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This article by Richard J. Skelly was prepared for the June 2, 2004 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
A Bit of Bayou in Sussex County
John Mooney and his blues trio, Bluesiana, have been a critics’ favorite because of the way they take classic blues tunes from the genre’s greats — the likes of Son House and Robert Johnson — and reinterpret them. Mooney, whose most recent release is 2002’s “All I Want,” performs with his trio at the annual Crawfish Festival in Augusta in northern New Jersey, about 18 miles north of Interstate 80.
The two-day event, kicking off on Saturday, June 5 at the Sussex County Fairgrounds, features food and crafts from New Orleans “and other parts of the Bayou state,” camping, kids activities, spicy food — think ettoufee, crawfish bread, and gator sausage — and entertainment, lots of entertainment. Performers, on stage in a dance tent, perform Zydeco, Cajun, New Orleans R&B, Delta Blues, Gospel, and a little Funk.
Mooney, a repeat Crawfish Festival performer, is a blues guitarist and singer-songwriter who dropped out of high school when he was just 15. Mooney formed his first band at age 11 in his native Rochester, New York. When he was 16, he met and befriended classic bluesman James “Son” House, who was living in Rochester. He performed shows with House and got to know him well, despite the fact that House was in his early 80s. House, who enjoyed a career rebirth in the 1960s with performances at the Newport Folk and Philadelphia Folk Festivals, died in 1988.
“When I was 15 I had my own apartment and a job, and my parents realized it was pretty much pointless to get me to do anything I didn’t want to do,” Mooney says during a phone interview from his home on the Gulf coast of Florida. “I was the only one from my family who didn’t go to college,” he adds, noting he was right in the middle, with two older brothers and two younger sisters in a family of seven.
Now Mooney, recently divorced and remarried, has four kids from his first marriage. The children live with him and his new wife. “I’m around a lot during the week to make sure they do their homework,” he says. His parenting philosophy, an immortal classic, is “Do as I say, not as I have done.”
“We record everything live, and rarely overdub anything,” Mooney says, “and we’ve always done it that way, to keep things simple.” His band has remained the same since the early 1980s: Jeff Sarli on bass and Bernard “Bunche” Johnson on drums. Occasionally, he’ll add keyboards or a percussionist for special festival shows, but at the Crawfish Festival this weekend, he’ll just be playing in a trio format, a format he’s very comfortable with.
“I’m a very rhythmic player and I like working with the drummer, so with a trio, the drummer and I can be very spontaneous together,” Mooney says. This approach is common in great jazz, and it works for him with blues.
After leaving Rochester, Mooney hitchhiked around the country for a few years in the 1970s, living on a commune in California, and in Texas and Arizona before finally settling in New Orleans in 1976. It was in New Orleans that word of his reputation as a guitarist, singer, and songwriter — as well an interpreter of classic blues songs — began to spread. “The first day I moved there, I met Professor Longhair,” Mooney says, referring to the legendary piano player. “In the next three days, I met (guitarist) Earl King, (piano player) James Booker, (guitarist) Walter ‘Wolfman’ Washington and (vocalist) Johnny Adams, and every time I’d go out and hear Walter, I’d always go home and say, ‘Why do I even bother playing the guitar?’”
In New Orleans, he broadened his appreciation for other types of blues and jazz, and he got to know many different musicians, some of whom never really toured much outside of the Crescent City. “Just by hanging out with these guys, and Son House up in Rochester, you find you learn things just by osmosis,” he says.
While New Orleans is a city of excess that can swallow up out-of-towners and spit them out, Mooney managed to keep his head on straight for his two decades there, despite some heavy partying during the late-1970s, when he was still single. In 1996 he moved to an island on the Gulf Coast of Florida. “Just because you can do all that stuff, all that drinking and partying all the time there, doesn’t mean you have to do it all the time,” Mooney says.
Unlike so many other musicians who’ve chosen to call New Orleans home, Mooney has always sought to tour outside of Louisiana. Musicians like Eddie Bo, Little Freddie King, Walter Washington, and even legends like Antoine “Fats” Domino don’t go out on the road much. There’s enough work in New Orleans’ lively club scene to keep almost everyone as busy as they want to be. But Mooney was never one of the insulated crop.
“I think that some musicians want it to happen for them first and then go on the road, whereas I wanted to go on the road to make it happen,” he says. “I’ve always played all over the place, forever, so there’s never been any question for me.”
At the Crawfish Festival on Saturday, Mooney and Bluesiana will wend their way through a mix of reinterpreted blues standards and originals, which are cut from the same cloth as the great classic blues songs by Robert Johnson and House, his primary influence. The blues and blues-rock that Mooney and Bluesiana play is powerful and hard rocking.
“Some people call what we do second-line blues, because it’s very funky, uptempo, has a lot of syncopation and is very danceable,” he says, “but then again, Son House used to play very rhythmic, so he could be heard over the noise in the juke joints he used to play in.”
15th Annual Crawfish Festival, Saturday and Sunday, June 5 and 6, noon to 6 p.m., Sussex County Fairgrounds, Augusta. Tickets: $35 for both days, $25 one day. For more information visit www.crawfishfest.com or call 212-539-8830. Tickets through Ticketmaster: 201-507-8900.
Saturday: The Radiators, John Mooney and Bluesiana, The Iguanas, Chris Ardoin and Double Clutchin,’ Paul Cebar and the Milwaukeeans, and Alligator Zydeco Band.
Sunday: Marcia Ball, Terrance Simien and the Zydeco Experience, Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys, Paul Cebar and the Milwaukeeans, Alligator Zydeco Band.
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