A New Jersey tradition will be marking its milestone 30th anniversary celebrating two of New Orleans’ greatest traditions – music and food – with Big Easy backyard authenticity, when the likes of Aaron Neville, the Marcus King Band and over 20 other great Crescent City acts go “head to tail” with 10,000 pounds of specially imported crawfish and more at MICHAEL ARNONE’S 30TH ANNUAL CRAWFISH FEST, May 31-June 2 here at the Sussex County Fairgrounds.
Tickets are on sale NOW for the three-day festival, which annually draws close to 20,000 people for a unique weekend experience featuring the best music and food that New Orleans and all of Louisiana has to offer. The music spans Bayou-based Cajun, Zydeco, Delta Blues, New Orleans R&B, Brass, Gospel and Jazz across three stages, while the food highlights assorted other south Louisiana delicacies such as fresh Boiled Louisiana Crawfish trucked in alive, with Jambalaya, Crawfish Etouffee, Alligator Sausage, Po-boys (oyster, shrimp and catfish), Char Grilled Oysters, Southern Fried Chicken, along with the Louisiana chefs who prepare it all.
Also scheduled to appear are Neville Jacobs, Rebirth Brass Band, Terrance Simien and the Zydeco Experience, Cowboy Mouth, Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Walter “Wolfman” Washington and the Roadmasters, Geno Delafose & French Rockin’ Boogie, Bishop Gunn, Cory Henry and the Treme Funktet, John Papa Gros Band, Jonathon Long, Flow Tribe, Johnny Sketch and the Dirty Notes, Nathan and the Zydeco Cha-Chas, Darcy Malone and the Tangle, Amanda Fish, The Iceman Special, Jesse Lege and Bayou Brew, Tony Smith and the You Know How We Do Crew, and Big Mamou.
Festival goers can purchase 2019 Crawfish Fest Single Day, 2 Day Combo, Group, onsite 4 day/3 nights Camping/ Admission, and King Crawfish Krewe Tickets (main stage pit passes). Advance tickets start at $35 for adults (free for children under 14 with parent), and are available through the official website, www.crawfishfest.com.
“The great thing about this festival is its incredible authenticity,” says festival creator-producer and Louisiana import Michael Arnone. “It’s so real that for everybody who’s moved up North from Louisiana, everyone who’s homesick, this is like going home for a few days. The Louisiana atmosphere, the crawfish, the jambalaya, it’s all there. I tell people the music brings them, but the food keeps them.”
It will take three stages to keep all the music flowing throughout the weekend: The Main Stage, the Bulleit Bourbon Pavilion Stage (covered), and a 12,000 square foot Dance Hall with a 2,000 square foot wooden dance floor. New Orleans legend Aaron Neville is actually making his second appearance at the Crawfish Festival. His first was in 2012. Arnone surprised himself when he was able to book Neville the first time. The promoter-in-chief is blown away that he’s had the good fortune to bring him back. With Neville in the fold again, the CRAWFISH FEST now has hosted ALL of the Neville Brothers – Aaron, Charles, Cyril, and Art – in various incarnations, as solo artists or with other bands. This year’s event also will feature Aaron’s son, Ivan Neville, as a member of the Neville Jacobs super group. Making things special for the 30th anniversary is adding co-headliner Marcus King Band, the buzzing South Carolina six-piece led by 22-year-old guitar prodigy King, whose soulful and honest playing and writing has earned him stage time with Derek Trucks, Warren Haynes, and other guitar greats. Also of note for this milestone gathering is an all-meat-no-potatoes double blast of brass from Rebirth Brass Band and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band – the first time the fest has hosted two major brass bands in the same year.
Let’s start with the festival’s crustacean headliner — crawfish. Five tons of it is being imported from the Atchafalaya Spillway, the largest wetland and swamp in the U.S., in south central Louisiana, where the Atchafalaya River and the Gulf of Mexico converge. Adding to that are 3,000 Louisiana gulf shrimp and Louisiana oysters and catfish, direct from the Delta, for po boys prepared on 3,000 fresh loaves of French Bread imported from New Orleans’ century-old Leidenheimer Baking Company. Five 60-quart cast iron pots will be cooking with jambalaya. Expect between 12 and 15 different food items on the Menu.
Most of the cooking, across four food courts, is being done by people personally trained in Louisiana by Arnone himself, who learned from his father. The two primary jambalaya chefs were his father’s apprentices for 10 years.
“I cook but I’m no chef,” says the Baton Rouge native. “I learned growing up, cooking with my family. We boiled crawfish out in our yard. My daddy used to cook the Jambalaya, but we retired him. It just got to be too much. He will be there watching over his guys. We all cooked outside. It’s a Louisiana thing. The men cook outside, whether it’s grilling steak or boiling seafood, or cooking jambalaya – all of this is really gathering type foods. Whether it’s for family or friends. If you live in New Orleans and you’re having a big party, what do you do? You cook a big pot of jambalaya. It’s economical.”
