It’s time to get down those fiddles, rosin up the bows, and break out the accordions because Gator by the Bay returns to Spanish Landing this month. Now in its eleventh year, this festival promises three days of all things zydeco and Cajun, as well as blues, boogie-woogie, and swing. There will even be a
performance by the North County Ukulele Society, strumming sweetly and, as they say, “reaching hearts one ukulele at a time.”
Catherine Miller has been one of Gator by the Bay’s organizers since its inception back in 2001. “It was Peter Oliver and I who had the idea for the festival. It comes out of our love of Cajun and zydeco. Peter was traveling around the country going to different festivals and he thought ‘I want to do one here in San Diego.’”
Originally held in Chula Vista, the festival was moved to Spanish Landing several years ago to be more centrally located. This year over one hundred performers and bands will appear on six stages. “We had a lot of success at first,” says Miller. “Things were really taking off. Then a Cajun/zydeco festival in Fort Lauderdale, one held on the weekend of Mother’s Day, folded. And we thought: this is perfect. We’ll move our festival to Mother’s Day weekend and we’ll have available a lot of acts who are on the national circuit.”
Among the national performers will be Chubby Carrier and his Bayou Swamp Band. Coming from a long line of zydeco performers, Carrier has been called “the world’s premier Zydeco showman.” He has toured the world over and released ten CDs with his band. Their sound is high energy and incorporates elements of Motown and pop. National act Keith Frank and the Soileau Zydeco Band also incorporate urban sounds into their traditional zydeco music, with elements of soul and hip-hop.
Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen will bring their mix of latter day boogie-woogie and western swing to Gator by the Bay, and a Flying Burrito Brother, Ian Dunlop, will be landing at Spanish Landing for his brand of alternative country.
Besides the big-name acts, a mix of local performers will take to the stages as well. Local blues singer and guitarist Robin Henkel has been performing at Gator by the Bay for the last five or six years. Henkel, who usually fronts an ensemble or performs as a solo act, will be performing as a duo with blues harmonica master Billy Watson.
“It’s a Louisiana Cajun festival but I just do what I always do, which is Mississippi Delta blues,” says Henkel, adding, “Gator by the Bay is always exciting. They always have a really good sound system. I’ll start playing and the next thing I know there are 100 to 150 people right there up in front of the stage. The festival just has a really good vibe, too. It’s cool and relaxed. People smile and seem really happy.”
San Diego’s queen of boogie-woogie, Sue Palmer, returns with her Motel Swing Orchestra. More swing music will come from the Zzymzzy Quartet, which emphasizes that “Zzymzzy rhymes with whimsy,” summing up their approach to the swing hits of yesteryear. A new talent who is taking San Diego by storm, Whitney Shay, will be performing blues gems from the fifties and sixties with her band the Shakedowns. “I’m really looking forward to this,” she says. “This will be one of the biggest venues we’ll be playing, and it’s going to open up a whole new audience for us.”
Gator by the Bay has even served as the catalyst for the formation of a band. Years ago Bill “Crash” Corwin received a booking to play the festival. The only problem was that he didn’t have a band. Making a few phone calls and rehearsing a few times, he created the Swamp Critters. Besides performing around San Diego, they are now a mainstay at Gator by the Bay. “The band reflects my background,” says Corwin, speaking of the Swamp Critters. “I grew up in Houston and Beaumont, just west of the Cajun country, so it was a hodge podge. It was swampy, muggy, and hot. But I also had the influence of Texas and that whole western swing thing. For the Swamp Critters we also incorporate doo-wop and boogie-woogie.” Corwin adds that, “out here in San Diego, Gator by the Bay keeps me in touch with my roots.”
Added this year to the festival’s program is a chance to win two trips to Louisiana. The contest is open to everyone who buys a ticket. To become eligible to win, ticket holders just have to register at one of two Visit Louisiana booths. Winners will receive a four-day, three-night stay in downtown New Orleans, as well as tours of the city and surrounding area.
“One thing that distinguishes Gator by the Bay from other music and cultural festivals is that we are family friendly,” says Miller. “Children under 17 are admitted free with their parents. We have lots of activities for children. And this is one festival where you see all different ages enjoying the music and interacting with each other.” Along with the children’s activities are cultural activities for all ages. At the Bayou Grove Cultural Experience musicians will explain, answer questions, and demonstrate their crafts related Cajun and zydeco. Others will also explain about Louisiana’s history, culture, critters, and food.
And speaking of food, Gator by the Bay may not be able to raise Justin Wilson from the grave, but the festival will feature a stage completely dedicated to the culinary arts of Cajun and Creole foods. Hosted by the San Diego Culinary Institute, chefs will present the art and craft of some of the Louisiana delta’s traditional table delights, such as jambalaya, beans and rice, Po boys, and dozens of other traditional foods. Chefs will also talk about the history and culture of the dishes as well.
With the food, cultural activities, and lots of music, Miller is convinced that Gator by the Bay offers one of the best opportunities to experience the richness of Louisiana. “Five cities in Louisiana are some of our sponsors, and the state of Louisiana sponsors us as well,” she says. “We really celebrate the culture of Louisiana, and we’re recognized for doing so.”