Crawfish Festival
" Featuring the New Orleans Social Club "
18th Annual Crawfish Festival

Augusta, New Jersey

The two-day 18th Annual Crawfish Festival is a cross section of Blues and New Orleans-based music, which this year included the always popular and timeless Dr. John; a rare appearance by the New Orleans Social Club; Mark Mullins' up-front four-trombone band Bonerama; Cowboy Mouth; slide ace Sonny Landreth; best guitarist Handy winner Duke Robillard; the legendary Hubert Sumlin; ex-Taj Mahal and current keyboard whiz for Bonnie Raitt, Jon Cleary and his Absolute Monster Gentlemen; Geno Delafose and French Rockin' Boogie; Corey Ledet and His Zydeco Band; Papa Mali; Pine Leaf Boys; Funk-n-Gumbo; Superchief Trio; and Li'l Anne and Hot Cayenne, plus good eats and an atmosphere that is friendly to music fans of all ages.

Year after year, Michael Arnone always assembles a great lineup, but this year he really outdid himself by gathering more Blues to complement the many outstanding New Orleans bands and musicians. I was especially intrigued by his booking of The New Orleans Social Club, whose debut Burgundy/Sony album, Sing Me Back Home, was borne out of the heartbreak of Hurricane Katrina. An instant Crescent City classic, this under-promoted and unfortunately underappreciated record was one of my favorite CDs of 2006, Sing Me Back Home featured all sorts of special guests, among them Cyril Neville, Irma Thomas, Marcia Ball, Dr. John, Troy "Trombone Shorty" Andrews, the Mighty Chariots of Fire, the Subdudes, Willie Tee, Big Chief Monk Boudreaux, John Boutte, and the Sixth Ward All-Star Brass Brand Revue featuring Brother Charles Neville.

What really made the project special was a core band consisting of some of the finest musicians in New Orleans: bassist George Porter, Jr. and guitarist Leo Nocentelli - original members of The Meters - plus organist Ivan Neville, pianist extraordinaire Henry Butler, and the dynamic drummer Raymond Weber. Leo Sacks, who produced the album with Ray Bardani in a funky old recording studio on a lonely strip of highway in southeast Austin, Texas, said this all-star collective became a testament to the human spirit and the healing power of musical camaraderie. Between takes, Sacks recalled, the group enjoyed the simple pleasures of ping-pong and barbeque, which could have almost been mistaken for the gentle comforts of home!

This mighty band does not join together often enough, so having them reunite at the New Jersey-based Crawfish Festival nearly two years after Katrina was truly a magical moment of outstanding musicianship as the band fired on all cylinders from the get-go.

The band opened confidently with a crackling nine-minute-plus instrumental, "Come Back Jack," authored by Nocentelli (previous recorded by Butler, Donald Harrison, and Ramsey Lewis) and it was obvious that this performance was going to be of the highest magnitude. For the second song, one of the other featured festival acts' horn section (Bonerama) was added to the mix as the Social Club fired into Professor Longhair's "Hey Now Baby," which segued into to another Professor Longhair favorite, "Tipitina." Near the end of this classic gem Porter was already stretching out on bass and jamming riffs from Herbie Hancock's "Chameleon," which I am certain had the Fess smiling from up above. After the two Professor Longhair songs, Bonerama took a break, but they would be back later.

Then, from the Sing Me Back Home came an original Meters Soul gem, "Loving You Is On My Mind," which rolled into the anthem "New Orleans" back into "Loving You Is On My Mind" checking in at twelve minutes plus and offered a rollicking Gospel-like jam ending, which had to be one of the brightest highlights of the set. Yet another Meters classic followed with "Talkin' 'Bout New Orleans," which was originally recorded on arguably the Meters' best recording, Fire on the Bayou, that also featured the incredible horn charts of the all-to-often under-recognized arranger/producer the great Wardell Quezergue. A dramatic salute to the Louisiana heritage and Indian culture followed with "We Are The Indians," which allowed each band member to sing a verse or two and proved to be the perfect selection that wound up being the midway point of the Social Club's set.

The Social Club must have been in a Fess mood as they next ripped into kicking cover of "Big Chief," with the Bonerama bone section back onboard. On this particular song the interplay was especially amazing to hear and see with Porter Jr. and drummer Weber creating complex stutter and stop time signature changes that the rest of the band handled with ease. The set closer was the great Donny Hathaway's "Voices Inside (Everything is Everything)" which stormed along for over eighteen minutes and allowed each band member a solo, plus Mark Mullins' outstanding trombone solo. Of particular note, George Porter's bass solo was mesmerizing as he wandered into Hendrix and Beatles territories with the bass lines of "Foxy Lady" and "Come Together," none of which were excessive nor over the top or cliché.

The crowd was screaming for one more and they got it when Ivan Neville yelled out, "Can somebody scream!" and kicked into John Fogerty's "Fortunate Son," which is also included on the Sing Me Back Home recording. "Fortunate Son" seamlessly became "Take Me Back to New Orleans" back to "Fortunate Son."

Special thanks to Sing Me Back Home record producer Leo Sacks for providing me backstage access and time to hang with the New Orleans Social Club, something the Crawfish Fest promoter had issue with. Speaking of Mr. Sacks, immediately after the New Orleans Social Club performance at the Crawfish Fest here are some very heartfelt quotes from Leo about the recording process of Sing Me Back Home:

"I was in a pizza parlor in midtown Manhattan watching the surging floodwaters swallow New Orleans and felt helpless to care for the people and the city I loved," Sacks told me.

"But thanks to an angel investor with a musician's heart named Andy Kowalczyk, we gathered our favorite street paraders, piano ticklers, troubadours, trumpeters, rockers, Rhythm & Blues singers, and Mardi Gras Indians, and channeled all that had been lost and tried to find a way back to what had been. My greatest hope was that we could somehow celebrate the Old Neighborhood, even if the Old Neighborhood wasn't there anymore. Then came the artistic challenge - how do we express the shock, the fury, the fear, the frustration and all the turbulent emotions of this heartbreaking moment in history?"

Sacks said that no one on the project could have anticipated the fate that befell the record. "By the time Sing Me Back Home came out in April 2006, I think the nation's cultural tastemakers had already determined that America's appetite had been satiated with the sounds of New Orleans - in other words, the public was stuffed like an oversized po'boy. Radio stations wouldn't play the record. Big box retailers wouldn't carry it. Major newspapers didn't write about it. We were swept away by that cruel, but all-too-human reality known as 'Katrina fatigue.'"

He added: "Here we are, fast approaching the second anniversary of Katrina and countless lives are still in storm-tossed transition. Frogman Henry's 'Ain't Got No Home' still resonates with the legion of the displaced. And that, as the Fatman might say, is a damn shame. For all of us."

If you happen to catch the Social Club playing in your area, do not hesitate - run to see them. And definitely check out Sing Me Back Home.

Additionally, keep checking to learn more about next year's fest.

Bob Putignano: