Michael Arnone’s 22nd Annual Crawfish Festival
Sussex County Fairgrounds
June 3-5, 2011
The beautiful tree lined Sussex County Fair Grounds was the site for the 22nd Annual Michael Arnone’s Crawfish Fest which is held during the first weekend in June each year in the scenic northwest corner of New Jersey. For three days, this corner of the northeast becomes home to the scrumptious flavors of New Orleans’ music, food and atmosphere; set up to recharge Big Easy expatriates as well as spread the good word of one of America’s best party places.
There are two unique ways to experience the festival, either as a Saturday/Sunday single ticket day trip, or as a Friday through Sunday camping trip. The camping is a far cry from standardly difficult festival fare. In fact, it is easy. You can park at your campsite or hook up an RV, and there are nearby showers.
Arnone goes for an extra measured benefit for those willing to camp and be a part of the festival for the whole weekend by setting up nighttime shows that are just for the campers. This year he brought in some heavy New Orleans hitters for nighttime fun, including George Porter Jr. and the Runnin’ Pardners and Bonerama.
The Radiators have played this festival several times, but when they were booked for this year, it wasn’t immediately known that this show would be the fifth to last gig of the beloved outfit’s illustrious 33 year career. It was well known by Saturday however, and both the bandÂ and crowd were ready for a decidedly special time. The band’s love for one another and for their fans was immediately recognizable.
The show was emotionally charged right out of the gate, but really exploded when the Rads started to invite some long time friends up on stage with them, the first being the ferocious Cajun blues guitar player, Tab Benoit.
Tab sat in for two songs, trading solos with Rads guitarists Dave Malone and Camille Baudoin and raising the stakes of an already tenacious set. Following Tab was Mark Mullins of Bonerama, then his two trombone playing band mates, Craig Klein and Greg Hicks. After which, all the guests joined the Radiators on stage for a high powered encore, leaving the crowd wishing this would never end and glad that they were there for this little piece of history.
George Porter Jr. and the Runnin’ Pardners
George Porter Jr. is musical royalty in the world of funk, and the crowd for the afterhours set was packed with his devotees. The band was in a good mood, joking with each other and their fans. The set was full of tasty surprises like the opening tune, “6V6 LA,” a beautiful old Meters tune written by Leo Nocentelli.
Another fun moment came when long time Runnin’ Pardner’s guitarist, Brint Anderson, sat down and played two solo songs with a slide on his dobro. Brint’s playing was soulful and gave an interesting break in a night of hard driving funk.
Slick jazz saxophonist Louis Fouche was subbing for regular Runnin’ Pardner, Khris Royal. Louis dropped searing solos on top of the Runnin’ Pardners funky grooves at a moment’s notice and upon nod command from Porter; lighting up the crowd, which included Louis’ beaming dad who was standing up front… tall and proud.
Porter’s enthusiasm is as contagious as his playing is brilliant; crafted from a lifetime of playing at the epicenter of funk. His band is filled with great players like the young drummer, Terrence Houston.
Terrence is a very active player but somehow doesn’t seem to ever overplay. His time and groove are that of a guy who has way more experience and he infuses the music with excitement. Michael Lemmler has played keyboards with George for nearly two decades and can flat out burn when it is called for.
George Porter Jr. and the Runnin’ Pardners simply put, are tail waggin’ funk; and the Crawfish crowd gobbled it up.
The New Mastersounds with Art Neville
Hailing from Leeds, England, The New Mastersounds have literally become the equivalent to the the British invasion…of funk at least. Putting a wrap on their American tour by headlining Crawfish Fest, they brought one of funk’s founding father with them, Art “Poppa Funk” Neville.
There are many people in the roll call who are responsible for early funk development, but as a leader of the Meters and the Neville Brothers, Art’s influence is hard to overstate. The New Mastersounds were – as they always are – ever mindful and respectful of that influence and were as excited as kids on Christmas morning for the chance to once again share the stage with one of their heroes.
The New Mastersounds started out in the mid 1990’s playing Meters tunes and doing some writing of their own. They went to school on the lessons taught by bands like the Meters and Booker T and the MG’s, where melody is king. Their songs are tasty and memorable; their take on the style is fresh, energetic and enthusiastic.
