Most years, I only go to one day of Crawfish Fest. But this year, the lineup was so strong that I felt compelled to go two days (Sat.-Sun., June 2-3; the Fri., June 1 music was for campers only).
And I was very glad I did. The weather was not ideal, but good enough: Saturday was hot and the rain mostly held off, except for one period of about an hour in the afternoon; Sunday was cool, with virtually no rain at all. And the music was very satisfying.
The fest has three stages with, often, bands playing on two or all three of them at the same time, so I moved around a lot, sampling a lot off different things.
One of the few full sets I saw was by Taj Mahal, on the main stage, Sunday. I have not seen him perform in a number of years, and I was a little worried that, at the age of 76, he might be slowing down. But his voice was strong, his playing on a variety of stringed instruments was sharp, and his performances were spirited on a set dominated by trademark songs (“Fishing Blues,” “You’re Going to Need Somebody on Your Bond”) and other classic material such as “C.C. Rider,” “Corinna,” “Good Morning, Little Schoolgirl” and “Dust My Broom.”
He was backed by longtime collaborators Billy Rich, on bass, and Kester Smith, on drums, and they were joined for much of the set by guest pianist John Simon, a legend in his own right as a producer who has worked with The Band, Janis Joplin, Simon & Garfunkel, Blood, Sweat & Tears and many others. Simon’s playing blended smoothly into the arrangements, and he also got a lot of soloing time.
Taj Mahal was preceded, on the main stage, by Samantha Fish, a fast-rising blues-soul singer-guitarist who more than lived up to her hype with a series of fiery performances. Saturday’s lineup included some equally impressive guitar fireworks from Tab Benoit and Brandon “Taz” Niederauer, who, at 15, is a real prodigy on an instrument though he still has a lot of room to grow as a singer and songwriter.
Though I missed most of his set (which started while Taj Mahal was still on), I got to see a little bit of legendary funk bassist George Porter Jr (of The Meters), who performed with his own band The Runnin’ Pardners. And though I missed Marcia Ball’s set on the main stage on Saturday, I did see her other set, on the smaller Pavilion Stage.
I also saw parts of crowd-pleasing, funky sets by Big Sam’s Funky Nation, the trombone-heavy Bonerama, and Brother Joscephus and the Love Revolution. This last band, who played for a large crowd in the Pavilion Stage building (their set was at a time when it was raining, so many people who would normally be outside, on the Main Stage field, sought cover there), ranged from classic stuff like “Jambalaya” and “Bon Temps Roulez” to surprising covers of the Electric Light Orchestra’s “Mr. Blue Sky” and The Beatles’ “Octopus’ Garden.”
The Matt Angus Thing, who always co-headline the annual Black Potatoe Music Festival in Clinton, performed an earthy, soulful set early on Saturday, featuring John Ginty (whose credits range from Robert Randolph’s Family Band to the Dixie Chicks) on organ. The set was capped by The Grateful Dead’s “Franklin’s Tower,” seguing into Buffalo Springfield’s timeless protest song, “For What It’s Worth.”
I caught just the tail end of another Jersey band, the Zydeco Revelators, but heard them audaciously put a zydeco spin on songs such as The Cars’ “Let’s Go,” Huey Lewis & the News’ “I Want a New Drug” and Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark.” And though I didn’t see it in person, I heard that disco queen Gloria Gaynor, of all people, made a guest appearance during Mike Farris’ set, singing Bob Dylan’s “Man of Peace.”
The fest was just two weeks ago. But in order for people to be able to buy tickets for next year’s fest to give as Father’s Day presents, those tickets went on sale yesterday.
Next year’s 30th annual Crawfish Fest will take place at the Sussex County Fairgrounds in Augusta, May 31 and June 1-2. No acts have been announced yet, but way-in-advance tickets are available at a discount, at crawfishfest.com.
Here are some videos from this year’s show:
Taj Mahal, with John Simon: “Dust My Broom”
Samantha Fish: “Somebody’s Always Trying”
Tab Benoit: “Crawfishin’ ”
Zydeco Revelators: “Dancing in the Dark”