Video: Mardi Gras brings New Orleans to the Peconic River

08/07/2011 12:29 PM |

Four-year-old Keagan Rios might have New Orleans roots, after all his mom Heather was born and raised in Louisiana, but living on Long Island means the boy has little exposure to the music, food or the vibrant parades of his mother’s home state.

That’s why when Ms. Rios heard of Riverhead’s Mardi Gras Festival, she knew she had to bring her son.

“I wanted him to see what Mardi Gras is all about,” Ms. Rios, who lives in Brentwood, said in a southern twang.

She said the Riverhead festival and the parade was a good tribute, though much tamer, to those held during the Carnival season in New Orleans. She said she was disappointed she couldn’t find any “crawdads” at the festival and that in her opinion, spectators weren’t hooting and hollering enough during the parade.

An estimated 3,000 people gathered in downtown Riverhead Saturday to grab one of 15,000 strands of beads or 2,000 masks provided by the Riverhead Business Improvement District, and listen to the music from bands from all over the world for the first Riverhead Mardi Gras Festival.

The organizers, members of the Riverhead BID, aimed for the event to replace the two-day Riverhead Blues and Music Festival which was held for the last time last year. The non-profit Vail-Leavitt Music Hall, the sponsor of the blues fest, decided not to run the event this year after the Riverhead Chamber of Commerce tried to wrest control of the festival in 2010.

Saturday’s event kicked off with a parade at noon and continued with concerts until 11 p.m. The event was free to the public.

“It’s to bring people downtown and I think we do it successfully every time,” said BID president Ray Pickersgill. The organization also hosted an oldies concert last month and began sponsoring an annual cardboard boat race and weekly classic car shows last year, all of which have drawn thousands to the riverfront.

Juan Micieli-Martinez, winemaker at Martha Clara Vineyards whose wife Bridget is from New Orleans, gave the BID some pointers to make the festival feel more authentic. He put them in contact with Beads by the Dozen, a New Orleans-based company that makes bead necklaces for Mardi Gras.

But Louisiana natives probably won’t call them “beads,” he said.

“We call them throws,” Mr. Miceli-Martinez explained adding that the term can extend to other items like cups and T-shirts.

Many of those interviewed Saturday could not help but compare Saturday’s parade and concert with the blues festival.

Mardi Gras’ attendance was lower than last year’s Blues Fest which brought 5,000 people downtown over two days. That number was considered disappointing for organizers compared to other years.

Riverhead native Chrissy Lessard, who was decked out in beads and even wore “king cake” (a pastry associated with the Lenten season) earrings for the festival, said she was devastated at the loss of the blues festival. A diehard fan of the event, she came every year since its inception with a group of friends and she and her husband would stay overnight on their boat “Chrismass.”

“It was our favorite thing,” she said. “Politics messes everything up.”

Her friend Valerie Korelski of Aquebogue disagreed. She said she liked that the BID added two one-day events rather than hosting a two-day festival.

“It was like the same band for 12 hours,” she said of the blues festival. “I say do more, even if they’re smaller events.”

Plenty others in the crowd thought this year’s event was a step up from last year’s lineup.

“The music is much better, said Michael Damelio of Smithtown. “It’s more of a fun, festive atmosphere.” He added, however, that he did not think it was publicized enough and only learned of the Mardi Gras festival through a friend on Facebook.

His friend Michael Versandi of Sound Beach said he thinks it will only get better.

“I could see this thing exploding,” he said.

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BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | Chrissy Lessard of Riverhead marches in the parade.