Leading up to the 23rd annual Crawfish Fest, held in the scenic wilds of northwestern New Jersey, founder Michael Arnone had outdone himself 22 times. Naturally, expectations were high, but in year 23 and courtesy of the acts, atmosphere, Â food and setting Arnone outdid himself yet again — seemingly having found complete harmony, and thereby again provided fans yet one more unforgettable experience.
Posturing itself like a mini (New Orleans) Jazz Fest, the festival combines a fine sampler consisting of some of the preeminent Louisiana music acts along with a smorgasbord of mouth watering delicacies of Bayou origin.
For one weekend, in a region that rarely serves up one of the famed Louisiana fares, let alone virtually all of the high notes, Arnone’s Crawfish Fest transports its attendees to Bourbon and beyond. Dishes like catfish or shrimp and oyster Po Boys, boiled crawfish, crawfish etouffee and grilled alligator sausage are featured in booth after booth, treating the annual gathering of fans that relish in Louisiana culture, but for whatever reason live hundreds or even thousands of miles away from The Pelican State.
All of the above are par for the Arnone’s Crawfish Fest course but this year, an extra dollop of Cajun sauce (if you will) had the Sussex County Fairgrounds buzzing at a fever pitch. The dollop came in the form of a fourth stage that played host to several Arnone-drafted artists that would provide musical workshops throughout the weekend.
The attendance was high and the reception, huge. Fans were able to interact with some of their favorite musicians. Children were given the opportunity to make music with the likes of funk stalwarts such as Bonerama and Stanton Moore, who gave workshops that subsequently gave way to lasting memories that will never be forgotten by the kids or the parents that looked on with glee.
The food, the workshops and the fantastic bill of acts — that included Dumpstaphunk, Dr. John, Galactic, Bonerama, Stanton Moore Trio, Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Marcia Ball and Walter “Wolfman” Washington amongst others — made for a triumphant 23rd installment of an event that has grown from tiny to seminal, Michael Arnone’s Crawfish Fest.
On the heels of his extremely successful release, Locked Down, Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Dr. John brought his seven piece band to the Saturday night’s headlining slot. Dr. John’s place of importance in the musical community, particularly within this subset, was plain to see. Members of Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Honey Island Swamp Band and Glen David Andrews Band flanked the stage, reverently taking in virtually the entire set, clearly showing respect for the “Night Tripper” man that holds slot 143 on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time (Gris Gris) and whose 1976 album with The Meters, Desitively Bonnaroo, served as the derivation of the oddball named festival.
This night found Dr. John playing with a renewed energy and happiness. Whether coming as a result of his new album, improved health or the all-star band he has with him, his show was righteous.
His band included popular funky mainstays Jon Cleary on keyboards and Ray Weber on drums, and collectively, the ensemble drove through an energetic, funky and soulful mix of heavily covered Dr. John classics like â€œRight Place, Wrong Timeâ€ and â€œI Walk on Guilded Splintersâ€ (a tune that has been served up by everyone from Cher to Widespread Panic) and a nice mix from the new album. Collectively, all sounded fantastic on this evening in Jersey that even saw Dr. John showcase his original weapon of choice when he took three chances on guitar.
Galactic has been traveling with Corey Henry (Rebirth Brass Band) and Corey Glover (Living Colour) all year and has hit a stride that feels like one of, if not their very best yet.
Henry provides trombone harmonies that complement Ben Ellmanâ€™s sax, strapping solos and occasional hip hop vocals that provide a unique variance, as did those of Chali 2na in 2007 and 2008.
Glover is a first rate front man with a very powerful voice with chops to pull off classic R&B, funk and the myriad of styles from Galacticâ€™s latest release Carnival Electricos to boot.
For the tuned in ear though, the true excitement at a Galactic show is in the interplay of the rhythm section, especially built around drummer Stanton Moore and bassist Robert Mercurio.
Mercurio is as rock-steady as any player you will ever hear and most songs start with him and Moore locked as tight as two players can be. So strong is Mercurioâ€™s time and groove that Moore can take off and completely leave the pocket to ignite the music with swirling poly-rhythms that dance off of the solos. All the while Mercurio and his guitar mate, Jeff Raines, hold the song together, waiting for Moore to help peak someoneâ€™s solo, then return. This kind of backline, together with their impressive front line gives the current Galactic lineup explosiveness.
Two highlights of this set included a ripping sit-in by Stanton Moore Trio guitarist Will Bernard, and amidst a patchy sky, a vibrant rainbow that perfectly framed the throng of raging Galactic lovers for the band.
On Friday and Saturday nights at this festival, Michael Arnone provides night shows as a special treat for folks that camp for the weekend. On Friday night, a six band lineup was topped off in the Jaeger Pavilion by Ivan Nevilleâ€™s Dumpstaphunk. Crawfish Fest fans got their long time wish of seeing this band here, and were not at all disappointed by the super funky, jamming set.
Newest Dumpstaphunk member, drummer Nikki Glaspie, wowed the Friday night crowd with her aggressive funky drumming and great background vocals. In fact, all of Dumpstaphunkâ€™s singers were on, showing off harmonies and range rarely seen in the funk world, this side of the Neville Brothers.
The setâ€™s highlights were many, as the crowd wriggled and danced hard, but was crowned by a mighty cover of David Bowieâ€™s “Fame.” The hypnotic driving groove took the band to a different level, tight and very deliberate.
By the time Dumpstaphunk had finished, the tone was set for the rest of the weekend… dance hard and get ready to be wowed.
