The great ones always find a way to redefine themselves.
That’s an often placed quote, which is used to acknowledge exceptionally talented human beings, whether they are musicians, athletes, or graduate chefs from Le Cordon Bleu. It may also refer to events, and in San Diego, we are fortunate to have music festivals that are enjoying growth through reinvention. The Thanksgiving Jazz Festival in Mission Valley has dropped the word “Dixieland” from its moniker and in doing so is drawing rhythm and blues and rockabilly bands in addition to the traditional “N’awlins” French Quarter sound, which remains the foundation of the annual November blowout. Above Mission Valley in Normal Heights, the Adams Avenue Unplugged festival has the “roots” spirit of its predecessor but now has the greater involvement of the businesses that allow their stores, restaurants, and bars to serve as unique concert venues every spring.
A glance at the exhaustive lineup of the artists scheduled for the 13th Annual Gator by the Bay (May 8-11) is as diverse as the variations of chili sauces that can be added to home recipes at a Cajun picnic. “When we created the festival in 2001 we booked almost exclusively Cajun or Zydeco bands,” Gator by the Bay co-producer Peter Oliver explained. “While successful our first year out we determined over the following few years that if we wanted to expand our attendee base we needed to expand our line up to include other musical genres. The first year that we added blues to the line up our attendance doubled. Today we try to create a musical gumbo that will appeal to a very broad cross section of music lovers. We have adopted a “discovery” attitude. The musical styles that we include these days; Cajun, Zydeco, blues, swing and rockabilly, country, and salsa are all related in various ways – either instrumentation, timing, or dance-ability. Our hope is that an attendee will come to see one style of music and “discover” another.”
Oliver said, “The strongest thread we have with our musical choices on most of our stages is that it be dance music. We have dance floors at four of our five performance stages in addition to the Bon Temps Social Club Dance Pavilion that is 100% dedicated to dance instruction on Saturday and Sunday. We have often heard these days that our attendees will book air and lodging without knowing who is on the line-up. They know that we will offer a well rounded line up of quality talent and they know there will always be something new to “discover.”
Adding to the authenticity and the “street cred” of Gator by the Bay is the blessing of the festival by the state that wears the motto “Sportsmen’s Paradise” on its license plate.
“A lot of our local dancers visit Louisiana to dance and at one point in October 2010 Vic Gamboa from our office had an opportunity to talk with representatives of Lafayette and Lake Charles,” said Gator by the Bay co-producer Catherine Miller. “In 2011 the Lake Charles and Lafayette Convention and Visitors Bureaus sent representatives to the festival and they liked what they saw. As a result of their endorsement the following year we were invited to apply for a marketing grant from the Louisiana Office of Tourism (made possible through funding provided by BP as restitution for the 2010 Deep Water Horizon oil spill). We were the first sponsorship investment ever made by the Louisiana Office of Tourism outside the State of Louisiana. “
Miller revealed that “over time more local Louisiana convention and visitors bureaus have become involved as sponsors. For three years now we have held a drawing for free trips to Louisiana in conjunction with the association of Louisiana of Convention Bureaus. This year the local bureaus involved include Lafayette, Lake Charles, New Orleans, New Orleans Plantation River Parishes, Jefferson Parish, Jeff Davis Parish, Monroe-West Monroe, and the South East Louisiana Alliance (Gumbo) comprised of ten other parishes. Gator by the Bay has been recognized as an official ambassador by the State of Louisiana Lt. Governor.His proclamation is available on our website.”
Even the veteran “Gator” local artists feel a renewed sense of purpose as the festival draws near. Sue Palmer, San Diego’s queen of boogie-woogie, shared with the Troubadour the musical concept she is exploring this year.
