Crawfish Fest Brings a Slice of Jazz Fest to New Jersey

Over 25 years, Michael Arnone has perfected the vibe and the flavor of New Orleans music and food with his own smaller but authentic version of Jazz Fest.   This year he brought NOLA heavyweights The Funky Meters, Dumpstaphunk, Kermit Ruffins, JJ Grey, Bonerama, and a host of Cajun and zydeco performers to approximately 10,000 avid music fans at the picturesque Sussex County Fairgrounds in Augusta New Jersey.

The festival started out slow and easy on Friday night, only for fans who purchased three-day camping passes.  Early birds experienced intimate music experiences by the highly acclaimed trumpeter, Kermit Ruffins and The Barbeque Swingers, and were treated to classics by Louis Armstrong such as “Saint James Infirmary” and “What a Wonderful World” to Lee Dorsey’s “Holy Cow” and Billy Preston’s “Will It Go Round In Circles”, as well as a never-ending version of the widely-covered classic, “Iko Iko”, where even Kermit’s band wondered if he’d ever finish, and Kermit joked “I could go on and play this song all night long” (and the audience started to believe him after over a dozen “endings”).  His mirthful set was capped by the soulful voice of guest singer Nayo Jones on “Route 66”, as the audience was transfixed by her singing and stage presence.

Kermit’s Barbeque Swingers include the highly skilled Yoshitaka Tsuji, who had several inspiring piano solos, and his energetic drummer, Derrick Freeman, who was tutored by Ellis Marsalis and also studied classical piano as well as drums.

Earlier Friday afternoon, another New Orleans native, singer and guitarist Mia Borders treated fans to a mix of originals and covers, such as “Forget My Name”, “Walk On By”, “Mississippi Rising”, James Brown’s “What a Man”, and the Bill Withers classic, “Use Me”.

Because the festival wasn’t in full production mode, the main stage was closed on Friday night, but the indoor stages hosted these major artists as well as Curley Taylor and Zydeco Trouble in the Dance Hall.

On Saturday, concert-goers descended upon the fairgrounds by the thousands, as the Main Stage opened up to absolutely perfect weather.  Behind a marked line, festival fans were allowed to pitch sun shades and pop-up tents, and chairs and umbrellas dotted the huge, grassy concert field, as friends and family gathered and began their sampling of the large array of crawfish dishes, jambalaya, frozen smoothies, and adult beverages.  The food was on par with Jazz Fest, and many New Orleans T-shirts were seen amongst the diverse crowd of several generations.  I spoke with people who had to been to 15 or 20 of the 25 total Crawfish Festivals, and they vowed to return every year.

Bonerama fired up the Jager indoor pavilion stage on Saturday with their trombone-laced sonic assault, pounding out rock favorites in jazz style by the Rolling Stones such as “Can’t You Hear Me Knockin’?” and the Allmans classic, “Whipping Post”.

Taking the main stage by storm were the relatively recent superband, Raw Oyster Cult, who was founded by Radiators guitarist Dave malone, and includes members of the Radiators, Papa Grows Funk, and Johnny Sketch and the Dirty Notes.  Playing mostly Radiators songs with a smattering of new originals, Raw Oyster Cult were one of the festival’s fan favorites, and the audience started to dance under the strong early afternoon sun, as frozen drinks flowed and the festival kicked into full gear.

Blues legend Walter “Wolfman” Washington was also playing on the Jagermeister Pavilion stage to a solid crowd who were enjoying his flawless guitar playing and soulful singing.

While Saturday was jam-packed with revisits by performers such as Ray Abshire, Curley Taylor, award-winning singer/songwriter Marcia Ball, and earlier performances by Mia Borders and Terrance Simien, the majority of the fans were eagerly anticipating New Orleans’ major musical legends, The Funky Meters.  Many fans camped on the field after Raw Oyster Cult to get ideal viewing spots for George, Art, Brian and Russell.  George and Art were joking around as they tuned up and set the mood for the rest of the lovely afternoon, as fans basked in the warm sunlight and the amazing jams and songs that ensued.  At one point, Brian Stolz tore into Hendrix’s “Voodoo Chile”, which was in the midst of a six or seven-song medley, which lasted nearly 45 minutes and included the Meters original, “Cissy Strut”, and Crosby, Stills and Nash’s “Love the One You’re With”, along with “Day Tripper” teases and epic soloing by Brian, George and Art, who were clearly having too much fun up on stage, connecting with their eager, smiling fans.  “Soulija”, “Ain’t No Use”, “Liza Jane” and other classics were woven in along with extended jams and soloing by the most illustrious power funk quartet.

