“People still freak out when I say I’m playing a crawfish festival in New Jersey,” said Tab Benoit at the 28th annual Crawfish Fest, June 3 at the Sussex County Fairgrounds in Augusta. “Even people in New Jersey.”
That seems a little odd, just because the Crawfish Fest has been around so long. On the other hand, the Crawfish Fest’s mere existence is improbable. The long-running event, celebrating Louisiana musician and Louisiana food, routinely draws crowds in the tens of thousands. In Northwestern New Jersey.
This year’s Crawfish Fest took place on the night of June 2 (with music for overnight campers only) and all day June 3 and 4. I was there only for June 3, when the weather was near-perfect (there was some rain on June 4).
The headliner on June 3 was The Fabulous Thunderbirds — formed more than 40 years ago in Austin, Texas. (Crawfish Fest may emphasize Louisiana music, but is not exclusively devoted to it). Guitarist Jimmie Vaughan left the group in 1989; it’s now a quintet led by co-founder Kim Wilson, a singer-songwriter and harmonica virtuoso.
The Thunderbirds have the chops to satisfy hardcore blues purists, and did include some long, intense jams in their Crawfish Fest set. But they also played their old MTV hits “Tuff Enuff” and “Wrap It Up,” as well as a Motown classic: The Temptations’ “(I Know) I’m Losing You.” Presumably in a nod to the setting, they encored with its cover of “You Ain’t Nothing But Fine,” written by zydeco giant Rockin’ Sidney.
There were four Crawfish stages this year, and I saw most of the mainstage music, as well as portions of some sets by bands booked on other stages (including two rootsy groups from the Northeast, Yarn and Cabinet). On the mainstage, I particularly enjoyed the sets by guitar slinger Benoit (who opened with “Crawfishin’,” which could be a kind of festival theme song) and singer-songwriter-accordionist Terrance Simien, who presents himself as a kind of genial ambassador for Louisiana music, singing lots of upbeat anthems and frequently throwing beaded necklaces out into the crowd, as if it were Mardi Gras.
“There’s nothing better than live music to bring people together,” said Simien. “Especially when there’s so much confusion out there.”
Simien dedicated a gospel medley (featuring “Amazing Grace,” “Amen,” “Down by the Riverside” and “This Little Light of Mine”) to the late Buckwheat Zydeco. And while I didn’t hear all of Alexis P. Suter’s set, I was very impressed by her majestic take on The Allman Brothers Band’s “It’s Not My Cross to Bear,” performed as a tribute to the late Gregg Allman.
One of the interesting things about the Crawfish Fest is that each stage has a distinct vibe. The main stage is for seasoned performers who can really reach out to listeners spread out over a large lawn area. The Pavilion Stage has a nightclub vibe. The Dance Hall is just that: There’s a large dance floor directly in front of the stage that seems to stay pretty full. And the Workshop Stage is for workshops, intimate performances and family activities. So you can experience music in different ways throughout the day. Or — as many people seem to do — you can just socialize and eat the crawfish, the jambalaya, the beignets and so on, with the music in the background.