Video: Mardi Gras brings New Orleans to the Peconic River

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

That’s why when his mother, Heather, heard of downtown Riverhead’s planned 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 with a southern twang.

She said the Riverhead festival and parade were a good tribute to, though much tamer than, those held during the carnival season in New Orleans. But 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.

She joined an estimated 3,000 people who gathered downtown Saturday to grab one of 15,000 strands of beads or 2,000 masks provided by the Riverhead Business Improvement District while listening to music of bands from across the nation for the first-ever Riverhead Mardi Gras Festival.

The organizers, members of the Riverhead BID management association, aimed for the event to replace the two-day Riverhead Blues and Music Festival, which was held for the last time last year. The nonprofit Vail-Leavitt Music Hall that ran the Blues Festival decided not to hold an event this year after the Riverhead Chamber of Commerce and BID board members 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. Unlike the Blues Festival, 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 BID — which is taxing district that collects funds from downtown business — also hosted an oldies concert late last month as part of a one-two punch of concert events. The BID last year also began organizing an annual cardboard boat race and hosts weekly classic car shows, as well as other events.

Juan Micieli-Martinez, the 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 couldn’t 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 about 5,000 people downtown over two days, though that number  was considered disappointing for festival organizers compared to other years.

Riverhead native Chrissy Lessard, who was found decked out in beads and even wearing “king cake” (a pastry associated with the Lenten season) earrings for the Mardi Gras-themed party, said she was devastated at the loss of the Blues festival. A diehard fan of the event, she said she went every year since its inception with a group of friends and that 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 different 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 though that he did not think the Mardi Gras event was publicized enough. He was lucky enough to learn about the festival through a friend on Facebook.

His friend, Michael Versandi of Sound Beach, said he thinks the Mardi Gras party will only get better in coming years.

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

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

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