In the midst of this musical magnificence, George Porter Jr. took a pause to give a one-year anniversary shout out to two dear friends (both of mine and his), Josh and Karen, who were wed by George at the Brooklyn Bowl a year ago.  Cheers went up from the crowd (for those who both knew Josh and Karen, and even those who didn’t).   Later I met up with Josh and Karen to make sure they heard the shout-out, and they were quite elated.

The Funky Meters ended up with a rousing “Fiyo on the Bayou” and finished with Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love”, but for the three-day campers and those of us in Josh & Karen’s anniversary party, the fun was far from over.  Having a solid two-hour break to get some tasty New Orleans cuisine and some much-needed leg rest, we were re-energized for what would be the most stunning set of the weekend by the relatively new superband, The Nth Power, comprised of drummer extraordinaire Nikki Glaspie (Dumpstaphunk, Beyonce), eminently talented keyboard/vocalist Nigel Hall, shredder and vocalist Nick Cassarino, solid reggae/funk bassist Nate Edgar, and the world-trained percussionist, Weedie Braimah.  Even the “long-time” fans who have known the Nth Power for the roughly two years they’ve been playing were blown away by the incredible musicanship of Saturday night’s special show.  Fans old and new alike were stunned speechless by the band’s fluid power and raw magnitude of jam excellence.  The Nth Power played all originals, including “Only Love”, “Walk on Water” (dedicated to a dear friend, Derek Carter, who recently passed away from cancer), and “Holy Rain”, among others.  Fans gravitated towards the band, and at the end, Nikki jumped down from her kit after a short speech about how “only love” matters in this world, and stopped down in front to hug fans and friends saying simply “I Love You”, which brought many to tears.  After this touching moment, Russell Batiste (Funky Meters) got up to play percussion with Weedie to close out their set with “All the Way”.

Sunday started off right with a hot tub session, and our remaining crew left early to make it back to the Fairgrounds for The Lee Boys, who treated us to sacred steel excellence, spearheaded by pedal steel pro Roosevelt Collier.  The Lee Boys played some of their gospel-derived originals, such as “Celebrate”, “I’m On My Way”, and “So Much to Live For”, with excellent musicianship by Roosevelt, and his relatives, Alvin Lee on guitar, Alvin Cordy Jr. on 7-string bass, and Earl Walker on drums.

The breakout star, for me, was the relatively lesser-known guitar blues prodigy, Jonathon Boogie Long.  Having seen Stevie Ray Vaughn up close and in person, I am fairly selective when it comes to blues shredders.  I was greatly impressed with Jonathon’s Alvin Lee level speed, but also his ability to keep the melody flowing and still connect with his band, even when he was pushing the limits with a soaring guitar solo.  Just as I thought I’d seen all his tricks, he walked off stage (while still playing) and went into the crowd without missing a note (which of course reminded me of Buddy Guy).  Once he realized everyone was following him, he tossed the guitar up over his head, and kept playing, while fans tracked him on their cell phones, getting some of the epic rock stunt on video.  As if that were not enough, he then climbed up into the bleachers and treated the fans sitting down to some up close guitar fireworks, smiling all the while as fans erupted in cheers and laughter.  As he moved back down into the crowd, people started following him parade style all the way back to the stage, and he kept soloing the entire time, and finished the song to resounding applause.

Ray Abshire’s Cajun Band and the Crawdaddies returned to the Dance Hall Stage during these performances, after which The Royal Southern Brotherhood took the Main Stage in the afternoon breeze.  Headed by Cyril Neville and joined by Yonrico Scott on drums, Mike Zito and Devon Allman on guitar, and Charlie Wooten on bass, they were also highly-appraised by music fans who were treated to some of the best southern style rock anywhere.  They played “Moonlight  Over The Mississippi”, “Ritual”, and other originals, with an amazing encore of The Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter”, with some of the best rock guitar dueling of the weekend.

Earphunk played some orginal progressive funk on the Jager Stage, and then JJ Grey and Mofro closed down the main stage with crowd favorite sing-a-longs, “Brighter Days” and “99 Shades of Crazy”.  Dumpstaphunk closed out the Jager stage with “Everybody Want Some” and other classics, backed by the superstar band of Ivan Neville, Tony Hall, Nikki Glaspie, Ian Neville and Nick Daniels, while Curley Taylor closed out the Dance Hall stage at the end of the festival.

Stellar performances by many of New Orleans’ finest performers, break-out sets by newcomers to the scene, amazing food and drinks, with well-manicured grounds and top-notch production makes Michael Arnone’s Crawfish Festival a must-see event for outdoor music lovers of all ages.

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