The second annual NOLA Crawfish Festival closed out its action-packed “Daze Between” schedule with a mix of incredible music, savory food, and a can-do spirit in the face of adversity that was truly amazing to behold. With an exciting first day in the books the second and third stanzas of this wonderful gathering were anything but the same as the first.

To be certain, the overall theme of the NOLA Crawfish Festival was as established: Throw the best ingredients possible together with an artful eye towards the optimal balance and share the results with friends and family. Chef Shaggy, The NOLA Crawfish King does this as well as anyone when it comes to his legendary crawfish boils. After the success of last year’s event, Shaggy showed that he and his partners were more than capable of delivering just as impressive results in their artful curation musicians as they do with their shellfish, okra, potatoes and corn. The trick, as always, is in the spices–and knowing what to add and when to add it.

Great masters make things look easy. Making a great funk festival is more than adding a dash of George Porter Jr. and Jon Cleary here, a few chunks of fresh bands like Organ Freeman there, and ringing the dinner bell. The second day of musical choices is a perfect example of the planning and thought behind the NOLA Crawfish Festival.

Rather than simply bring out Alvin Youngblood Hart’s Muscle Theory and turning them loose, organizers realized that Hart’s brother-in-arms Luther Dickinson of the North Mississippi All-Stars was in town. When approached, Dickinson was more than happy to accept the opportunity to share the stage with his compadre.

Dickinson hung back for the first part of the set, allowing Hart and his band to shower the audience with massive blues based rock riffs that shook the walls of Central City BBQ. After leaving the audience sufficiently shell-shocked, Hart welcomed his fellow six string-slinger to the stage for some furious duels that were somehow friendly and still slightly competitive. By the end of the set both were smiling as broadly as everyone in the crowd, and their hug at the end of the set was a heart warming sign of both appreciation and affection that spoke as loudly as the music they had spun together moments before.

From there, the music took to the outside air, where the scent of the boiling crawfish had music hungry fans feeling pangs of a different sort in their bellies. Luckily, each ticket included a heaping portion of the boil and a free NOLA Brewing Company beer to help wash the deliciousness down. Tables groaned at the weight dropped on them, only to quickly lighten as the food was devoured and the first notes of the outdoor portion of the program began.

First up on the outside stage was the provocative keyboard pairing of Jon Cleary and Nigel Hall. The Grammy-winning Cleary has close to forty years’ experience behind his trademark blend of voice and keys. Over the course of his storied career, he has worked with some of the finest talents the Crescent City has to offer. His NOLA Crawfish Festival set was no exception.

Dumpstaphunk‘s Tony Hall, Derwin “Big D” Perkins, Raymond Weber provided plenty of firepower and a rock-solid pocket for the showmen on keys to do their thing. Showing an impressive lack of ego for such a well-known and established players, the ad hoc band delivered a welcome set of rollicking piano-centric tunes that had everyone in a dancing mood from the first note.

After quickly clearing the tables and the stage itself, it was time for the main event of the second day of the NOLA Crawfish Festival, the aptly named NCF Funk Squad. George Porter Jr. is at or near the top of any list of the funkiest cats of all time. Plenty has been written about the beloved man from the seminal refiners of funk known as The Meters, and all of the praise has been well-earned.

Flanking Porter were two men of equal musical measure, Eric Krasno (of Soulive, Lettuce and The Eric Krasno Band) and John Medeski, AKA the first “M” in the impenetrably versatile jazz/funk trio MMW. Krasno’s signature slinky style of play surprises and delights, with his keen sense of exactly how far a note can and should be bent, and exactly when to do it. On the other side of the stage sat Medeski, whose fanning style of organ play seems almost unconscious, though that belies the insane skill he displays when launching his soaring fills and runs.

Thanks to a near-clockwork precision shown by Terrence Higgins on percussion, these extremely expressive players were free to explore the far reaches of funk in ways that left even the most jaded fans in the audience slack-jawed. The respect they showed each other as they reeled off rolling jams was as impressive as any music made in the city that day, a bold statement that is, admittedly, nigh impossible to verify. Though jam sessions of this sort are often attempted, it is the rare occasion, such as this, where they truly succeed beyond the wildest of expectations.

