Aaron Neville showcases still-golden voice at Crawfish Fest

crawfish Fest 2019 review

PHOTOS BY JAY LUSTIG

Aaron Neville at the Crawfish Fest, June 1.

In 1966, Aaron Neville sang a yearning love song called “Tell It Like It Is” with such aching purity that it became a No. 2 hit, standing behind only The Monkees’ “I’m a Believer” on Billboard magazine’s Hot 100 chart (the week of Jan. 28, 1967, in case you were wondering)

On June 1, more than five decades later — at the Crawfish Fest at the Sussex County Fairgrounds in Augusta — Neville sang it again at the age of 78. And his voice was, miraculously, so well preserved that it didn’t seem to have changed a bit.

Neville is now, of course, one of the elder statesmen of the New Orleans music scene. And the Crawfish Fest, now in its 30th year (the last day of this year’s festival is June 2), is well established as an annual opportunity for New Jerseyans to take a deep dive into New Orleans R&B, brass bands, zydeco and Cajun dance music, and everything else that emanates out into the world, musically, from Louisiana. (Some attendees may be equally or even more interested in the authentic Louisiana food, including thousands of pounds of crawfish transported directly from that state.)

Neville’s band, The Neville Brothers, last performed together in 2015, and the death of Charles Neville, last year, makes a full reunion impossible. Neville performed at the Crawfish Fest with his Aaron Neville Quintet, or, as they were introduced, the Aaron Neville Quintet with the Spirit of Charles Neville. It’s a polished and dynamic group, with several strong vocalists in addition to Neville himself.

They played moody, mysterious funk on songs such as “Yellow Moon” and “Use Me,” but, perhaps inspired by their late-afternoon set time and the festival’s family vibe, generally kept things more upbeat, with a gentle cover of The Drifters’ “This Magic Moment,” for instance, and a soul medley featuring songs like “Stand by Me,” “Cupid” and “Chain Gang.”

There were some powerful ballads, including Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” and Randy Newman’s “Louisiana 1927,” in the middle of the set, but Neville rocked out for most of the rest of it, with a fast medley of “Down by the Riverside” and “When the Saints Go Marching In,” then a ’50s rock medley (“Johnny B. Goode,” “Bony Moronie,” “Dizzy, Miss Lizzy,” “Long Tall Sally,” “Oh, Boy!”), and then more retro rock with “Willie and the Hand Jive” and “You Never Can Tell” before the set-closing “Tell It Like It Is.”

Encores were a bit more low-key and pensive: “Amazing Grace”; a medley of Bob Marley’s “One Love” and Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready”; Marley’s “Redemption Song”; and the doo-wop classic, “Goodnite, Sweetheart, Goodnite.”

Members of the Rebirth Brass Band at the Crawfish Fest, on June 1.

Neville was preceded on the main stage by Rebirth Brass Band, who have been around, with various lineup changes, since the ’80s, and are best known for their Mardi Gras anthem, “Do Whatcha Wanna.” As they had no guitars, bass or drum kit, they looked like they could break into a parade march at any moment; they didn’t, though they played with high energy throughout their set, while also adding a lot of complexity with slippery, inventive rhythms and jazzy soloing.

Neville’s and the Rebirth Brass Band’s sets were the only complete ones I saw. This festival has three stages, so part of the fun is wandering from stage to stage, sampling a bit of everything.

One of the highlights of the day for me was John “Papa” Gros’ genially funky version of Allen Toussaint’s “Play Something Sweet (Brickyard Blues”) on the main stage. On the smaller Pavilion Stage, I saw some of Jonathon Long’s incendiary blues-rock, and songs by The Iceman Special that added some experimental, neo-psychedelic jamming to the day’s musical mix.

And in the festival’s dance hall, I saw Nathan & the Zydeco Cha Chas and New Jersey’s own Big Mamou play traditional music well enough to keep both dancers, and those who just came to listen, perfectly satisfied.

Click here for the schedule and a video preview of the final day of Crawfish Fest, June 2.

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