Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Crawfish Fest in NJ

What comes to mind when you think of New Jersey? Jersey Turnpike, Jersey Shore, Jersey Girls, Springsteen, the Sopranos, Atlantic City, blueberry farms? Last weekend it was more like jambalaya, crawfish and gumbo. Add in some accordions and rubboards, hot Texas blues, a band of trombones playing funk, jazz and rock, including a Led Zeppelin cover, and you have Michael Arnone’s 19th Annual Crawfish Fest, where we experienced all that and more. The 3-day festival in Northwest New Jersey made us feel like we were right back in Southwest Louisiana.

We arrived at the Sussex County fairgrounds a little after 2 pm and set up our camp, which consists of a conversion van , a folding table and chairs, a tent to store gear, and something for shade. We relaxed and visited with friends for awhile, then made our way over into the festival grounds, where I’d heard they were serving free jambalaya for campers only - one of the many perks offered to entice people to camp for the weekend rather than just go for a day. Expecting a small sample, I could barely finish the mountain of delicious jambalaya from Daddy Arnone’s giant pot, which resembled an industrial size washing machine tub. And as if that wasn’t enough, we were served a boatload of spicy boiled crawfish, too, which we devoured while listening to Donna the Buffalo. A shot of ice cold Jaeger purchased from the local firemen was a nice touch, helping to cool down our throats after all that spice. Afterwards we grooved to a nice long set by the Radiators. The Friday night music was for campers only, and it took place inside a pavilion with bleacher seats on the side, and a cement floor. That is one unique feature of the festival site - all the permanent structures that are part of the fairgrounds, which is used for equine and agricultural shows and an annual county fair, provide shelter in case of heat or bad weather. And the bathrooms are completely civilized! Instead of the usual porta-potties and makeshift showers (if your lucky) they have real indoor plumbing, plenty of stalls with an attendant (!) handing out paper towels and sundries, and free hot showers. It makes a huge difference to the "camping" experience, which is really not so much like camping as it is like an extended tailgate party.

We returned to our spot in Threadhead Village, home to dozens of friends we’ve met at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage fest over the years, to find a pile of mints for our pillows, which had been left for us by Melissa the Crawfish Camping Fairy. We are used to camping at fests and have our own set up, so we chose not to join in on the food commune that some of the other folks had organized. Plus, I wanted to try more of the food from the vendors, over the weekend. We appreciated the campfire though and it was nice to be near everyone, and relatively close to the music too. I did bring my accordion and was looking for people to jam with, but didn’t really find any. That is the one thing I found lacking, compared to the other music/camping festivals I go to. Well, my hubby and my girlfriend did their best to accompany me with a rubboard and a wooden frog, but I would have loved to see more musicians in the campgrounds. If any of my jamming buddies from Rhythm and Roots or Grey Fox are reading this, consider checking out this festival next year.

Saturday the sun woke us up at 5 am (because we didn’t put up the big tarp) but clouds rolled in and after breakfast, it started raining. Actually, according to the weather forecasts, we were expecting a washout that day and wore our yellow slickers into the festival. Of course, because of that, it stopped raining by the time we arrived at the main stage, and Roddie Romero and the Hub City All Stars took the stage, playing a lively set of Cajun and swamp pop music to dance to. Soon it was too hot to wear the rain gear, and it eventually turned out to be a beautiful day! We saw Little Freddy King, Leroy Thomas, Tab Benoit. Lunch was a scrumptious fried oyster po’boy and some turkey/quail/andouille gumbo. We watched a little of piano player Mitch Woods but after waking up so early we were tired and retreated back to camp for a nap during Donna the Buffalo, who we see quite often. We could hear them pretty well from the van though, and they sounded really good. I was eagerly anticipating the Funky Meters set, and it was great to see Art Neville, George Porter, and Russell Batiste. They started off slow and seemed to take a while to get going. In my opinion, it wasn’t the most inspired set I’ve heard from those guys, but I liked when they played Hey Pocky Way and some other New Orleans classics.

The set ended abruptly right on time, with a severe weather scare – possible tornadoes and hail! We rushed back to button things up at camp then sat in the van to wait it out, but luckily it wasn’t too bad, and didn't last long. After dinner we were treated to an awesome set by Tab Benoit’s band with guests Mitch Woods, Leroy Thomas, and Ruben the Rubboard player, who was going absolutely nuts on that thing. That set was definitely the high point of Saturday, maybe the whole weekend. There weren't too many people at Leroy's set in the dance hall earlier that afternoon, so it was so great to see the reception he and Ruben got during the night set. We get to see Leroy quite often, but it’s usually at a dance where that kind of showmanship is not fully appreciated. The crowd at the Crawfish Fest nighttime set – again, only available to campers – lapped it right up. Again it rained a bit, but the performance was under the pavilion, so it did not matter. By the time it finished around 10 pm the rain had ended too and we returned to Threadhead Village to hang with our friends.

Sunday morning started with the Lee Boys, who were great – they play that Robert Randolph kind of Sacred Steel. Then Rosie Ledet decided not to show up for some unknown reason, so Leroy Thomas was tapped to fill in. Alright! Another smoking zydeco set by Leroy and the Zydeco Roadrunners, especially that wildman Ruben on the rubboard. They had a chance to shine in front of a bigger audience than they would have had in the dance tent, and there were lots more people there Sunday because the weather was perfect. Dancers were not relegated to a side area - there were lots of people dancing, right in front of the stage, just like in Louisiana.

I loved hearing Bonerama on Sunday - I thought they were even better than last year. Railroad Earth sounded OK but I wasn't in the mood for them right after Bonerama. We had to get going anyway, though, so we said our goodbyes during RRE and hit the road. I probably would have stayed to hear some of Allen Toussaint if he had been on right after Bonerama. At this festival, I like hearing the New Orleans style music more. Even Donna the Buffalo, who I really like, I could have done without, since we see them at so many other festivals around here. At Crawfish Fest, I would love to see more brass bands, jazz bands, the kind of stuff we don't get so much of up here... of course that's why I go to New Orleans Jazzfest, which is the ultimate.... but this Crawfish fest to me is sort of like an extension of Jazzfest, in a more relaxed setting. In fact, I think what I like most about it is the relaxed atmosphere – no one is jockeying for position, or hogging space. Rather than fighting for a spot up front, many people stake their claim in the back, where they set up shade canopies. People go up front to see the band up close and dance in front of the stage, then retreat to the back when they want to chill out and talk.

There were times it felt just like being at jazzfest, looking around and seeing so many smiling familiar faces, with the bonus of actually having time to socialize at the fest and in the camp, without all the running around.

Many thanks to Michael, Chuck, Melissa, and the rest of the Crawfish Krewe for making this festival such a fun and relaxing event. We hope to return next year for the 20th annual.

Here is a link to the rest of my pictures from Crawfish Fest 2008

Additional photos by Swag, proprieter of, a great resource for all things Fest.

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