An electrician by trade, Arnone first landed in New Jersey when the oil bust of the 1980s dried up those jobs where he lived. He found work as an electrician in the Garden State, but missed the tastes and sounds from back home, so he decided to import them. In 1989, he rented a small pavilion at Suntan Lake in Butler, NJ, hired a Cajun band from Connecticut and a country-western band, flew in 300 pounds of crawfish, had a single pot of jambalaya cooking, and printed up 1,500 tickets.
“I was extremely homesick,” Arnone remembers. “I wanted this to be like a party in my back yard. I wanted my friends to feel like they were in Baton Rouge. I’ve just got a lot more friends now and my back yard is bigger.”
He sold only 70 tickets that first year. The original crowd was made up primarily of Louisiana ex-pats who longed for some real home cookin’ food after finding too much “Cajun cuisine” in the North that was heavy on the cayenne and light on authenticity. Word of mouth doubled and tripled the crowds in each of the first three years. Booking Buckwheat Zydeco in Year 4 further helped put the Crawfish Fest on the map, a radius then spanning 40 miles northwest of New York City and the same distance southeast of Scranton, PA. Lots of LSU and Tulane alumni began coming, many on buses from Manhattan. The festival outgrew two locations and now has been long settled at the 130-acre Sussex County Fairgrounds, where crowds these days are only 20 to 30 percent from Louisiana. The rest are those who simply wish they were there. “There are lots of people who visit New Orleans, and absolutely love Louisiana,” says Arnone. “I’ve had people come up to me and ask if I know the bartender at a certain bar in New Orleans. I don’t, but they do.”
· Advance Box office will be open 10-4 PM, Tuesday till Friday 4PM, the week of the fest.
· Saturday or Sunday Tickets will be available day of show for $45 per adult (14 or over). Under 14 is free with parent.
· There are four separate onsite campgrounds: for people who want a party atmosphere (Camp New Orleans), a quieter scene (Camp Baton Rouge) and its overflow (Camp Lafayette), and large RVs (Madisonville Camp). The campground will be open for arrivals on Friday, from 10 AM until 9 PM, and again on Saturday morning, from 8 AM until 11 AM. Music just for the campers: three bands on Friday on The Bulleit Bourbon Pavilion Stage, and three bands on Saturday night just for the campers. Also for campers, festival cooks will prepare three pots of Jambalaya for Friday night to be served free around 6 PM and will be cooking breakfast Saturday and Sunday mornings. Camping tickets are $165 per person in advance. Camping tickets bought on Friday at the door for any of the three days are $195 per adult, under 14 free. Children under 18 must be accompanied by a parent.
· Main Gates will open at 10:30 AM on Saturday and Sunday.
· Parking is FREE
· Please bring beach chairs or blankets.
· Food and crafts are cash only. There will be 5 ATM’s on site.
Campers can set up day tents in The Grove. The Grove is on the other side of the fence, thru the double gate, near the Main Stage (Look to the right of the pond) on Saturday Morning as early as 9 AM. Single Day Ticket holders are welcome to visit and set up in the Grove.
Pets, kegs, glass jars and bottles, fireworks, weapons, other illicit/illegal substances, are not permitted. Also, no golf carts, all-terrain vehicles, motorized scooters, skateboards, bicycles. And NO PETS.
Hotels, shuttles, festival maps, private parties, sponsorships, recipes, crafts, menus, stage schedules, artist bios and all other information can be found at www.crawfishfest.com.
Clearly, there is nothing on the East Coast of this magnitude that compares to MICHAEL ARNONE’S 30TH ANNUAL CRAWFISH FEST. Not bad for a homesick Louisiana electrician displaced to New Jersey who started by wanting to recreate the backyard parties he grew up hosting.
“Festivals are a tough business,” says Arnone. “You’re dealing with weather and everything else. Thirty years is quite an accomplishment. Even though my name’s on it, this has definitely been a team effort. Without my wonderful staff, I just couldn’t do it.
“In 1994, when we hit our 5th year milestone, a friend asked me where I see the future of this festival. I said that one day I’d like to have Aaron Neville, and 10,000 people, and I would like it to be two days. Over the years, we accomplished all that… and so much more.”
2019 sponsors: Bud Light, Bulleit Bourbon, Louisiana Office of Tourism, Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board, Twisted Tea, Barenjager Honey Bourbon, New Jersey Lottery, Crystal Hot Sauce, Ketel One, Captain Morgan, Service Electric Broadband Cable, 84RV.com, Holiday Inn and Delta Music Experience