‘Mardi Gras in May!’ brings Louisiana flavor to San Diego

Sounds of New Orleans can be heard at the Gator by the Bay festival. (Misael Virgen)
(Misael Virgen / UT San Diego/Zuma Press)

Gator by the Bay bills itself as “Mardi Gras in May.” An even better hook might be: “Mardi Gras in May - minus the stifling heat and humidity of New Orleans.”

Either way, this annual San Diego celebration of Louisiana music, culture, cuisine and revelry will celebrate its 16th anniversary Thursday through Sunday at Spanish Landing Park. Ticket information appears below.

“When we started out in 2001, we designed it as a dancer’s festival with a southern Louisiana feel. From the beginning, we’ve had dance floors and good Southern food,” said Peter Oliver, who co-founded and oversees Gator with Maryann Blinkhorn and Catherine Miller.

Accordingly, the all-ages festival’s French Quarter Food Court will offer such Big Easy favorites as etouffee, po’ boy sandwiches, hush puppies, boudin sausages, seafood gumbo, beignets, pralines and more.

As in previous years, a 24-foot refrigerated truck will bring in 10,000 pounds of crawfish from the southern Louisiana town of Opelousas. Nathan Richard of New Orlean’s Cavan restaurant - one of Louisiana Cookin’ magazine’s “Chefs to Watch in 2016” - will share recipes, cook and give free samples of his food at the festival’s Culinary Demonstration Tent.

Gator will also have parades, costume contests, dance lessons, Southern cooking demonstrations, face-painting, at least one festively attired Mardis Gras Indian, magicians, stilt-walkers and more.

For those seeking an even more immersive experience, the Bon Temps Social Club - under whose auspices this non-profit festival is held - will provide instruments to try out. This will be your chance to strap on a button accordion or a frottoir, as the percussive metal vest washboards featured in most zydeco bands are known.

But the biggest draw for many attendees is the more than 100 music performances, which will take place on Gator’s seven stages. Where the festival once focused largely on zydeco and Cajun music, it has gradually expanded to offer a broader stylistic palette.

16th annual Gator by the Bay festival

When: 6-10:30 p.m. Thursday; 3:30-10:30 p.m. Friday; 10:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday; 10:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday

Where: Spanish Landing Park, 3900 North Harbor Drive, across from San Diego International Airport

Tickets: Kids 17 and under are admitted free with a paying adult. $35 Friday; $40 each Saturday and Sunday; $110 three-day pass (Friday-Sunday); $140 four-day pass (Thursday-Sunday); patron passes are $120 for Saturday or Sunday, and $200 for both days. Tickets for tonight’s kickoff concert are $35-$95. Tickets for the Saturday night dance concert at the adjacent Sheraton Harbor Island ballroom are $20. Admission is free Friday through Sunday for active duty military members.

Phone: 619. 234.8612


This year’s lineup includes blues and boogie Texas piano and vocal star Marcia Ball; Grammy-winning Louisiana zydeco mainstays Chubby Carrier & The Bayou Swamp Band, New Orleans-born guitar ace Kenny Neal; Paraguayan blues harpist Carlos Reyes (who has performed with Steve Miller and the Doobie Brothers); and former Elvin Bishop Band slide guitarist Johnny “V” Vernazza, whose band will accompany Reyes.

They’ll be joined by such San Diego-bred favorites as the roots-rocking Paladins and The Farmers; salsa champion Manny Cepeda; Sue Palmer & Her Motel Swing Orchestra; the Euphoria Brass Band; and Celtic violinist Patric Petrie. On Sunday afternoon, the festival will present the Kenneth Rexrode-produced Six String Gospel Revival (see accompanying story below).

“It sounds really cool,” said guitarist-singer Jerry Raney of The Farmers (formerly the Beat Farmers).

“I thought Gator was all Cajun and zydeco music, with a little blues. But we’re a rock ‘n roll band and they told us to just be ourselves when we play. I’m going to arrive early to check out the food and the other bands.”

Providing added credibility to this four-day fete - which hopes to draw a record 18,000 people this year, 3,000 more than in 2015 - the festival is supported in part by the State of Louisiana Office of Tourism, the Lafayette Convention & Visitors Bureau and other regional Louisiana tourism bureaus.

The 60 or so vendors at Gator will include the Louisiana Seafood Commission and Louisiana University Alumni Clubs. Louisiana Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser will attend for the first time. He is also the commissioner of Louisiana’s Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism.

Based on word-of-mouth reports, Nungesser has likened Gator to a smaller version of Jazz Fest, as the 47-year-old New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival is known.

Vernazza, who performed at Jazz Fest several times with the Elvin Bishop band in the 1970s, agrees with that assessment. Since 2010, he has played a key role in Gator, bringing in and accompanying such highly regarded artists as Bishop, guitar ace Roy Rogers and legendary blues drummer Sam Lay.

“I think it’s a good comparison, because when Jazz Fest started it was very small and intimate,” Vernazza said. “It was easy to get around, you’d see some great bands and could mingle with different performers. It was at that time what Gator is now, a boutique festival.

“Gator basically has the same kind of charm, with people of all ages walking around, enjoying the music and the food. It’s a very family-friendly festival.”

Newcomers to Gator might use the festival’s app, which is debuting this year to get around. Vernazza knows his way so well at the festival that he doesn’t need an app.

“My advice to people coming to Gator for the first time is to stay all day,” he said. “Music is art, food is art, and Gator is a bay full of good art.”

The Gospel Truth

This year’s Gator by the Bay will provide a dose of gospel music, with Sunday afternoon’s concert by the Six String Gospel Revival.

Featured musicians in this 70-minute performance will include Gino Walker, Casey Hensley, Spanish guitar wiz Chino Swingslide (who is flying in from Barcelona), organist David Smith, former King Biscuit Blues Band saxophonist Jonny Viau and the Missy Andersen Gospel Quartet, featuring Mercedes Moore, Heine Andersen and Sharifah.

Peter Oliver, Gator’s co-founder, attended the first Six String Gospel Revival performance in Fallbrook in January. He was so impressed that he invited Six String producer Kenneth Rexrode to present an expanded version at Gator. In the past few years, Rexrode has produced 27 different themed theatrical concerts at the Belly Up, the New Village Arts Theatre and other area venues.

“The Gospel Revival is about awakening the spirit and energy that’s inside all of us. The tone is positive, but not religious,” said Rexrode, adding: “Gator is a real shining star. We share the same goal of wanting to turn San Diego into an international music destination.”

Meet the Youngbloods

This year’s edition of Gator by the Bay will showcase several up-and-coming San Diego area talents. They include:

Anthony “The Fallbrook Kid” Cullins: This hard-rocking 16-year-old guitar-slinger and vocalist is a student at Mission Vista High School by day and a rising six-string force by night. His band mates in The Fallbrook Vigilantes - drummer Dwane Hathorn and bassist Bruce Borden - are nearly old enough to be Cullins’ grandfathers, but the young guitarist holds his own.

Benji “The Hitman” Davis and The Honey Cat Blues Band: Only 13, Clairemont guitarist and singer Benji Davis has become a regular at the weekly Wednesday night blues jam sessions at Proud Mary’s. He also plays in the band Minors In A Major Key, whose oldest member is just 17.

Leilani Kilgore: At 20, Temecula guitarist and singer Leilani Kilgore is the oldest of this year’s young Gator performers. Now a student at Boston’s prestigious Berklee School of Music, she was 16 when she started playing the blues.

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