New Orleans Suspects
The term â€œsupergroupâ€ is often overused, especially in a place like New Orleans where it seems all the musicians belong to just one big band and occasionally split off to do side projects which have their own names like Galactic, Funky Meters, Dumpstaphunk and the like.
In the case of the New Orleans Suspects — who opened Saturday’s festivities — however, the city filtered out some of the very best players and the results were fabulous.
The New Orleans Suspects are drummer Mean Willie Green (Neville Brothers), bassist Reggie Scanlan (Radiators), guitarist Jake Eckert and tenor saxophonist Kevin Harris (Dirty Dozen Brass Band) and keyboardist CR Gruver (Outformation).
There was a lot on display that sets this group apart from many other funk bands, and chief amongst were the vocals of Eckert and Gruver. Although they sing in a very similar range, the vocals are fresh, clean and simply put, very good.
Mean Willie Green brought the deep groove that has driven the Neville Brothers, one of the hardest grooving bands ever, for 25 years and Reggieâ€™s bass playing grooving at a depth far beyond that of any outing that Iâ€™ve ever witnessed.
Jake Eckertâ€™s playing was captivating; going from a clean and low down style, to dirtily Â gritty with nicely timed crescendos.
Gruver found a vast blend of funky bad piano and organ that managed to add a very murky background, fresh out of the swamp while also intermittently switching from piano to organ mid-solo, and thereby injecting energy and feel.
Kevin Harris was outstanding; occasionally coaxing sounds well beyond the normal range of a tenor saxophone.
All told, the quintet was “super” in more than one way, a well tucked gem for those that made the clutch decision to rise and shine.
Crawfish natives Bonerama provided another great festival set and had some special treats in store.
Scheduled for two back to back sets, with the second being a stop on the kid’s stage, many of the young festival goers already had their trombones in tow. As luck would have it for one lucky eleven year old young man named Colin, Bonerama opted to not wait until their forthcoming set to join musical hands with their younger funk brethren. Rather, the band invited Colin to take the main stage with them.
In related news, Colin’s stage time didn’t end with Bonerama. Shortly after, he found himself onstage with two more guests, The Radiators’ Dave Malone & Reggie Scanlan, who offered up something that many a fish head in the crowd was pleased to hear, Â â€œLike Dreamers Doâ€ from the Radiators 1987 album Law of the Fish.
Glen David Andrews
Glen David Andrewsâ€™ Jazz Fest sets have become legendary and he did not disappoint at Crawfish Fest. Through his notable high-energy MC style of working a stage and crowd, Andrews had the multitude of Crawfish FestÂ waving their arms in the air — jumping, dancing and singing all set long.
Mixing Gospel, blues and New Orleans standards, Andrews spendt as much time walking through the crowd as he did on stage. At one point, Â he decided to grab his trombone and get all the horn players to follow him out into the crowd for a second line; all creating a palpable frenetic energy that was a force unto itself.
Being that his set fell right after Bonerama’s workshop, the trombone-in-hand kids had ambled their way back to the “parents” stage, it was only natural for the endearing front man to follow suit with the occurrences of earlier by inviting another one of the trombone lugging krewe to the stage.
This time, the honor went to a 16 year old named Abe Nouri. The excited teenager got on stage and joined two other guests already sitting in, Efrem Towns and Kevin Harris, founding members of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band and the crowd ate it up, fully psyched at the artist’s display of kinship with an aspiring musician.
(By Jay Austin)
A truly exceptional happening came in the form of New Jersey natives and originators of “Hick-Pop,” From Good Homes. Playing for just their third time since the band’s “farewell show” Â (that gave way to Take Enough Home)on August 7, 1999, the band — that perhaps fell victim to the Hootie and Dave Matthews craze that was forming around them — made the absolute most of their time on stage together by rattling off a superb 19 song effort. Just as the case was when they reunited in 2009, the set managed to do many things. Peopledanced, sang and the like, but above all else, the set Â left people hungry for more and just as has been the case since ’99, caused many a head to be scratched… “Tell me why this band broke up again.”
On the other hand, without said break up, there never would have been Railroad Earth (who played Crawfish in 2008), thus providing yet another layer and caveat to the headscratching.
Setlist: 2nd Red Barn On The Right, Suzanna Walker, Butterfly & The Tree, There She Goes, The Giving Tree, Â Up On Cripple Creek, If The Wind Blows, Bang That Drum, I Only Want, Ride All Night, Broken Road, Â Fruitful Acre, I am a Mess, Donâ€™t Wanna Hang Up My Rock n Roll Shoes, Comin’ on Home, Raindance
Encore: Maybe We Will, Maybe We Will Reprise
With additional fantastic sets turned in by Johnny Sketch and the Dirty Notes, Stanton Moore Trio, Grayson Capps, Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Walter “Wolfman” Washington,Â the music was top notch. But just as was mentioned at the onset, the music is far from being the sole reason that makes Michael Arnone’s Crawfish Festival a destination that has turned most who take the plunge to become recidivists. Let’s face it: anyone with a large enough wallet can book great talent.
What makes Crawfish Fest such an especially unique outing is that each first weekend in June, it delivers a niche specific plate in combination with a vast array of focal points, to the point that one would be challenged a comparable suitor.
Whether traveling solo or bringing the whole fam, the festival is equally welcoming. Its food, vibe, atmosphere, idyllic setting and of course, its music, all combine at this festival to give a most memorable experience… 23 years in a row.
Click the thumbnail(s) to view more photos from the fest by Bob Adamek…