For the past twenty-four years, the bucolic northwest corner of New Jersey has taken on a decidedly Cajun feel when Michael Arnone’s Annual Crawfish Fest arrives for a three-day New Orleans style Music, Food and Camping Festival. While weather has sometimes been an issue with the timing of the fest, this year promised sunshine, even if the temperature threatened to be as scorching as the expected music.
From the minute you enter the New Jersey State Fairgrounds, the flavor of this event is evident. Mardi Gras beads, Cajun flags, and party hats lead the way to food stands featuring cauldrons of boiling crawfish, heaping plates of jambalaya, shrimp creole, pulled pork and alligator sausage on a stick.
While the food choices are fun and spicy, the music is hot. The Friday night show is strictly for the campers and crew, sort of a tune-up for the rest of the weekend. On Saturday, the music kicked off as harmonica player Johnny Sansone, with some sweat and tears flowing from a smokin’ blues harp, set the feel for the day.
With the area nearest the stage reserved for standees and beach chairs, the area set farther back was filled with friends and families gathered under colored canopies. As the festival heated up with music, a never-ending stream of attendees, and a rising temperature; a cooling breeze came off the nearly mountains, making for a very pleasant afternoon.
Big Sam’s Funky Nation’s “Shake Yo Thang”
The fest offers two stages, one outdoor and one indoor, as well as a dance hall and a kids stage. It’s a very family friendly atmosphere, and while the hundreds of kids were having more fun playing than listening to the music, the parents clearly enjoyed a few relaxed hours on a Saturday afternoon.
Later in the day, as Baton Rouge’s Tab Benoit was saying how “music is food for the soul,” and playing his Delta blues to a packed crowd on the second stage, blues-rock guitarist Mia Borders was telling the crowd that it was hotter in New Jersey than it was in New Orleans. Then she proceeded to add a few degrees to the heat factor. About midway through her set, she decided to play what she called “one of my guilty pleasures.” The opening lines fit the day perfectly:
“Hot sun beating down
burning my feet just walking around.
Hot sun making me sweat
‘Gators getting close, hasn’t got me yet”
Borders punched out a totally from the gut version of “I Can’t Dance” by Genesis. Making it more than a guilty pleasure, Borders’ cover was gritty and intense.
Following Borders on the main stage was Big Sam’s Funky Nation. With a rhythm that incites non-stop dancing, trombonist Big Sam Williams leads a raucous party of fun and funk. Even if you were sitting at the far end of the festival, no way your feet weren’t keeping the beat for the entire two hour set.
The music on Sunday featured such tasty acts as Aaron Neville and Papa Grows Funk. And while the music is the draw, once you arrive at the Crawfish Fest, the day becomes more about the atmosphere. Plenty of food choices, beers available at a decent price and music featuring both headline acts and lesser known bands you were happy to discover, make the Crawfish Fest a great way to spend either an afternoon, a day or a weekend.
Written by Kath Galasso