The set started with fan favorites, “Hole In The Bag,” “3 On The B” and “Zambezi.” While The New Mastersounds tore through their songs, Art sat at the back of the stage with a huge smile on his face, screaming “Yeah” after Eddie Roberts’ guitar solos and Joe Tatton’s keyboard solos. It was apparent that Art was as big a fan as the screaming people out front.
The show alternated between the band’s super funky grooves and the between-song-dry-wit of long time friends Roberts and drummer Simon Allen. They are smart and funny, adding another element to the show.
Finally, Eddie Roberts told a story of how he was given a cassette tape of the Meters when he and Simon started playing together and how that “really changed their lives.” With that, they brought Art up to play with them and the show took on a slightly different feel; becoming more of an old school grinding kind of groove as the band played classic Meters songs like “Funky Miracle,” “Live Wire,” “9 â€˜til 5” and then the Meters hits “Look-ka Py Py” and Cissy Strut.” The band then brought Joe Tatton back on stage to join them as they attacked “Here Comes the Meter Man” and Art’s vocally led “It Ain’t No Use.”
Billing themselves as New Orleans premier washboard, sousaphone and guitar trio, the Tin Men crushed the Crawfish Fest faithful with two sets, a Friday night campers only set and the opening set on Saturday morning. The band features three amazing musicians in percussion and vocalist Charles “Washboard Chaz” Leary, former Bonerama tuba player Matt Perrine and Alex McMurray on guitar and vocals.
This band wove together a tapestry of great song writing, great playing and hysterical cover song versions that left some of the loudest ovations of the weekend in their wake. Their versions of The Who’s My Generation, The Beatles’ “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,” Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” and Motorhead’s “Ace of Spades – all played on washboard, sousaphone and a resonator guitar – were sublime.
Carolyn Wonderland wowed the crowd at her campers only set with vocals strong enough to be akin to Janis Joplin spliced with great Texas blues guitar, lap steel and even occasional trumpet play. She played with soul and a lack of pretension. She was grateful for the small crowd that was there saying “Thanks everybody for taking a chance on me, I know you probably don’t know who I am.” It is likely they won’t forget though, as the line to buy her albums was long.
Bonerama dropped their usual brilliant set of trombone driven funk/rock/New Orleans gumbo to a packed night time crowd for a solid two and a half hours. The set was highlighted with sit-ins by Marc Paradis (Johnny Sketch and the Dirty Notes) and Jumpin’ Johnny Sansone on harmonica.
Touring monsters, Bonerama’s fan base has steadily grown as they play for fewer and fewer uninitiated folks. They delivered exactly what was promised on Saturday night, the perfect ending to the day’s abundance of musical riches.
Tab Benoit is a multi talented performer who knows how to read a crowd and give exactly what is expected. He played a beautifully beaten to death Fender Telecaster as he brushed against a multitude of blues styles from slow burns like “Dirty Dishes” to high powered songs like “Night Train.” He did a masterful job as MC, telling funny stories and drawing people in. His friend Jumpin’ Johnny Sansone sat in with him, playing blues harp and accordion. It was a strong set in a day filled with strong sets.
As Cowboy Mouth closed out their set with their biggest hit, “Jenny Says,” drummer and lead singer Fred LeBlanc started to invite kids that were close to the front up on stage to play drums with him. Five kids were lifted up onto the stage, given drum sticks and the chance of a lifetime, to play drums at the peak of a huge rock-n-roll show. The crowd was inspired, the kids were psyched and when they finally got to join in, the fairgrounds exploded. You couldn’t find someone that wasn’t smiling. Simply put, it was a beautiful scene.
There was plenty to keep people entertained at this fest. Three stages that kept music rolling all day, including a dance hall stage that featured Cajun and zydeco, as well as daily dance lessons.
The food was a great combination of Louisiana fare like boiled crawfish, chicken/sausage jambalaya, grilled alligator sausage, crawfish etouffee and beignets.
The weather was perfect and the talent level was high. Version 23 of this festival is looking like June 1-3, 2012. Missing it would be a mistake.
Click the thumbnails to view more photos from the fest by Bob Adamek…