“Peter Oliver, the producer, wanted to do something different for Gator this year, and asked me to put together an all women’s revue. I have assembled 10 of the most talented women in San Diego, and California,” said Palmer. “ We have a three-piece horn section that consists of multi-instrumentalist Deanna Bogart, now relocated to the West Coast. She has been a national act for sometime and is well known for her stints on the Blues Cruises, both on piano and tenor sax. Also, April West on trombone – one of the most sought-after recording artists here in town, for Latin bands, New Orleans bands (Euphoria Brass Band), and my regular band: Sue Palmer and her Motel Swing Orchestra, among others. Rounding out the horn section is Elizabeth Meeker on trumpet, who has written out the horn charts for the Revue. The rhythm section consists of Jodie Hill on bass, Sharon Shufelt on drums, myself on piano, and, from Oakland, the great Carmen Getit on guitar and vocals.”
To say these ladies will know every square foot of Spanish Landing – the locale for Gator by the Bay – is an understatement. “Almost everyone is playing in multiple sets, with their own bands and others,” said Palmer. “Carmen is a co-leader and featured artist with Steve Lucky and the Rhumba Bums. Because she is playing with me, Peter booked their band also. San Diego will LOVE them. I’ve worked with them many times over the years at jazz festivals. Steve Lucky, Deanna Bogart, and I are also doing a piano/boogie woogie event at Gator on Sunday. Deanna and I just did a boogie woogie show together at Yoshi’s in Oakland, with two other piano players, and [we just traveled] to Switzerland to perform in Silvan Zingg’s Boogie Woogie Festival. We also have three lead singers for the Ladies Shoes Blues Revue, consisting of my regular lead vocalist, Deejha Marie, Missy Andersen, and Laura Jane. Most of these ladies are band leaders on their own and all have a distinct sound of their own. Personalities abound! We are going for a bluesy/New Orleans fun kind of sound and I can guarantee the audience will love it.”
Another San Diego musical institution – the Bayou Brothers – is getting worked up for Gator the way an Irish group circles March 17th on their performance calendar. Sista’ Judy Seid, who brings a woman’s touch to the Brothers’ sound, said, “I would like to say that although the Bayou Brothers do many festivals and have done two tours of England, the Gator by the Bay Festival is my personal favorite event! This is partially due to the fact that I have been at all 13 years of this festival. I started as a member of San Diego’s BonTemps Social Club where I fell in love with Zydeco music and dance. I purchased my first rub board at the festival ten years ago and started to play with the Bayou Brothers five years ago. It is clear to say that this festival has changed my life!! This event not only brings together some of the genre’s greatest artists as well as some of our fabulous local San Diego talent, but Spanish Landing is also an absolutely gorgeous location! I love that this event is family friendly, there is tons of great food and overall the festival is very well organized. Our band always puts together a pre-Gator evening with many of the artists that will be performing at the Festival This will be at Tio Leo’s [Morena District location] on Tuesday May 6. Gator by the Bay is a great experience and a do-not-miss!!”
Among the most anticipated headliners for the weekend is Chicago bluesman and vocalist Nick Gravenites. A founding member of the Electric Flag, Gravenites participated in the blues rock explosion of the ’60s, where young musicians expanded the blues genre into jazz, funk, psychedelia, and Eastern music instead of merely revisiting the catalogues of Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf and offering predictable imitations. Few musicians of Gravenites’ time can boast a resume that includes collaborating with Paul Butterfield, Mike Bloomfield, Buddy Miles, John Cipollina, Janis Joplin, and many others.
Popular Louisiana guitarist and bluesman Tab Benoit kicks off a special Thursday night performance on May 8. There are other main acts that boast artists who are continuing a family legacy. Chubby Carrier, a third generation member of the Carrier’s family tree of great Zydeco musicians, will be appearing with the Bayou Swamp Band. Christine Balfa, daughter of the fondly remembered Cajun fiddler Dewey Balfa, will lead the spirited Balfa Toujours Band.
Food is an important component at any Louisiana-based gathering. Leave the fried twinkies for another place and time; serious eating will be going on at Gator by the Bay. Starting with over 10,000 pounds of crawfish being brought in for the event, attendees will also have the opportunity to sample catfish, seafood gumbo, fresh raw oysters, boudin sausage, po’ boy sandwiches, beignets, sweet potato pie, and homemade ice cream.
Tickets are going fast. Go to: www.gatorbythebay.com/ for a complete line-up and detailed information.