had in 2021. I don't know how we did it [in 2021], but we did it, and we made an impression on folks because they keep coming back.”

Gibbs recalls the summer of 2022, when staff had to close the gates after more than 5,000 people came to see Alex Bugnon and Hubb's Groove. He chalks that experience up to a lesson learned, and the staff now “leaves it to the professionals” to keep traffic organized. He adds that the normal attendance is usually between 1,500 and 3,000 people.

In addition to the music, guests can expect a full afternoon of fun, Gibbs promises.

“Folks can bring their own picnics with their families and kind of just make a day of it, and we encourage that to give folks options,” he says. “We have food trucks on site, as well as community vendors. So folks are able to learn about the Conservancy and some of our community partners [like] Cleveland Votes, a nonpartisan organization that's focused on voter registration and really just building democracy.”

Rhythm on the RiverRhythm on the RiverGibbs adds that there will be a sustainability tent to educate guests about sustainability and zero waste initiatives within the CVNP.

Gibbs is quick to remind people that the scenic backdrop in Howe Meadow and the surrounding park provides a unique interactive experience.

“Just imagine a meadow with surrounding hills and a forest—it’s really something unique,” he says. “It creates this vast nook of great sound and a space for folks to spread out.”

But the sights and sounds don’t end at Howe Meadow, he says.

“Some days during a concert, you'll hear the [Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad] train coming through, and it just provides an extra visual,” Gibbs explains. “Right across from there is a beaver marsh, which is a sustainability story—it used to be a junkyard and now it's restored. River otters are back, and other species of animals. To be in this midst of a lot of stories that tie to our history and create new memories for families is really unique.”

The concerts are all free, thanks to sponsors, says Gibbs, and the bands perform, rain or shine.

“We really want to highlight our national park in our own backyard,” he says. “It's one of the top most-visited National Parks in the country, and this is just an informal way to introduce folks to this space.”

Karin Connelly Rice
Karin Connelly Rice

About the Author: Karin Connelly Rice

Karin Connelly Rice enjoys telling people's stories, whether it's a promising startup or a life's passion. Over the past 20 years she has reported on the local business community for publications such as Inside Business and Cleveland Magazine. She was editor of the Rocky River/Lakewood edition of In the Neighborhood and was a reporter and photographer for the Amherst News-Times. At Fresh Water she enjoys telling the stories of Clevelanders who are shaping and embracing the business and research climate in Cleveland.