Heading into Day 3, it looked like nothing could rain on this funky parade before, as always, Mother Nature came along to remind us that the best laid plans of mice and men would do well to include an umbrella.

New Orleans is no stranger to rainy days. The citizenry shrugs off storms with the easy sensibility for which the Big Easy is named. Even the sound and stage crews that work the hundreds of venues across the country have honed their skills in improvisation in the face of inclement weather, so when the darkened skies burst wide and the thunder boomed, they moved like lightning to cover outdoor gear and reassess the issues.

Once the electrical components of the storm became apparent, the decision was made to move the remainder of the days’ events indoors to the safer stage. Showing efficiency born of necessity and repetition, the crew had the gear protected and the interior stage beefed up with added lights and speakers in record time. The event was listed as rain or shine, and everyone involved was dead set on keeping that promise, including opening act Organ Freeman.

Hailing from Los Angelas Organ Freeman has been making a name for themselves on the jam circuit with their heady mix of groove and rock. While their chops are still coalescing their stage manner and professionalism is already right where it belongs. The delay in beginning and their regrettably shortened set time due to the elements not only failed to dampen their spirits, it provided the trio with a rallying motivation to pack as much energy into each moment onstage.

They even found time to squeeze in a delightful sit-in from Turkuaz sax player Greg Sanderson. Fans rushing in from the storm were delighted to find Organ Freeman already in crush mode, and by the end of their abbreviated set they received one of the most deserved ovations they have likely received in their nascent career. Such willingness to be both determined and flexible in the face of adversity will doubtlessly go far in winning them fans for life, as it surely did on this day.

One of the more unique features of the NOLA Crawfish Fest is the cook-off it hosts among local boilers for prizes and bragging rights. As the preparations began, weather be damned, another type of vittles was being served on stage in the form of Raw Oyster Cult. The cheekily named band is the current home of Dave Malone, guitarist of New Orleans’ own legendary rockers The Radiators fame.

Malone and his current project took the stage to share a mix of classic tunes and Radiators staples with impressive vocals from a variety of guests, including Malone’s own kids. While Malone was all business, despite his known love crawfish and the bevy of vittles being boiled around him as he played

As soon as his set was over and his axe stowed, Malone made his way outside for the judging. While that was going on, the brassy sounds of trombone player extraordinaire Corey Henry and The Treme Funktet gave the proceedings a decidedly New Orleans flavor. Joined by the brass section of a local music school, the air was thick with the distilled spirit of the city itself.

All things must come to an end, but luckily the NOLA Crawfish Festival had one last ace up it’s sleeve, The Crawfish Fest All-Stars. One of the few repeat acts, this ensemble of George Porter Jr., John “Papa” Gros, June Yamagishi and Terence Higgins was an almost mandatory lineup reprisal after their stellar job the previous year. Another repeat from last year was the unannounced, much-welcomed addition New Orleans favorite rocker Anders Osborne.

Osborne and Chef Shaggy spare a bond as deep as brother from both their long friendship and their struggles with sobriety. In fact, a portion of every ticket sold to the festival went to the Can’d Aid Foundation‘s Send Me A Friend initiative, established by Osborne to help touring musicians in recovery safely navigate the many temptations of the road.

Quickly hopping in for just one song, Osborne wailed on a hastily borrowed guitar that didn’t even have a strap. Fortunately, Anders was more than capable of rocking out without it, as he traded licks with guitarist June Yamagishi with his notorious emotive style before quickly ducking out for more of his many Jazz Fest duties.

The camaraderie of a boil is the most attractive part of this party, and was well represented in the smiling faces and new friendships born as tails were pulled and squeezed time and again. Music legends mixed and matched onstage to create jam sessions as fine as anywhere in the city, and by the last note the storms had finally dissipated long enough for the stuffed fans to make their way on to the next stop in the endless parade of music that is Jazz Fest. One thing is for certain, though: they won’t be finding a better example of the culture of New Orleans than the one they just experienced at the NOLA Crawfish Festival!

[Photos by Jeremy Scott]